Archive for the ‘Sweden’ Category

Onward to the Conference

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2004

Early in the morning we hit the road, going to Stockholm Central to catch a train to Ronneby and the Telecities conference. The train was very relaxing, traveling through many forests and lakes. The intercity train from Stockholm was rather warm inside, but the local train to Ronneby turned out to be much more comfortable.

Arriving at the Ronneby station, we immediately saw a sign from the organizers of the Telecities conference pointing the way to the Ronneby Brunn Hotel. We’d planned to take a taxi, but as long as it was walkable, we might as well enjoy the splendid weather. As we followed the signs to the hotel, we realized we’d made a terrible mistake. We found ourselves walking a long canal, with several large warehouses to our left. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere, and the signs gave no sense whatsoever of how long this walk actually was. Both of us were lugging heavy backpacks, and I had my laptop case as well, so after 20 minutes without any sign of the hotel or a passing taxi, we started to get rather aggravated. But there wasn’t much we could do – heading back to the train station seemed crazy, so we did our best to press on.

We followed the signs into the Ronneby Park, a beautiful place that seemed to stretch for miles. It was hard to appreciate the tranquility of it, though, as we dragged our belongings further down the road, occasionally passing yet another conference sign pointing the way, almost tauntingly. Eventually, after nearly 30 minutes of walking we reached the hotel grounds. The signage pointing the way to the reception area was quite confusing; we soon joined a British couple going to the conference in the same predicament. Feeling better that we weren’t the only ones thoroughly lost, we joined them and eventually managed to get to the reception area.

Checking into our room, we dropped our belongings and felt an enormous weight lifted from our shoulders. We stopped briefly at the hotel bar to kick our feet up and have a soda; by then the conference registration and orientation was getting under way, so I ventured over for a while to get situated and learn more about who else would be attending the event.

Later that evening, Susanne and I decided to go for a walk before getting some dinner in town. Ronneby’s park has been attracting visitors for over 300 years, particularly for the local baths. While I didn’t think I’d have any time to take advantage of the spa, I did want to get a look around the grounds and utilize the extra hours of daylight, since the sun wouldn’t set until 10pm. The two of us followed a path into the park, passing by a small putt-putt golf course and several ornate Victorian villas. The park was extremely busy with children playing stick ball, teenagers having picnics and sunbathing, adults taking their toddlers for a stroll. It was a beautiful location, with a waterfall streaming down the side of a cliff into a duck pond.

Towards the center of the park, we reached a pavilion that appeared to have been built in the late 1800s, reminiscent of the architecture at the entrance to Disneyworld. There was an enormous crowd gathered here, perhaps somewhere around 1,000 people. Teenagers and parents with cameras seemed to be everywhere, but it was hard to tell what was going on. Susanne and I managed to pick the one Swede in the entire country who didn’t speak English when we wanted to find out what was going on, so we had to figure it out ourselves. As we worked our way through the crowd, we saw a procession of kids in their late teens; the boys were in tuxedos and the girls in ornate gowns. From what we could tell, they were heading off to their prom, apparently stopping for a formal photo somewhere in the garden, and their families had gathered to watch the procession. Further along, we could see some of them getting onto large buses, undoubtedly being taken to the location of their dance.

We returned to one of the garden paths and followed it in the general direction of town, soon reaching a quiet road along a canal. On the canal itself were small pleasure craft and private docks. To the left of the canal, quaint 19th century cottages lined the street, each with manicured gardens bursting with lilacs and tulips. Many of the houses had names on them, such as Annas Gaarden or Victoria Hus. Several of the houses had their front doors left wide open, with not a care in the world about strangers or ne’er-do-wells venturing in, save the neighborhood tuxedo cat playing in the garden.

At the end of the canal path we crossed a bridge leading to the center of town. Ronneby is a small community, and the entire old town stretched no more than six or seven blocks. The vast majority of businesses were already closed for the night, leaving us with a handful of kebab joints and cafes to consider for dinner. After making a loop around the area, we settled on a place called Valentino Pizza, which served kebabs as well as pizzas. The restaurant was run by a group of Middle Eastern men, most of whom didn’t speak much English, but we managed to place an order for a small cheese pizza for Susanne and a chicken pita for myself. The pita turned out to be one of the tastiest things I’d eaten on the entire trip, and four five or six bucks, its price couldn’t be beat in all of Scandinavia.

We sat at an outside table enjoying our dinner, watching the sun set over the edge of town. Next door to the restaurant was another eatery called the Garlic Café, which appeared to have a decent dessert menu. I wasn’t sure how hungry I was at this point, but I had a distinct kebab taste in my mouth, and there were no shops open where I could get a pack of gum or something, so dessert began to sound better and better.

I went back inside Valentino’s to pay the bill. One of the men behind the counter asked where I was from.

“The US,” I replied.

“Ah,” he said. “We are from Iraq; what do you think of that?”

For a moment I wasn’t sure what to say back to him. He had a smile on his face so I got the sense he was just messing with me to see how I’d react, so I decided to reply with a question of my own.

“Iraq, wow… Are you Arab or Kurdish?”

“We’re Kurds,” he replied, before pointing to one of the other guys behind the counter. “But he is an Arab bastard.” Both of them broke out laughing.

“Kurdish? I’ve been to the Kurdish parts of Turkey,” I replied. “One of our closest friends lives in Van, and we’ve visited him there, and he’s visited us in America.”

“Van?” he said back to me, surprised. “Very good. America is a good place… We love George Bush.”

“Great,” I replied politely.

By now it was approaching 10pm, and the setting sun was causing the temperature to drop rapidly. As it had been 70 degrees just a few hours earlier, I was wearing only a t-shirt and khakis, so I started to get a chill. We followed the canal path back to the hotel, thinking warm thoughts to tie us over until we could reach our room.

Vaxholm and the Archipelago

Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

Today was our last day in Stockholm before going to my conference in southern Sweden, so we decided to get a better feel for what the area was like from the water. Stockholm is the biggest city in an archipelago of more than 24,000 islands, many of which are sparsely populated, while others have villages and summer cottages. We had thought about taking one of the tourist boats that offers a guided tour from the water, but we wanted to have a particular destination we could visit as well. So after a late breakfast we walked to Stockholm’s Stromkajen ferry terminal and jumped on a ferry destined for Vaxholm.

The town of Vaxholm is one of the major gateways to the archipelago’s outer islands. About 45 kilometers from Stockholm, Vaxholm would give us a small taste of archipelago life, which comes alive particularly during the summer, to which the crowds on the ferry attested. Susanne and I found seats near the back of the ferry, in a large, air conditioned gallery. There was a small aft deck a few rows behind it, but it was already jammed with people, so we’d have to spend the trip inside. Susanne past the time by napping, while I watched the forested scenery through my window, glancing at my map trying to pinpoint where we were, give or take a few islands.

About 45 minutes in to the trip I assumed we’d soon reach Vaxholm, since our book said it was a 50-minute trip. But when we pulled into the dock on an island that appeared to be the half-way point of the journey, I realized my Lonely Planet guide was mistaken. I went to the ticket agent and asked what time we’d arrive in Vaxholm; he said the scheduled time was 11:15, but that we were running a little late. I’d have to factor in that extra travel time when we would head back to Stockholm, given the fact we were meeting friends of a colleague of mine for dinner at 6pm, in a western suburb of the capital.

The boat finally arrived in Vaxholm prior to 11:30, about 35 minutes later than I’d expected. The Vaxholm waterfront immediately gave away that it was a summer resort town: harborside cafes, charming hotels, ice cream stands, even a gas station on the harbor so day trippers could refuel their boats.

Disembarking the boat, we walked several blocks to the radhus (town hall), which also served as the tourist information center. The radhus was located on a small, leafy square, where several people sat on benches having an early lunch. Inside, we found two maps of Vaxholm and the surrounding section of the archipelago. While we didn’t plan to island-hop, we certainly needed to know our way around town.

The map showed that there was an old church several blocks down the street. We walked along the main street, passing its many boutique shops, until we reached kapellgatan (Chapel Street). The church itself was rather modest in style, but the adjacent farm house and cemetery were quite pretty, so we walked around to the far end of the cemetery and walked through it. Most of the gravestones were from the last 50 years, though some dated back to the mid-19th century.

Leaving the church, we backtracked and continued to the upper waterfront, an area known as Norrhamn (North Harbor). The harbor had been a primary port in the 1800s, but now the local fishermen houses have been converted into quaint summer cottages, each boasting their own garden of tulips and lilacs, both in full bloom. As we strolled down the country lanes towards the harbor, we spotted an old fisherman’s house that had apparently been converted into a harborside café called the Hembydsgard. A group of elderly women had just exited the café, plastic containers of salad in hand, and were heading to the dock for a picnic. A dozen or so tables were set out front of the café, while there appeared to be more seating around the back.

I walked around the far side of the café and was treated to a marvelous view of the archipelago, with several islands not far across the water. To the right, you could see the island that serves as home to Vaxholm’s 16th century fort, now a military museum. Continuing to the right was Norrhamn itself, with a variety of pleasure craft docked in front of quaint cottages, painted either red or an orange-yellow.

“We have to have lunch here,” I said to Susanne, turning in circles to appreciate the view.

There were plenty of tables available, so we didn’t have to worry about saving seats for ourselves. Susanne and I went into the café, which appeared to specialize in pastries, along with a modest selection of sandwiches and waffles. We both ordered a brie and chorizo sandwich, Susanne removing the chorizo so she could support her vegetarian aspirations. The sandwiches were somewhat stale but the view provided more than enough satisfaction to make up for it. We then returned inside to select some snacks from their large platter of pastries and tea cakes, each of us picking two to brink back to our waterfront table.

After lunch, we hiked around the perimeter of the harbor until we reached a small park just opposite the café. The park, on a hillside above the harbor, presented us with a broad vista of the local islands and sailboats. A family of Iraqi immigrants enjoyed a sumptuous picnic in the park, along with a pair of English friends; on the next hillside sat an American family, apparently visiting Swedish relatives.

We continued our hike clockwise around the harbor until we returned to the ferry dock, about an hour prior to our scheduled departure. As we talked about what we’d do in the meantime, a beautiful old steamship, the Storkska, pulled up to the dock. According to my ferry schedule, this was the boat that would take us back to Stockholm, but it was an hour early.

“Is this the ferry to Stockholm?” I asked the harbormaster.

“Yes, but it is going to make several stops around the archipelago before returning here in an hour,” he replied. “Then it will go to Stockholm.”

Susanne and I looked at each other and nodded our heads in agreement.

“Would it be alright if we boarded the ship now?” I asked.

“Hmm, I don’t know…”

“Would it cost extra?” I continued?

The harbormaster turned to one of the Storkska’s crew, who was getting ready to pull in the plank and depart, and said something in Swedish. The crewman turned to me and said in broken English, “How many are you?”

“Just two of us,” I replied.

The crewman nodded his head and waved us on board. We’d get to an enjoy a private cruise for an hour.

Susanne and I settled onto the forward deck just as the captain left off the ship’s steam horn. The Storkska, which has been in service on the archipelago since 1908, was one of the last remaining steamships, a floating time warp harkening back to a golden era of sea travel. The ship could seat at least 100 people, but there were only about 10 of us on board, not counting the captain and crew. The ship left the harbor and began making a loop past several local islands. Most of the people getting on and off appeared to be locals: kids who’d gone to Vaxholm to ride their bikes, adults returning from grocery shopping. With each stop, one of the crewman would lasso a mooring with a large rope, then fasten the other end of the rope to the boat. Sometimes during stops he and a fellow crewmate would throw logs off the side of the boat, each one attached to ropes, so the logs would serve as a buffer between the boat and the dock.

For the next hour, we steamed around the archipelago, stopped in six or eight different locations. I ventured inside the boat for awhile, exploring the ornate upstairs restaurant before heading below deck to the cafeteria to buy a bottle of beer. I then sat on the forward deck, bottle in hand, peacefully soaking up the sun rays as we hopped from island to island. We were also treated with front row seats for a tour of some of the finest summer cottages in Sweden. While some islands boasted smaller, middle class cottages, others were clearly reserved for wealthy Swedes: gorgeous multi-story houses with spectacular views of the archipelago.

“If these are their summer houses, I wonder what their homes for the rest of the year look like,” I said to Susanne.

Just before 2:15pm, the steamer returned to Vaxholm harbor, where we picked up several dozen passengers, a much smaller group than the one we’d joined on the boat from Stockholm. We managed to keep our seats on deck, though Susanne retreated indoors for a while in fear of getting a sunburn. Given the high latitude, though, I wasn’t terribly concerned; besides, I was having the time of my life sitting at the front of this antique steamer cruising along the Stockholm Archipelago. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have the chance to do this again, so I wanted to relish every moment of it.

The 75-minute ride back to Stockholm went by very quickly. The next thing I knew, I could see the old church steeple at Skansen on Djurgarden island, along with the much taller steepls in Gamla Stan not far behind it. The Storkska shut off its engines as we made the final approach into Stockholm’s harbor. The boat went quiet, and all we could here was water rushing by us and the rumble of the city before us. I stepped off the boat, at first a little unsure of myself on dry land for the first time in nearly three hours. We turned and looked one last time at the Storkska as it got ready for the return voyage to the archipelago.

Leaving the steamer behind us, we walked to Gamla Stan for one last coffee at a Stortoget café. This time we tried the Chokladkoppen, the café adjacent to the Koffikoppen. We soon regretted the decision: their café lattes were smaller, covered in chocolate and minus the cardamom we’d grown to love at the Koffikoppen. I was tempted to move next door but we were short on time; soon we’d have to return to the hotel to get ready for dinner in Bromma.

After buying some postcards and a bottle of wine to bring to dinner, we got to the Pensionat Oden. I then realized I needed to go to an ATM, just in case we needed to take a taxi rather than public transportation. Susanne went up to the hotel room while I hiked in a wide circle, going from block to block in search of a cash machine. Amazingly, despite the fact we were in the heart of Stockholm’s shopping district, I couldn’t find one. I remembered seeing an ATM with a long line several blocks south of the hotel, so I went there as a last resort. The machine was out of mine. Exasperated, I returned to the hotel and ended up exchanging $40 in cash at the front desk, receiving a much less favorable rate than I would have at the ATM.

It was now 5:05, and I had about 10 minutes to get ready for dinner. Tomas and Eva were expecting us at 6pm, and we weren’t sure how long public transportation would take to get there. Fortunately for us it was fairly straightforward: We walked four blocks to the local subway station, then traveled half a dozen stops north before transferring to what was locally called a “tram” but to us looked more like a light rail commuter train. Several stops later we arrived in Hoglandstorget, a square in suburban Bromma. From here, my directions said we were to cross the train tracks, go straight, “towards the sea,” until we found a street called Gronviksvagen. Susanne and I walked across the tracks and straight ahead, but couldn’t find a street by that name; there was also so much foliage that there was no sign of “the sea” in any direction. After a few minutes we asked a women walking to her car, and she pointed us down another street, in the same direction, that she said would eventually lead towards Gronviksvagen. We then walked downhill, switching streets several times in the hope of eventually finding the street in question. In a couple of minutes, Gronviksvagen magically appeared, and we soon arrived at Tomas and Eva’s house.

We spent the next several hours visiting with Tomas and Eva in their home, enjoying a delicious salmon dinner with a beautiful view of Malaren Lake. Tomas was a pioneer in electronic privacy in Sweden, and was now working on e-democracy projects, while his wife was an official in the Swedish equivalent of the National Science Foundation.

After dinner, Eva drove us back to the closest subway station so we wouldn’t have to transfer by way of the tram. It saved us about 20 minutes of the trip back to the hotel, and we arrived back at our room just after 10:30pm, full of good food and wine, ready to for a good night’s sleep.

Viking Ship

Tuesday, June 1st, 2004

A latter-day Viking ship is docked along the Gamla Stan waterfront, Stockholm.

Viking Ship

posted from Andy’s mobile phone

Farmhouses, Flagships and a Night at the Opera

Monday, May 31st, 2004

Susanne and I had a very busy day ahead of us; we hoped to have a full day of intensive Stockholm sightseeing. Breakfast at the Pensionat Oden consisted of muesli, fruit yogurts, coffee, juices and packaged sandwiches – none of which were labeled in English, so I was lucky when I managed to open a cheese sandwich rather than a herring one.

Just after 9am, we started to walk south along Vasagatan in the direction of Gamla Stan. We’d decided to leave our jackets and umbrella behind today, and it seemed to be a wise decision; it was sunny and already in the low 60s, truly a recipe for a gorgeous day. Crossing the bridge leading to parliament, we walked under the arches, constructed out of rusty stone blocks that were left unpolished, almost jagged. It gave the arches and passageway a naturalistic feeling, as if the corridor had been carved out of a canyon.

Exiting the island, we crossed another bridge reaching Gamla Stan, hiking through Mynttorget (Treasury Square) and up towards the outer courtyard of the royal palace, Kungliga Slottet. The palace wouldn’t open for another 30 or 40 minutes, so we first paid a visit to city cathedral, Storkyrkan. Because it was a holiday weekend, the cathedral was open for free; otherwise we would have had to pay a SEK 20 entrance fee.

Inside, the cathedral was already teaming with tour groups, two of them being guided by English-speaking docents. One of the groups was crowded around Berndt Notke’s 15th century statue of St. George slaying the dragon, while the other stood in front of the royal pews, identified by the Tre Kronor (three crowns), the symbol of Swedish royalty, suspended above the seats. The cathedral, which was consecrated in the early 14th century, is the oldest building in Stockholm. While the exterior was later decorated in the baroque style, the interior felt almost Byzantine: mosaics and frescoes of saints soared across the ceiling, while wood-colored seams along the vaults created an illusion that the entire structure was laced together by coarsely-twined ropes. Along the main corridor, thin red-brick columns rose up to the vaults, while the altar was decorated with a seven-branch candelabra, placed below a stained glass window of Jesus encircled by his 12 disciples.

We wandered the cathedral quietly, occasionally catching a word or two from the two English-speaking docents. One of the tour groups, apparently American, murmured during the presentation, while the second group, made of Koreans, chatted at cocktail-party volume.

As the clock neared 10am, we left the cathedral and backtracked several blocks to the entrance of the royal palace. The ticket office hadn’t opened yet, so this gave us the opportunity to catch the 10 o’clock changing of the guard. I’d been under the impression that the ceremony was only in the afternoon, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it take place. Meanwhile, the large group of Koreans we’d encountered in the cathedral had assembled in the plaza, and I overheard their tour guide say that they’d all have to buy tickets after the changing of the guard. Knowing that it would take them a long time for all of them to buy their tickets, I left the ceremony a couple minutes early so I could get in line and avoid the rush.

With our tickets in hand, Susanne and I entered the palace and explored the first exhibit, a collection of coronation robes and medals awarded to the kings over the centuries. Several rooms down we then found the royal audience hall, a giant, grandiose room still used to open parliament each year. Because the palace is shaped like a horseshoe, we were now at a dead end, so we needed to backtrack to the entrance hall in order to explore the left side of the palace, home to the royal apartments. The apartments were decorated with red furniture, beautiful inlaid wood, paintings by Northern European masters, even furniture crafted by several kings who were quite talented cabinetmakers. What was particularly interesting was that the palace was still in use; rather than being an enormous museum, various parlors were still used by the king for official functions such as the greeting of new foreign ambassadors or periodic cabinet meetings.

On the upper floor of the palace we discovered the grand dining hall, which seats 150 guests on a long table during state dinners, decorated in a fashion quite similar to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Meanwhile, at the other end of the palace, we saw two beautiful bedrooms that were reserved for foreign heads of state. The main bedroom was quite ornate, with a double bed set to the back of the room. The second room was much more subdued, with a single bed and small office, made available to world leaders who felt more comfortable spending the night in this more intimate setting.

Exiting the palace, we walked left and around the corner to the entrance of the Royal Treasury. Located in a basement in the side of the palace, it reminded me of the entrance to the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World – a winding, grotto like passageway with stone walls and rope lines set up in case of long tourist queues. “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me,” I sang quietly as we made our way to the lower levels of the basement.

The treasury itself was quite small, only three rooms with a couple dozen display cases. But the cases were filled with Sweden’s most important royal possessions: coronation crowns that have been used since the founding of the Bernadotte dynasty; the sword of Gustav Vasa; orbs, scepters and royal keys. Despite the imposing rope lines outside, which would suggest that there are times during which the treasury is quite crowded, we were able to explore the collection largely to ourselves, with only three or four other visitors inside at any given time.

By now it was late morning, and our plan was to spend the rest of the day exploring the royal island park of Djurgarden. We’d visited the island briefly yesterday, but since it was late in the afternoon, most of the museums were closing or closed. Today, we’d have the entire afternoon dedicated to exploring the island, a combination of Central Park and the Smithsonian Museums, surrounded by shimmering water and incredible views of the rest of Stockholm.

After taking the ferry to the island, we hiked past the entrance to Grona Lund Tivoli and arrived at the southern entrance to Skansen. The world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen opened its doors to the world in the late 1800s, well before similar parks like Colonial Williamsburg had been conceived. With over 150 historic buildings imported from all over Sweden, including dozens from rural farms, Skansen was an idyllic time capsule for tourists, giving visitors the chance to see what life was like in Sweden’s past.

We paid the entrance fee and took a long escalator to the top of the hill, where most of the complex is located. To our left we entered Skansen’s “Old Town,” a reconstructed village with cobblestone streets leading to numerous craft shops and houses. The craft shops were all active workshops, with master craftsmen and women plying their trade. In one building, two glassblowers mesmerized a small crowd as the turned plasma-like blobs into a delicate vase. Across the street, a man and a woman sat at potter’s wheels, spinning the wheels with foot pedals as they pressed their wet hands into blocks of clay, out of which soup bowls and coffee mugs soon emerged. Perhaps the busiest shop was the bakery, its small room packed with tourists eager to get their hands on fresh pastries smelling of cinnamon and coriander.

At the far end of the village, Susanne and I found the Skansen Rose Garden, though this time of year the garden was teeming with tulips – more than a dozen varieties in all. The perimeter of the garden was lined with lilacs, their blooms reaching their peak. Lilacs, in fact, were blooming everywhere in Stockholm – it was quite extraordinary how every street, every park seemed to have purple clouds of lilacs on display.

Susanne and I then began to walk uphill towards the “town center” – a section of Skansen dedicated to small shops and cafes, with a generous plot of grassland for picnicking. Past the picnic area we could hear what sounded like Gaelic music; we walked over and found a group of young girls in traditional costumes dancing on a stage, backed by a group of fiddlers, fifers and other musicians. I had no idea that traditional Swedish music was so similar to Irish music, I thought to myself as I took some pictures of the dancers. A moment or two later, as the dance ended, an emcee picked up the microphone and began to talk. Her accent was English, from Manchester.

“The next song comes from across the Channel, from Brittany, where we have had the opportunity to perform on occasion,” she said. “I hope the girls will have the chance to learn some Swedish dances during our visit here as well…” So much for traditional Swedish music.

We watched the girls dance for a few more minutes before going to the café area, where we bought a couple of pastries and drinks and sat on benches while a group of aggressive seagulls battled each other for a morsel of bread that someone had unwisely dropped behind another table. After our snack, we continued walking east, in a part of the park dedicated to rural Sweden. We arrived at a beautiful old church, several centuries old, set back on the side of a hill. The exterior of the church was made of dark red wood planks, while the interior had exquisite, fading paintings on the ceiling. A docent in traditional Swedish costume greeted us and offered to answer any questions if we had any.

Down on the other side of the hill we reached the Oktorp Farmstead, a 19th-century farm from southern Sweden. The entire farm had been reconstructed at the site: living quarters, granary, courtyards, stables. Inside the living quarters, a docent was sitting by a fireplace, knitting a pair of socks. She explained the history of the farm, and how it had been moved to Skansen at the turn of the last century. Next to the fireplace, two beds were built into coves along the wall, while the children’s quarters were located in an adjacent room. A third room housed a large spinning wheel, household tools and a work table.

“I wonder if she’s a volunteer, or if she gets paid to sit by a fireplace and knit,” I said to Susanne. “Seems like a relaxing way to spend the day.”

We spent a while exploring a variety of rural houses and farms on the eastern side of the park, including several with sod grass roofs. Two black and white geese stood guard over one farmhouse, while their furry little gosling trailed behind them. Several families picnicked by a pond, where more geese lounged in the warm sun. Further along, a stable featured a pair of horses with two young colts, both fast asleep on the ground, while several large cows stood just beyond the far side of the stable.

Passing an enormous red steeple and several windmills, we reached the southern edge of the park, home to a sit—down restaurant and an outdoor music pavilion. Two choruses, one young students and the other adults, rehearsed in the pavilion, apparently for a concert later that afternoon. The group performed several songs again and again, reaching a crescendo just before the conductor would jump in, saying “Nei, nei, nei,” and explaining what they were doing wrong.

By now it was just after 3pm, and we still wanted to visit one other museum today, the Vasa Museum. We exited Skansen from the northwest gate, just beyond the Nordic Museum. From there we walked clockwise around Djurgarden’s harbor, stopping briefly at a an outdoor café to get some ice cream and coffee before continuing to the Vasa.

Located along the western edge of Djurgarden, the Vasa Museum was built around a single exhibit: the Vasa, the 17th century flagship of the royal Swedish navy. One of the most technologically advanced navy vessels of the early 1600s, the Vasa was one of several ships built for Sweden’s ongoing war against Poland. But on its maiden voyage, the Vasa sunk in Stockholm’s harbor, blown over by a wind gust due to insufficient ballast below deck.

For nearly 350 years, the Vasa sat in the depths of the harbor, until a team of industrious scientists and navy divers came up with an ingenious plan to raise the ship. Work began in the late 1950s, dredging tunnels below the ship and remove silt from inside it. Eventually, they were able to plug its holes, pump out the water, and slowly raise it to the surface; the Vasa was so intact, it actually managed to float into dry dock on its own accord. The next decade was spent collecting artifacts from the silt and preserving the ship, drenching it in a shower of polyethelene glycol to fill the porous wood in place of the seawater that it had absorbed like a sponge over the centuries. Finally, by the early 1990s, the Vasa was preserved to the point that it could be placed on display for the public, installed in a museum shaped like a giant galleon, masts and all.

I had been told by several people that the Vasa Museum was one of the highlights of Stockholm, but I wasn’t prepared by how astounding the sight of the flagship would be. Entering the museum, you go into an enormous room, like an airplane hanger but hundreds of feet tall, and in the dim light are greeted by the most spectacular vessel you’ve ever seen. The Vasa is indescribably large, almost the size of a modern warship. Its most incredible feature is its height – the deck rises at least six stories above the water line, with its tall masts soaring much higher.

The museum is set up so you can access the Vasa from many different viewpoints. While you can’t go onto the ship, you can get very close, from the keel below all the way up to perches above the deck. Exhibits fill the extra space on each floor, describing the politics and culture of the era, the sinking itself, the investigation that followed, the raising of the ship and its meticulous restoration. Much of the exhibit was hands on; you could climb into a 17th-century diving bell to see how claustophobic it was to go on salvage dives, for example.

One of the biggest surprises was the amount of decorations on the ship. The entire façade above the waterline was covered in statues and bas reliefs. Near the front of the ship stood effigies of the Roman emperors; all but the statue of Nero were salvaged and reconstructed. Nearby was a bas relief of a Roman soldier in full military regalia. And amongst all this martial grandeur, you could just make out a carving of a Polish soldier, crouching in fear below a wooden beam. Propaganda is truly timeless.

Meanwhile, the aft of the ship was decorated with a marvelous bas relief, several stories high. Among the images in the scene was the crowning of the Swedish king. Even the king was much older at the time of the Vasa’s construction, he chose to depict himself as a 10-year-old boy, receiving the crown for the first time. This was a not-so-subtle jab at the Polish king, who was trying to lay claim to the Swedish crown, that the Swedish king had ruled since before his rival was even born. Adjacent to the aft of the ship was a display case with replicas of some of the carvings, painted in fantastic colors. Apparently all of the carvings and sculpture on the ship were once painted brightly and layered with gold leaf. Researchers have been able to find trace samples of paint on many carvings, so they’re in the process of piecing together the range of color schemes that once decorated the ship. Far from the uniformly dark wood we see in today’s ship, the original Vasa was an explosion of color.

We spent an hour or so at the museum, marveling at the ship and exploring the exhibits. You could easily spend an entire day here, particularly with so many exhibits hidden around each corner, but it was getting late in the afternoon and we’d soon have to return to the hotel to get ready for dinner and the opera. We walked south along the Djurgarden waterfront, as families docked their boats after an afternoon of sailing. Back at the ferry terminal, we returned to the southeast corner of Gamla Stan and walked through the medieval streets until reaching Stortorget, the main square.

We returned to the Kaffi Kuppen for a couple of large bowls of café lattes, sitting outside with a view of the Nobel Museum. The square was so charming I’d almost forgotten this was the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath. In 1520, after years of warfare with the Danish king, the noblemen of Stockholm agreed to meet with the king for a banquet, during which they would try to settle their differences. But the banquet was an ambush: the Swedes were arrested, put on trial and executed. Over 80 of them were beheaded on one day in this very square. It’s hard to believe such a ghastly act could take place here.

After coffee, we had just enough time to return to the hotel and get dressed for a night at the opera. Susanne and I stopped at a local Thai restaurant, Sabai Sabai, for a quick dinner of pad thai and gai kha prao. The pad thai was okay, but not great, while the chicken and basil had an extraordinary amount of chilis in it, creating a small fire in our mouths with each bite.

Susanne and I walked down the main shopping Street, Drottninggatan, where thousands of Stockholmers were out and about visiting department stores, boutique shops and cafes. Turning east just before reaching the water, we crossed Gustav Adolf Square and arrived at the opera house, where we picked out our tickets at will-call before going inside. We had some free time before the performance started, so we explored the second balcony, marveling at the ornate decorations and art nouveau ceiling. Most people entered the opera house just prior to the performance. We were in the second row of the second balcony, and the two women sitting in front of us were leaning forward over the balcony’s edge, making it difficult for us to see the stage. I wanted to tap them on their shoulders but Susanne discouraged me; a couple minutes later, though, the women sitting to their right tapped them and complained anyway, so she took care of the situation for us.

We spent the rest of the evening enjoying La Boheme. It’s one of Susanne’s favorite operas, though neither of us had seen it in person. I’d heard some of it before, but knew little about the plot except that it had to do with bohemian roommates in Paris, a café and star-crossed love. Much of the story seemed to be inspiration to the TV show Friends, though in this story Rachel dies of consumption rather than getting back together with Ross. The singers were very good, particularly the woman performing as Musette, who stole the show. The set design was modern, with hints of 1940s architecture; all the characters wore modern clothes as well. This only added to the parallels with Friends, which I tried not to dwell on too much. The second act, which takes place at a busy café during the height of the Christmas season, was quite well done, with a cast of 40 or 50 extras creating a realistic backdrop of big city holiday shopping.

The playbill for the performance had a brief English synopsis of the story, which was helpful since the lyrics were sung in Italian and the supertitles displayed above the stage were written in Swedish. Surprisingly, between the two languages, neither of which I speak, I was able to pick out just enough recognizable phrases to keep track of what was generally going on. Since Swedish and English both have Germanic roots, every now and then some of the words seemed to make sense, and when I’d refer back to the playbill it usually confirmed my suspicions.

The performance ended just before 10pm. It was just prior to sunset, with the sun hidden behind a bank of clouds low on the horizon. For a moment I thought we’d just finished seeing a matinee performance until I saw the time on a clock tower somewhere in the distance.

As we walked back towards the hotel, we contemplated getting a drink before calling it a night. Surprisingly, almost every bar was already closed, probably because Swedish law requires bars to be connected with restaurants, and the restaurants had already shut their doors for the evening. A few places were still open, but they all seemed to be either casinos or nightclubs, neither of which seemed to fit the mood. So we strolled back to the hotel, taking about the opera, and eventually went to bed, in need of a long rest after such a busy day.

Stockholm Surprise

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

As planned, Susanne and I got up at 4:30am to walk across the road and catch the 5am bus to the airport. To neither one of our surprise, it was bright and sunny outside, like 10am in Boston. Amazing.

We soon got on the bus and made the 45-minute drive west to Keflavik airport. Check-in took around 20 minutes, as all the computers were down. This meant our boarding pass was hand-written, without seating assignments. We could only guess what chaos would ensue when passengers who previously got their boarding passes with seating assignments printed on them would demand one seat or another.

After a quick bite to eat at the airport cafeteria and a walk through duty free, we went to the boarding gate, a long hallway with about 20 seats for 150 passengers. Within a few minutes some guy decided to stand by the gate entrance, and someone else got behind him. There was a mad, irrational rush to get in line, mostly by a group of elderly Americans traveling in a package tour. This meant we had to give up the seats we’d just claimed and wait in line for about 45 minutes for no good reason. Meanwhile, the Americans were all chatting about which seat they were in – great, there actually would be a fight over seats. I asked a flight attendant who was waiting outside with us; she said it would be open seating, but no one bothered to make the announcement.

When we got on board, it took 45 minutes to get settled as some passengers like us took open seating, while the others insisted they get the seats assigned to them. The most belligerent ones had asked for exit row seats, which they now lost. Chaos, sheer chaos. It reallywas amazing; these hardy Germanic people seem to have the organizational acumen of a group of night-shift attendants at an Indian bus station. No one had authority to make an executive decision – or at least no one bothered to wield it.

We finally took off about 50 minutes late. Susanne fell asleep immediately, while I chatted with a Swedish woman who was returning home from a vacation to Orlando. She gave me some suggestions of places to visit while in Stockholm – favorite islands, favorite excursions. Since it was a 150-minute flight, I had plenty of time to re-read the Stockholm sections of my Sweden travel guide, memorizing maps, timetables, restaurants.

The plane landed at Arlanda Airport, about 45 kilometers north of Stockholm. To our surprise there was no immigration procedure; we simply walked through customs with nothing to declare, nothing said to us. Was Iceland in the EU or not? That would explain the situation, but neither of us were sure; our tour book seemed to suggest no.

We walked to the arrivals lounge and went down to the Arlanda Express train station. It was totally deserted, rather surreal. Soon the train arrived and we boarded the car, still the only passengers. The train took only 20 minutes to bring us to Stockholm Central Station. Using a back exit, we managed to cut several blocks out of our walk to our hotel, the Pensionat Oden. We walked uphill along Vasagatan, a grand 19th century avenue, lined with colorful buildings, some turreted in ways reminiscent of Russia. It was much warmer outside than in Reykjavik, though still jacket weather; the sun competed with several large rain clouds coming in from the south.

Turning left at a lovely Germanic church, we found the hotel, climbing up the winding staircase to the second floor (third floor for us Americans). Inside, we found a friendly manager and his sleepy flat-coated retriever, Jimmy. We talked more about Jimmy than the hotel or Stockholm – he was a nine-year-old retiree from the Swedish military, and the only reason he was so tired was that he’d just spent the last two hours swimming. The manager brought us to our room, which was exponentially more comfortable and inviting than the Travel Inn in Reykjavik. I was tempted to take a shower since I’d neglected to have one that morning, but the window suggested it was getting sunnier outside, even though that rain cloud seemed to hover not too far away.

Grabbing my umbrella for good luck, I went downstairs with Susanne and started walking south to Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town. After three or four blocks I began to question my decision to bring my jacket; by the time we got to the train station it was tied around my waste, my sleeves rolled up past my elbows. It was going to be a gorgeous afternoon in Stockholm.

Reaching the Norrstrom Bridge, we started to cross over to the small island that makes up the Gamla Stan. Ahead of us a beautiful metal spire soared above the Riddarholmskyrkan, the church that’s the burying place of Sweden’s monarchs. To the right, still on our side of the bridge, stood Stockholm’s church-like city hall, which looked like it would have been quite at home inside the Kremlin or in St. Petersburg. To our left was the Helgeandsholmen (The Island of the Holy Spirit), a small islet in the middle of the Norrstrom, home to Sweden’s parliament.

As we reached Gamla Stan, the streets seemed to constrict – no longer the grand avenues of our former neighborhood, the Gamla Stan was a classic medieval old town, its tight streets winding organically, paying no mind to the philosophy of grids. Ahead to our left, a street led to Storkyrkan, Stockholm’s 13th-century cathedral. Its lovely clocktower began to chime as we walked near it; inside, a pipe organ player practiced a baroque tune. Another block down the street, we reached Stortorget Square, one of the most charming squares I’ve ever visited. Reminiscent to the small squares of Bruges and Barcelona, Stortoget was gloriously claustrophobic, packed with visitors sunning themselves on benches and crowding the local cafes. On the northern side of the square, tourists visited the Nobel Museum; once the home to Sweden’s stock exchange, the museum is now dedicated to the history of the Nobel Prize.

Susanne and I hovered for a while near a series of cafes, each packed with people taking advantage of the outdoor seating. As luck would have it, a table opened up at Kaffikuppen, so I grabbed a seat and ordered a cappuccino and latte for us. Susanne’s latte arrived inside a giant earthenware bowl; the frothy milk was bathed in the alluring aroma of cinnamon and cardamom.

We spent about 45 minutes sipping our drinks, the sun warming the back of my neck. From there we decided to return north to visit the opera house to see if tickets were still available for tomorrow’s performance of La Boheme, Susanne’s favorite opera. Rather than taking the exact route across the same bridge, we veered right after the cathedral and found ourselves at the entrance to Kungliga Slottet, the royal palace. An immense stone courtyard with two symmentrical buildings arcing in semicircles, the palace entrance was grand, imposing, intimidatingly beautiful. We watched a royal guard pace back and forth across his station, while a pair of errant tourists wandered into a restricted area before getting yanked by another guard. The palace was about to close to visitors; besides, we had a mission to accomplish. So we walked another block north and crossed the bridge leading to Helgeandsholmen and the parliament.

The walk to parliament is breathtaking. Climbing down steep steps from the palace, we crossed another courtyard and entered an immense, red stone gate, leading to yet another courtyard that cut through the heart of the parliament complex. On the other side of the island, we passed another gate and reached a bridge with breathtaking views of Norrstrom, along with the surrounding churches and buildings. I paused to take a 360-degree panorama photo from along the bridge.

“Every direction, it’s just amazing,” I said to Susanne. “I had no idea that this city would be so grand.”

“It’s like Prague but even better,” Susanne replied. “Why on earth don’t we hear about more people visiting it?”

Crossing back into Norrmalm, we veered right along a waterside avenue until we reached the magnificent opera house. To our dismay, but not to our surprise, the ticket office was closed. We’d have to buy our tickets online. At least the walk had put us in another neighborhood. And as luck would have it, there was some kind of street festival going on a few blocks east in King Charles XII Square. A block party had taken over the square, bivouacking around the warrior king’s statue with tents now used for wine tasting and pastry sales. A crowd formed along a stage where a pair of Iraqi woman danced – Stockholm has a significant Iraqi expat community.

We wandered the festival for a while before setting our sights south towards Gamla Stan. Taking the Strombron bridge, we followed the island’s western shore, along which a series of large boats had moored. One of the first boats we passed was actually a full-size model of a Viking vessel, standing in contrast with medium-sized cruise ships that had recently docked. Meanwhile, A ferry arrived as we walked further south; the passengers clapped and cheered as a shoreman ran like hell to catch the mooring ropes and fasten the boat to the dock.

“I can’t believe only one guy is needed to do that job,” Susanne remarked.

A few minutes later we arrived at the jetty for ferries to Djurgarden, a neighboring royal island famous for its parks and museums. It was only 4:30pm, and several of Djurgarden’s museums remained open until 8 o’clock, so we hopped on the ferry just before it was about to embark. Standing at the front of the ferry, we watched the waves kick up as we crossed the channel for the 10-minute ride. To the right we could see the dramatic cliff-top churches and palaces of Sodermalm Island. Everywhere you looked was beauty, grandeur; this truly was an amazing city, so much more than I expected.

The ferry pulled in to Djurgarden’s southwest terminal, adjacent to Stockholm’s own Tivoli amusement parks. Visitors could be heard screaming their way down the giant 80-meter plunge machine, while others felt some serious g-forces on the giant tilt-a-whirl. Since Susanne and I would get to visit Copenhagen’s Tivoli next weekend, we decided to skip this one and explore the island.

We hiked several blocks east, past amusement arcades and Victorian-era cafes, until we reached Skansen, the oldest open-air museum in the world. I was eager to explore Skansen’s many exhibits, particular the antique houses from all over Sweden, but we soon discovered that only the zoo was open until 8pm; pretty much everything else would shut down at 5 o’clock. Rather than have a semi-Skansen experience, we decided to come back another day, and would walk along the waterfront instead.

Heading north along the shore, we weaved slowly through crowds as they visited what was left of a crafts fair. Several vendors sold jewelry and clothing under large tents, but most of them were packing up for the afternoon. A young woman was taking her cat out for a walk on a leash. The cat was fully engaged staring at a small dog about 30 feet down the harbor boardwalk.

The strong smell of fresh waffles filled the air as we reached the Vasa Museum, Sweden’s famous exhibit for the 16th century royal flagship, the Vasa, which was successfully raised and put back together like a maritime jigsaw puzzle. The museum had also closed for the evening, but it gave us a chance to get our bearings for a visit tomorrow or the next day.

The sun was shining brightly now, and people were lounging peacefully in the park adjacent to the cathedral-like Nordic Museum. Rather than taking the ferry back to Gamla Stan, we decided to walk for 45 minutes, heading east along the northern side of Djurgarden until we could cross a bridge back to Norrmalm. Now walking west, we hugged Norrmalm’s harbor, passing floating cafes and private sailing vessels moored for the weekend. It seemed like a wonderful way of life, taking your boat out to explore the 24,000 islands of the Stockholm Archipelago. No wonder the Swedes all seemed so happy.

Eventually, we found ourselves in familiar surroundings as we approached King Charles XII Square from the east. We veered south and crossed another bridge back into Gamla Stan, following the harbor passed the Viking Ship until we heard music emanating from the heart of the island. Walking uphill along the side of the Stattkammeren — the royal treasury – we found another street festival. This one featured booths of people dressed in 17th century costumes, selling wine and flatbread and showing exhibits on how grain was processed into flour. Behind them, a large, leather-bound man sang rock ballads on a stage. Neither of us could make the connection between the Reformation-era hawkers and the rocker, but the crowd seemed pleased nonetheless.

Winding through Gamla Stan’s streets, we found ourselves back at Stotorget Square. We sat down at a bench and considered our dinner options. We decided to walk around for 15 minutes to see what we could find; if nothing sounded good, we’d return to the Koffikuppen and have dinner there. Now walking west, then south, we ambled through a shopping district, looking into antique stores and souvenir shops while reviewing local restaurant menus. Eventually we settled upon Michelangelo, a charming Italian restaurant with generous pastas and tempting pizzas. I ordered a lasagna while Susanne had a vegetarian pizza, several tables down from the loudest American family we’d experienced in years, either overseas or at home. Oh I wished we were Canadian for that meal.

Leaving the restaurant, we walked south until we reached Gamla Stan’s southern shore. It was around 8pm, but the sun shone brightly in the western sky. People packed into outdoor cafes taking advantage or the remaining sunlight. Off to the west we could see a dramatic church perched along a cliff on Sodermalm Island. Unfortunately there was a highway bridge obstructing the view, but we discovered a subway passage that allowed us to come up the other side of the bridge and take unobstructed photos of the beautiful view.

Returning to the heart of Gamla Stan, we stopped at a cybercafe so I could buy our opera tickets – first balcony, second row. I then proceeded to check email, and was horrified to find out that a friend of a friend whom I had hoped to meet in two days had invited us to dinner tomorrow instead – the night of our opera. I emailed him and apologized profusely, hoping it would be possible to meet the next day instead.

After the cybercafe, we stopped at a curious 7-Eleven store that looked more like an old fashion soda parlor, where I bought a bottle of water for the walk back to the hotel. We spent the next 30 minutes admiring the dramatic sunlight horizontally across the buildings – the sun was finally getting low in the sky. To our west, as we crossed the bridge, half a dozen hot air balloons could be seen flying overhead. It was strange – I’d never seen hot air balloons at night. Only in an Arctic summer could you enjoy hot air ballooning at such odd times of the day.

Eventually, we found ourselves back at the hotel, where we read and journaled until almost midnight. The sun had set, but there was an orange glow in the sky. We’d probably get a good night sleep after such a busy, wonderful day.