Postcard from Sweden

POSTCARD FROM SWEDEN – 2016

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Why Sweden, you ask? It’s simple. SAS just instituted a non-stop flight from LA to Stockholm, and were offering such a low roundtrip fare that the bargain hunter in me was unable to resist. Besides, though we had already visited Denmark and Norway, we had never been there.  When I came home one day and said to Miki, “Want to go to Sweden at the end of August?” she didn’t hesitate a second in replying, “Sure!” I envy her retirement schedule.

After booking our flights, I started my research on where we should go, what we should see, how we should get there. I kept bringing home reams of paper printouts about places we might visit, hotels, restaurants, as well as train schedules and car rental options. Being the organized person she is, Miki promptly filed all the information in a folder labeled “Sweden.” She didn’t actually look at any of the stuff I dredged up, nor read any of the historical data I suggested to her, considering it superfluous for two people to share the same knowledge. I suppose I should be happy that she allows me to make all these choices without much input, and since this pattern hasn’t changed over 35 years of our relationship, you would think I’d have accepted it by now. As we keep repeatedly proving, we are not rational in many of our behaviors.

If Norway is the land that laughs with flowers, Sweden is the land that sparkles with water. Stockholm is on an archipelago of 14 islands on the Lake of Malaren, and has been called a Nordic Venice by many. (The Swedish archipelago has over 30,000 islands.) Since its founding in 1252 by Birger Jarl (a name you see all around town, including being the name of one of our hotels,) the city has grown into one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. I appreciated the fact that despite plentiful public transportation options, tourists can walk to see almost all the sights. By now, Miki has (mostly) gracefully accepted my preference of seeing places on foot, and allowing the maximum of serendipity in guiding us to some of our most enjoyable travel finds.

It doesn’t take long to appreciate that engineering and design are well developed in this country, starting with the Arlanda Express, the bullet train that whisks you the 60 km.  from the airport in just twenty minutes to the Central Train Station in the heart of downtown Stockholm. We walked out of the station, picked up some maps and tourist info, then walked 1 block to our first hotel, the Freys. Though our room was small and Spartan, the beds were comfortable, and the location, free wi-fi, and a sumptuous buffet breakfast each morning more than met our needs. Since we arrived by 11 AM, we still had the whole day to not succumb to jet lag, so we walked around a bit in the city center with its mix of baroque, art deco and modern architecture, before embarking on an hour boat ride to Drottingholms slott, the castle and gardens modeled after Versailles, built in the 1700’s for the Queen of Sweden. It is now the summer home of the Swedish Royal Family. The Court Theater, which we didn’t have time to visit, is a World Heritage Site, with hand painted scenery and manually operated wooden machinery, and offers opera performances and concerts during the summer. The nice part of the experience, besides the boat ride, is that there were very few people there, unlike the rolling herds tromping through Versailles speaking a cacophony of languages. By way of languages, it seems everyone in Sweden speaks excellent English, even in the country side, which takes a lot of stress off, not having to flip through phrase books. Away from the more touristy areas, restaurants usually offer menus only in Swedish; however, every waiter was most gracious in providing translations.

Have you heard of the Swedish tradition of fika? This is the word used for over a hundred years of drinking coffee, tea or juice alongside a baked good: to fika. Everywhere we traveled, there were dozens of cozy cafes and bakeries celebrating this custom, with each cup served at these locales being a work of art made from carefully selected beans and the perfect blend. And did I mention the pastries? This is my kind of place!

One thing I was not expecting based on my readings is that lot of places, including small bakeries, do not accept cash, only credit cards. So, if you come here, don’t convert your US currency to Swedish Kroners, or you’ll be stuck, and have to pay for another conversion back to dollars. It’s a sensible system, as small stores do not have to worry about keeping change, being at risk of robbery (aside from pickpockets, about which every store and hotel has warning signs) or theft from employees. Obviously, Sweden is a wealthy country, where everyone has access to a credit card. This high standard of living is also reflected in the prices, which are higher than we are used to. On the other side, prices include all taxes and tips; we found a main course in an average restaurant to run around $30, with a glass of wine or beer around $10.

We lucked out with the weather. Aside from one day of rain, we had mostly clear skies with daytime temps in the high 60s and low 70s, ideal for travel. If you go, I think end of August is an ideal time, and plan on spending at least a week. Those tourists who come by ship for 1-2 days can’t really get an impression of what this beautiful country is about. This, however, is my personal prejudice. I would rather spend a week in one place, rather than hop around to 5-6 countries just so I can say I’ve been there.

Recovering some after our long 11 hour flight, and following a hearty buffet breakfast (very civilized – served until 11 AM) we wandered most of the day through Gamla Stan, the Old Town, with its narrow, winding cobblestoned streets, hundreds of small stores and restaurants, and most imposing of all, the Royal Palace. The palace is open all year round, and offers the usual displays of the State Rooms and the royal State regalia. More interesting is to be outside the palace, and watch the frequent changing of the royal guards in their powder blue uniforms and polished chrome helmets with gold embossing. Not immediately apparent, but clear on close observation, is that a number of the guards are women, something you will not find in any other European country, though women do serve in the military elsewhere. We found a great bench from which to people watch (one of our favorite entertainments when we travel.) The power of the human voice to compel action was interesting to observe, as some tourist wandered across a chain barrier in order to take a better photo, only to be abruptly and immediately brought short by one of the guards yelling “HALT!” in a loud and imperious tone, followed by removing his rifle from the parade rest position. No other action was required.

After a while, we followed the sound of music around the corner to the front of the Nobel Prize museum, where the Royal Cadet Core was performing in concert. After a couple of classical pieces, they did Abba’s Dancing Queen, followed by a medley from Star Wars. The music was good, but again, the people walking by provided the best of the entertainment.

Knowing that Miki requires regular feedings, we found a nice tapas bar with outdoor seating. The food was good enough that I wrote them a good review on TripAdvisor. We bypassed many of the museum options available, and strolled instead along the harbor, watched a couple and their wedding party disembarking from a boat, then meandered back through the twisty pedestrian passages to our hotel. Along the way, I spotted a small restaurant with only six tables with good smells and a great vibe inside. It’s called the Hairy Pig, and after making a reservation, that night we had the best smoked wild boar I have ever eaten – highly recommended!

The next day we again walked around the harbor in a different direction to visit the Vasa Museum, containing the world’s only surviving 17th century warship, the 64 gun Vasa, which sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage. Rediscovered and raised in 1961, the ship has more than 98% of its original structure and incredibly beautiful ornamental wood carvings. Aside from the ship and a movie about its recovery, the museum also offers insights into how the ship sank – bad design, and how the court of inquiry failed to find anyone responsible, due their royal connections. Most interesting to me, though, was a series of exhibits about events which were happening around the world at the time of the ship’s building, bringing into clear view how ethnocentric our Western cultural history truly is, and how war, oppression, conquest, and lust for power is such a universal characteristic of our species. I left the museum sobered, and more than a bit depressed. Fortunately, that mood passed, as we found yet another tasty spot to quench our appetite. Some might accuse us of traveling mainly to eat; I confess, there is some truth in the accusation, for the world offers so many great varieties of meals. Walking around Sweden is not only a feast for the stomach, but also for the eyes. Aside from the architecture and the natural scenic beauty everywhere, we saw more attractive people walking around the streets than would be found on a Hollywood set.

We had decided to travel outside the city by car, so we rented a VW Golf, and the next day drove to Uppsala, a university town only 45 minutes from Stockholm. It’s the 4th largest city in Sweden, and the University the oldest, going back to the 1400’s. Carl Linneus, the botanist physician whose classification of plants we still use today, taught here. We visited his gardens, along with his home, now a museum. Celsius, the inventor of the temperature scale, also hailed from here. The Fryis river runs through the city, providing beauty, recreation, along with the Asp, a delicious fish served in the local restaurants. The pink Uppsala castle on top of the hill, symbol of secular power, has its cannons trained on the Cathedral, the religious power symbol, to remind the bishops of where the balance lies. Bicycles are everywhere; outside of Amsterdam, I had not seen a larger collection of this ubiquitous mode of transportation anywhere else. A lot of people ride their bikes to the train station, then take the 38 minute train commute to Stockholm to their jobs in the big city. After spending two leisurely days wandering around Uppsala, we drove to Vasteras, about an hour West, along the shores of Lake Malaren. We stopped at Anundshog, Sweden’s largest Viking burial mound, with five stone ships arranged in a way resembling Stonehenge – very impressive. Again, we had the place almost to ourselves, and the power of the place was almost palpable.

Vallby Open Air Museum was our last stop before reaching the city. It is a collection of old houses from the 1800’s, craft shops and animals, giving a visitor a good concept of what life must have been like for the people who lived here. They also had a small cottage from the 1950’s which people used as vacation homes, complete with period furnishings. It made me feel quite old, as it looked exactly like one of the places my family used to rent for our summer vacations in Wisconsin.

Vasteras was another pleasant surprise; a small city with scenic parks, old and modern buildings, and a large harbor, as well as a sand beach. We stayed in a classic old hotel on the main town square. Our bedroom window looked out at the Cathedral behind us. The city hall has a sculpture in front very similar to Picasso’s piece in Chicago’s downtown. We were impressed with how clean and orderly each city was, along with the quality of the roads. (I was very happy I listened to Miki and got a GPS for the car, for without it, getting around would have been quite traumatic.) I was happy we had decided to rent a car, otherwise we would not have had a chance to see the country side, or make the stops that we did.

If we had done nothing else on this whole trip, coming to Vasteras and having dinner at Frank’s would have made it all worthwhile. This small restaurant was rated number one in the city in every guide I looked at, so when I asked our hotel concierge if it was possible to get a reservation, she just laughed, telling me the place was booked up weeks and months in advance. However, the gods were smiling, and we managed to secure a 9 PM booking. I have to say, with the possible exception of a dinner in Lake Como a number of years ago, this was the best meal Miki and I ever had. The restaurant does not have a menu. They will ask you what you prefer, meat or fish, and if you have any allergies. The chef then prepares a meal for you consisting of two appetizers, a main course, and dessert, each paired with a glass of wine selected  by their sommelier. I ordered meat and Miki fish, and we kept tasting each other’s dishes with the impossible task of deciding which was better. Service was excellent without being fussy or pretentious. I’m not sure what each dish contained, but the flavors were subtle, wonderful, and the afterglow of each dish built to a crescendo of taste experiences I won’t ever forget! Now we’re home, and still processing all the moments that made this such a memorable journey. Hoping to see you all soon,

George & Miki

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