Disclaimer: This post has the potential to incite wanderlust, spontaneity, or worse, vertiginous heights of jealousy. Should you have a strong aversion to bedazzling European scenery, culture or people, this post will likely deepen it and you are similarly excused. Otherwise proceed with caution.
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Highlights of Scandinavia
For fear of sounding like a broken record, I will only state this upfront: Scandinavians are decidedly blessed to call that part of the world home! With a combined population just shy of 21 million across Denmark, Norway and Sweden (the 3 countries that constitute Scandinavia), the region definitely punches above its weight in areas of design (birth place of design powerhouses taking the world by storm such as Lego, Georg Jensen, Pandora, ECCO, IKEA and H&M), music (Scandinavian countries have won Eurovision an envious 12 times out of 61 contests), food and natural beauty.
Of all Europe, I have (on a personal level) considered Scandinavia to represent the epitome of classic minimalism which aligns very much with my inner core belief systems and values. Waxing lyrical about the region therefore comes naturally, and I could hardly suppress my childlike excitement as I finally undertook to experience the understated richness for myself. It would turn out to be the best travelling decision that I have ever made.
As the gateway to Scandinavia, Denmark (the fairytale country) is home to the world’s Happiest People and one need not search far to understand why. With Legoland at their fingertips (in Billund, ~30 minutes by air from Copenhagen) and Hans Christian Andersen fairytales as the local folklore, the Danes’ positive outlook on life has been shaped as much by cultural influences as by economic and social equality. The crowning of an Australian commoner as Mary, Crown Princess of Denmark further exemplifies the fairytale romanticism that pervades the land.
With Legoland safely under my belt, my tour of Denmark proceeded to Copenhagen, the Danish capital renowned for its network of waterways and cycleways. It wasn’t long before I fell under its charismatic spell, as all around there permeates an air of serenity characteristic of this picturesque European city. The canal tour from trendy Nyhavn is not to be missed in any Copenhagen itinerary (DKK80 pp), which showcased the city’s landmarks to perfection. Trying to snare some quality one-on-one time with the city’s most eligible bachelorette (aka Miss Little Mermaid) turned out to be a lesson in futility, as hoards of eager tourists jostled and jammed against my diminutive frame and pretty much took me for invisible. How I finally managed to take the snap below must be anyone’s guess.
As an avid connoisseur of Danish design, the relatively discreet Design Museum Danmark (a stone’s throw from the royal residence and popular tourist spot the Amalienborg Palace) was an eye-opening gem and highly recommended (DKK100 pp). The museum exhibits a wide selection of contemporary Danish design covering the entire spectrum: furniture, product design, graphic design, fashion, crafts and design in the public space. Despite its small population, there is no doubt that the Danes are at the cutting edge of contemporary design, combining versatile functionality with timeless craftsmanship to create statement pieces of understated luxuriance. The Danes’ obsession with chairs is on full display (cue: godfather of chairs Arne Jacobsen), with a free guided tour every Sunday largely dedicated to chronicling the history of Danish chair-making.
Upon leaving Denmark from the port of Fredrikshaven, we boarded the Stena Line ferry to the Swedish port of Gothenburg and from there, we proceeded to Oslo (the capital of Norway) on coach. This turned out to be an eventful day in the Trafalgar CostSaver itinerary where we can boast of having had breakfast in Denmark (Fredrikshaven), lunch in Sweden (Gothenburg) and dinner in Norway (Oslo). 3 meals in 3 countries in a single day must be a feat by anyone’s standards.
The Frogner Park, containing the internationally acclaimed Vigeland installation, was a clear highlight of Oslo (even for the artistically challenged amongst us). The textbook tourist destination features 212 sculptures by Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland, making it the world’s largest sculpture park containing the works of a single artist. Whilst the Monolith and the Fountain are centrepieces, the installation also includes a myriad of sculptures ranging from the fantastic to the farcical and is a sublime study of human interactions. The public park (i.e. free entry!) is frequented by over 1 million visitors a year and stands as a testament to Vigeland’s philosophy that the magic of art should be shared with all. Time permitting, a 2-3 hour wandering through the park is required to fully absorb and appreciate its splendour.
If I thought leaving Denmark was a tear-jerking moment, then entering Norway induced a tear-jerking moment of a different kind. In sharp contrast to Denmark’s flat-as-a-pancake terrain, Norway deserves its moment in the spotlight by virtue of its sheer ruggedness canvassed against a picture-perfect backdrop of waterfalls, fjords and mountains. Cameras clicked into overdrive as we traversed the jaw-dropping Norwegian countryside, where iconic stave churches and houses with grass-covered roofs fashionably adorned the landscape. En route to Bergen, I was able to capture the inspiring morning scenery at the tiny lakeside village of Vradal. With a local population of just over 200 (yes, you have read correctly), it barely registers on the Norwegian map, however it was Vradal that set the scene for one of my personal favourite snaps on tour.
Our journey then took us to Bergen, Norway’s second largest city steeped in history and colourful streetscape. A ride on Floibanen (NOK90 pp), the funicular which runs from the city centre to Mt Floyen, presented a stunning vantage point over the city panorama. There are also guided hikes operating atop Mt Floyen during select times of the day (NOK350 pp), and weather permitting, they offer an off-the-beaten track experience that would be hard-pressed to rival.
Diving headlong into Norway, we continued to be treated to a seemingly endless dose of the Scandinavian sun and blindingly aesthetic scenery. Inured as we were (by then) to such natural wonders, nothing could have prepared us for the dramatic climax that was the Sognefjord itself, fittingly known as the King of Fjords. Whilst the cruise along Sognefjord (Norway’s largest and the third largest fjord in the world) was an optional activity on tour (EUR50), one’s visit to Scandinavia would have been regrettably lacking without it and was worth every penny.
And just when we thought things could not possibly get any better, Norway notched up its charms and left us breathless for more. The drive to Stegastein Lookout will always be remembered as a gutsy call by our guide, and even more guts was required for any sober coach driver to agree to undertake. With narrow, mountainous twists and turns that would unnerve any lesser skilled driver, I closed my eyes and prayed to the gods of serendipity.
Of course, Norway remains an iceberg of which we have only scratched the surface. It has fuelled my appetite for a trip to return, and an opportunity to explore further sites (Geiranger mountain range, midnight sun at Nordkapp) and hikes (Trolltunga, Preikestolen and Kjerag).
Perhaps it was the ill-fated last leg of the tour, but somehow my spirit stayed behind in Denmark and Norway as my physical form sailed on to Sweden. Through no fault of its own, the Big Brother of Scandinavia (with the Swedes constituting almost a half of the Scandinavian population) has suddenly shrunk in my eyes… That is not to say I did not enjoy the last few days; on the contrary, I relished it all the more.
Stockholm (the capital of Sweden) is truly the Venice of the north, with its labyrinth of boats and ferries transporting passengers between 14 islands and beneath more than 50 bridges. Having Swedish meatballs firmly in our sights, however, we could not wait to hit the city pavements in forage of our own version of the rotund specialty. In upscale Prinsen, we finally feasted on Signature Meatballs and soaked up the classic, inviting ambience of one of Stockholm’s finest culinary institutions.
But all good things must come to an end sometime. And I suppose this is it. Being sentimental is out of the question here, so I will try my best to sound upbeat (I will dedicate a separate post on how to maintain positive momentum and beat the post-travel blues).
By the end of the first day, I was having difficulty keeping pace with the “wow” moments, so I let that statistic slide. There were also moments that melted my heart, when all was quiet and time stood still, and I wished to heavens that they would never end. I have always theorised that everything gains a certain lustre through mere foreignness and transience (that must be the Gemini in me!), that things don’t last forever and if they do, their lustre would quickly wane. I am yet to find disproof of this, and perhaps I will make it my life mission to refute my own theory one day.
In short, I have truly had the time of my life. Travelling has given me what a defibrillator has given a semi-conscious heart, and with it, a whole new taste for life. And whilst I have no desire to go gallivanting solo around Caracas anytime soon, it has emboldened me to explore new frontiers in the selfish pursuit of happiness.