Sweden

I spend a lot of time researching and planning my travels, so it was completely out of character for me to just book a flight and go to Stockholm.  Of course, it helped that I had a friend waiting for me on the other end.  I had met Simon on my trip to Skye in Scotland, and we kept in touch following the tour.  He invited me to come visit him in Sweden, and while I thought it was something I might do someday, after a series of stressful events at home I decided that someday was actually right now.

Going through Iceland in July turned out to be brilliant, literally.  Flying overnight through the land of the midnight sun allowed my body clock to quickly adjust to the time change.  I arrived in Stockholm, took a shower and quick nap, then Simon took me out to introduce me to his city.

We took the subway to Gamla Stan (“Old Town”), the historic part of the city.  The Stockholm subway is unlike anything I have ever seen.  Each station could be a modern art exhibit, and the Kungsträdgården station near Gamla Stan is the most interesting of them all.  Being slightly jet lagged, I couldn’t help but to wonder if I were hallucinating.

We walked through Gamla Stan, ate dinner, then made our way over to Stadshuset, Stockholm’s City Hall.  I was starting to get tired and thought to myself that surely City Hall could wait until the next day.  But when we arrived at 10:30 pm, just as the sun was starting to set, the view overlooking the water was so stunning that I understood why we had to be there.

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The next day, despite a 4 am sunrise, I had no problem sleeping in and woke up refreshed.  Simon lives in a neighborhood just next to Filmstaden, the Swedish film studio where Ingmar Bergman filmed many of his movies.  Known as “Swedish Hollywood,” it is a hidden gem that was virtually empty as he and I strolled through the area.  With guided tours on a hiatus during July, we were able to download an audio guide and explore the studio at our own pace.  While the audio guide did not mention it, Simon told me that Pippi Longstocking was also filmed there, and found a YouTube clip that even showed his apartment building in the background.

We next returned to the waterfront and took a long walk over to Djurgården, a large public park-island.  I hesitate to compare, but it reminded me a bit of Central Park in New York, with green space, museums, a small amusement park, and performance venues.  It was here that I had my first glimpse of the ABBA museum.  As excited as I was, it was too late to start a tour, so we held off for another day and enjoyed a nice dinner instead.

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That evening, Simon started to get sick.  By the next morning, it was clear he needed to stay home, so I went off to play tourist by myself.  I returned to Gamla Stan and went to the Nobel Museum.  I haven’t mentioned it so far, but Stockholm was experiencing a heat wave, and most buildings did not have air conditioning.  The Nobel Museum was located in the old stock exchange building, and was sweltering.  I survived a thirty minute guided tour then had to leave.  Looking for a cool break, I realized that there were swarms of tourists everywhere, and began feeling claustrophobic in the narrow cobblestone streets.  Being on an island, I looked down streets for signs of water, and eventually found my way to the ferry.

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The ferry took me back to Djurgården.  Not sure where to go next, I came across the Vasamuseet, or Vasa Museum.  I had read about the museum, but didn’t think I would be interested.  However, it looked air conditioned, so I went in.  The museum turned out to be pretty cool, and not just because of the A/C.  The Vasa was a massive ship that set sail from Stockholm in 1628.  Within minutes, it sank.  The combination of poor design and excessive weight from cannons was unsustainable.  Despite an immediate attempt to salvage the ship, it was not recovered until 1961.  I was fascinated to learn of the restoration process, and to see the ship in person.  I was so glad I decided to check it out, even if my initial interest was merely to escape the heat.

DANCING QUEEN

The next morning, Simon was feeling better, so we headed to the ABBA museum.  The weather had cooled to a pleasant summer temperature, and we ended up taking a few detours along the way.  It was so easy to get distracted by the beauty of Stockholm, and knowing we had a seemingly infinite amount of daylight, the opportunity to just explore was hard to resist. By the time we got to the museum it was already 4pm.

The ABBA museum was so much fun.  Was there any doubt it wouldn’t be?  I honestly learned a great deal about the group, particularly about their lives before they formed ABBA.  While their songs may seem fluffy and light, it was impossible not to respect how much they achieved.  There were a lot of interactive displays, including one where you could record an ABBA song and – my favorite – dance onstage with ABBA holograms.

Still dancing as we exited the museum, and with it being a Saturday night, Simon suggested we check out the Stockholm night life.  After a quick dinner and clean up, we headed out to a club called Golden Hits.  Simon said it was for older people, and I assumed he meant baby boomers, wondering why we would go there.  I was wrong.  The club was so much fun.  He explained later that by older, he meant thirty-year-olds and not twenty-year-olds.  With a bar on the first floor, karaoke and dancing on the second floor, and more dancing on the third floor, we stayed out way too late having a great time.  It was crazy to come home in time for the sunrise at 3 am.

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It was right around our second drink that night that we booked tickets for a day trip to Copenhagen on Monday.  The next morning, neither of us could quite recall whose idea it was, but neither of us regretted doing it.  I was supposed to go to a football (soccer) game with Simon and his friends on Sunday.  But after the Copenhagen decision, I asked if he would mind my skipping the game to get some souvenir shopping done.

While Simon was at the game, I decided to tour City Hall first and then do some shopping.  When I got to City Hall, it was a beautiful day and there were large groups of tourists making their way inside.  I began to have a change of heart.  City Hall has a large tower with a separate tour requiring walking up lots of stairs.  Only a few people were allowed at a time.  I signed up for the next group, made my way to the top, and was treated to great views overlooking the city.  It was all I needed.  After walking back down all the stairs, I decided I had earned a treat and went to an outdoor cafe I had spotted earlier along the waterfront.   Grabbing a seat in the shade, I enjoyed a latte and famous Swedish pastry called kanelbullar.  It was explained to me kanelbullar was like a cinnamon roll, but I found it to be very different.  Not nearly as sweet and with hints of cardamom, I actually liked it more than a cinnamon roll.

With coffee, pastry, and a great view, I couldn’t bring myself to leave.  I decided I didn’t want to be inside City Hall with all the tourists.  I wanted to stay outside.  Eventually, I made my way over to the shopping district to check out the Swedish department stores NK and Åhléns before they closed.  I always enjoy visiting department stores in other countries, but I didn’t find any souvenirs this time.  Upon leaving, however,  I turned down a pedestrian street and found a bunch of tourist shops where I was able to pick up a few items.  Simon texted me that he was having dinner with his friends, so I wandered over to Kungsträgården (“the King’s Garden”) in search of my own dinner.  We had passed this small park many times, so I was familiar with it by now.  With a beautiful fountain full of children playing in the water, a stage that the night before had hosted a metal festival but on this Sunday was quiet, and lined with restaurants and take away options, I found an Asian cafe and sat outside enjoying noodles and a glass of wine while watching all the activity.

COPENHAGEN

Monday morning the alarm went off at 4 am, and we were soon at the airport for our 7 am flight to Copenhagen. Getting up that early is certainly a lot easier when the sun is shining brightly at 4 am.  It was only a one hour flight, and by 8:30 we had taken the metro from the airport to the famous area of Nyhavn.  I think this is what prompted the whole trip.  The picturesque buildings came up on my Instagram feed, and we decided to go.  When we arrived, the neighborhood was quiet, and we were able to get some great pictures.  Looking for breakfast next, we discovered a charming cafe on a side street called Vedels Konditori.  We each had a breakfast sandwich, then could not resist indulging in a  pastry.  Seeing an assortment of familiar and unfamiliar Danishes, I asked for “the most Danish Danish you have.”  I was surprised by what I was given.  It was a bit crunchy, which I liked, and had a dollop of both chocolate and vanilla frosting.

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We then went in search of the Little Mermaid statue.  This was frankly all I knew about Copenhagen, having seen it on a travel show once.  The map showed a bit of a walk, and as we passed through Nyhavn again it was full of tourists.  I was so glad we had gotten there early.  We continued walking along the waterfront, enjoying a quiet Monday morning in Copenhagen.  Clearly, the tourists were all at Nyhavn.  I looked out over the water, then heard Simon exclaim, “Oh no!”

In the distance, close to where we expected to see the statue, there was a large crowd of people.  I saw a lot of red clothes and people waving flags.  “Chinese tourists!” Simon yelled. But then I noticed a large Canadian flag.  Unusual, I thought.  Getting closer, I saw that there were flags from a variety of countries.  And I saw that the sea of red clothes was in fact a large assembly of Santa Clauses.  Upon realizing that we had come across a Santa Claus convention, I burst into laughter and started recording.  I lost Simon a few times amidst all the Santas, but we eventually found each other and got some pictures with a few Santas.  I told Simon that there was no way we could have planned that had we tried.  It was hilarious.

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What an absurd dilemma that I couldn’t get a picture of the Little Mermaid statue because of all the Santa Clauses.  But after some tricky footwork across some wet stones, I was able to finagle a shot.  However, it paled in comparison to the Santa pictures.  Sorry, Little Mermaid.

After that adventure, and with the early wake up starting to get to us, we decided to take a canal boat tour.  It was a great way to see Copenhagen, particularly the areas I knew we would not have time to reach on our one day excursion.  I was happy to cruise past Freetown Christiania, a hippie enclave that was supposed to be a tourist spot but frankly looked sketchy to me.  I saw just enough from the boat.  When the tour was over, we grabbed a quick lunch.  I finally had one of the famous open-faced sandwiches that are prominent in Scandinavia.  Simon was concerned it would be too small, but my shrimp with dill, caviar, and sun-dried tomato filled me up.

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“PROBABLY” *

We had time for one more activity before heading back to the airport, and we both knew what we wanted to do…….

The Carlsberg Brewery!  Simon was a huge Carlsberg fan, and I thought an iconic Danish brewery was a must-see.  We took the metro out to Carlsberg, and were able to get the last tasting of the day.  There were not that many people there, so it was a fun, intimate, almost VIP experience.  We were treated to Jacobsen beers that are only sold in Denmark, and it was here that I feel in love with a beer for the first (well, maybe second) time.  The Jacobsen Velvet beer was blended with elements of wine and champagne, and was so refreshing on a warm summer afternoon.  With only six in our tasting group, and big bottles to share, I ended up drinking most of the liter as others in the group gravitated towards other beers.  Simon was smitten with the Dark Lager, which I thought was delicious as well, and he drank most of that liter.

With no time left to tour the brewery, we realized we needed a return trip in the future, and preferably by car so we could stock up on the Jacobsen.  We made a quick stop at the gift shop, then it was back to the airport.  Returning to Stockholm around 8:30 pm, we ended up eating dinner at the Stockholm airport.  This dining choice added to the quirkiness of the day, and we agreed that our impromptu booking while at the club Saturday night had been one of our best decisions.

*Why “probably”? Simon kept saying it, and eventually told me he was referencing this…..

VAXHOLM

On my last day in Sweden, we decided to go on a ferry through the Swedish archipelago.  The many small islands surrounding Stockholm had come up in conversation often during my visit, from Bergman’s island, to Benny & Bjorn from ABBA’s island retreat, to even Tiger Wood’s ex-wife Elin Nordegren’s island home.  It seemed that everyone in Sweden had a summer home on a Swedish island.  The entire ferry voyage was four hours to the northernmost stop, and a four hour return.  Simon suggested Vaxholm, on stop on the island of Vaxön, a one hour ride away.

As we rode the ferry away from Stockholm, we came across yachts, sailboats, and an occasional cruise ship.  It was a very social scene as passengers greeted each other, and I enjoyed the experience.  Once we were outside of the Stockholm cityscape, the atmosphere became more tranquil, as we passed small islands and made stops at tiny ports where the occasional passenger got off with their suitcase.  Arriving in Vaxön, it had the feel of a coastal community, with boats in the harbor, a car ferry, and restaurants dotting the waterfront filled with day trippers.

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After a leisurely lunch and stroll around the waterfront, we caught a ferry back to Stockholm.  I was glad I was able to see this other side of Swedish life.  It was an idyllic experience.  Back in Stockholm, we returned to the ABBA museum gift shop so I could pick up a few more souvenirs.  I knew my final day was coming to an end and I was feeling sad.  I enjoyed this city so much more than I expected.  The weather was perfect and I didn’t want to day to end.  After grabbing a cider at a waterfront bar and staring out onto the water blissfully, we returned to Gamla Stan for dinner.

I thought the day was over, but I was wrong.  After dinner, Simon said he wanted to show me a view. We got on the metro, and I wondered where on earth he was taking me.  Surely I had seen all the great views by this point.  After a few stops, we got off in the hipster neighborhood of Södermalm.  It was getting dark, but our journey continued up a long staircase.  I was starting to get concerned, worried that I had to get back and organize my suitcase for the next morning.  I didn’t think I had time for this.  But then we go to the top of the staircase and came to the view.  It was breathtaking.

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Looking out over the city, I was overwhelmed.  Stockholm was amazing.  This whole unexpected trip was amazing.  I was so glad I had taken a chance and gone to visit Simon.  Sweden had always seemed to fall towards the middle of my travel bucket list, and yet in seizing this opportunity I found myself enchanted by this country and wanted to explore more.

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