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.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Back to York

Well, we’ve fallen behind a little in the blog updates, but we’ve completed a few so they should be coming rather thick and fast over the next few weeks to get back up to date. Over the last month we’ve been travelling around Europe, but are now back in Leeds for the last few weeks of Uni. So, cast your minds back if you will to six weeks or so ago, when winter was still in the air.

After our first trip to York, we decided to go back and have another look. The easiest and cheapest way was by bus, so we woke early and trekked down to the Leeds central bus terminal. We should probably explain here that bus travel is much better and more popular than at home, where buses seem primarily for old people, crazy people or drunk people.

Anyway, the trip was as pleasant as such things can be, and after an hour or so we hopped off just outside the city. It was a lovely day, and we were well rugged up against what little chill was in the air, so we decided to walk in. After hopping off the bus, we had a surreal moment as we passed the very hotel we had stayed at when we first visited York in 2008. No wonder we ran out of money, the hotel is the biggest and most luxurious looking establishment on the street. Our flat might be a little cramped at times, but at least we have lasted over two months without exhausting our funds!

As the ice and snow of the previous weekend had cleared away, the walls were open to pedestrians so we scaled the walls just inside the Mickelgate Bar and headed towards the town. The tulips, daffodils and other flowers which are planted in lawns and grassy areas over here were beginning to bloom, the sky was blue and you could smell spring in the air. When we reached the bridge over the Oise river, we ran into the first jabbering, photo snapping troop of coach tourists, so decided to hurry the pace towards our first stop, the York Historical Museum. The museum is located in the grounds of the old York Abbey, which is a fair bit smaller and in rather poorer repair than ‘our’ abbey at Kirkstall. Nonetheless, the gardens full of flowers, and red squirrels were scurrying around the undergrowth, darting out to grab stray morsels of food dropped by passers by. The museum is located in an impressive looking Georgian building, which we entered and were greeted by a staff member who told us that a large part of the medieval display was not available for viewing, as York is celebrating some sort of 800th anniversary. This was a little annoying, but as the Roman section was still on display we headed in. The collection was pretty amazing, centred around a collection of gravestones and statues. One gravestone in particular was very touching. It was for the wife of a Roman man, and showed him cuddling her – very unusual as Romans almost never illustrated physical intimacy. She must have been very loved. Another section of the display had several skulls, and each had the results of the archaeological research – their age, vocation, place of birth and age at death – written out in story form. It was a very nice way to see the personal stories behind what would otherwise be slightly unsettling artefacts. There were also a large number of coins, pottery, and tiles along with the odd jewellery piece or weapon, but the collection was not that large and we were soon back outside enjoying the Yorkshire sunshine.

Photos: 1) York City walls. 2) Laura on the wall. 3) Ben on the wall - love the safety rail. 4) Yorkshire Museum. 5) Yorkshire Museum 5) Constantine. 6) Roman grave stone.

We decided to head up to the famous cathedral, the York Minster, which dominates the skyline of the old town. On the way, we stopped in at an excellent little antique store, which for us Aussies was pretty amazing. While at home the rarest antiques you are likely to come across might date from the Victorian period, here were Celtic, Roman, Viking and Byzantine artefacts for sale, along with a plethora of items from as far back as the 16th century. Pretty amazing.

Photos 1-3) York Minster

Anyway, we arrived outside the huge and imposing minster, however the admission fee was rather steep, and as we’re trying to save our money for Europe, we decided to head into the shambles, the ancient medieval part of York, to grab some lunch. I had my heart set on getting roast beef with Yorkshire puddings, and decided upon an medieval pub smack bang in the centre of The Shambles. Bad move. As well as being the oldest part of York, The Shambles is also the most touristy, and after a wait of over an hour, our food arrived cold and flavourless, and the Yorkshire pudding wasn’t even hand made, it was the same brand I’d seen in the local supermarket’s frozen food section. 25 GBP (~35 AUD) later, we decided to henceforth avoid eating in restaurants in any area prone to tourists, and that instead we’d stick to street food, which looked and smelled a lot better anyway.

Photos: 1) York Minster. 2) A York shop - no the photo isn't distorted. 3) MAD Alice Lane. 4) The Shambles

Not letting a dodgy lunch dampen our spirits, we headed through the winding streets, with their misshapen overhanging medieval houses, and arrived at the York Castle Museum, just across the square from Clifford’s Tower.

The York Castle Museum is pretty amazing, and despite its name is focused not on the history of the castle and the kings and rulers who inhabited it, but on ordinary peoples lives in Yorkshire from the middle ages to today. The first part of the display consisted of a variety of rooms, all set out from different periods. As we’d been watching an excellent series on BBC3 about the history of the bedroom, the bathroom, the kitchen etc, it was cool to be able to see these rooms. The Victorian room was very busy, with every surface covered by heavy carvings or patterns. Adding to the very weird Victorian vibe was the inclusion of stuffed household pets, very lifelike but the dead eyes were most unsettling. (Try and spot the dog!)

Making our way through the various rooms, including one 1980s kitchen which reminded us of Byron’s kitchen (before the renovations J), we came out onto a reconstructed Victorian high-street. Despite being indoors, the street was complete with shopfronts, stuffed horses pulling hansom cabs, and a light and sound system which changed from day to night. People in period dress were hanging around, answering questions when asked but not doing the in your face overacting which usually comes with such displays. The old toy store was particularly cool, with original rocking horses, dolls house accessories and toy soldiers.

After the Victorian street, with the exception of a display on the English Civil War, the Castle museum was devoted to collections related to ‘social’ history. There were so many fascinating displays, including a handmade quilt from the 18th century, an amazing manorial dollhouse made in the mid 17th century, and even a cabinet full of 1980s toys – remember the Sega Master System II, Nintendo N64 and Nintendo Gameboy? Well, they’re in a museum now. Makes you feel a little old, huh. Anyway, the museum was finished off with a display on York Castle, and a bunch of rooms set up as cells from when the castle was a prison which held, among others, the highwaymen Dick Turpin.

All in all, the York Castle museum was not the poky little museum we had expected, and it’s eclectic collections mean it’s well worth a visit if you’re interested in … well, anything.

Photos: 1) Inside the York Castle Museum 2) The worlds most awesome dollhouse. 3) Quilt! (for Sandra) 4) English Civil War dudes. 5) Pride and Prejudice era clothes. 6) Children of the 80s! 7) Spot the dog in this Victorian room. 8) 80s kitchen. 9) Grandparents house? 10) Ben being a dork.

No, we didn't actually get transported back to the 80s for the above photos!

By now it was rather late, and we headed back to the coach station and back to Leeds. All in all, it was a pretty enjoyable trip, despite a rather dodgy lunch, and we were both glad that we had decided to go back to have a further look at York.

I know this post has been a bit of a long one, but if you've got this far hopefully you'll excuse one brief postscript. The day after York, we headed into the Leeds town hall for a vintage fair. This was pretty amazing, the building is very impressive, a secular cathedral of sorts. The range of the clothes and accessories on show were, I'm reliably informed, amazing. In and around the racks and stalls was very busy, and there were quite a few men and women dressed up in full 1930s and 1940s period costume. Laura picked up a beautiful little vintage compact with a enamelled finish. We both thought that Nikki and Paul would have been in heaven - guys, if you end up getting to the UK you have to track down a big vintage fair.

Anyway, that's pretty much it for now, we'll be posting in the next few days all about our Stockholm adventures!

Photos: 1) Leeds Town Hall. 2) Laura at the vintage fair. 3) Leeds Town Hall atrium. 4) Goodies at the fair.