Scandinavia - Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland - conjures up resonant images: wild, untamed lands, fjords, reindeer and the Midnight Sun; and wealthy, healthy, blue-eyed blondes enjoying life in a benevolent welfare state. The region holds some of Europe's most unspoilt terrain, and is certainly affluent by Western European standards, with a high quality of life and little poverty. But it's by no means paradise: there's a social conformity that can be stifling, and the problems of other industrialized countries - drug addiction, racism, street violence - are beginning to make themselves felt. Nonetheless, Scandinavia is an enthralling and rewarding region to explore. The larger part of the population clusters in the south, where there's all the culture, nightlife and action you'd expect, but with the exception of Denmark, these are large, often physically inhospitable countries. Rural traditions remain strong, not least in the great tracts of land above the Arctic Circle, where the Sámi peoples survive as they have done for thousands of years - by reindeer herding, hunting and fishing.
Historically, the Scandinavian countries have been closely entwined, though in spite of this they remain strikingly individual. Easy to reach and the best known of the Scandinavian countries, Denmark is the geographical and social bridge between Europe and Scandinavia. The Danes are much the most gregarious of the Nordic peoples, something manifest in the region's most relaxed and appealing capital, Copenhagen, and the decidedly more permissive attitude to alcohol.
With great mountains, a remote and bluff northern coast and the mighty western fjords, Norway's raw, often inaccessible landscapes can demand long, hard travel. Even by Scandinavian standards the country is sparsely populated, and people live in small communities along a coastline which stretches from the lower reaches of the North Sea right up to the Russian border.
The most "Scandinavian" country in the world's eyes, Sweden is affluent and boasts a social system and consensus politics that are considered an enlightened model - though confidence in the country's institutions was shaken in the late 1990s by a short-lived economic slowdown combined with the fragmentation of old alliances. Travelling is simple enough, although Sweden has Scandinavia's least varied landscape - away from the southern cities and coastal regions an almost unbroken swath of lakes, forests and hills, in which most Swedes have a second, peaceful, weekend home.
Perhaps the least known of the mainland Scandinavian countries, Finland was ruled for hundreds of years by the Swedes and then the Russians - the country became independent only at the beginning of the twentieth century and has grown into a vibrant, confident nation. Its vast coniferous forests and great lake systems have produced a strong empathy between the Finns and the natural environment which is hard to ignore. Also, though Finland is undeniably Scandinavian and looks to the West for its lifestyle, there are, historically and culturally, a number of similarities with Eastern Europe.
Travelling in Scandinavia is easy. Public transport is efficient and well coordinated, there is a minimum of border formalities between the countries and excellent connections between all the main towns and cities: indeed, it's perfectly feasible to visit several, if not all, of the mainland countries on one trip. From Western Europe it's simplest to enter Denmark, from where you can continue northwards into Norway (by boat) or Sweden (by boat or train), the two countries separated by a long north-south border. From Sweden's east coast there are ferries across to Finland, as well as a land border between the two in the far north.
As for costs, the Scandinavian countries are expensive by north European standards, but not excessively so. Their reputation for high prices is largely based on the cost of consumables - from books to meals and beer - rather than more substantial items, particularly accommodation, where first-rate budget opportunities are ubiquitous....Continua