May 30, 2004

Stockholm Surprise

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.

Posted by acarvin at May 30, 2004 04:43 PM | TrackBack

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