Wednesday, 24 September 2014

10 green reasons to love Norway

I love Norway. One of the highlights of my three months in Europe recently was the month I spent travelling around this long, thin, fjord-riddled country: two weeks in a cabin (more on this later), friend-visiting in Voss and Oslo, a few days and nights on trains (who knew Norway was so big? It's about 2500km south to north) and almost a week in the lovely Lofoten islands, north of the Arctic Circle. 

The beautiful Lofotens
I almost started to feel Scandinavian, mainly because people would speak to me in Norwegian, I got used to thinking in kroner (instead of euros) and I learned a bit of train-Norwegian (I could tell you your next stop and which side the platform would be on. Handy, I know.)

Here's what I love about Norway:

1. It's beautiful. This goes without saying but Norway's scenery really is worth travelling to the other side of the world for. Glacier-carved fjords, rushing turquoise rivers, coastal villages that haven't changed in centuries, thundering waterfalls, wild forests, alpine meadows, the midnight sun, more than 50,000 islands... The show never stops.

Weathered cabins near Voss
2. Cabins. Norwegians virtually invented cabins (how can we ever thank them?) and these impossibly charming wooden cottages dot Norway like hundreds and thousands on fairy bread, ramping up the grandeur of its natural places by putting humankind in our rightful place. There are cabins on mountaintops, in forests, by fjords, on remote Arctic beaches (remember North of the Sun?), and almost every Norwegian has access to a cabin. I could live in one, and perhaps one day I will.

Tent with a (free) view, Lofotens
3. You can camp almost anywhere, for free. Norway's right-of-access law allows anyone to pitch a tent on any unfenced land, including national parks, as long as you're at least 150m from the nearest house or cabin. You're even allowed to pick berries, flowers and mushrooms while you're there. 

4. Electric cars. Despite being the largest producer of oil in Europe, Norway has more electric cars per capita than any other country (I saw Teslas and charging stations everywhere), thanks to government subsidies. Fifteen EU countries provide incentives to owner of electric cars, but in Norway, electric cars are exempt from sales tax, road tax and public parking fees, and can use bus lanes. The icing on the cake is that almost all Norway's electricity is renewable, from hydro (and the surplus exported to mainland Europe). 

Trees in the middle of Oslo
5. Trees! Fly over Norway (better still, travel around it by train) and you'll notice it's almost all green. More than a third of Norway is boreal forest (though Finland is the most forested country in Europe with a massive 74 per cent forest) and Scandinavia has been practising sustainably forestry for more than a century. 

6. No dangerous animals. Coming from Australia - which has more things that can bite, sting and kill you than possibly anywhere else on Earth - Norway is a benign natural paradise. There might be a few bears in the north, if you can find them, but there are no poisonous snakes or spiders or other nasties. I hardly even saw a mosquito this summer. The closest I came to non-bird wildlife encounter was hearing a moose in the forest.

Fjord-kayaking near Voss
7. Nature-loving people. Norway is like New Zealand, times a hundred. I saw people of all ages hiking, camping, trail-running, mountain biking, climbing, swimming pristine lakes. I even saw a dog wearing a backpack. And that was just in summer. In winter, I'm sure they're all outside, blizzard or shine, enjoying the great, white outdoors.

8. It's kind-hearted. Norway isn't just a wealthy country (with the fourth highest per capita income in the world, according to the World Bank), it shares the love, via the Nordic welfare model (like other Scandinavian countries) which aims for equal opportunity, universal health care and security for all. Then there's the Nobel Peace Prize; Alfred Nobel was a Swede but the prize is decided by a Norwegian committee and awarded in Oslo every year on December 10, the year of Nobel's death.

My hero (or one of them)
9. Thor Heyerdahl. If this legendary Norwegian explorer and anthropologist were alive today, he'd be turning 100 next week (his birthday was 6 Oct 1914). On his famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, he and five others crossed the Pacific on a 14m balsa-wood raft to prove that Polynesia might have been settled from South America - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Heyerdahl couldn't swim (!). You can see the raft and buy his book (which has been translated into more than 70 languages and sold 100 million copies) at the fascinating Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo; the 2012 Kon-Tiki movie is a great ride too. 

10. More Norwegian heroes. For a small country of only five million people, Norway has produced more than its fair share of outdoor legends. There's Nansen, who designed a polar-proof ship, the Fram (which you can see and go aboard in the Fram Museum in Oslo). Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole and find the Northwest Passage. Environmental philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term Deep Ecology. And, more recently, Aleksander Gamme, who walked alone and unsupported to the South Pole in 2012, beating Aussies Cas and Jonesy by a frozen whisker.

Big thanks to Rail Plus for the Eurail pass, to Etihad for getting me to Europe, and to my Norwegian friends Frank and Oddrun in Voss, and Ingrid and Chris in Oslo.  

Saturday, 6 September 2014

City of bikes (yes you, Copenhagen)

Earlier this northern summer I had an overnight stopover in Denmark’s capital, to break up the train journey from Switzerland to Norway, and was overwhelmed by its bike-friendliness. I mean, everyone knows this is THE bike city, but I hadn't realised just how bike-centric it is until I spent 24 hours there.

Bikes catch trains here
In Copenhagen, it’s easy to believe we became bipedal to, er, pedal, not walk upright. 

Everyone rides bikes in the Danish capital, which has a whopping 400km of bike lanes. I saw people of all ages on bicycles of all shapes and sizes (parents on "pram" bikes, removalists on "cargo" bikes), girls in skirts with their cardigan wings flapping, shirtless young men (long live summer), businessfolk in suits (more than half of all Copenhageners commute to work by bike). Princess Mary probably has a royal bike.

No boom gates, no tickets
at this (bike) parking station
It's hard to imagine why we ever drove cars, in such a bike utopia. 

There are bike-only bridges. Bike parking stations. Double-decker bike racks. Garbage bins angled towards cyclists so they can toss things in as they ride by (how cool is that?). Green LEDs on bike paths that light up when you ride at 20kph, fast enough to make all the green (bike) traffic lights. 

Electric share-bikes with GPS
units - only in Copenhagen
As in other European cities, there's a bike-share scheme, of course, but Copenhagen's (called Bycyklen) has 2000 (!) electric "smart bikes" with GPS units, built-in lights and puncture-free tyres (and the cost is a very tourist-friendly 25 kroner, of $4, an hour).

I also saw the newly opened (in June) Cykelslangen ("Cycle Snake"), a bright orange, 220-metre elevated bike path that allows cyclists to ride over a harbourside area where pedestrians like to saunter. (It's also becoming a popular spot for youths to dive off into the water, see below.)

This is one cool, two-wheeled city. Here's a neat video clip from about Copenhagen's bike-friendly present and future.

Five more delightful things about Copenhagen:

I can fly! The new elevated
1. You can swim in the harbour – I saw this in Oslo, too, people getting their annual dose of vitamin D right in the heart of the city, on open patches of grass, on jetties, and just diving into the harbour (or the free harbour pool) to cool off. I would have joined them if I hadn’t left my swimmers in my luggage in a locker at the station (epic fail), but I did swim in Oslo (twice!) and the water was surprisingly warm. 

2. It has Europe’s largest hostel, Copenhagen City Hostel, a 5-star, 14-storey design hostel in a harbourside building (the tallest in Denmark until 1958) on Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard (where else?). I slept in one of its 1020 beds, on the 11th floor and had a great view over the city for about $49 (265 kroner; Copenhagen may be bike-friendly but it ain't cheap). 

3. You can juice birch trees here – well, not personally, but in Copenhagen you can buy SealandBirk organic birch tree juice. Tastes sweet, and is full of antioxidants and vitamins, apparently.

Virtual tourism info
4. It has virtual tourist information booths. The tourism information centre was trialling these at Copenhagen’s central station when I was there in July. Needing a city map, I walked in, pressed the touchscreen and skyped with a friendly, real person in the tourist info centre a few blocks away.

Summer cycling: one of
Copenhagen's bike overpasses
5. Is it just me or do Danish people, on the whole, look incredibly healthy? Everyone I saw was rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed, shiny-haired. Maybe it's because they ride bikes everywhere.

Copenhagen has plans to become the "world's best bicycle city" by the end of 2015, but to my mind it's already there...