Difference between revisions of "Scandinavia"
Revision as of 11:47, 10 August 2012
Scandinavia  or, more broadly, Nordic Europe, is a European region north of the Baltic Sea. At almost 1.2 million square kilometres (463,000 square miles) it is the largest region in Europe, but home to only around 24 million people, accounting for a mere 4% of the population.
There is a constant and long-standing rivalry between Copenhagen and Stockholm over which city can claim the title as Scandinavia's unofficial capital. Depending on how you count, both cities are the largest, most visited, and the target of most investment. However, after the completion of the Øresund bridge, and subsequent integration of Copenhagen and Malmö - Sweden's third largest city, this region is fast emerging as the main urban centre in Scandinavia, while Stockholm arguably grabs the title as the most beautiful.
The name Scandinavia comes from the Skandage body of water that lies sandwiched between Norway, Sweden, and the Jutland peninsula of Denmark. Strictly speaking, the term covers only those three countries, but here we use it in its broader sense to cover all of Nordic Europe (Norden).
The Scandinavian nations share many cultural traits including similar flags and many related languages. The region is known for its natural beauty and more recently its liberalism. Denmark, Finland and Sweden are EU members. Oil and gas rich Norway, and, the only island nation (to the west), Iceland, are not.
The Nordic countries all enjoy a relatively strong economy. Norway and Iceland have in particular profited from an abundance of natural resources. Sweden and Finland also have their share of natural resources, but are in the international marketplace mostly famous for strong brands like Volvo, Saab, Ericsson and Nokia. Although Denmark has developed sophisticated business in a number of industries, it is above all the leading agricultural country in Scandinavia. Strong economies and relatively small social differences translates into high prices for visitors.
Elaborate welfare states are a common characteristic of the Nordic countries. Most things are generally highly organized and tourists should expect everything to proceed according to plans, rules and timetables. According to Transparency International, the Nordic countries are the least corrupt in the world (matched only by a handful of countries including Canada, New Zealand and Singapore).
Scandinavia was covered by an ice sheet around 10.000 BC. As the ice pushed the land down, it is still rising from the sea, at a rate near 1 cm a year. While thenorth Germanic peoples populated southern coastal areas, Finns and Sami migrated from the Ural Mountains. From around AD 700, Norse sailors known as Vikings ventured across the Atlantic and European rivers, reaching as far as present-day Canada, Morocco and the Caspian Sea. Christianity did not get a grip on Scandinavia around AD 1000. The 16th to 19th centuries, Denmark and Sweden fought for domination of northern Europe, in 11 wars. Norway, Finland and Iceland regained independence during the early 20th century.
Denmark borders on Germany, while Finland and Norway border on Russia, but otherwise the Nordic countries are separated from their neighbors by the Baltic, the North Sea or the Atlantic itself. An abundance of land, water and wilderness is a common characteristic of the Nordic countries (except Denmark where most of the country is farmland or settlements). For example, Sweden is one of the largest countries in Europe in area but only has some 9 million inhabitants. The landscapes and nature do, however, vary across the Nordic countries. Denmark is a flat lowland like the Netherlands and Northern Germany. Iceland is both volcanic and arctic. Norway and Sweden share the Scandinavian peninsula which is highest on the Atlantic coast and gradually becomes lower until Sweden meets the Baltic sea. The Scandinavian mountains, running from Southern Norway and past Tromsø in Northern Norway, are steep and rugged on the Atlantic side, gentle on the Eastern side. Finland is relatively flat, somewhat colder, and characterized by lakes scattered over the entire country. Large parts of Sweden and Finland (as well as parts of Norway) are covered by deep pine tree forests that are essentially the western branch of great Russian taiga. Galdhøpiggen in Norways Jotunheimen national park, is with its 2.469 meters the tallest mountain north of the Alps, while Kebnekaise, 2104 meters tall, is the highest mountain in Sweden.
Due to the high latitude, summer nights are very short and in the northern most part there is even midnight sun in the summer. While central parts of Scandinavia (the Oslo-Stockholm-Copenhagen triangle) are more densely populated, vast areas in the north or in the mountains are hardly populated at all. Because of this, space, light and nature are key characteristics of the four northern countries, with the exception of Denmark.
Despite the high latitude central parts, the Nordic countries have a mild climate, at least much warmer than would be expected at this latitude. Northern parts have subarctic climate, while southern parts and coastal areas enjoy a temperate climate. Denmark and coastal areas of Southern Norway, Iceland and Western Sweden experience only occasional frost and snow during winter. Summers in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland are pleasantly warm with day temperatures 15 to 30 degrees C. In the mountains and along western coasts, the weather is generally more unstable. Finland has the most stable sunny weather in summer. In general, the further inland, the bigger the difference between summer and winter. The Baltic side is generally colder in winter than the North Sea side. Western Norway and the Atlantic Islands have the smallest difference between summer and winter.
Communicating in Scandinavia is easy, as virtually everybody under 65 speaks at least basic English, and younger people tend to be fluent. Most students also study a third major European language, such as German, French and increasingly Spanish. Foreign language television programmes are usually shown in their original language with subtitles, with only children's programmes sometimes being dubbed into the local language, and even then DVDs and cinemas also offer the original language with subtitles, and it is widely believed that this links to the high English proficiency among young children here.
Danish, Norwegian and Swedish are closely related and mutually intelligible to varying degrees, especially in writing, although some spoken dialects can be quite incomprehensible. As these are all Germanic languages, if you speak German or Dutch, you will find many cognates, and even English speakers will be able to recognise the odd word once they get their heads around the phonetic spelling: eg. English school is Swedish skola and Danish/Norwegian skole, while first becomes först/først. Icelandic and Faroese, while also related, have been kept in a linguistic freezer since the 13th century, and are largely unintelligible to other Germanic speakers.
The real outlier is Finnish, which belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is entirely unrelated to the other Nordic languages. Finland, however, maintains a roughly 5% Swedish-speaking minority, and all Finns learn Swedish in school. As Finnish is related to Hungarian and Estonian, speakers of those languages will recognise several cognates. The Saami language also belongs to the Finno-Ugric family and is an official language in some municipalities of Lapland.
Due to the large distances and the water surrounding most of the Nordic area, airplane is often the most effective way of getting to the Nordic countries. All the main cities have international airports, and even smaller cities like Haugesund and Ålesund serve some international flights. Almost all European airlines service Scandinavian airports.
Besides the regional airlines, there are also serveral major international airlines which offers direct routes to Scandinavia. Emirates, Gulf Air, Air Canada and Singapore Airlines fly to Copenhagen, Air China to Stockholm, while PIA (Pakistan), Thai, Qatar Airways, US Airways, Delta, and Continental Airlines all service serveral intercontinental routes to Scandinavia.
Alternative low cost airlines in the region include Blue1  in Finland, Norwegian  in Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Cimber Sterling  in Denmark and Iceland Express  on Iceland. All of these airlines has routes to one of the London airports, and hence London is a good entry point, if you can find a cheaper flight there, which is often the case. Many of the low cost airlines mainly service routes between the cold Scandinavia and the sunny Mediterranean, hence you can also often find bargin flights from Spain, Italy, etc.
Denmark is well-connected to the German rail network. The direct connection to Copenhagen is, however, by the Puttgarden-Rødby ferry. Sweden is connected to Danish railways via the Øresund bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö or to the German capital by a bi-daily night train during the summer, bypassing Denmark via the Trelleborg - Rostock ferry. Due to the barrier provided by the Baltic sea, the only other connection to the European mainland, is via Moscow or St Petersburg in Russia. For interrail pass holders most of the ferries crossing the Baltic and North seas offers discounts (25-50%), but only the Scandlines ferries are completely included in the pass (see By ferry section).
Norway is served by ferries from Denmark and Germany. To Sweden, there are ferries from Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland. Iceland is connected to Denmark and the Faroe Islands by ferry. To Finland there are ferries from Estonia and Germany.
¹ Arrives in Nynäshamn, about 1 hour south of Stockholm by suburban train
Denmark is directly connected to the continental road network. From Denmark it is possible to cross to Sweden over the Öresund bridge. There are also many ferry connections from Denmark, most of them takes cars. The only overland alternative to the Öresund bridge is to enter via Russia to Finland or Norway. Save a few short stretches of regular road, you can drive all the way to Stockholm or Oslo on highway from the German ones, but keep in mind that the tolls on the two Danish highway bridges you need to pass to get to Sweden are heavy, and you could easily be saving money taking a more direct route with a ferry. Virtually all Scandinavian roads are toll free, but some of the larger cities (most notably Stockholm) have introduced congestion charges when driving in the centre, and some of the longer bridges and tunnels levy tolls to pay for their construction.
Speed limits are uniform, 50kph in cities and 80kph on rural roads unless otherwise indicated. Motorways range from 100 in Norway, 110 in Sweden, 120 in Finland to 130 in Denmark, again unless other speed limits are signposted. Keep in mind that while Scandinavians routinely disregard speed limits, fines are heavy and if you don't benefit from the high Scandinavian wages, they will feel even more steep, so you will in essence probably be gambling with your holiday budget. Speeding in city zones are considered a severe offence, and there are many unmarked automatic speed traps installed in such zones.
Winter driving skills are essential through much of the year, when roads are treacherously slippery, winter tyres are mandatory and speed limits are reduced.
Major coastal cities of the Baltic Sea are often connected with ferry lines, e.g. Turku-Stockholm and Helsinki-Tallinn, and ferries are a natural part of many journeys for Scandinavians. The larger long-distance ferries are in effect cruise ships, with behemoths like the Silja Europa featuring 13 decks stacked full of shops, restaurants, spas, saunas etc. Longer routes are nearly always scheduled to sail during the night, so you arrive fresh to continue the often long journeys required in Scandinavia. If you travel by ferry to Norway or pass through Åland, there are Tax Free sales on board, since Norway is not part of the EU and Åland is subject to special regulations. For the same reason some of these lines, especially Stockholm-Helsinki ferry, is known as party boats, since alcohol escapes the normal heavy taxation.
In addition to major lines listed below, the Hurtigruten ferries, running all along Norways amazing jagged coast line, and through spectacular fjords, from Bergen in the south to Kirkenes in the Arctic north, docking in many small hamlets and villages on the way - offers a unique and very Scandinavian experience.
See also: Rail travel in Europe
Trains are an adequate way of traveling around Scandinavia. International connections between Denmark, southern Sweden and southern Norway are good, but up north services are sparse and there is a short gap in the network between northern Sweden and Finland, although most railpasses allow free use of the connecting bus service. Iceland has no trains at all.
The previous night train connection between Copenhagen and Oslo has been retired, and this route now requires a change in Gothenburg, on the other hand day time connections has become much more frequent after the opening of the Øresund bridge (8½ hours). Between Copenhagen and Stockholm up to 7 X2000 express trains runs directly every day (5½ hours), and the daily night train only requires an easy change in Malmö (7½ hours). Further north there is two daily connections between Oslo and Bodø (17 hours, via Trondheim) - the northernmost stop on the Norwegian railway network, and two daily night trains (regular & express) between Stockholm and Umeå/Luleå (16-20 hours) in the northernmost part of Sweden. In the summer Lapplandståget - Scandinavias longest railway journey, will take you directly all the way from Malmö (& Copenhagen) in the south to Narvik in the north via Sweden.
The ScanRail pass was retired in 2007, but visitors not resident in Europe can opt for the very similar Eurail Scandinavia Pass , which offers 4 to 10 days of travel in a 2-month period for €232-361. For residents of Europe, the all-Europe or single-country Interrail passes are also an option.
If you are not using a rail pass, long distance buses will often be a cheaper alternative, especially for longer journeys. But since highways are almost exclusively centred around the southern half of Scandinavia, journey times become increasingly uncompetitive the further north you get, on the other hand, rail services also get increasingly sparse in northern Scandinavia. There is no dominant company like Greyhound is in North America, but a host of local, regional and national bus companies, some of the major companies include; GoByBus  and Eurolines  and Swebus  which all service routes in the Scandinavian triangle between Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm. In addition the major national intercity bus companies are Abildskou  in Denmark, Nor-Way  and Nettbuss  in Norway and Matkahuolto  in Finland.
Think twice before driving a car in Scandinavia. Rentals are expensive, gasoline is very expensive and distances are long. In Norway, in particular, distances that seem short on a map can be very long and tiring if you need to drive along twisty fjord roads. Collisions with wildlife, particularly deer and reindeer, are common and dangerous.
If planning on driving in Scandinavia outside the summer season, you will need to be familiar with winter driving conditions and equip your car accordingly.
Scandinavia, and in particular Denmark, is known for its many music festivals during the summer months. The largest in each country are:
Finland is the only Nordic country using the Euro.
Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Sweden each has a national currency, all known as krona or krone (plural kronor/kroner), often shortened kr, all four with free-floating exchange rates. The centesimal subdivision øre is used in Norway and Denmark. The national currencies are distinguished by the acronyms DKK ISK, NOK and SEK.
Other currencies than the national ones are usually not accepted, except in border towns. As ATM:s are common, and most establishments accept credit cards (at least VISA and Mastercard), you don't need to carry a lot of cash.
Some suggested shopping items are traditional handicraft, and modern Scandinavian design. Neither is cheap, though.
The cuisines of all Scandinavian countries are quite similar, although each country does have its signature dishes. Seafood features prominently on restaurant menus, although beef, pork and chicken are more common in many everyday dishes. Potatoes are the main staple, most often simply boiled, but also made into mashed potatoes, potato salad and more. Spices are used sparingly, but fresh herbs are used to accentuate the ingredients.
Famous pan-Scandinavian dishes include:
Bread comes in dozens of varieties, with dark, heavy rye bread a specialty, and Scandinavian pastries are so well known that the word "danish" has even been imported into English.
Vikings were famously heavy drinkers, and despite continuing government efforts to stamp out the demon drink through heavy taxation, todays Scandinavians continue the tradition. Bring in your full tax-free allowance if you plan to indulge, since in Norway you can expect to pay up to 60 kr (€7) for a pint of beer in a pub, and Sweden and Finland are not far behind. To reduce the pain, it is common to start drinking at home before heading out to party. The drinking age is generally 18 in all Nordic countries (but 20 in Iceland), but many bars and clubs have their own age limits.
The main tipples are beer and vodka-like distilled spirits called brännvin, including herb-flavored akvavit. Spirits are typically drunk as snaps or ice-cold from shot glasses.
Scandinavia may have a liberal image, but drugs including cannabis are treated with zero tolerance by the police, and possession of even personal use amounts is a serious crime in all five countries. Denmark, long more liberal than the rest, has also taken a harder line in recent years and tried to fight the drug dealing in Christiania, but the police's attempts to get inside of the area failed, and was met with harsh resistance from the people within that area. The area still stands, and is known as the part of Copenhagen where drugs are easily accessible.
Throughout Scandinavia, with exception of densely populated Denmark, Allemansrätten, or Every Mans Right in English, is an important underpinning of society, and guarantees everyone the right to stay or camp on any uncultivated land for one or two nights, as long as you respect certain norms, stay out of sight of any residents, and leave no traces of your visit when you leave. If you enjoy the great outdoors, this can help make the otherwise expensive Scandinavian countries, become quite affordable.
With so much incredible nature outside the doorstep, it should be no surprise that the Scandinavian countries have a well developed Hostel network, named Vandrerhjem/Vandrarhem in the Scandinavian languages - literally translating into wanderers home. While the rules are often quite strict, it is cheap, and with almost 800 hostels available, you can find one almost anywhere. The respective national organisations are called Danhostel  in Denmark, STF  or SVIF  in Sweden, Norske Vandrerhjem  in Norway, SRM  in Finland and finally Farfuglar  in Iceland.