Saturday, August 4, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Swedish Cities

We spent a lot of time in Europe out in scenic and rural areas, but we also visited a number of cities and towns. 

I like cities and towns.  I like the fact that there are buildings and communities close together, overlapping, bumping into one another, layering each other, changing over long periods of time.  I like the fact that there are all sorts of people in one place, people who are not like each other much.  I like that you can be as anonymous or as known as you want in a city, and that you have access to services, products and events – even if you never use them or go to them.  I have always been a city person rather than a country one, and I was glad we got to see that aspect of England and Sweden too.

Our first exploration of the urban environment came when we left Hasselbacka and drove south toward Gothenburg.  We stopped for lunch in Uddevala, where we learned a very important fact about Sweden: if you want to go to the bathroom in a public place, you’d best have 5 crowns.  That’s about 70 cents, American.  I’m not sure how they came to this conclusion – it’s a remarkably uniform price across the country, as we discovered – but there it is.  It might be a recycling fee, for all I know.  But they’ve got you, so you learn to keep a stack of SEK 5 coins, which are about the size of a US half dollar, in your pocket at all times.

It was rainy in Uddevala, but still – the city had its charms.  I liked the bike rack.

Gothenburg was more fun.

We were actually looking forward to Gothenburg for a number of reasons.  For one thing, Kim spent eight months there on an internship before she went to graduate school, so she had happy memories of the place.  Sara lived there for a while as well, and Mats went to college there, at Chalmers.  These days Mats’ brother Lars – who had not made it up to Hasselbacka while we were there – lives in Gothenburg with his family, so we would get a chance to see them before heading back to Stockholm. 

Gothenburg – what’s not to like?

Our first mission was to have dinner, so naturally we went to a place that advertises itself as a Danish steakhouse.  Because Denmark is, well, not close really, but technically not all that far away.  Kind of.  I’m not sure why Danish steak is different from Swedish steak, but it was, in fact, very good food.  We got to hang out with Lars and his family – including the new baby – too, which was nice.  After dinner we walked around the city for a bit.

I’m not really sure who the statue is other than that his name was Gustav, which is not really all that distinguishing in Sweden.  There’s a lot of Gustavs in that part of the world, many of whom have statues of their own.  The fact that his middle name was Adolf doesn’t help any.  It would be like someone named John David Somethingorother in the US, but with a snazzier hat.

We spent the night at the Hotel Linne.

The Hotel Linne – named for Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist – is a student dormitory, though for what college I never did find out.  In the summer it becomes a youth hostel.  There’s nobody on staff there except for 3-5pm, so it’s kind of serve-yourself. 

We got one room, Mats and Sara and their kids got another room, and we met in the kitchen area for snacks and breakfast.  You meet all sorts of people at these hostels, and most of them are quite friendly.  I ended up talking to a Dutch woman about the Articles of Confederation for a while, which only goes to show you something I’m sure.

The next day we began our explorations of Gothenburg at Slottskogen, a big park just up the street from the hostel.  It was a gorgeous day, and the kids had a grand time running around on the equipment while the adults relaxed and watched.

If you were willing to walk a bit – often steeply uphill – you could explore other areas of the park.  There was a nice cafe, an area where you could go on a pony ride, and a children’s petting zoo.

Before we left Gothenburg we took a short tour of the city, through Chalmers’ campus (which has changed a bit since Mats was there) and across to the statue of the Big Naked Guy.

The story of the Big Naked Guy, as we understand it, is that the original sculpture was considered rather excessively endowed by some of the local art critics, so they forced the sculptor to circumcise it with a weed-whacker.  This reduced the offending member to what was considered an acceptable size, and the statue was allowed to remain.  Except that it has a rather nautical theme and the Big Naked Guy is holding a Big Spouting Fish, and if you position yourself just right (i.e. pretty much anywhere not directly in front of or behind the Big Naked Guy), it looks like a rather artistic version of what was lopped off in the first place.

And it’s spouting.  So there.

So now it’s something of a tourist attraction, and with any luck the original art critics have learned their lesson about annoying the sculptor.

The other city we spent a lot of time in while we were in Sweden was, not surprisingly, Stockholm.  We rode around its buses and subways, and walked through much of its center – it’s a lovely city, especially if you like water.  It’s built on an archipelago and pretty much everywhere you look there are boats and bridges.

We spent most of our time in Stockholm wandering the streets of Gamla Stan, which is Swedish for “Old City.”  It’s the original core of the city, and it is mostly cut off from vehicular traffic so pedestrians rule – which is good, given the narrow roads.

Some of which are narrower than others.

If you look carefully, between the rearmost lanterns, you can see the blue rubber alien that was hanging down from somewhere up above.  There might be a coherent story that would explain it, but if there is we never heard it.  It’s just one of those things that happen in cities.

Stockholm is a lovely city.

There were even street musicians – the two most memorable were playing something called a “hang,” which looks like a large wok that had been used as a slingshot target and sounds like a steel drum.  Oddly enough, it was nice music. 

Our first day there we wandered around until we found a tiny little courtyard, one that had probably been built sometime in the 17th century.  Several tiny lanes led into it, and you could sit quietly on a bench and look up into the spreading chestnut tree above you.

Our second day there was more touristy, which was fine considering that we were, in fact, tourists.  Some people get rather put out by that label, but I say go with it – you have more fun that way. 

Our first order of business was to go down to the Swedish Royal Palace to watch the changing of the guard.  We weren’t sure how that was going to play out – the pinnacle of such things is in London – but Mats had served his time in the Swedish military and had taken his turn at the palace, so we had a good guide. 

It turns out that even with the informed commentary, it wasn’t that interesting.  There were soldiers and musicians moving around in formation, and hordes of camera-wielding tourists (including your narrator) not really seeing any of it.  Plus it was chilly and windy.  So we left and bought sweatshirts instead.

There’s a lot to see in Gamla Stan.  There are all sorts of little shops, for example.  Some sell unique and lovely items, but most of them sell the same sort of tourist tchotchkes as you would find in most places, with the word “Sweden” where the word “London” or “New York” or “France” would otherwise be.  You can complain about that if you want, but I find such places fascinating.  There are little alleyways and broad streets, buildings that are older than the United States (even if you count the Spanish explorations) and buildings still under construction.  And there are people everywhere, as far as the eye can see.  It’s just glorious.

You’re also never too far away from entertainment in a city.

One of our stops was the Polkagriskokeri, which surprisingly enough does not feature accordions.  A polkagris is one of the original forms of candy sticks or candy canes, and they make them there from scratch, by hand, right in front of you.  They start with the sugar syrup, and about 20 minutes later there is candy you can eat – it was mesmerizing.

We must have stood there for 45 minutes, and then we bought them out of stock.  Or at least it seemed that way.  They have an incredible range of flavors – peppermint, violet, apple, strawberry, sour strawberry, “super sour,” mojito, blueberry, “American cola,” tutti-frutti, licorice, and so on.  They even have the traditional Swedish salt licorice, which is exactly what it sounds like – a strong licorice flavor drenched in salt.  I tried one – it’s a very popular flavor, and they even have it mixed with other flavors, such as raspberry – and I have to say it was, well, awful.  Seriously, thoroughly, spit-it-into-the-street-and-chew-on-your-sleeves-to-get-the-taste-out awful.  But popular in Sweden.

Eventually we walked over the bridge (which bridge?  The nearest one.  In a city of islands, there are a lot of them) into the part of Stockholm called “the City.”  We had to dodge the lions guarding the entrance to do so.  Fortunately, this was not difficult.

We wandered around visiting the various shops and buying many postcards that we never got around to sending as well as a handful of other things (most of the bookstores have English-language sections, though we didn’t buy many books since lugging them across the Atlantic is something of an incentive barrier).  Eventually we found an outdoor cafe and sat down for a while.

But rumor had it that a block or so away was a giant outdoor market, so Kim, Tabitha and I went forth and found it.

The venders spend most of their time shouting at you about how wonderful of a deal you'll get if you buy from them and not the con artists in the next stand over - in whatever language they think you speak, from Swedish to English to French to Polish - and eventually we decided to get something to eat.  And then we enjoyed the fruits of our victory.

See what I did there?  Fruits?  I kill me.

The other town we visited was Mariefred, which is within walking distance of Grippsholm Castle.  It’s a picturesque little town, and a nice break from all those portraits.

That’s the town hall.  It’s painted in Swedish Yellow, so it fits right in.

The neat part of Mariefred is the old church.

If you look carefully, you can see the date it was built right there on the tower – 1624.  They were closing up when we walked by, but the curator was willing to let us in so long as we left by the side door, which is apparently much easier to lock.  It was lovely inside too.


Julia Lawrence said...

The Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace is not a lot more fun. I saw it on my first family visit in 1977. And then from 1992-1995 I worked less than a 5 minute walk from Buckingham Palace. Did it ever cross my mind to go watch the changing of the guard on my lunch break? You must be kidding.

John the Scientist said...

I enjoyed Gothenburg a lot, but I never got to the Danish steakhouse. I did, however, have the best Malay food ever in the old town. I'm willing to take another chance on Swedish food in Gothenburg, though, as I loved the history museum there. And you are a Midwesterner, so your taste in food is suspect.

David said...

Hey now - I'm an immigrant to the Midwest. I actually like spices (don't tell the neighbors, there'd be a scandal).