Rome, Part IV: Holy extortion, Batman…Is it time for lunch?

Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

Day 5: So we set out early today, and walk the familiar streets across the Forum, over the river and through the…Not Throngs! We arrive at the Vatican before 9am and are greeted by an early morning glow in St. Peter’s Square. It’s so much more peaceful here without the hordes, where you can actually see the square. But it’s a strategic decision, because one cannot get to the Vatican Museum (and Sistine Chapel) directly from the Basilica, so it was a choice to either start here or there and then stand in line for the other.

The cathedral is spectacular: it’s an opulent display of the Church’s wealth and stature, and the artwork is stunning even to this heathen’s eyes (involuntarily hoping I won’t burst into flames in the center of the room; that would be both messy and embarrassing, and my companion would not be amused. Or maybe he would 😉).

There’s an admission fee to get in to see the Basilica’s Duomo, which feels inherently wrong to me. A devotee to what is essentially the best-funded religious organisation on the planet makes a pilgrimage to the Holy See and still has to pay to see all of it. Fact: you can pay 2€ less if you “walk” (it’s 500 steep, narrow, windy marble steps; you save 100 steps per € or so if you ride the elevator part-way up). Another fact: it was designed by Michelangelo, who had a hand in a lot of the artwork here, the Pietà and the walls and ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for starters.

I’m a visitor, and not remotely Catholic, so I don’t exactly mind the fee, but there are a thousand other churches in Rome, some equally beautiful, that one can just wander into without a queue or the purchase of an E ticket. That said, the view from the top is stunning: you can see the entire city on this crisp, clear morning.

Next stop: the Vatican Museum. It’s barely 10:30 when we arrive, and the line is already around the corner. So the choice becomes whether to wait the 2+ hours in the queue or pay one of the hustlers on the street for a “skip the line” pass and walk in. We cave to temptation and are shuffled, first to the ticket office, then to the front of the line (to get to the other line to enter the museum). It all seems like a grand scheme to extort € from tourists, but this being our last full day, we don’t want to spend it waiting. Until we get inside and realise we’re packed into the halls, surrounded by tour groups from a multitude of lands, each guide sporting a pom-pom on a stick and shepherding their lot through the galleries. Oh, the imagery.

It is, as they say, what it is: we flow with the crowd through the different halls (Raphael’s Philosophy mural, School of Athens, blows my mind: Aristotle and Plato and a cameo by Raphael himself in vibrant hues – incredibly preserved since the 14th Century!), from here through the tapestry-lined hallways and to the Sistine Chapel. As we wander, it strikes me as ironic that the Church has plastered and painted fig leaves on many of the works.

I had expected a chapel, not a grand ballroom filled wall-to-wall with bodies, necks craned to take in the masterpieces that surround. It’s here I learn that Michelangelo poked a little fun at the Church in painting The Creation of Adam. It turns out that he hid a perfect anatomical model of the human brain in plain sight in this painting.

After the Sistine Chapel, the crowds seem to thin. The map room is amazing, as are the little sculptures and artifacts that dot the halls. The stairway itself is a work of art. We exit into the blue-skied Roman day, satisfied that our ransom was (mostly) worth the price.

All that art-gazing makes a tourist hungry. So it’s to another landmark of sorts: the birthplace of fettuccine Alfredo. On an unobtrusive side street sits Alfredo alla Scrofa who claim to have invented the iconic dish. We sit, order, then heed the waiter’s instructions to eat it hot! This is some of the best pasta I’ve ever had…it does not disappoint!

We wend our way back towards the Forum, passing by the Pantheon again (and into, this time). It is only after-the-fact that I learn that one of the statues inside is an early Michelangelo (Christ the Redeemer), sans foule, sans admission fee, at eye-level! This city is incredible.

We’d planned to take in the late afternoon atop Palatine Hill. But it can’t be accessed without a ticket, which for some reason entails waiting in the obscene line for the Colosseum (or paying another ransom); so instead, we take a suggestion from a friend and walk up to the Piazza Caffarelli, and admire the views over the Teatro Marcello and Portico di Ottavia, and towards the 12 other palaces that dot the skyline in that direction…their domes magical in the golden light.

Quick trips have a way of leaving you wanting more. And this Eternal City escape is no different. We walked more than two marathons this week and saw dozens and dozens (if not hundreds) of centuries-old wonders, ate fantastic food and drank local wine. My head hits the pillow this last night, prosecco-filled dreams of Roman gods and cobbled ways.


Epilogue: Homeward, revelations, intentions, Rome-ance…

The tip of Corsica as we leave…

I sit, stuffed into a window seat, on a chatty day flight home through Philadelphia. I’m already cringing at the loud, sharp, nasal ‘Merkin accents that abound, and think about the New Year’s Eve conversation about goals and intentions.

There’s the writing: publish the damn thing already. And the travelling: whale sharks and mantas and lemurs (and of course the elephants), far-flung forests and daunting peaks are all calling. And the living: it’s time to figure out where I fit, and on what continent. Big shifts happen about every 7 years, so it’s time…and so we’ll see.

A friend asked me if Rome was Rome-antic. I ponder this, having spent the week here with a human who sits firmly in my heart. Sure, there are long-stemmed roses on offer and cobbled-street strolls and prosecco toasts and the effect of the city’s magical light. The word romance comes from (the Old French romanz which comes from) the Latin romanicus, which, of course, means Roman. But Rome is a city built of passion and hubris. The heart leading the head (and body) into battle for Empirical supremacy, its buildings erected in fervent tribute to the Pagan gods and Roman leaders who were exulted as gods, said edifices desecrated and re-dedicated to those that served the hearts (and bellies) of the people over the millennia. Art is love, and this city is swathed in it. We see tributes to Jupiter and Juno, Minerva, Neptune and Venus, dotting the Piazzi and adorning the bridges over the Tiber. The river itself is named for the god Tibernius, credited with finding Romulus and Remus, whose story is where myth borrows magic and becomes history. We see temples to Roman gods turned into Christian places of worship, layering historical fact and folklore upon architectural wonders. Myths and legends, these stories weave their way from the heart to the head and to the hands and bodies of Romans who carved chronicles of their gods and Emperors and war heroes in marble throughout the city, preserving them eternally in the fountains and structures across Rome.

So, yes.

The Eternal City only stays as such if it is held in the heart. The heart only stays true if you choose it over the head and the body.


Read from the beginning: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

When in Rome: Part III, Traversing Trastevere and unsung Roman wonders

Day 4: The next morn, we set out for (quite literally) the bowels of the city. Atlas Obscura had pointed us (albeit vaguely) towards what is one of the oldest sewer systems in the world. Turns out, in the 6th Century BC, the Cloaca Maxima was how they (also literally) drained the swamp that was to be the grounds of the Roman Forum, and C was keen on seeing this engineering marvel. We followed squidgy directions, and finally, over bridges and down lesser-used stone stairways, found what amounted to a hole in a hole in the banks of the river, next to which was someone’s makeshift camp. On the bright side, the detour took us past the weirdly popular Mouth of Truth (say a lie in its presence and it will bite your hand off), and also enabled us to see the Tiber from a different perspective, taking us to a part of the city that didn’t have throngs of people milling about and queuing up to see just about anything.

View from below, as it were…

Over the bridge and through the charming quarter of Trastevere, with its vine-clad buildings and the narrow, cobbled streets I adore. This is the way I like to see a city, wandering without a specific agenda and bumping into authentic local wonders.

There’s poetry and tragedy and comic relief plastered throughout the city in its street art. And we stumble upon an old church that incorporated ancient Roman graffiti into its façade. It’s little marvels like this that impress me as much as the one we would stand in queue for the following day.

During this day of wandering, we come upon the Palazzo Spada, an almost nondescript palace tucked into an unobtrusive side street, where we encounter a small wonder called Borromini’s Perspective. We walk into a courtyard (the sculptures of which are a wonder in their own right), which contains a window to an optical illusion – a corridor has been built, at the end of which stands a statue. The statue is a mere 60cm (or 2’) tall, and the corridor is a mere 8metres long. By the magic of mathematics and architecture, the perspective looks like a regal gallery many metres longer…the distance between me and the couple in the photo below is in fact greater than the distance between them and the statue.

From here, we return to the Forum, where we’d hoped to get a sunset view from Palatine Hill. Little did we know that only a fraction of the hill was accessible sans billet, as it were, and that the rest of the site closed at 3:30 – a good hour and a half before sunset. Another place added to the next day’s itinerary.

Skirting the crowds, we find a spot to gain some perspective from above and it’s here that we stop to marvel at the site (sic) of so many structures that formed the center of ancient Rome; the Colosseum, perhaps the most famous structure in this now-modern city, is but a tiny dot in the background.

I can see how one becomes inured to these wonders, and how easy it would be to take for granted these things, though magical and important to new eyes, they can become near-boring on one’s daily run to the store for milk and bread.

And life is like that, I think, as we toast with (massive!) flutes of limoncello to the marvels around us, the majestic Colosseum quietly looming across the way and chatty Italian millennials snapchatting and tittering at the table behind us. We see what we take time to observe, we undervalue what is easily at our fingertips, only maybe revelling in gratitude upon reflection.


We’ve wandered more than a half-marathon’s worth of steps today and the cobblestones seem to wobble more on this walk back to the B&B (it could, perhaps, have been the limoncello), the Colosseum seems to glow brighter, the crisp Roman night seems to embrace us as we wander through the Forum, clip-clop of horse-drawn chariots (erm, carriages) resonating in the night.

Tomorrow, we visit The Vatican.

Read more When in Rome: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part II]

When in Rome, Part II: An audience with the Pope’s audience, world’s best tiramisu and Fawlty Towers – Rome edition

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]

Day 3: We wake up on the early side of New Year’s Day with a plan to see The Vatican. It turns out that we’ll miss the New Year’s Mass (which is fine by me, actually, since I’ve been a practicing heathen since I can remember), but we set out in that direction anyway, making a b-line towards Vatican City, which is technically its own country. It turns out they don’t stamp passports here, but we decide that would be a fantastic business opportunity should the winds change. I learnt some factoids this day: Vatican City is the smallest country on the planet, and its capital (essentially, St. Peter’s Basilica) is built upon an ancient Roman (read: Pagan) burial ground which contains St. Peter’s tomb and catacombs. VC even has a surrounding wall sporting grand archways and a passageway to secrete the Pope away (in the private sense) from any danger.*

On the way, we pass through the Piazza Navona and wonder at its magnificent fountains, the most impressive depicting the 4 Rivers (Nile, Ganges, Danube and Rio de la Plata, representing the 4 continents throughout which papal authority has spread) and boasting an Egyptian obelisk at its center. There is another fountain for Neptune, and yet another depicting il Moro, the Moor. Wandering the winding streets, with their ornate doorways, balconies and narrow cobbled alleyways, then bumping into weird and wonderful sights, away from the hordes of tourists, is what I’m liking best here thus far.

So it turns out that half the population of Rome, plus perhaps half the Catholics in Italy, also thought it was a good idea to try to see The Pope today. If the previous night’s throngs weren’t enough, they were all now out in broad daylight. The good news is that while maneuvering through the crowd to ask a guard what all the people were waiting for, we find out that The Pope is slated to do his New Year’s message of peace in just 20 minutes. Somehow, we then maneuver ourselves to the security line (it pays to have a co-wanderer that is a head taller than the crowd!) and into St. Peter’s square in time to see the Papal Rug unfurled and il Papa take his place at the window. While I’m not religious, nor do I understand Italian, I understand the word pace and think that this Pope is trying to guide the Church (albeit kicking and screaming) towards the 21st Century.

Audience with the Pope (erm, an audience with his audience anyway), check! Next stop: Pranzo. Reminded of the food hawkers in Jemaa el Fna, each restaurant here has a maître d’ out in the street, trying to woo customers. One is successful (l’Isola della Pizza) and we’re treated to some of the best roasted vegetables I’ve ever had, a very decent pizza al forno, and an outdoor table for quality people-watching. Nearly every restaurant or café here has outdoor seating and propane heaters to make a meal on a brisk afternoon both charming and much more comfortable.

A friend who lived here has given me recommendations for some of his favourites: food, gelato and tiramisu. It is the latter that we then go in search of (one benefit of traipsing across Rome and back by foot is that the exquisite food is somehow earned!). Another queue, but this one much shorter. Pompi is a chain of bakeries that touts itself as the best tiramisu in Rome. We concur, as we meander and devour our treats, we wander through the charming Piazza di Spagna, towards the Spanish Steps (still not visible) and through the Piazza Colonna, with its impressive monument to Marcus Aurelius, a column built in the 1st century, in a storybook style depicting the battles of the Macromannic Wars, not dissimilar to Trajan’s own colonna just down the street.


We’ve been wandering for hours and the sun begins to set, casting the buildings and statues around the piazza in a golden glow, setting fire to Victoria (Nike), as she rides the Quadriga atop the Altare della Patria.

We’d logged 20km this day, so we arrived back at the B&B both weary and starving. Thus, we were determined to find dinner close to home. What luck that we’re staying quite near a little square, somewhat removed from the din of the Forum and Colosseum, and we find a sweet-looking place nearby that looks bustling. Little did we know that Basil Fawlty had a long-lost twin who ended up in Rome and opened a pizzeria/restaurant 3 blocks from the Colosseum. The meal was decent (not the best nor the worst gnocchi I’d ever had), as was the wine. But it was the service to which I’d give 5 stars for its comedic value. It was like the Flying Karamazov Brothers met an Indian-Italian comedy troupe and decided to partner with Fawlty to open a restaurant. It went something like this:

Waiter 1: *leads us to a table

Waitress 1 (to Waiter 1), carrying food: Is this table 25?

Waiter 1: Sì.

Waitress 1: *goes to put the food down on our table, but realises we’ve just been seated and whirls away

Waiter 1: *vanishes, flustered.

Waiter 2: *arrives with menus and demands our order

C: un momento per favore. Una piccola caraffa di vino et l’acqua spumante

Waiter 2: Okay (English). *vanishes

Waiter 3: *arrives at the next table with a tray of food, offers it to us, then the next table over, realises it’s not for any of us and vanishes.

Waiter 1: *takes our order

Waitress 1: *brings one glass of wine

C (in English now): we ordered a small carafe of wine, please

Waitress: we only have it by the glass. *disappears

Waiter 2: *arrives with a bottle of water marked “still”

C (to any waiter who will listen): we ordered sparkling water. *we give the “still” water to the table next to ours, who open it to find it is, in fact, sparkling. They give it back.

Waitress: *appears as Waiter disappears, brings one glass of wine, which she then gives to the woman at the next table

Waiters 2, 3 and 4: *haphazardly shuttle food back and forth between the large table sitting next to us and other tables around the restaurant.

Other patrons: *confused and amused, watching the show

Waiter 1: *looks at our one glass of wine, then up at us. (At this point, I can’t help but envision Manuel the waiter)

C (straight-faced and I don’t know how at this point): can we have another glass of wine?

Waiter 7: *brings another glass of wine and a massive salad in a bowl with no serving utensils. We still have no forks or knives.

It continues somewhat like this until we have our meal. Placemats and silverware have also materialised. The large party next to us has finished and gets up to pay; one brave soul returns a moment later to look for a waiter who will give them their table number (this is apparently the only way to call up the bill on the electronic system). The waiters and waitress discuss table numbers amidst much pointing and looking over their shoulders. We finish and go to pay, only to find a small queue and a frenzied cashier trying to sort out which table got which food and which bill goes to whom. We do not know our table number. The cashier is going through every open bill with the couple in front of us. C and I exchange a look that confirms that we agree we’ve just eaten at Fawltius Torris. We track down one of the wait staff to determine our table number just in case.

C and I laugh as we walk off dinner, taking in the huge Christmas tree in front of the Typewriter, the structure looming as regally as it did when it was built: the center of most everything nearby, its spotlights illuminating the marble steps and statues that guard the tomb of the unknown soldier.

I fall asleep this first day of the New Year grateful for the experience of travel, grateful for the health and job and friendship and an acquired sense of adventure and wanderlust that make even small trips like this one possible. I giggle a little to myself as I replay the cartoon dinner we’ve just had.

Tomorrow we go back to The Vatican and try to get in.

Read more: [Rome, Part I] [Rome, Part III]


*This article had me rolling (ROFL and my eyes) when I read it upon my return.

When in Rome, Part I: Arrival, Wandering, and New Year’s Eve

Day 1: Arrival and the beginning of a mini-adventure, in which I meander from Termini (station) to Forum (B&B), arrive in awe of the sheer magnitude of the architecture, and wander about the crowded streets that divide the Fora and lead the throngs to and from the Colosseum.

The evening before, I had boarded a British Airways 747, my frequent flyer miles and some manipulation of schedules landing me in a Business Class seat. A multi-pronged luxury it was, as the past 3 months had been a whirlwind of work and little sleep, resulting in an unintentional avoidance of adulting, and a lack of attention to detail on the home front. When you get home, you’ll have to deal with it all, a somewhat-envious inner voice reminds. That noted, I feel only a bit guilty at the indulgence and glad to leave the gray December New England skies behind if only for a few days.

I arrive groggy, from both a short night’s sleep and more than enough vino plied by the nice airline folk. A Roman day with its crisp and clear blue sky greets me, tho; the relative warmth already seeping into my pores.

Arrival is always a little overwhelming; not knowing the way, the landmarks, the language… It’s mid-afternoon on New Year’s Eve eve, my first time in Rome and I’m still semi-embarrassed because it’s a rather frivolous way to end one year and herald in the next. I’m here a day early to shake jetlag and get my sea legs before I meet my co-hedonist. I navigate the uneven Roman streets from Termini station towards my B&B, thankful for Google Maps to guide me because I’m too frugal (read: aghast) to pay the 60€ for a car from the airport. This is a marginally longer commute, but I rather like walking and it’s a nice way to get immediately immersed in a new place on arrival.

I’ve been warned enough of the pickpockets here from the travel blogs I’ve read and all the signage everywhere… Is it such a rampant problem, I wonder, or are they just stoking visitors’ anxiety around being in a Foreign Place? Foreign, being a relative term, as it looks more foreign to me than it actually feels. Decidedly European, I decide on first impression; confirmedly ancient, I then observe, as the Colosseum leaps into view when I turn a corner towards my hotel. There it looms, large and impressive at the end of the via. Another corner, and 3 columns of one of the Fora materialise at the end of the street. Cobbled steps, a fountain (one of hundreds that are scattered throughout the city) flowing with clean, fresh water. 10 more metres and I’m at the B&B, where I see my first ruin up close.

I arrive also without much of an itinerary, save a map I’ve bodged together to mark recommendations from friends and sites that look too good to miss. It’s in the spirit of getting the lay of the land that I set out to wander the neighbourhood to keep occupied and awake enough until proper bedtime*.

Real first impressions: it’s crowded, where crowded is an understatement. I start the journey a little off-put if I’m honest. I don’t want to spend our precious days here waiting in line alongside tour groups. I chalk up the looming mood to cranky, hungry, tired, travel-weariness. But the sites so far are breathtaking: the Colosseum at dusk, the Foro di Augusto glowing in the evening’s light; the Roman Forum across the way; the 35-metre tall Colonna Traiana, with its comic book-looking depiction of the wars between the Romans and Dacians spiralling up its length; the magnificent Typewriter building, the Altare della Patria, whose imposing stature dwarfs the other wonders in this area.** Non male, as they say, for the first few hours…tomorrow, I explore!


Throngs and wonders, a big dome with a hole in it, a creepy crypt, and things that go ka-boom in the night

Day 2: Before C arrives, I’ve got about 5 hours to see some of the sites I’ve plotted on my map. First, it’s the Pantheon – not to be confused with the Parthenon (Athens) or the Panthéon (Paris)! 😂

Like many monuments, the Pantheon is a former Roman temple that now serves as a church (I take a heathenistic moment to ponder whether there are enough congregants for the astounding number of churches in this city). One of the factoids I’ll learn this week is that the dome of the Pantheon is the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome. The astounding fact to me, tho, is that it was built in 126AD and still in pristine condition! And as if to out-do all other fountains I’ll see here, the one in the Piazza della Rotunda is a wonder in its own right.

Speaking of fountains: toss a coin over your (left) shoulder (with your right hand) into the Trevi Fountain, and it will ensure a return trip to Rome (more coins assure both romance and marriage). And over 1m € per year are thus tossed. I’ve read that the €s go to the needy. I’m not hard pressed to fling coins, but I’m pressed hard as I squirm my way to the fountain’s edge, disenchanted by the throngs by the time I’m down there.

There’s always an elephant…

On the way to the Pantheon, though, I passed a man playing what I surmise is a hammered dulcimer. He’s set up in front of an elephant bearing an obelisk that sits in front a nondescript church. It’s the little wonders, I remind myself, and not necessarily the big attractions that are some of the most memorable.

After Trevi, I find I’ve still got time, so I head towards the Spanish Steps (when in Rome…). These 174 steps run from the Bourbon Spanish Embassy to the the Trinità dei Monti church and are the darling of many a famous movie and song. More fountains; ditto, the throngs: it’s because of the latter that one cannot see any actual steps, and for just a moment I wonder if I’ve mis-stepped in coming here.

What steps? But a nice view from the top!

Fleeing the masses, I point my GPS in the direction of an Atlas Obscura oddity: the Santa Maria della Concezione Crypts, or the Crypts of the Capuchin Friars. This ossuary rivals that of the Catacombs in Paris; what it lacks in grandeur it makes up for in creativity. Suffice to say that the artiste took creative liberties in arranging not only the stacks of bones (some 4000 skeletons are (dis)assembled here), but also the various bodies in repose (fully-frocked Friars) and flight (child-sized bodies looking down from the ceiling; skulls with scapula-wings). The walls and ceilings were covered in mandalas and chandeliers, each surface laden with myriad symmetrical designs, all made from individual bones and carefully arranged in gruesome patterns that affected something of a moribund paint-by-number display.

As I wend my way back, I stumble across the We Run Rome road race and flash a 2019 goal to do a 10k (we’ll see!). But first, it’s Pizza for lunch, a trip to a local wine and cheese shop for aperitivo supplies and then back to the B&B to get ready for New Year’s festivities.


Ringing in the New Year, Roman style!

Italians eat dinner late. So an 8:30 dinner is on the early side, but we’ve managed to find some fantastic melanzane parmigiana at a little local place in the piazza near the B&B. New Year’s Eve, thus far: Prosecco and Parmigiana. Next stop, Pyrotechnics.

I’m not a fan of huge crowds or wild New Year’s Eve parties. But since it’s my first in a European city, la Fiesta di Roma is on the docket. It takes place in Circo Massimo (Circus Maximus), the grand sports stadium where they once held chariot races and Ludi, festivals for the gods. In its day, the capacity was 250,000. Tonight, I’d estimate there’s 50,000+ modern Romans. We listen to the weird music, watch the bizarre dance and aerial show (a tribute to the ludi of yore?) and ooh and ahh over the fireworks display over the ruins of the Palatine palace. It may be the most dramatic setting for fireworks I’ve ever seen.

The festival goes for 24 hours, but 2am feels like we’ve been up for a week. We make it long enough to purchase a bottle of bubbly from a street vendor (C’s post-midnight haggling is impressive!) and toast to goals and future adventures.

The finale of the NYE fireworks at Circus Maximus, Rome

Happy New Year!  Read more: [Rome, Part II] [Rome, Part III]

*Jet lag avoidance tip #1: when travelling East, stay up as long as possible the day you arrive, so you go to bed at proper local bedtime in an attempt to fool your body into waking up at a moderately human hour the next morn.

**Among other nicknames for the monstrosity are la dentiera (the dentures, in reference to its white marble in stark contrast to its surroundings) and la torta nuziale (the wedding cake).

Sverige, del tre: A birthday and urban adventuring in Stockholm

 

The scene: Vete-Katten, est. 1928, Kungsgatan, Stockholm. 09:30. En kanelbulle, and a final (early) fika before I depart this fantastic city for a colder, wetter locale.


Swedes are known to drink a lot of coffee (according to this report, 8.2kg per person per year – nearly double what we drink in the US). I’ve read that most Swedes drink up to 5 cups a day! It only makes sense that they invented the fika: it’s afternoon coffee and cake, and almost a mandate here. I’d had my first proper fika the day after we exited the forest, replete with home-made apple cake from fruit picked in the family’s small orchard…we weren’t even allowed to leave for Stockholm without sitting for fika. An outsider’s perspective: I think it borders on religion. A sacrifice to the cinnamon gods? I’m in!

So, we’ve returned from the forest and spent the last couple of days doing some urban adventuring. Stockholm is a great city in which to do it. As I’ve already noted, Stockholm is bounded by 14 main islands and an archipelago with thousands more, each with its own personality. I stayed on a boat moored on Riddarholmen, a short hop over a bridge to Gamla stan (the old city), and a walk across the island (by the Palace) and over a bridge (by the opera house) gets you to what qualifies as the mainland. From there you can get to Djurgården (we’ll get there).

The flat is in a neighbourhood of glorious 18th and 19th century buildings (barring some 20th century insults to architecture), and I’m instantly enamored with the windows and the rooflines and the animal statues heralding the old apothecaries throughout the city. I’ve seen a stork and an owl and bear and a moose (apoteket storken, ugglan, björn och älg, respectively!). It’s almost worth going back for a scavenger hunt just to find them all.

My birthday morning, I’m treated to a makeshift Swedish brekkie (that my Swedish companion created sweetly – Swedishly – with what was in the fridge), and then we’re off to find a sunken ship.

But first, the birthday indulgences begin: we find the perfect kanelbulle. The shop smells of fresh bread and cinnamon. The piles of buns (as they are called here) are simply gorgeous. There’s a reason the sense of smell is so evocative. This is what I will picture whenever I smell cinnamon again.

Buns are walked off as we crisscross Stockholm towards Djurgården and the Vasa museet.

As the story goes, there was a king (Gustav II Adolf) who fancied himself the equivalent of a Swedish Hercules and commissioned a ship to be the grandest warship in the fleet, adorned with lions and Greek gods to illustrate the king’s power and instill fear in the enemy. I reflect that though we’ve advanced nearly 400 years, male hubris still has a long way to go.

In 1628, the Vasa sailed from Stockholm harbour and promptly sank before the eyes of the thousands there to view its maiden voyage. Apparently, the King’s visions of grandeur exceeded his knowledge of shipbuilding and its relationship to seaworthiness. The ship’s architects hadn’t the guts to go against his wishes. These were the days of “off with thy head” after all, so the directive to “make it TALLER” was heeded (collective eyes roll, heads remain intact). And so, the top-heavy flagship set sail, hit a spot of wind, listed, then expeditiously sank in 30 metres of water just outside Stockholm harbour. It lay in the mud for 333 years until it was exhumed in the early 1960’s.

The ship is remarkably well-preserved, having been ensconced in mud in the (low-salinity) Baltic, and meticulously restored – the museum houses the massive ship (over 50 metres high and nearly 70 metres long), puzzled back together in its entirety, and showcases its ornate carvings. We watched the film, took the tour, gaped at the intricacies and the craftsmanship. On the water (for those precious minutes anyway), she must have been a sight to behold.

All this touristing makes a birthday girl hungry. C takes me to a fantastic (and classic) lunch at the Operakallaren café by the Royal Swedish Opera House. It’s great people-watching and lovely local food. Me: fisk; C: kött. It reminds me, in some strange way, of Sardi’s in NYC, with the old opera posters on the wall and harried waitstaff.

By now, we’ve mastered the art of urban hiking, having clocked something on the order of 15km today, all around Stockholm’s waterfront and surrounding neighbourhoods. C has promised me princess cake (prinsesstårta) for my birthday, so we’re off to fika at the classic coffee house: Vete-Katten. Coffee is free-flowing, and the place is abuzz with chatter in a mingle of languages, tho svenska predominates. From the black-and-white tiled floors of the main bakery to the intimate coffee rooms out back, the antique furniture, mismatched chairs, and simple tablecloths, this place has a character all its own. Truth be told, I’m not really a chocolate cake fan. But the princess cake: layers of perfect whipped cream, raspberries, and light sponge cake…all topped with a thin sheet of marzipan (points awarded for the special birthday marzipan rose ❤); this is the perfection to which all birthday cakes should aspire!

There’s more walking, and birthday dinner at a nice place close to the flat, where my Swedish guise fails and I quickly use up the 16 words I’ve managed to mangle. The chatty waiter is still at it, greatly amusing the interpreter; he then resorts to handing me a new menu (this one in engelska). Jag talar inte svenska, I think, issuing a slightly defeated sigh. But I fall asleep sated and maybe still thinking about the princess cake a bit. There are not enough thank yous I can find (in any language) to adequately appreciate this day.

And so we wake, on a brighter (yet blustery-er) autumn morn. Determined to deliver on his promise to introduce me to all things Swedish, C makes traditional pancakes (pannkakor) for brekkie. I learn that they are not necessarily eaten as breakfast (rather, for lunch on Thursdays; who knew?!), and more often than not, eaten with just some butter, sugar and cinnamon OR strawberry jam (no butter, that’s a sin!). It’s nothing like our bready, sweet flapjacks here in the US. These delights are like a crêpe, but eggier somehow. With proper instruction on how to serve, fill, and fold (Swedes are nothing if not precise), we polish off the stack of pancakes before heading out for the day’s adventures: kayaking Djurgården!

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The winds have apparently scared all kayakers away from the task, so it seems we have the waterways virtually to ourselves. It is a fantastic way to see this city, and with Njord’s winds at our backs, he carries us swiftly down the Djurgårdsbrunnskanalen, the canal that separates Djurgården from Stockholm’s mainland. Djurgården is the old royal hunting grounds, and has been turned into something of an island-park, housing a multitude of museums and things to do (Gröna Lund amusement park, an interactive Viking museum, and the Abba Museum, among others).

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It’s a brilliant day out, and we are literally the only kayakers on the canal, passed by just a handful of boats over the 2 hours we’re out. It’s such a spectacle that tourists are actually taking pictures of us. The city is sparkling, and the homes that line the canal are a sight to behold. C points out the home he will acquire when he wins the lottery, and I concur: this wouldn’t be a half-bad place to live.

We’ve been warned not to attempt a circumnavigation of Djurgården, as the winds (and boat traffic) will be even stronger out there, so we’re content to do an out-and-back on the canal. It’s the back part that’s the challenge: against the wind is an understatement, and it takes quite the effort to return to the kayak place. We’re greeted by a surprised kayak guy…I dare say he was impressed that we lasted that long, given the circumstances. But the views along the way were most definitely worth the effort. A pile of adventure points awarded for the 6 or 7kms paddled while braving the headwinds.

Urban hiking, it’s called, when you log at least 15kms traipsing across a city to take it all in. We spend the rest of the day exploring Djurgården, then wending our way, feet sore and with bright smiles on our windblown faces, back to the flat. I could not have asked for a better tour guide.


And so I find myself back at Vete-Katten, too early in the day for another slice of prinsesstårta and just too late to refuse to go West. I’m writing and reflecting on another week spent living in the NOW with my magical co-conspirator. And I’m soaking in these last moments of Stockholm before I board the Arlanda Express to take me towards the next leg of the journey: a 3-day stopover in the Nordic land of ice.

Hejdå för nu.

Read the earlier posts in this series: [Del ett: Sweden, Day 1]  [Del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden]

Sverige, del ett: Stockholm

I’m eating Swedish pancakes and yogurt on a boat in the Stockholm Archipelago, mere steps from the exquisite Riddarholmskyrkan, the Riddarholm Church. Just a bridge and a few more blocks away is the famed Gamla stan and Stockholm’s Old Town, in which I stumbled around during my Day-1-massive-jetlag state yesterday afternoon.

My bags are laden with supplies, for I am to meet my Swedish Interpreter/Adventurer here this evening.

Supplies: enough for the week-long backpacking and kayaking expedition we’ve planned in the Swedish wilderness.

The Swedish wilderness: of this, I am a bit leery, but with the weeks I’ve had back home of late, I’m ready for this or any other adventure the days ahead may bring.

Preparedness: To get myself up to the task, I’ve been walking and hiking and yoga-ing and squatting and planking. And shopping…I’ve got new hiking boots, sleeping bag, pad and other accessories, borrowed a proper backpack. I dehydrated a week’s worth of interesting foodstuffs, made energy bars and snacks. I’ve stuffed it all into my largest rolling duffel, added clothing for being seen in public and touristing around Stockholm for a few days, plus garb for a 3-day stopover in Iceland on my return. I somehow managed to come in under the 23kg weight limit for checked baggage. [Note: it’s an understatement to say that navigating the cobbled streets here is tricky under load.]


Last night I managed to navigate from the airport to Stockholm’s Central Station, then to the Tunnelbana, Stockholm’s Metro, and on to Gamla stan, then a short walk along the water to the boat-hotel, with views of the surrounding islands. Ferries marked “Djurgården” zip back and forth. I’m to discover Djurgården for real later in the week.

Stockholm is a strategically-situated city, the center of which sits amidst 14 islands, an impressive archipelago at the intersection of Lake Mälar and the Baltic. Most of the islands are connected by bridges, making it seem like a nice city to wander around, if (literally) scattered. There are also archipelago cruises you can take, which, I’m noting, would be a lovely way to spend a summer afternoon. Wind is whipping across the way, and it’s September and I’m already layered in an early-winter jacket, so I’m also noting that swimming here might be even colder than a dip back home.

Jetlag avoidance tips: Take an overnight flight. Dricker mycket vatten (employ some of the 11 or 25 Swedish words absorbed for the trip). Remain awake and upright throughout arrival day. Walk off the late afternoon weariness. Take in the tail-end of a half-marathon. Stare in wonder at local landmarks. Eat a proper dinner. Wobble back to boat-hotel, stopping to gawk at the low-hanging crescent moon, shining golden above the twinkling lights of the boats on the water. Collapse into boat-bunk and sleep for a solid 10 hours.


Awake, rested, fed and watered, I’ve embarked on a day of wandering, biding time until I meet up with said Interpreter. It’s bilfria gator dag, car-free day, here in the city center. I have had no time to read up on things to do in Stockholm, so I’ve just wandered down to the waterfront by the Grand Hotel, where I’m currently being berated by a one-legged magpie for not sharing more of my kanelbulle with him.

This city is working its magic on me already. First, it’s spotless. There are trash barrels every 20 metres (where people consciously, if not religiously, recycle). The architecture is a fantastic display of 16th and 17th Century buildings, some even older… In this part of the city, there are churches and palaces and grandly-carved stone arches and gargoyles and rooflines everywhere you turn; the buildings a palette of warm and inviting hues that has me wanting to redecorate when I get home.

I wander into one of the Royal Palace’s exhibition halls to view the decadent royal carriages on display, wherein I learn of a certain young Swedish Count (Hans Axel von Fersen the Younger) and his seemingly torrid affair with Marie Antoinette (in the process noting my ignorance of pan-European historical scandal).

The waterfront: exquisite, as are the elaborately-spired buildings lining the water across the way


Because it’s Sunday and additionally car-free day, it’s quite nice that nobody seems to be in much of a rush to get anywhere. And so, I’m absorbing what I can as a stranger in a (somewhat) strange land.

Observations: Stockholm is a more multicultural city than I expected. Though I of course know different, somehow I still envisioned a city full of leggy blond folk, and I’m curiously surprised to observe legs of all heights and hues, attached to bodies just as varied. This morning I chatted with an Iraninan-born woman, a biomedical engineer living here now. Here, of course, the immigrant debate is alive and well, fueling (or fueled-by) an uptick in the volume of the far-right Swedish Democrats, a party perhaps more frightening than our own right wing extremists back home.

I’ve overheard chatter in a multitude of languages, and my attempts in Swedish (tack, ursäkta, snälla, en kannelbulle tack…) appreciated and replied-to en engelska. I’d been warned that Swedes like to practice their English as much as visitors want to butcher (erm, attempt) their language (Scandinavian efficiency wins). It’s refreshing, the chatter without the in-your-face loudness of a place that Needs To Be Heard (All The Time!). I realise I’m quieter when I travel; not only because I don’t know the language, but also because sometimes it’s nice to not hear even my own American English.

I take in the quiet of car-free day. And as if to punctuate the day’s non-din, the drumming from two guys in a cart, being driven around by a bike (a Swedish Tuk-Tuk, perhaps?), is a silly surprise as it clambers by.


I stroll. The day warms. And the lovely afternoon affords nearly 20kms of urban hiking by day’s end. It’s time now for this not-as-weary traveller to meet her co-adventurer and continue the journey into the Swedish wilderness.

Explorers ho! (as they say)

The adventures continue: Sverige, del två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden

Ett språkproblem

When I visit a new place, I like to know a few words or phrases: hello, thank you, please, how are you, where is…(the train, loo, exit), excuse me, help!

I’m lucky that my first language is English. I’m also unlucky. Because here, in this insular island-esque not-island, attached top and bottom to countries that speak languages other than ours, we’ve decidedly decided that we need not know more than one language to get by in the world.

Tidbit: Did you know that 58% of Americans do not hold a passport? (and that’s up markedly, mostly because passports are now required to get to the Caribbean and Canada)

I studied French in Junior High. Hated it, then switched to Spanish in High School. American Sign Language in college (because at that time nobody suggested it might be a good idea to have a 2nd language, so I thought this might be good to have in my back pocket if the tinnitus ever worsened 🙄).

I’ve been to Central America 9 or 10 times. The Spanish has come in handy (assuming a Duolingo brush-up before the trip): I can get by in broken Español.

I’m envious of my multilingual friends, my half-Brazilian/half-American niece (who can prattle in 4 languages before breakfast), those to whom another tongue is not a big deal to idly pick up and put on, as one does a new shirt.

Nearly 3-1/2 years ago, my most polyglot copain asked me, “how’s your French?” Horrors of 8th grade flashed on so many levels as I realised my answer was, “horrible.” In any language.

Since that day, I’ve studied 5, 10, 30 minutes of French pretty much every night. My longest Duolingo streak is well over 100 days. I’ve got a Babbel subscription. I’m able to read a newspaper article, understand (and tentatively participate in) adult conversation…J’ai lu Le Petit Prince (en Français!). Social media headlines baffle me, yet I went to Paris for my birthday last year and didn’t completely flounder. I had an interesting dinner with a Swiss couple and my B&B hosts in The Seychelles in May and wasn’t entirely underwater. It feels good but not nearly enough… My English-speaking brain is still trying to convert the other language into English as it comes in, then convert that into something French-like as it goes out. In the process, the time it takes to create conversation seems interminable. And I’m left, literally, speechless.

And so as I’m preparing to leave for my next adventure to Scandinavia (favourite Swedish interpreter literally in tow), I’m trying to learn some Swedish words. If to impress no one but myself.

It begins easily enough: hej. tack. ja. nej. Hello. Thank you. Yes. No.

Quickly the problems mount: There are now 3 new letters to learn and not mangle [ä, å and ö] while simultaneously trying to not sound like the Swedish chef (whose gobbledygook, I’m told, rings closer to Norsk than Svenska).

Hur mår du. snälla. hejdå. How are you? Please. Goodbye. And I’m trying to configure lips that are clearly inte Scandinavian. I almost instantaneously become a parody of myself…Bork. Bork. Bork.

It continues: Duolingo gives me jordgubbe (strawberry! I can do this!). And frukost (a girl needs to eat…brekkie!). And then this happens: skärp (bork. bork. bork.), which is not at all the same as en scarf or en halsduk. (or is it ett?) And kött. And fläskkött (use the ä, or else it’s bottle meat vs. pork!). But those are okay since I’m nearly veg. But at frukost we need to use a sked (no, really, try to pronounce that word with an American mouth). And we’ll be in the forest so we may encounter en sköldpadda or en groda, which is not the same as en fråga. Numbers: I should know there are sju dagar in en vecka. Health: what if I get hurt and need en sjuksköterska?! I have a “k” problem. F*ck. (this one is global)

So on one hand, I’m lucky: that most of the Western world speaks English. I’m lucky, because I get to travel to Sweden with a real-live Swedish interpreter (who cringes in horror as I contort my mouth to form the simplest of words without laughing). But I feel quite opposite: I’d like to participate and explore and learn about a place with a partial understanding of what makes it tick. Food and words and history and people…it’s all connected.

And so, if you see me walking down the street these next couple of weeks, earphones on, talking to myself and making strange faces: this is why.

And if you encounter my terrible Swedish in Stockholm, humour me? I’m just hoping to embarrass myself as little as possible on this trip.

Ursäkta. Förlåt. Tack så mycket.


CLICK HERE for the full and very beautiful language diagram by illustrator Minna Sundberg I used in the header photo.