Friday, 15 April 2016

Nordic Odyssey Part 1: Stockholm

19. See the Northern Lights
The driving force behind the Nordic Odyssey was the desire to witness the dancing sky, the Northern Lights, the Aurora Borealis.

And dance the sky did.

Our adventure spanned 9 full days and 9 nights travelling over 2700km through Sweden and Norway, right up above the Arctic Circle and back again. It was truly an experience of a lifetime and one of the most amazing holidays I have been on to date.

Friday 12 February
We arrived very late at night and so made our way directly to our accommodation. The air outside was cold, the icy ground slippery but there was little to no snow to be seen. A flake or two fell like dandruff from the sky, but that was all we would see of the white stuff that night.

Saturday 13 February
As we had trudged towards our accommodation the previous night, I had stopped to adjust the gigantic backpack in front of a coffee house selling a delicious looking cream pastry. We promised to return the next morning for breakfast, after we picked up our 24 hour Stockholm travel pass.

We had a big day of activities ahead of us, and the travel pass turned out to be invaluable. Not cheap, but it paid itself back within a couple of journeys: throughout the next 24 hours we were on and off the trains whenever the fancy took us. Scoffing the delicious pastry topped with cream and apple sauce, we headed to the nearest train station.

"It looks pretty out there, let's get out!"

We were on our way to the Ericsson Globe when we spotted a pretty scene out the window of the train. It was cold, but all sunny blue skies. The scene infront of us was a partially frozen lake with large shards of ice and pretty houses up on a hill.

Also, the ground was covered in snow.

Sufficiently photographed out, we hopped back on the train, just to get out 2 stops later when we saw another pretty scene out the window. This time, we had to walk down quite a steep (and slippery) hill until we reached the bottom; a dock, a ladder and...what's that on the lake? Footprints? Is the ice thick enough to stand on?

I perched myself on the edge. Rested my feet on the ice. and I was standing! Both Dan and I had a go at wandering around on the thick, frozen ice, but a couple of little splintering noises had me back on the jetty quick smart.

We walked along for a short way, and watched someone skiing along the other side of the frozen lake. They must have been off to the shops!

Time to get back on the train and head to the Ericsson Globe. A little miniature globe scales the side of the giant globe, and inside this mini orb we were offered a slightly different aerial view of Stockholm as it is a little further out from the city centre. We could see the frozen lake we had just tap danced on and all the pretty red rooved houses.

Next stop on our itinerary: Ikea. The one thing (other than the Northern Lights, of course) that I was adamant to do in Sweden was visit Ikea. Back in Australia, I was obsessed with Ikea having lived so close to it: I had become sufficiently brain washed. Dan, however, had never been to one before so naturally it was time to start with the largest one the world - and where the phenomenon began.

It was huge. We took some embarrassing photos outside before making our way straight to the restaurant (we would never have made it through the whole store without sustinence!)

And guess what that sustinence was? Swedish meatballs, of course. Swedish meatballs, that delicious gravy and of course: lindenberry sauce. I was in heaven. We wondered what the strange white drink everyone around us appeared to be drinking, so Dan went to the dispenser to collect a glass for us.

It was milk. Not so strange after all, but definitely a moment of cross language confusion!

The Ikea store was massive, and not particularly well laid out. There were mezzanines within levels, and mezzanines within mezzanines but I am quite sure we managed to see everything in the end. We sat on comfy and garish couches, we imagined how the pouf would match the rug in our imagined home. We spun on office chairs and wrote obscenities into the children's calculators.

After spending at least 5 hours exploring the store, we made it to the ground level and out, having purchased only a thermos. In the outside store, we grabbed some chocolate and snacks while we organised where to go for dinner.

Dinner had to be a viking restaurant. Using our transport pass, we hopped back onto the trains and back into old town. We walked through the door and a large blonde man greeted us. As we did not have a booking we would have to leave by a certain time. "Was this ok? And what are your names and where are you from?" he asked us.

We wondered why he asked, but gave him the information he required. The next minute, we were standing on a set of stairs, full to the brim viking restaurant laid out before us.

"Please welcome..." he boomed, "Sasha and Dan from Australia and New Zealand."

The room erupted in cheers and hollers as we decended the stairs, and we, visibly embarrassed, crawled into our seats in the middle of a long table. Is this because we didn't book? We soon realised, however, that every time a new table were seated they were introduced, and each time we joined in the whooping and applause.

So, it's not a secret that Scandanavia is expensive. It's very expensive. Eye-wateringly so. So when we looked at the menu, we were glad we weren't particularly hungry. We ordered mead (of course!) to be drunk from our chalises, a pot of mussels and a meat selection comprised of reindeer heart, bear, moose and more.

In case you wondered, reindeer heart is very strong and gamey and probably my least favourite of the meats. Stabbing our dinner with our viking implements, and regaled by traditional music - it was an excellent evening.

We began the wander back to our hostel, stopping to take night time photography and generally be irresponsible throwing chunks of ice into the river. It started snowing on us, and we giggled and played in the snow all the walk home.

Sunday 14 February
We checked out and stored our luggage at the station before setting out for the day. Today we wanted to explore the old town and the Djurgarden. It was much colder today, and the sky was white and grey. Despite the 3 pairs of socks, my feet remained cold. No matter! That's what snow does.

As we walked towards the Djurgarden, we passed the Palace and had a peek inside.

"OUT OF THE WAY" I heard from behind me, and promptly jumped further into the path of the guards stomp marching their way past. Oops, it was the changing of the guards. We followed at a safe distance (to avoid being shouted at again!) and watched the ceremony of the guards.

On the outside of the palace, the steps had been converted into a skiing ramp and children young and old were practicing their technique. I thought this was particularly cool - you'd never get a skiing ramp on Buckingham Palace!

After a warming coffee at the entrance of the Djurgarden (which is a very large public park filled with museums), we set off to explore. And it was beautiful. The landscape was white, the trees were stark black and white, the sky was white. The occasional bit of colour popped on the horizon; a little house here, some orange reeds there and us of course, in our bright purples and reds.

Dan had been here before, and wanted to show me a rather rudey statue. We had a look through the statue park and indeed there was a very sensuous, naked, sprawled lady statue looking a tad cold in the snow.

All of this wandering was in aid of reaching the Vasa museum. The museum is solely dedicated to a ship, but not just any ship: an almost fully intact 17th century ship that had been salaved and restored and now offered a fascinating insight into the people of the time over 300 years ago. Hilariously, the ship sunk within about 10 minutes of its launch as it was too top heavy (the king demanding Extra Cannons! But not being able to account for it in the design...) but due to the cleanliness of the water and the lack of tide, the entire ship sat at the bottom of the sea perfectly preserved.

Our cameras fogged up in here having come from the very cold into the very warm, and so a lot of our limited time was spent trying to get the lenses clear. However, I found it completely fascinating and soon they were calling for us to leave.

We had a few hours now before our overnight train to Kiruna, so we returned to the entrance of the Djurgarden, ordered - you guessed it - meatballs!, had a few beers and then went back to the train station.

One the way back to the station, we discovered a free outdoor iceskaing rink. Honestly, some of the things about this country are just so amazing - you definitely wouldn't find free rinks or ski slopes in London! We watched one girl effortless skate and twirl, and a boy try to impress her but ultimately fell over and embarrassed himself. It grew quite cold, and so we continued on.

We chose to catch the overnight train to Kiruna as it would be a different experience for me, a chance to look at the pretty scenery and basically covered transport and accommodation For an additional £4, we were able to upgrade to a cabin. We waited in the cold for a little while but soon enough our train approached, and we boarded.

Our cabin was adorable, and perfect. Two bunk beds that could be folded away into couches, hidden storage at every turn and the best bit: our own tiny toilet and shower. We made ourselves comfortable and decided to go check out the restaurant car (the food carriage).

Ok let me set the scene. I'd made myself comfortable.
"Can I do this barefoot?" I asked Dan.
"Absolutely, it should be the next car."
So barefoot and braless, and I threw my shawl over my shoulders and pottered to the end of the carriage and, between the two of us, we hauled open the two very heavy doors dividing the carriages.

Not the food cart.

"It must be the next one," Dan said, and we continued on.
And on. And on.  About 6 cars down, we found the food carriage. I threw Dan a look as filthy as my bare feet.

"We're here now, we're buying something," I said, and got us a couple of pizza slices, continuing to throw Dan [now mock] filthy glares.

It was after midnight now, so once I mustered the energy we made the [barefoot] trek back to our room to settle in for the night.

Part two sees us waking up above the Arctic Circle, well on our way to Kiruna and the next leg of our Nordic adventure.