Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Past Travels Tuesday: Stockholm, Sweden

Past Travels are a feature I'm going to do occasionally on this blog, talking about vacations I've taken in the past that I really liked and maybe giving some travel tips. 

This week's Past Travels are of a very recent vacation, from back in May, that I *ahem* neglected to blog about at the time. A friend and I had been talking all year about how we'd both visited Norway and loved it, and how we'd like to see another Nordic country to compare them. So after much talk and little action, initiative was finally taken in May and Ryanair tickets were booked to Stockholm Skavsta for me, my friend and her boyfriend. (Many thanks to the person who actually did all the legwork for this, bought the tickets, fought with Ryanair to get the undue administrative fee charged to us back, AND managed to find us an amazing CouchSurfing host. Cheers, you are awesome!)

I really like the Swedish flag--the colors are so bright and cheery!

 After a lovely snafu with a strike by Porto's airport workers causing our first flight to be cancelled and the last-minute purchase of some overnight bus tickets to Madrid, we were on our way. A quick walk around the city center and breakfast at a cute café in Chueca proved to be all we had time for there, before we had to get to the airport to catch the plane to Sweden. A 3-hour plane ride and 1-hour Ryanair airport bus ride later, we were in downtown Stockholm, meeting up with our very sweet CouchSurfing host, who took us to her house, made us dinner (curry!), introduced us to her adorable kitty Selma, and let us crash after a long day of traveling.

You can sort of see here how the whole town is build on many small islands, as I mention below.

So basically my first images of Sweden came from looking out a plane and then a bus window. As we were landing at the airport, I was immediately struck by the hundreds of little islands dotting the coastline. It looked like we were about to land in some kind of marsh! Extremely beautiful, though. Then, as we were rolling on down the highway on the bus, I looked out the window and felt like I was back in a flatter version of Wisconsin. I very much enjoyed seeing the many long red barns popping up in the countryside; it felt like home.

I apologize for the quality of this photo, aka the reflection of me in the glass--normally I hate out-the-bus-window photos, but  there was no other way to capture the red barns!!
The next day was our big tourism day. We got up (relatively) early and hit the city. My friend's boyfriend had been before, so he played tour guide for a while, showing us the river and some buildings. Then we went to the old town (Gamla Stan) to check out what it had to offer.

Europe's smallest street

We saw Europe's smallest street (above) and wandered into many tourist shops, much to the annoyance of the man of the group. Then we went to the royal palace (below), which was honestly kind of a letdown. Apparently, a few hundred years ago much of the palace burned to the ground, and what's left is kind of ugly and not very impressive. Also part of the building was closed off to visitors because of some royal function. Darn those royals, trying to live their lives in their palaces and have some semblance of privacy!! Luckily, because my mom always taught me to try to get a deal whenever possible, the people selling the tickets believed that we were "students" and let us in for next to nothing.  So not a total loss. 

The ugly royal palace

The rest of the day, we mostly just wandered around. We discovered that the Swedes are apparently as obsessed with tulips as the Dutch, that Swedish coffee (and customer service) sucks, and that Sweden (shockingly) is cold!

Tulips tulips everywhere

After another ethnic dinner, the trying of some fish paste, a Swedish history lesson, and good night's sleep, we were ready to wander more the next day. We spent a long time in a park, seeing tons of joggers. The Swedish seem very devoted to staying fit. Then, because I had gotten it into my head that I needed to have some "real authentic" Swedish cuisine, we went to an overpriced touristy restaurant promising just that. The food wasn't great, and the service was truly terrible...apparently, our waitress didn't think we looked good enough to eat in such a fine establishment. Sorry about that one, guys; my bad, seriously. 
Strange sausage creature. I will say, though, that the real mustard was awesome!

Only having about 100 kroner left between the three of us (around 10 euros), we spent the rest of the time before we needed to go back to the airport looking at postcards. I played my usual "I'm in Northern Europe" game where I try to see how long I can fool cashiers into thinking that I'm a native of the country I'm in. It works pretty well; my height, blonde hair and blue eyes are a great Northern European disguise. So all I have to do is walk up, say hello in the native language (hej in Swedish), look at the cash register to see how much I need to pay, and then say thanks in the language as well (in Swedish, tack) and leave. If this whole interaction happens without the cashier switching to English on me, I win.

All bundled up. I think the warmest it was there was about 15º C, or 60º F. We tried to keep warm by having coffee, but it was watery and awful (American, basically...I'm such a European coffee snob) and the man seemed angry that he had to serve us. 
The last thing to do was to catch the bus back to the airport and fly off to Milan, where we had a layover on the way back to Porto, then back home to Vigo! 

Overall, Sweden seems like a nice enough place. We weren't there for very long, but we met a few very nice people and saw some sights. My overall impression is of a very clean and organized place. However, it's cold and customer service is crap (which was surprising to me, this was not what stereotypes had led me to believe would be true), and the historical sights on offer in Stockholm are not that impressive. Compared to Norway, Sweden seems less pretty and less friendly. However, I did spend way more time in Norway and visited lots of stuff outside the capital city. Plus I'm biased because my family has Norwegian heritage and I've grown up my whole life hearing about how Norway is the motherland, Norwegians never fail, and the Swedish suck. I think I'd definitely go back to Sweden, but I'd much prefer to visit some more rural areas, particularly in the north, to see if I could get more of a real vibe for the place instead of returning to Stockholm. Still, it was definitely worth my €60 forked over to Ryanair to get to see another European capital city!

So there you have it, another past vacation concluded. See where I'll have already gone next time on Past Travels Tuesday!

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