Scandinavia's Viking heritage, Norse mythology and dramatic landscape fascinate and inspire in equal measure.
In Norway, when the mists roll off the mountains, turning the land enchanted, this is called "trolsk" or trollish. Scandinavia is a place steeped in mystery – from the Vikings, their ships, Norse legends, runestones and burial mounds to the extreme cold, prolonged darkness and dramatic backdrops.
This combination of gorgeous, harsh landscape, myth and legend continues to inspire people. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, Norway (the way to the North) was Ultima Thule, a mythical world of barbarians and fantastical creatures, a place hard to find and fraught with danger.
Norse mythology has stirred centuries of writers, poets, composers and filmmakers – from Beowulf, to Tolkien, Edvard Grieg, Wagner and Neil Gaiman.
And nine centuries after they ceased to conquer the seas, the world still loves a Viking, me included, so my Scandinavian Tauck World Discovery tour will include connecting with my inner Norsewoman. (There is an inner Norsewoman actually – a Scottish ancestor).
It's mighty tricky doing this from the seat of a tour bus – if it's Tuesday, it must be the Rok Runestone – but I'm going to give it a go because no Scandinavian visit is complete without trying to appreciate how Viking heritage and Norse mythology is bound up with Scandinavian culture and landscape.
No-one is entirely sure why the Vikings became lords of the seas from 800 to 1050AD, setting out in their dragon boats to plunder and colonise vast areas from Greenland, Iceland, Ireland, England and much of Europe to the ends of the Byzantine Empire, before sailing into legend.
Maybe a warming climate led to increasing population and hostile terrain limited Scandinavian expansion. Maybe the Viking culture which sent young men off to seek their fortunes contributed. Maybe they were just bold adventurers. Stockholm is an excellent start for a Viking adventure.
Birka on the island of Bjorko in Stockholm's Lake Malaren is a world-heritage site which shows traces of its Viking inhabitants. The town was an important 8th-century Viking trading post and yields a wealth of ancient remains. It takes almost two hours one way by boat leaving from the dock at Stockholm's Stadhuset (city hall) to place your feet where Vikings once strode.
But if time is short, Stockholm's Swedish History Museum has the world's largest Viking exhibition with a brilliant interactive 1:30 scale model of Birka and more than 4000 original artefacts, not to mention precious loot from all corners of the globe. Vikings were remarkable craftspeople, working many different materials (including iron, reindeer antler, soapstone, silver, wood, whale-bone and bark) to create tools, furniture, clothing, ornaments and jewels.
Finds like these are critical because there are few written records from the Viking Age. Vikings were unfamiliar with the Roman alphabet until they adopted Christianity and used runes instead, carved not written and therefore more suited to short inscriptions.
Most of the world's runestones are in Scandinavia though there are some in places the Vikings visited - the Isle of Man, for example. Denmark has 250 runestones, Norway 50 while Sweden has up to 2500. It is to one of the most famous of these that we are headed, driving south from Stockholm into Ostergotland.
This is a landscape of rolling green meadows studded with ochre-timbered farmhouses and lakes. Back in time, Vikings ruled land and sea. These green southern pastures would once have been heavily forested with the trees that Vikings used to build their ships – conifers, oak, lime and elm – for timber and the sea were the cornerstones of Nordic civilisation. And there would have been clusters of farmhouses made of wood, stone and sod and enclosed by fences.
The Rok Runestone has the longest known runic inscription in stone and it marks the beginning of the history of Swedish literature.
This 9th-century, 2.5-metre high piece of Viking history, is covered with twig-like runes. The Norse god Odin was thought to have created these mysterious symbols and their association with magic and sorcery inspired awe and fear.
Local Viking chieftain Varinn erected the Rok stone in memory of his dead son. The runes' meaning possibly refers to a magic ritual. There is reference to Norse mythology - the Viking god, Thor and Gunr, possibly a Valkyrie – as well as a battlefield where 20 kings lie, thought to be the Battle of Bravellir which, in Norse mythology, took place near the Rok stone.
A wannabe Norsewoman's thoughts might turn to fierce warriors clad in wool, linen and animal-skin tunics, adorned with silver ornamentation, wielding mighty double-edged swords inlaid with twisted wire, silver, copper and bronze; on their heads the fearsome horn-sprouting helmets.
Steady on. No horns on helmets, our guide sternly interrupts my reverie. I invest anyway in a small horned Viking snowglobe.
Viking runestones dot the landscape as we travel through southern Sweden, out of the mythical land of the sjora (water spirit) and skogsra (forest spirit), across the Oresund Bridge into Copenhagen, whose origins also lie in Norse mythology.
Our guide explains that the beautiful Gefion fountain at Copenhagen's water's edge tells how the Danish island of Zealand was formed. According to a 9th-century Skaldic poem, the Swedish king promised the Norse goddess Gefion all the territory she could plough in a night. She transformed her sons into four oxen and carved out a large area - the main island on which Copenhagen lies. The king kept his promise.
Historians and archaeologists have learned much about Vikings from burial mounds. Like runestones, Viking-age burial mounds are strewn throughout Viking-occupied Scandinavia - southern Sweden, all of Denmark except the marshy zones and the Jutland peninsula and a large part of Norway except the high mountains. Wealthy Vikings were buried with all they needed for the next world - ships, tapestries, furniture, clothes, weapons, jewellery, horses, dogs, oxen, even thralls or slaves.
One of the most fascinating insights into Viking life comes with a visit to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, with its burial mound treasures. As we sail up the Oslo Fjord, Norway's capital looms "trolsk" from the mist, our introduction to the mountainous realms of Norse legend.
Anyone following a Viking trail will find little bits of the puzzle dotted around Norway. The Viking Ship Museum has three 9th-century Viking ships excavated from Norwegian burial mounds as well as other tomb finds. The blue clay soil has preserved them beautifully. The completely whole Oseberg burial ship, which contained two women is the most famous, made of oak in 820. Built for 30 oarsmen, it has lavish carvings, a twisting spiral snake's head bow, intricate woven tapestries, burial gifts, ornate sledges, wagon, carvings, 15 horses, six dogs, cows and personal items.
The Tune ship, the third-best preserved in the world, comes from Norway's largest burial mound. It was built in about 900 and contained an aristocratic Viking, his horses and weapons. The Gokstad ship was built at the height of the Viking period in 850 and is thought to have been an impressive raiding ship. It contained the remains of a warrior killed in battle, had the legendary red and white sail that filled villagers with terror, plus 32 yellow and black shields fixed to its sides.
A quick whizz around Oslo's Rathaus, whose walls are decorated with scenes from Norse mythology, and we're plunging into the Norwegian countryside of long-tailed huldres (witches) and trolls of Norse legend. It's misty again when we roll into Laerdal on the Sognefjord, north-west of Oslo. Glistening against a Tolkien-like backdrop is the gorgeous Borgund Stave Church, one of only 28 left in Norway.
These churches, believed to have been built on the sites of Norse temples, arrived with Christianity between 995 and 1030AD. They boast a mix of Christian and Viking symbols, as if their builders were having a bob each way. Borgund has runic inscriptions and interwoven dragon heads, combined with Christian motifs dedicated to the apostle Andrew. It's eerie inside, like looking into the bowels of a Viking longship and the roof and walls are sealed with pine tar as with Viking ships.
Last stop is Bergen, Norway's second-largest city, built at the base of seven mountains. One of them, Lyderhorn was, according to Norse legend, where witches gathered on three darks nights of the year. Bergen is also where its famous resident, composer Edvard Grieg, inspired by mist and legends, wrote his music from his home, Troldhaugen (Troll Hill).
Sadly, it's time to return to more prosaic world, where a troll is less something you find in the hall of the mountain king and more something you discover on social media.
The writer was a guest of Travel the World
Thai Airways flies daily via Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm (20 hours and 40 minutes), returning from Oslo. See thaiairways.com.au
Travel the World has a 14-day Tauck World Discovery Scandinavia journey by motorcoach and overnight ferry through Sweden, Denmark and Norway. Includes hotels, most meals, guides, admission fees, diverse excursions. The tour explores Viking mythology among other themes. From US$6190 a person. See Travel the World on 1300 857 437 or traveltheworld.com.au