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 två: Hiking the Bergslagsleden

Del ett: Stockholm…a cobblestone whirlwind, finding my feet in this cosy, multifaceted, vibrant, sparkling city. The middle, I’ll get into here: a foray into the forest in central(ish) Sweden. After that, we go back to the city to continue the outdoor adventuring, which is intertwined in one’s existence here. Friluftsliv.

Sverige, dag två: I meet my Calvin, Swedish interpreter and de facto tour guide, at the family flat in Stockholm, for a week of birthday adventuring in the homeland (my birthday, his homeland). My Swedish is admittedly atrocious (read: nonexistent), so I’m counting on his prowess combined with the 11 or 16 words I’ve managed to string together to get me through these next days. Luckily the trees don’t care much what language you speak, as long as you treat them with respect. And they do here; treat the forests well, I mean.

We are geared up to the brim with equipment and supplies to hike the Bergslagsleden from Kloten to as far as we can get in order to arrive back in Stockholm to celebrate my birthday on Friday.

Our first day, we arrive in Kloten to do some kayaking. It’s windy and a bit overcast, but we try our luck with the kayak place at the beginning of the trail.

The kayaks are nice…ditto, the company and the scenery. The wind, not so much. So we return the kayaks after a couple of hours and decide to begin the hike that afternoon (15:00ish), aiming to reach the first camp shelter, 11km in, by sundown. [For the record, I’m glad we decided against the kayak-camping option…]

And they’re off… It’s ambitious, our goal, but we lace up the boots, pile on the packs (on the order of 15 kilos each), and set off. Adventure points* earned for both the kayaking and the strong start!

By km 7, though, we’re tired from the drive, the kayaking, and the hike thus far. We’re hungry, and I’m feeling the jetlag. So we begin to look for a place to pitch the tent when we stumble upon a stuga along a little stream.

Åbostugan, it’s called: a semi-restored stone cabin built into the hillside (green roof and all!). The Bergslagsleden info sheet tells us that the name of the stream is Sandån, and the stuga was the type of house in which the area’s (very) poor lived…they’d harvest the reeds around the pond for food for the animal(s), and even bring the cow or goat inside in wintertime! The cabin is about 4 metres x 5, with a dirt floor, fire pit, sleeping platform, and table for eating.

We’re fully-content with our lodgings for the evening, but considering the (not-so) posh accommodations, we wonder where we’d put our cow.

We’ve logged 8km this afternoon and dinner is well-deserved and a little indulgent (and quite international): home-made knäckebröd with olives and sun dried tomatoes, reconstituted veggie masala and rice, Moroccan mint green tea and dark chocolate peanut butter cups for dessert. We toast to a pretty excellent start to our adventure, climb into warm sleeping bags, and consider ourselves lucky to be able to do this as lifestyle, not life.

The Bergslagsleden is broken down into stages. Stage 1 is 20km; Stage 2 is 17…and so on. We’re shooting to do a couple of stages, then double back to the car or figure out another way to get from Point B back to Point A, in Kloten. The Swedes are nothing if not orderly. So their maps indicate where to find clean drinking water, camp shelters, good places to pitch a tent, trail highlights, etc.

We wake up on Day 2 to that fine mist-type rain that soaks you to the core in minutes. We cook a trail brekkie fit for royalty (food dehydrator for the win!), re-pack our packs, thank the gods of Gore-Tex, pile on the layers, and begin the day. We’re shooting to finish Stage 1 and make some headway on Stage 2 today. There’s an established camp and conference center at the end of the Stage, so this should be a good place to rest for lunch and assess the rest of the journey.

By the time we reach Gillersklack, and the end of the stage, we’ve renamed the Bergslagsleden to the Bog Slog (laden). Intermittent rain has turned the lovely blue- and lingonberry-lined trail into a muddy skating rink. I deftly demonstrate how gravity works by sliding off a wooden plank (perhaps ironically placed to provide safe passage across a boggy patch) and onto the mossy forest floor. I briefly contemplate staying there for the evening but hoist my ego (and my heavy pack) upwards and onwards, for it’s the ego that’s bruised far worse than my arse. Fall #2 is my knee vs. a boulder: as they say, that one’s going to leave a mark!

We’ve hiked roughly 12km to Gillersklack in unfriendly conditions (but at least it’s stopped raining) and we’re now fantasizing about the sauna we’ll take when we arrive at the camp (this is Sweden, after all). And we do. Arrive, that is. What isn’t there is the camp. Its season has ended, quite literally; the owners have gone bust. So what greets us at the end of Stage 1 is 3 guys looking for a real estate deal.

The wind is still blowing, but at least the sun is out by this time… We resist the urge to accept a ride into town from the real estate guys, so we make a late-ish lunch at one of the defunct camp’s tables, take a much-needed siesta to dry out a bit, and after some grumbling we’re ready to roll again. Though it’s again late in the day, the goal before dusk is to find the first shelter in Stage 2.

The good news is that we’re rested and well-fed. The bad news is that my knee hurts, C’s feet are soaking wet, we’ve overshot the trail and have to ask a local for directions (he turns out to be a chatty Danish guy who runs a Spiritual Center in the nameless place we’ve wandered into by accident). Dusk is drawing near, but luckily after our long slog we find the camping shelter…just as the sun is setting.

Neither of us is in the mood to make dinner, rehydrated or otherwise. I coerce a grumbly tentmate to make a fire, hoping to fix the day’s shortcomings with s’mores, that weird and much-too-sweet American delicacy he’s never tasted. I’ve not made them since my Camp Waziyatah days, but this is one recipe you can hardly muck up. The combination of toasted marshmallows and chocolate does somehow make up for the soggy, boggy day, and smiles return to the forest. We fall asleep in the Olovsjön shelter, stora Björnen dancing over our heads. The day’s tally: 23km. I’m awarding 10 adventure points. Sleep: well-earned.

We wake up the next day with a plan: the weather has made the trails less than fun. We’ll hike to Kopparberg (8km or so), get a bus or taxi back up to Kloten, go touring in the Swedish countryside where C grew up, crash in a real bed, and hike in that area the next day.

Reality: Hatched plans don’t often take into consideration the what-ifs. Like, what if no buses run between Kopparberg and Kloten? What if the taxi company doesn’t answer the phone? What if we have to make camp that night beneath the Kopparberg Midsummer pole then hike back up to Kloten the way we came?

Kopparberg

Because of a little thing C calls trail magic, that last what-if didn’t turn into a when. For the record, the Kopparberg bus schedule is, erm, limited. And the taxi company is unreliable. But as C finally gets the taxi guy on the phone, a fairy godmother, in the form of a kind older woman, appears and volunteers (literally out of the blue) to drive us the 20km back up to Kloten. Trail magic indeed. Score: Soggy, boggy hikers – 0; Bergslagsleden – 1. Our elder savior lady gets the adventure points for the day. And the Belgian pralines C had brought me as a birthday treat. And a story to tell her grandkids.

A hot shower and clean sheets never felt so good. In fact, waking up on the right side of a real bed helped the weary wanderers manage 17km in the Swedish countryside, including a foray to forage kantareller for dinner!

Aside: Sweden has a law called Allemannsretten or freedom to roam. Essentially, anyone has a right to walk, hike, bike, ride horseback, pitch a tent overnight, and pick berries or mushrooms when and where they find them (all within the guidelines). It’s a law based on mutual respect of people, their property, and the environment. Instead of No Trespassing signs, it’s closer to, “Hello neighbour, I hope you have a nice time in the outdoors today. Would you care for a snack? Have a nice day.”

I’m liking the Swedish way of life more and more.

…to be continued, back in Stockholm!


*Adventure points: a system we devised a couple of years ago to reward our adventursome efforts in Sardinia. The concept stuck.

[Sverige, del ett: Stockholm…Part I]

Sardegna: terza parte

[prima parte]    [seconda parte]   [ultima parte]   [chrisgoja parte]

Part III: In which we learn about the limitations of one American’s driver education, find the correct trail, reach the summit, lose the trail, use technology to find it again, begin the descent and get rescued by the Germans. In the process, we observe how small we really are in the grand scheme of things!

Il giorno seguente and all legs are really sore from our rambling, brambling adventure. Thus, day 2 was dedicated to kayaking. The Golfo di Orosei is dotted with coves, caverns and exquisite beaches, the likes of which I’ve never seen in my life. Excited to see the coast from the water, we drive up to Cala Gonone in search of kayaking adventure. It’s also my birthday, so that the day began with pressies from abroad didn’t hurt my mood one bit.

Kayaks procured, we’re in the water after an early lunch (seafood salad, octopus, bruschetta – the real stuff – a girl could get used to this Mediterranean food!). We kayak down the coast, ducking into the time- and water-swept rock formations that make up this amazing coastline. One beach (Cala Fuili) is virtually empty… only accessible by water, and I am sure this is where they take those surreal photos you see in travel magazines. Each time we maneuver around a curve in the coastline, the view is more breathtaking than the last. Our final point of interest is Grotte del Bue Marino, a giant cave set into the shoreline. We only scratch the surface here, as the walkways into the grotto were closed.

It’s at about this point that C’s eyes begin to react badly to the combination of glaring sun and salty Mediterranean Sea, so we turn back, indulge in a gelato (we’ve earned it for having done a 10km kayak and having a birthday to celebrate) and head home.

I interject here that, although three people have attempted to teach me over the years, I have still not mastered the art of driving a standard. We’re in Italy, on a mountainous island with steep, windy, hairpin-turn roads. C’s eyes do not improve. As life and luck would have it, my stick shift skills have not either. So our options unfold as a) camp out on the side of the road in our rental car, b) borrow a driver from a passing vehicle going our way or c) slog it out. One or two attempts in borrowing a driver result in some really strange looks, careful retreat by some tourists and a possible blow jobbus interruptus (which is Swedish and/or Latin for “we almost stopped a ‘parked’ car to ask for a ride” then decided we best not). Staying put does not suit either of us.

The elephant is blamed again.

So we begin the slog (I interject again here again to praise not only the driving skills of my partner in crime but his tenacity and a sense of something akin to humour, even under duress); slow and steady winning the day, with the prize coming in the form of a limoncello nightcap on the most fabulously memorable birthday in recent history (grazie ancora, mio caro amico).


 

Day 3 of avventura: we decide to find the summitand so we start out from Pedra Longa towards Punta Giradili.

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Punta Giradili trail map; via Rother Walking Guide

When you’re walking these trails, there is a faint resonance of goat bells and bleating in the air. Sound carries in the quiet sky; goat chatter bouncing off volcanic rock, mingling with the clonking of their bells to make a sort-of sporadic background music suggestive of wind chimes.

Today, we’ve consulted two guide books and an actual expert (Riki, from The Lemon House), who had shown us the ridge we were supposed to be on last time. And so, avoiding the bramble experience of the other day, we stick to the trail and as we ascend – this time on the right track – we are awestruck at the landscape (and the views) that unfold around us. This is some of the most magical terrain either of us has ever hiked. Akin to looking into a star-laden night sky or staring into the deep blue sea at 25 meters, the sheer scale of the cliffs we’re ascending gives perspective on one’s place in the Universe. Just WOW.

By now, we’ve made the summit, exchanged high-fives and started for the exit, as it were. But in our eagerness to explore the razor-sharp moonscape that is Punta Giradili, we’ve lost the trail again in the flat light against the lava rock. Time spent backtracking to where we should have been: 1 hour. Cheers for Garmin to lead us in the right direction: 3.

There’s a rock-ridden fire road that wends its way down from the summit to the back side of the mountain and into the towns below. We trek onward and downward, and 2 or 3km on (feet screaming, sun blazing), we agree that this is not much fun. Seeing as the car is back at Pedra Longa, a 5-9km slog from where we are (depending on whose sign/directions you dare consult), a ride would be good at this point. We’ve already gone about 17km, so we decide to hitchhike.

I’m hopeful when (within minutes) a tourist bus passes, slows and finally stops (there must have been a vote in those seconds, “do we pick up these sweaty strangers or non?”). As we board, the first question is, “sprechen sie Deutsch?” I’m grateful for other countries’ language requirements (and that I have a multilingual companion), the answer is “ja.” Less optimistic when they ask “where are you from?” and C says, I’m from Sweden (nods and smiles all around); L’s from the US (a collective groan issues forth). Chatter continues, however, and they drop us at a point “3km” (more like 4.5) from the car. The finish line is at last in sight as Pedra Longa comes into view.

Today we earn Adventure Points for a 21+ km hike, a found trail, hitchhiking, and being rescued from a desolate road by a busload of German tourists. C earns bonus points for using Garmin to get us back on-trail and speaking near-flawless Deutsch (somehow even bringing in Ewoks into the conversation).

Grilled squid and gelato rule the evening as we plan giorno quattro.

[prima parte]    [seconda parte]   [ultima parte]

[Click Here for ChrisGoja’s Sardinia travelogue]