Monthly Archives: May 2014

Crazy Scandinavian Ideas

The Scandinavians have some crazy ideas.

1. Putting throne rooms on the top floor of castles. Rosenborg Slot, the marvelous little castle in Copenhagen (jewel of an enormous, wonderful garden park), devotes almost the entire third floor to a massive throne room. Somehow I was thrown off. Wouldn’t you want it on the ground floor? “Excuse me while I run upstairs to be king for a few minutes!”

Rosenborg Slot

Nice attic, guys. (All pictures expand when clicked.)

But on the other hand, it does make a certain kind of sense. You want to intimidate and impress visitors, right? What better way than to make them huff and puff up two flights of stairs before they get to see you? You can just sit there on the throne, watching them catch their breath and sweat, and feel superior! Wait okay this is a great idea. Next.

2. A gelato shop called Dental Clinic. Who are we kidding. This is an amazing idea.

I figured you guys would need proof. By the way, elderflower gelato is really good.

I figured you guys would need proof. By the way, elderflower gelato is really good.

3. Asian Station Hot Dog Corner. This is in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen.

Asian Station

The menu: pulled pork and beer. Because what do you expect from an Asian hot dog place? Get used to the pulled pork. It’s kind of a big deal.

Truth is, the Danes have odd ideas about a lot of ethnic foods. Many restaurants advertise an “American Special”: either a pulled pork sandwich, which is fair enough, or a pulled chicken sandwich. A pulled chicken sandwich sounds not-good, but I was kind of tempted to try it, because where in America can you get an American Special? I have photographic proof that a chain over there is charging US $19.95 for a “pulled chicken burger”. Those poor, poor people.

4. An autonomous hippie commune where everybody’s stoned all day and they have a fake UNESCO World Heritage Site plaque. Say hello to Christiania:

Christiania

Photography is banned in most of Christiania. It’s certainly banned on the main streets. This is one of just two photos I took, and yet this photo PERFECTLY captures the entire spirit of the place. If you want to imagine Christiania in your mind, just look at this guy, and what you imagine is correct.

Christiania is Copenhagen’s semi-autonomous hippie commune. There is an unease and ill-defined relationship with local authorities, where the cops mostly look the other way, ignoring a marijuana culture that would make Colorado turn colors with jealousy. I ran into a fellow American guy there and said I was from Texas. “Austin? You from Austin?” “No, I’m from Dallas.” “Oh, wow. Usually everyone from Austin dreams of coming here but nobody else in Texas has even heard of it.”

The drug dealers pitch camouflage tents, like you’d see on M*A*S*H, to conduct their business inside. There’s also a conveniently situated bakery. But Christiania also has non-drug areas: art galleries and installations, a cinema in an abandoned warehouse (predictably, it shows only avant garde film), a few quality bars, and a great vegetarian restaurant where they cook one meal a day and if you don’t like it, you go somewhere else. Christiania is also sited on canals which feel downright rural; you’re in the heart of Copenhagen but it feels like you’re way out in the countryside. It’s really a remarkable place. Maybe it should be protected by UNESCO. Maybe.

5. Simpsons bread.

Simpsons bread

This is why, when you travel, you should always visit a grocery store.

6. Building a gigantic warship so stable and safe that it can travel up to 0.8 miles before sinking! Meet the Vasa. In the 1600s, Sweden was at war with Poland and needed a few nice big warships, so they ordered some. The shipbuilders got to work on Vasa, a top-heavy colossus with two decks of cannons. Unfortunately, the cannons moved the center of gravity upwards, and the ship was about four feet too narrow. So on the triumphant maiden voyage, a test voyage of sorts on which the crew members brought their wives and children, the Vasa got 0.8 miles into the harbor of Stockholm when a “light breeze” knocked it nearly onto its side.

Heroic efforts by the crew managed to get the ship upright again, but water had flooded in the openings for all the cannons, and once it was upright, it sank to the bottom instantly.

The story gets crazier. 330+ years later, some determined Swedes found the ship, intact, at the bottom of the harbor. So they managed to pick it up, pull it out of the water, put it on land, cover it in preservative chemicals, and build a spectacular museum around it.

After nearly 400 years, the original Vasa is 98% intact.

Vasa ship

Just so you get some perspective on size, do you see that little black thing in the bottom right corner? That’s a person.

There’s no way to prepare you for seeing the Vasa. It is one of the most spectacular sights in Europe, housed in one of the most spectacular museums in the world. A rather thrilling documentary explains the mind-boggling process of raising and restoring the ship; exhibits include original cannons, one of the original sails (somehow partly preserved in the water), and some of the bodies of the drowned. And then there’s the Vasa, around which the (extraordinary) building has been designed.

Stern of the Vasa

There’s just no way to explain it. What you’re seeing here are the carvings on the back of the ship. This photo covers about 1.5 stories of your typical house. HUGE.

The Swedes are convinced that there is nothing else like this, anywhere in the world. They are probably correct. And why was the ship so perfectly preserved? Because it sank instantly in the cold northern waters. Had the Vasa gone into battle, nobody would have seen it again.

7. And you thought IKEA was the start of the practical furniture trend. Nope. Have a look at this thing in Drottningholm Palace, which remains to this day the residence of the Swedish royal family, and where photography is illegal, but that’s not important right now:

Surprise cabinet

Quick! Name That Furniture!

So, what is that brown thing with the marble top and the nice wood carvings? Hah! You’re wrong. It’s a bed. Duh. Back in the 1700s, the king wanted to have a servant boy around at all times, so they made a little fold-out bed for the servant kid, and had it fold out of a fake cabinet.

8. Having a bar called Garlic and Shots that serves nothing but garlic, shots, garlic in shots, and just for variety, garlic beer. In the interest of selfless journalistic enterprise, I went. Full report coming soon.

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Biker’s Island

Last week I got back from Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, and had a great trip. Enjoying Copenhagen and Stockholm was no surprise; they’re awesome cities, especially Stockholm, clean and lively and friendly, teeming with history. The big surprise came between all those big cities. Before we left, my travel partner Carolyn suggested we make a detour to the island of Gotland, located off Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is not exactly a legendary tourist destination, so I agreed without having any idea what to expect. Answer: happiness.

Gotland Map

Just so we’re all clear on where Gotland is (click to expand)

To get there, you must take a car ferry full of Swedish people – I only saw one family of English-speaking tourists. The ferry boat is not exactly small.

Ferry boat

Here’s, uh, part of the boat, as viewed from the ferry terminal windows.

The boats all go to Visby, the island’s capital. Visby traces its roots back to the medieval trading networks, and in the 1200s the local government built walls around town. The walls weren’t to keep Vikings out. They were to keep out foreign traders, who were consigned to a ghetto while the locals got to live inside. The walls are still standing, incredibly enough, and a few parts are walkable, although not many. Inside of them, the old town is relatively intact: our hotel was built in the 1600s, although I’m happy to report it has been remodeled since. There are also numerous ruins, including quite a few gigantic ruined old churches.

View of Visby

View of Visby. Notice the roof-less medieval church.

In the summertime, Visby becomes Sweden’s unlikely party capital, but in May, it’s merely adorable, a town of cobblestone streets, al fresco cafes, and narrow passageways. The competent local brewery, Gotlands Bryggeri, is in an old house. And the food is excellent: fresh fish and lamb, since Gotland is full of sheep. (Got does not translate to “goat”; it has more to do with “Goth”.) I had an incredible plate of fried fish – not battered and deep fried until stiff, but lightly battered and almost red, the way (coincidence?) my mom would do it. I also had a delicious ox steak. Ox tastes a lot like beef; it’s comparable to a good New York strip. And then there’s the dessert I’ll be raving about for years: a creamy, toasty “blueberry sandwich”.

Another delight of Gotland is simply renting a bicycle and biking around. You don’t need to be much of a fit, practiced biker to do this. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in 8 years.

Most of the island is, if not flat as a pancake, still pretty darn flat. Most of it is covered in gorgeous fields, forests, lakes, and medieval churches. And even if you don’t go far, you will find rewards. My plan was to bike out to Roma, a good 11 miles, and see some ruins there, catching a few sites on the way. I didn’t even make it half the distance. For one thing, not biking for 8 years turns out to be a bad decision. For another, I kept turning off every side road and dirt path, and they kept leading to cool stuff. A series of houses with mailboxes painted in detailed farm scenes; enormous fields of yellow flowers; some kind of top-secret installation with a sign that clearly said “No Traffic” but whatever, nobody stopped me.

The church at Follingbo has been there for nearly 800 years, and nowadays it’s still an active church, but a quiet one. When I reached it, nobody else was on or even near the premises.

Follingbo

Follingbo. Actually this is just about the entire town. There are still fresh flowers in the little cemetery by the church. By the way, please notice that I was on an island in the Baltic Sea and managed to have sunny skies.

Down the road a ways, a dirt track wound back into a nature preserve, so I decided to follow it. Eventually the trail ran out the back and dead-ended at an active rock quarry, but not before passing an abandoned quarry which had been turned into a very dramatic pond.

Lake in Gotland

Pictured: the only pond I have seen that has its own cliffs. (There were cliffs on three sides.)

Another path took me, or so it promised, to a “scenic overlook,” which I never found. Not that it mattered, because everything was gorgeous. I can’t say anything beat that nature preserve, though. To get to the pond, you have to pass through some spectacular forest scenery, such as this:

Forest in Gotland

As always, click to gigantify.

In other words, Gotland is one of those unappreciated places where everything is wonderful, even the wrong turns. It’s not famous because it doesn’t have any marquee attractions: no spectacular lakes, or spectacular ruins, or sprawling cathedrals, although it is well-known in Scandinavia for its beaches. Gotland isn’t always stunning; it’s just always really cool, always charming. I only saw about 1% of it, probably, and while at some point there’d be diminishing returns as you witnessed more identical scenery, there is certainly tons left for me to explore. It’s not often you stumble on something so cool and so far off the tourist industry path. Tell all your friends! Or maybe don’t tell them, and just go see it for yourself.

Visby waterfront

The gorgeous waterfront in Visby.

 

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