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Sweden

Swedish Lapland

Sweden photos

The wild, desolate expanse of Sweden’s remote north beyond the Arctic Circle was my final destination in Scandinavia. After the completion of exams in Stockholm, I caught a seventeen hour train journey to Abisko in the northernmost corner of the country to commence a five day exploration of Swedish Lapland. Although I travelled during the darkness of night (which lasted virtually the entire seventeen hours), it was noticeable at each station that the snow gradually became thicker and the temperature lower; a foreboding sign of what was to be expected in Lapland. When I arrived in Abisko, I encountered a temperature twelve degrees lower than anything I had experienced previously and a landscape totally covered in snow; a proper WOW factor moment. I spent three days in Abisko enjoying the sublime natural beauty of its unblemished environment and two days in Kiruna, one of Europe’s northernmost and coldest towns.

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Abisko is located within the World Heritage listed Laponian Wilderness, a vast collection of protected areas considered one of Europe’s last great natural environments. Abisko is a tiny community situated on the outskirts of its namesake national park. The dramatic approach into Abisko circumvents a vast, partially frozen lake and enters a valley of snow covered mountains (not particularly high). Abisko is one of the best places in the world to see the northern lights and the starting point of the famed King’s Trail, an epic 440 kilometre trail through the central spine of Sweden. Consequently, the community’s existence is almost entirely dependent on tourism. The village is composed of spacious timber red-and-white houses encircling a train station that looks somewhat like a gigantic barn. The constituent forms of transport during the long winters are snowmobiling and skiing, which compact the snow on the paths and make them easy to walk on. However, stepping off the paths results in submerging your knees below snow; which came as quite a shock the first time!

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I stayed at an excellent hostel in Abisko that was managed by a mixture of quirky locals and seasonal workers. The hostel consisted of several timber buildings scattered around a large property. The dormitories were located in a building that essentially functioned like a house, creating a communal and homely vibe. I shared a dormitory with English Mark, Danish Christian, German Sylvia and a bunch of unrelated Chinese tourists, who were all coincidentally studying in France. Abisko seemed to be a particularly popular (and slightly random) destination for Chinese tourists, who dominated the foreign presence in town. Snowsuits were provided by the hostel, which made exploring the Lapland wilderness comfortable and warm. By wearing the snowsuit over my existing layers, I was able wander outside easily for hours. In addition to the snowsuit, I also wore snow boots, thermal socks, thick woollen socks, long johns, skins, jeans (supposedly an unsuitable garment for the Arctic, but I had no issues!), a thermal top, a T-shirt, a skivvy, a woollen jumper, a light jacket, a thick jacket, a scarf, a beanie, cotton gloves and leather mittens simultaneously, depending on how cold it was..

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Dogsledding was not an activity I expected to excel at, but I proved to be an utter natural. I joined a group of fifteen for a two hour (became three hour) dogsledding tour of the landscape surrounding Abisko Hostel. Each person commanded their own sleigh, with four huskies assigned to the most talented (or just heaviest) members of the contingent. Before our departure from the mounting yard (?), our Czech leader bombarded us with a slew of instructions that I was certain I would either forget or fail to master. She explained how to break (by stepping on a metal bar that would grate the snow) and that when ascending slopes, we would need to aid the huskies by pushing off from the ground with one leg (with the other firmly rooted to the sleigh). We assisted the guides in assembling the sleighs, which was a rather intimidating ordeal as the huskies barked manically, attempted to bolt off and even attacked each other. We were to sleigh in single-file but were supposed to stay together as a group. Unfortunately I was positioned at number thirteen in order, which condemned me to long waits behind slow-pokes and duds. Indeed, there was an elderly American couple who both annoyingly and amusingly served that role.

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Once we commenced sleighing, I quickly found it very easy. The huskies simply followed the pack, so the only responsibility I had was to control their speed and stopping/starting. I also needed to ensure I moved correctly with the sleigh to avoid stacking, though this was quite natural. Controlling the huskies was hardest when the group stopped as they were eager to charge off. When we could move, the huskies would bolt away suddenly, which were the most difficult moments to stay on the sleigh. However, throughout most of the tour my four dogs were very lazy, preferring to dawdle and smell other dogs’ shit. Consequently, I was required to aid the huskies for roughly a third of the trip, which was incredibly exhausting with a snow suit and a dozen other garments on. Meanwhile, other participants claimed they didn’t need to aid their dogs whatsoever. At least half the members of the group crashed at some point from momentary lapses in control. One lady however was completely unable to handle her huskies, resulting in numerous crashes and long delays. Eventually, the guides ceded to her overtures of giving up and allowed her to ride in the back of a snow-mobile trailer. After the tour, we had the opportunity to enter the husky pens to pat these wonderful, semi-wild creatures. The dogsledding tour was definitely the highlight of my trip to a Lapland, an exhilarating and somewhat authentic way to see the landscape.

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The wilderness surrounding Abisko was one of the most enthralling areas for hiking that I have ever visited. Perhaps not so much for mesmerising vistas (although they were quite impressive) but for the sheer exoticism of trampling through an environment completely smothered in remarkably thick snow. Trails lead in all directions from Abisko, discernible from the boot marks and ski tracks in the snow. Following the trails into the desolate, inhospitable winter landscape was both exceptionally eerie and exhilarating, because of the interminable silence, stillness and lack of people. I went hiking for five hours on each of my final two days at Abisko and found it surprisingly exhausting, due to the clothing and occasional off-path wandering through knee-high snow. I vigilantly kept note of the time, to ensure I wasn’t caught out in pitch black darkness. I hiked through birch forests of grey skeletal trees spiking through the snow. I hiked across flat, open spaces that were probably frozen waterways, but I was often not sure. On one occasion, I encountered what was definitely a frozen lake and eventually mustered the courage to cross it (with a couple cracking sounds underfoot on the way!). I also encountered a frozen river that the trail evidently crossed and debated whether to also. Fortunately I decided not to, because I later noticed a couple hundreds metres upstream gaping holes in the ice sheet covering the river! I hiked mostly within shallow valleys surrounded by placid mountains of black rock and snow and enjoyed panoramic views of the perpetually white scenery.

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The opportunity to see the Northern lights is the constituent reason why people travel to Abisko; supposedly the best place in the world to view them. Witnessing an Aurora Borealis spectacle though is inherently unpredictable and not guaranteed. Consequently, there was an unofficial understanding among everyone staying at the hostel that if the lights were spotted, the alert was to be raised; regardless of the time. During the first (20 hour) night at Abisko, everyone in my dormitory was over-excited about the prospects of seeing the lights, after glowing reports from the previous days. In turns, we wandered outside hunting for the lights, until giving up completely by 2am: no lights. At around 6pm the next evening with everyone defrosting in bed, we suddenly heard a random hunter cry, “Lights! Lights!”. Within a nanosecond, we all jumped out of our comfortable perches and in a desperate hurry began the excruciatingly long and tedious process of gearing up for the external elements. Our fears of missing the lights were abated when we dashed outside and saw… grey cloud-like formations. I won’t lie, it was probably the single greatest anticlimax of my entire life, narrowly eclipsing my homemade roast chicken gravy for Christmas 2014. I was rather shocked by the overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses I was hearing from other light-gazers and wondered what I was missing. While I only just detected a tinge of colour, I was surprised to discover that photographs taken with very specific settings depicted the lights as vividly green. The phenomenon only lasted for twenty minutes, prompting our quick return to the warmth of bed. At around 9:30pm, lights were again spotted. On this occasion, the lights were substantially more impressive; though my fantasy of brilliant green light dancing across the night’s sky still hadn’t materialised. It was nevertheless a dynamic spectacle of formations that were obviously not clouds, with strands of feint green light gracefully folding through the sky. Mark and I braved the numbingly cold conditions for about one hour until we were satisfied the lights were not going to become any more enthralling; and returned to the warm refuge of the hostel.

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While I experienced bitterly cold temperatures in Abisko, it was even colder in nearby Kiruna. Abisko’s weather is relatively “temperate”, due to its location within a protective valley. Kiruna, however, is more exposed and can therefore experience much lower temperatures. When I visited Kiruna, the temperature hovered between -17 and -25 degrees. Since I was without a snow suit in Kiruna and depending purely on clothes bought from Primark, this temperature difference was certainly palpable. I had no issue walking outside in -17 degrees for hours, but exposure to -25 degrees for more than forty minutes was completely intolerable. My body’s reaction to conditions of -25 degrees was quite intriguing, because I found that for thirty minutes I would just be “aware” of the temperature, but then suddenly and rapidly I would feel very cold and need to find heated shelter. If you ever thought there’s nothing quite like an air-conditioned room on a hot summer day, wait until you travel to the Arctic!

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Kiruna is the largest Swedish settlement north of the Arctic Circle and Lapland’s transportation hub. The town exists in this incredibly inhospitable environment because of a gargantuan iron ore mine, the largest in Europe. The mine’s continual expansion will literally swallow Kiruna, which has resulted in the construction of a new town five kilometres away. However, the scheduled relocation to the new town has been delayed because of China’s economic slow down and therefore the lower demand for iron ore. The inevitable destruction of Kiruna will be rather saddening, because aside from the sterile concrete centre, its actually quite a pleasant town. Kiruna’s most attractive structure is the town’s main Lutheran church; a hulking, triangular wooden building that is often voted Sweden’s most beautiful. Kiruna’s neighbourhoods are composed of quaint timbers houses sporting a variety of colours (though mostly the maroon-red typical in Sweden); the vividness of which are accentuated by the unblemished white snow carpeting roofs, gardens, roads, cars and trees. Although the snow coverage was probably just slightly higher than in Abisko (nearly waist height, off the pavement), it seemed significantly deeper because of the surreal context of being inside a town rather than wilderness. I stayed at a lovely “hostel” in Kiruna, which was basically just an elderly woman’s very cozy house with guests sharing the bottom level.

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Kiruna Church

The internationally famous Ice Hotel is situated in the unassuming village of Jukkasjarvi near Kiruna (where it gets even lower). Unwilling to fork out $500 to freeze to death in my sleep, I opted to merely peruse through the hotel during the day (though for a still rather hefty $45) when all the rooms are accessible for public visitation. The Ice Hotel is constructed every November and melts away completely in May. Artists from throughout the world are invited to sculpt the hotel’s furniture and ornamentation from ice. The one-storey hotel only partially looks like an artificial structure; it certainly doesn’t feature a typical façade. But that’s because the focus is on the internal space, where jutting from a grand foyer are six corridors that lead to dozens of dazzling ice bedrooms. All of the rooms consist of an ice double bed covered in animal hides, with guests sleeping inside advanced sleeping bags to survive the night. The larger and more expensive rooms boast elaborate and distinctive designs, while the cheaper rooms are bare and generic. Some of the most impressive spectacles included a huge peacock in a wall replete with neon lights, elephant sculptures, a room full of quirky sheep and a creepy room full of human heads. While I thoroughly enjoyed visiting this remarkable building, I was also pleased to drive back to Kiruna for a warm night at the hostel!

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My typically high culinary standards changed completely in Swedish Lapland. Rather than attempting to sample traditional cuisine, my constituent objective was to counteract the extreme cold by achieving maximal calorie intake for minimal expenditure. I suspect the local population share this motive, because surprisingly affordable carb-and-meat-heavy food was readily available. The “dagens lunch” special offered by the only restaurant in Abisko was a buffet of two main dishes, potatoes, bread, pasta and salad bar. I chose strategically to attend the buffet at 2:30pm each day to avoid wasting precious daylight and to cover my lunch and dinner. My voracious appetite, which was exacerbated by the temperatures, was on full display. I also attended a brunch buffet in Kiruna that featured all the traditional Swedish favourites, including smoked salmon, gravlax (salmon cured in sugar and salt), pickled herring, potato salad, egg salad and roasted moose (quite delicious, richer than beef). Also in Kiruna, I sampled the Lapland version of (apparently) Sweden’s most traditional style of pizza, which features thin crust pastry, tomato, onion, cheese, slices of doner kebab (not exactly Swedish) and spicy garlic sauce. Perhaps for the novelty factor rather than improving the taste, the doner kebab was replaced by smoked reindeer.

Swedish Lapland was definitely one of the highlights of my nine month journey, a fitting (and cold) way to conclude my time in Europe. The five day trip was loaded with surreal experiences, including dogsledding, hiking through knee-high snow, walking across frozen lakes, observing the northern lights and enduring extremely low temperatures. The incredibly short days were also rather exotic and the only time I sighted the sun was when I was awaiting my flight at Kiruna Airport...

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 14:48 Archived in Sweden Comments (1)

Stockholm in Winter

Sweden photos

The final component of my exchange experience in Stockholm was characterised by a longing for snow, its eventual arrival and my eagerness to depart! The colourful leaves of autumn utterly disappeared by the beginning of November and the weather quickly progressed to freezing conditions. Walking through the forest next to KTH campus was rather intriguing, because the ground had literally frozen despite the lack of snow (I wasn’t aware of this phenomenon but it makes sense that the soil moisture content near the surface should freeze). Naturally I expected that snow would arrive imminently, but it was only on my penultimate day in Stockholm before leaving for the Christmas break that it finally started to snow. When I returned to Stockholm in mid-January, Stockholm had transformed into a winter wonderland and one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.

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My final fortnight in Stockholm was rather stressful, as I needed to complete assessments, lay the study groundwork for exams in mid-January, visit tourist sites in Stockholm I had neglected to see, move out of my apartment and, most importantly, research my upcoming travel adventures. I also needed to revel in the Christmas spirit sweeping the city, which suddenly enlivened the relatively drab Swedish capital. Glistening spectacles of Christmas lights abounded throughout the central areas of Stockholm, compensating somewhat for the depressively early sunsets at 3:15pm. Minuscule Christmas markets occupied the main squares, though I found them rather pathetic in comparison to Cologne’s. To commemorate a semester living at Drottning Kristinas Vag 43B, a dozen residents gathered in one apartment for Christmas beverages and celebration.

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Perhaps one of the most obscure tourist attractions I have visited is Skogskyrkogarden, a World Heritage-listed cemetery in the suburbs of Stockholm. The cemetery is distinguished for its unique landscape architecture, designed by a famous Swedish modernist architect in the 1910s. Most of the tombstones are laid out within tranquil but slightly eerie forests of tall, slender pine trees. Structures with Neoclassical motifs but provocatively asymmetrical and abstract forms (the Modernist twist on conventional historical design… usually resulting in ugly aesthetics) are dotted throughout the site and function as chapels or crematoriums. The main area of the cemetery is a vast, monotonous plain of grass, broken only by a small meditation hill with a grove of trees. Skogskyrkogarden is an intriguing site, but absolutely not worthy of World Heritage status.

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Another World Heritage site I visited in Stockholm, slightly more deserving of the recognition, was the Swedish royal family’s summer residence of Drottningholm. The palace is located in the suburbs of Stockholm, on the foreshore of an island overlooking pristine forests and waterways. The palace was constructed during the Golden Age of Sweden and was intended to project the newfound "great power" of the kingdom, mimicking the Palace The seventeenth century palace features Baroque architecture, requisite opulent interiors and expansive landscaped gardens. The most intriguing aspect of the palatial grounds is the Chinese Pavilion, which represents the European curiosity and interpretation of the Orient during the advent of globalisation.

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Chinese Pavilion at Drottningholm

On my penultimate day in Stockholm before Christmas break, I finally attended the city’s famed ethnographic museum Skansen (incessantly promoted as the world’s first). Hundreds of traditional rural buildings from throughout Sweden are displayed at Skansen, with their historic purposes recreated in many of them. Skansen also features expansive exhibits for endemic creatures, including wolverine (first time I had seen such a creature), moose, lynx and grey wolves. The open-air museum is somewhat like a cross-between Sovereign Hill and Healselville Sanctuary, occupying parkland just near the central area of the city. Skansen hosts Stockholm’s best Christmas market in December, which was the constituent reason for my visit. The market evokes Old World charm with rustic wooden stalls and simple signs (a fish to indicate smoked goods, mittens to indicate woollen garments etc). I ate traditional Scandinavian peasant fare, which was basically a pancakes prepared in an iron pan with an obscene quantity of pork lard and served with lingonberry jam. My day at Skansen also coincided with the first snow of the season in Stockholm, which condemned me to a rather cold outing. Nevertheless, it was very pretty to actually see it snowing and taste a “white Christmas”.

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I returned to Stockholm in mid-January for exams and was stupefied by the city’s dramatic changes aesthetically since my departure. When I arrived in central Stockholm, I was amazed to discover that roads and parked cars were completely blanked with powdery white snow. I was also shocked by the snow’s depth outside the pavement – nearly up to my knees! This extraordinary transformation of course compelled me to forego studying the next morning and to explore the city. I walked along a major waterway that had almost entirely frozen over, aside from a few precarious cracks. I surveyed the rail-yards connected to Stockholm Central from a bridge and found that tracks only just peeped above the snow. I ambled up to one of Stockholm’s best viewpoints and was astonished by the vista of frozen waterways, white roads and paths and snow-covered rooftops. I ventured through parks and watched people engaging in winter activities, such as skating and tobogganing. Although I experienced the lowest temperature that I had ever felt at minus nine degrees, the weather was surprisingly quite bearable; its all about the layers!

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While I am grateful for the exchange experience at KTH, after four months I can definitely conclude that Stockholm, and Scandinavia in general, is not really suited for me to live in. Despite its status as the capital city of a major country with a population of over two million, Stockholm is actually rather dull and boring. On each of my weekend trips to other European countries, I was reminded of the atmosphere and energy that is completely lacking in Stockholm. The city is of course inherently beautiful with its waterways, islands, refined architecture, pristine forests and cleanliness, but it just seems to lack cultural depth. The excessive costs and early closing times were other significant irritations. Oh well, I suppose I can’t love everywhere!

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That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 17:49 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Småland

Sweden photos

Geographically dominating the southern third of Sweden is the historical province of Småland, which literally translates to “small lands”. While the province is not one of Sweden’s most iconic destinations, numerous American tourists visit Småland to discover their ancestral roots or to purchase handcrafted glassware. I travelled to Småland for an entirely different purpose though; to rendezvous with a Swedish couple I met while staying at Hotel Kangaroo in Guatemala. Jakob and Kristin hosted me in their apartment for three days and generously provided enthusiastic tours and insights into the region. I visited Jakob’s childhood village Ingolstad, met with his family, watched a game of floorball (or innebandy) and attended the 30th anniversary of the Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus, a musical group cherished by the local community. These experiences were atypical for the standard touristic routine, which usually constitutes ticking off “must-see” attractions and socialising solely with other foreign visitors. However, I always find that the rare and privileged opportunities to stay with local people are especially rewarding, because the exposes the reality of a destination and the day-to-day lifestyle of the populace.

Jakob and Kristin live in the small and almost unpronounceable city of Växjö, just near the university where they both studied. The city is defined by the plethora of lakes within its vicinity, several of which penetrate into the urban area. The Swedish countryside is dotted with a seemingly endless number of lakes and this is particularly evident in Småland. Predictably, the lakes are surrounded by quaint red-and-white wooden summer houses for the Swedes to indulge in their love of serenity and nature. We visited the medieval fortress of Kronoberg Castle on an island of the largest lake in the region. Kronoberg was the stronghold for a failed peasant-led revolt against King Gustav Vasa in the sixteenth century (called the Dacke War after the peasant leader). The peasants relied upon their knowledge of the thick forests of Småland, which the region is renowned for, to conduct guerrilla warfare against the royal forces. Although the revolt was crushed, the proximity of Kronoberg to the Danish border resulted in its further fortification. Kronoberg is today a robust stone ruin surrounded by thick reeds. Småland is still covered in dense forest, partly because of the poor agricultural potential of the landscape. However, a freak cyclone ten years ripped through the region and destroyed thousands of acres of forest.

Kronoberg Castle

Kronoberg Castle

Småland possesses Sweden’s third biggest tourist drawcard: Glasriket, or the “Kingdom of Crystal”. The glass industry has existed in this region for more than five hundred years and fifteen glassworks are now located throughout this heavily forested province. We visited the glassworks owned by Kosta Boda, one of the largest producers of handcrafted glassware in Sweden. The precinct features several showrooms and a museum displaying remarkable glass ornaments. However, I was considerably more interested in touring the neighbouring facility where the products are actually crafted. Amazingly, there were no entrance fees, checks, safety equipment or roped pathways for tourist visits. We were permitted to amble freely around the active workspace, despite the glassblowers handling materials of 1090 degrees Celsius plus! I doubt in Australia WorkSafe would condone such a situation and endeavour to soak all the fun out of the experience. We watched the glassblowers pour molten glass into moulds or literally blow glassware into shape. Also at the precinct was a small Christmas market (very early in the season), the first of many I would visit in the subsequent month. Since most of the stalls offered free tasting samples, I quickly realised I would become quite the fan of European Christmas markets.

Glass blowing

Glass blowing

I visited the family home where Jakob grew up, on a large property just outside the small village of Ingolstad. His mother prepared a delicious fish soup for lunch and waffles with cloudberry jam the next day. Jakob gave an impassioned tour of the property’s collection of buildings, which includes a greenhouse. I was rather surprised by its content, because I certainly wasn’t expecting to encounter delicious Mediterranean produce such as tomatoes, figs and grapes in the chilly Swedish countryside. The property is surrounded by thick forest, which Jakob would often explore as a child. He recounted a story of when he came across a dead moose in the woods. Intrigued, Jakob cut off the head, packed it in his bag and returned home. With dinner being served upon his return, he proceeded to forget about the head and leave the bag in the hallway. His mother was rather surprised to subsequently discover a pool of blood forming in the hallway, seeping through a backpack from a moose head! Unfortunately, we didn’t spot any moose while I was in Småland, though we did at least glimpse a handful of deer. We attended a game of floorball (innebandy in Sweden), a sport I had never previously heard of, to watch Jakob’s nephew play. Floorball is quite similar to ice hockey but is played on a basketball court with a hollow ball rather than a puck, lighter sticks and no padding.

House in Ingolstad

House in Ingolstad

Jakob and Kristin continuously repeated there would be a “surprise” on the Saturday night of my trip to Småland. I remained ignorant until the curtains were drawn at the Växjö Teater, revealing the Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus. For those unfamiliar (like me), Barbershop Choruses resemble all-male or all-female choirs that usually sing (I think) music from the 1950s and 1960s (my lack of musical knowledge is probably rising to the fore now). However, Dacke Drangar performed a mixture of old and modern classics, no doubt to enhance the comedic effect of their acts. The first act was rather sophisticated, with the thirty-odd members wearing formal attire and performing in a synchronised manner. The second act though was entirely contrasting, as the Chorus haphazardly assembled onto the stage in caveman costumes. They eventually morphed into Vikings for the final crescendo. Coincidentally, Dacke Drangar was celebrating its 30th anniversary that evening and I was invited to the celebrations at a local restaurant. The group has performed internationally on several occasions, including an Australian tour in 1990. Jakob’s father is an integral member of the Chorus, while Jakob has also performed for the group. Throughout the evening, the Barbershop Chorus and all those in attendance spontaneously broke into Swedish drinking song, of which there seems to be many. I attempted in vain to follow, but found the pronunciation of the lyrics completely incomprehensible. I noticed a distinct difference between Swedish and Australian culture that evening: when the Swedes raise their glasses to toast, they never clink them together (when in a group). Several times I went in for the clink, only to be left hanging!

Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus

Dacke Drangar Barbershop Chorus

For breakfasts, we introduced each other to delicacies unique to our respective cultures: Vegemite and Kalles kaviar. After first tasting Vegemite in Australia, Kristin had no intention of resampling our delectable black spread. Jakob gave it a try, though his response was essentially a diplomatic rejection. As the name denotes, Kalles kaviar is a pink paste made from fish eggs that is extremely potent and very salty. The paste is packaged into toothpaste tubes (like mayonnaise and other sauces in Sweden) and is exclusively eaten with hard-boiled eggs. I could handle a small dab on my eggs, though I wouldn’t describe myself as a great fan of the substance. I was, however, a great fan of the knäckebröd prepared by Jakob’s Mum. Knäckebröd is crisp flatbread (more like crackers) made from rye flour that is insanely popular throughout Sweden. Whole supermarket aisles are devoted to knäckebröd and it is usually served as an appetizer at restaurants. I usually find knäckebröd quite flavourless and dull, but the rendition prepared by Jakob’s Mum was sensational; probably because it was homemade. I also sampled her homemade grape wine and apple wine; both produced using fruit from their garden. Småland is famed for its distinctive style of cheesecake… though the dessert is quite different to the standardised New York cheesecake. The cake is quite firm, crumbly, very moist and heavy – though not as dense New York cheesecake. It doesn’t actually use cheese but milk curd and is consequently less rich. Småland cheesecake is much sweeter though and has subtle tastes of almond.

Special thank you to Jakob and Kristin for hosting me for the weekend in Småland! I described the trip to several international students at KTH, who remarked that they don’t have the opportunity to stay with local people in Sweden, because they don’t know any outside of Stockholm. Its always rather difficult to meet and befriend people actually from the country you are travelling in, so I was very lucky to meet Jakob and Kristin beforehand in Guatemala.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 02:17 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Stockholm in October

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The tenth month of the sixteenth year of the third millennia will forever be remembered for possibly the greatest achievement in human history: the Hawthorn Football Club spectacularly winning a third consecutive AFL premiership. I obviously had no intention of missing the imperious Hawks fulfilling their destiny, despite my presence on the other side of the planet. On a crisp early morning after Octoberfest shenanigans, I powered through the desolate streets of Stockholm determined to reach the Irish pub broadcasting the big dance in time for the first bounce. Attending Grand Final events overseas is always a rather surreal experience, because quite suddenly you are surrounded by Aussies that speak the same lingo and actually understand this bizarre sport you repeatedly attempt to explain to foreigners (usually in response to insulting assumptions that all Aussies follow rugby). The Grand Final breakfast I attended was hosted by the local AFL competition, which consists of five teams with Australian and Swedish players alike. More than one hundred Australians attended the breakfast, including Sean’s former housemate Jonno (who I hadn’t seen in more than a decade) and his Swedish wife Jenny, both Hawks fans (though to varying degrees of passion). Needless to say, the morning was reasonably enjoyable… although I was slightly disappointed by the undercooked sautéed mushrooms. With the match concluding by 9:30am, I had ample time to watch the reply during the day.

View from Sodermalm

View from Sodermalm

The other particularly significant event to occur in early October was Australian Andrew’s visitation. After our brief meeting in London, Andrew had subsequently travelled to Bath, Cambridge, Nottingham, York and Edinburgh. When we met at Stockholm Central Station, he was brimming with enthusiasm about his recent exploits, while I was eager to discuss the calamitous Couchsurfing ordeal from the previous weekend. Andrew stayed in my tiny apartment for four nights as he explored the city, which he previously visited during an epic multi-continental trip as a child. I occasionally provided tour guiding services, although I was mostly preoccupied with mundane study.

Andrew in Stockholm

Andrew in Stockholm

Fortunately, I had a full day free from classes that enabled me to show Andrew around my temporary home town. Our first destination was the Stockholm Public Library, which is one of the city’s most iconic attractions. The modernist building, designed by Gunnar Asplund, consists of classical architectural elements reduced to abstract geometrical forms. As we ambled toward the centre of Stockholm via the main thoroughfare in the city’s north, Sveavägen, we spotted a most unusual sight: a man roller skiing. I have since witnessed people roller skiing with increasing regularity as the Swedish winter nears. I introduced Andrew to Swedish fare at one of my regular lunch spots, a restaurant inside the city’s prestigious indoor market Saluhall. The restaurant rotates its lunch specials daily and fortunately there was a cracking dish was on the menu when we attended. I enjoyed delectably tender and salty pork with a luxuriant mash of root vegetables and perfectly balanced mustard sauce. Admittedly, I don’t remember how the pork was cooked; I just remember the dish was the only proper WOW-factor culinary experience thus far in Stockholm.

Pork with root vegetables mash and mustard sauce

Pork with root vegetables mash and mustard sauce

I thoughtfully saved visiting Stockholm’s famed Vasa Museum until Andrew arrived, as I was certain he would want to attend this extraordinary institution of naval history. The museum consists of the only fully-intact seventeenth century ship that has ever been salvaged, the 64-gun warship the Vasa. However, my impressions of the ship were slightly blighted by the information pamphlet declaring the Vasa as one of the foremost touristic attractions in the world; a blatantly exaggerated assertion (as you all know, I’m vehemently opposed to exaggeration and would never dabble in such a concept in my writing). The Vasa was commissioned in the 1620s by the Swedish king, as part of his ambitious military expansion of the kingdom. Upon its completion, it was one of the most powerfully armed battleships in history. However, the ship was compromised by poor design: the upper structure was dangerously heavy, while at the bottom there was insufficient space for counterweights to balance the ship. Eager to see his flagship sail, the king nevertheless ordered the Vasa’s maiden voyage in 1628 while he was at war in Poland. After just 1,300 metres from its departure point, the Vasa sunk from a minor wind. Over the centuries, the exact location of the Vasa was lost from memory. In 1956, amateur archaeologist Anders Franzen discovered a large object in the waters of Stockholm Harbour, which proved to be the Vasa. The ship was recovered by constructing six tunnels through the clay bed for steel cable slings, which were connected to pontoons on the water surface. The Vasa was in excellent condition 333 years after it sunk, partly because the highly polluted waters of Stockholm Harbour (until recent decades) that it occupied prevented the proliferation of wood-consuming microorganisms. Since its exposure to air, the Vasa’s conservation has continued to be challenging. It is regularly treated with chemicals to prevent its decay, though the ship will eventually degrade completely in the future.

The Vasa

The Vasa

I concluded the first “period” of my studies at KTH University in mid-October. I decided to exploit the subsequent ten day interval before my first exam to travel to Poland with Andrew. The Norse gods perhaps condemned this recklessness, because Stockholm was covered with thick fog on the day of our flight, resulting in a four hour delay. I departed Stockholm knowing that when I returned, the city would be much colder and a whole lot darker.

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 11:07 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Gotland

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Situated roughly halfway between Sweden and Latvia in the Baltic Sea is Gotland. The island boasts more sunlight annually than any other part of the country and is consequently Sweden’s most popular summer destination. The island is renowned for its pleasant countryside and beautiful beaches. Gotland is accessible from Stockholm by a three hour ferry trip, so I decided to spend a weekend on the island despite tourist season concluding in early September. I stayed in World Heritage listed Visby, Scandinavia’s best preserved medieval old town and a former member of the Hanseatic League.

Main square in Visby

Main square in Visby

Stress, anxiety and a touch of fear characterised my first two hours on Gotland. I arrived by ferry at about 11:30pm and walked towards the address of my Couchsurfing host. Earlier in the week, I had some apprehension about the reliability of rocking up at this time. However, my host had emphatically asserted it would be completely fine since I would arrive on a Friday night. I should have trusted my initial instincts. After a twenty five minute walk in the cold, I reached the correct apartment blocks. Eager to escape the minus two degrees Celsius temperature (an unusually cool night for October), I called the provided mobile number. No answer. With no doorbell, intercom or any means of gaining a resident’s attention (building locked at 9pm), I was required to call again. No answer. Next I messaged the host on Couchsurfing and text messaged. No responses. Needless to say, I was starting to become a little worried. Visby is a town of only 22,000 and most visitors come exclusively in the summer months. Consequently, I knew the town would be completely dead at midnight and I was also aware of the irritating penchant for hostels in Scandinavia to close their receptions at around 6pm (usually 24 hours worldwide). So I waited and called again. Still no answers. I managed to identify the name of the Couchsurfer’s roommate on the mailbox and find a mobile number online that matched the name and address. But the recipient of my phone call claimed I had the wrong number. With a touch of paranoia after thirty minutes of standing in the cold, I concluded that I was being stitched up and needed to find alternative accommodation as soon as possible. I looked up the town’s hostel’s phone number for “urgent” situations and called it, though at 12:30am I had minimal hope that someone would answer. To my eternal gratitude, my call was warmly received and my inquiry about the vacancy incurred a positive response (probably because it was (very) low season). By 1:00am, I arrived at the hostel with boundless relief and no concerns about the cost. Although I was staying in a converted prison and didn’t actually encounter anyone when I entered (keys were placed in an envelope), at least I was warm! The Couchsurfing host eventually messaged me at 4:00am claiming to have forgotten their phone in the kitchen. A few curt messages were sent the next morning as I dodged the host’s efforts to meet.

My lodging in Visby

My lodging in Visby

Visby was the constituent centre of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic Sea for more than two hundred years. The Hanseatic League was a confederation of medieval merchant guilds and market towns that dominated maritime trade in Northern Europe. The League was designed to protect the economic interests of its member cities and ensure their defence through mutual aid. The League was predominantly composed of German members. The architecture and culture of Visby was heavily influenced by the Hanseatic League and consequently the old town is much more Germanic than Nordic in appearance. Nevertheless, Visby was conquered by the Danes at the end of the fourteenth century and has remained a part of either the Danish or Swedish realms for more than six hundred years since.

Town walls

Town walls

The old town of Visby is probably the most impressive historic core in Scandinavia. Few medieval structures survive in cities throughout the Nordic countries; yet in Visby, the iconic fortified ramparts and hundreds of former warehouses and dwellings date to this period. The old town is situated directly beside the Baltic Sea, a testament to its maritime character. The old town is surrounded by a remarkably preserved medieval defensive wall replete with dozens of towers, each with individualised designs. The cobblestone streets inside the walls are mostly pedestrianised and meander through the town in an illogical manner. The old town is composed of large multi-storeyed residences with prominent terracotta roofs and colourful facades. Scattered throughout the old town are the ruins of more than a dozen medieval churches that were burnt down in the sixteenth century. Their skeletal and ghostly remains are the architectural tombstones of the city’s long history. Many quiet streets of Visby are enlivened by colourful facades and lush gardens.

Hanseatic town of Visby

Hanseatic town of Visby

Unfortunately, the lack of private wheels and the restrictive bus schedule conspired against my exploration of Gotland’s countryside. I therefore missed visiting the island’s northern beaches, which are scattered with thousands of mysterious rock stacks. However, I did walk ten kilometres south of Visby to at least sample what the Gotlandic coast has to offer. This enabled me to enjoy the autumnal leaves of mid-October in Sweden, with hues of gold, orange and red dominant. I have quite enjoyed watching the stages of nature’s transform throughout the autumn in Northern Europe. I ventured to a point named Hogklint, which provided excellent views of the surrounding landscape and Visby in the distance. Hogklint also features beautiful chalk white cliffs, which contrasted with the blackness of the Baltic Sea and the multi-coloured entanglement of the forest above.

Hogklint

Hogklint

The iconic dish of Gotland is Saffronpannkaka, or saffron pancakes. Despite the name, saffronpannkaka is actually saffron and rice pudding mixed with cream and baked in the oven. Slices of the vibrant yellow pudding are served with dewberry (similar to a blackberry) jam and whipped cream. Reasonably tasty, but not a dessert I would bother ordering again. Gotland is famous throughout Sweden for its seafood and high-quality lamb. At a quirky fish restaurant on the main square, I enjoyed the best pickled herring I have tasted in Scandinavia. The herring was presumably fried in breadcrumbs before its pickling with onions, carrots and capers. The pickled mixture was served with melted butter, boiled potatoes, dill, parsley and aioli. At a café also on the main square, I enjoyed succulent lamb in a not-so-traditional tomato-based casserole.

Saffranpankaka

Saffranpankaka

In reflection, I think the anxiety of the first night seriously compromised my enjoyment of Visby. It put me in a depressive and irritable mood, though the lifeless October atmosphere hardly improved the situation. I suppose it was a reminder that travelling is not perpetually fun; you inevitably end up in unsavoury circumstances occasionally. Hardly life or death stuff, just annoying. To conclude, a trip to Gotland would be far more fulfilling in the summer months with a car!

Ruined medieval church

Ruined medieval church

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 01:20 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Bothnian Coast

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With an unexpected six day interval between classes in mid-September, I planned a trip along Sweden’s Bothnian coast, north of Stockholm (I obviously had no intentions of studying). The European students at KTH are rather bemused by this hedonistic lifestyle of weekly adventures, but other Australian students are also exploiting any opportunities to travel. Armenian Vahan and Honduran Daniel accompanied me for the first component of the trip to Hoga Kusten, which directly translates to the “High Coast”. Vahan and Daniel are also students at KTH and reside in the same apartment building as me on campus. Hoga Kusten is a geographically significant area in the north of Sweden because it is an example of post-glacial rebound. The icesheet that once covered the region melted thousands of years ago, which thus released the pressures applied to the surface and resulted in it rising. This coastline is the only mountainous part of the Baltic Sea, with sheer cliffs, canyons, small mountains, fjords and islands characterising the landscape. Within Hoga Kusten’s World Heritage listed domain is Skuleskogan National Park, the most pristine environment in the area and our target destination. We drove to Skuleskogan National Park on a Friday night and spent the weekend there. I subsequently travelled by train to the small city of Umea and the even smaller city of Luleå, just south of the Arctic Circle, before flying back to Stockholm.

DSC04606.jpg

After driving for five hours on the highway, we arrived at the national park at around eleven o’clock. We proceeded to the western entrance where we intended to camp and utilise the promised barbeques. We eventually located a deserted carpark and noted the conspicuous absence of camping facilities. We did at least discover a boardwalk leading 500 metres to a visitor information area replete with a bizarrely located fire pit. This wasn’t exactly the ideal circumstance for my torch to fail intermittently in the pitch black darkness of the isolated forest. Vahan and Daniel managed to establish a fire, while I attempted to appear productive by holding my wavering torch. Vahan cooked a delicious “Armenian barbeque” of pork fillets marinated in onions, herbs and spices and we ate at nearly one o’clock. It was probably the most unusual and slightly unsettling context I have ever dined in. We then returned to the warmth of the car and drove to the southern entrance, in the hope of locating a campsite. En route, a startled moose jumped onto the dirt road directly in front of the car, probably because it was startled by the headlights. The campsite at the southern entrance was located 1.5 kilometres from the carpark, requiring us to carry our loaded backpacks through the interminable darkness past two o’clock. It seemed our night would never end. We moved carefully through the damp forest on narrow boardwalks essentially consisting of split tree trunks with metal rods for grip. Finally, we reached a clearing and setup our tent on a moderately dry patch of sand. We crashed just after three o’clock.

The campsite

The campsite

The provision of light the next morning enabled us to survey the campsite’s position. Our tent was located beside a bay connected to the Baltic Sea and surrounded by forest with pine trees and lush undergrowth. We enjoyed a leisurely morning of hiking through the forests of Skuleskogan and along the coastline. The national park consists of an unusually high concentration of deciduous trees considering its northern location, which is reflective of a former warm climate. The mountains of Skuleskogan have protected the trees from arduous conditions and thereby ensured their survival. Consequently, the national park boasts a unique mix of deciduous and coniferous trees. When we visited in mid-September, the autumnal colours of the deciduous trees contrasted substantially with the evergreen of the coniferous trees. In the mid-afternoon, we ventured onto two islands connected to the mainland by a causeway and enjoyed magnificent views of Skuleskogan and the Baltic Sea. We sheltered from rain and the increasingly cool temperatures in a cosy cabin with a group of Lithuanians. With the rain subsiding, we departed the islands and ascended rocky slopes (hopefully) towards a campsite.

View of the islands

View of the islands

We eventually discovered the campsite amid thick grass and rocky platforms beside a black lake at 200m in altitude. A Swedish couple offered us to use a surprisingly unoccupied cabin there. Fear of an incredibly cold night conspired us to issue scant protest to their generosity and gratefully accept sleeping in the cabin while they camped outside! I decided to exploit the last hours of light for the day and ascend further for panoramic views of the lake and coast in the distance. I suddenly thought that my off-track hiking through knee-high shrubbery perhaps wasn’t such a clever idea, as I remembered Sean’s warnings about potentially fatal and incurable tick bites common in the Swedish wilderness. Anyways, the views were splendid from my isolated position as the sky fashioned pinks and purples at sunset. We spent the evening huddled around a fire and watched the embers surreally disperse across the lake.

Our cabin, far left

Our cabin, far left

After enjoying a much needed sleep-in, we proceeded to ascend the slopes of Skuleskogan for more spectacular views of the coastline and landscape. We hiked through the national park’s iconic narrow canyon, which consists of two sheer cliffs separated by about five metres. The final stretch of our hike consisted of ambling through wetlands and avoiding drenching our feet. We spent a couple of hours driving in the afternoon driving around Hoga Kusten and saw vibrant green pastures, tiny villages of red-and-white buildings, pink-granite beaches and calm bays.

Canyon in Skuleskogan

Canyon in Skuleskogan

While Vahan and Daniel returned to Stockholm, I decided to continue further north to the cities of Umeå and Luleå by train. Umeå is a medium-sized city situated on a river inland from the Gulf of Finland. The centre is mainly composed of drab buildings with a smattering of colourful, old wooden buildings. The waterfront is beautifully landscaped and features an assortment of iconic modernist structures beside the wide river. For those with astonishing memories from my blog, the river reminded me somewhat of Kampot, Cambodia! As you have probably deduced, Umeå is not a particularly enthralling destination for a tourist to visit. However, it seemed like an amiable city for residents (if you prefer living in communities of less than four million… so not me!) and I was still satisfied I visited to experience a contrasting Swedish city to Stockholm.

Wooden houses in Umeå

Wooden houses in Umeå

The train journey from Umeå to Luleå was incredibly beautiful as it passed through typical Swedish countryside blanketed in golden autumnal leaves. Sweden boasts more than three million lakes throughout its territory, so by both road and rail you seemingly travel past a new lake every five minutes. Sweden’s landscape is generally either flat or consisting of picturesque rolling hills. The train journey passed through extensive forests and farmland scattered with archetypal Swedish red-and-white buildings. Another notable aspect of the train journey was that half the passengers were Syrian refugees; the first time I had noticed them in Sweden. Along with Germany, Sweden is the most popular destination in Europe for asylum seekers because of its humane policies and relatively tolerant attitude (although these are challenged by the growth of the crisis). When we disembarked in Luleå, the refugees were welcomed by dozens of volunteers with food and beverages and further transportation was ready to take them to a new settlement.

View from train journey

View from train journey

Luleå is the largest city in the vast county of Norrland and located near the most northerly point of the Gulf of Bothnia. The difference in latitude from Stockholm was patently obvious, because the temperatures were much cooler and the trees were already shedding their gold and reddish brown leaves (in Stockholm the leaves were still green). Luleå isn’t the most riveting place in the world to visit, but I was quite excited to be so far north. I Couchsurfed in Luleå with Pakistani Riaz, a PhD student in civil engineering at the technical university in Luleå. Riaz was incredibly hospitable during my stay as we discussed cricket, studying in Sweden and the frigid conditions of living near the Arctic Circle. Riaz drove me to the World Heritage listed Church Town of Gammelstad, situated ten kilometres from Luleå. Gammelstad is considered the best example of a “church town”, which were once common throughout the vast expanses of Scandinavia. Gammelstad’s wooden houses were only used on Sundays and at religious festivals by parishioners who could not return on the same day because of the tyranny of distances. Some of Gammelstad’s 424 red-and-white wooden houses are still owned by the families that originally built them. The town’s stone Gothic church dates to the early fifteenth century.

Church Town of Gammelstad

Church Town of Gammelstad

This was not exactly a culinary trip, although I did enjoy a couple regional specialties. Near Hoga Kusten, I dined at a standard rural bistro (i.e. absent of the unnecessary trappings of an inner city restaurant) and ate a very Swedish dish: baked salmon with a cream and caviar sauce, boiled potatoes and white asparagus. I shuddered at the music of an Australian artist played on the sound-system. Normal, I would be proud to hear an Australian artist in such a remote location, but it was Guy Sebastian. In Umea, I lunched on a moose meatball with boiled potatoes and a gravy of mushrooms and caramelised onions. I also sampled Sweden’s most famous cheese, Vasterbotten cheese, which is hard, sharp and rather similar to parmesan.

Moose meatball

Moose meatball

I travelled along the Bothnian Coast of Sweden at the opportune time, just before the weather became really disagreeable for outdoor activities in the north. While I had a pleasant five day trip, I wouldn’t recommend any of the destinations as “unmissable” highlights of Sweden.

That’s all for now,

Liam

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Posted by Liamps 00:11 Archived in Sweden Comments (1)

Gothenburg

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Gothenburg is often touted as Sweden’s true cultural centre, especially by Swedes from outside Stockholm. The city boasts a vibrant maritime legacy that has translated into a more cosmopolitan, grungy and relaxed character than the national capital. Gothenburg is located on Sweden’s western coastline bordering the North Sea. It was founded in the seventeenth century so Swedish traders could circumvent the Danish-controlled Oresund Straits to access Western Europe. Gothenburg has since evolved into Sweden’s second largest city and Scandinavia’s largest port. Australian Anne, veteran of the “Iceland Eskimos” tour and currently studying in Denmark, spontaneously arranged a weekend trip to the city with Australian Jules, Mexican Priscilla, Greek George and yours truly. This excursion to Gothenburg roughly coincided with my birthday; so for those who know the date, it should indicate how far behind my blog is!

Central Gothenburg

Central Gothenburg

Dutch architects were commissioned to design Gothenburg as a heavily fortified city that could withstand raids from the Danes. Consequently, the inner areas of Gothenburg exhibit aesthetical similarities to Amsterdam. The centre of Gothenburg is an artificial island surrounded by a narrow canal. The centre is connected to the rest of Gothenburg by dozens of quaint bridges covered in flowers; a distinguishing attribute of the city. The architecture of the centre is predominately defined by neoclassical and restrained modernist edifices, as fires prior to the nineteenth century destroyed older, wooden buildings. In terms of public transportation, Gothenburg is served by a fleet of sky blue trams that form quintessential images of the city. Opposite the centre on the southern side of the canal is a belt of lush greenery that provides breathing space for the city. The pedestrianised, cobblestone streets of the centre’s grid layout are lined with bustling cafes, boutique shops and markets. The compactness of Gothenburg has resulted in an atmosphere suggestive of a city much larger than it actually is.

Floral bridges

Floral bridges

The area south of the centre formerly consisted of Gothenburg’s working class neighbourhoods. The Haga district is the oldest suburb in Gothenburg and was originally founded as the home of construction labourers working on the city’s initial fortifications. Some of Haga’s colourful wood panel townhouses from the seventeenth century survive. However, the international phenomenon of gentrification in inner city locations is certainly evident in Gothenburg. Haga now functions as Gothenburg’s equivalent to Fitzroy; a gritty area with brilliant cafes and bars that remains perpetually crowded.

Cafe in Haga

Cafe in Haga

South of inner Gothenburg is the massive green oasis of Slottsskogsparken. A commendable aspect of Swedish society is the perpetual access to nature, regardless of whether you live in an urban or rural context. This huge area of the city mostly consists of forest and lakes, though numerous paved trails meander through to create tranquil tracks for walking and running. At the heart of Slottsskogsparken is a free zoo that predominately exhibits domesticated animals endemic to Sweden. Modern farming practices threaten the survival of several species displayed, because foreign breeds are preferred to increase yield from agricultural production. I also spotted two moose, the largest and most fearsome of deer.

Moose!

Moose!

Our weekend trip to Gothenburg was essentially a culinary adventure, with some minor touristic activities to pass time. The city is considerably cheaper than Stockholm, which compelled me to indulge rather excessively. Gothenburg boasts a vibrant café culture, with numerous quirky establishments concentrated in Haga that sell rustic cakes and tarts. On our first morning, we stumbled upon a café displaying a dozen varieties of freshly baked treats outside the storefront. Luring us in, we quickly decided to gorge on the traditional Swedish buffet brunch. For just $14 (unthinkable in Stockholm), we were given individual glasses of pure berry smoothies, bowls of yoghurt and cheese and were granted free reign over a spread of potato salad (a Swedish obsession: usually potatoes float in a pool of cream flavoured with dill, capers and onion), crepes, bread, berries, homemade jams and butter (Swedish butter has no peer). The Swedish brunch was so amazing I had to have it twice (though at a different café for the sake of variation). The Swedes love nothing more than chowing down a “kanellebulle”, or cinnamon roll, which is quite possibly the most overrated food item on the planet. Cinnamon rolls are usually dry, bread-like (think Boston bun) and almost flavourless. However, my companions in Gothenburg delighted in eating cinnamon rolls that were larger than their heads (the gimmicky size is probably used to overcome the product’s meagre taste). In Gothenburg, I sampled one of Sweden’s most popular lunch dishes: an open sandwich with a towering pile of shrimp, sliced boiled egg, slices of cucumber and tomato and a mega dollop of mayonnaise. For dinner, I enjoyed gravalax (salmon cured with sugar and salt) served with mustard sauce and potatoes in creamy dill sauce.

Prawn and egg open sandwich

Prawn and egg open sandwich

I returned to Gothenburg on a study visit with my Railway Traffic class at KTH University. Sweden has engaged in deregulation of the country’s railways in the past 25 years to improve its efficiency and commercial potential. Consequently, numerous private companies now operate services in competition with the state owned company SJ. We boarded a private operator to Gothenburg and SJ for the return journey to identify differences in the services provided to customers. Personally, I preferred the modernity of the private operator’s train service. Swedish trains are considerably more comfortable than their Australian equivalents for passenger journeys, as powerpoints and free wifi are provided (in fact, I watched the exciting events that occurred on the 14th September in Canberra on my first return from Gothenburg, which resulted in an extraordinary birthday present: the removal of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister). Like Australia though, Sweden lacks high-speed rail due to a small population and large territory (and therefore the enormous costs involved). In Gothenburg, we toured the country’s largest marshalling yard, where freight trains are assembled.

No doubt loyal readers are grateful for this mercifully short entry: quite a change! I certainly. Not that this should reflect negatively on Gothenburg, as I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the city and I think it challenges Stockholm as Sweden’s best.

Part of the Gothenburg gang

Part of the Gothenburg gang

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 13:50 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Around Stockholm

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The Swedish people are particularly defined by their obsession with the outdoors and respect for the natural environment. The Swedes are especially proud of “Allemansrattan”, or their right of public access to the countryside. In Sweden, anyone is permitted to walk, ski, swim and camp in national parks and on private land, although gardens and crops must be avoided. This privilege is granted in the assumption that when people are enjoying the countryside, they will adhere to the fundamental mantra, “do no disturb, do not destroy.” While the Swedes love outdoor adventure and exploration, the ultimate “Swedish dream” is to own a slice of the countryside in the form of a summer house. More than 600,000 of these relatively small and aesthetically uniform red-and-white wooden structures dot the Swedish landscapes and the islands of Stockholm’s vast archipelago. Sweden consequently has the highest holiday-home ownership rate of any country in the world. Environmental consciousness is especially high in Sweden, both from individual and governmental perspectives. Recycling initiatives permeate everyday life, such as the easily accessible and lucrative ability to dispose of cans and bottles at supermarkets. Garbage is virtually non-existent and waterways throughout Sweden are perfectly safe to swim in, including the canals and harbour of central Stockholm. The Swedes are often characterised as embracing outdoor activities enthusiastically in all weather conditions, although I doubt the truthfulness of this claim. Like other nationalities, the Swedes exhibit a tendency to hibernate when inclement weather interferes. Fortunately, I arrived in Stockholm at the end of summer, which allowed me to enjoy the atmosphere and scenery of Stockholm and surrounding areas while the weather was still pleasant.

Swedish summer house

Swedish summer house

Perhaps the favourite summer pastime of Stockholmers is to enjoy the pristine nature of the Stockholm Archipelago. The archipelago stretches from the edge of Stockholm’s metropolitan area to the Baltic Sea. It comprises of 24,000 islands that range in size from a bathtub to islands large enough to support agriculture and villages. The islands are characterised by lush, coniferous forests and smooth rocks that interface with the water. The few “traditional” beaches that exist are tiny and composed of pebbles. Quaint summer houses pepper the islands, even isolated and treeless rocky atolls. I really admire how Sweden has managed to forge a quintessentially Swedish image of the countryside, purely by painting all rural wooden structures in the red-and-white motif. While ferries operate from Stockholm to a plethora of islands in the archipelago, Stockholmers particularly enjoy plying the waters in private boats; yachting is especially popular in Sweden.

Gallno

Gallno

I visited one of the archipelago’s most popular islands, Gallno, with a group of around sixty exchange students. This spontaneously organised event must have at least doubled the number of daily tourists that visit the island in summer. We were blessed with perhaps the best possible weather imaginable for Sweden: sunny sky and temperatures hovering above twenty degrees Celsius. The favourable conditions convinced some students to swim in the frigid Baltic water, though I failed to exhibit such bravery. Although Gallno is a permanently inhabited island with an agricultural community, cars and other large vehicles are entirely absent. Locals instead use motorcycles with trailers attached to the back to transport goods around the island. They otherwise travel by boat, bicycle or simply walking. Gallno’s miniscule village consists of three dozen red-and-white wooden houses, a tiny grocery store and picturesque gardens by the waterfront. Farmland and forest each account for roughly half of the island’s landmass. When ambling around the island, you certainly appreciate that Gallno is a working rural environment because the main “roads” regularly pass through farm gates. Small, easily losable trails meander through the dense forests of the island. Pine trees dominate the forests, although a smattering of deciduous trees exist and the ground is covered in thick and vibrant green vegetation. A small lake surrounded by forest exists in part of the island, intriguingly close to the seawater of the Baltic.

Lake on Gallno

Lake on Gallno

I decided to visit another of the Stockholm Archipelago’s islands independently. Uto, one of the largest islands in the archipelago, is located on the south-eastern edge and properly within the Baltic Sea. Consequently, far less islands are concentrated in this area than around Gallno. Several villages exist on Uto and some transport around the island is conducted by road. However, the island is more heavily forested, so it is easier to lose people and civilisation. I spent most of my time on Uto scrambling on the smooth rocks of the eastern coast. The presence of short pine trees within the rocky platforms gave them the appearance of naturally occurring bonsai. Clumps of hardy purple flowers and pools of black water also occupy the rocky platforms, which overall forms a quite unusual landscape.

Eastern coast of Uto

Eastern coast of Uto

Discussion about the ancient Swedish capital of Uppsala is not really compatible with this entry’s general theme of Swedish outdoor lifestyle. However, my daytrip to the city was somewhat “leisurely”, so that can be sufficient justification for its inclusion. Uppsala is Sweden’s fourth largest city, although it is relatively small at 150,000 residents. Uppsala is only one hour by train from Stockholm, so it essentially functions as a satellite city to the modern Swedish capital. Yet Uppsala’s history predates Stockholm by centuries. Gamla Uppsala, located in the countryside four kilometres from the centre of town, was formerly Scandinavia’s most important religious centre. Today the site consists of dozens of burial mounds constructed for Viking rulers and filled with Norse icons. I visited the picturesque area in the twilight of a crisp autumn day, when the leaves of deciduous trees evoked vibrant golden colours. Uppsala became the seat of the archbishopric of Sweden in 1164. When the original cathedral burnt down in the thirteenth century, the new cathedral was built in a regional trading centre nearby; thus effectively relocating Uppsala. Domkyrka is a magnificent Gothic cathedral composed of red-brick and black roofing. The cathedral spires, the tallest in Sweden, dominate Uppsala’s skyline and are viewable throughout the city. The “new” town of Uppsala has developed around the cathedral and along a narrow river replete with attractive bridges and lush riverbanks. The cosmopolitan hub of Uppsala, composed mostly of nineteenth century buildings, occupies the flat terrain on the opposite side of the river to the cathedral. A district of colourful medieval townhouses and winding narrow streets are concentrated around the cathedral. The Uppsala’s renaissance castle occupies a highpoint above the cathedral and provides excellent views of the city. Uppsala boasts Scandinavia oldest university and student culture seems to permeate throughout the city.

Autumn leaves and burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala

Autumn leaves and burial mounds at Gamla Uppsala

Artisanal bakeries are a mockery of what bakeries are supposed to be for; the acquisition of the cheapest form of sustenance (with the exception of carrots and onions, though few of us enjoy a diet replicating Sean’s). As previously mentioned, artisanal bakeries are the standard form of bakeries in Sweden, where loaves of bread often cost at least ten dollars. However, on the rare occasions I begrudgingly stump up the necessary fortune required to purchase baked goods in Sweden (more out of principle than financial hardship), I am always satisfied at least by the taste. On Uto, I acquired a delicious roll of curried chicken (curry powder is a popular flavouring agent throughout Northern Europe) with cucumber and tomato in excellent bread. I also ate a cardamom roll, which is one of Sweden’s most popular pastries. A sweet bread-like dough is twisted into a knot and baked with a cardamom and sugar paste on top. The result is reasonably tasty, though somewhat overrated.

One of Stockholm’s best attributes is the accessibility to intriguing daytrip destinations from the city. Unfortunately, I only managed to visit two of the archipelago’s islands during the warmer months, though both facilitated excellent afternoons of exploration. A visit to Stockholm is incomplete without venturing into the beloved Stockholm Archipelago to the east of the city.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Sweden photos

Posted by Liamps 09:25 Archived in Sweden Comments (0)

Stockholm

Photos of Sweden

The constituent purpose of Globo Trip II (ostensibly anyway) was to study on exchange at KTH University in Stockholm. At length I have debated how I should approach writing about the exchange program, since the experience is radically different to aimlessly gallivanting around the world. The easiest option would be to drop such an endeavour entirely so the blog can catch up! However, I will write roughly one entry for each month spent in Stockholm and focus on the city, Swedish society and cuisine rather than mundane topics such as study and daily chores. I decided to study in Sweden primarily because it was one of the few countries in Western Europe I failed to visit in 2013. I was also intrigued to experience life in a Scandinavian social democracy and analyse whether the much vaunted Nordic model is indeed the most ideal system of governance. I arrived in Stockholm at the end of summer to commence the semester on the 31st August, which gave me the opportunity to experience the city before the impending darkness and coldness of Swedish autumn and winter.

Gamla Stan connected to Norrmalm

Gamla Stan connected to Norrmalm

My residence in Stockholm is a ground-level “single-studio” in a new building at KTH. I was incredibly fortunate to be allocated a room on campus, because all other exchange students I have met live 20-60 minutes from KTH (although I pay substantially more for the privilege). The seven-storey building is occupied by Masters and PhD degree students from an eclectic range of countries, including Armenia, Belarus, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Turkey and the United States. The room is petite but adequate for one person and consists of a private kitchenette and bathroom. Unfortunately though, the ventilation seems to be quite poor because every time I cook, the room stinks of food and my clothes absorb the odour!

KTH University’s main campus is located approximately thirty minutes from the central area of Stockholm by walking (the preferable form of transit in a city of outrageously expensive public transportation). Since the university is specifically a technical institution, the campus is considerably smaller and less glamourous than the University of Melbourne. Nevertheless, it does consist of several old, ivy-covered brick buildings and a monumental courtyard used for major events. A pristine forest sprawls directly north-east of the campus, compensating for the lack of expansive grounds or sporting facilities. The preservation of this natural environment within an urban context is representative of a quintessential aspect of cities in Sweden. The neighbourhood to the south-east of the campus is predominately residential and peaceful. The area is mostly composed of four to six storey apartment buildings that exhibit a multitude of bright colours. Cafes, artisanal bakeries, small supermarkets and shops line the main thoroughfares near the campus. To my eternal annoyance, fruit and vegetable grocers, traditional bakeries (i.e. affordable) and butchers are completely absent from the area and Stockholm generally, which I have struggled to reconcile with since moving here.

The city of Stockholm occupies fourteen islands within Lake Malaren in central-east Sweden. The lake connects to the Baltic Sea through the Stockholm Archipelago, which consists of roughly 24,000 islands of varying magnitude. Stockholm is defined perhaps more so by its nature than built environment, with 60% of the city composed of green spaces and waterways. The political and historical centre of Stockholm is a tiny island known as Gamla Stan, or the old town. The Stockholm City Centre constitutes four areas surrounding Gamla Stan: Sodermalm, Ostermalm, Norrmalm and Kungsholmen. Sodermalm is a large island located directly south of Gamla Stan and functions as Stockholm’s hipster, arty enclave. Sodermalm is relatively hilly and the northern cliffs provide magnificent views over the city. North of Gamla Stan is Norrmalm, the commercial centre of Stockholm that consists of the city’s primary shopping precincts, corporate headquarters and the Central Station. Stockholm’s swankiest neighbourhoods are located east of Norrmalm in Ostermalm. KTH University is located just to the north of this borough. Kungsholmen is another island to the west of Norrmalm and features a more casual atmosphere to the other areas of the inner city. The metropolitan area sprawls in all directions from Stockholm City Centre.

View from Sodermalm

View from Sodermalm

Tourists are not particularly noticeable in Stockholm, except for in the compact old town of Gamla Stan. The pedestrianised main thoroughfare that meanders through the island is loaded with gimmicky souvenir shops and tourist traps, giving it the undesirable atmosphere of Venice or central Prague. Tour groups are attracted to the area obviously because it is Stockholm’s most beautiful. For most of Stockholm’s history, the city existed purely on Gamla Stan; giving the area a distinctive aesthetical appearance. The layout of Gamla Stan is essentially medieval, with narrow winding roads cross-crossing to form an almost unnavigable environment. The tall, slender townhouses are almost Germanic in appearance, with steep roofs, exposed wooden framing and colourful paint. Renaissance churches are scattered throughout Gamla Stan, while the northern side of the island is dominated by the gargantuan Royal Palace and the semi-circular Swedish Parliament (neither of which I have visited yet).

Gamla Stan

Gamla Stan

The waterfront area of Norrholm and Osterholm and the vast parkland island of Djugarden are my favourite areas in Stockholm. The waterfront is bordered by some of Stockholm’s grandest structures, with hotels and expensive apartment buildings from the nineteenth century preserved magnificently. Numerous ferries that serve the islands to the east dock in this area, creating a lively multi-modal hub with trams and cyclists. The expansive pedestrianised areas beside the water provide excellent views of Gamla Stan, Sodermalm, the harbour and other areas of central Stockholm. Djugarden is entirely composed of parkland and museums and is a hive of physical activity. The island boasts lush forest, manicured gardens and an ethnographic zoo within ten minute walk from central Stockholm. I stumbled upon an apple orchid on Djugarden, connected to a café precinct with flower gardens and greenhouses. The orchid featured at least a dozen different apple tree species. I disregarded the Swedish sign indicating that the apples were the property of the café and happily began picking the ripe fruit; intending to feign ignorance.

Djugarden

Djugarden

The international significance of Swedish society commenced with the Viking Age in the ninth and tenth centuries. The Swedish Vikings were less adventurous than their Danish and Norwegian counterparts, although they successfully established trade links as far east as Constantinople and Baghdad and settled in modern-day Russia. A unified Swedish state gradually developed during the Viking Age, which was further strengthened by the country’s conversion to Christianity in 1020. The Swedish kings inherited the Norwegian throne in 1319, although by the end of the century both countries were incorporated into the Dane-dominated Kalmar Union. In 1520, Gustav Vasa inspired a rebellion which led to Sweden’s liberation and the establishment of the Vasa dynasty. Gustav reigned for 37 years and developed a centralised state with Stockholm as the new Swedish capital. He also converted the country to Protestantism, leading to Sweden’s major role in the Thirty Years’ War in the early seventeenth century. Despite Sweden’s small population, its armies dominated the Catholic alliances of the continent as it plundered the German and Polish heartlands. The Swedish Empire was subsequently born, with southern Sweden (formerly Danish) Finland, the Baltic States and coastal regions of Germany and Poland conquered. Wars with Russia in the eighteenth century concluded Sweden’s glory as the kingdom lost all non-Swedish speaking territories. Sweden remained neutral during both world wars, although it became an important refuge for Jews escaping occupied Europe. Sweden’s social democracy was founded in 1936 and it rapidly transitioned from an agrarian, impoverished society to an industrialised and highly developed country with poverty virtually eradicated.

Perhaps the most interesting part of living in Sweden is to analyse how the society functions and evaluate whether it truly is “utopian”. The country’s iconic social democracy is defined particularly by high taxes, a robust welfare state and strong environmental policies. Predictably, I have discovered both positives and negatives; though Swedes themselves seem to universally support their social democracy. Aside from the intentionally homeless Romani people, Sweden is seemingly absent of impoverished citizens; housing, food, healthcare and education are guaranteed to all. Consequently, the Swedish streetscape is perpetually familiar: everyone seems to possess a relatively similar economic capacity, even those of different ethnicities. Furthermore, migrants are processed rapidly and their assimilation into Swedish society is conducted very efficiently. Housing and employment opportunities are provided and provisions to learn the Swedish language are emphasised. I have therefore been constantly surprised to see people from a multitude of backgrounds conversing naturally in Swedish. In comparison, the English skills of migrants to Australia are often quite poor. Surely this difference is systematic, rather than reflective of the individuals. The negative aspect of classlessness and assimilation is that diversity is hindered. London, New York, Hong Kong and Melbourne are probably my favourite cities in the world precisely because of their vibrant, multicultural compositions. Stockholm might be as ethnically diverse as these four cities, but the monotonous atmosphere and appearance of the city is not reflective of the reality. Another irritation about Swedish society is the rules, specifically in regards to alcohol. Beverages with an alcohol percentage above 3% can only be purchased in government-owned liquor stores with restrictive hours (closes at 3pm on Saturdays and not open on Sundays). Alcohol cannot be consumed in public spaces like parks and the high taxes makes drinking at bars somewhat cost prohibitive. I will continue discussion about Swedish society in subsequent entries.

While the Swedish culinary repertoire is rather limited, the few dishes endemic to the country are routinely prepared with excellence. Indeed, I have yet to taste a poor rendition of Sweden’s idiosyncratic meatballs. The generic form of the dish, made famous by IKEA, consists of a dozen small beef meatballs covered in brown sauce and served with mash potatoes, lingonberries (tiny crimson berries bursting with tanginess and eaten with literally everything) and pickled slices of cucumbers. On Sodermalm, I discovered the trendy café “Meatballs for the People” that would not look out of place in central Melbourne (the ultimate compliment to a cool-café aspirant). I have since returned multiple times for its succulent meatballs and inventiveness. At “Meatballs for the People”, I have tried the generic meatball dish as well as venison meatballs in cauliflower soup and veal meatballs in wild mushroom soup, both rich and delicious dishes. Stockholm’s central market, Saluhall, is the city’s premium location to purchase or merely browse Swedish delicacies. The glamorous stores (Stockholm simply does not do rustic, even in a market) are filled with items such as pickled herring, gravalax (cured salmon), caviar, pate and cloudberry jam. Swedish cuisine is particularly defined by fresh seafood, which can be used as the main component of a dish or the garnish of a dish. One of the first dishes I ate in Stockholm was fried cod with mash potatoes, dill and shrimp salad, which is shrimp with diced vegetables and cream. At a church-owned cafeteria I tried salmon pudding, which is the Swedish fish and potato equivalent to lasagne. Layers of salmon, sliced potatoes and cheese with presumably butter are baked until crispy and dripping with juicy goodness. Eating out regularly in the evening is cost prohibitive in Stockholm, but fortunately all restaurants offer a “dagens lunch”, or meal of the day with salad and bread, for less $20.

Meatballs at Meatballs for the People

Meatballs at Meatballs for the People

The late summer was certainly a pleasant time to arrive in Stockholm, because I was able to experience the city while Swedes were still enthusiastically embracing outdoor life and the city was at its most colourful. Travelling to Stockholm in the summer months is therefore advisable, because the differences in weather between seasons is more pronounced than other parts of Europe. Unfortunately though, few backpackers incorporate Stockholm or any part of Scandinavia into their Euro trips, which is a shame because the region offers very different experiences to the southern core of the continent.

That’s all for now,

Liam

Photos of Sweden

Posted by Liamps 13:39 Archived in Sweden Comments (2)

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