We were ready to explore. Once again, we crossed the bridge from Norrmalm to Gamla Stan. This time 15 pounds lighter. Our backpacks were safely stored in a luggage locker at the central station. It was early, around 10:00am and tourist traffic was nearly non-existent.
Unfortunately the ticket booth and gift shop did not open for another hour and a half and the Royal Apartments didn’t open until noon. With only one day in Stockholm we decided to move on and if we had time to come back, we would.
We ended up in a square in front of the palace, across from the church where Princess Victoria married her ‘commoner’ boyfriend in July. Mike set off to take pictures and I snagged a bench to take in the scene. It was a lovely, crisp fall morning. Alone on the bench, a 72-year-old man came over and struck up a conversation. Wary at first, I tried to figure out what he wanted. Mike was within earshot so I wasn’t too worried. As it turned out, he was just a nice man with whom we ended up having a delightful conversation.
He was born in London but has lived in Sweden for the past 40 years with his German wife. We discussed everything from the difficulty of learning Swedish at 30 to politics and the recent Swedish election results with a 28 vote difference. As he told it, the results were hanging on the inevitable recount and the battle over ballot envelopes that were not completely sealed (Sweden’s version of the hanging chad). He told us how the Swedish healthcare system quickly took care of his bout with cancer; how the pension system works (quite nicely by his account); how much he pays in taxes (depends on income but generally 40-50%) and the entrance of the far right Sweden Democrats onto the political scene and the ramifications of that. We never got his name but thoroughly enjoyed the lively conversation.
As we haphazardly traveled down another cobblestone street (every step filled with danger for my seemingly delicate ankles), we happened upon the pretty little Stortorget Square where the Nobel Museum is located.
We were just in time to take an English tour ($5 each) and learn everything you would ever want to know about Alfred Nobel and his prize legacy.
With our fill of brainiacs, we meandered down the main shopping street and tried on fashionable Viking hats.
For lunch we found a Thai buffet at Restaurang Aroydee that was pretty tasty albeit a bit salty. For $24 for two, it was probably the best meal deal of the week.
Time in Stockholm was running out. We decided to skip the palace. Once you’ve been to Versailles and few other haunts of the royals, you get an idea of what you will see elsewhere – lots of gold in surprising places. The jaded traveler rears her ugly head.
We leave Gamla Stan and cross another bridge to Norrmalm, continuing on to Ostermalm and over the bridge to Djurgarden. On the way we passed the Grand Hotel where we checked to see if we could get a room for the night. Alas, the front desk clerk told us in her very upper class British accent that they we’re also full of medical professionals. I shed a tear.
That tear was for two reasons. One, we didn’t have a place to sleep lined up for that night yet. The other reason was, well, I need to digress and discuss a delicate subject. If you are grossed out easily, skip to the next paragraph. The access of public WCs (water closets), restrooms, toilets. Whatever you call them where you are, when you travel they can be far and few between. You know what I’m saying. You are on the road eating strange things and sometimes you’ve got to go. The breakfast and Thai food was working its way out and I was thinking that the time for an exit was near. As much as I wanted to, I couldn’t muster up the courage to ask the posh British lady if I could leave a poo in their loo. Instead, I stoically pressed on.
Public restrooms in Scandinavia are like little rooms. They are so much more private than the partial door you get in the States that has the opening between the flimsy door frame and the hinges, leaving you visible to everyone who happens by. In Scandinavia it’s so much more civilized. Floor to ceiling doors and sometimes your own private mirror and sink. My husband’s inner 12-year-old gleefully declared that they are “State-of-the-art for farts!” Clearly we had needs!
One of the things we really wanted to do was go to the Vasa Museum.
Inside rests the only preserved ship from seventeenth century. It sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. Because of the unique qualities of the water and mud, the ship and its contents were remarkably well preserved. Since it was fully laden for a long voyage, it was filled with a treasure trove of artifacts. One of them was a backgammon board waiting for players. The ship and her contents were salvaged 333 years later.
Thirty to fifty souls were lost when that ship went down. I think some of them still cling to the ship because I had huge problems getting non-shaky pictures even when I placed the camera on the railing. The ones that came out have lots of white orbs floating around.
The 7 story museum was built around this ornately carved work of art. While there, we stopped in the museum café to say hi to a relative of one of our neighbors. He graciously took a few minutes out of his busy day to say hi and bestow upon us a little Swedish recipe book as a parting gift.
The lack of a decent night’s sleep was catching up with us so instead of walking back towards the Central Station, we hopped on the tram. A ticket was around $6 to go anywhere within one zone in one hour, contrary to Frommer’s Scandinavia guide book which said it would be half that. We needed caffeine so we picked up a copy of the International Herald Tribune to catch up on the news and headed for Stockholm’s version of Starbucks called “Wayne’s Coffee”.
This one was on the second floor of a bookstore with a nice view of a farmer’s market and rush hour at the end of a busy workday. We were very content on our perch with our yummy lattes.
After a coffee kick-start, we headed off to the other really cool thing we wanted to do. And I do mean really cool. Our destination was the Absolut Icebar in the Nordic Sea Hotel.
For around $30 each you get 40 minutes in what amounts to a giant, ice-covered walk-in freezer. They only let about 40 people in at a time and once their 40 minutes are up, everyone gets out allowing the literal ice bar to refreeze after slightly melting from all of the body heat. You are supposed to make reservations but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to a specific 40 minute time slot. We decided to wing it.
When we arrived, the guy at the door said the next group was full. Ever persistent in trying to weasel our way in, we asked if we could wait for the next group to see if there would be any no-shows. Mike further greased the wheels by telling the gatekeeper that I write a travel blog. With backgrounds in various forms of media, we don’t take no for an answer very easily. We sat in the lobby of the hotel for the next 45 minutes hoping that one of those diabetes docs would have another engagement and miss their time slot.
At 7:20 a sightseeing bus pulled up in front and out come the doctors and their guests. I stopped counting at 40. Just after they arrived there was a threesome, either Brits or Americans who were trying to bribe their way in. The gatekeeper told them no, there wasn’t room for them. We slinked up right after them, sure that we weren’t going to gain entry. He said, no you ARE going in…but one condition. We would have to wear a double cape instead of a single one. We were in! Who cared what we had to wear!
At 7:30 we got in and it did not disappoint! As you walk in, most people are given a hooded cape with one glove attached. Ours was one cape, with two hoods and two gloves. We were tethered together in the “love” cape. Good thing we are still in love! The drink glasses are made of thick ice and you need that glove to be able to hold your drink. As you walk in you stop to admire the art carved into the ice-covered walls.
Inside there are bars, tables and even a bench all constructed from frozen water.
The bartender made Mike a dangerous treat of 100 Proof Absolut & Lingonberry juice. My cube of ice was filled with something called an Archipelago. It combined Absolut vodka, orange, pomegranate, strawberry, pear, apple and lemon juices.
It was sublime. I could have had a few but since we were the last ones in we didn’t have time. Can I tell you how marvelous these ice glasses are? Your drink stays ice cold and as you drink, the warmth of your lips melts the edges to conform to the shape of your mouth.
A lot of the doctors left full drinks on the bars and tables and I was tempted to snag one but resisted. Why would teetotaling docs sign up to go to a bar? Maybe because the experience alone was worth the trip.
Before we left, I slipped out of the double cape so we could take a few pictures. I stood inside of the giant carved ice cube and sat on the ice bench at the ice table. And speaking of slipping, because of the body heat, it was hard to find a place on the bar to put my (sadly) empty glass. Every time I put it down it would start to slide. I think it wanted to be filled again.
I’m sure you are wondering how cold it was in there. It stays at a cool 23 degrees Fahrenheit year round. Since I am perpetually hot, being free of the cape felt wonderful to me. Others were shivering. Finally I found a flat surface and said goodbye to my glass. We walked out and slipped the guy at the door a 100 crown bill – the equivalent to $15. A very cool experience. I am ready to check in to the Ice Hotel one day in the near future!
Our tummies started to rumble so we went in search of a restaurant. The first one had many open tables but we were told they were booked until late. Maybe we were a tad underdressed for that place. We wandered around some more and landed in a cute little place. Bistro Bestick was on a side street a few blocks off Vasagaten not too far from the Central train station. The lobster soup was to die for.
Tasted like lobsters without any lobster chunks. It wasn’t a bisque but it wasn’t quite a broth. Just pure deliciousness. It came with a slice of cheese covered bread which I didn’t eat. As Mike likes to call me, I am cheese impaired. I just don’t like it for the most part but I am getting a bit better about it. Weird, I know. But the toothsome, cheeseless bread basket made me very happy.
I had grilled monkfish with a rocket (arugula) salad, butter fried chanterelles and new potatoes ($35). Mike had grilled sirloin of beef with a red onion marmalade and gratin potatoes ($34). My fish was good but I would have been happy just with another bowl of that heavenly soup. Mike’s steak was tough and tasteless even with the marmalade slathered on top but the gratin potatoes were another story. He would have been happy with the soup and the potatoes. We topped it all off with a bottle of a 2007 Italian Valpolicello. A nice way to cap off a busy day in Stockholm.
We lucked out. It was almost 10:00. We made it in time, without knowing it, for the last bus to airport. We had already bought round-trip tickets for $33 each on Flygbussarna. I don’t know what we would have done if we had missed it. We probably would have ended up sleeping in the train station. Not the safest place to snooze. The bathrooms cost 10 crowns and we were out of coins. A taxi would have taken us for an expensive ride. We had a flight to Helsinki at 6:40 the next morning. When we arrived we checked to see what time the first airport bus ran but never checked to see when the last one was. It was a rookie mistake, shameful for the seasoned travelers that we are.
When I first started investigating options for hotels, I came across the Rest and Fly Hotel inside of Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport. Perfect for our early flight. I always had it in my mind that we would stay there on Thursday night. You can rent rooms for the night or by the hour. You can also pay to take a shower without renting a room. I got so tripped up by how many hours we would need a room and what time we would arrive that I never booked it.
We arrived at 10:45. The front desk clerk said they had no cancellations and were booked solid for the night. Again, another person taking pity on us, he said we could check back at 11:30 to see if anyone cancelled. We passed the time wandering with the rest of the bed starved zombies, looking for a place to claim in the empty airport in case we had to sleep on a bench. Even if we didn’t get a room we could still take showers for a little more than 11 bucks apiece. The bathrooms in the airport were disgusting and we didn’t want to spend any more time in there than was absolutely necessary.
We went back to see if anything had opened up and voila. Luck was on our side once again. Someone had just cancelled and the bed was made, no charge! Normally this was a service that cost around $20. Had I known that all overnight stays are a minimum of 10 hours for roughly $110 I would have reserved a room two months ago. That would be an excellent thing to better explain on their website.
For a place that rents rooms by the hour, my expectations were low. We opened the door to a tiny, immaculately clean room, minimally furnished with sleek Scandinavian full and queen sized bunk beds and two small shelves. The steps to the top bunk doubled as a small table. There was a communal bathroom with dorm style showers down the hall and no windows anywhere.
Who knows how many people were shoe-horned into that hotel but it was almost deafeningly quiet. Even more amazing to think that we were in an international airport. By the time we got settled and into bed it was after midnight and I was nervous that the alarm on my iPhone (one of the few things I could use it for) wouldn’t go off at 4:30am. I spent another, more or less, sleepless 4 hours worrying about whether we would miss our plane and that I hadn’t packed suitable clothes for a communal bathroom.
The iPhone worked and we were up at 4:30. The bathrooms were surprisingly busy at that time but even with everyone hurrying to fly to parts unknown everyone was as quiet as they could be. I was standing at a counter putting on my make-up. Next to me was a mother and her young daughter. The daughter asked me a question in a language I could not decipher, maybe French. I looked at the mother and said I don’t understand. She immediately told me in English that her daughter had told me that they were going to Majorca Spain on holiday. She had lived in the States and was now living in Sweden. We had a nice conversation as we got ready to fly our separate ways.
Our paths crossed one more time as we were leaving the hotel. Her family was wheeling an overloaded luggage cart up an inclined moving sidewalk and just as we got there the luggage shifted trapping the young girl between the railing and the bags. For me it was in slow-motion. My fabulous man leapt into action and hit the emergency stop button and ran to help unload the bags. The little girl was crying but didn’t seem to be physically hurt. With the immediate danger passed, we left them to check-in for our flight. We grabbed coffee and something unmemorable for breakfast and headed to the gate to await our 40 minute flight to Helsinki.
Stockholm was a very lucky place for us under the circumstances. With such a limited amount of time on the ground we didn’t even get our feet wet. I think we will need to come back for a proper visit in the future. At the moment, all I can think about is sleep and the pre-paid reservation at the hotel at the Helsinki airport that is waiting for us when we land.