What is the difference between Scandinavia and the Nordics?

The Deutsch, who are German, are neither Danish, Dutch, Scandinavian nor Nordic. The Dutch, who hail from the Netherlands, also commonly called Holland, are neither Danish, nor do they speak Danish.  This is despite a number of similarities including elements of the language, culture, and social behavior which are very close to those found across the Nordic and Scandinavian peoples.  Not only are the Dutch not Danish, they also fall outside of both the Scandinavian and Nordic categories. Also, while less common, it is important to recall that the Swiss are not the Swedes as they hail from Switzerland, which is not remotely near Sweden and also falls well outside the Nordic and Scandinavian regions.

So. Now that we’ve got THAT out of the way let’s tackle one of the most common questions I’ve heard and discussed. That is the difference between Scandinavia and the Nordics. For many, and perhaps with good reason, Scandinavia is thought of as a country and comes as part of the assumption that the Scandinavian people and by extension the Nordics are essentially all more or less one and the same. Before I re-located to Scandinavia, the distinct character of the various Scandinavian countries and the sharp contrasts between their Nordic siblings was something I found deeply confusing. Luckily, I’ve had a chance to learn a bit more about them. I’d like to share those thoughts with you.

Danish National Museum in Copenhagen

Scandinavia vs. the Nordics

The term Scandinavia encompasses the two countries that make up the near-majority of the Scandinavian peninsula and Denmark which consists of 400+ islands and the majority of the Jutland peninsula (Cimbrian Peninsula). Though Finland arguably shares the base of the Scandinavian peninsula with Norway and Sweden it is not considered a Scandinavian country.  Finland also tends to be excluded because, while they do share many behavioral traits, the Finnish language and much of the Finnish cultural heritage differs widely from those of the relatively homogeneous Scandinavian countries.

Nordic Conversations Are Different

Silence. It is something Americans hate. In your typical American conversation you’ll rarely find such a thing as a comfortable silence, a reflective silence, or a natural silence.  For the average American in a normal conversation there’s really only one type of silence and that is awkward silence. A type of silence that we’re taught from childhood to avoid at all costs. This stems in large part from the American conversational approach which I think can best be described as conversational layering with each person quickly layering on new overlapping information in rapid succession. Add in the fast-paced rapid-fire approach to speaking common among most Americans and you’ve got a recipe for frustration and perceived arrogance when talking to Nordics / Scandinavians (and other internationals). 

Oslo Culture Clash – Weekly Travel Photo

Oslo Fjord - Norway

Today’s feature highlights an interesting cross-section of history. Snapped in the Oslo Fjord, it is of a small fisherman’s church (or shrine, I’m not sure which) *Scratch that, I’ve been told it is a converted lighthouse that is now a restaurant – see the comments for more!* situated on a tiny piece of rock.   I took the photograph as our ferry passed it, steaming within a few meters of it and apparently quite confident that the rock didn’t reflect a submerged outcropping. I can only hope the model-sized church reflected a prayer and general tribute, and not a memorial to another vessel that wasn’t so careful, well informed, or lucky.

The ferry (more like a small cruise ship) was out of Copenhagen and proudly flying the old Danish colors.  Something that no doubt annoys the Norwegians as much as accomplishes any regulatory requirements that may go with it.

If you find yourself on a boat navigating the Oslo Fjord in Norway, make sure to keep an eye open for this great little landmark.  I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it oozed its own special charm.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Kjosfossen Falls

Kjosfoss Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

Norway is known for its rich landscapes.  The nation’s wealth of stunning waterfalls plays a major role in shaping that reputation and maintaining it.  Located between Oslo and Bergen the Flam Railway connects the main rail line with the small port town of Flam.   A winding, zig-zag path cuts down through the fjord on narrow gauge tracks before reaching the picturesque fjord below.  Visitors lucky enough to enjoy the trip will find that the train stops briefly at Kjosfossen Falls – a hauntingly beautiful waterfall that crashed down towards, and then eventually under the train tracks.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – A Flower in Bloom in Oslo

Oslo Cultural Museum - Oslo, Norway

Norway has a reputation as one of the world’s most beautiful destinations.  The majestic fjords, stunning waterfalls, and inspiring vistas of massive snow capped mountains have come to define the country.  Yet, there is an added richness that goes beyond that – small details which add to Norway’s charm and make it an ideal destination for a variety of other reasons.  This photo captures one of those charming aspects. Taken on the outskirts of Oslo at the Museum of Cultural History, this photograph features a beautiful flower in bloom along an old wooden fence in front of a traditional Norwegian farmhouse.   The museum, which has a large out door component, is home to wonderful old Norwegian buildings, horse drawn carriages, and cultural performers playing traditional music.  It is well worth a visit!

When you think of Norway, what image or memory comes to mind?

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos?  View past travel pictures here.

Friday’s Weekly Travel Photo – Preikestolen Norway

Over the Edge - Preikestolen

Today’s Friday Photo comes from Preikestolen, Norway also known as the Preacher’s Pulpit.   This incredible rock formation overlooks the Lysefjorden and consists of a rock outcropping which is about 82 feet by 82 feet and projects out into empty space over the fjord.  As you can see from today’s photo the view down is pretty stunning.  What you’re looking at is about 1,982 feet of fresh Norwegian air between the ledge, my boots and the fjord below.  Due to the nearly square nature of the pulpit and the sturdy nature of the rock which forms it, most visitors pause to look over the edge before dangling their toes out into empty space.  As someone who isn’t a huge fan of heights it definitely pushed my comfort zone but was a wonderful experience, and one that helped me partially overcome my fear of heights. There are no guide rails, ropes, or other safety devices in place.

To reach Preikestolen there’s a semi-rugged 3.8km hike which climbs about 1,000 feet. However, the path tends to rise and fall several times as you hike along ridges and past a number of small lakes.  While parts of the path are very easy and well maintained others tend to be pretty steep and be made largely of small boulders.  If you find yourself in Norway, I highly suggest making the trip.  The closest major city is Stavanger, located in the South West of Norway.

Remember you can see Friday Photos from previous weeks here.

This post was made possible in part due to the support of ESTA Permits, offering their visum USA service.

Bergen, A Scenic Seafood Picnic and Local Fjords

The Old Warehouse District - Bergen, Norway

Still a bit giddy (silly but true) after the previous day’s spectacular adventure on the Flam Railway and through the Nærøyfjord I opted to spend my final day in Bergen and the nearby fjords. After a relatively late start Anna and I once again set out together to aimlessly wander the city.  As usual the first stop was back down along the harbor and the warehouse district, but that didn’t last long. We were eager to get into parts of the city we’d yet to explore.

Comedy and Tragedy - Bergen, Norway

The first stop was just off of the central square. Up a green boulevard and around a few statues we found the city’s opera house/theater. A fun building with a series of beautifully cast and carved figures. Some, like the flowing bronze in the image above, captured the classic imagery of theater. While others had a more unique/Scandinavian feel.

National Theater - Bergen, Norway

The building was decorated with a series of masks which took on the shape and appearance of animals, but done in an art-deco sort of powerful, but rudimentary form. The lamp posts each had extra metalwork which wrapped around them showcasing viking ships and marauders.  The whole venue had an air of character to it, which made me wish that I had time to catch a show.

A Cathedral - Bergen, Norway

From the theater we wound our way through back streets and quiet alleyways before eventually marching up a large flight of stairs. The stairs dumped us out in front of one of Bergen’s main cathedrals. A large, beautiful building that showcased a beautiful wooden roof, set with subtle but elegant wooden highlights and fine artwork.

Cathedral - Bergen, Norway

As we wound our way through the city we could not help but enjoy the skyline. Norwegian cities offer an interesting mixture of styles and a beautiful combination of greenery and ancient architecture.

An Old Lamp Post - Bergen, Norway

From the Cathedral we wound our way down the other side of the hill and over towards what we later found out was the local University.  There we paused briefly for a quick snack before winding back down towards the main lake – a large man-made rectangle which rests right in the heart of Bergen just off the central square.

Odd Art - Bergen, Norway

The  square featured a series of interesting sculptures. However, the one that I found most interesting was a large aluminum (or stainless steel) cube which looked as though its surface was cast out of water caught in the midst of a rainstorm.  It was odd, stood out, and ordinarily would have clashed with its setting.  For whatever reason though, perhaps the nature of the northern weather, it seemed to fit and in an odd way reflected and captured the region’s moody weather.

Child With Balloon - Bergen, Norway

The day was a gorgeous one.  Flowers in bloom, a few clouds in the sky, a slight northern crispness to the air, and the warmth of the sun all set to the backdrop of rich blue skies. As we wandered through the city’s streets and parks, I paused briefly and chuckled. I can’t fathom where the balloon came from, but the little girl pictured above was at play in the park with her younger brother, both with floating balloons in tow.  For some reason, set against the gazebo and blooming flowers they seemed to embody the spirit of late spring and early summer.  In truth, they embodied life, youthful energy and the essence of positive spirit.

Sunken Pink Boat - Bergen, Norway

From the park it was back to the harbor where Anna and I had decided we’d pick up some local seafood for lunch, then hop on the local fjord cruise which left twice a day, lasted 3 or so hours, and was fairly affordable. To our surprise there was a fair amount of commotion in the harbor.  Somehow, the cute pink fishing ship I’d observed and commented on the previous day had sprung a leak.  As the ship sat, partially submerged and resting on the harbor floor a large barge was brought in with a sizable winch.  The plan appeared to involve divers in dry-suits, the barge, and a large cargo winch.  From the general approach the locals were taking it must have been a somewhat common occurrence.

Seafood Lunch - Bergen, Norway

Hungry, Anna and I decided to splurge a bit and both went on a small buying spree, planning to pool what we picked up in a two-person potluck once we got on the boat.  The region is famous for its seafood, especially for its smoked salmon, fresh arctic shrimp and dare I say it – whale.  Anna went for the healthy route and picked up a carton of fresh strawberries and raspberries. It’s worth noting that I was surprised how many small fruit stands were selling strawberries and cherries in Stavanger and Bergen. They were everywhere, dirt cheap, and absolutely fantastic.  They were fresh, sweet, and a deep rich color with a strong strawberry scent.  The type of strawberries you only find in the US at local farmers markets.

Seafood Lunch - Bergen, Norway

In addition to the strawberries and raspberries, Anna picked up a lightly seasoned piece of smoked salmon and freshly cooked combo plate which had a few skewers of shrimp and a piece of whale meat.  I opted for a pound of fresh crawfish, cup of fresh cherries and a more heavily spiced/slightly dryer piece of Salmon.

Local Foods - Bergen, Norway

The meal was absolutely spectacular.  The salmon was delicious – well spiced, perfectly smoked and a great mixture of flavors. Mine was more like traditional smoked salmon while Anna’s rode the middle and was far closer to lox. The crawfish and shrimp were both extremely flavorful while the strawberries and raspberries were perfectly ripened and some of the most flavorful I’ve had in a long, long time.  I have no doubt I’ll take some flack for it, but I also opted to try whale.  While opposed to their hunting, curiosity and hunger for new culinary experiences won out.   It sounds silly, but i was quite surprised by the taste.  I was expecting something fishy, which given that whale is a mammal is a bit daft.  Instead the flavor was extremely gamy and almost had a liverish taste to it.  The liver taste was more pronounced in the smoked version I tried, while the thinly cut BBQ’d piece was fairly good, but nothing special.  Truth be told it was like a gamy carne asada.

Fjords Near Bergen, Norway

The cruise left Bergen Harbor and wound its way out towards the main bay/fjord. There we passed near a series of beautiful suspension bridges and motored past a number of sailboats out enjoying the nice weather.

Fjords Near Bergen, Norway

About an hour or so into the trip we started to leave the more densely populated coastline behind.  It was replaced by small lighthouses, boathouses, and the occasional home and small village.

Fjord Tour Near Bergen, Norway

The whole area is incredibly picturesque.  From the architecture, to the rich mixture of colors used on their buildings the small towns each have their own unique character. All set against a rich green backdrop.

Fjord Tour Near Bergen, Norway

The coast/fjord is also home to a series of small waterfalls and impressive cliffs.  However, in comparison to my previous day’s adventure, most seemed fairly small and plain.  Which is not to say that they were not gorgeous and incredibly beautiful.  Rather, the cruise from Bergen gave me the opportunity to enjoy architecture and human’s footprint set against a majestic backdrop.

Fjord Tour Near Bergen, Norway

Eventually the day wound to a close as we slowly completed our long loop and headed back towards Bergen.  Just in time, I might add, as the weather had slowly begun to change.  The clouds had thickened and spread and the temperature slowly dropped.  As a fresh sprinkle cleared the dust from the air, I took one final, deep breath, enjoyed the beauty of the fjords and prepared for my last night in Bergen.  The following day promised grand adventures and my first taste of Denmark.

Norway’s Pristine Fjords, Waterfalls and Mountains

Train Station - Flam Railway, Norway

While the city of Bergen is a significant draw with its rich history, beautiful architecture and delicious seafood the real reason people head to the region is the fjords.  The western coast of Norway is an incredible mix of breathtaking valleys, lush forests, awe inspiring waterfalls and astounding fjords which have rightly earned their reputation as some of the most spectacular countryside in the world.

Transferring to the Flam Railway - Myrdal, Norway

From Bergen the most popular destination is the Flam Railway which is an old narrow track railway which cuts its way through a series of tunnels and winds through a stunning valley while inching past awe inspiring waterfalls before connecting with a ferry and the Aurlandsfjorde.  From there travelers have the option of a long cruise through the fjords back to Bergen or a shorter but far more impressive ferry ride to the Nærøyfjord (UNESCO World Heritage Site) where they transfer to a bus.  The bus ride offers an incredibly scenic view of the fjord, which strongly resembles the world famous views of Yosemite, before connecting with a train back to Bergen.

Kjosfoss Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

If you research the Flam railway and surrounding fjords you will inevitably be directed back to one of the Norway in a Nutshell tours.  Though I was initially fairly resistant to the tour, I eventually realized that it’s almost impossible to avoid utilizing it and that it’s less “tour” and more “ticket package”.  There are no guides or set time lines.  Rather, it gives you a ticket bundle and suggested route which unifies the mixture of trains, ferries and buses necessary to properly explore the region. While somewhat pricey, the ticket is truly worth it. For those of you traveling with a Eurail pass, keep in mind that the Flam Railway is a private rail line and thus not covered. Your pass does, however, provide a significant discount on your Norway in a Nutshell ticket – so make sure to use it!

Small Waterfall - Flam Railway, Norway

My introduction to the northern fjords began on a slightly intimidating note. The sky was overcast and threatened periodic mists and light rain showers.  I opened the door, looked out and shrugged. My window of opportunity was limited and cloudy weather in the morning is common place in coastal regions. There was nothing to be done about it.

Waterfall & Flam Valley - Flam Railway, Norway

The day before I’d befriended one of my hostel mates – Anna – a Russian-Israeli-American who was traveling along a similar route. We met up, looked over our maps of Bergen and then set off.  After a bit of playful teasing and a wrong turn or two we eventually found the central train station.  Before long we’d picked up our Nutshell tickets, a scone for the road, and boarded our train.  The directions informed us that we’d catch the train for some 2-2.5 hours to the rail transfer station at Myrdal. A tiny city which is more waystation than anything and summons visions of the Lord of the Rings.

Train Station - Flam Railway, Norway

From Myrdal we transferred to the Flåmsbana Railway. A privately owned railway which is world renowned for its scenery and steep incline.  Though relatively short at 20km the single track line took a long time to build. Started in 1923 it wasn’t opened until 1947.  The line has 11 stations and offers a series of incredible views.  One of the most significant stops is a 5 minute break at the Kjosfoss waterfall where ethereal music plays over the roar of the falls and a  lone dancer can be seen among the mists overlooking the falls.  The railway drops some 664 meters or 2,178 feet from the Myrdal transfer station down to the city of Flam.

View from the Ferry - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

The trip down to Flåm was gorgeous.  As we dodged in and out of small tunnels we were greeted with views of a variety of stunning waterfalls, amazing valleys, and picturesque rivers with crystal clear emerald green water winding through small hamlets and lush green fields.

A Classic Nordic Roof - Flam, Norway

The city of Flam is a small way-station, largely designed to service tourists and the support staff that live in the nearby valley.  Home to the rail/port station, a small market, several cafes, a traditional pub and mini-theater the 45 minutes we had was about perfect to explore, pick up a snack for the ferry, grab a coffee and hide out from the light rain.  As our 45 minutes in Flam came to an end, the weather decided to cooperate.  The rain stopped and the clouds began to break all the while letting a ray or two of brilliant sunlight illuminate the fjord’s brilliant green water.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

Surrounded by incredible mountains, each sporting a waterfall and with most vanishing up into the mists we shoved off and left Flam port in our wake.  Anna and I quickly found a fairly empty area of the ferry on the lower deck near the ship’s stern.  The ship sheltered us from the chill northern air while offering a picturesque view of the fjord and ship’s wake.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As you wind through the fjords you can’t help but feel small.  The scale and scope of them is incredible.  Massive, rugged and wild they seem to be locked in a perpetual war with the sky – a battle so fierce, so intense that it exists outside our plane of understanding. The only indicator: the heavy mists which serve as a purgatory caught between earth, water and air.  As the two battle in a churning, twisting, boiling mess one cannot help but feel like the waterfalls streaming down the cliffs are silver trails of blood seeping from wounded Titans locked in conflict.

Aurland - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As we wound through the fjord we paused briefly at a number of small villages. From what I could gather these mostly service local power stations and infrastructure, much of which utilizes hydro electric power.

View of the Fjord - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

The first half of our ferry ride wound through the massive Aurlandsfjorden which threats its way gradually towards the sea.  For an insight into the sheer size of the fjord, note the small cruise ship in the middle of the photo above.

Classic Tourist - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

Though Anna and I spent the majority of our time watching the awe inspiring natural scenery drift by, we also made sure to pause and enjoy some of the more entertaining moments occurring around us.   One thing I’ve learned over the years is that there are few groups as odd and peculiarly entertaining as tourists. A huge cultural mish-mash we’re always good for a quick laugh, funny photo, or interesting pose.

View of the Fjord and Undredal - Aurlandsfjorden, Norway

As the afternoon continued, the sun slowly began to break the cloud’s hold over us.  Before long a group of friendly seagulls set out from one of the local towns and decided to keep us company.  Their aerial acrobatics, set against the fjord, small village, and snow capped peaks was a delight to watch.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Despite the time of year – it was early July – many of the mountain peaks still had a thin layer of snow.   Though we were thousands of feet below, the crisp air served as a perpetual reminder that we were in a part of the world which almost never truly experiences summer.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we neared the 2/3rds mark, we split off from the main fjord and began to trace our way into the UNESCO World Heritage Nærøyfjord.  As the walls narrowed I could not help but notice how much more spectacular the fjord’s size, rich greens, and beautiful grays looked in closer quarters.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

I’ve always been a sucker for water.  Rivers, waterfalls, even the ocean.  They hold a special place in my heart.  I suppose it comes as no surprise then, that waterfalls captivate me.  It is also probably why I find myself drawn to places with majestic falls. Scotland with its highland falls forever sits as one of my favorite places on earth.  Similarly the falls of the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia stand out as one of my favorite places in Central Europe.  After winding my way through the fjords, I’m thrilled to add Norway to that list. I can only hope I have the opportunity in the near future to seek out new Norwegian fjords, valleys and canyons each home to their own plethora of falls – both mighty and miniature.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

The fjords offer an interesting contrast. On the one hand they look and feel wild and rugged. On the other it is obvious that centuries of human habitation have shaped them.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Small farms, fields and even churches can be found sandwiched between the water and the cliffs along small sloping deltas. Many of which look to have been carved out initially by waterfalls, and later silted in as the water transported newly harvested gravel down towards the water’s edge.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

In other places the falls seem to emerge from the cliffs, fall majestically for hundreds of feet, and then return once more into the cliffs only to re-emerge once again hundreds of feet below.

View of the Fjord - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Eventually we reached the harbor at the end of the Nærøyfjord. There we were greeted by a parking lot and lodge with food, restrooms and gifts.  As Anna and I checked our itinerary we were greeted by two options.  A nearly immediate bus, or an hour and a half gap until the next bus.  The decision was simple.

The Fjord, Waterfalls and a Thistle - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we pulled into the harbor, we’d spotted two small red dots (people) at the base of one of the nearby waterfalls.  Eager to get close to one of the falls, we opted for the later bus and set out back down the fjord.

Wild Strawberries - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Before long we’d identified a tiny path that looked largely abandoned.  As we strolled along it towards the falls, I spotted wild strawberries a little ways off the path.  Always one to try wild berries in foreign countries, we quickly paused, picked one and tried it.  They were absolutely delicious.  Hungry from our ferry ride, we relaxed for a few minutes and dined on wild strawberries, enjoying their crisp fresh flavor and relishing the sheer majesty of the setting.

A Waterfall Up Close - Nærøyfjord, Norway

With red stained palms we continued along our way and eventually reached the waterfall.  It was stunning.  The roar of the water rumbled below our feet, the humid scent of fresh water beat into a mist filled our nostrils and a gentle breeze blew down the fjord.

A Waterfall Up Close - Nærøyfjord, Norway

I’ve mentioned the size and scope of the fjords repeatedly. But note the image above. If you look closely, you’ll see me standing at the foot of the falls. The experience was humbling and made that much more powerful by the lack of any improvements. The falls were wild, natural and completely exposed.

The Waterfall - Nærøyfjord, Norway

As we sat enjoying the falls, the light broke through just long enough to catch the falling sheets of water. The dark color of the rocks, combined with the rich greens of the moss and fern covered cliff face only added to the beauty of the falls.

A Waterfall Through the Mists - Nærøyfjord, Norway

Eventually, the wind blew a light drizzle our way.  Heads ducked under our hoods we made our way back along the path towards the visitors center and our waiting bus.  I couldn’t let out a sigh, thinking the adventure was largely over. Little did I know, two more wonders still waited.

View Towards the Fjord - Stalheim, Norway

We boarded our bus, stripped off our drenched outer layers and settled in for the ride back to the train station. Only, to our surprise we passed the main tunnel (one of the longest in the world) and began to wind up the valley. The sound of the bus in low gear, groaning as it climbed and climbed piqued my interest as I lazily sat gazing out the bus window, enjoying being warm for the first time in hours. Then we turned a corner and I saw it. A spectacular view back down the valley from thousands of feet above the valley floor. It was mesmerizing.

Incredible Waterfall - Fjords, Norway

…and then after the briefest of pauses and a brief level stretch the front of the bus tipped forward. The bus jumped slightly as the driver changed gears, and then we began to wind downward. Only, it wasn’t a slow gradual descent. Instead it was one of the famous zig-zag switchbacks Norway is famous for. With an insanely steep grade, we wound down the switchbacks with baited breath.

Incredible Waterfall - Fjords, Norway

Barely more than two bus lengths a leg, the switchbacks left us all with an adrenaline rush. Some stood and looked out over the side, others made small whimpering noises and lowered their eyes in an effort to avoid the apparent insanity of it all. Then, in that heightened state we paused briefly in the middle of one of the middle switchbacks. There, to our left was one of the most spectacular waterfalls I’ve ever seen. It wasn’t the largest, or the most powerful – but framed as it was by lush green vegetation and viewed as it was from a bus window in the midst of one of the most harrowing switchbacks I’ve ever experienced, it was absolutely astounding.

It was with that final image in my mind that our trip through the fjords wound to a close. We made our way through one of the worlds longest tunnels, transferred back onto the train to Bergen, and eventually made it back to Bergen in time for a late dinner as the sun moved towards twilight.

If you ever have the opportunity to do it, the Norway in a Nutshell fjord tour is an absolute must. It truly is the experience of a lifetime.