Having covered Europe extensively over several visits, my wife and I still felt we were missing something. And that something was Scandinavia. We had always desired to visit the land of ABBA, our favourite band, the Norwegian fjords, and the home of The Little Mermaid.
A lot of people do Scandinavia by taking a Baltic cruise but we prefer to not be bound by a planned schedule. So we flew to Stockholm, our starting point for the sojourn. We began with a tour around the city and soon passed the site where the phenomenon of Stockholm Syndrome took root. It goes back to August 1973, when several bank employees taken hostage by robbers at the Kreditbanken in Norrmalmstorg refused police assistance and became emotionally attached to their captors.
Next, we stopped at the quaint, old town of Gamla Stan. This is where Stockholm was founded in 1252. The clean, narrow cobblestone streets brimming with restaurants, cafÃ©s and colourful shops selling antiques and handicrafts make it one of the largest and best preserved medieval city centres in Europe. At the entrance to the old city, there is the imposing Royal Palace, one of the largest in the world with 600 rooms. The daily parade of soldiers and the change-of-guards ceremony are impressive to watch.
Next on our agenda was ABBA The Museum, which displays the band’s stage clothes and memorabilia, and provides an interactive setting where one can sing and dance with ABBA, while wearing a digital costume and recording it all. On another floor is the Swedish Music Hall of Fame that narrates the musical history of the country. We also took a canal trip around Stockholm, which encompasses 14 islands and more than 50 bridges.
We next flew to Bergen in Norway. As we approached the city, the aerial view was an all-white panorama made up of enormous glaciers. Founded in 1070, Bergen has been designated a World Heritage City as well as European City of Culture and has been home to many artists, with the composer Edward Grieg being perhaps the most famous of them. On the waterfront is Bryggen, a World Heritage Site featuring the old Hanseatic wharf and multi-coloured wooden buildings.
Our visit coincided with Hanseatic Days, an annual event. Bergen was a member of the Hanseatic League which was a powerful commercial and defensive confederation of merchant guilds and market towns dominating Baltic maritime trade from the 12th to the 17th century. Though the League is no more, a network of 180 cities still celebrates Hanseatic Days in a member city every year. When we visited, the party was in Bergen.
Bergen is known as the gateway to the fjords and that was what had brought us to the city in the first place. Early next morning, we embarked on a boat for the Sognefjord trip. This fjord is Norway’s longest and deepest, and yet there are spots where it is so narrow that land seems within touching distance. Sailing along snow-capped mountains, steep cliffs, huge glaciers and cascading waterfalls, one is left spellbound. We sailed for four hours before arriving at the town of Leikanger, where we took a break.
A car took us to the small town of Solvorn on the adjacent Lustrafjord where we checked into the famous Walaker Hotel, said to be the oldest hotel in Norway. The establishment started as an inn in 1640.
The hotel has been run by the same family since 1690 and the staff is most hospitable. On learning that we were vegetarians, a special dinner was prepared matching the regular one course for course. In the evening, we took a ferry across the bay to the Urnes Stave Church. The timber for this wooden church was felled in 1129-30 and the church has been built four times, with a hundred years passing between the first and the fourth construction.
After breakfast next day, we drove back to Leikanger and caught a boat to complete the remaining one and a half hour fjord journey to FlÃ¥m, where we would take the famous FlÃ¥m railway to Myrdal. The railway is said to be the only one in the world of adhesion type on normal tracks with the steepest climb. After 17 years of labour, the railway was opened for steam trains on 1st August 1940 and for electric trains in 1944. The train takes an hour to cover the 20km track through 20 tunnels, climbing from 2m at FlÃ¥m to 866m at Myrdal.
The view from the train is spectacular, typical of the Norwegian mountain landscape complete with its lakes, ravines, waterfalls, valleys and avalanche sites. En route, the train stopped close to the Kjosfossen or Kjos waterfall. On the hills next to the fall, girls dressed as fairies danced enchantingly to music.
From Myrdal, we boarded a train to Oslo where we headed straight to the Grand Hotel. The historic hotel is the annual venue of the Nobel Peace Prize; the prize winners are accommodated in the Nobel suite. It also houses the Grand CafÃ©, where the country’s most famous playwright, Henrik Ibsen, ate daily. For our neighbour, we had the then US Secretary of State, John Kerry, whose security personnel asked us every time we returned to the hotel if we were sure we were on the right floor.
In the city, we witnessed the brilliant architecture of the buildings known as Barcode. Tall and narrow, they collectively resemble a bar code. Located in the same area is the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, a prize-winning building designed by Snohetta. Then there is the Holmenkollen ski jump which was rebuilt for the Nordic World Ski Championship in 2011. The top of the jump affords one a panoramic view of the capital and its surrounding countryside. The structure also contains the world’s oldest ski museum.
We also took a tour of Oslo’s museums–the Nobels Fredssenter features peace prize laureates and their work; the Fram museum allows you to hop on board the famous polar expedition ship, Fram, built in 1892 by Norway’s national hero Fritjof Nansen; the Kontiki Museet is home to the original raft, Kontiki, used by Thor Hayendahl for the famous crossing of the Pacific in 1947 and the reed boat Ra II for voyages that followed; the Ibsenmuseet, Ibsen’s home for the last 11 years of his life, has been restored to its 1895 form.
A flight next day took us to Copenhagen. By the time we settled down it was late afternoon, so we decided to head to the famous Tivoli Gardens, a huge amusement park that features an open-air theatre, concert hall, bandstand, restaurants, flower gardens and rides. The following morning, we went on a canal tour on an open boat, passing under several bridges, most of them so low you had to duck even sitting down. Our first stop was the famous Little Mermaid. Inspired by the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, a lonely mermaid sits on top of a small rock in the harbour promenade. The statue was designed nearly a century ago by Danish sculptor Eriksen, with the head of a famous ballerina and the body of his wife as models because the ballerina refused to pose in the nude. The Little Mermaid has a controversial history including two beheadings, many defacements and even an attempted explosion by vandals. However, she survives and is associated with Copenhagen just as Christ the Redeemer is with Rio de Janeiro and the Statue of Liberty is with New York.
We then visited other sites like the Opera House, Amelionborg Palace, the Royal Danish Playhouse and the Christianborg and Rosenborg Palaces. After a quick lunch, we strolled through the shopping streets of Stroget. We also visited the Hans Christian Andersen Museum with its fascinating tableaux of his fairy tales and spent the evening at the famous Carlsberg brewery where a Copenhagen ‘Exbeerience’ awaited us in the open courtyard with large crowds regaling with music and TV.
A visit to the North Sealand called Denmark’s Royal Retreat was on the agenda for the final day. An hour’s coastal drive brought us to the magnificent 17th-century Frederiksborg Castle which is said to be Northern Europe’s largest Renaissance castle. It has an impressive Neptune Fountain and a marble gallery. The castle is home to the Museum of National History which records 500 years of Danish history of paintings, furniture and art manufacture. At the rear is a superbly manicured Baroque garden reminding one of Versailles in France.
Our next stop was the world heritage site of Kronborg, better known as Hamlet’s Castle. It’s rumoured to be the setting for Shakespeare’s famous drama. There is no proof of the story being true and the Bard never visited it himself. Nevertheless, the play has been staged in the castle for the last 200 years with famous artistes like Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, Christopher Plummer and, more recently, Jude Law. 2016 marked the 400th death anniversary of Shakespeare so a group of actors dressed for the parts interacted with the visitors. So we had the King of Denmark welcoming us in the King’s Chamber, Ophelia charming us in the Little Hall and Hamlet himself chasing his father’s ghost over the ramparts!
We then headed for our final destination, Louisiana, a museum of modern art on the outskirts of Copenhagen. The collections here date from 1945 onwards. The art exhibits include those of Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, while a beautiful garden is surrounded by sculptures of Henry Moore and Alexander Calder. Art marked the end of our dreamlike sojourn.
Every trip has its light moments and I will always remember two of them from Scandinavia. One, when at Myrdal station we couldn’t get a cup of coffee because there was no water at the station, and the second at our hotel in Copenhagen, when I asked room service for sugar and was given a shoe-horn!