The Nordics

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courtesy manonseat61.com

IMG_5552The Pig-Duck, Helsinki

Join me journey across the Nordics by land, air & sea*.

Five countries in twenty five days. Not as rushed as it would appear to be. Pace, budget, time, mine & mine alone.

Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway/ (Estonia) – have a natural, cultural & historical homogeneity. What makes it easy cakewalk is the widespread knowledge & use of the English language. These are a practical people. The world neither speaks nor understands Norwegian, Danish, Finnish or Swede. They, must therefore learn the world’s language – English. And boy do they speak !

Of handsome lineage, the average Norse is tall, bony, light eyed & blonde. Not dumb. Never (jokes apart). If he does not willingly smile or look you in the eye, the problem is not yours but partially his, for he is naturally shy. Shy, reserved & taciturn. One rarely comes across public displays of affection & emotion or even two strangers engaged in conversation. Which is not to suggest that the Scandinavian is aloof or rude. Far from it. He is a congenial fellow who will step out to help & engage. His native speech is riddled with tongue twister words & unpronounceable place names, not polite ones like ‘please’ or ’thank you.’ Terse perhaps, not rude. Remember, he was a Viking not very long ago. A warrior, hunter, seafarer. Out of the woods only now. The sauna’s the only place where he may perhaps let down his hair. Then it is back to basics.

Denmark, Norway & Sweden boast the world’s highest per capita income. A cashless economy, Kroner is king with neither dollar nor euro commanding much respect. Scandinavia tops the world happiness index. Bhutan literally a poor second, which in itself is telling. Minimalism is the key to this happiness. Tipping a strict no – no. Not even to the cabbie.

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The Swedes have ‘Fika’ & Norwegians/Danes their ‘hugge.’ Pronounced as in sugar. While fika may be described as the simple pleasure of eating a sweet along with coffee, ( fika breaks are common) ‘hugge’ is impossible to accurately translate. Lets just say that it is a sense of perfect well-being. Happiness derived out of little. Less is therefore More. Imagine food & drink, friends & tales & a small group snuggled around a fire while a cold wintry wind blows outdoors. That’s where ‘hugge’ comes from. Its a national obsession & the raison d’etre of existence.

Like the rest of Europe Scandinavia too has beautiful churches. Devoid of churchgoers too. Whether there be a God or not is nobody’s concern. One does not even hear the clanging of church bells. With the odd exception, weddings take place in the town hall. A funeral service perhaps but that is few & far between.

For a person who cannot otherwise walk 2 steps without gasping I was averaging 10 -15 kms a day & feeling completely energized. Pure clean air: everyone’s right. It was pristine because people wanted it that way & took care to see that it was. People were pleasant & nice ‘cos that’s how they wished to be. ‘They work towards it,’ was my thought. Without any kind of supervision or enforcement. No signs of squeamishness either. It’s a free society in the truest sense & completely trust based. One buys a ticket & gets onto the tram, ferry, train or bus. Without checks or controls. Not even automated ones like stiles. Random checking happens but it is perfunctory.

The Nordics in many ways are a mark & cut above western Europe. With 20 – 24 hours of  daylight in summer, much can & does get done. Besides, travel is easy, hassle free and stress free, with no fear of mugging or pick pocketing. Above all everything just works & falls into place.

That said, mishaps do occur. And no trip of mine is known to be complete without one. Of my own making mostly, I am so organized that I tend to become disorganized. Departing Oslo early one morning I readied (so I thought) the ‘travel – card’ to make it easily available in case of need but began fumbling soon after when the airport shuttle arrived. Euro 7 had to be paid but the card was not to be seen. Paid by cash eventually the card with Euro 2000 had to be found. I thought of having it blocked but called up the hotel just in case I had lost or forgotten it there. Five minutes later I am informed that it was found lying on the floor of the lobby where I was waiting & that it would be delivered to me in 10 minutes at most. I was to wait at the very spot where I had disembarked. The incident is remarkable at several levels. Not only had I once again emerged unscathed but it was wholly as expected. In perfect sync with Nordic character that places a premium on honesty & probity & displays it in abundance.

Note that I have not called it budget friendly. For it is not. Scandinavia is expensive. But if you have the money go & spend it. Just go!

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Talinn Estonia

IMG_5830Opera House, Oslo

 

IMG_5725IMG_5701Twisted Torso, Malmo Sweden

(For the record, this trip could not have been the smooth sailing it was without the aid of the following Apps:

 

GPS My City

VY

HSL

DSB

SJ

VR Mobile

FlixBus

XE

ToGo

Iceland & Scandinavia Travel Tips ( Facebook group)

And most importantly www.seat61.com. Thank you Man on Seat 61. The inputs provided were, as always, invaluable.)

 

* Route/Via

Delhi-Helsinki-Delhi (Air)

Helsinki-Rovaniemi-Helsinki (Air)

Helsinki-Oslo-Helsinki(Air)

 

Oslo-Copenhagen (Ferry)

Helsingør – Helsingborg (Ferry)

Flam – Balestrand – Bergen (Ferry)

Helsinki – Tallinn – Helsinki (Ferry)

 

Copenhagen – Malmo (Train)

Copenhagen – Helsingor (Train)

Helsingborg – Gothenburg (Train)

Gothenburg – Oslo (Bus)

Oslo – Myrdal (Train)

Bergen – Oslo (Train)

 

65387357_10216659181246332_5775396223183749120_nElsinore, Denmark: Fish out the rubble

 

 

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Norway

 

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Despite similarities with the rest of Scandinavia, Norway is unique & distinct, marked in particular by breathtaking beauty of landscape. No hyperbolics therefore, just a photo diary so the pictures do the talking. I will share itinerary, nitty gritty facts, place – experience only.

A country of fjords, building bridges is impractical. Connecting people & places, simpler by far is the ubiquitous ferry, which I used a plenty. A country of mountains & tunnels too. Only 167 kilometers separate Bergen & Flam for instance but there are 35 tunnels between them. Some even have windows & roundabouts, some remain close for repair – a fact no traveler can afford to either ignore or neglect. With almost 24 hours of daylight summer is especially to be experienced.

The Bergen rail connecting to Oslo is a 497 km passenger train that traverses both the Longfjellenethe mountains & Hardangervidda plateau, a height of 4058’ before descending to sea level. The trip offers spectacular views. In the blink of an eye a mountain or a glacier will most certainly slip by. Its best therefore to put aside the camera & enjoy kaleidoscopic views of snow covered mountains – rivers – streams – waterfalls – rocks –stones -trees- cabins – fields & lakes. Never ending, the beauty does not pall. There are temperature variations, the outside temperature dropping to 0 around Myrdal for the snow never melts, not even in summer. A seven hour ride, there is NSB for sustenance. Wine, beer, coffee, the onboard café has it all.

I took the night train from Oslo getting off at Myrdal next morning. A beautiful mountain stop 2844’ (I will be the only one saying so), it was bitterly cold that early & there was nobody else in sight. A cosy waiting room/toilet thankfully open & a souvenir shop/café that was not. A vending machine with hot coffee & snacks, proving useless as it accepted Kroners only.  The station was deserted & unstaffed yet charming & sweet. Myrdal has three platforms but if you get there morning 4.30 as I did, the first train to Flam will always be a long wait (departure 8.30 am.) With 4 hours to kill I could have walked or cycled down as it is downhill all the way but the sensible thing was to stretch out on one of the long wooden benches & go silently to sleep.

Flamsbana, the Flam – Myrdal line is said to be the most beautiful train journey in the world. It runs on steep gradients across a high plateau & valley, covering the 20 km distance in an hour. Halting at 10 stations, past a bridge & 20 tunnels, eighteen of which excavated by hand, it crosses the Flamselvi thrice – but not once over a bridge. The river has instead been diverted underground. At Reinunga, it passes a ‘window’ thoughtfully cut out in a tunnel to enable a peek at the magnificent valley floor & at Kjofossen it halts for a photo – op. Passengers can get off on to the platform which in fact is a promontory. The lines main attraction is the thunderous Rjourndefossen, a waterfall that has a vertical 140 metre drop.

As for Flam, imagine an extremely picturesque village of 450, over – run by 4000 tourists on a daily basis. Alas for the plight & misery of the local. A 17th century cruise ship port it has a Stave church, a railway museum dedicated to the Flam line, a hotel, shops & eating places. It gets so crowded that I would not advise staying for the night. Cross over to Balestrand instead & spend not one or two but several nights.

Besides being a cruise ship port Flam is gateway to the world heritage Naeroyfjord  (Flam at one end & Gudvangen at the other), the narrowest & in parts the shallowest of the many arms of the Sognefjord. While the over land bus makes the trip in 20 minutes, the ferry takes 2.15 hrs. Passing steep mountain sides, hanging villages, peaks & waterfalls there are small communities & centuries old Stave churches along the way. A landmark for miles around is the Linden tree at Bakka, unique for sprouting yellow leaves in Spring, shedding green leaves in Autumn. Naeroyfjord  must not be missed. It is an ethereal out of world experience, where the immense beauty of the land is mirrored in the waters.

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Across the fjord from Flam is Balestrand where I arrived in pouring rain. Unhappy at the prospect of having to walk to the hotel, lo & behold there was a car waiting for me at the pier. This is what is so special about people in small places. They will go the extra mile to make one welcome & at home. I had requested a room with a view & got one with the most astounding sea view. ‘Midtnes’, is a family run boutique property. An excellent host, the public area has a library, billiard & snooker room & a scattering of interesting bric a brac. Breakfast next morning was homely & wholesome, a variety of fresh bread, home made jams, goat cheese, catch of the day. Herring, shrimp, trout & sardine in a range of traditional sauce. The coffee was great as was the ambience, soft music, sea view, personalised – village girls in service.

 

I was not paid to write praises. A word about another, larger, more famous hotel therefore to give balance & perspective. Family owned, Kviknes is a 19th century, Swiss style, 200 room luxury hotel that has been popular with historic European visitors. Bang on the fjord, the water around sparkling clean with algae & jelly fish visible down to the depths. Roam free, the area is not restricted, Balestrand in any case being a village where one may wander at will.

It is a sparsely populated, 260 acre village on the northern shores of the Sognefjord. Popular with artists for scenery that inspires it has an active art scene. An interesting food & pub scene too with cuisine from around the world. What does one do but eat, drink & rest? Enjoy the view, breathe clean mountain air, fish, swim or walk. I for one could live here forever.

The sweetest walk, a 2 mile culture trail along the shoreline takes you past the old harbour, 19th century dragon head, red Swiss villas, St Olaf’s church, statue of King Bele & 2 Viking age burial grounds.

There is another, longer 10 km walk around the bay. In search of an enamel jewellery store near Dragsvik, I inadvertently sauntered into an arbour of gigantic trees & bushes.  Meticulously marked & labeled there was Beech, Fir, Pine, Cedar, Redwood, Aspen & Oak. The Himalayan Deodar too, spindly & shrivelled, unlike its magnificent cousin in India. Poncho clad, I continued in the drizzle, learning later that the six acres by the fjord was ‘Lunde Arboretum.’ It had free entry & free camping. Pays to be nosy sometimes! While the enamel shop was never found, Tjugum church was – Ordinary & unimpressive, it housed the village graveyard.

Navigating Norwegian fjords is both relaxing & pleasurable. Wind & surf, sea & sky & never a care. No hurry to get anywhere either. Everything aboard perfect to a T the ship negotiated a passage through the Sognefjord exiting & turning south along the west coast to Bergen – a 4 hour journey from Balestrand.

Situated between seven mountains, with museums & art galleries Bergen is a city of culture. I had planned 5 lazy days, doing things at my pace in this most beautiful of cities. It is one of the wettest places in Europe with nearly 266 rain days in a year. It drizzled all the time I was there but undeterred, life went on as usual. I had a studio apartment walking distance from Bryggen a heritage site but that was for 3 days only. I would move to a hotel near the train station later. Sleeping under the same roof, night after night  drags, you will agree.

Bryggen’s crooked wharf & colourful wooden houses along the dock have long captivated visitors. It is a cheery sort of place except that the over hyped fish restaurants quoth prices going through the roof.

Alongside Bryggen is Floibanen. I took the funicular up to Mt Floyen – seven minutes  up – and came down walking (30 minutes) The view from on top stunning, it was nippy despite the sun. An ideal quiet afternoon haunt, to walk, read, lie down or gorge on Rudolph’s hot dogs.

And then to my very own version of the ‘Bergen Walk,’  starting at Bryggen – Floibanen – Train station – Public Library – Park /Lille Lunge – -Torgallmenningen – Vagen Bay – Begenhus Fortress.

Torgallmenningen is the main city square/street, vehicle free & full of cafes & shops while Vagen Bay & Bergenhus offer splendid views of sail ships & old Hanseatic buildings.

I later moved to a hotel adjacent to the train station. I mention this for several reasons. The area around interesting & beautiful, the train station is the grandest in Norway & building laws forbid any kind of trivial renovation.

As for the hotel, ‘Zander’ is an ode both to the cold & wet city of Bergen & to one of its most prominent citizens. With a plain, dull exterior you could never imagine the inside décor. Not ostentatious. Far from it. Do check it out yourself.

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Bryggen Bergen

Balestrand, window view

I was in & out of Oslo thrice. For a short duration every time, the city practically covered piecemeal. Which, coming to think of it is not a bad idea at all. Karl Johans gate is a good place to start. A kilometer long, it is the main street that connects Central station to the Royal Palace – Parliament, National Theatre & Grand Hotel/ Café somewhere in between. The entire city appears to be heading in that direction, strolling or lounging in one of the many cafes. I too settled down to a beer, kicked at the thought of having it sitting in front of Parliament House. Come to think of it this is the most striking feature of Norway/ Scandinavia. The freest of societies, it does not have a ‘touch me not’ culture. Beautiful public spaces are created for people to experience & enjoy. The same was apparent at the Opera House & Vigeland park where space was designated not only for children but also dogs to run unleashed. The concept is appealing. So here was Parliament house with a few sundry cars parked out in the open. Did the lawmakers walk to work or did they not work at all? Another striking feature was zero to minimal security. Even at the Royal Palace. Makes for a great first impression.

Most visitors use either the hop on – hop off or its Ruter equivalent. There is really no need, for Oslo is made for walking. One certainly needs transport coming in from the airport. Flytoget Airport Express gets you into town in 20 minutes but at Nok 190 is a trifle expensive. NSB, the regional train is a better option – 23 minutes, Nok 100. Or a taxi if you prefer, Nok 1300/ 45 minutes.

Vigeland park is the only site where one may perhaps use some form of transport as it is a little way out – about 4 kms from Central station. Tram 12 will get you there. A part of Frogner park, Vigeland has 212 life size nudes depicting the wheel of human life from cradle to grave. The statues of granite, stone & wrought iron were made by Gustav Vigeland over a hundred years ago. Entry free & open 24×7 round the year it is the most popular destination.

The Akerselvi river running through the city makes for a nice walk since most of the sights are located along it. My personal Oslo walk took me via:

Central station – Opera House /Bar Code Area – Akershus castle – City Hall – Nobel Peace Centre – Aker Brygge Harbour – Karl Johans gate – Vigeland Park.

Not a foodie by any count, I prefer what restaurants call ‘child portion,’ both for quantity, taste & nutrition. What may I ask is wrong with a meal consisting of a fruit platter, scrambled eggs, ham – cheese sandwich, pancake with chocolate sauce?

And for the curious, no, I did not taste Smalahove which – for the uninitiated – is dried, salted & steamed sheep head. I did try Voss sausages with bacon & boiled vegetable. To each his own. ‘Hugge’ to me can never mean food. In Norway at least it was the luxurious warmth of a heated bathroom floor.

 

Bar Code district Oslo ( view from atop the Opera House)