Friday, June 27, 2008

Sweden (2)

Our group was only in Sweden two days. On our first full day there we went to the port on the Baltic Sea coast and visited the hall where the Nobel Prizes are awarded. My memory of it is that it was large and airy, two stories, with large photographs and art work throughout. The hall and most of the points of cultural interest in Stockholm are located within walking distanced of the port. We were given that afternoon just to walk around and take in any tours that sounded interesting. My two friends from the University of Missouri elected to go to the Royal Palace and see the changing of the guard. I chose something that was, to my mind, more exotic.

At the port I purchased a ticket to cruise out through the Stockholm Archipelago to the island of Birka. Birka was a Viking stronghold in the last two centuries of the first millennium, but had suddenly been abandoned around the year 1000 A.D. There were several archaeological digs taking place on Birka at the time I was there, and artifacts from the Viking occupation were on display at a museum on the island.

The day that I was on Birka was cold and misty. I was under-dressed, wearing shorts, a tee-shirt, and sandals, so one of my main memories is of being cold most of the afternoon. I visited a small café near the port and had a cup of coffee, primarily for the warmth, did a tour of the museum, and then, with three hours left before the return trip, set off on a solo walking tour of the island.

There was no digging occurring that day, probably due to the weather, but I did come upon a few old ruins – chimneys and such. At one point I stopped and watched a local farmer driving his tractor down the lane. The old trail that I followed led around most of the island and ended at the sea, across a gulf from the port where I had arrived. As there was no direct trail to the port, I had to back-track the couple of miles that I had just walked. When I got back to the port, I revisited the museum and then sat in the café until the ferry arrived to take me back to Stockholm.

The Stockholm Archipelago is a long series of 30,000 islands stretching from Stockholm out into the Baltic. Most of the islands are small, heavily wooded, and populated with many nice vacation homes. Although the tax rate in Sweden was sixty percent, there appeared to be a great deal of visible wealth. We stopped at one island along the way to pick up a passenger, and I noticed that it was home to a large Electrolux factory

Back in Stockholm I walked to a restaurant where our group was assembling for supper. The food in Russia had been, almost without exception, God-awful, but everything in Sweden was focused around meat and potatoes – real food! I was able to enjoy genuine Swedish meatballs in Sweden! Later that might we walked around the old downtown and did some bar-hopping. I remember one bar that was similar to a cave: as you walked to the back of the bar, it began spiraling downward. The walls were a cement plaster giving the impression that the bar had been dug deeply into the ground. All along the way to the bottom were tables and barstools.

Some of our group also explored Stockholm by subway one evening. We made several stops, just consuming the great city through our own whims and at our own pace. One thing that I remember about that outing was that we only encountered graffiti at one location, and it was just a small patch. (When I visited England in 2003, the graffiti was ubiquitous.)

Another very interesting thing that we did in Sweden was to visit the ship Vasa. The Vasa was a warship that was built in the early 1600s to take part in the Thirty Years War. The ship was to have been the pride of the Swedish navy, but instead became a national embarrassment when it sank in the harbor as it was starting out on its maiden voyage. The Swedes elected to leave the poorly designed ship in its watery grave for three hundred years, but decided in the 1960s to raise it and turn it into a tourist attraction. The Vasa was towed to shore and a maritime museum was constructed around it. It is an excellent example of poor seventeenth century shipbuilding!

Our plane left Stockholm in the morning en route to London. The only member of the group who didn’t fly out with us was my roommate, Michael Hyman, who had purchased a Euro Rail pass and planned on seeing more of the continent. There were vendors with stacks of reindeer hides at the airport, and I bought one for my son, Nick, who likes to hunt. From the air we were treated to a last glimpse of Stockholm followed by a view of the vast tundra that covers northern Europe, a hard landscape that had done so much to form the character of the Russians and the Swedes.

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