January 2014 was the one rare month in my work diary where I didn’t have any business trips abroad.
So what do I do but book myself a trip to Stockholm with some friends.
In all fairness, it was for the birthday of my mate Luke (who currently lives in Stockholm), and I’ve always wanted to visit Sweden.
[Then again, addicts always have a reason or two to justify their compulsions.]
17:20 Landed in Arlanda Airport and headed off on the Flygbussarna bus, which leaves (at least) every 10 minutes and takes you right into the main bus terminal in central Stockholm in 30 or so minutes. Free Wi-Fi on board. Public transport here is awesome.
As it was evening by the time we met up with Luke and other friends, we headed to Luke’s for dinner. We had meatballs (obviously) with chips and brown sauce (which is actually creamy gravy and not the stuff you have with a fried English breakfast). When in Sweden…
Shockingly I didn’t take a photo of the meatballs so you’ll have to rely on your imagination and Google.
The next morning we woke up to be greeted by flakes of snow gently falling outside the window. It had not snowed in the UK this winter and it wasn’t forecasted to snow in Stockholm so it was a pleasant surprise.
First activity of the day was ice skating.
There was a small ice rink in the centre of town; free to skate if you had your own skates otherwise it was SEK60 for rental. Technically it was SEK60 for an hour but they didn’t even seem to monitor this, or come to think of it, even require us to leave our shoes or deposit.
To be honest, not that I think I could really take much more than an hour’s skating. My memory of my previous attempt at skating (probably some 8 or so years ago) was that I was fairly stable going around the rink although stopping was an issue. I blame the rough ice, of course, but things were certainly a lot more wobbly than I remembered and my calves and ankles were soon on fire.
Time for some refuelling (and warming up).
Lunch was a Swedish fast food chain called Max Burgers across the road from the ice rink. The burger was definitely superior to Burger King and I also had sort of nacho style fries with red onion, jalapeno and creamy processed cheese (hey, if it’s good enough for Heston).
Yum! Although pricey at just over SEK100 (roughly GBP 10) for a fast food meal. When in Sweden…
Next stop, the Vasamuseet.
This pristine (relatively speaking) 17th century warship is a must-see in Stockholm. The whole museum building is built around the Vasa, which has been restored very impressively.
Most amusing is the reason why it’s in such good condition is that, on its maiden voyage, it sailed for all of 1,300 metres before it sank. The polluted waters of the harbour in Stockholm then meant lower levels of oxygen and therefore less ship destroying bacteria.
I recommend watching the short movie at the start of the exhibition to give you some context of what you are seeing. Check times at the information desk for the appropriate language; we wandered into one and I was wondering why I understood a lot of what I assumed was Swedish (with English subtitles) commentary before I realised that it was actually German.
90 or so minutes later, we had taken pictures from all possible angles of the ship and learnt all about the ill-fated vessel.
Day 2 (continued)
What is (probably) more Swedish than meatballs?
Correct (probable) answer: ABBA
This is code for saying that we then went to the ABBA Experience (located a short walk from the Vasamuseet). While we weren’t big enough ABBA fans to actually go inside, we posed outside through the cut-outs pretending to be the band. When in Sweden…
Dinner. Having received a recommendation from Josh’s friend who had visited Stockholm, we decided on Eifur, a Viking themed restaurant.
Upon entering, it looked like a small version of a medieval banquet hall, complete with musician playing a random instrument (kind of a cross between a bagpipe and haircomb) for entertainment. Food was genuinely good (and I suspect more modern than Viking), and between us we had pike, salmon, steak, venison and lamb. I washed my pike down with a tasty glass of mead served in a Viking horn.
Vikings appeared to have the most useless cutlery though. The large two pronged fork thing seemed to be designed to pierce your cheek more than the food and was totally useless for trying to eat fish.
Nonetheless, I survived the fight with the Viking cutlery and it was a pretty great experience all round, albeit pricey (mains about SEK250-SEK300, my glass of mead was about SEK100). But Sweden is pretty pricey to eat and drink out anyway.
We nearly had a Viking brawl too, when the tavern wench (is that what Vikings called them too?) insisted we hadn’t paid enough (we had).
Using my superpowers of arithmetic, I showed tavern wench that 500 + 700 was 1,200 and not 900.
Accountants: 1 – Vikings: 0
First order of the day was a tour of City Hall.
Not just a place for the City Council to meet, the annual Nobel Prize banquet is held at the Stockholm City Hall. The place has some very impressive architecture and interior design, as well as some amusing stories such as that of the headless horseman in the Golden Hall.
Note that you can only visit by joining a guided tour, which are every hour from 10:00 to 15:00 and only SEK70 (off peak season). A must do in Stockholm.
We did the 11:00 tour, which finished about 11:50, just in time for us to hop on a bus to the Royal Palace for the changing of the guard at 12:15. Ask the City Hall gift shop for directions.
Got there in the nick of time. Unlike Buckingham Palace (actually I’ve never been, so a bit of conjecture), there is actually a running commentary of the daily changing of the guard. Apparently the guys and ladies we were seeing in action that day were from the ‘cyber protection’ division. I personally was a little disappointed they didn’t carry their laptops (but rather boring ol’ rifles) for the guard of honour.
Lunch today, I did my usual TripAdvisor research and settled on a place called Kajsas Fisk for fish soup. It was a little bit of a challenge finding it. Basically get to the Hötorget T-bana, exit the main exit (at a crossroads) and go past the Konserthus and there’s an open air market square where you’ll find the Hötorgshallen. Go down the escalator and you’re pretty much there in sort of a food hall.
Kajsas Fisk serves a truly delicious bouillabaisse style soup with generous chunks of fish, mussels and shrimp and comes with much bread and cabbage salad as you can manage. Seriously good, and very warming in winter. About SEK100 for a big bowl with lots of fish makes it very good value, especially for Stockholm prices. I enjoyed every last drop.
I seem to have a habit of visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites on my travels so the Skogskyrkogården graveyard was naturally next on the itinerary. Its merit as a piece of world heritage is down to its design that blends the landscape with architectural design that has influenced in many countries around the world.
There were not many other people around and the snow covered landscapes made for a very pleasant walk.
To carry on with our discovery of Scandinavian design, we went in search of the Design House Stockholm flagship store, which Freddie had seen in a newspaper article some weeks before. When we got to the stated address, we found ourselves staring at what looked like a normal office building. Sadly, it was not a case of extreme Scandinavian minimalism but (as Google maps informed us) that particular location was permanently closed.
Nearby, however, there was a Design House Stockholm concession in the upmarket NK department store, which is sort of the Swedish Selfridges. Although there were some cool items on display, there was nothing that persuaded us to part with our kronor.
By then I needed the toilet pretty badly. Being in a posh department store we assumed that finding a toilet would be fairly straightforward. After following signs that seemingly led us in circles, we finally went against our male genetic code and asked a shop assistant for directions. Our elation at locating the toilet was (extremely) short lived when we discovered that SEK 10 (£1) was needed for their use!
Not that I wouldn’t have forked out the money in that moment of desperation, but in my cleverness (after having received plenty of assurances that I could use a credit card for pretty much everything in Stockholm) I didn’t have any cash on me, and Josh didn’t have any change either.
We did eventually manage to get some change and answer nature’s desperate call, but visitors to Stockholm should definitely be aware that almost all public toilets in Stockholm charge to use them.
That evening we were joined by a few more friends from the UK as well as a few who live in Sweden. Pre-drinking and clubbing (pop stylee) at Candy @ Le Bon Palais (SEK 160) was the order of the evening.
The memory is not entirely clear but I think we stumbled home at closing time (4:00).
When the alarm rang at 10:00 it was definitely a struggle to get up, but Luke had to head off fairly early so up we got.
For the weekend, Luke had hired a cottage in the countryside just outside Stockholm with a sauna. So he headed off with his uni mate to get food and other things sorted.
Josh and I were sent to meet a couple of other friends who were arriving that morning. We killed time by walking a random route (some might call it getting lost), coffee and buying provisions (read: alcohol, mixers, snacks).
The journey to the cottage was easy enough taking a couple of buses, taking only less than an hour. At the stop where we had to change buses, there was a state alcohol shop (which is pretty much the only place you can buy alcohol outside of restaurants, bars and clubs).
Sweden’s reputation for expensive alcohol is generally true. But cans of Kopparberg (Swedish cider) was actually cheaper than in the UK so we got some to bolster the supplies.
The ‘cottage’ actually turned out to be laid out like a lodge, with a large hall area complete with fireplace and kitchen and an upstairs room with bunk beds.
There was still an hour or so of light so most of us went for a wander in the surrounding area. Snow softened and brightened the landscape, while the semi frozen lake with its blocks of ice provided textural contrast.
We (the boys mainly) also amused ourselves throwing blocks of ice that skimmed along the frozen surface of the lake. The ice on ice made a strange whirring sound as it slid along. Winter Olympics here we come.
Dinner was a smorgasbord of traditional Swedish food, including herring and meatballs, lovingly prepared by Chef Andreas. Yum!
What happens in the sauna stays in the sauna, so you’ll have to use your imagination to fill in the next few hours.
I can reveal, however, that most of us did do the traditional jump-into-the-freezing-lake-just-outside-the-sauna. The water was cold but actually bearable for a plunge. The worst bit was that the ladder up onto the landing was too high up so we had to swim round the side (where ice had formed on the surface of the water), walk onto shore, and walk on ice round the sauna to round to the entrance. Still, I went into the water 3 times so it can’t have been too bad. That, and maybe the ciders and couple of hours in the sauna started making various things seem like a good idea. When in Sweden…
The rest of the evening was spent in the lodge, drinking and general merry making into the wee hours of morning.
Heavy heads were made better by bacon, eggs and tea combined. The fresh Swedish country air also did wonders.
Sadly, we only had a short amount of time before we had to clean up and say our goodbyes.
Stockholm’s excellent public transport system brought us back effortlessly back into town, which was accompanied by more goodbyes as the group dispersed at different points along the journey.
All in, it was a great trip to see some old friends and make some new ones as well as seeing some of Sweden. I’m certain I’ll return one day and maybe spend more time in the beautiful country side.