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August 11-13, 2015: Although I prefer to travel by rail, sometimes distance or connections make flying a more logical choice, and so I flew from Stockholm to Bergen, on Norwegian. As well as checking myself in, I had to tag my own bag. Then I discovered that even water cost 30 krone on board. Good thing it was a short flight! So short, it took nearly as long to get my checked bag, partly because a mob of Viking cruise ship passengers were picking up their luggage from the same belt and the place was a zoo, and partly because my bag was the last one out. I had nearly given up hope.

The airport bus delivered me practically to the door of my hotel, the Scandic Ørnen, but my day did not otherwise improve. After I left the hotel in search of lunch the heavens opened, and the wind picked up. At first my light-weight umbrella refused to open, and when it did it was promptly blown inside out. After this happened for the fifth time I gave up. I lucked into a good sandwich and the corner of a table at the aptly named Godt Brød, and then went into the first likely looking store to buy a sturdier umbrella. Of course, the rain stopped as soon as I was properly equipped. Dinner that night was at the very crowded Pingvinen, where I shared space at the bar with a woman on her first solo trip in five years. 

I was in Bergen, another former Hanseatic port, to take a six night Hurtigruten cruise, and my elder sister flew in from England to join me. We had two nights in Bergen, and since we would not board until the afternoon we had plenty of time for the town. Our first priority was the funicular that climbs high above the town, and the rains cleared long enough for us to enjoy the excellent views, and to take a short walk to a pretty lake. 

  
  
As in Copenhagen, the redeveloped quayside was mobbed by tourists and tourist shops, but it wasn’t quite as bad, and the area included a photogenic fish market. We avoided the shops, visiting one church, one disappointing museum – Bryggen – one very good and little known one – the University Cultural History Museum – and an art museum with three rooms of Munch’s work. The city has its own Cultural History Museum, closed for renovation, and the university also has a Natural History Museum, which didn’t interest us. Enquiries for the University Cultural History Museum invariably resulted in information about one or both of the others.

  
When we eventually reached our target Cultural History museum we spent a couple of hours there, before eating lunch in one of the university’s cafeterias. The artifacts in the religion section, including beautifully carved woodwork from demolished stave churches, were considerably better and more extensive than those we saw later in Oslo’s History Museum. The museum also offered a costume section and a number of theater mockups.

On my first afternoon I had asked both a woman in the T.I., where I had gone for a map and general information, and a man in the Nespresso shop, where I had gone in search of decent coffee, for the best place in town for espresso. Happily, they both recommended the same place, a small cafe to the right of the funicular station, and I visited all three days.

Bergen is pleasant enough, at least when the sun shines. Our hotel was fine, and although not really central we got to walk past a prettily landscaped park on the way to the center. Still, we were ready to board our ship and head out.

   
 

 

August 6-10, 2015: The city of Stockholm is spread over fourteen islands, joined by bridges, but many more, some large, some mere islets, buffer it from the sea. Aside from Norrmalm, where I slept, I spent most time on Djurgården, visiting museums, and Sodermalm, visiting the city. And I couldn’t visit Stockholm without taking a ferry to at least one of the islands in the archipelago.

The Stockholm transport pass includes all the buses, trams and metro in the city, plus the ferry from Djurgården to Skeppsholmen and Sodermalm, but the ferrIes to the archipelago are extra. Taking the ferry to Sodermalm after visiting Skansen, I found a crush of tourists, although not as many as had been packing Gamla Stan. A local, also waiting for the ferry, had told me to be sure to make it up the tower on the north edge of the island, and not wanting to make the climb up on foot, I took the metro a couple of stops south to look for a back way.

This was a serendipitous decision. While I did eventually find a less toilsome way up, and the views were indeed remarkable, the prize was Stockholm without tourists. I emerged into an area of apartment buildings, well-kept and built around courtyards. Checking my location on my phone, I headed north towards an area of greenery, where I found locals at play. A bridal shower was underway in one corner, and a child’s birthday party in another. Further on, water sprays were delighting a group of naked infants. I settled on a bench, where I was joined by an elderly lady with an ice cream cone. After I acquired my own from the nearby gelateria we had a pleasant chat. Turned out that she, like the docent at Skansen, was in favor of immigration, but thought that it was being handled badly, with immigrants not properly integrated early enough.

  
 I headed back to Sodermalm a couple of times for dinner, although by metro. Lonely Planet recommended the Creperie Fyra Knop, which turned out to be small and mostly empty, but which provided a good and very filling galette. Further south, I ate reasonable Indian food at a well-reviewed place near the edge of the island. On the way back to the metro station I detoured to look at the water, finding the steep slope above the shore given over to allotments.

My last full day in Stockholm I had reserved for visiting the archipelago, which required me to choose an island. I wanted one not too close to the city – some can be reached by bus – but not so far I risked getting bored on the boat – an all-too-likely occurrence. At the T.I. I picked up a brochure for Grinda, titled “The Quiet Island”. Would it be quiet if it was advertising? At any rate, it had to be quieter than Vaxholm, which I would pass on the way. And indeed, when I saw the shops and tourists crowding the waterfront at Vaxholm I was glad of my choice.

The ferry to Grinda dropped me on an isolated pier, and I trekked a while through pasture and forest to reach the one hotel and two cafes. After a wedge of quiche in the shadier cafe, I set off to explore the northern end of the island, and while it was not deserted, I walked quite alone under the trees, and had a smooth boulder overlooking the sea almost to myself. A definite success!

View from the ferry

 
 Indeed, I rated Stockholm overall a decided success, despite the cruise ship crowds. Easily the most scenic and most interesting of the Scandinavian capitals, which I would rank, in ascending order: Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Stockholm. (Including the Baltic capitals I would put Tallinn and Riga above Helsinki and below Stockholm – I haven’t visited Vilnius recently enough to rate it.) My visit, even at five nights, left much to be explored, and even three blog posts have not really been enough to cover my visit. For instance, I have left out the Town Hall, but I will finish with a photograph of the spectacular gold room.

August 7-9, 2015: Stockholm is very well provided with museums. Not counting the Town Hall, I visited three major and two specialized museums over three days, and was thoroughly happy with all five. My first museum day began slowly, as I couldn’t find the bus my phone wanted me to take to Djurgarden island. Eventually it dawned on me that the road I was looking for was above me, and I took a handy escalator up to the correct level. Then I spent most of the day at the Nordiska, Stockholm’s comprehensive decorative arts museum. Besides a series of period interiors, the museum covered festivals, folk art, clothing and jewelry, and possibly some other things I didn’t get to. The clothing exhibition focussed on three separate periods, but I particularly liked the video of people dressing in everyday clothes of an earlier era. We don’t know how easy we have it!

One area showed dining tables set for meals at different times. I was interested to learn that the swan centerpiece was not actually edible, but a reusable presentation piece contain some other meat. The jewelry display didn’t particularly excite me, but by that time I was rather tired, despite a stop for lunch in the museum’s cafe. However, instead of retreating to my hotel, I walked behind the Nordiska to the Vasa.

  
When I had approached the Nordiska I had noticed a line up of tour buses, but the Nordiska had been blessedly uncrowded. I found the crowds in the Vasa, even though it was well into the afternoon by the time I arrived. Although I had read about the ship, sunk on her maiden voyage in 1628, on her way to fight against Poland-Lithuania, I was unprepared for her sheer size. As I approached on the museum’s lowest level the ship towered over me, all 52.5 meters (172 feet) of dark wood.

Intended both as a fighting flagship (64 cannon) and an in-your-face statement of King Gustavus Adolphus’ power and prestige, she was heavily decorated at stem and stern. The museum has seven levels, so you can get up close to the whole ship. I took an English language tour that happened to start just after I arrived, and then wandered through the many exhibits, including the reproduction gun deck. A sister ship, Applet, was slightly wider in the beam, and did not suffer the same fate.

  
Although I had spent an entire day on Djurgarden, I was back again next morning to tackle the open air museum, Skansen. And I do mean tackle, 300,000 square meters is a fair amount of ground to cover. Since I now knew where to find the bus, I arrived shortly after the 10:00 am opening, only to find that most of the demonstrations started at 11:00. Not really a problem, I caught them on my way out, and the docents were in place. I had an interesting chat about political attitudes with one, who thought Sweden needed more immigration. Another explained the vegetation growing on some of the farmhouse roofs: it was insulation and also soaked up any excess water. Overall, I enjoyed Skansen, which offered some good views of Stockholm, some interesting buildings and fewer people than I expected, although I was sorry for some of the animals.

  
Back in central Stockholm I stopped off in the Dance Museum. Not for everyone, of course, but I was delighted with the large collection of Ballet Russe costumes, both early and late – mostly from 1924’s “Sleeping Princess”. Besides the costumes there are items collected by the museum’s founder, Rolf de Maré, while traveling in Asia. These were mostly familiar to me from my own travels, and I was more interested in the information about Nijinsky’s talented sister, Bronislava, also a dancer and choreographer. The museum happened to be free the day I visited, but I would have thought it worth an admission fee. 

 

The Chosen One from Le Sacre du Printemps, 1913

  

Detail on a page’s costume from the Sleeping Princess

 Stockholm spreads over many islands, and like Djurgarden, Skeppsholmen is home to more than one museum. But having pretty much given up on any art after the Surrealists, I ignored the Modern Art museum in favor of the East Asian, small but good. The collection of Early Chinese pottery – from as far back as 5000 BCE – that anchors the museum is amazing, as is the Chinese book collection at the other end of the building. In between, the rest of the Chinese collection offers a good overview.

  
After the East Asian Museum I wandered over a bridge to Kastellhomen island, which had a castle of sorts, not open to the public, what looked like a number of holiday chalets, and no museums.

  

August 6, 2015: The train from Gothenburg to Stockholm left late, as it took a while to get electricity working in the carriages, and the scenery wasn’t as interesting as I had hoped. On the plus side, I boarded with a good-sized sandwich, and coffee was available on board. I had booked the Radisson Blu Royal Viking, well above my usual hotel price level, in case I needed AC (I did) and it could hardly have been closer to the train station. A mention at check-in that I hoped for a better room than the one in Lubeck got me a renovated handicapped room, which was indeed fine. Of course, staying in a more expensive hotel puts the price of everything else up, and the breakfast buffet was 120 SEK (14 USD). I picked up supplies and ate in my room, which came with a minibar and kettle.

  
Stockholm welcomed me with bright sunshine, so after settling in I set off on foot for Gamla Stan, the old town center on the island of Stadsholmen. Unfortunately, it seemed that most of the other tourists in Stockholm had had the same idea, and as there were, once again, huge cruise ships in port, the area was packed. The crowds were well served by souvenir shops and cafes, but one attraction surprised me. Edging my way past a particularly packed corner, I noticed that the center of attention was a middle-aged man, crouched on the pavement, practicing the ages-old con known as the shell game. I had no idea you could still make money pulling that one. Perhaps most of the income came from accomplices pickpocketing the crowds of onlookers. I did not linger.

I found a relief from the crowds in the cathedral, which I had to pay to enter. Aside from the peace and quiet, the cathedral rewarded me with a most magnificent and unusual black and silver altarpiece, and an impressive St. George and the dragon (although I did wonder how St. George could be sure of slaying the dragon while gazing at the middle distance). The statue had been created mostly out of oak and elk antlers by one Berndt Notke of Lubeck in the late 1400s.
   
 The views of Stockholm from Gamla Stan were beautiful, and despite the crowds I put the city on my “must revisit” list. Back across the bridge I wandered past the fountain, greenery and long pool in the King’s Garden, before eating an expensive if good dinner in the hotel’s restaurant. I was looking forward to the rest of my stay.

  

August 3-6, 2015: Not a Garden City in the sense of Letchworth, where I grew up. Letchworth, and Welwyn, nearby, were founded by Quakers in the early 1900s with the intent that the town should be surrounded by a “green belt” and that everyone should have a garden. I call Gothenburg “Garden City” because of its parks and its Botanical Garden, ablaze with flowers, and the flowers that decorated the several bridges. I especially enjoyed the Tradgardsforeningen, not far from my hotel. Besides an area of grass and trees and a few sculptures, and a small palmhouse, it boasted the best rose garden I can remember seeing. Multiple varieties in multiple colors were in full bloom, all with labels. The cafe in the same section was understandably popular.

  
The Botanical Garden covered close to a kilometer from the entrance to the Wilderness Area, which I skipped. It included a Japanese Garden, a rock garden and waterfall, formal plantings, and a magnificent display of dahlias. Unfortunately, I had damaged my ankle in Copenhagen, and while it was not as bad as my usual ankle injuries, two or three kilometers (if you add in the distance to the tram stop) was further than I really wanted to walk.

  
I had thought I might take a boat trip to look at the nearby coast while I was in Gothenburg, a port city on Sweden’s west coast and former base for the Swedish East India Company. But I had had quite a good look at the coast on the train trip from Copenhagen, and a quick ride on the town’s ferry system didn’t show the waterfront to advantage. From the train I saw several crowded caravan parks, and the beaches between the low rocky headlands were well populated with families enjoying sun and sea.

I visited a couple of museums in town, the Rohsska Design Museum and the History Museum. The Rohsska offered five period interiors, spa ning the years from 1800 to the 2000s. Each room was decorated in a specific color, although I am not sure why 1900-1920 was purple. This area included a kitchen by Corbusier which would be considered very basic today. I remember the museum particularly for a video of the traditional technique of book binding. I watched it for a good half hour, and the craftsman was still working on the final binding when I left. 
The History Museum was a bit short on English in the modern sections, but I was interested on the information on how the city used to be locked at night. The cabinet where the keys were kept was one of the exhibits. Wood and iron were major exports, while herring, and the oil from herring, also featured. The explanations mentioned that most of the iron was exported to Great Britain, and some wound up facilitating the slave trade. Sweden’s efforts to become self-supporting, I was amused to discover, included an attempt to cultivate tobacco. Given that tobacco thrives in the hot, humid climate of North Carolina, I cannot imagine the plants were happy in Sweden. The museum included the remains of a Viking ship, but it was not in very good shape. However, the associated information and artifacts were interesting.
 

Model of a Viking headman’s hall

 
I ate quite well in Gothenburg, although not always where I had first intended. It had taken me so long to buy a ticket at Copenhagen station I had no time to pick up lunch, and had eaten a meager sandwich from the snack cart. So I stopped off at El Corazon that afternoon for tapas – mushrooms and garlic shrimp – which were good enough to send me back for dinner. Unfortunately, El Corazon appeared uninterested in solo diners, putting me in an obscure corner and ignoring me. So I left, finding a much warmer welcome in Le Pain Francais across the street, where I dined twice. My last night I ate at the modern Swedish Tvakanten, where I enjoyed really excellent pork with crackling and cheese stuffed potatoes. 

  

August 1-2, 2015: With only four nights in Copenhagen, obviously I had to be selective, especially as I spent most of one day at Roskilde. I was staying very close to Nyhavn, and spent my time in the central area, so it is certainly possible I would have enjoyed other areas more. I did see some interesting modern architecture – notably the “black diamond” library and the waterside theaters – some good-looking conversions, and a few older buildings that I liked. However, my general impression of the architecture was of severity, with uniformly flat fronts.

  
I started the morning of my second full day at Rosenborg Slot, one of the royal palaces. Since this was very close to my hotel I beat most of the tour groups. I was particularly glad of this, not just because I didn’t have to dodge too many groups to get good views, but because the toilet facilities were totally inadequate. I enjoyed the Royal Treasury, but the palace proper was too baroque for my taste. The massive silver lions sprawled in front of the double royal thrones were too much.

  
After the palace I checked out the Botanical Gardens, right behind. Pleasant enough, with a nice lake and rock garden, but nothing special. I did approve of the metro, which took me to my next stop. As with several Asian systems, a glass wall separated passengers and tracks, with doors lining up with the trains. The very long escalators reminded me of Eastern Europe. I don’t know whether the metro was supposed to serve as a bomb shelter, but I was surprised it was so deep.

My visit to the Design Museum was more successful, although it did seem to be displaying rather a lot of chairs. The small Art Nouveau collection had been purchased at the Paris Expo of 1900, which seems to have inspired several European museums. I enjoyed the Art Nouveau and the new costume and textile exhibits, but skipped the exhibition on the century of the child. On the plus side, I drank my afternoon coffee in their pleasant courtyard, surrounded by trees and flowers.  

 The Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek also proved worthwhile, as did the cafe in its atrium, the Winter Garden. I lunched there on a big smoked salmon sandwich, after a canal boat tour, before tackling the exhibits. The Sumer to Rome collection was very well curated, although the Etruscan exhibits weren’t as exciting as I had hoped. I also admired a number of paintings by Gauguin, Van Gogh and Degas in the art section, not to mention a very early Picasso, but was not impressed by Gauguin’s ceramics.

The guidebooks had not filled me with enthusiasm for Denmark in general or Copenhagen in particular, which is why I was only spending four nights there. Obviously, plenty of people enjoy the country and the city, I’m just not among the fans. Some cities I love on first sight (Venice, Lisbon, Budapest, for instance) but others I don’t warm to (Madrid is on that list). 

   
 

Crowded Copenhagen

July 30 – August 3, 2015: Getting from Lubeck to Copenhagen was a bit more trying than I expected. Some of that was my own fault. I had checked my train ticket the night before, and had it firmly fixed in my mind that my train left at 10:18. I was dismayed to discover, when my bus arrived at the station, that it actually left at 10:06! Good thing I had allowed plenty of time – I was even able to buy a sandwich for lunch. Not that I couldn’t have bought lunch on the ferry, but this was easier. Yes, just like the train I took at the other end of Europe to get to Sicily, this one was loaded onto a ferry to reach Denmark. Unfortunately, due to rough seas, we had a long wait for the ferry to arrive and disgorge the Germany-bound train. The crossing mostly presented a vista of grey seas and grey skies – not very exciting.

The train grew more and more crowded – we arrived in Copenhagen with passengers sitting on the floor. Definitely buy a reservation for this route! My seat-mate was an 82 year-old resident of Stockholm, (he had started his journey in Basel, and would connect to another train in Copenhagen) but he said that he was unable to offer any sightseeing suggestions as he didn’t sightsee in his own town – a response I entirely understand, as I once lived in London and never visited the tourist sights until I returned with Americans in tow.

I eventually located an ATM in the big Copenhagen central station, and a very nice T.I. just outside. I could have settled in with wifi and coffee, but instead I picked up a map and bought a transport pass and a welcome card with museum admissions. The woman helping me, who had a pronounced Australian accent, pointed me in the direction of the bus I needed to reach the Wake Up Copenhagen Borgergade. Even more minimalist – if more expensive – than the Motel Ones, this was the cheapest central place I could find with AC, but proved an excellent choice.

  
The guidebooks had all raved about the former wharf district, Nyhavn, and since it was very close I started my Copenhagen visit there. What a disappointment! Perhaps I would enjoy it at another time of year, or perhaps a few years ago, but not now in high season. The prettier, sunnier side of the canal was a mob scene. The lower story of the buildings was obscured by the umbrellas for the cafes and restaurants that occupied seemingly every building. Between the tables and the water a continuous river of people promenaded up and down. I retreated to a lone cafe on the shady side where I was able to admire what I could see of the brightly painted buildings opposite in relative peace.

Tivoli, the famed amusement park, was a similar mob scene, and even louder. I visited Saturday evening, with some thoughts of sticking around until 23:45 for the fireworks, but gave up much earlier. When I entered I was immediately assaulted by a loud pop concert, and once I was out of range of that I was in range of the screams of the riders on the assorted gravity-defying attractions. The park offered few places to sit if you didn’t want to pay for food or drink, and I was a lot less impressed than I expected with the evening lights.

  
Some of the crowds were no doubt attributable to cruise ships. Finding myself fairly close to the Little Mermaid statue one afternoon, after visiting the Design Museum, I set out in that direction. A friend had mentioned that the area offered a peaceful walk. Not when I was there. I rounded a corner to be confronted by a huge Azamara cruise ship, and another river of people headed for the statue. I settled for a rear view from a canal tour boat.

The crowds of pedestrians were a particular problem in Copenhagen because of the construction of the streets. They were cobbled, which made for difficult walking, especially with a stroller or rolling case, so there were three thin strips of smooth pavement set into the cobbles. Most people wanted to walk on the pavement…. 

  

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