Saturday, June 19, 2004

Scandinavia Month Part 2

Two weeks after visiting Denmark and Sweden I completed the Scandinavian trifecta by flying to Norway for a four-day weekend. I often tell people
that my homeland New Zealand is the most beautiful country in the world.
After visiting Norway I’m not so sure. It’s the fjords. I know that
sounds clichéd but they were simply stunning, almost indescribably so.

The highlight of my Norway trip was the day-long “Norway in a Nutshell”
tour. With one ticket I got to:
• take a train ride past lakes and into the mountains, with a
photographic-opportunity-stop next to a glacier.
• take another train down a step incline past nymph-infested
waterfalls. (The nymph part is true, something they do for the tourists).
• take a boat ride through the peaceful fjords, which are long,
narrow inlets carved out of the mountains by glaciers in times past and
now surrounded by cliffs that descend from 500 metres above sea level
straight down to 1000 metres below sea level.
• take a bus ride from a village at the end of a fjord up to the
mountains, the ride offering ever more scenic views back to the village
as the road ascends.
• pay exorbitant prices. To complete the experience of “Norway in a
Nutshell”, the ticket is expensive, like everything is Norway, so I
could only afford to eat dodgy falafel sandwiches during my trip.

Norway was a poor country until the 1970’s and was reliant on American
aid to maintain what living standards they had. The things that make the
country beautiful - mountains, glaciers, and fjords – don’t provide for
good farm land. However in the 1970’s enormous oil reserves were found
in Norway’s waters and as a result Norway is the 2nd richest country in
the world (per person), and therefore one of the most expensive
countries for tourists. I don’t think I will visit Norway again until a
long lost uncle dies and leaves me his fortune.

Oslo is the capital of Norway but Bergen, the second biggest city, was
much nicer. It was 20 degrees in the city centre near the sea yet
mountains partly surrounding Bergen still had snow. From near the centre
of Bergen I took a 10 minute “funicular” train ride up the mountain to a
forest and spent the afternoon hiking. With the long Nordic summer days,
it was still light at 11pm and the sky was already brightening again at

I took a night train from Bergen back to Oslo, intending to sleep
through the journey. However I got seduced by the Norwegian scenery
again. The train passed through the snowy mountains and the full moon
hung low over the mountain tops giving everything an eerie glow. I spent
a good part of the trip staring, staring, staring out the window, even
though I was tired enough to fall sleep the moment I laid down.

Naturally Denmark and Norway play the Viking card a bit. Both countries
claim to be THE home of the Vikings. Both countries have 1000 year old
Viking longships in museums. Both countries sell tacky tourist hats with
Viking horns. After meeting the friendly people in Scandinavia I find it
hard to believe that their Viking ancestors raped and plundered all over
Europe for 300 years.

Scandinavia Month Part 1

I’m at home with my windows open to let in the cool air of a German
summer evening. Every now and then I hear a human roar sounding from the
pubs and cafés in my neighbourhood. The European soccer championships
are being held this month in Portugal and as I write Holland is playing
Czech Republic. The roaring I hear occurs whenever a goal is scored. To
say that Germany is soccer-mad at the moment is an understatement. The

I was away for business this week and hence ate in restaurants the last
two nights. In both restaurants the waiters were more interested in the
soccer action on the big screen TVs than they were in serving food. I
innocently asked a waiter the score of a game I missed and got more than
I wanted. He told me the result, as well as his analysis of every game
played so far and a prediction of who would win and why. He wanted to
continue with stories from the previous European soccer championships,
but I reminded him that he hadn’t actually taken my order yet.

Now to the topic of my e-mail: In the last month I made two long weekend
trips to Scandinavia. The first was by overnight train to Denmark.
Stepping off the train in Copenhagen, a harbour city on an island, I got
an immediate feeling that I would like this place. I could taste the
fresh sea air that you don’t find in Germany. The people were naturally
warm and friendly. And there were free bicycles for tourists to use all
over the city. You simply put in a coin and the bike lock is released,
then you return it to a special stand and the coin is returned.

Before long I noticed Australian flags in the streets alongside Danish
flags. I found this mysterious until I heard that the next weekend some
Tasmanian woman would be marrying the Prince of Denmark. I guess this
was big news Down Under but it hadn’t hit the German headlines. All of
Denmark was keen on Australia. While I was there the Aussie band
Powderfinger performed in the “Rock and Royal” concert, a sailing race
was held on the harbour between Denmark and Australia, and the Danish
brewery Carlsberg was selling a special commemorative Royal Wedding beer
made from Tasmanian hops and Danish malt.

In Copenhagen I visited an unusual suburb called Christiania. In the
70’s a group of free-lovin’ artistic hippies started squatting in a
deserted army barracks in Christiania, and declared it to be an
independent country with its own rules. Those rules, as far as I could
tell, were centred on regular – no, continuous smoking of marijuana.
There were plenty of men with grey pony-tails openly smoking and
marijuana was openly sold in the cafés. Over the years the residents
have grown in number, shrunk in short-time memory capacity, and
experienced occasional violent conflicts with the Danish government and
police force. I wandered right through this suburb and after fighting my
way through the initial dense fog of sweet smelling smoke I found many
houses in a small forest near the water, still a part of this squatters’
kingdom, on what must among the best real estate in Copenhagen.

Later I took a train to Elsinore, a town and castle where Shakespeare’s
Hamlet is set, about an hour north of Copenhagen. The castle is on the
water’s edge and many locals were using the castle grounds for fishing.
The castle itself was unremarkable but for the view across the water to
some mountainous land that I figured had to be Sweden. The idea of
SEEING a country and not VISITING it was killing me so I headed to the
ferry terminal and made an impromptu visit to the Swedish city
Helsingborg, bought myself some dinner and an ice-cream, then took
another ferry back. The whole Swedish episode, including travelling
time, lasted about 2 hours.