Note: this started as an Instagram post but got really long and I figured I’d post it here as well…
A couple of weeks ago, I got back from a trip to Sweden and Iceland. I saw the Swedish countryside, the grand old city of Stockholm, and the weird and wonderful Land of Ice. I got rained on more than I prefer on holiday. I ate more than my share of Swedish pastry. I laughed more than I have in a while. And I loved both places for so many different reasons…
1. Friluftsliv. Swedes embrace the outdoor life better than anyone. We kayaked (in the country and in the city), backpacked, slept outdoors, foraged for wild mushrooms (and later turned them into dinner), walked for kilometers on end, ate apples from the tree, picked berries at the side of the trail, fell asleep by a lake with stora björnen over our heads…
2. Fika. Afternoon coffee and cake as an excuse to take a break and talk and laugh and share stories or gossip or recount family history… We don’t do this enough here, so busy are we at being busy.
3. Skyr. Like yogurt, only better. With muesli, or fresh berries, alongside Swedish pancakes. Followed, later, by buns (of the cinnamon variety)… this is why friluftsliv exists. And the double-digit kms.
4. Trolls. Or lava rock that could be any matter of ancient fabled thing. That mythology wends its way through the culture(s) is romantic in a medieval castles and dragons kind of way.
5.Rúsínan í pylsuendanum. Icelandic for the raisin at the end of the sausage. A rainbow, a parting of the skies after a downpour, chance meetings with kind strangers…The icing on the cake as it were: that which tops off something already good (or maybe it’s just a raisin).
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!
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).
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.
There’s always an elephant…
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.