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Norway swings open royal palace doors

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OSLO, Norway — Norway's royal palace in downtown Oslo is open for public tours for the first time since 1920.

Even before the summer tours began June 25, all 26,000 tickets had been sold for the season that runs through the middle of August.

"There has been a lot of interest in the palace," says Lars Petter Forberg, who heads the palace staff as lord chamberlain.

The newly restored, 158-room building overlooks the Norwegian capital's main street and is modest, as royal palaces go. Britain's Buckingham Palace, for example, has more than 600 rooms.

But Norway was a poor country when construction started in 1828 as an official residence for King Carl Johan, Sweden's monarch who also ruled here after Norwegians grudgingly joined a union with their larger neighbor in 1814.

The Empire-style building, designed by Danish architect Hans Ditlev Franciscus Linstow, took more than 20 years to complete. The building was finished in 1848.

It was supposed to be in the form of an "H," but the government ran out of money in 1836 and left off two wings. So now a U-shaped building sits in the middle of the 54-acre (21.85-hectare) palace park.

All the same, the sandstone-colored building with its central pillars is a landmark in this city of 500,000 people and a national symbol to the country of 4.5 million that gained independence from Sweden just 95 years ago.

For outsiders, it is lesser known. Two American tourists tried to enter recently. When stopped by palace guards, they asked, "Isn't this the national gallery?"

The last time the Oslo palace was opened, briefly in 1920, tours were canceled any time it rained. "They didn't want half the sand from the palace grounds inside," Forberg says.

Now, blue plastic overshoes will be required, and visitors will be welcome even on rainy days.

The 45-minute tour covers 15 of the palace rooms, none of them private royal quarters.

"I'm not sure I would want to look into other people's bathrooms," Tone Joergensen, head of the Open Palace 2000 project, said during a news media preview. Norwegian newspapers, on the other hand, said a private peek at their figurehead royals might be exactly what egalitarian Norwegians want.

The possibility of meeting popular King Harald V, Queen Sonja or their children is as good as nil. They haven't begun to use the palace as their official residence because the seven-year, 400 million kroner ($47 million) restoration is not finished.

Besides, they're on vacation.

Apart from being the royal couple's future home, the palace is used for government Cabinet meetings and as a guest house for visiting heads of state. It has a staff of 100.

The 55-kroner ($6.50) tour includes the minister's hall, where the king and council meet weekly; the White Room, the Bernadotte Salon, the Bird Room, the King Haakon Suite, the Mirror Room, ballrooms and main dining hall. Along the way are portraits of Norway's and Sweden's royal families, gifts and heirlooms, the king's gilded throne with lion-head armrests, all in rooms with ceilings that seem to touch the sky.

Everything pocket-sizes was removed so as not to unduly tempt souvenir hunters.

The King Haakon Suite is popularly called the Mandela Room because South Africa's Nelson Mandela was the first head of state to use it when he visited last year.

A popular stop in test tours was a drab balcony overlooking Oslo, because every May 17, Norway's national day, the royal family stands for hours waving at thousands of schoolchildren parading past the palace.

"Many are excited to get here (at the balcony) because it is something they know from the other side," says Marshall Walker, a student from Baltimore who has a summer job as one of 10 palace guides.

If the project breaks even, the summer tour might become an annual event.

'It will be evaluated sometime this autumn," Joergensen says. "We have to see how it effects the house. This house is a very busy place."