Scandinavia Mania: Best for Last

Last stop: Dalarna. Okay, this actually came in the middle of the trip, but I wanted to save my favorite part for last.

One of the things we'd been really looking forward to on this trip was celebrating Midsommarafton (Midsummer's Eve), one of the biggest holidays of the year in Sweden. We'd heard that the best place to go for traditional midsummer celebrations was Dalarna, a province in central Sweden. (You may be familiar with the Dala horse, a symbol of the region.) 

Stockholm cleared out for the holiday weekend on Friday morning, and we left in our rental car, a great big silver gas-guzzler that we got as a free "upgrade" because all of the small cars were already booked. Yikes.

The first festival we visited was in Tällberg in the late afternoon. When we arrived, there were lots of people in traditional costumes dancing in a cleared field. All of the women were wearing crowns of wildflowers, so I braided one for myself, too. According to our guidebook, these wreaths are sometimes saved and added to the New Year's bath for good luck.

We watched them raise the maypole, then went to a nearby cafe for a dinner of waffles with whipped cream and cloudberry jam.

Then we drove to Leksand, where there was a much bigger festival--more like an outdoor concert. Hundreds of people (maybe even thousands; it was hard to get a good look at the crowd) sat on picnic blankets watching a band play as the maypole was prepared. Then pairs of men lined up and hoisted the pole as the spectators cheered them on.

Once the pole was up, everyone rushed in (including us!) and danced in a circle. Stephen and I couldn't understand the words to the songs, but we tried to follow the crowd and figure out the moves as we went. The only song I can remember now was Små grodorna ("The Little Frogs"), but I think there was another about elephants, and maybe one about playing various musical instruments. There were a lot of drunk teenagers and the ground was littered with discarded bottles, which added an element of precariousness to the fast-paced dancing. There were so many people dancing that you couldn't stop moving even if you were able to see the hazards in front of you. Luckily we made it through unscathed.

Since it was right around the summer solstice, dusk arrived very late. After the festivities had ended, we drove to Lake Siljan to watch the sunset. The water was calm and the colors were deep and saturated.

And then we got engaged! Here we are right after I asked Stephen if he wanted to get married, just as the last light was fading. Misummer's Eve is supposed to be an auspicious day for new beginnings. What better time to get engaged?

Well, that's a tough act to follow, but we still had a couple of days in the region before we went back to Stockholm. The next morning, we visited the house of Carl Larsson, an artist who painted scenes of rural Swedish life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Carl and Karin Larsson had eight children and a very warm and loving home life which Carl depicted in many of his paintings. Apparently the Larsson family still owns it and occupies it for part of the year. It seemed like a great place to grow up.

Our last stop on this leg of the trip was this little church in the town of Ovanåker where my great-great-great-grandparents, Olof and Ella, were married before emigrating from Sweden to the United States. Luckily, it was easy to find and looked almost exactly the same as in the decades-old photograph my dad had given me. (I think my paternal grandfather had a local genealogist take the picture when he was doing research about our ancestors in the 1980s.) We took some pictures and walked through the graveyard, looking at the names on the tombstones.

Finally, we had to pack up and say good-bye to Dalarna and to our tiny cabin with the lilac hedge, but I think this will always be one of my favorite places in the world.

The end!


Scandinavia Mania: Iceland

We didn't get to spend very long in Iceland, either, but I loved every minute of it. (Except for the minutes when our credit cards were being charged. Food and transportation in Iceland are pricey!) We got in very lateour original flight from Copenhagen was canceled, so we had to get a later flight through Stockholm. As always, the late sunset was disorienting. It wasn't bright out, but it was dusky when we arrived at 1:00am.

 We stayed in a cute bed and breakfast with a shared kitchen. I had toast with jam and a bowl of corn flakes in the morning, and wondered whether corn flakes are a universal breakfast food or just something that people buy for tourists. (I had corn flakes for breakfast at our hotel in Istanbul last spring, too.)

There were still lilacs blooming in July! Ours are usually gone by June.

We didn't have much time to spend in Reykjavik. We headed for the Blue Lagoon in the morning so that we'd have time for a long soak before our flight back to Boston. What an otherworldly landscape! It felt like being on a different planetexcept for the bar in the middle of the lagoon.

And then it was back to Keflavik, the prettiest little airport I've ever seen. It's the kind of airport that LL Bean might design, with locally-sourced stone and wood, huge skylights, and shops selling woolen mittens and thick fleece jackets.

This is the only airport I've ever stayed in overnight. (We spent the first night of the trip in this terminal between flights.) I didn't get much sleep, but the stained glass window overhead was a nice view to wake up to.


Scandinavia Mania: Finland, At Last!

Now where were we, lo the many months ago? Ah yes, Finland.

We were only in Finland for about 36 hours, not even enough time to make it to the mainland. We stayed on Åland, an autonomous, Swedish-speaking archipelago in the Baltic Sea.

To get there, we took a bus to Kapellskär, a port north of Stockholm, and rode the Viking Line to Mariehamn. The ferry was enormous, with several restaurants, a casino, and a duty-free shop--plenty to keep everyone occupied for the two-hour ride.

We got to our stuga (cabin) around 11:00pm. I was so excited to see a kitchen inside. It was our first opportunity for a home-cooked meal in weeks! Of course, we were too tired too eat by then, but I did make us some pasta with tomato and garlic the next night, and it was such a treat not to have to go searching for a cheap, vegetarian-friendly restaurant when we were both starving.

We rented bikes and went out to Kastelholm, a medieval castle in the countryside. The trip was a little farther than I'd anticipated, so we had to bike back quickly to avoid the hefty late-return fees. I think we got back to the rental agency five minutes before they locked up. I haven't biked in a long time, so my backside was super sore by the afternoon--I had to pedal standing up for the last twenty minutes. Afterward, we celebrated our successful fine-avoidance with cones of mjukglass (soft ice cream).

Stephen's parents gave us a wake-up call the next morning at 6:00am (11:00pm for them) so that we'd be sure to make the morning ferry back to Sweden.

And that was it for Finland!


Scandinavia Mania: Denmark

After leaving Sweden, we spent a few days in Copenhagen. On our first afternoon in the city, we went to see the changing of the guard. They're less formal than the guards at Buckingham Palace--I think they're allowed to talk and take pictures with the tourists. Their uniforms still look uncomfortable, though. Bearskin hats in July!

I was charmed by the hearts carved into the little red towers at each station.

We also visited the University of Copenhagen Botanical Garden. It was a hot and humid afternoon, so being in the Palm House was almost unbearable. Stephen was brave enough to climb up the spiral staircase to the very top of the house, but I got lightheaded when I tried to follow him. We cooled off afterward in the shadier Orchid House, which had some very alien-looking flowers.

One of our favorite things to do was to sit by the canal in the evening when everyone was out drinking beer and cider and chatting with friends. Sometimes we'd stop on the way back to our hotel and buy gelato or waffles drizzled with chocolate sauce. The Copenhagen Jazz Festival was in full swing, so we saw bands playing in practically every square.

One evening, we rented a boat at sunset and rowed up the canal, dodging the zippy motorboats and the wide, flat canal boats that motored past. We even got saw a jazz boat with a four-piece band on board!

On our last night in the city, we decided to walk out to the famous statue of the Little Mermaid. As we got closer, we saw some kind of screen lit up near the shoreline where the statue normally sits.

A sign nearby explained that the Little Mermaid had been taken to China to sit in the Danish Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo. In its place was a video installation that offered a live broadcast of the statue as it sat in Shangai. I guess it's bad luck that we happened to be in Copenhagen during the one six-month period in 96 years that the statue was gone--but at least it hadn't been vandalized.


Scandinavia Mania: Swedish Cities

We spent about a week of our trip visiting the two largest cities in Sweden: Stockholm on the east coast and Göteborg (a.k.a. Gothenburg) on the west coast.

In Stockholm, we saw the royal palace, browsed the public library, took in the view from atop the Katarinahissen, visited the vintage stores in Södermalm, and ate lots of quiche and pastries at our favorite konditori.

The city is spread out over an archipelago, so we spent a couple of days riding the ferries to and fro.

Since we were out during the day in the middle of the week, the islands were pretty quiet. We saw lots of young families on playdates, a few retired couples, and a smattering of other tourists. I was surprised at how many fathers we saw taking their kids out for the day, pushing strollers around and chatting with other dads. Swedes must have better paternity leave benefits than we do.

We spent one day visiting Fjaderholmen, an island with lots of artisan workshops and ice cream stands. What better way to follow a glassblowing demonstration than with a scoop of chocolate on the patio? We rested our feet and watched kids play with a giant Parcheesi set.

The next day, we visited Skansen, an open air museum and zoo on the island of Djurgården.

It was fun to go inside the historic buildings, but my favorite part was seeing the animals. We stood with dozens of other people watching the brown bears wrestle in their enclosure, and the reindeer nibbling moss in theirs. Stephen made friends with the goats at the barnyard. The only animals I tried to steer clear of were the noisy, aggressive peacocks, which would belly up to the picnic tables and loudly demand a bite of food.

A few days later, we took the train from Stockholm to Göteborg, the country's second-largest city. This city is also situated on the water, but we didn't visit any islands. We did go on one boat, though: our floating hotel! We had a harbor-facing window from which we could watch the sun set in the evening, and there was a good view of Skanskaskrapan, the bright-red skyscraper commonly referred to as the Lipstick, from the roof.

For an even better look at the city, we took a ride on the towering Wheel of Göteborg one evening. There was a VIP booth with tinted windows and white Christmas lights, but we just rode in one of the regular carriages.

I really liked Göteborg. I had heard that the city was more industrial than Stockholm, but it had a youthful energy and we found some awesome cafes and museums during our brief stay (not to mention the lovely botanical garden that we stumbled into when looking for a public bathroom). I'd like to go back someday--I'm sure there are more treasures there.

But there were still many other places for us to visit. Yet to come: Finland, Denmark, Iceland, and a Midsummer adventure!


Scandinavia Mania: Camping in Sweden

I'm not sure when I first had the idea of traveling to Scandinavia (and more specifically, Sweden), but for a long time now, going there has been my #1 international travel goal. My great-great-great-grandparents immigrated from Sweden, and my last name is Swedish, and Stephen and I both really like Scandinavian design, so: plenty of reasons to go.

I've talked about it for years now: hypothetically at first, and then more and more concretely/hopefully. But I've never planned out more than a weekend road trip on my own (heck, I was 21 the first time I flew on an airplane!) so the idea of taking on a three-week trip overseas was a little daunting.

Finally, last summer, Stephen suggested that we start saving money for this dream trip. We bought some guidebooks. I was overwhelmed with grad school. Stephen let me focus on my thesis and took on almost all of the planning duties, reading countless reviews, booking hotels, drawing up itineraries, and learning how to order food and ask for directions in Swedish.

And then, in June, we went! We spent 22 days traveling around Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Iceland. Here are some pictures from the first week, during which we rented a car and drove around southeastern Sweden, mostly camping. (Yes, we carried a tent and sleeping bags with us!)

The countryside was so beautiful. It felt like a place you'd see in a dream, all sunshine and wildflowers.

We went hiking a couple of times. The forest there really looked like something you'd see in Maine. It was chilly like Maine, too.

We toured a glassblowing factory in Orrefors and ate peppermint candy in Gränna.

We visited open air museums all over the place. One had historic buildings from many different regions, so you could trace the changing shape of houses over hundreds of years and miles.

We visited IKEA on the day that Crown Princess Victoria got married, and they were giving out wedding cake in the warehouse. It seemed like the whole country had wedding fever.

Neither of us got a cinnamon bun at IKEA, but Stephen had the local equivalent (called kanelbulle) several times when we stopped for fika. They were less sticky than the American kind, and always dusted with pearl sugar.

Only one of the places we stayed had a kitchen, so we ate a lot of cafe meals. Luckily for me, they were pretty vegetarian-friendly. I ate open-faced sandwiches and drank Earl Grey tea and had a slice of carrot cake almost every afternoon. Not a bad way to travel.

But I was very excited for my first home-cooked meal back in Boston!