As Seen in…
Places to visit in Scandinavia and on our Scandinavia tours
Why visit Scandinavia?
The very notion of Scandinavia stands on shifting sands and its borders, east and southwards have seen bloody conflict over lines drawn in the grasslands and mountains of northern Europe. Whilst Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Finland and even Greenland can claim common heritage, the notion of Nordic Scandinavia as Norway, Sweden and Denmark is the most common definition, drawing together the two converging peninsulas and the archipelago that lies between them at the mouth of the Baltic Sea that marks the Swedish eastern shores.
Encircled too by the North, Norwegian and Barents Seas, despite its high latitude and snow-clad mountainous spine, the influence of the Gulf Stream means that the western shores are relatively mild in climate, so that only the very tip of Scandinavia experiences true tundra climate. Yet the geography of the peninsula bears dramatic scars from the last ice age, leaving cataclysmic deep u-shaped valleys, carved by ice. Many of these are now flooded on the Norwegian coast to give the signature fjord-dominated sea-scape.
Of course with the proximity to the North Pole the imbalance of day and night is extreme in the northern regions, meaning that chasing the exquisite solar feature of the northern lights is virtually a 24 hour occupation throughout the winter months, whilst the summer days draw out to huge length. Mentioned as early as the 2nd and 1st century B.C. in Roman diaries where accounts of the savage military might of the Teuton tribe were described in appalled tones, there is however plenty of evidence of thriving post-glacial stone age and bronze age cultures with trade in evidence with nations as far afield as Phoenicia and Ancient Egypt.
The complex burial traditions that dominated Bronze Age and Iron Age northern Europe of grave goods and urn-filled barrow burials are much in evidence, whilst highly skilled metallurgy was practised across the various tribal divisions, thriving on hordes of pillaged Roman treasure as the great southern Empire foundered. Of course Scandinavia is synonymous with its nautical prowess, a trait made inevitable by the disproportionately dominant coastline, and the late Iron age archaeological finds suggest a great deal of oar-powered boat building was already undertaken, yet this had its flowering in the Viking period where Nordic kings and sailors dominated the second half of the first millennium A.D..
Initially raiding newly discovered shores in England, Scotland, France and Ireland, the navigation skills of the Danish, Norse and Swedish led to mass emigration and the establishment of new kingdoms based around such as the Irish and North Seas, as well as the subjugation of the English kingdom. Their ships ranged incredibly wide, as far as the Caspian Sea and even Newfoundland with scholars generally accepting their presence in the Americas as the first Europeans to reach those shores.
The legacy was tremendous with Norse language, culture and political structures leaving their lasting impression on much of northern Europe, and their descendants, the Normans, proving to be one of the dominant forces of the Middle Ages, even establishing empires as far afield as the Holy Land. Despite the potential religious unifying force of Christianity having entrenched itself here by the 11th century, wars between the rival nations was a key characteristic. However, a fragile union was achieved in the years 1397–1520 when the Kalmar Union achieved a single monarch over the three countries.
After it fractured and Lutheranism surged through Scandinavia in the 1530s, the kingdoms separated, came together in a variety of alliances and maintained tense relations with their neighbours. The fiercely held protestant views of the populace helped to cement their independence from outside influences during the 30 years war which, after its culmination in 1648, paved the way for a rising powerhouse in the Kingdom of Sweden.
Throughout the 17th century and until the war with Russia and the then united Denmark-Norway, Sweden dominated the region, especially under Charles IX’s rule, gaining land from countries to the south and even setting up a Swedish East India Company that out-imported Britain in terms of tea for a while. Colonialism was also a feature of the region as a whole, with historic annexation of the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland and smaller islands, even as far afield as the Caribbean. The Napoleonic Wars set each nation against one another in a series of treaties and alliances, culminating in the contested unification of Sweden and Norway in 1814, the former providing the monarchy, a state that staggered on for nearly a century.
In the meantime, industrialisation and the linking of the northern Kiruna mines by rail to the factories of the south added significant prosperity to the two peninsula countries. By World War I, the three nations were again independent and all remained neutral, but the Second World War saw the Germans invade Denmark with few casualties, whilst Norway’s resistance was huge and resulted in many deaths, but a successful smuggling of over 50% of the Jewish population to neutral Sweden.
Post war, the economies of all three nations stabilised and grew; whilst Denmark joined the EU early, Sweden remained outside until it could safely become a member without antagonising the former USSR. Norway remains outside and its neighbours are characterised by a degree of caution and some scepticism about levels of commitment to the EU project. In the background of all this convoluted political and military turbulence, little attention was paid to the indigenous northern Sami people: having existed as a culture in the remote stretches of Scandinavia and Russia for millennia, their way of life has survived the vicissitudes caused by expansion of southern Scandinavians, the arrival of plague, brief attempts to ‘civilise’ the ‘Lapp’ folk and HEP schemes that threaten their reindeer herding grounds.
Today, over 100,000 still inhabit the polar region and maintain a great deal of their ancient skillsets, traditions, language and cultural identity. Tourism to lowland Denmark and the southern regions of Sweden and Norway is high profile and well established, whilst the north remains a relatively untouched wilderness. Those who do head to the region do so in search of the raw natural beauty that is the home of the Sami people: impressive mountains, endless coniferous forests, rich wetlands and stunning tundra coasts.
The latter are sought after by ornithologists who delight in the seabird colonies and wintering ducks and geese that clothe the inshore waters, as well as the stunning great grey owl and capercaillie, two of Europe’s most threatened species who have their strongholds here. Recent moves to protect the threatened mammals of the region from hunting have seen steady recoveries from a rich array of some of the most beautiful animals, from the wolf to the lynx, from the arctic fox to the brown bear.
A controlled approach to hunting in areas such as Lapland have also allowed stable populations of moose, white elk and reindeer to remain and the notion of wildlife tours in the area is a burgeoning one in what remains Europe’s most northerly wilderness.