Stockholm’s city hall, situated on the waterfront more or less in the center of town, presents an image of great history and heritage. This belies its real age – only about 100 years old – but the work is impressive. The building is used to conduct the business of the city, of course, with the 101 seat legislative room shown off as part of the tour. But that is, at best, the fourth or fifth more impressive part of the building.
Vying for that top honor are a few other rooms. There is the Blue room, so named because the architect originally wanted to have the walls covered in blue plaster. This is also the largest room, built to look like an Italian piazza, with columns and arches surrounding the great space. The original plans also called for the room to be open at the top so that visitors could enjoy the space under the night sky, however that was scrapped one they realized the weather was not particularly cooperative on that front. This is also the room where the Nobel banquet is held each year.
Adjacent to the Blue room is the Gold room. This one actually lives up to its name, with the walls covered in mosaic that includes gold leaf in the tiles. The history of the city is told through the mosaics, including a massive display at one end showing Stockholm sitting at the crossing between East and West, with the US flag, Eiffel tower and a Native American headdress representing the west while elephants and Istanbul represent the East. It is a bit of a stretch, but I give them credit for trying.
My personal favorite room holds a number of tapestries in it. The cloth works are beautiful and the room is built specifically for them, with the size of the recesses where they hang perfectly sized. The room is also used each Saturday by the city to conduct civil marriage ceremonies. The ceremonies are quick – the long version is about 5 minutes – and they are something of an assembly line process, but they are also open to anyone who signs up (there is a bit of a waiting list to get a slot) and the setting is quite lovely.
As for the council room itself, it looks a lot like most other parliament rooms, though the ceiling is a bit different. The blue background is supposed to represent the open sky (similar to the blue room) and the beams across the top have a passing resemblance to an inverted ship, supposedly linking to the Viking history of the area, though there is some debate as to whether that was actually part of the design or not. Either way, it is pretty.
There is a bit of Nobel history also on display, mostly focusing on the gala dinner held each year honoring the award winners. A full place setting is on display and I must say that there is a whole lot of flatware involved for just one meal.
I was very impressed by the tapestries, and the Gold and Blue rooms were neat to see. Not the most amazing tour I’ve ever been on, but a good way to pass an hour or so while in town.
The Vasa set sail in 1628, laden with cargo, cannons and sailors for her maiden journey from the Stockholm harbor. She made it about a mile before succumbing to the sea, sinking before ever seeing the open ocean. The canons were apparently recovered relatively early on following the disaster, but the rest of the boat was left to sit on the bottom for over 300 years until she was raised – nearly entirely intact – and moved into a museum.
That the ship survived that long in such good condition is attributed to the low salinity of the water in the Stockholm harbor which prevents the organisms which would normally attack the wood from thriving. The net result is that the enormous ship – and it really is huge – presents a great point in time view of life at that time, particularly as it was lived on the ocean.
Huge probably doesn’t do justice to the size of the ship. The size was also likely a major contributing factor to its demise. Drawing a reasonably shallow 15 foot draft, and rising 3-4 times that height out of the water, the Vasa was almost certainly top-heavy to the point of tipping over once the winds picked up as she started to move out at sea. There were two decks holding 64 canons, with intricately decorated portholes out of which they would fire lining the sides of the ship, making it one of the more heavily armed ships of her era (though not the largest), able to discharge 300kg of shot at a time off one side.
The rigging that remains (most of the blocks are actually the original pieces!) is quite impressive. But perhaps the most amazing part about it is that the masts actually extended much higher than what is visible; the enormity that is on display actually doesn’t even fully show how big the ship really was. Outside the museum hall there are "masts" which rise up to show the full size the ship would have presented when she set sail that day. They extend up quite a bit above the roof.
The Vasa was not just an enormous ship, however. She was also quite beautiful. In addition to the cannon doors which were decorated the aft section of the ship was quite ornate. The wood carvings are quite intricate and there is evidence that the depictions were painted in bright colors originally; there are some artist renditions of what they might have looked like on display as well. It is quite impressive to see the level of detail that went into the decoration of the ship, especially compared to construction today where the details are generally completely ignored in favor of saving money. In the era of the Vasa the ornate details were generally showing homage to the king or patron of the vessel, meaning that without them the funding probably wouldn’t show up. I guess that’s reason enough to put in the extra effort.
The displays were not all about the ship itself; there were a lot of smaller details that were discovered in the salvage operation and which are also on display. Many skeletons were found, for example, and the study of their position relative to the ship, clothing and possessions makes for an interesting read of who was sailing and the history of their lives. On-board life was also somewhat well represented in the artifacts. A couple 350 year old backgammon boards were located in the wreckage, showing off part of the personal lives of those on board.
I was a bit skeptical when the Vasa museum made it on to the schedule for the day. That skepticism disappeared pretty much from the moment we walked in to the museum and caught a glimpse of the ship in all her glory. The level of detail they go to in showing the recovery process and the view of life at the time as shown from the evidence seen on the ship adds greatly to the experience as well. It was completely worth it to make the visit.
I love the arrivals service offered as part of the BusinessFirst service from United Airlines at most of their legacy Continental routes. I’m a firm believer in the power of a shower and a beer to help reset the body clock towards something approximating normal and the arrivals facilities generally make that work out quite nicely. Our request for the service apparently made it to the agent in Stockholm – she acknowledged such in the jetway – but not all the way to the hotel. That delayed our access by about 15 minutes but it was resolved quickly enough.
After our flight in to Stockholm from Newark we were all a bit out of it (I actually managed to forget my laptop on the plane, though I was quickly reunited with it) so having a nap also played into our plans. The arrivals service is Stockholm is a day room provided at the Radisson Blu hotel in the airport so we had the opportunity to get that nap, along with the shower; the beer had to wait until lunch.
The rooms we got were configured with two beds, two very small beds. They’re singles, rather common in Scandinavia, but it was entertaining to hear some of the stories from our group about trying to make that work for multiple people in the room.
Beyond the beds (which I was actually quite comfortable sleeping on), the rooms were reasonably well appointed, if not a bit small. Sliding the chair out from the desk, for example, resulted in hitting the bed situated adjacent to it. That said, it was not the smallest room I had during the week, not by a long shot.
The bathroom was reasonably nice, too, with all the expected/usual amenities provided.
One rather strange bit about the hotel is that the rooms (on at least one side of the hall) overlooked the terminal rather than the outside world (though you could see outside through the terminal windows). That was definitely a bit different for me. I think that contributed to the hotel not using black-out curtains in the windows (the photo above is as dark as the curtains got). I was tired enough that sleep came anyways, but I can imagine that being an issue during the summer when darkness is harder to come by in the region.
In short, it was a very typical and very serviceable business hotel at the airport. It did have the advantage of being literally in the airport making it incredibly convenient, and also allowing for a premium to be charged on the pricing for rooms that I saw in a quick search. Still, faced with an early morning departure I’d either be sleeping there or in the nearby jumbo jet.
Every now and then a good story comes across the wire of an airline doing something particularly heartfelt and unexpected. A couple months back there was a story making the rounds about a pilot form Southwest that held a flight to allow a man to get to his grandson’s funeral at the last minute. Today’s story comes from Norway, where SAS made some special arrangements to save a woman’s vision.
The flight in question is a milk run up the west coast of Norway (and one that I’ve actually been on), shuttling folks between Trondheim, Alesund, Bergen and Stavanger. This particular aircraft suffered a mechanical failure after the first segment and the operations folks were content to cancel the rest of the flights and book all the passengers on the next plane, 6 hours later.
For one passenger on board, however, that flight was 3 hours too late. She was on her way to Bergen for emergency eye surgery that was necessary to save her vision and the new flight would land three hours later. A couple hours later a replacement aircraft, ferried in from Oslo, was on the ground in Alesund and made a quick turn to get the passengers loaded and on the way to Bergen. The plane arrived in Bergen approximately 25 minutes prior to the surgery and the patient made it to the hospital in time.
When I find a great deal on air travel I’ll buy a couple tickets. If the price is right having two or three of the same trip isn’t so bad. But some folks in Scandinavia when a bit further than that recently when Norwegian Air Shuttle offered a 1 Dutch Crown (~$0.20) sale fare to introduce their new Copenhagen – Karup service. One customer purchased more than 450 of the sale tickets. Others purchased 50-100.
OK, so that’s somewhat strange, but maybe they really like flying. It is possible, right? Maybe possible, but not what actually happened. In this case the tickets were all purchased under assumed names by employees of a Norwegian Air Shuttle competitor, Climber Sterling. The competitor bought out all the tickets to prevent real customers from buying the seats. Oh, and a couple of the offenders are even members of the Climber Sterling Board of Directors.
Of course, the CEO from Climber disavowed all knowledge of the fiasco, calling it “misguided loyalty” on the part of the employees. Sure…whatever.
There is really only one restaurant in Ålesund, Norway that gets much of any sense of reviews on the Internet, at least in English. Sjøbua is a seafood shop located at the end of a small street, and it is THE seafood restaurant in Ålesund. The windows of the dining room open up onto the harbor with some pretty phenomenal views and the food is absolutely top notch. The fact that we actually managed to have a meal there was actually quite a surprise. And it was completely worth it – maybe even worth going out of your way to find.
We tried to dine there on our first night in Ålesund but we were led astray by the review from Frommer’s that suggests they are open on Saturday nights. They are not. And we spent the next five nights camping out in the fjords. It turns out that there was cell phone coverage out there but I didn’t bring mine and I certainly had no desire to interrupt the kayaking with trying to get dinner reservations. So we gambled and simply asked at the front desk of the hotel when we returned to civilization on Friday evening. “I’m very sorry sir, they do not have any tables available. Perhaps you would enjoy dining at the Indian restaurant just up on the corner.” That is the same Indian place that we had dined at the previous Saturday when we found Sjøbua to be closed so that wasn’t going to happen.
We gambled, and we won. We walked in to the restaurant shortly after 7pm and announced ourselves as a walk-in couple and pretty much begged for a table. There was a nice bar area that I would have attempted to dine in had things not worked out but that proved unnecessary in the end. It turns out that there was a 6:30pm reservation for two that never showed. And it was now ours!
The food was delicious. Simply off the charts phenomenal. I can attribute some of that to the fact that we’d been dining off of camping stoves the previous five nights, but those meals were actually pretty good (we have made one of them a regular staple at home now) so it can’t have just been that. The food was actually really that good.
We shared an appetizer and had an entree each. We shied away from the (crazy expensive even for Scandinavia) lobster appetizer and had something a bit more pedestrian, though quite delicious and quite local. It was mussels in a relatively traditional preparation and they were delicious, though not necessarily unique.
The coup de grace of the evening, however, came when the entrees were served. Getting the right amount of sauce to cover an entree is always a challenge. It always seems that you get not enough or the meat is swimming in sauce. Neither is a good way to dine. Sjøbua had quite the appropriate solution to that problem. Our meals were served and then, about 30 seconds later, the waiter showed back up at the table with a small bowl containing extra of the sauce. For one of us that meant more actual sauce, and for the other, a small bowl brimming with perfectly prepared thick cut bacon diced into quarter inch cubes, crispy and delicious.
Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t just the bacon that made the dish. The Salt Cod Gratinee (it sounds better in the native Norwegian) was phenomenal all on its own. But the addition of a side of bacon to top it off served as the proverbial icing on the cake. Except it was bacon on fish smothered in a creamy sauce. And extra bacon at that. Truly top notch at every turn.
During the four days we wandered about Copenhagen and the surrounding area I noticed a few intriguing trends. One of them was that many of the women were wearing bikinis under their dresses. That didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me unless they were all either on their way to or from the beach, or they were just trying to be prepared for an emergency sun tanning session. Admittedly, it never really got dark while we were in Scandinavia and the sun really only set for a couple hours each night, so there was a chance of an emergency tanning session breaking out, but I never actually expected that it would happen. And then, as I was walking back from the ill-fated endeavor to grab a hot dog, I spotted it. There was actually an emergency sun tanning session in progress. I couldn’t help but laugh to myself as I grabbed the photographic proof. It turns out that the stark changes in the length of day really can change peoples’ behavior. Including drawing out impromptu tanning sessions when the desire strikes.
Often in my travels I discover that being lucky is just as good, if not better, than being prepared. Ålesund was one such experience on a broad scale, from dining to hotels to things to see and do. As we wandered about town on our first night there we still needed to make a hotel reservation for our last night – a week later. We checked out a few “name brand” properties like the Scandic and the Clarion and the prices were fair but nothing special. We also happened upon a slightly greenish building that had the word hotel on the outside and a bar facing the street. Given that two of my main requirements for a place of lodging were met we gave it a chance. The price matched that of the others and it was definitely something different, so we gave it a shot. Dumb luck won BIG.
The Hotel Brosundet is a small property – only 46 rooms plus one in the lighthouse around the corner – but it is big on style, comfort, quality and service. The room in the lighthouse gets written up a lot as a search for Mojja Fyr will show, but it isn’t the only nice part of the offering available. The room we had was not large by any stretch but there was space to move around, a desk and a large window near the bed (very similar to the photo). And it had the exposed beams, wood hues and smooth lines that reeked of Scandinavian design (a scent I happen to love). The property was formerly a warehouse, now converted into a hotel, making it the second former warehouse we stayed in during the trip (71 Nyhavn was the other). I have to give it to the folks in Scandinavia: They know how to convert a warehouse quite well.
In many ways it felt like someone had simply extracted the essence of a W Hotel and miniaturized it into a small building along the harbor. The halls were dark, the bar had a bit of a bass line pumping out and the people working there were mostly beautiful. Then again, most of the folks in Norway were so maybe that last one isn’t a great metric. So the aesthetic and the vibe were slightly W-ish (in a good way), but there was also something else, something better. The staff was actually wonderfully pleasant and helpful. They went out of their way to help us with just about everything we needed. It was a wonderful change from my typical experience at a W.
Oh, and the restaurant there is actually one of the better options in town. Not as good as Sjøbua, but I don’t know that anything really is. We only managed to have breakfast as they were fully booked for dinner, but the food was good and it looked like folks were enjoying their dinner, too.
Add on to all of that the top-notch location in town and the history of the building and it is hard for me to even consider staying in one of the other chain properties in town at the same price-point.
I tend to go a bit overboard when planning for trips to new destinations. I’m prone to obsession over the nuance and detail of the hotels and the restaurants, hoping to find the best (that I can reasonably afford) and ensure that I get to experience them. When the average trip duration is only about 2 days it is rather important to know where the good stuff is before arrival. Otherwise there is way too much potential to miss the essence of a city.
On our most recent Scandinavian adventure I put a fair amount of planning into the Copenhagen aspect of the journey. That was where we were spending the most time and where there seemed to be the best options available to choose from. That meant our arrival into Ålesund was completely unplanned. From the minor details of how to get from the airport to our hotel to where we should eat, I had nothing. There weren’t even taxis at the airport (my fallback plan) to take us into town had we needed one. It was rather unsettling actually. The good news is that we managed to not suffer for it.
Transfer from the airport turned out to be easy – there is a bus that handles that. Sure, it is on the edge of reasonably priced (NOK100/person, ~$15) but that’s WAY cheaper than the taxi option and it did take us right to where we were going which was a nice bonus. We even figured out the bus back into town for dinner the first night. That was only ~$5/person and it gave me a much needed 15 minutes of research time on my Blackberry, time I used to search desperately for a restaurant in town. All the search results pointed in one direction. Sadly those same results misrepresented the operating hours of Sjøbua, falsely indicating that it was open on the Saturday night that we arrived. Strike one for the internet, but we did manage to make up for that a week later.
So instead of seafood we wandered into an Indian place, Agra that proved to be quite passable. Yes, it was expensive ($6 for an order of naan?!?), but not really all that out of line with what any other restaurant in Scandinavia seemed to be running us for dinner. And since it was our last meal before heading out into the kayaks for our fjord paddling we decided to make sure it was a good one. We also passed by the same restaurant on our return a week later. Apparently while we were gone they changed their name to Zangra and divorced themselves from the chain of restaurants on the west coast of Norway under the same name. That was somewhat confusing but the food still looked just fine, even after the change.
The small downtown area was rather pleasant to wander through, with some cute shops and hotels scattered about along the waterfront. We meandered for a bit and took a look at several of the hotels scattered about the harbor area. We ended up booking in at one of them – Hotel Brosundet – for the following week and then got ridiculously lucky. We spotted the guide from our tour, the same guide who was staying in the same campground as us 15 minutes out of town – driving along the road. A loud shout form me, an illegal u-turn from him and a sprint through traffic found us happily ensconced in the company van, headed back to bed down at the campground rather than trying to figure out the return bus schedule.
Thus ended our first experience in Ålesund. Not bad at all and an excellent precursor of the great experiences to come a week later.
Of the 72 hours we spent “in” Copenhagen a surprisingly large amount was actually spent in the surrounding towns, not the city itself. That is certainly a shame in many ways as the city has a ton to offer for visitors. Plus, it is reasonably compact, easy to navigate and ridiculously well served by mass transit options, making exploration both simple and rewarding. Among the highlights that we got to experience…
- Climbing to the top of Vor Freslers Kirke: The spire extending up from the top of the church has an external staircase wrapping around it. Walking up on the outside that high above the ground was certainly exhilarating. And the views of Copenhagen were hard to beat; the top of the spire is the second highest point in town. It is a lot of stairs, some inside and some out, with low overheads and generally an all around “exciting” climb. But absolutely worth it. They also play music from the church bells on the hour through most of the day so you can try to time your climb to match that if you want.
- Drink on the Nyhavn: The Nyhavn is the new canal, built in the 1670s to provide access to the central part of town for ships. Then it was a red-light district, complete with rundown bars, tattoo parlors, flop houses and brothels. Now it has been gentrified and is filled with overpriced restaurants and bars as well as a few hotels. So while I wouldn’t recommend spending a ton of time there, the people watching does make for an enjoyable couple hours. Head to the Magasin du Nord around the corner and take a BYOB approach to save a few bucks on the drinking part of the afternoon.
- Wander Tivoli Gardens: This one is somewhat hard to recommend because the admission price (DKK120, ~USD$25) is rather high. Still, the gardens are quite amazing to meander through. Apparently the climate in Scandinavia is perfect for growing roses – they were pretty much everywhere we turned – and Tivoli Gardens is no exception. They had huge displays throughout the park, mixed in between rides and restaurants. I have no idea if the restaurants were any good. A few were recommended but the price point was above my comfort zone. And I’m pretty sure you had to pay for admission to the park first to even get to the restaurants which adds to the crazy costs. But wandering the grounds and enjoying the gardens is definitely a beautiful way to spend some time.
There are plenty of other things to do in Copenhagen, too. There are a ton of museums and enough to see that one could easily spend a full 3-4 days and not cover it all. Pretty much any direction you wander you’re bound to run into something beautiful (and I’m not just talking about the locals).