Scandinavia is not the most exciting place in the world but it has some beautiful sights. I spent ten nights last month in Norway, Denmark, Sweden and Finland with my trusty Canon 400D and these are the results.
From an outsider’s perspective, it’s kind of weird to me that Finland is not officially considered part of Scandinavia, especially when many souvenir shops in Norway were selling this shirt.
I guess it’s because Finland took a break from Sweden and had a century-long fling with tsarist Russia, but then Russia got addicted to Marxism and by the time Finland realized the whole thing had been a huge mistake Sweden had moved on. I may or may not be butchering Nordic history here.
Objectively speaking, Finland is probably the most boring country of the four. Helsinki, the capital, is about 1/3 the size of Singapore excluding water and has a population of just six hundred thousand compared to Singapore’s five million. On the weekends, many parts of the city (e.g. office areas, schools) feel deserted and wouldn’t look out of place in a movie about a post-apocalyptic or post-Rapture world. There are next to no tourist attractions in the city and the biggest one is probably the department store Stockmann in the city centre. Not quite impressive if you are used to Asia’s modern mega-malls.
Based on a casual observation, life in Helsinki seems slow and small-town even though it’s really one of the larger Scandinavia capitals. It feels like the kind of place where the tour guide would point to some unremarkable house in the woods and say, “That’s our Prime Minister’s home” as if she were talking about the mayor of Springfield (which she really did). Not really my cup of tea.
The unique part of Finland compared to the other three countries is probably the Russian architectures left from its hundred-year history as a part of the Russian Empire. This includes numerous Orthodox churches in a country with a Lutheran majority.
Stockholm felt a lot… bigger than Helsinki, but it’s really about the same size in terms of land. I suppose it does have a larger population so maybe it feels bigger because things look busier.
I was in Stockholm for barely a day and didn’t really get to see much of it. It did feel like a much more cheery place than Helsinki, probably because it was sunny when I was there, but perhaps also because Helsinki’s Russian-influenced buildings project an aura of Soviet-esque dreariness I automatically associate with Cold War movies. I mean Helsinki-Vantaa Airport’s arrival hall feels like a prefab military prison from some Bond movie.
Stockholm on the other hand is much closer to my idea of a scenic European city with nice idyllic riverfronts and neo-classical buildings. Plus Sweden is a kingdom so it has all that crazy European royalty shenanigans that tourists adore. Finland totally missed out on this lucrative business when it decided to become a republic after breaking up with Russia.
Travelling around Scandinavia really helps an outsider put into perspective just how huge a clusterfuck the European Union is. Finland, Sweden and Denmark are EU members but only Finland uses euro as its official currency. Norway, Sweden and Denmark all have their own version of krone as their currency and they are worth almost the same except not really.
Shops in Sweden and Denmark accept Euro (notes only) but give change in local krones. Shops in Norway don’t accept euro at all and even though Norway is part of the European Economic Area and uses the same tax-free system for foreign tourists. Sweden is technically obligated to eventually adopt the euro, but there is no deadline so they can hold it off for eternity, which many major politicians and the voters are fully in favour of.
And amongst the Scandinavian countries, Norway is probably the most exceptional one when it comes to (non-)participation in the EU because it has a huge buttload of offshore oil and can do whatever the fuck it pleases. This is probably also why things are insanely expensive in Oslo.
A bottle of coke costs 20 NOK or 3.70 USD at a normal store that is not even in any tourist area, which is almost twice as much as it goes for even in central Tokyo. A regular meal at McDonalds cost 90 NOK (16.60 USD). The same meal cost 60 DKK (11.40 USD) in Copenhagen, 490 yen (6.40 USD) in Japan and 6 SGD (5 USD) in Singapore. The huge difference between Oslo and Copenhagen is what boggles my mind. Really makes Japan prices seem like a bargain in comparison.
While Norway is technically a monarchy, it only became one after separating from Sweden in 1905. Its king (a random dude they found on the streets…almost) is therefore rather poor, money-wise, and his palace looks really sad and is probably out-matched in extravagance by many government buildings in numerous third-world nations. Still, I was told by the tour guide that the people love the royal family very much, unlike those ungrateful Brits.
I spent most of my time in the countryside of Norway where there are tons of mountains and the clouds look like they are right above your head.
Interestingly, I met a young Japanese lady on a working holiday manning the counter at a family-ran hotel in Lærdal, a small town in the mountains. Did not expect that. Apparently many Japanese visit Norway and Scandinavia in the summer. There was also always a female Japanese crew member (who only works there during the summer) on every cruise ship sailing between the Nordic countries.
I suppose if you think about it, Norway is kind of like Japan so maybe Japanese tourists enjoy the familiarity. They both eat whale and tons of salmon, have tons of mountains that are a pain to drive around, have among the lowest in Gini coefficients in the world and… well I guess that’s about it. Still it’s pretty surprising how many times I got to put my Japanese to use in rural Norway (three).
Norway is famous for its fjords, but I think they are overhyped. Sure, they look beautiful and all, but most of the time they don’t look all that different from regular lakes to me.
Bergen is the second largest city in Norway behind Oslo. It’s a port city that reminds me of Nagasaki: city centre at the bay area surrounded by mountains with houses built of their sides.
Despite being located next to the gigantic body of water known as the sea, Bergen had a lot of trouble with city fires in the past and built to the ground numerous times, so even its buildings are all relatively new. Its most recent destruction took place during WW2 when a German warship carrying explosives blew up in its harbour by accident and flattened a whole bunch of wooden houses around the bay area. Those people just can’t get a break.
Bergen is a major source of dried cod and for hundreds of years, a monopoly over cod was given to the German Hanseatic League. The Hanseatic League’s presence in Bergen was limited to male traders who were sent there as teenage apprentices and were forbidden from having contact with local girls. They lived together for many years in a bunch of wooden buildings near the docks (some of which are preserved on the World Heritage list) and presumably drank beer all day as I imagine Germans do when they are stuck in a foreign country and not allowed to have fun. Basically it all sounds rather homoerotic.
I really liked Copenhagen even though it didn’t like me that much — it rained hail the first day (even though it was technically summer) when I was trying to take a photo of the Little Mermaid statue.
The Danish royal family has a much longer history than both Sweden and Norway (which both used to belong to Denmark) and it really shows in their castle décor. The designs at Rosenborg Castle look like the extravagance you would come to expect from royalties, with treasures from foreign lands and gold everywhere.
The castle has an underground treasury vault with modern security doors and the whole works.
Tivoli is an amusement park in the middle of Copenhagen and it is the second oldest amusement park in the world. It is nowhere near Disneyland, but definitely way better than Hanayashiki, Japan’s oldest amusement park. The shitty part is that it charges for every single ride in addition to the park entrance fee of 95 DKK.
I took the S-Train from Copenhagen central station to my hotel two stops away. It cost 24 DKK (4.50 USD), but the interesting thing was that there was no gantry at either station! In fact, no one asked for the ticket at all for the entire journey. Either Danish people are all extremely honest or the train companies are losing a ton of money.
Made a few panoramas with the photos I took using my l33t Photoshop skillz.
My Scandinavia trip went okay.
Next up: Should I take CS106A or CS106X?
EDIT: Here’s a story I forgot to include. The immigration officer at Helsinki was being kind of a prick, probably because the queue was full of impatient Asian tourists. I couldn’t catch a sentence he said and he acted like I was retarded. He then stamped the immigration stamp on the LAST page of my passport. One week later, when I was departing from Copenhagen Airport, the Danish immigration officer couldn’t find the stamp and started flipping through my passport.
Me: Ummm… It’s on the last page.
Him: Last page? Huh? *Flips to last page*
Him: What an idiot. *Flips back to stamp on an appropriate page*
Him: Those Finnish people, eh? *Shakes head*