Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Stockholm II

Well, we are finished Uni here at leeds, and have just three weeks before we are heading off again, this time for Spain and Italy. Meanwhile, we are still working our way through the backlog of blogs. Here’s the second instalment of Stockholm!

We awoke late on Sunday - sleeping in a room with no windows makes it hard to work out what time it is! As we were leaving on the 9pm train to Abisko, we needed to check out so packed our bags and were very happy to be told that we could leave the large packs in the luggage room. Not wanting to waste a day, we headed out to grab some breakfast – which was a coffee and croissant from a 7-Eleven. I know, I know, but Stockholm is REALLY expensive to eat out, and the coffee and croissant, even from the 7-Eleven were on par with any café I’ve been to in Australia, and the coffee was a helluva lot better than any in Leeds, York or Manchester.

As nothing opens on a Sunday until 11, we decided to wander around the waterways for a while before trying to find the Sauhall, the food market in Östermalm which apparently has a huge range of fresh local produce for relatively cheap, and we planned to stock up for the 18 hour train trip to Abisko. Near Gamla Stan, a bit of a crowd was gathered around the waterfront. We wandered over to see, and near the parliament building, where the water was rushing through the channel in a torrent, there were some guys in small kayaks messing around in the frozen water, and despite the temperature it looked like they were having fun!We wandered lazily along the cobbled waterfront promenades, drinking in the views of waterways lined with grand old buildings and lots of old timber boats.

Photos: 1) White water kayakers near the Parliament building. 2) Laura and I in front of the Palace and the Parliament. 3) Old wooden boat. 4-5) Quayside promenade of Östermalm. 6-7) Laura and I in front of the waterways. 8) The Östermalm Synagogue - a magnificent building. 9) Old barracks building near the Armeemuseum in Östermalm.

When we reached the Sauhall however, we found it was not open on Sundays, so decided to head to the nearby Armemuseum, an imposing military building whose entrance is guarded with the very strange looking cold war era Swedish turretless S-Tank. Our student cards again came in very handy, halving the entrance fees, and armed with English language audio guides we headed into the museum. From the outset, this was unlike any military museum I’ve seen. The first room was a reminder of the inhumanity of war, with two life-size scenes at either end of the gallery, one of early humans fighting, and the other of a current day Swedish soldier. The commentary asked us to consider some difficult questions, is humankind genetically predisposed to fighting each other, or can violence be overcome. The subsequent displays covered the military history of Sweden from the Vikings to the present day. In the section covering the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648) in which the Swedes, under their warrior king Gustav II Adolf played such a key role, there was a huge diorama of 5,800 painted figures depicting a Swedish army deployed for war. Among the items on display was a 5 meter long pike, I have no idea how people could have held something this size out straight, it must have weighed a ton!

Photos: 1) The Armeemuseum, housed in an 18th century barracks building. 2) Swedish S-Tank. 3) Me in front of Armeemuseum. 4) 10th century statue of Thor, the Scandinavian god of War. 5) Huge diorama or Swedish Thirty Years War army. 6)Russian flags, drums and banners captured at Narva in 1700.

There was also a considerable section on Karl XIIs army, and the Great Northern War against Russia, Saxony and Poland which saw an end to Swedish hegemony in Northern Europe. Among the relics on display was a room full of flags and banners, captured from a Russian army at the battle of Narva in 1700. It was amazing that they were still in one piece, after over 300 years. The lighting was very dim, and turned off every 5 minutes to hopefully preserve the cloth for many years to come. The presentation of the museum was very effective, with life sized mannequins set out in battle scenes. When entering one room, you are greeted by three of Karl XII’s Swedish cavalrymen at the full charge, with their sabres drawn and heading straight for you! There as also a well set out room with a Napoleonic era gun crew reloading, and being attacked by Russian infantry.

Photos: 1) Karl XII of Sweden, the 'madman of Europe'. 2) Karl XII era (1700-1718) Swedish cavalry charging. 3) 18th century Swedish uniform. 4) Napoleonic era Swedish gun and crew. 5) Napoleonic era Russian infantryman.6) Napoleonic era Swedish Hussar's equipment. Rather fancy.

While Sweden may have concluded it’s last official war in 1814 against Napoleon, the museum does not gloss over the thorny issue of Swedish volunteers fighting for Nazi Germany in WWII. A whole section is devoted to the actions of these men, and also to more admirable figures like Raoul Wallenberg, a swedish expat living in Budapest who actively worked against the Nazis to save Jews from deportation and death.

Then it was the fun stuff. The museum had a large interactive ‘hands on’ area, where you can handle the weapons from the muskets and sabres of Karl XII’s army to the assault rifles of today’s Swedish army. While military history is obviously my thing, Laura was even interested by the well thought out layout and interactive nature of the museum, and was happy to indulge my excited darting about and snapping photographs. Difficult thing to have a military museum without celebrating war, but the Swedes managed to pull it off.

Photos: 1) 1940s Swedish Anti tank gun. 2) Section on Raoul Wallenberg and Budapest during the Holocaust. 3) Me with a Karl XII era musket. It was rather heavy!. 4) Laura has a machine gun. 5) The 'tre-kroner' insignia of the Swedish airforce, this was on the wing of a drone.

We headed back out into the Stockholm streets and wandered down towards the centre of town. It was not well after lunch time, and with all the walking we were famished. We wandered into the Sauhall of the NK building, which was supposed to be a cheap place to get food. After seeing that a small cup of coffee was 65 kroner (9 AUD), we decided to try out one of the little hot dog vendors which are all over Stockholm. Despite our limited ability to communicate in Swedish, and the fact that the Spanish hotdog vendor spoke no English, we had no problems ordering a couple of hotdogs. A note on hotdogs, or wurst. These aren’t the wobbly red plastic covered things we have at home. Each vendor has a selection of wurst on offer. Laura had a bratwurst, and I tried the local Bamse. They were delicious, served with an awesome sweet mustard sauce, and for less than 25 kroner (~3AUD) we were very pleased.

With our energy sources suitably recharged, we headed to our next stop, the Hallwyska Museet. The Hallwyska is an old aristocratic family’s house, located in an exclusive waterfront area of Östermalm . It was turned into a museum as specified in the last countess’ will following her death in 1993. The rooms were very impressive, showing the wealth and power of aristocratic families. The rooms were virtually dripping with oil paintings, tapestries, fine sculpture, very tasteful furniture and … folded napkins. Yes, folded napkins. Apparently the Hallwyska was hosting a special exhibition on the art of folding cotton napkins. As neither of us is really that much for folded napkins, it was a little annoying to have all the rooms covered in cotton folded into swans, triumphal arches, castles or roast chickens. Despite the cotton, the collection was very interesting, although the high admission charge, the napkins and the small number of rooms was a bit of a let down. Nonetheless, there were some beautiful objects on show, and the architecture and decorations of the rooms were amazing.

Photos: 1) Laura in front of an aptly named department store. 2) Entry to the main hall of the Hallwyska Museum. 3) The billiard room. 4) The ballroom. 5) Chandelier in ballroom. 6) Laura in the dining room of Hallwyska museum.7) Ceiling of the drawing room.

By now, we were very tired, but still had a few hours to kill before our train left. We decided to head back to the hotel, grab our bags and find a place to get a cheap dinner and wait at Stockholm Central station. We wandered by the SJ rail centre, Sweden’s national rail network, and booked our train tickets from Abisko to Kiruna, which we would need for the coming Saturday. Like everything so far in Sweden, the automated system was quick, efficient and hassle free. Cityrail representatives should take a trip over to Sweden to see how things should be done.

With our tickets and bags sorted, we found a comfy spot to sit, grabbed a burger meal each for dinner and watched the people come and go. At about 8.30 it was time to wave “Hey Daå” to Stockholm and head up to the platform for our train North across the Artic Circle and to Abisko. But that’s for the next blog update.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Stockholm I - Palaces, Vikings, and Reindeer

We left Leeds on a Friday, rising early and travelling by bus and on foot down to the central coach station. After a rather dodgy breakfast from Greggs Bakery, we boarded the coach to Manchester. The coach trip was…a coach trip, but the time flew thanks to a fascinating This American Life podcast about the Apple factory in Shenjen in China.

Steve and Lee met us at the Manchester coach station, in Steve’s very stylish new rental car, a Skoda Roomster (Google image search it J). After a brief tour of Manchester, the guys dropped us out at Manchester Airport and we said goodbye – we’ll be seeing Steve in Berlin.

The flight to Stockholm was with SAS airlines, and as we’d expected from the Scandinavians it was quick, clean and efficient. We arrived in Stockholm Arlanda airport a little after 10pm local time (it’s 1 hour behind the UK). The airport was really nice, everything is in Svensk and in English so it was a simple matter to make our way to the airport train station. After a last minute study of various ‘Basic Swedish’ websites, we had managed to remember a few phrases in Svensk - Hello, Do you speak English, thankyou and bye – or “Hej,” “Talar du Engleska?,” “Tack” and “Hej Daå”. We had a chance to test our pronunciation on the Station staff, and as we have subsequently discovered, almost everyone in Sweden speaks English.

The train was pretty cool, it was very fast (200km/h) but also very quiet, clean and decked out like an Ikea room – all beechwood and comfy chairs there was even carpet, minus the usual smeared in gum. It was also, apparently, eco-friendly. By the time we got into Stockholm Central it was pushing 11pm, and we had a basic idea of where to find our hotel. Yet again, the bilingual signage helped, and we were soon comfortably – if a little claustrophobically, checked into our room at the Kungsbron Hotel. The Kungsbron is an eco hotel, (most places seem to be very eco friendly in Sweden) and our room was underground and was heated by the excess heat from the train station, and cooled by the water from one of Stockholm’s many waterways. It was really nice – or as nice as a room without windows can be – and not too pricey.

Photos: 1) 174km/h on the Arlanda Express! 2) The Kungsbron Hotel

The next day we headed out to explore Stockholm, which it’s probably worth noting is located on a series of islands on the waterway which runs from Lake Mälaren to the Baltic sea. Consequently, there are a load of bridges and pretty little waterways. The first thing we noticed though, was how cold it was! Good thing we had layered up and decided to wear warm boots. After a breakfast of good, strong coffee and croissant (the coffee in the UK has been mostly rubbish), we wandered down to the old town, Gamla Stan. It was a Saturday, and as we discovered almost everything in Stockholm opens after 11am on the weekend. Wandering through the windy, deserted medieval streets in the icy wind was a little strange, but the brightly coloured buildings try their hardest to offset the gloom. We both noticed the real eastern European feeling to the city, what with all the churches being topped by onion shaped domes. South of Gamla Stan, we found the waterways were covered in ice floes, which was a pretty new sight to the both of us. The city is very beautiful, the brightly coloured houses, onion domed church spires, old wooden boats and fast flowing waterways are really something to see.

Photos: 1) Laura on Vasabron bridge with Parliament house and Gamla Stan in the background 2) Bridge from Gamla Stan 3) Ship and another Island from Gamla Stan 4) Narrow Gamla Stan street 5) Ice covered waterway near Slussplan, Gamla Stan 6) Ben and King Gustaf III 7) Rabbit sculptures in Kungsträdgården park 8) Karl XII and St. Jacobs Church off Kungsträdgården 9) Path through Kungsträdgården 10) Apartment building door in Östermalm

We decided to see if anything was happening in Östermalm, the district to the north east of Gamla Stan. As we wandered back along the waterfront promenade, the city was waking up and by the time we crossed the waterway in front of the Royal Palace off Gamla Stan, the streets were very nearly bustling. We decided to walk up to visit the Historiska Museet, the Swedish national history museum which had been recommended to us by Ian Wood, one of Ben’s professors in Leeds. After a few kilometres strolling along the cobbled waterfront, we arrived at the rather Spartan looking museum. Not wanting to judge a book by its cover, we headed in and were soon standing amazed in front of collections of early Scandinavian (so, Viking) jewellery, weapons, boats, pottery and huge stones with elaborate carvings. Despite their bloodthirsty reputation, the Vikings’ primary focus was upon trade. The town of Birka on the western bank of Lake Mälaren, had been a bustling trading centre for the Swedish Vikings. Some of the finds on display illustrate the extraordinary sophistication of their trade network, and include a cross from Ireland, items from the eastern Mediterranean and even a Buddha from India. Dominating the entry to the display is a marble lion from Piraeus in Greece, which is covered in Viking graffiti; Swedish runic patterns which have yet to be deciphered.

Photos: 1) Historiska Museet 2) Svear (Swedish Viking) runestone 3) Lion from Piraeus with Viking graffiti

The jewellery was very sophisticated and beautiful, including a bunch of intricately worked brooches and even some love hearts. There was even a 1000 year old hairpiece which had been uncovered, with the hair still intact. Among the displays was a collection of keys. The keys were worn by Viking women, and symbolised their power and responsibility over household and farm. Trading or raiding, the Viking men may have been boss, but not within the farmstead or house, a bit like today =).

1) & 2) 9th-10th century Svear jewellery from Birka 3) Love heart shaped belt ornaments 4) Svear womens' keys

Speaking of raiding, the collection of weapons and armour were also pretty amazing, and some the museum holds some very famous and iconic Viking helmets, shields and, of course, drinking horns. There were even the remains of a boat burial, including the skeletons of the dog and horse which were interred with the deceased. It was very surreal standing next to the skeleton of the horse, as you could see where the blow which killed it had been struck over 1200 years ago.

1) Svear weapons 2) Early [6th-7th century] Svear helmet 3) Reconstruction of Gokstadt viking ship 4) Iconic Svear helmet

The rest of the museum was equally fascinating, especially the cloth cloak which was found in a bog. Not really that exciting you say, until you hear that it is 2300 years old and looks like it had been made yesterday. There were also large amounts of religious art and sculpture, saved from the iconoclasms (image smashing) which took place in other Protestant countries during the reformation. The awe inspiring nature of the displays is hard to summarise here, but if you’re ever in Stockholm, don’t miss the Historiska Museet.

1) Medieval religious altarpiece 2) 2300 year old cloak

Our legs were aching after so much walking, but on a high from the museum we decided to backtrack down to Gamla Stan and see if we could get into see the palace. By now, the city was really busy, and the streets were teeming with coach trip tourists and Stockholmers. The Kungliga Slottet, the royal palace, is very imposing. From the outside it looks pretty grim, it’s grey outline punctuated only by the bright yellow guard boxes which shelter the very cold looking royal guardsmen. Once inside though, the place opens up into a variety of extravagant state rooms and royal apartments, with paintings and statues of the various monarchs. It’s easy to forget that Sweden was once a first rate world power, dominating Northern Europe under kings like Gustav II Adolf and Karl XII before the disastrous defeat of a huge Swedish army by the Russian Tsar Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709 put an end to Swedish expansion.

1) Kungliga Slottet, the Royal Palace 2) Laura in front of Kungliga Slottet 3) View out of Kungliga Slottet and the guard box. Photos were prohibited inside, but it's rather amazing! 4) Entry to Kungliga Slottet 5) Laura and a Royal Guardsmen 6) Ben near Kungliga Slottet. It was a little cold:)

The magnificent crown jewels collection is pretty amazing, and definitely comparable to the British crown jewels. Laura picked out a few diamonds and jewels which she found particularly appealing – I’m thinking that it might be a little unachievable on a students budget however. J

The ‘modern’ palace was built during the 1700s, upon the remains of the original royal castle, Tre Kroner, which was destroyed in a fire. It’s still possible to explore the remains of Tre Kroner (Three Crowns – Sweden’s royal symbol) in the dark underbelly of the modern palace, and it was rather eerie wandering around dimly lit corridors of a destroyed castle which dated back to the 800s.

After a day spent waking, a large part of which was up and down stairs, our legs were ready to give in, so we staggered back to the hotel for a bit of a rest. We didn’t stay long though, getting our second wind we headed out, back down to Gamla Stan to try to find some dinner. It was St. Patricks day, and groups of young Swedes dressed in green, as well as yellow and blue (the Swedish national colours), were wandering the streets literally singing for their drinking money. Alcohol used to be a big problem in Sweden, and so consequently it is very highly taxed here. We were warned that if you go out for dinner, just two beers generally cost more than the food, so I guess a night out drinking would need a bit of financial aid. We found a great little restaurant in an old winding side street, and stepped inside. Seeing elk stew and reindeer with lingonberry and potato as the specials of the day (and over 100 kroner cheaper than other options), we decided to take the plunge. The food was awesome, elk stew was delicious, kind of like a gamey braised steak, and the reindeer was equally delicious. Full to the brim of hearty Swedish food, we headed back to the hotel and collapsed into bed.

1) Kungliga Slottet by night 2) Stockholm waterways. The Baltic sea is out that way 3) Menu at the restaurant. Elk stew and Reindeer, nom nom.