Let’s make something clear: I’m not trying to put myself forward as some kind of expert on the lands of the North, or the culture therein. I am an enthusiastic consumer of the places I choose to describe as “Nordicaa”, but I have a lot still to consume. So far I have visited Iceland five times, Sweden three times, Denmark and Norway twice each, Finland and the Faroes once each. That to me is just not sufficient. In honour of that, I would like to offer a roll-call of future Nordic trips I would like to take.
It’s wrong to have favourites, but Iceland is just special like that. I first visited the country in 2007, just before the economic crash. It was a different place, and probably not in a better way. Iceland now is open, accessible and full of tourists. At least in the capital regions, which is where the bulk of my travels have been focussed. While our last visit took us further east, we have always wanted to head North, to Akureyri, but preferably around the famed Route 1. It is rare to be able to take a drive along one road around an entire country, but Iceland offers just that. Glacial lagoons, horizons of endless lava fields, mountains of unspeakable beauty: these are what I want to fill my eyes with.
The problem is that the Icelandic Ring Road is becoming a tourist attraction of itself; as the famed sights of Gullfoss, Geysir and Þinvellir fill with buses of tottering elderly folk, people begin to look for more and more obscure destinations. Sadly / thankfully that means Akureyri. Sign me up today.
Somewhere a lot of people I speak to have never heard of is Swedish Finland. Stick with me on this: Sweden is the former colonial ruler of Finland, and treated the Finns rather badly. Finnish language and culture was oppressed, being replaced wholesale with Swedish. It thankfully didn’t last, and now Finland is beautifully Finnish in character. For the most part. As with all colonial rulers there was a degree of settlement; as with all land disputes there was a degree of overlap. That gives us Åland.
Åland is a small group of islands conveniently close to Sweden, but under the flag of Finland. They are citizens of Finland, rather than Sweden, but speak Swedish as a first language. Along with the Faroe Islands and Greenland they are a semi-autonomous, self-governing community within the lands of the North. Åland can be accessed by boat from Stockholm, which sounds delightful to me.
Less delightful is the fate of the Greenlanders. They live in a state of perpetual generalisation, of severe misrepresentation and almost endemic condescension, especially coming from people who have never set foot on their vast, jaw-dropping land. In actual fact, the real difficulty of Greenland is getting there, with flights frequently involving several changes, either in Copenhagen, Iceland or the Faroe Islands. That’s the reason my family and I have never been able to arrange a holiday there.
The Greenlanders themselves are a hardy and resourceful bunch, with a proud history and a strong will for self-determination. While they have suffered at the hands of colonialism, being governed as part of the Kingdom of Denmark, they are achieving greater degrees of self-determination and devolved power. Far more than snow and whale meat, Greenland is an almost undiscovered jewel.
I want to take a trip around the Gulf of Bothnia. I really do. The look on your face indicates that you have never heard of the place. That’s not good. Imagine this: If Sweden and Norway are a bifurcated penis swallowing Denmark, and Finland is its scrotum, we’re looking at the space between the two.
That was hardly the most elegant way of describing a lush, verdant and downright spectacular tract of nature, but it’s the best I can do without trying to dig out a publicly available image of the place. I would choose to extend my journey back, past the mouth of the gulf, to the city of Stockholm: it is easy enough to get to and a good place for provisions. The route then is North, past Åland, through Gävle and up to Luleå and the Finnish border. Then it’s back south, via Oulu, Turku and in to Helsinki.
Wooded shores, ancient towns, and a change of light through 11° of arc. In effect the area is two waterways: the southern Bothnian Sea and the northern Bay of Bothnia. The land around the latter is still rising after the last glacier melted, and will become a lake within the next millennium or two.
Something I always despair about when it comes to my own travelling preferences is the way I cling to the major cities for dear life. My first four trips to Iceland barely got beyond Reykjavik’s city limits. The same applies to Denmark. The furthest out of Copenhagen I have been was the trip across the Øresund bridge and in to Malmö. That’s nothing like an exploration of the Danish countryside.
As such I have dreamt of exploring the non-Sjælland parts of Denmark: through the islands of the south, and up through the bulk of Jutland, from Esbjerg to Skagen. My mind conjures up images of peaceful countryside and huge defensive fortifications, much like my native Northumberland. I know not from where this imagery has arisen, but it is an enigmatic draw and a hope in equal measure.
If my journeys through Denmark have been limited, that is nothing compared to my lack of time with their Swedish neighbours. I may have visited Sweden on several occasions; two of them were day trips from Denmark. That gets on my nerves. I want to explore the centre of Sweden, from Göteborg on the west, through Jönköping, along the banks of Vättern and across to Linköping and Norrköping.
I don’t feel I can say I know a country unless I have peered in to its geographical heart and seen what it is made of. While many of the places I have named may be viewed by Swedes with a degree of derision, they are a series of dots to be connected. The Swedish countryside can only offer one face to the casual traveller: its cities are a necessary addition; without them there are only trees and soil.