Escape to the Baltic

When we were invited to join an overnight cruise I was skeptical. It was billed as a party ship, and we would be joining a group of Swedes as yet unknown to me who planned to get smashed. None of this particularly appealed to me. Nevertheless in the spirit of adventure we decided to go along; if nothing else, I thought, it would make an interesting blog post.
In many ways it was as I had expected. As the weekend crept closer I pictured drunk Swedes vomiting in swaying ship corridors, a tiny cabin a metre wide and windowless, people pinging between the ship’s only two bars and a rain drenched deck. One of these at least was partly true.

Swedish people, if I may generalise, like to be organised and prepared. Which is why those waiting to board the ship availed themselves of every opportunity to get sloshed. The corridors and halls leading to the as yet closed doors to the ship were lined with 2 bars and a restaurant, all doing a roaring trade. Beer, precarious glasses of wine and cruisers bobbed about and were knocked back or knocked over as the queue eventually began to move forward. Some people pulled empty trolleys along with their luggage, ready for the slabs of beer from duty free. If only they had known that you can buy pre-packed trolleys in the shop. A hen’s night group in matching t-shirts bustled about bottles in hand, already warmed up. We followed the crowd, in the wake of the Swedish friend of a friend who had invited us along.

‘Have you been on the cruise before?’

‘Yes, a few years ago. The other guys go every year, pretty much everyone in my home town know each other and so they all go together.’

‘What can you do on the boat? Other than drink I mean?’

‘Well,’ she thought, ‘there’s a shop and spas. And lots of different bars.’

Somewhat comforted that there were more than 2 places to spend our time, I continued to edge slowly forward, through security and finally onto the ship. My first impression was Titanic, only smaller, and my second was a sigh as I read that our rooms wouldn’t be open for at least an hour. We were all confined to the lower deck for the time being, and as we made our way around, one bar making way for another, and then a dance floor and a corridor of pokies, an inkling of the cunning plan concocted by the ship’s owners began to form in my mind.

A tipple on the topdeck

A tipple on the topdeck

By the time the rooms were open and we’d located ours, Stockholm was passing us by, and from the round window of our room I could see the roller-coasters and rides of Gröna Lund chugging along merrily. Our roommates seemed nice, and once they’d gone on their way and we’d gotten changed for the evening (con sneakers to black heels, pony-tail brushed out) we hit the decks. Along with our fellow Australian friend, we wandered about and eventually settled at the bar on the top deck, where we had a lovely view of the Stockholm archipelago slowly sliding past us. After a few more glasses we followed our whims, having dinner at one of the two restaurants after night had fallen outside (it never fell inside) and missing the opening hours for the duty free shop.

The archipelago at dusk

The archipelago at dusk

As time went on it seemed as though we were slipping behind everyone else on the ship drinks-wise, as a visit to the sundeck including a surprisingly good duet of Bohemian Rhapsody and stumblingly cheerful Swedes demonstrated. Back at the rooms we found where the real parties were taking place. The plan on these ships is to raid the duty free shops, get tanked in your rooms (where alcohol is technically not allowed) and then head out for the clubs. One of the most memorable moments on the ship was walking past an open door and glancing in to see about 10 young Swedish men perched on bunks and the floor, peering back at me like hens nesting in a coop.
We ended up on bunks between someone who overdid ‘Hellooooo!’ just a little, a Brian Viglione lookalike and a Canadian expat. Once our British roommate joined us we switched to English and made progress on a slab of sweet vodkaish things. Then it was time for karaoke, but by the time we had rounded everyone up from the party that was rolling from room to room, the sun deck was a night club and dancing was underway.

Onboard nightclub

Onboard nightclub

We passed the hours, watching, dancing, arguing about whether the flappy things above the ship were bats or birds, getting out of the way of medics helping a guy who had lost the fight with gravity and drink. Sometime later it was 5 in the morning and we were back in the cabin, almost-Brian passed out and Helloooo-man making no sense and falling asleep just before we got the message about an impatient girl who was waiting for him. Then, before the sun could start to peak too far over the horizon, we padded as quietly as possible into our own cabin and went to bed, not knowing that we were nearly in Finland.

The Baltic in the morning

The Baltic in the morning

The next morning, 3 hours later, I was awakened by a foghorn and despite struggles and the comfy bed I didn’t manage to get back to sleep. By the time I was up and dressed, the chance to visit Åland had passed. An island that is owned by Finland, where the official language is Swedish and they use the Euro, Åland would be an interesting place to visit, but not this time.
We missed breakfast and instead visited the shop, getting some cheap bottles and snacks, and then having a quick breakfast of chips and pastry on the top deck bar. The sun was out and the Stockholm archipelago was moving past us again under a blue sky. For the rest of the cruise we had lunch, sat outside in the windy sunlight, explored the decks and played air hockey (2-1).

Back in the archipelago

Back in the archipelago

By the time the boat was pulling back into harbour we were packed and watching gulls and terns dive for fish from the lower deck. The view of Gamla Stan and Djurgården over the water was lovely, and made me almost want to be part of the bustling big-brother city to my home town.
We disembarked, said goodbye to our shipmates, and then headed through town for the train home.

Gamla Stan across the sea

Gamla Stan across the sea

As I think about it, many things about the cruise seem to be a contradiction. The cabins are very cheap, but there is no opportunity to save money on the ship. You’re basically trapped with hundreds of other people who want to escape for the weekend, and the only escape is the seemingly endless supply of alcohol. All ages boarded the ship and no doubt all sorts of mischief was gotten up to, but by the next morning we all stepped off looking relatively chipper and friendly, merging back into our everyday selves. What happens on the cruise stays on the cruise, between the vague shore and international waters, and new friends you’ll never meet again.

Advertisements

A fine day for a stroll

Last Friday Göteborg received a visitor from Australia, who happened also to be a friend of mine and to whom I was quite eager to show off my city.

As I explained to him (repeatedly) he was extremely lucky with the weather. The day started with fog, which then turned to bright sunshine and clear skies and stayed so until evening, which was slightly chilly and still clear. The fact that the next day was mostly cloudy proves my point I think.

The fact that the following few days have been bright and sunny is something that I choose to ignore in this discussion.

We met at noon and began the tour with a stroll to Brunnsparken and then down Östra Hamngatan to Kungsportsplatsen, dodging political cabins, placard-bearers and trams, and mingling with the sun-blissed Swedes filling the pavements.
At Kungsortsplatsen I pointed out the Kopparmärra, chuckling with someone who I suspect was hoping to entice me to vote for some party or other, about the obvious inaccuracy of the ‘mare’ title. Hoping to escape more hopeful pamphlet bearers, we crossed the street and made for the first destination of our tour: Saluhallen.

We stared around at the cheese, meat, baked goods and spice stalls, pausing for a bit at the baked goods, and then found 2 seats at one of the restaurants in the centre. I had been introduced to this place by a friend, with whom I’d shared a delicious lunch of fish burgers and salad, and planned to present my visiting friend with something authentically Swedish. As the days special was no longer fish burger, we instead tucked into also very traditional beef burgers with potato and lingonberry sauce.

Exploring the archipelago

Exploring the archipelago

Well fortified for a day of wandering, we left Saluhallen and strolled along the canals, where people basked on the walls and grassy slopes. A tram ride then took us to Saltholmen, where we caught a ferry to Brännö, an island in the southern archipelago. I’ve been to Brännö before, for a walk and a drink, but I hadn’t explored as much as this time. The sun was out and the trees were overflowing with apples, unfortunately all out of reach of my hands, if not my hungry eyes. It was quiet, apart from the occasional local and chatty sheep, and we even found some lingering blackberries.

Apple trees

Apple trees

We then caught a ferry back to the mainland, and a tram back to town and continued our strolling through Haga, one of the prettiest parts of Göteborg. The cafes were still open and a brass band was playing in the main square. We didn’t climb up to Skansen Kronen, choosing instead to admire it from below, and then continued along Vasagatan. The political posters were still adorning every tree, pole, lamp post and bus stop, and we took our time considering their positions and trying to spot SD. Vasagatan then turned into Avenyn and so we went up to ogle the statue of Poseidon, and example of what art ought not to be.

One of my favourite buildings on Vasagatan

One of my favourite buildings on Vasagatan

Then to a restaurant for drinks, food and meeting my partner, with whom we wandered to another bar for more drinks and finally wandered back to the hotel to bid my friend goodbye. We both assured him, again, that the weather had been pretty miraculous and that he’d be welcome to explore out fine little city the next time he was up north. We then parted ways and headed home.

I hope that we will get more visitors who we can show around town, if only so that I have an excuse for a leisurely walk on a sunny island.

The city of islands

Having woken somewhat groggily from a post-Viking feast slumber, we eventually set out on our second day in Stockholm in the late morning. The city by this time was alive with people, gaggles of tourists, locals crossing town for work or play or just wandering about and enjoying the summer. We joined the crowds on Gamla Stan, planning to cross to the mainland to catch a ferry.

Our route took us past the royal palace, where it seemed that something was afoot. The largest crowds we had seen so far were packed and still packing behind rope barricades, apparently watching the palace guards, who in turn seemed to be blankly watching nothing. No one seemed inclined to explain what was going on, so we hung about curiously until an announcement that the changing of the guards was imminent. As neither of us was very interested and it seemed unlikely to involve horses or the royal family we hurried out, passing a marching band and a group of very serious looking guards on their way to take over guarding duty.

Stockholm from a ferry

Stockholm from a ferry

Now that we had escaped the fanfare, we skirted around the palace and found the ferry dock, where we caught one across to Djurgården, an island which seems to house most of the interesting and fun places in Stockholm. As we looked for somewhere to have lunch, we could hear screams from the theme park and see people darting about the tree lined streets, bound for the ABBA Museum (I’m not kidding), the Vasa Museum or Skansen, which was our destination.

So Skansen; how to describe it… Basically it’s a combination zoo, craft village, music venue, playground and outside museum in the middle of an island, in the middle of Stockholm. To understand you really have to visit it.
As we following the paths around for our first visit, we found the wolf enclosure, where we spotted one fellow trying to sleep in the sun and ignore the pointing crowds. I got a thrill spotting him, or her, as I did when I caught a glimpse of a single wolf at Nordens Ark last year. Speaking of which, I do intend to post about that day at some point.

Spot the wolf!

Spot the wolf!

From wolves, we saw a family of lynxes, the kittens pattering about with huge paws and the mother patiently carrying them across streams while the father lazed in the shade of a tree.
Then bears, sleeping in furry, comfortable piles in the sun, also ignoring the excited people leaning over the fences and taking photos.

Sleeping bears

Sleeping bears

One of the animals I found the most interesting was one that I hadn’t seen before, at least not in the flesh. European bison were almost extinct at one point, with a small amount remaining in zoos and none left in the wild. Thanks to breeding programs, there are now a few herds out there and also a number in zoos such as Skansen. They were one of the most represented animals in cave paintings, and seeing them in life I could imagine why they had such an influence on the people who shared the world with them thousands of years ago.

Bisons being shy

Bisons being shy

Finally we found deer, lying next to fences and tolerating the children (and older people) touching their furry summer antlers.

A tolerant reindeer

A tolerant reindeer

Elsewhere in the park we came across a tall and imposing building, that I have just discovered is the Hällestad belfry. At first glance I had no idea of it’s purpose, though it seemed most of all to be somehow foreign and strange, possibly pre-Christian and part of some culture that doesn’t exist any more. It looks as though it’s covered in thousands of wooden scales and smells deeply of resin and pine, as with the smaller belfry near where we live, and also the cabin we stayed at in Norway months ago. Once we were off the island, it is one of the few thing that can be made out between the trees and the towers of the theme park.

Hällestad belfry

Hällestad belfry

Other ancient buildings were scattered around the paths, old farm houses, churches and even a manor house. A fearless squirrel ran out and pestered some children for a little while then disappeared, and ponies and horses appeared intermittently, carrying children or pulling a cart. As we got more hot and tired, we found an icecream van and enjoyed the treats by the old theatre with a lovely view of the city below.

Stockholm from Djurgården

Stockholm from Djurgården

As we tried to find the exit we passed through the craft village, and got dragged by curiosity into the glass making workshop, where someone was in the middle of making a series of stylised reindeer with apparent ease. Outside great loads of glass fragments were strewn across the rocks, like piles of colourful and clear ice.

Once we had made our way outside we caught a tram to the mainland and then walked to the ferry harbour, to wait for another journey. After staring up into the seamlessly blue sky for a short while, our boat arrived and we settled in for a ride through the archipelago.
If you have a look at Stockholm on a map, you will see that between the city and the sea there is a maze of islands of all sizes. On our voyage to Vaxholm, one of the nearest publicly open islands, the scenery changed from built up apartments, cliffs covered in houses, then scattered housing, an oil refinery and finally leafy green shores with expensive houses and tiny harbours poking out between the trees.

Island houses

Island houses

We’d pass uninterrupted stretches of trees, then a 4 story manor would appear, deck chairs set out on the front lawn or a party in full swing on a terrace. Though we didn’t know it at the time, we even passed an island called Boo. If you don’t believe me look it up. It was also right across the water from a place called Bo, apparently.

Sunset on the archipelago

Sunset on the archipelago

Vaxholm is small and neat and lovely, and we didn’t really have enough time to take it all in, or visit the old fortress. We did have time though for dinner on a rooftop terrace with a very nice view of the fortress and the harbour.

Vaxholm fortress

Vaxholm fortress

For our return trip we caught a steamer, much more old fashioned than the modern ferry we’d arrived on. We found benches on the lacquered wooden deck to watch the islands passing by and the sun slowly set, and listened to the steady chugging of the engine as we sipped cider and beer.

Nighttime on a steamer

Nighttime on a steamer

Back in the city, we discovered a festival that was ending, in loud music and bright flickering lights, and walked down the main street guarded by hippy-looking lions. When we returned to Gamla Stan for one last loo before we went back to the hotel, we bumped into an old friend who we hadn’t seen since last year. He was visiting the city with some friends from his hometown, and after exclaiming about coincidences, introductions and chatting, they invited us to follow them along to a bar for a final drink. The bar was in the nice part of town, and inhabited by well dressed folk dancing and drinking well dressedly. We chatted and laughed some more, and I enjoyed another Madde, before eventually their post-kayaking exhaustion and our post-exploring tiredness overtook us.
As we stood and swayed on the tram headed for the hotel, we found out that one of the fellows was the project manager of a planned museum to honour Ingvar Kamprad, the founder of IKEA. This is the sort of thing we just take for granted in Sweden.

Stockholm at night

Stockholm at night

The next day, after leaving our luggage at the train station, we headed to the History Museum. Limited slightly by time, we went through the exhibitions quicker than I would have liked, but we managed to take in the huge numbers of Viking artifacts, get drawn into stories of ancient people, marvel at the hoard of gold and silver and even practice archery. Sadly I wasn’t able to find the original Freya pendant that I have a replica of, but I’m sure that wasn’t my last visit to Stockholm.

From there we went to the train station, then the train and then to our seats. On the ride back we were entertained by another pianist, who played some Håkan Hellström to the delight of a chef and his audience, preparing us for our return to Göteborg and home.

Sunny days and nights

These past two weeks we have been able to see our city from a slightly different perspective; that of tourists. My partner’s parents have been visiting from Australia, and when we were able we took them for walks, visited sites or recommended places to visit. For the most part they seemed happy to wander around and explore themselves, and then on most evenings we’d go over to their apartment. Through some sort of incredible luck, their visit has coincided with over a week of sunny days, which ended the day they left. So we’d head over of an evening, and before long it would be 10pm and the sun would still be shining through the windows.

Out on the islands

Out on the islands

After a few days my partner’s sister and her boyfriend arrived, and we continued to show off our home city and share late dinners at the rented apartment. On one day we took a ferry to Brännö, one of the islands in the southern archipelago. Aside from some brief cloud cover it was clear and warm, roses were out along trellises and over fences and some grassy fields even had sheep and lambs wandering around in them. It was all extremely bucolic. We had lunch in the sun, under the supervision of the restaurant cat, and fika at a cafe hidden among the dockyards as we waited for the next ferry.

A ferry alternative

A ferry alternative

When we got back to town we spent some time on the balcony of the apartment, soaking in the evening sun and musing over summer, travel and luck. After we had all rested enough and some of us had got their nerves in order, we headed over to Liseberg.

It had been decided a few days previously that a few of us would attempt the Helix, a new ride that we had seen being constructed and whose passengers we regularly heard as they swooped and screamed around the tracks. Sadly it was temporarily closed when we got there so instead a brave few tried out Atmos-fear, the 116m free-fall tower that is the source of most of the screaming that you can hear from the park.

Atmosfear

Atmosfear

A couple of us decided to watch, and managed to see the others as they slowly ascended and then very quickly dropped back down. They seemed quite shaken afterwards, but were still game enough to try out Balder, the big wooden rollercoaster that I had tried last year. Remembering what it was like, I went and had a glass of wine with my partner’s mum and waited for the more adventurous people to join us.

They eventually did, looking a bit more exhilarated and still eager to try Helix, which had just started up again. As we sat and drank, the band stage was filling with dancers of all ages and styles, all of whom had definite moves. I don’t seem to notice notices for dancing classes any more than I saw in Australia, but judging by what I’ve seen at Liseberg, dancing does seem to be pretty popular here in Sweden. Perhaps it’s those long dark winter nights.

Finally the time had come. The now slightly reduced group went over to the line for the Helix, and those not taking part found a table at the Austrian themed restaurant to wait and eat. Soon they returned, and the food arrived, and in all the talk of the rides I felt very little regret at not going. Perhaps I’ll try in future, when the need to prove myself outweighs the memory of those vertiginous drops.

Liseberg in the evening

Liseberg in the evening

As darkness finally began to set in, the parents decided to call it a night, while the rest of us headed into town. We’d decided that we needed to show them the side of Göteborg where the locals spent their time and were soon in a noisy, crowded pub, chatting and trying not to listen to the loud Australian behind us, telling his new friends about goon-bags.

They have all since left for other travels, though we plan to meet them again in Oslo next week, possibly for the last time until we next visit Australia.

In other news, the first part of my Swedish course finished last week. The class, including many people I’ve studied with for 6 months, had a last fika with the teacher who has been with us from the start. The new classes next term will be with some of the same people, and a few new teachers, and the work will only continue to get harder. And then it too will end, and all sorts of other options will be available. Not too long now.