Stockholm Syndrome

Continuing my trip through Scandinavia, my next stop was Stockholm, the capital of Sweden.  Best known for things like meatballs, Ikea, Ikea and their meatballs (yes, I’m talking to all you folks who go to Rockdale just to eat their meatballs!) I actually planned to visit Stockholm back in December to meet up with two friends from Australia who registered for the annual Stockholm Marathon at the end of May.  Whilst I was initially considering registering for the marathon as well, I pulled out as I didn’t have to will to train for it!

After having met a couple of Swede’s during my trek to Everest Base Camp, I figured this was also a great time to catch up after our trek.

Arriving at Stockholm Arlanda Airport the first thing that caught my eye was a disposal bin for teargas and pepper spray… How convenient for me!  So after discarding my many cartridges, I continued on to the Arlanda Express train which gets you to the city in 20 minutes.  However, you do pay for the speed and convenience of this service, with an adult return ticket costing 490SEK ($80AUD?) though student concessions reduce the cost by half.

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Gamla Stan – The Old Town

With the marathon happening in town that weekend, accommodation was pretty much booked out.  However, I managed to find a last minute deal at the “Best Hostel Old Town” at both Stortorget and later their City locations (had to move locations to suit availability).

The Old Town is largely based on the island, Stadsholmen.  The Royal Palace and the Nobel Museum are located here, as well as many tourist shops, restaurants, cafes, hotels and hostels.  In the middle of the island is a large cobblestone courtyard, Stortorget which was the scene of the Stockholm Bloodbath, where Swedish noblemen were lined up and murdered by the then Danish King Christian II in 1520.

At 12:15 from Monday to Saturday, or 13:15 on Sundays, you can watch the changing of the guards ceremony at the Royal Palace.  The ceremony goes for a good part of an hour and involves infantry and mounted guards changing over.  The area in which the ceremony takes place is quite small, so be sure to get there at least 15 minutes before hand to secure a spot in the middle.  During the ceremony, one of the soldiers provides commentary in English explaining what is actually going on.

Free Walking Tours

In most of the cities I have been to, I have usually seen an advertisement for free city walking tours but never managed to join one myself.  Finally in Stockholm, I decided to make it a point to catch one.

Basically, the Free Tours are exactly that, free.  No booking is required, you just show up at the meeting point at the prescribed time and head off!  For the Stockholm City and Old Town tours, the meeting point is the large staircase at T-Centralen.

The guides are all volunteers and they do not get paid for hosting tours.  Their income is solely based on any tips received and thus it is in their interest to try and provide an entertaining and unique tour. To achieve this, they try to do things a little different than most paid-for tours by adding in their own favourite spots and stories.

The City Tour which I joined was hosted by a local student called Nina.  Throughout the tour, she provided really interesting commentary at various locations, including Norrmalmstorg Square, the location of the former Kreditbanken building which was the scene of the Norrmalmstorg robbery.  This robbery is synonymous with the coining of the term “Stockholm Syndrome” after the hostages of the robbery rejected offers to leave their captors (as they believed their captors would then be killed) and even defended the actions of their captors after the siege/robbery was over!

Free City Tour guided by Nina.
Free City Tour guided by Nina.

Other particularly interesting facts dispensed in the tour was the ongoing murder mystery of former Stockholm Mayor, Olof Palme who was assassinated in 1986.  Though many suspects have been tried and convicted for his murder, their sentences have been subsequently overturned and the crime is still officially unsolved.  In fact, a 50 million SEK reward (5 million Euro) still exists for anyone who is able to solve the crime!

Free City tour of Stockholm, hosted by our awesome guide Nina finishing up at the Kungsträdgården fountain.

The following afternoon, I was able to catch the Old Town tour hosted by an American Master’s student living in Stockholm called Lee.  Whilst I was able to walk around the Old Town already (my hostel was located there), it was still interesting to take the tour and explore back lane areas which I would have otherwise missed.

Overall, both were worth taking to get a quick insight into the history of Stockholm and of course, see a large cross-section of the city as well.  If you’re interested in taking a tour, check out their schedule at their website.

Free Old Town tour guided by Lee.

The Vasa Museum

If you can only visit a single museum in Stockholm, make it the Vasa Museum, which houses the 17th century war ship of the same name. The Vasa was constructed to be the flagship of the Swedish Navy reserve squadron in the Stockholm Archipelago back in the 17th century and numerous design changes were made during it’s construction to make it more fitting of this role.  One such change was the inclusion of a second gun deck above the existing deck.  This and many other changes made the vessel very top heavy and in it’s maiden voyage, the Vasa took on water through the gunports of the lower gun deck as it banked sharply in a gust of wind, causing it to sink even though it was only 120m from the shore and still within Stockholm harbour.

The brackish water of the harbour prevented hull of the ship from being eaten away by the shipworm, Teredo navalis, which is normally found in warmer waters of higher salinity.  As a result, when the wreck was found in 1959, the hull was largely intact.

After a massive recovery and restoration project, the Vasa was moved to the newly constructed Vasa Museum where it has seen over 29 million visitors since it’s opening in 1961.  As with many other wooden artefacts recovered from the ocean, extensive restoration work was required before it’s display and the vessel is still under ongoing work to prevent/slow down further degradation.

Like the Kon-Tiki Museum in Norway, the Vasa Museum is very unique.  Put simply, there is no greater or more complete version of a 17th century warship in known existence.

Fika (fee-ka)

Pretty much a Swedish institution is fika, or a coffee break.  Okay, so having coffee with a friend, friends or family is not necessarily unique to Sweden, but with endless cafe’s scattered around Stockholm to support this strong coffee culture (though in my opinion, not necessarily strong coffee… :P), it’s certainly seems to be a very important part of the day here in Sweden.  Oh, and it’s not just a cup of coffee that’s consumed during ‘fika’, it almost always involves eating some cinnamon scrolls and/or various kinds of biscuits and cookies as well.

Local coffee franchises such as Wayne’s Coffee, Espresso House and Coffeehouse by George can be found all over Stockholm to ease your fika needs.  Of these, the Wayne’s franchise is probably the most convenient (the blue coloured exteriors certainly stand out) though I found the Espresso House ones to be better a little more comfortable especially if you want to read a book or plug in your laptop…

Espresso House!
Espresso House!

Thanks to Frida and Susanna, I was able to trying something a little more quaint by visiting the Rosendals trädgårdar in Rosendal, a large naturally forested park west of the city centre and Röda Villan located on the nearby island, Fjaderholmarna.

Rosendals trädgårdar Cafe operates out of an old greenhouse building located in the Rosendals Garden and uses produce and ingredients sourced from the surrounding gardens to prepare their meals.  Walking inside, you’ll see a huge selection of freshly baked cakes, biscuits, cookies and well as savoury snacks.  The lunch menu  changes throughout the year as different produce is harvested so you might be in for a welcome surprise.  If it’s predicted to be a sunny day, I would highly recommend going for a walk through these gardens and stopping by here!

If you have a little more time, you can take the half hour ferry to Fjaderholmarna, the closest island in the archipelago and check out the cafe’s there such as Röda Villan.  I could honestly hang out all day at this island – you could walk around the paths, look back at the main city or relax in the various hammocks scattered around.  With hourly departures from Slussen, it’s also very convenient to get to!

Another nice cafe with a view of the archipelago is located in the top of the Fotografiska, or the Swedish Museum of Photography.   Thanks Anna-Maria for the company and coffee! (You would think that after a holiday in Bali, you would be sick of Australians! :P)

 The rest of it

There’s definitely a whole lot more to Stockholm that I could possibly cover in a single post.  Again, like nearly all of the places I have been to, it’s definitely worth your time walking around and taking in the sights.  Being spread across so many islands, Stockholm has a very unique feel about it; you can spend the whole day walking across bridges, past iconic buildings with clear views of the waterways and canals.

Be sure to also look out for any festivals or events that are on in town.  The A Taste of Stockholm food festival was on during my visit, so along with Susanna, I was able to feast huge cross section of Swedish foods including meatballs with  mashed potatoes, pickled gherkin and lingonberry jam and gravlax or raw salmon cured in salt, sugar and dill on dark bread.

Just on a side note on public transport… If you are planning on using the subway to get around, don’t be put off by the confusing ticketing system of the SL Access Card (including selecting zones, what will be deducted on a normal ride, no. of coupons etc).  Just get a 24 or 72hr travelcard and be done with it…   At least you will find that the metro stations have been converted into an art installation!

My last stop in Stockholm before taking the train back to the airport was a short visit to Stockholm City Hall, the location for the annual Nobel Prize ceremony, where the remaining Nobel Prizes for Literature, Physics, Chemistry and Physiology or Medicine are awarded each year.

Though the building looks quite bland on the outside, the interior is definitely quite special.  If you want to go inside, you need to join a guided tour which costs 100 SEK.  Tours run every half hour in the morning, then hourly from 12pm – 3pm and tickets can only be purchased on the day.

Unfortunately for me, this was the end of my adventure in Stockholm.  With bad weather heading in, it was back onto the Arlanda Express to catch my Air Baltic flight to Riga, the European Capital of Culture for 2014!  Overall impressions of the place?  If you’re looking for a different yet familiar place to visit, Stockholm offers it.  I mean, the architecture, setting (a city spread amongst islands?), history, attractions were totally new for me, yet everyone pretty much speaks perfect English (such is the influence of un-dubbed American television shows) and are friendly and welcoming. The only thing I would change is having more time to explore the rest of Sweden outside of it’s capital.

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