Backpacking through Europe: Sweden

We arrived in Oslo, Norway yesterday and I'm still trying to figure out how to tell you about Stockholm, Sweden. I've enjoyed sharing this adventure through blogging for all of you, yet at the same time, I never feel like I can do justice to each city or country or experience. And, if I told you how much my heart swells in some of these places, or how many times I've teared up at certain views, you'd just think I was an emotional wreck and probably stop reading. So I'll try to keep this factual and not get overly emotional. But I will admit this, Sweden may have almost tied with Italy as my favorite country on this trip. 

We arrived in Stockholm late on the 27th, bought an Access card for the transportation system, and rode the subway to our stop just blocks from our AirBNB apartment rental. I knew we were staying in a studio apartment, and I know IKEA was a Swedish invention to make compact living more doable. I just didn't realize from the pictures that our entire apartment for three days and four nights would be smaller than our master bedroom in Austin. It was adorable, and very tidy thankfully. There were moveable twin beds, separated by a small desk and stool, two cabinets, a sink and a hot plate for cooking, and the bathroom actually had a shower head in the middle. To shower, you turned on the bathroom sink, closed curtains around you that blocked the toilet and sink, then switched the faucet to run through the shower head. I was worried it would be too tight and we'd be fighting by the second day, cramped for space, but it actually felt more like a camping adventure and though eating on your bed gets a little old, our amazing hosts made the cramped quarters worth it. It's good preparation for NYC, right? ;-)

The morning of the 28th, we layered up for the 30 degree weather, and took the subway to a bus stop and a bus to Skansen. It's a sprawling outdoor park with original, historical Swedish buildings dating back centuries and character actors from various time periods (similar to Williamsburg, Virginia). There is also a small section for a zoo, with wolves, bears, elk, moose and various other animals. We both love quirky, so we very much enjoyed spending the entire first part of the day walking through the old buildings, log cabins, and finding out more about the history of Sweden and how previous inhabitants lived throughout the years. The log cabins also reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, a series I loved as a young girl, and I'm seriously considering reading all the books again now. We've done really well on our food budget this trip, but Scandinavia is the most expensive portion of our trip too, so to help with costs, every day we cooked two of our meals and ate one out. After leaving the park, we enjoyed a picnic lunch of homemade sandwiches and fresh fruit by the waterside before walking to the Vasa Museum. When I first read about it, a large boat didn't sound particularly interesting to me and I decided we could skip it. Thankfully, Keith read more about it and how highly recommended it is, and we went there after lunch. It's not just a large ship, it's an enormous Swedish warship, over 300 years old, that never went to battle and sadly sunk before even getting out of the Stockholm harbor. It was discovered at the bottom of the harbor, surprisingly well preserved, in the 60s and lovingly restored almost to its original state. The wood has been left raw and unpainted, but there is a small model near the entrance that shows how, after years of research and testing, the boat may have looked in its original glory and fully painted. You pay your exorbitant museum entry fee, walk through three set of glass doors, and then freeze, jaw open, as you walk into the museum and directly to the front of the bow. I'm sure not everyone would be as amazed as us, but pictures don't do it justice. It's beautiful, breathtaking, amazing, and so impressive. We read the entire history of the ship, watched the 17-minute short film on it, but then just spent the next hour walking around the ship and marveling at it. I can't believe this sat at the bottom of the ocean for 300 years and was then lifted, in almost its original state, and moved to the shore. The museum was built, around the ship, in the 90s and even its architecture alone is impressive. If you ever travel to Stockholm, go see the big boat. It is so much more than that!

We headed back to our apartment to clean up for dinner, and re-layer up, then walked a few blocks to the Pelican Restaurant, recommended by our AirBNB host. It was a long wait for a meal, but we shared a charcuterie plate of local meats and cheeses before the main course. Of course, I ordered Swedish meatballs. And if you think IKEAs Swedish meatballs are good, try the real ones. They were amazing! After dinner, we walked a few blocks again to another spot recommended by our host, the Vampire Lounge. We were hoping for something truly kitschy, but it was really just a bar one flight down, with faux rock walls, low lighting and a cardboard open casket near the bathrooms. Most of the people there were dressed in black, and the two female DJs were in dark tutus, but aside from that, it felt like any other dark, loud, packed bar from the states. Our drinks weren't strange or smoking or anything! The next morning was cold but thankfully more clear than the day before, so we skipped the subway and walked to the main square. We were hoping to climb to the top of the City Hall tower, but it's only open for hourly paid tours, so instead we explored the courtyard and admired the exterior before heading to the palace for the changing of the guards ceremony. It was a very stylized, glamorous affair lasting almost an hour, with a full military marching band, flags waving in the air, swarms of tourists, and marching guards. My favorite part were the drums and the fact that there were almost as many female guards as male - those were the first female palace guards we've seen this entire trip. Go Sweden! Next, we explored the Stockholm Church and took a fika (afternoon break) with pastries and juice at Fabrique. The cardemumm bun was amazing and I really have to find a recipe for these once we're back. We got a quick, light lunch on our way back toward our place and then spent the rest of the afternoon at the photo gallery, Fotografiska. Our favorite exhibit was on photographer Martin Parr, who's humorous and vibrant beach photos from the 80s in Liverpool, were absolutely amazing and we actually circled back around to view them one more time before we left. As we left, it began to drizzle and gradually turn into a downpour, so we fast-walked back to our apartment and spent the evening cooking and watching a movie, side-by-side on one of the twin beds. 

Our last day in Stockholm, we actually decided to leave the city for part of the day and took an archipelago ferry ride to the island, Vaxholm. Our AirBNB host and his wife highly recommended it and they were so right! It was one of my favorite parts of the trip, next to hiking Cinque Terre, and probably one of the calmest days I've had in my entire life. We packed Keith's Osprey backpack with homemade sandwiches, fruit, chips, drinks and sunscreen in the morning and halfway through our hike around the island, pulled out the food and had a picnic lunch on a bench beside the ocean and a small sandy beach. It was cold and windy, but beautiful and if I could have convinced Keith (and myself), I would have bought a tent and lived there for the next few years. The ferry ride took just under an hour, and drops you off at the docks beside the old town square, with confectioneries, ice cream shops, galleries and souvenir shops. But we wanted to be in nature so we immediately walked past the square and all the cute, pastel colored beach-houses toward the pedestrian footpath that encircles the island along the water. We spent the next five hours walking along beaches, past rowboats and small fishing docks, through the woods and over rocks, past campgrounds and tiny red cabins, slowly breathing in the fresh air and trying to permanently embed the experience in our memory. It may sound cheesy but there are so many times throughout my life where I've wished it was possible to bottle up a moment, to open up and breathe in later when you need to relive that feeling. This time was one of those moments. I struggle with anxiety, stress and occasional depression, but over five weeks, I have managed to let most of that go. While hiking through that lovely island, I wasn't the least bit worried about the rest of this year, moving, selling our house, meeting new people, finding a new job. And I really hope that I can hold onto that feeling over the next few months while we take all these next big steps. 

April 30 is celebrated throughout many countries in Europe as a welcoming of spring by lighting large bonfires, singing, and setting off fireworks. Our AirBNB host shared a website with links to celebrations throughout Stockholm, so we decided to check out the festivities in their main park. After we got back from Waxholm, we returned to our apartment, dropped off the backpack and layered up for a cold evening (30 degrees in spring!). The celebration had food trailers, and candy and firecracker vendors. We ordered a gyro from one of two food trailers there and then Keith bought us small hot dogs from another food vendor. The fire was lit at 20:00 sharp (8:00 pm) by local firefighters and I stood in line waiting on our gyro. To keep things short, I'll just say that somehow I waited in line for one gyro for almost an hour. I considered asking for my money back (the attendant didn't speak very good English though), and definitely almost walked away numerous times but kept thinking "mine will be next". By the time the food came, the fire was already half its size and I was so angry, I couldn't even eat any of the gyro. Thankfully I managed not to throw it back at them when they handed it to me, and Keith and I tried to make light of the situation by suggesting we open a food trailer in Stockholm that actually cooks food in ten minutes. People wouldn't know what to do with all their extra time! The celebration was bit rowdy for us (hundreds crammed into one space is pretty claustrophobic), so after a hour, we headed to a nearby bar and ended our final evening with wine and a beer, and a toast to lovely Sweden. 

We spend the next two days in Oslo and I hope to write my final travel recap our last evening here tomorrow. But don't worry, this isn't the end of the travel posts! I also plan to write a review of our backpacks we carried for 5+ weeks through Europe and feedback on what we packed and what we would do differently. Stay tuned!