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Enchanted land.

Summary: It's Santa's home. It's the land of the Vikings. It's fjord territory. It's meant for dreamy rail journeys. Scandinavia is all this and more.

There I stood at the bow of the ship and saw stuff that dreams are made of unfold before my eyes. As the ferry meandered its way through Norwegian waters, the fjords emerged from the backdrop with Herculean mountains standing tall, fiercely protecting the world around them. This was nature at its best. At the back of my head were Norwegian poet Henrik Ibsen's words: Nature in night doth nestle enwrapped in oblivion's dream the soul then prepares its vessel to voyage on Memory's stream.

Known for its fjords, Norway is a nature lover's paradise. Formed millions of years ago, fjords are deep canyons created by glaciers that flowed between mountains and through valleys. They left behind a deep trail-like passage or a channel that was filled with sea water. The mouth of a fjord (which is the opening towards the sea), can be thousands of feet deep. Sognefjord is the longest fjord in the Scandinavian Peninsula. Located in the southern part of the country, its 204 km long and 1,308m deep.

Historically, Scandinavia was defined by the three kingdoms that shared the Scandinavian Peninsula--Denmark, Norway and Sweden. Over the years, it has come to include neighbouring countries of Finland and Iceland. Interwoven by history, culture and a language, the region has seen many a dispute over territory.

Today Norwegians are peace-loving, well largely. Within 15 minutes of a drive from the hotel, Oslo's countryside with lush green fields hits you like monsoon cloud, until our guide Wenche Berger, from the Norwegian Railways, points to the tragic island of Utoeya. It was in the news for the shootout that left 77 dead. "The reason we point it out to tourists is because the incident came as a shock to us. Norway has been a peace-loving country; this being the first time in the modern era that we have seen a massacre of this magnitude," explained Wenche. The island has become somewhat of a tourist destination but that wasn't tickling my mind. The ever-changing scenery aboard Norwegian Railways was. Though the whole experience of doing Scandinavia by train, through Rail Europe, was very slick and modern, secretly my thoughts revolved around an old-fashioned Pakeezah-style. Of course, that was not to be, but what came as compensation were deep sighs of amazement, disbelief at the immense beauty and scenery close to those unbelievably spectacular desktops themes. A journey by rail through Norway is amongst the most scenic and highly-rated journeys in the world. Over the next eight days, we switched between the Swedish to the Norwegian and finally from Flam to Bergen Railways. To give a time-bound traveller a complete experience of the Norway, the Norwegian State Railways along with Bergen and Flam Railways have come up with a 'Norway in a nutshell' programme, which connects Oslo to Bergen via Myrdal-Flam-Gudvangen and Voss. What's exceptional in this route is that it's a-bit-of-everything experience--bus, train, ferry and if you're up for it, you can hire a bicycle and cycle your way. (We hear the cycling track is the most sought after choice among tourists).

At Myrdal, the passenger train makes way for the well-known Flamsbana, the Flam Railway, which is a special tourist train. Meandering its way through mountains, imagine it like an experience similar to a toy train's. This one is rated amongst the top 10 rail journeys in the world. The slow pace of the ride is a serious advantage for photographers, it gives you enough time to get that perfect shot. After numerous failed attempts in the passenger train, a Turkish photographer also trying to make peace with the situation offered me a solution. "Stand by a window in the pantry area. It gives you a much wider angle," he said. However, unlike the passenger trains that speeds over 120 kmph, the Flamsbana, at about 40kmph, is a photographer's delight.

Along the way there is a serious buzz in the train. The Japanese are gearing up for their Kodak moment as the train pulls over at the Kjosfossen waterfall, the most visited tourist attraction in all of Norway. A 15-minute stop at the waterfall ensures that all passengers get their perfect picture, while the lady-in-red (standing at the mouth of the waterfall), sings her heart out to entice passengers towards her village. As legend has it, women would stand by the waterfall and attract men to cross over to marry them. Our lot had no suitors.

At Flam, from the confines of a train, we were ferried to a 360 degree view of the fjords criss-crossing our way through quaint little sleepy villages with churches as old as 1667 and waterfalls that appeared at almost each turn. This is what I said dreams are made of. This is waterfall-country (if there was such a thing). With towering mountains on either side, we ferried our way through the Fjords, crossing Sognefjord, Norway's longest fjord and Naeroyfjord, one of its arms which is also a UNESCO's World Heritage Site. The two-hour journey, in retrospect, ended in a flash.

Reaching Bergen seemed like coming back to reality. A colourful harbour city in Western Norway, Bergen thrived as a trade center in the 13th century. As traders, the German medieval guild of merchants opened their offices at Bryggen, which is a part of the old town that has remained untouched by changing times. In Bergen, make it a point to take a short ride up the Floibanen Funicular to the Mount Floyen. An exceptional piece of engineering, the track is built up a steep hill and drops off passengers at tiny stations along the way. However, the highlight of this journey is the breathtaking view from the top. On a sunny day, you can see the entire port city and beyond. If time allows, walk along on the many trails that are carved on the mountain top. If you are an avid foodie, stroll down to the local fish market for fish cooked to perfection.

At one hand, you had this sleepy little maritime town and then there was the country's capital, Oslo. The first thing that strikes you about Oslo is its vibrancy. The city is a complete mix of the old and new with museums and galleries at every corner. If you are in Oslo, set at least two days aside, only for the art scene. There are museums for natural history, contemporary art, decorative art and design, cultural history, you name it. But if you are on a tightly-knit itinerary, then a must-see is the National Museum that houses the original The Scream by Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (something that Norwegians are utterly proud of). Then there are the Picassos, Modiglianis and the Van Goghs. What's worth picking up though, is works of the local artist Gustav Wentzel, which make for an ideal gift for arty friends.

Talking of capital cities, across the Baltic Sea was the Swedish Capital of Stockholm. Built on 14 islands, Stockholm blends the metropolis, trendy and modern with culture, traditions and history that goes back a millennium. As I walked along the busy metropolis, the Swedish fashion sense was hard to ignore. Not once did I notice a shabbily dressed person. The Swedish take both fashion and food seriously--a must-try are meatballs. Amidst the uber stylish new city, we were introduced to Gamlastan, which literally means the old town but was like a city within a city. Gamlastan, pretty much sums the pulse of the city, which is laid back, inviting, friendly, making room for those long lunches and brunches. If you've imagined, dining in an open-air cafe on a cobbled street, this is the place to do it. Walk around the streets and take in a bit of history at the Nobel Museum, where the Nobel Prize dinners are organised.

Once in Stockholm like in Oslo, leave a good amount of time for museums, galleries, cafes and walks. Most of Stockholm is accessible by land and sea. Taking one of the many Hop on/Hop off is a good way to get familiar with the city. Then there are ferries that constantly shuttle visitors back and forth. Look out for the popular Stockholm cards; they give you access to most ferry rides, museums and galleries. If time is not a constraint, then hop across the town to Island of Djurgarden for Nordic history and culture.

All along the way, a common feature between Norway and Sweden was how aesthetically conscious both were. But what I saw was the tip of the iceberg. Finland can take you by surprise with its symmetry and aesthetics. Design to Helsinki is like fashion to Paris. Artistically built, the city is vivacious, chic and needless to say--design conscious. Celebrating its 200th anniversary as the Finnish Capital, the old churches sprinkled across the city immediately catch my attention. Prominent landmarks like the Helsinki Cathedral, the Government Palace, the main building of the University of Helsinki and the National Library of Finland were designed by Carl Ludvig Engel in 1822. Therefore when you step out of the Cathedral and into the national library you will notice and uncanny resemblance.

To match the new with a bit of the old we headed to Turku, Finland's oldest city. Burnt down several times, it has literally stood the test of time. Perhaps, Turku Castle stands testimony to that. The chambers of the castle have witnessed many a dramatic events unfold in the history of Finland. Today the castle can be rented for birthdays, weddings and celebrations. A short walk away is the Turku Cathedral. Our guide tells me with a sense of pride, "After having visited the cathedral almost everyday for my job, I vowed never to marry here." A year later she took her vows in the same cathedral.

At a Glance

Getting there

Helsinki via Munich on Lufthansa. Economy: Rs.47,000 round trip.

Rail Europe are official sales representatives for the fjords tour and Finland, Sweden and Norway Railways. Book from India, it saves time looking for ticket counters when there and one can avail several discounts while booking through Rail Europe.

COST: Train tickets for Helsinki -Turku Rs.3,185; Stockholm- G?teborg Rs. 9,553; Geteborg to Oslo Rs. 5,803. A roundtrip from Oslo-Myrdal-FlCEm-Gudvangen-Voss-Oslo Rs. 18,040. For 'Norway in a Nutshell' there is a Eurail Special Pass at Rs. 5,584. www.raileurope.co.in

Good to know

When in Scandinavia in the summer, make sure you carry along an umbrella, rain coat or a rain poncho, unless you want to shell out Euro 25 for an umbrella! Finland in particular is an expensive place to shop, so leave the shopping for Sweden and Norway.

See

The Sea Fortress at Suomenlinna. Sprinkled with museums and caf? all around, set aside a full day's time for the island. When in Stockholm, take the Royal Canal Tour that takes you through the city under the bridges of Stockholm. And finally, keep your camera batteries charged for Norway--the country is a photgrapher's dream.

Do

If you have time on your side, then try out the cycling trail between Voss to Bergen. One of the most scenic trails, this one is a once in a lifetime experience.

Eat

Being maritime cities, the fish is as fresh as it can get. While in Norway, try the popular Norwegian salmon and smoked herrings. While you're at it, also indulge in the traditional Norwegian stew made of beef and fresh stock.

Hot Deal

Visit Helsinki, Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo for 7 days for Rs. 69,119. The package includes accommodation, sightseeing and overnight cruise. Valid throughout the year.

www.scandinavianpackages.comReproduced From India Today Travel Plus. Copyright 2012. LMIL. All rights reserved.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Geographic Code:4EUSW
Date:Oct 1, 2012
Words:1989
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