Archive for May, 2004

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.

Why We Won’t Ever Stay at the Travel Inn Again

Sunday, May 30th, 2004

Last night Susanne and I had the must frustrating hotel experience in all the years we’ve been traveling. Over the course of yesterday afternoon and evening, I went to the hotel front desk to find the manager so I could pay our bill, since we’d be leaving at 5am the next morning. No matter when I went to his desk – on five separate occasions – there was no one working there. The hotel was effectively abandoned by any staff. On two occasions there was a young woman watching TV in the reception area; she didn’t work there but she promised she’d tell the manager about our situation. I told her we’d be going out to dinner at 7pm and would be back around 10pm. No luck finding the manager.

I finally gave up and went to bed some time after 11pm. Just as I was ready to fall asleep, someone starting banging on our door. The manager, a sour-faced man in his mid-twenties, was standing there looking annoyed with us.

“You must pay now,” he said. “I will not be up tomorrow morning.”

“Where have you been all evening?” I asked. “I’ve been looking for you since 4pm.”

“What do you expect, ” he said indignantly. “This is a small business.” Apparently it was just fine for there to be no one working at the hotel for hours at a time.

“This is ridiculous,” I replied. “I came by your desk more than five times, and now you come and wake us up so we won’t have to wake _you_ up in the morning? So what are you going to do to resolve this situation?”

The manager simply stared at me for what felt like five or six seconds. Without saying a word, he turned and walked away.

I was fuming. What the hell was this guy’s problem? I’ve just never seen someone run a hotel like this. At first I was inclined to go back to bed and let them charge my credit card, but there were going to charge us an extra 10% for the privilege to charge it. Exasperated, I grabbed my travelers cheques and went upstairs, where I found him watching what appeared to be a porn flick with his girlfriend.

“How much?” I said matter-of-factly.

He pulled out a receipt pad and began to compute our bill. He checked the latest exchange rate, typed some figures in his calculator, and said, “Two hundred and fifty dollars.”

The bill should have been more like $220, maybe a few dollars more. I took his calculator and typed in the same exchange rate, and got a figure of $230. “So what’s with the$20 difference?”

“Bank charge,” he replied stiffly.

“Bank charge?” I said back, ready to blow a blood vessel. The whole point of using a travelers cheque was to not get charged the extra 10 percent, which is what the hotel owner promised!”

“Bank charge,” he repeated without blinking an eye.

“Bank charge it is, then,” I replied. “I look forward to writing Lonely Planet and noting your terrible service on the Internet.” No reaction.

He handed me $50 in change for my $300 in cheques. A whopping $250 for two nights in this dump.

Back in our room, I was still fuming; there was no way I’d fall asleep this mad. Susanne started to joke about the whole thing, getting me to laugh.

“Dollar for dollar, this country has to be the biggest rip-off in the world,” I said. “For this amount of money, we could have stayed two weeks at that great hotel in Kathmandu.”

“For this same amount of money we stayed at the Winter Palace in Luxor,” Susanne replied, laughing harder and harder.

“And for $250, we get a room without a toilet, without a telephone, in a basement that you can only reach by going through the kitchen!”

At this point I nearly rolled out of bed, crying from laughing so long. I felt a lot better. This place was the worst waste of money we’ve ever spent at a hotel, but at least I’d get to write about the experience.

“It’s midnight,” Susanne said, looking at the clock. “Midnight sun.”

Indeed it was; when I looked outside the street was lit like early dusk; technically the sun had set but had barely dropped below the horizon; it looked like 6pm in the spring.

“I suppose if that guy hadn’t banged on our door we wouldn’t have gotten to see this. Makes it worth it in a weird sort of way…”

The Golden Circle

Saturday, May 29th, 2004

Waking up this morning around 7:30, we had another quick breakfast of muesli, toast and scrambled eggs at the hotel before getting ready for our tour of southwest Iceland. The tour bus was supposed to pick us up at 8:30, but it didn’t show up, even though we were outside several minutes early. I asked the hotel desk attendant to call the tour agency, which he did, but they spoke in Icelandic so I didn’t know exactly what the problem was.

“They are coming,” he said tersely.

We waited another 15 minutes and still no bus. The tour was supposed to depart from the bus terminal at 9am, and I was getting nervous; this was our only other day in Iceland, and if we missed the tour, we were pretty much out of luck. I went back inside and asked the attendant if he could call them again. Instead he rolled his eyes and said, “They are coming.” Frustrated with his unwillingness to explain what was going on, I grabbed my cell phone and called them myself. The agent I spoke with apologized for the mix-up and said they would pick us up immediately, which they did two minutes later.

Over at the bus terminal, we were directed to go on a large bus that appeared to be almost completely full. Inside, the tour guide first said we’d have to sit separately because there weren’t any empty seats next to each other, but then quickly backtracked and said we should get on the next bus, which was pulling up momentarily. As we stepped out, a small minibus with about a quarter the seating capacity of the large bus arrived in the next parking space. Within a few minutes, there were nine of us comfortably seated inside, far from the sardine-like conditions on the big bus.

Our tour guide for the day, Magnus, was a middle-aged man with white hair and impeccable English. He gave us a quick overview of the day ahead of us: We’d drive for about 30 minutes and stop briefly at a hydrothermal farm before continuing to Kerith, an extinct volcano crater. Heading further west, we’d visit the Gulfoss waterfall and Geyser, the geothermal waterspout that gave its name to all others. Finally, we’d visit the site of the world’s first parliament, Thingvellir, located in the heart of the Atlantic rift valley that crosses the corner of Iceland.

We headed east out of Reykjavik, soon reaching the countryside after 15 minutes of driving. The minibus drove up and down a series of volcanic hillsides before sloping down into a valley to the town of Hveragerthi, with its famous tourist trap of a farm called Eden. Part geothermal greenhouse farm, part roadside attraction, Eden was apparently the first stop on every tour of the Golden Circle, the area of southwest Iceland most commonly visited by tourists. While Eden did have some impressive collections of tropical plants that grew as if by magic due to the geothermal heat piped from underground, the majority of it was filled with cheap souvenirs: Viking helmets, overpriced sweaters, geysir keyrings, reindeer pelts, fisherman hand creams. Fortunately we only had to spend about 20 minutes in this godforsaken place, so we returned to the bus to visit our next stop: Kerith.

An enormous volcano crater that had collapsed upon itself, Kerith was now a desolate hole in the ground 55 meters deep and over 200 meters across. A shimmering dark green lake sat at the bottom of the crater, while ravens could be heard from a nest somewhere not too far in the distance. We had just enough time to make a long walk counterclockwise around the entire crater. From the far end of Kerith we could see another famous volcano, Hekla, half-shrouded in a layer of puffy white clouds. Hekla was one of the most active volcanoes on the island, with almost two dozen major eruptions in the last thousand years.

The other tour bus that we’d almost boarded earlier was at the crater as well, its horde of tourists spreading like leaf cutter ants along the edge of the precipice. At first I was annoyed that the beautiful sight was being spoilt with so many people around, but I soon took solace in the fact that I was at least with a much smaller group and wouldn’t have to wait forever trying to herd everyone back into the bus.

Leaving Kerith behind us, we started heading northeast towards the Gulfoss waterfall. Off in the distance we could just make out the bald white dome of the Langjokull Glacier, the second-largest ice cap on the island. At first I couldn’t see where the glacier ended and the clouds began, but as the clouds burnt off you could make out the enormity of the frozen mass, probably 50 or 60 kilometers away.

We’d been trailing the larger tour bus for some time, but now pulled over onto a side road, as if we were trying to lose the others. Magnus said there was another waterfall near by: the Laxi, or Horse’s Mane, waterfall. We parked near a steep hillside and walked down, soon finding the wide, beautiful waterfall before us. A fine mist of water was in the air, coating my glasses.

“It is not as impressive as Gulfoss, so I apologize,” Magnus said as we admired the water fall. If this incredible sight required an apology, I could only imagine what Gulfoss was going to look like.

Back in the minibus, we drove another 15 or 20 minutes before reaching the entrance to the Gulfoss park. Exiting the bus, we couldn’t see the waterfall yet, but we could certainly hear it – an explosive, crackling hum emanating from somewhere up ahead.

We walked downhill and the crackling got louder, more intense. Huge plumes of water vapor could be see rising hundreds of feet in the air. We then arrived at the edge of a gorge: down below, water was churning so violently it appeared to be rising up as fast as it was flowing from left to right. Further up the gorge, we could see the lower half of Gulfoss falls, plummeting 75 meters at a point where the gorge made a 90-degree turn to the right. Just beyond the lower falls, the water could be seen screaming down the upper falls, another 75 meter drop. The gorge made another hair-pin turn between the two falls, creating what seemed like a horse shoe path for the water to follow as it made its way down.

There were probably several hundred people admiring the falls, but the gorge was so enormous, they were spread out so thin it never felt crowded except at a promontory point between the upper and lower falls. The water spray was continuous at this point; I’d wished I’d brought a rain coat to keep my camera dry. I’d given up on my glasses entirely; they were coated with so many water droplets I just decided to pretend I always wore them in the shower.

Susanne and I slowly made our way to the promontory, where we had excellent views of both the upper and lower falls. The lower falls were most dramatic, because the water crashed down into the gorge at a right angle, creating an enormous upward churn of vapor a thousand feet into the air. There was so much water vapor everywhere you could actually see miniature waterfalls cascading down the far side of the gorge; these waterfalls had no other source but the upward churn of vapor.

Carefully we took pictures from various points along the path where the vapor seemed less intense; otherwise it might as well have been like we were taking our cameras for a bath. Despite the chatter of all the people around us, you could easily ignore them all due to the incredible roar of the rapids in stereo, the upper falls to the left and the lower falls to the right.

Eventually it was time to return to the bus, so we had to leave this amazing place behind us. “I wish I’d been to Niagara Falls more recently so I could compare the two,” I said to Susanne as we walked back. “I think this one is more breathtakingly violent, even though it’s smaller than Niagara.”

On the bus, we began to return southwest towards the hot springs of Geysir. (Gulfoss, as it turns out, was the furthest north either of us had ever been.) The great geothermanl waterspout of Geysir had first been documented in the 14th century, Magnus explained to us while driving. Over the centuries it’s gone through various active periods and dry spells, and unfortunately, it was now in a bit of a dry spell, blowing its hole only once a day. Fortunately for us, right next to the Geysir geyser was the Strokkur geyser; a little smaller than its more famous big brother, Strokker erupted quite regularly every seven to 10 minutes, sometimes in rapid double bursts.

As we drove through the valley towards Geysir, you could actually see the Strokkur geyser going off from several kilometers away. At that distance it looked like Thor himself had just release a steam valve , creating a lofty vapor trail that rose into nothingness. The geyser went off yet again just as we exited the bus, about a five-minute walk from the foot of the blowhole. This meant we wouldn’t have to wait long to see it go off up close. We walked up a small hill and joined a group of tourists, their cameras firmly planted to their faces. I wanted to use the video setting on my digital camera to get a moving picture of the geyser, but before I could get organized, the bubbling pool at the base of the geyser suddenly lurched, like a frat boy after a long night partying, and sprayed a huge plume of boiling water and steam about 25 meters upward. By the time I was able to press the record button the plume had already reached its zenith, so all I was able to capture was the final violent throes of eruption.

We’d have two hours at Geysir, including lunch, so we decided to leave the geyser and head to a small horse ranch we’d seen near the entrance of the park. Susanne was very eager to take pictures of some Icelandic ponies, and three of them had been lounging near a charming old farmhouse below the mountainside. We walked down towards the far, turning our heads back as we heard the geyser blow its spout one more time, then spotted the three ponies. Two of them were munching on grass and dandelions on the near side of a creek; the third had crossed to the far side of the creek for some privacy. Susanne and I took pictures of the first two horses, before she split off and jumped over the creek to see the other horse. I stayed behind and quietly observed the horses as they selected the finest cuts of grass available. (Geyser goes off.) One of the horses seemed a little skittish at my presence, but the other one didn’t seem to care one way or another. It was an idyllic scene, apart from the fact that my bladder was about to burst. The clockwork-like explosions of the geyser in the background certainly didn’t help matters.

Susanne eventually had her fill of the pony on the other side of the creek, and returned to take a few more pictures of the other horses, who were still hanging out with me. (Geyser goes off.) At this point I was having to cross my legs in agony, so Susanne took mercy on me and stopped taking pictures so we could head back to the coffee shop across the road from the hot springs. Once inside, after a run to the men’s room we got in line at the cafeteria for a quick lunch. Most of the menu looked pretty unsatisfying, so I had a curried chicken sandwich while Susanne stuck with a raisin scone.

Following lunch we made a brief visit to the park’s gift shop, but got a little uneasy by the enormous display of taxidermied animals, including what appeared to be someone’s pet dog. (Thankfully the stuffed dog appeared to have died of old age, given the amount of gray in its coat.) We returned outside for two more bursts of the geyser. The first one we did our best to prep for, and had our cameras glued to our faces in anticipation of the vapor climax. The second time we put our cameras away and simply enjoyed the sight of several tons of water exploding upward in a fraction of a second. It was impressive to watch, but it made me wonder what we were missing by not being able to see Old Geysir go off as well.

By now it was just after 2pm, and we met the rest of the group back at the bus for the long drive to Thingvellir. “Thingvellir is a place of much history, but I will tell you about that later,” Magnus spoke into his headset microphone while driving up a gravel road. “First, we must learn about the Atlantic ridge…” Magnus clearly enjoyed his job, but since he had to talk while driving, we weren’t able to make eye contact with him while he told his stories, so it was like a disembodied spirit was speaking to us through the PA system. And with the rattle of our bones due to the jarring gravel road, it was amazing that Magnus was able to give a science lecture without flinching. I hope he talks about plate tectonics, I thought to myself.

“And so now I must explain to you the science of plate tectonics,” Magnus continued. He proceeded to explain that the Atlantic ocean was separated by two giant tectonic plates: the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. The two of them came together along the Atlantic Ridge, which ran underwater for thousands of miles, only to come above the surface in southwest Iceland. Because the Eurasian plate is moving east and the Atlantic plate is moving west, the two shift apart by around two centimeters a year, causing Iceland to pull apart slowly, causing more volcanic eruptions and leading to more landmass being formed by lava.

Thingvellir, as it turns out, is one of the most dramatic places in the world to see the science of plate tectonics in action. As we drove downhill along the side of Iceland’s largest lake, we could see a vast plain below us. To the right, ruddy cracks formed along the surface of the earth, moving in jagged lines northeastward. To the left of the plain, what appeared to be a long brown patch of paint drawn along the hillside turned out to be an enormous volcanic cliff, extending far to the northeast like a great Viking wall. But the wall was totally natural, the result of the earth tearing in two along the tectonic rift.

Along with its important geologic significance, Thingvellir was the most important historical site in Iceland. It was here that the Vikings set up the world’s first parliament, an annual gathering of 48 clan leaders, each with two advisors. Here each June, they would meet to hear to discuss the law and revise it as necessary. A logsogumathur, or Law Speaker, would be tasked to recite the law by heart and memorize any changes voted upon by the assembly. (The Speaker of the House in Congress probably gets his title from that job, I imagine.) From 930 to 1271, the assembly would gather in the plain below the western crags – Thingvellir means Assembly Plain in Icelandic – until the country lost its independence to Norway and later Denmark. The parliamentary gatherings continued, but they lacked the legitimacy they had at the height of the Viking period.

Magnus dropped us off in the middle of the park and told us he would meet us in a little while on top of the western crags, which we could apparently reach easily on foot. We crossed a small bridge over a river; on one side the water shimmered like turquoise from the thousands of coins that had been thrown in while making a wish. We followed a wooden footpath across the plain; to our left we could see an old church, while ahead to our right, a small waterfall ran down the crags. It was a beautiful location, the kind of place that would be ideal for walking a dog or having an afternoon picnic. It was fascinating that a place with such geologic history had such significant social history for Iceland as well.

Reaching the foot of the crags, Susanne and I came to an enormous grassy hill made up of boulders, a flagpole sitting on top. This was the Logberg, or Law Rock, where the logsogumathur would stand and recite the law, taking advantage of the excellent acoustics so all the assemblymen and their advisors could hear him. We followed a set of wooden steps up the logberg, which afforded us a fine view of the valley. From there, we hugged the lower edge of the crags and slowly walked uphill. The crags, a giant wall of lava and boulders, were quite dramatic; the sight reminded me of the entrance to the ruins of Petra in Jordan, made famous in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

We ambled up the path until reaching the top of the crags, giving us one last view of the plain and the lake beyond it. Magnus then appeared, having driven the van some way around to this side of the rift as our group had walked from the Eurasian tectonic plate to the North American plate in a matter of minutes.

Back on the bus, we returned to Reykjavik, satisfied but exhausted by the day’s events. Everyone else in the group got dropped off at their hotels, but we returned to the bus terminal so I could inquire about the shuttle bus to the airport for tomorrow. We then walked back to the hotel, which was across the road from the terminal, and relaxed for a couple of hours before walking into Old Town for dinner. We walked towards the eastern shore of the Tjorn, first cutting through a park where Susanne discovered an enormous rope pyramid used by kids for climbing, while I played with a friendly cat that had come over to introduce herself. Along the Tjorn, the ducks and geese were generally napping, but the Arctic tern were very active, swooping through the sky eating bugs over the pond.

Reaching Old Town, we returned to Café Paris for a light dinner of broccoli quiche, followed by apple pie and carrot cake – quiche and pie were about the only things we could afford in this town. Before returning to the hotel, we took one last walk through the old town, briefly stopping at an unusual block party in which a crowd of locals had gathered around a stage while a lounge singer performed “My Way” and “New York, New York.” We couldn’t tell if it was a private reception for a wedding, or some kind of celebration for Whitsunday, but the music was just embarrassingly awful, so we had to leave before losing face from laughing out loud in front of anyone.

Returning to the Tjorn, we slowly ambled along the shore, stopping to observe the first ducklings of the season go out for a swim. The sun was shining brightly now, mid-way through the sky, even though it was around 9pm. Several swans floated near the shore while the terns danced in mid-flight, performing aerial jousts with each other while scooping up mouthfuls of tasty gnats. Susanne, meanwhile, wanted to climb to the top of that rope pyramid she’d found before, so she convinced me to go up as well. As much as I wanted to stay out much later, we had to wake up at 4:30am to get to the airport for our flight to Stockholm. We’d need to return to the hotel soon. But for now, we hung up there on the ropes, listening to the terns chirping in the distance, wondering when the sun would ever go down.

A Day Exploring Reykjavik

Friday, May 28th, 2004

Susanne and I arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, just before 6:30am local time. Our 4 1/2-hour flight from Boston was a sleepless one; the IcelandAir 757 was cramped and uncomfortable, and people were irritable because the airline was charging people money for even a glass of soda. Despite our lack of sleep, we were excited to have arrived in Iceland for our brief two-day stay. Later in the weekend we’d fly onward to Stockholm, Sweden, after which we’d proceed south to Ronneby so I could speak at the Telecities.org conference.

The Reykjavik airport was small, yet surprisingly chaotic: departure gates had few seats so people were forced to stand in awkward, bunched-up groups, while the ATM was placed at a bottleneck point in the customs area, creating a huge line of people that blocked everyone’s exit. After waiting in line at the ATM to get our first Icelandic currency (about 73 krone to the US dollar, in case you’re wondering) we got on board a shuttle bus for the 45-minute ride into the capital.

The road to Reykjavik was lined with volcanic debris as far as the eye could see; reddish-black rocks twisted and mangled in the throes of eruption eons ago. The lava rock trailed down the craggy foothills into the sea, creating a series of small tidal pools along the shoreline. Every few kilometers, large pieces of lava had been stacked by someone into surreal, human-like forms, an Arctic Easter Island adorned with volcanic cairns.

By 8am we arrived at the outskirts of Reykjavik; in the distance we could see the soaring concrete church known as the Hallgrimskirkja, regarded by locals as either bold or monstrous depending on whom you asked. Beyond the Hallgrimskirkja, more traditional Icelandic church steeples could be seen, set against a backdrop of residential neighborhoods and trees touched by the first greenery of spring. The shuttle brought us to the city’s main bus terminal, where we transferred to a smaller shuttle bus that ended up driving no more than 30 seconds before pulling over along a busy road.

“Your guesthouse, the Travel Inn, is right over there,” the driver told us. “It’s easier if you walk the last block.”

Susanne and I grabbed our bags and crossed the road, passing several houses before reaching our guesthouse. Inside we were greeted by the morning manager, who to our surprise appeared to be south Indian rather than Icelandic. He told us our room was already available – another surprise, considering it was only 8am – and we could even sit down for breakfast if we were hungry. So we dropped our things into the room — a spartan, overpriced cellar with two stiff beds and a wash basin — and went straight for the dining room, enjoying a ravenous breakfast of muesli, burnt toast, marmalade and hard boiled eggs.

By 9am we figured it was time for us to explore Reykjavik. We’d booked a tour of the so-called “Golden Circle” for tomorrow, during which we’d get to see some of rural Iceland’s most spectacular natural surroundings. So today would be our day for the big city.

Big, of course, is all relative in Iceland, a country with less than 300,000 people overall. Reykjavik is home to around two-thirds of that population, but it still feels like an overgrown fishing village, with its quaint architecture, boutique shops and waterside views. The city doesn’t have a reputation of being the most beautiful or exciting city in Europe, but it still has a unique character that makes it a worthwhile place to visit, even if it’s just for a day or so.

The skies began to sprinkle on us as we walked up the main road past the Tjorn, Reykjavik’s largest pond. A pretty church soon appeared on our right; upon closer inspection we realized its outer walls were covered in corrugated metal, something we might not have noticed if we hadn’t ventured so near to it. Within a couple of blocks we reached Austurstraeti, the main road that bisects Reykjavik’s old town. To our right we could see the prime minister’s residence, a modest old white structure, and a variety of boutique shops climbing up the hillside. To our left, we hoped to find a café that would be open for business, a place where we could infuse ourselves with another dose of caffeine while avoiding the steadily increasing raindrops.

We soon passed two potential candidates. One café was small, intimate, crowded; the other, Café Paris, more of a grand café, but quiet at this time of day, almost deserted. Before making our decision we made a loop around Ingolfstorg Square, briefly viewing the harbor and shipping port, before returning to the first café we’d seen a few minutes earlier. It was less crowded than before, so we were able to get a table immediately. The Icelandic barista took our coffee orders – a cappuccino and a latte – while chatting with a co-worker, effortless slipping from English to Icelandic and backk. His co-worker spoke English with a strong Aussie accent; I couldn’t tell if she was actually from Down Under or had simply learned her English there.

After finishing our coffees, we walked around the corner to Austurvollur Square, a leafy little park that’s home to Iceland’s Althing, or parliament. The parliament was a modest gray stone building, the kind of structure you would have otherwise mistaken for a Victorian-era mill or warehouse. It was a pretty building, certainly, but seemed too small a place to serve as a national seat of government. Across the street we found the city’s oldest church, the Domkirkja. Built in the late 1700s, the church had been recently renovated and was again open for visitors. We went inside the church, joining a woman with a small group of young children who were spying its altar. The church was very charming, yet simple, with clean lines and beautiful wood pews. Susanne and I stayed long enough to take a few pictures before returning outside, where the rain had stopped for a few minutes.

Heading east on Austurstaeti, we passed the prime minister’s residence and walked uphill, briefly stopping at the tourist information center so I could get a sense of what events were going on that weekend while Susanne took advantage of the public restrooms. From there we cut north to the harbor, admiring a giant metal sculpture of a Viking ship that was withstanding the elements much better than we were at that particular moment. The view of the harbor was quite striking, with the snow-capped mountains in the distance, but the wind and drizzle became too much for us, so we returned a few blocks inland to take shelter among the souvenir shops and cafes.

As we continued eastward, the giant stone façade of the Hallgrimskirkja appeared to grow taller and taller. By the time we reached the cathedral, it looked almost Stalinesque – a monolithic, lava-like phallic symbol penetrating the heavens for the entire island to recognize. It was unlike any church I’d ever seen. Perhaps if it had been any other color it would be quite extraordinary, but the dull gray concrete just kept reminded me of Soviet-era housing estates. The inside of the cathedral was somewhat more impressive, with two rows of extraordinarily thin columns soaring up to the ceiling. High on the entrance wall sat an unusual pipe organ; some of its pipes were aimed horizontally rather than vertically, giving the impression it was a chromatic tribute to classic automobile tailpipes of the 1950s.

After exploring the interior, we then paid the ISK 300 fee to take the elevator to the top of the cathedral spire. Reaching the top, we found ourselves in the bell tower, with fine views of the city and harbor below. We could see row after row of classic Icelandic houses, each painted in red, yellow, blue or green, all in striking contrast with each other. The next thing we realized, it was 12 o’clock, and the bells began to chime. Fortunately I still had a set of earplugs in my pocket from our overnight flight, which probably saved my ears from several days’ worth of tinnitus.

Exiting the cathedral, we briefly explored several souvenir shops before stopping at a café for lunch, only to leave a couple of minutes later when we realized we weren’t exactly as hungry as we thought we were. I figured it was probably a 20-minute walk west to Café Paris if we didn’t make any stops, so I suggested we head in that general direction, then decide if we were ready to eat once we got back in that neighborhood. Our instincts were correct; after walking downhill and visiting several more shops, we were ready to have some lunch. Even better, the sun had begun to break through the clouds, so we entered the café and sat by the window, soaking in the rays. This lasted for no more than 90 seconds, after we realized we were also seated next to a radiator. Apologizing to the waitress, we moved across the room to another table and settled in for a pleasant lunch comprised of a tuna melt for myself and a waffle for Susanne.

Following lunch, the sun began to shine brightly outside. We returned to Austurvollur Square, admiring the parliament and the domskirkja , quite literally, in a whole new light. Within a matter of minutes, it seemed, the temperature had warmed up from the high 40s to the low 60s. Susanne and I stripped off our jackets and tied them around our waists as we walked eastward towards the opposite side of the old town, eager to whittle away the afternoon visiting antique stores, souvenir haunts and gourmet shops.

It was now mid-afternoon, and we’d realized that we had pretty much seen everything there was to see in old town Reykjavik — save the museums, but the weather was now too nice to coop ourselves inside for more than a couple minutes at a time. By 4pm, we’d had our fill of antiquing and church-gazing, so we began to walk back to the hotel. We lingered for a long while at the Tjorn, hanging out with the hundreds of ducks, geese, pigeons and terns that called the pond home. An American family was feeding some of the birds with stale bread, causing a series of skirmishes between various players in the avian population. Susanne and I took pictures of the birds and enjoyed the warm sun, appreciating each ray as it touched our faces.

We’d spent the last seven hours getting to know the old town, and we were ready for a respite at our guesthouse. Susanne took a nap while I showered, enjoying perhaps the hottest water I’ve ever experienced in a bathing situation, thanks to Iceland’s seemingly endless supply of underground geothermal energy. By 7pm, we were ready to go out to dinner; it was early by Reykjavik dining standards, but we also hadn’t slept in over a day, so we figured we needed to eat now before we started to crash hard. Rather than taking the main road past the eastern shore of the Tjorn, we cut west to go the long way around the pond. It was a wonderful little excursion; the far side of the pond was humming with Arctic terns, which had just returned to Iceland from their peerless migratory trek from Antarctica. Soon they would lay their eggs, stay a while to incubate them, then return south for another round of the greatest avian adventure in the world.

After lingering along the western shore of the pond, admiring the view of the old town as the sun caked the skyline with orange and yellow hues, we passed the parliament and searched for dinner. Most of the Icelandic restaurants were exorbitantly overpriced, with entrees alone often hovering at the $40 mark. Given the fact that Iceland isn’t exactly legendary for its cuisine, we decided to stick with an old standby – Indian. We tracked down an Indo-Pak restaurant called the Shalimar, on the western side of the old town. Susanne ordered a chickpea curry while I had a chicken and kidney-bean curry, both of which were delicious. I told the manager I hadn’t expected to find good Indian food in Iceland. “You’re not the first visitor to say that, I’m proud to admit,” he replied.

After dinner, we briefly stopped at Kaffi Reykjavik to spy its trendy Ice Bar – a cocktail lounge made entirely of ice. The frozen lounge was totally deserted, and probably wouldn’t get hopping until after 11pm – well past our bedtime given our jetlag. So we strolled back towards the hotel, once again passing the pond. I’d wanted to take the long way around it one more time but we started to feel raindrops yet again — and we’d neglected to bring our umbrellas with us. So Susanne and I took the straight path home to the guesthouse, where we spent the rest of the evening relaxing, Susanne reading a book while I wrote this journal… -andy

Self Portrait in Chrome

Thursday, May 27th, 2004

Waiting at the airport for our flight to Iceland.

Self Portrait in Chrome

posted from Andy’s mobile phone

Off to Scandinavia

Thursday, May 27th, 2004

Even though it seems I just got back from Hong Kong a few days ago, I’ve already had to pack my bags again for a trip to Scandinavia. Next week I’ll be speaking at the Telecities conference in Ronneby, Sweden. Since the conference follows the US Memorial Day holiday weekend, Susanne is coming along and we’re going to spend a long weekend in Reykjavik, Iceland, and Stockholm before going to the conference. Following the event, we’ll have a brief stay in Copenhagen before flying back to Boston that Sunday.

Assuming I’ve got decent Internet access in Ronneby, I’ll be blogging from the conference. I’ll also try posting some brief updates from my mobile phone when possible. So please check back periodically to follow our little Scandinavian adventure…. -andy

Hong Kong Travelogue and Photo Gallery Now Online

Monday, May 24th, 2004

This weekend I finished work on an online photo gallery and travelogue for my recent trip to the Hong Kong ICT summit on e-content and e-creativity:

http://www.edwebproject.org/hongkong04/

The site includes eight separate photo galleries, covering various aspects of the event as well as sights around Hong Kong. The galleries include links to individual blog entries related to the photos; you can also choose to read my travel journal in one single document. And because the journal entries are incorporated in my blog, you’re able to post comments/responses to blog entries. I’ve also incorporated several quicktime video clips as well as QTVR files, which give you a 180-degree panaroma of different locations around Hong Kong.

As always, feedback is welcome and most appreciated…. -andy

Last Day in Hong Kong

Monday, May 17th, 2004

Today would be my last day in Hong Kong; my flight would depart just after midnight, so I’d have to head to the airport at 10pm. After meeting with colleagues for breakfast, a group of us checked out late in the morning to move our belongings over to the Metropark Hotel in Causeway Bay. Suzanne Stein and Marcelo Sant’Iago were both staying there, and Suzanne was kind enough to let Louise van Rooyen and me leave our luggage in her room for the day while the four of us played tourist with the free time we had left.

We hired a minibus taxi to take us to the Metropark; with all of our collective luggage there was no way we could have jammed all of our stuff into a standard taxi. The minibus looked like it spent most of its time transporting livestock, but it still got us to where we needed to go. Over at the Metropark, the hotel wasn’t ready for new guests to check in, so we all left our luggage with the bell stand, baffling the attendee as to why this Suzanne Stein character had such a ridiculous amount of luggage going up to her room.

Suzanne Stein at the tailors
Suzanne Stein gets fitted at the tailor in Kowloon

Before exploring the city one last time, we paid a final visit to Stitch-Up tailors in Kowloon, catching the subway from Tin Hau to Tsim Sha Tsui. Suzanne had ordered two suits and a bunch of shirts, and she needed to go in for her final fitting, while Louise was contemplating a purchase of her own. When we got to the tailor, Andy’s brother George said he’d need about 10 minutes to get Suzanne’s suits from the workshop. We took advantage of the time by heading to the other side of the mall to pick up drinks from Starbucks.

Back at the tailor, Suzanne got fitted for her suits while Louise browsed and Marcelo politely declined several offers from George to get a suit made. Once our business was done, we went downstairs to the local McDonalds to take advantage of the public bathroom facilities. There was a huge line for the women’s bathroom, so Marcelo picked up a fried shrimp snack; it was tasty, but more fried than shrimp.

We then walked towards the Star Ferry to return to Central. A small elderly gentleman in Buddhist robes approached me and tried to get me to make some kind of contribution. This being Kowloon, notorious for its dime-a-dozen scams, I declined. I walked a few more steps with Marcelo before we realized that the elderly fellow was now handing papers and trinkets to Louise and Suzanne. Uh-oh. Marcelo and I just shook our heads and grimaced while the ladies made their transaction: apparently they’d each get some prayers said for them at some local Buddhist shrine for a small fortune — about 20 bucks apiece. I hope they’re damn good prayers for that price.

Amahs at HSBC building
Filipino amahs picnic in the atrium of the HSBC building. Click on the picture to see the video.

We caught the next ferry and pressed onward to Central, where we crossed through the underground footpath until we found ourselves near the entrance of the HSBC building. The skyscraper has an immense open-air atrium on the ground floor, and it’s often occupied by large groups of Filipino maids, or amahs, having a picnic lunch. None of us were prepared for the sheer size of the spectacle. The entire atrium was jammed with thousands of women, encamped on the marble floor atop their favorite blankets. Women were having lunch, gossiping, cutting each other’s hair, doing their nails, cutting coupons, you name it. And all of them were talking at once, creating collective cackle that echoed throughout the hall. I took a couple of video clips to capture the scene, along with a few still photos that I’m sure did it much less justice.

Heading uphill from the HSBC building, we climbed through the park adjacent to the St. John’s Cathedral. When it was built in the 1800s, locals complained it was an eyesore; today it’s once of the few significant colonial-era buildings left on the island. The cathedral was packed for Sunday afternoon services; a choir sang a beautiful hymn in the back of the church. A man standing near the entrance quietly told us we couldn’t take pictures, so we stood silently, listening to the haunting hymn as the congregation fanned themselves for relief from the mid-day heat.

A few meters up the street from the cathedral we reached the entrance to the Peak Tram. This was to be my second trip to the top of the Peak on this trip to Hong Kong, but it was the first time up for everyone else. For a Sunday afternoon it was surprisingly quiet in the ticket line, so we were able to get our tickets and climb into the tram in a matter of minutes. Louise and Suzanne were engrossed in conversation for much of the trip while Marcelo and I quietly enjoyed the view; after a while I had to give Louise a poke on the shoulder so the two of them would look out the window to see what they were missing: a spectacular view of the Hong Kong skyline as the funicular pulled us higher and higher.

group photo at the peak
Andy, Marcelo, Louise and Suzanne pose for a photo at the Peak

Reaching the top of the Peak, we meandered through the shopping mall at the exit to the tram until we reached the observation deck. Despite the light crowds downstairs, the deck was packed with tourists who were splitting their time between enjoying the view and buying souvenirs from a dozen or so kiosks. The four of us managed to find a strategic spot for a group photograph, but we had so many cameras to pass around that we ended up creating a minor roadblock for other tourists who wanted to lean over the railing for the full 180-degree view. Louise bought a set of miniature walkie-talkies and some Hello Kitty stickers for her daughter; Suzanne, meanwhile, took part in a survey about Hong Kong tourism conducted by a group of students, who found her having a smoke by a garbage can.

“I just wanted to see how they were organizing their questions,” she said afterwards, laughing. “The ‘where are you from’ questions were just a list of checkboxes with only a handful of countries, and some of the questions were a bit leading, like, ‘Do you agree or disagree – Hong Kong is a shopping paradise.”

“Don’t forget they’re totally skewing their whole data set by preying on smokers at the garbage can,” I added. “Wonder if they’re all more likely to show other addictive traits, like compulsive shopping or gambling…”

After having our fill of the view, we needed to fill our stomachs; it was nearly 3pm and we hadn’t had any lunch yet. We went to a café on the second floor of the Peak Galleria, which featured a marvelous view of the city. At first we sat outside in open sunlight, but after 30 minutes we felt we were being rotisserie roasted by the hot afternoon sun. Fortunately a table with an umbrella soon opened up, so we moved over to it, probably adding a few weeks to our lifetimes by avoiding the inevitable skin cancer we were giving ourselves in the open sunlight. Marcelo and Louise got noodle dishes while I had an oriental chicken salad and Suzanne stuck with sushi. The food was average at best, and the bill was, well, let’s just say you pay for the view and not for the quality of food or service.

By now it was nearly 4:30pm, and Louise had to be back at the Metropark at 6pm for her ride to the airport. I’d wanted to take them to the Man Mo Temple, but time was running tight. So we decided to take the next tram down from the Peak and catch a taxi to the temple. The taxi took us uphill through the Mid-Levels, past the island’s main mosque and synagogue, then plummeting downhill again towards Sheung Wan. We exited the taxi a couple blocks east of the temple so the driver didn’t have to navigate the local one-way streets.

beams of light at the temple
Beams of light cut through the incense smoke at Man Mo Temple. Click on the picture to see a video.

Reaching the temple, I noticed the sun was getting low in the sky — still quite bright out, but beginning to dip below the western skyline. Inside, we were greeted by a stunning site — the thick incense smoke created a brilliant sun ray pattern, with beams of light streaking a sharp angles through the interior of the temple. It was a very moving experience, not at all lessened by the fact this was my third or fourth visit to the temple. There are other temples in Hong Kong, but Man Mo is a special place that never fails to awe and inspire. We wandered the interior of the temple, quietly taking photos and videos of the candles, altars and incense. Suzanne and Louise shopped for school pens and pencils that had been blessed at the monastery; buy your pens here and your kids’ grades will improve, so the theory goes.

I found myself checking my watch every few minutes, somewhat concerned about Louise missing her ride to the airport. As long as we took a taxi back to the hotel, we still had a little time. So we walked a couple of blocks to the Cat Street antique market, where we all stocked up on gifts and souvenirs. Soon enough, though, it was 5:30pm, so we caught a taxi back to the Metropark.

Once we got there, though, I discovered that Louise’s ride was actually coming at 6:30, not 6:00, so we actually had time to spare. We decided to have a parting drink in the hotel bar. Marcelo and I made it down there first while Suzanne and Louise freshened up. For some strange reason, the bar was playing Elton John’s “Your Song” over and over; Marcelo and I lost track after a dozen times in a row. By the time Suzanne and Louise joined us, it was nearly time for her to go, so I ran down to the bell captain and told him that she’d be running a few minutes late. I should have said longer; we ended up spending about half an hour in the bar before parting ways with Louise.

Since I too had to go to the airport in just three hours, I wanted to stay fairly close to the hotel. Suzanne and I hung out at the bar a little while longer while Marcelo had a quick shower, then we went for a walk around the neighborhood. We probably should have gotten some dinner but I was still full from our late lunch, so we ended up swinging by the local supermarket, where we picked up a few beers to drink upstairs, noshing on cashews and watching MTV Malaysia in Suzanne’s room.

By 10 o’clock, it was time for me to go, so we all said our goodbyes. Who knows where we’ll see each other next; Osama Manzar and Zaman are each trying to organize similar events in India and Bangladesh respectively. We’ll just have to wait and see.… -andy

Lamma Island and Lan Kwai Fong

Monday, May 17th, 2004

After the conference wrapped up, I briefly returned to my room to pack my belongings before rejoining the group for a dinner e excursion on Lamma Island. Now that my ticket had been changed, I didn’t have to stress about leaving dinner early and arranging a boat ride back to the hotel; instead I could enjoy this final gathering of colleagues from around the world.

Louise on the boat
Louise van Rooyen on the boat to Lamma Island

We set off for the boat landing at 6:30, walking a few blocks to the shore, next to an ornate sculptured garden that was to be a private park used by Cyberport’s most exclusive business residents. The group climbed aboard the boat, going upstairs to its upper deck to enjoy the salt spray and the wind on our faces. The boat ride offered us a beautiful view of Hong Kong’s Aberdeen skyline, as well as the greenery of Lamma and the surrounding outlying islands. After a 20-minute ride we arrived at a harbor that was dotted with a series of open-air seafood restaurants, most of which were packed with diners. We had part of a restaurant reserved for us, with everyone gathered around two enormous tables. For the next couple of hours we enjoyed an eight-course seafood meal, a sumptuous selection of fried octopus, boiled shrimp, steamed langostinos, abalone on the halfshell, and crispy grouper for the main course. For people who came from countries with a limited amount of fresh seafood, it was an exciting experience; for the rest of us it was merely delicious.

Following dinner I went on a walk with Marcelo, Suzanne and Waheed down the lengh of the harbor. As we got further away from the restaurants the path turned very green and very hilly. Further down the path we reached a spot with a marvelous view of Hong Kong’s city lights, but we couldn’t linger for long since we had to make the last boat or we could be stranded at Lamma for the night.

Returning to the pier, we found out that the boat would continue to Tsim Sha Tsui and Central after stopping at Cyberport. Most of the group returned to the hotel, but around eight of us decided to enjoy a night on the town one last time. The boat ride was tremendous; the seas were chopping so we found ourselves getting tossed about as we marveled at the Hong Kong Skyline while traveling clockwise around the island. We exited the boat at Central and hiked uphill to Soho and Lang Kwai Fong, Hong Kong’s famous pub district. The streets of Lang Kwai Fong were jammed with people from all over the world, drinking beer and cocktails while listening to a cacophony of music. We strolled the neighborhood, soaking it all in while trying to decide where to stop for a drink. Eventually, we bumped into Sam, the director of labor relations for Hong Kong, had attended the conference earlier in the week. Sam and his wife kindly offered to have us join him for a drink. They were a fascinating couple, each speaking many languages (Sam speaks 10 in fact). As the bar got ready to close down its outdoor seating for the night, Sam invited us for a night cap at the exclusive Jockey Club in Happy Valley, where he and his family were members. We split into to groups to take taxis to the club, but didn’t stay for long. As we had suspected might be the case, the fact that I was wearing shorts and some of the others were wearing t-shirts made us well below the usual dress code. Sam then suggested we have a drink down the road at the bar of the Conrad Hotel.

We stayed at the Conrad until after 2am, splitting a large bottle of Cabernet, telling stories from home, talking politics. We finally wrapped things up as the cleaning crew came in to vacuum the floors. I shared a taxi back to the hotel with Louise, Suzanne and Rodrigo, where we all marveled at Sam’s kindness and generosity. We’d only just met him briefly at the conference, but he and his wife insisted on buying all our drinks; she even gave Louise a colorful purse she’d just purchased at a night market. It was really nice to enjoy the company of new friends that night, particularly in the heart of the city.