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.

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