Chasing Valhalla and Malala in the Nordic north

September 16, 2018

One of the Earth’s most beautiful and happiest places, Scandinavia is the place to be

Chasing Valhalla and Malala in the Nordic north

Only the faintest of shades separated the sea from the sky. Foolhardy bright-white gulls floated silently as if put in the sky by an invisible hand. The noisy wind made it difficult to talk or take photos without your hair forming unseemly fluid sculptures. At least 200 people lolled about. Defeating the angry wind, I managed to take a few photos of Miran on the ferry’s viewing deck. We were on a veritable floating city that hid in its vast interiors concert halls, swimming pools, shopping malls, casinos and sumptuous restaurants.

Once back in our deluxe lounge for our seafood buffet, and looking at the never-ending sea through the portholes, it was easy to imagine I was in a spaceship. I may not live long enough to fly in one to chase mysteries of the solar system but surely my children and their children would, I mused.

We were passaging from Tallinn to Helsinki, about 200 minutes of trouble-free glide. The massive ferry was carrying over 3,000 passengers -- just another day for its operators but for my son and I, it was the second leg of our six-country trip to celebrate the completion of his Master’s in Political Science, and we were leaving behind the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, cruising through the deep blue Baltic Sea, headed for the Scandinavian troika of Finland, Sweden and Norway.

So, what is Scandinavia? It’s a region in northern Europe -- at least five countries are considered its constituents, separate but united in strong historical, cultural, and linguistic ties: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Iceland, all of which I have voyaged to before, some multiple times. The region is also called Nordic by additionally including the Faroe, Svalbard and Jan Mayen islands with their distinct cultures. Greenland, despite its administration under Denmark, is not considered part of the Nordic but all are part of the European Union.

The most striking characteristics of the Nordic region, of course, is the fact that most of its member states are among the top 10 most happy, most peaceful and most developed countries of the world -- a veritable Valhalla, or a Norse paradise. According to the 2018 World Happiness Index (WHI) of the UN, Finland is ranked number one most happy state among 156 ranked countries, Norway number two, Denmark number three, Iceland number four and Sweden number nine. In contrast, Pakistan is number 75.

The happiness index is a combination of indices measuring real GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity and perceptions of corruption.

That is not all. The Nordic countries also figure among top 15 on the 2017 Global Peace Index (GPI) that ranks 161 countries (Pakistan: 151) and the top 10 in the 2017 Prosperity Index (PI) that ranks 149 countries (Pakistan: 137). A blissful world we in Pakistan can only dream about. Or escape to!

Other than the high GDP per capita, high life expectancy, enviable levels of gender equality, full free speech environment, excellent healthcare and education, the whole region with its incredible fairytale landscapes -- even though varied -- make it also one of Earth’s most beautiful. This was clear from our bird’s eye view from planes and our treks through dense forests, often skirting lakes, through trains as we zigzagged through the Scandinavian expanse.

The region’s landscape includes the Finnish archipelago, Swedish mountains and Norwegian fjords -- and lots of forests and lakes. In fact, there are over 400,000 islands and more than 600,000 lakes in the region!

Here you can also time travel. No, really. The border between Finland and Sweden is also a time-zone marker. Travelling from Finland to Sweden, you gain a full hour of your life -- I imagined bagging two ‘New Years’ worth of midnight fun on a December 31!

Helsinki, Finland

We started our Scandinavian jaunt by disembarking from our ferry at a terminal in Helsinki that docked several ferries big enough to swallow several planes.

The night was falling fast and the breeze redolent of port ambience was pleasant. Our cab snaked round the shoreline twinkling with dusky lights and dropped us at our guesthouse, which was on the sixth floor of a charming old establishment in a long line of uninterrupted buildings.

The morning promised a bounty. We were lodged close to the lovely Central Station Square from where Miran and I began our beautiful day. The Rautatientori station (Finnish names can be challenging for a desi Pakistani!) with its beautiful red roof tiles is an exceptional landmark featuring an arched giant entrance flanked by status of massive muscled men holding orbs of light. The station recalled the golden age of rail travel although it is now serving as a modern transportation hub. In its vicinity are other key landmarks of Helsinki including museums, the parliament, gardens and a major shopping district populated by historic buildings.

As we would also see later in Stockholm and Oslo, buildings across Scandinavia boast an unfading grace, all straight lines and pastel shades but also painted in rich browns, deep blues and earthy greens. And so it was in Helsinki. Occasionally, in some squares, as we went about, they burst out in bright colours such as sunny yellow and rich red, startling in their deviation from the understated elegance of the Nordic urban architectural expression.

Our next stop was what is considered one of the loveliest cathedrals in the world -- the Tuomiokirkko -- a neoclassical wonder in white, capped with domes of clean green, sporting golden stars, sitting pretty in the heart of Helsinki.

Built in the 1850s in honour of Tsar Nicholas I of Imperial Russia, it showcases architectural grace by shunning the pomp and circumstance of Russian orthodox churches. It looks colossal from the outside, rearing above the sprawling Senate Square but feels rather small within.

Key city roads seem to run into the square ringed by lots of elegant and colourful buildings, including the oldest stone house of the city. In the centre of the square is a magical place -- the central statue -- where visitors sit down on benches surrounding it to take in the ambiance.

From here on to the bustling Market Square, the Kauppatori. This open-air market is located along the harbour -- full of food booths. The best are the herrings, fruit marmalades and giant pickles with vinegar. Delicious! Top them off with plum cherries and fat blueberries. A lazy walk around the market breathing in the salty-sea environment with bands playing live music, poets in corners reciting Finnish poetry and row upon row of boats bobbing on the shoreline exude charm.

Close by, accessible by the Bridge of Love with silly lovers locking their passion in symbolic locks, is another city stunner: the Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral with its red brick exterior crowned with orthodox crosses. Inside, the scent of incense is strong, the walls are full of paintings, and there are splashes of golden everywhere.

Next stop was the breathtaking Helsinki Botanical Garden -- rather petite by European standards but making up for its deficiency in size with its large collection of flora exotica with specimens ranging from the Arctic north to the Baltic south. We ended our day by visiting Kiasma, the national arts centre in a modern building with squared cuts and surrounded by green grass and fish sculptures, and showcasing contemporary Finnish art. I couldn’t resist buying some posters of vintage engravings depicting the solar system and whales. 

Stockholm, Sweden

The next day we were off to Sweden, which has a bit of all that its Nordic neighbours have -- Copenhagen’s urban cool, Norway’s landscapes, Finland’s shores and Iceland’s pretty ports.

But it also has Stockholm, perhaps the loveliest city in the whole of Scandinavia.

Once lodged in the heart of the city and rested, we started off our exploration from nearby City Hall. In this beautiful building, the Nobel Banquet is held every year, and from the tower, you get a wonderful view over the entire city.

The city is a group of islands connected by bridges. A guided tour took us to the Vasa Museum on the green island of Djurgarden, featuring a 17th-century warship, and the Skansen open-air museum, which has craftspeople and reconstructed homes depicting Swedish life through the decades.

Fans of Swedish pop music browse memorabilia, old records and costumes, at ABBA: The Museum -- a relatively new addition to the long list of city’s museums. Took me back decades -- the first English song I ever heard was ‘Chiquitita’ by Abba in Colombo, Sri Lanka in 1979.

Ferries also dock next to Gröna amusement park, known for its thrill rides and summer concerts.

It is worth investigating what makes the Swedes among the happiest people on the planet. To experience this, simply visit a coffee shop -- the country is among the top three consumers of coffee per capita. A sense of community can be seen everywhere strengthened through the tradition known as fika, which is translated as ‘break time’ wherein locals meet over coffee to catch up, discuss news, and eat pastries.

Want to try fika in Stockholm? I would recommend the historic Vete-Katten, a local sipping spot founded in 1928 with its cheery ambience.

But the best place in Stockholm is, of course, Gamla Stan, the city’s uber-charming oldest district and widely recognised as one of the best-preserved medieval city centres in Europe. This is where the city was founded almost 800 years go. Walk through the winding streets lined with stores full of antiques and art galleries. The Royal Palace and Stockholm Cathedral are also in Gamla Stan. The place, along with adjacent Gamla Stan-linked island Riddarholmen, is like a breathing pedestrian-friendly museum full of sights, attractions, restaurants, cafés, bars, and places to shop.

Gamla Stan is also popular with aficionados of handicrafts, curios and souvenirs. The narrow winding cobblestone streets, with their buildings in so many different shades of gold, give Gamla Stan its unique character and veneer. Even now cellar vaults and frescoes from the Middle Ages can be found behind the visible facades, and on snowy winter days, I was told the district feels like something straight out of a storybook.

I had already planned a visit to the Swedish National Postal Museum, also situated in Gamla Stan. It was a delightful tour archiving not just vast collections of national and international -- including Pakistani specimens -- of stamps but also an interactive museum of philately history in Scandinavia and a very nice shop selling mouth-watering sets of stamps, especially thematic souvenir sheets that I covet. Because I am a philatelist, I made my obligatory purchases.

In the same district I stumbled on to two discoveries that brought alive the secret fanboy in me. The first was a bookshop dedicated to science fiction only and boasting one of the finest collections of entire works of dozens of my favourite authors from Isaac Asimov to Arthur C. Clarke of yore and from Alastair Reynolds to Ken Liu of today. It was like a dream -- Miran looked on amusingly as I went berserk in the shop trying to soak in as much richness of the place as I could. If I could, I would work for free in the shop for years provided I were allowed to read everything I could.

The second was a shop selling another weakness of mine -- sailing merchandise. Sailboat specimens, sailors’ paraphernalia, paintings, maps and atlases. Oh, the atlases! My father loved them and I inherit that passion from him. I ended up buying an oversized atlas of dozens of poster-sized maps of Scandinavian waterways and fjords -- weighing a full 8kg. Don’t ask how I carried it back to Pakistan.

Oslo, Norway

On then, through a dreamy forested train journey to the Norwegian capital. Oslo is Norway’s biggest city. Half its charm would be gone without its waterline. Its incredibly beautiful shore is centred at the end of the Oslofjord inlet. On the opposite, wide forested hills rise above the cosmopolitan city, thriving and alive with business and everyday life. Going about exploring the city, starting off with the museum of playwright and poet Henrik Ibsen (of A Doll’s House fame), Miran and I discovered that in Oslo you won’t find a charming ‘old town’, where tourists usually gravitate to spend a leisurely day, wandering around café and shop-lined cobblestone streets. Instead, Oslo throws you right into city life, where one hustles around town to seek out all the great things to see in this lovely city.

In just one day, you’ll feel like a native after you’ve ridden the tram across town, taken the bus to outlying neighborhoods, strolled the pedestrian shopping streets and dined at restaurants. It didn’t feel too touristy, which was refreshing.

The best bits of Oslo include a stroll through the Vigeland Sculpture Garden at Frognerparken, a short distance away from the city centre. The park showcases over 200 sculptures all created by the same Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. The human figures, mostly in bronze and granite, exhibit the whole gamut of the human condition.

Other attractions include the Oslo Opera House, built to resemble a giant iceberg where you can walk along the sides of the building to access the roof. At dusk, from across the waterway, the building seems to glow against the darkening evening sky.

There’s also souvenir hunting on the lively, longish pedestrian Johan Street. It starts on one end at Oslo’s Central Train Station and extends to The Royal Palace, the residence of the monarch, which glitters in the sun surrounded by a sprawling park. High quality souvenirs like Viking drinking cups, wood carved trolls and Dale of Norway sweaters are the things to go for.

The Royal Palace, near where we stayed, has over 170 rooms. Guided tours are available although we didn’t have time. A mini garden within the larger sprawling garden has sprinklers under white benches where at the right time of the day - which we found - throws up mini rainbows. I had Miran sit down under the rainbow and took some lovely photos.

The city also has several excellent museums -- the Viking Museum, the Kon-Tiki Museum (the Norwegian explorer whose feat of crossing the Pacific on a raft fascinated me in my childhood), Fram Museum and, the best of all, the Munch Museum, which is dedicated to the works of Edvard Munch, one of Modernism’s most significant artists.

However, Munch’s best work, the universally famous ‘Scream’ is found in the National Gallery. The ‘Scream’, painted around 1893, using oil and pastel on cardboard, features a ghoulish figure with an agonised expression on its face set against a landscape (believed to be Oslo) with a deep orange sky.

We capped our Norwegian - and Scandinavian - campaign with a breathtaking three-hour cruise around the Oslofjord, the deep-blue waters of the fjord leading out to the North Sea with rising hills and beautiful private residencies built with boat garages alongside the shoreline.

But before that was the highlight of the city -- a visit to the Nobel Peace Centre. The centre, close to the shore, showcases the lives and achievements of all the 131 Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

But what took Miran and my breath away was the massive 20-feet high portrait of our very own Malala Yousafzai fixed just inside the main entrance, redolent in its red shades of her dupatta. The portrait dwarfed everything and every other Nobel Peace Prize laureates’ photos and features. It felt, then, like a million dollars to be a Pakistani in Oslo.

Chasing Valhalla and Malala in the Nordic north