Flowers, water, and beautiful buildings – that’s Stockholm. Oh, and the grey skies and intermittent rain.

Our fourth stop in Sweden was Stockholm. We’ve been here once before, way back in 2010, and loved the city but still only scheduled a short three-night stop here. As the largest of the Nordic cities and the heart of Sweden, there’s lots to do here. But, we were in a hurry to get to our friends’ place up in the mountain for the weekend and then move on to Eastern Europe, so we cut our stay there pretty short.

That’s a shame because Stockholm is a beautiful city with lots to do. We love just walking around admiring the great architecture, but there are great museums as well, most of which we haven’t been to (including the Museum of Modern Art, which used to be run by our friend Lars). We did manage one important museum, though, the ABBA Museum, an homage to the pop music group of the 1970s. It was fun and not nearly at kitschy as it might have been, but definitely something you only need to see once.

Mark is kind of an ABBA fan

And then there was that museum you don’t need to see even once. We got to Stockholm late in the afternoon after taking a boat and bus from Gotland. Mark headed out while I just hung out in the room; it was cool and slightly rainy and I didn’t feel like braving the weather. He ended up going into the Nobel Museum – the Nobel Prizes are a Swedish thing – and, as he put it to me, “That’s $15 and 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back.”

Besides the ABBA Museum the other fun thing we did in Stockholm was to just hang out with friends. We’ve been planning on meeting our friends Marc & David down in Dubrovnik next week. They’d written a couple of months ago that they had a wedding to attend in Italy and wondered where we’d be in late August. “Bosnia,” we told them and they might be the only people in the world who would say “OK, let’s go to Bosnia.”

A serendipitous afternoon – on an unusually beautiful afternoon – with David & Marc

Just a couple days ago, though, Mark was on Facebook and saw David’s post “We’re off to Stockholm!” Huh? Turns out there were crazy cheap flights from Boston to Stockholm and so that’s where they started their little European vacation from. And we overlapped for an afternoon, so we had lunch and then hung out in a park for the rest of the day. Very fun and serendipitous.

So that was our short stay in Stockholm. One of these days we have to come back when we have more time; I’d love to get to know the city better and actually get to some of the real museums here. For now, though, we’re heading way north up into the mountains.

OK, humor us for a moment as we enjoy the ABBA Museum. Here’s Mark posing with the four of them on a park bench.

And Mark posing in the helicopter that was featured on the cover of their album “Arrival,” seen on the left. He had that album and after all these years now he’s in the helicopter.

ABBA’s crazy attire was a key part of their show. Here are their costumes from the album “Waterloo.”

Along with the costumes from the original London performance of “Mamma Mia”

The view of Stockholm from our hotel (after the first night when our “view” was an interior courtyard)

Beautiful buildings in Stockholm

Us!

It was Medieval Week in Visby, so there were all these people dressed up in medieval attire. Mark caught this couple hanging out – you have to love his shoes!

After realizing that four days had been too long for Gothenburg, we were leery about the five days we’d planned on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. We needn’t have worried: Gotland is a wonderful place to spend time.

That’s Visby on the northwest corner of Gotland out in the middle of the Baltic Sea

Visby is the main town on Gotland with about half the island’s 50,000 population living there. It was once an important part of the Germanic Hanseatic League, a defensive confederation of towns that came to dominate the Baltic area from the 13th century into the 18th century. In the early part of that period Visby built massive walls around the town and a surprisingly large number of big churches. Due to a combination of the Black Death and war in the mid-14th century, though, Visby fell on hard times. Churches were abandoned and, particularly after the Protestant Reformation, fell into ruin. Not good for them but great for us.

Today the city walls still stand, some of the most complete and enduring Medieval walls – over two miles in length – in Europe. Moreover, the city is studded with grand church ruins giving it a great feel and look along with a UNESCO World Heritage designation. On top of that, we were there for Visby’s annual Medieval Week, when people come from all over to dress up and sing and dance and eat and pretend that Visby is, well, still a medieval powerhouse. With all those church ruins and the city walls it felt a lot more authentic than any Renaissance Festival I’ve ever seen in the U.S.

Getting to Gotland was a bit of a hassle: a train from Gothenburg to Stockholm, a bus from Stockholm to some small town on the coast, and then a boat to Visby. And to make matters worse the train was 25 minutes late, so we missed our bus which meant we missed the boat too. And the boat tickets were non-refundable. Mark called from the train, explained that the train was late and we would miss the boat. Could we just switch tickets to the next boat? “No,” we were told, we would have to buy new tickets. At something like $70 each that was no small deal, so finally Mark got someone on the phone who agreed that, if the problem was the train they would waive the rules and let us on the next boat.

One of a number of church ruins in Visby

Once we got there it was easy to fall in love with the area. On our first full day we rented really nice bikes (with no helmets; the rental company never so much as asked if we wanted them) and headed north up the island maybe 25 miles to a beach. The beach was nothing special – just a cold, rocky place – but the bike ride was spectacular. Along one stretch when we were surrounded by beautiful wheat fields on a cool, sunny day I found myself thinking that this was pretty much perfect biking. When we got to the beach Mark thought it was odd that there was a big pile of trash and junk not far at all from the outdoor eating area. On closer inspection we discovered that that heap had been the restaurant not long ago; there had been some catastrophic fire recently that destroyed the building. Not to be defeated, though, the owners had set up a temporary kitchen and outdoor tables so they could still serve … chili con carne, which seemed like a strange dish to have on the beach. It was good, though.

Another day we rented a car to drive to the northern tip of the island where we took a ferry to the smaller island of Farö, which had been described as the most beautiful part of the island. It lived up to its billing, with a great drive around the coast and views of the rock stacks that wind and sea have created. All very cool.

Just some of the limestone rock stacks on the coast of Farö

The best part of Gotland, though, was just walking around Visby with its church ruins and narrow medieval streets. There was a great walking trail out along the coast that occupied hours of my time. And there were even great restaurants: a Lebanese restaurant that was as good as any we’ve ever been to and even a remarkably creative Szechuan restaurant. All told it was easy to understand why Gotland is such a popular vacation spot for Swedes; it was definitely the highlight of our Swedish trip so far, at least.

What did I love about Gotland? How about this selfie taken in neck-deep waters of the Baltic Sea.

Speaking of loving Gotland, here is some of the parkland along the coast – with wonderful hammocks strung up for an afternoon of reading and sleeping

Great bike trails

Flowers everywhere

One really nice restaurant had a great steak tartare on offer. The accoutrements were perfect, though the beets on the left there were a little unusual. I almost never pass up a chance to eat steak tartare and at some point while eating this I wondered if it’s possible that I’ve eaten more steak tartare than anyone who ever grew up on the Iron Range. It’s possible.

A tiny piece of Visby’s medieval walls

More of the city walls

Some of the tents set up for Medieval week, with the medieval town walls in back lending some authenticity to the event

Church ruins

More church ruins

The walls and churches were everywhere as you meandered through the city

Modern churches, too, including this one we passed on our bike ride

And this one

Church ruins at sunset

Speaking of great things in Visby, it’s been a while since we had any good kitty pictures here

On the ferry from Gotland over to Farö

Farö’s coast

Restaurants all have outdoor seating but, given that this is pretty far north, they also have blankets so you can stay toasty while enjoying the outdoors

And one last view from the lovely walks up the coast we would do

Gothenburg has some beautiful parks that are easily accessible from the city center

Here’s the thing to know about Gothenburg: you don’t really need four days there.

Again, as with Malmö, the weather didn’t help; mostly cool and wet. It would clear up, you’d get your hopes up and just like that it would be cloudy and wet again. Of course you never know about a place like this before you get here, so we figure better to leave some extra time just in case it’s really cool. And Gothenburg, it seemed, had potential. It’s Sweden’s second-largest city, with a big University population. Volvo was founded here, so at one point at least there was a lot of money here. It’s got parks and museums and is the largest port in Scandinavia. And – this is big – Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA was born here. So it had potential.

Here’s Gothenburg on Sweden’s west coast on what they call the Kattegat, a sea area between the Baltic & North Seas. The city is also at the mouth of the Göta älv, Sweden’s largest river.

To tell the truth, we were kind of bored though. There’s a string of parks around the center of the city that were great for walking around and reading in; I made great progress on a somewhat tedious biography of the artist Caravaggio I’ve been reading. And the modern art museum was a lot of fun, definitely worth half a day. We stayed at an artsy hotel called Pigalle that was so hip I felt like maybe I wasn’t cool enough to be staying there; they let me anyway, though, so I guess that worked out OK. Had it been a two-day stay we would have enjoyed the parks and museum and considered the stop a success.

Four days, though, was a bit much. We struggled to find restaurants that we liked and that didn’t cost a not-so-small fortune. And ultimately after a couple tries we gave up on finding anywhere to have a cocktail; they were crazy expensive yet tiny, and the quality was limited. A martini with black olives??

Two things worth pointing out, not particularly specific to Gothenburg. One, Sweden is moving aggressively to become a cashless society. Contrary to a lot of places where we don’t know if they’ll accept a credit card, a lot of businesses have signs in the window or on the door that say “Cash not accepted.” Never seen that before. Gothenburg native and Abba-guy Björn became the country’s most prominent advocate of going cashless after his son was robbed. His point is that a great deal of crime broadly and the black market entirely is dependent on cash; get rid of cash and suddenly things become a lot safer. Not bad. And a big boost for those of us who get three frequent flyer points for every dollar spend on our credit cards.

Here’s Mark at Samara Lounge, a little Middle Eastern restaurant we found. The food was great, it was pretty cheap (by Swedish standards), the owner was friendly, and we could sit outside to eat. Pretty good!

And then there was the big observation Mark made about our SIM cards. We love having our iPhones unlocked so that every time we enter a country we get new cards and then are online pretty much all the time. The only downside is needing to get new cards every time we cross a border, even here in the European Union. Well, just a few weeks ago we were surprised when we traveled from Greece to Italy and our SIM cards continued working. Cool, but we figured it was something peculiar to either Italy or Greece.

At some point while in Italy we had to get new cards – we get prepaid 30-day cards and they expired – so then we had Italian SIM cards. But when we flew to Sweden, just like that, they continued working. What’s going on? Why are we suddenly able to cross borders and our SIM cards continue to work? Mark did a little research and it turns out that the EU declared that as of June 15 telecommunication companies could no longer charge roaming fees; that’s what the borderless nature of the EU is supposed to be all about, after all. And now our lives are substantially simpler, or at least will be whenever we travel in the EU. Who says government can’t do useful things for people?

OK, so that was Gothenburg. Next stop Gotland, an island in the Baltic Sea east of Sweden’s mainland.

We spent a lot of time walking, wandering, and sitting in parks here. Until it would start raining, which it always did eventually.

One of Gothenburg’s Lutheran churches I stumbled on while wandering around the city

One more church

There was a lot of interesting stuff at the modern art museum. This Swedish sculptor Charlotte Gyllenhammar’s “Double Blind”, a piece Mark and I were both really struck by.

And then there were a couple photographs by the Finnish artist Iiu Susiraja. This is a self-portrait, suggesting that maybe the images of appropriate body type and fashion sense that we all internalize may not be appropriate for everyone. Especially for her.

This might be my favorite. Again, a self-portrait of Ms. Susiraja making the whole challenge to body type norms pretty explicit.

Meanwhile, Mark loved Vanessa Baird’s watercolor “Your Blood in Mine.” I’m not sure precisely why, though it worries me just a little.

There haven’t been a lot of pictures of food since we got to Sweden, but this dish – fresh burrata with lightly baked tomatoes – was great. And a more upbeat way to close this entry than “Your Blood in Mine.”