All posts for the month August, 2017

Mark on the glistening streets of Dubrovnik’s old town

After our time around the Mediterranean and up in Sweden, we’re off to Eastern Europe. First stop, Dubrovnik, the capital of Croatia and a city we last visited in 2013 near the start of this adventure. Back then we stayed a bit away from the center of the city so we could stay at a resort on the beach; we would spend the day at the beach then walk into the city for dinner and some night life. This time was completely different. We stayed right in the center of the city, right in the old town … and spent the day at the beach, coming in for lunch and dinner.

First, though, we had to leave Stockholm. Two things stood out for me. First, it was a rare event when we had to exchange our currency. Usually we use the last of any currency (except euros, since we’re always coming back to Europe) either on the hotel bill or at a Duty Free shop in the airport. Our hotel was pre-paid, but we didn’t think that was a problem: if we’re leaving a country and need to get rid of the local currency we can always buy a bottle of booze at the airport. Not so this time, though. Because Sweden and Croatia are both in the European Union we couldn’t buy duty-free stuff. So we had to pay those outrageous fees – about 20 percent in this case – to get rid of our Swedish Krona. It’s not the worst thing that’s ever happened but you’d be surprised how rarely we have to do that.

There it is, the very low-tech approach to indicating a ticket has been used

And then there’s the strange case of the train from downtown Sweden to the airport. It’s surprisingly expensive, even in a country where everything is surprisingly expensive; the round-trip ticket runs about $67, so $134 for the two of us. At the same time it’s wonderfully fast and comfortable; it runs on dedicated tracks so there are no delays. What’s weird though is that for all the cost that went into building the system, the process of validating tickets is amusing: the ticket person comes by, looks at your ticket, and marks a big X on it in ink. If it’s a round-trip ticket, he or she just X’s it out a second time. Just strange. It all worked fine and quickly we were on a Norwegian Airlines flight (great airline!) to Dubrovnik.

This was just a quick stop before we head inland to explore some of the former Yugoslav Republics along with (probably) Romania and perhaps even Moldova, a former Soviet Republic. It was going to be a two-day stop but thankfully we added a third day when our friends Marc & David decided to join us for the start of this Eastern European swing.

A couple things about Dubrovnik stand out. One, it’s expensive. I remember back in the mid-1990s maybe, after the war with Serbia, adventurous friends would go to Croatia and come back just agog at how beautiful and cheap it was. Well, it’s still beautiful but 20 or 25 years of tourist activity sure ended that cheap part.

A quick aside about the war. After the Yugoslavian strong-man Marshal Tito died in 1980, smart observers of the Balkans suspected that Yugoslavia – a federation of Slavic states – was not long for the world. And sure enough in 1991, after a decade of tension and as the Soviet Union was headed toward collapse, Croatia and Slovenia both declared independence. Serbia, the biggest player in what was then still Yugoslavia, attacked.

I won’t detail the whole war here – there’ll be plenty of time for that in Bosnia and Serbia – but one part stands out. Back in the 1970s the old town of Dubrovnik, the pride of all Croatians, was de-militarized so that it would never becoming a casualty of war. How do you think that worked? Yup, Serbia saw an undefended city and attacked it. The new Croatian government quickly sent in troops and Serbia was left with an ultimately failed – though still destructive and deadly – seven-month siege.

The moral of the story here is that unilateral disarmament didn’t, in fact, protect Dubrovnik as many of us naive peace-types in the 1970s might have hoped. Of course, Muammar Gaddafi could tell you how well his decision to give up his nuclear weapons program worked, except he was executed after he did that. Or we could ask the Ukrainians how it worked when they voluntarily gave up their nuclear weapons – nearly half of the Soviet nuclear arsenal was in Ukraine – when they became independent. They ceded the weapons to Russia with a guarantee – a guarantee mind you – that the U.K., the U.S., and Russia would defend them if anyone ever attacked. That didn’t work out so well, either, when Russia annexed Crimea and invaded southern Ukraine and we (probably wisely) just stood by. Kind of explains why Kim Jong-un seems unwilling to give up his nuclear weapons in North Korea, huh?

I see people taking pictures from planes all the time and I assume that they never turn out. Mark took this shot of Dubrovnik as we were flying in from Stockholm and it definitely worked.

OK, back to Dubrovnik. Expensive, crowded, and still beautiful. The old city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, may be the most amazingly preserved old city in all of Europe. The old walls and some of the stairways are so wonderfully preserved that they are favored filming sites for HBO’s Game of Thrones. Amusingly, when we checked into our hotel the woman at the registration desk was going to highlight for us the most important filming locations. Because we’ve never seen Game of Thrones we told her not to bother. But that got us thinking: everybody else does; maybe we should watch it. So Mark bought a short-term HBO plan and we’ve watched the first two episodes. We’re a few years behind everyone else, but so far we’re enjoying it. Maybe.

I keep getting side tracked. Dubrovnik. What did we do? Pretty much went to the beach, came in for meals, visited with Marc & David. The city is beautiful, but it’s crazy crowded and I just don’t like fighting my way through those crowds. On top of that it was crazy hot, up around 100 degrees by mid-day. The beach was crowded, too, but our hotel either owns or has a licensing agreement with the company that rents out chairs and umbrellas so we got those for free. And since I’m an early bird I’d get to the beach early, stake out some nice chairs, and settle in for the day. Eventually Mark & Marc & David would come down and we’d swim and read and go eat and come back and swim and read. And then get cleaned up for dinner.

The beautiful Mediterranean. The water was cooler than I’d expected but when it’s 100 degrees you don’t complain.

That was it: a short stay in a beautiful city with a close beach on the Adriatic coast. Now off to real adventure in Bosnia!

A market right outside our hotel, as though I was in Paris or something

Some of those stairs and streets that apparently look so good on Game of Thrones

The view of Dubrovnik from Marc & David’s Airbnb. Nice view, but there were a lot of steps to get up there!

Meals were always al fresco

The weather wasn’t great but the friends were

Our last stop in Sweden was three nights at the mountain home of our friends Shideh & Lars (last seen in Hong Kong). Shideh, you may recall, was one of Mark’s childhood pen pals back when they had pen pals; they’ve reconnected as adults and she’s become one of our best friends. Lars is an art historian who specialized in running museums. His most recent gig was launching a major new modern art museum in Hong Kong funded by the municipal government there but, reflecting the challenges of working in such a bureaucratic environment he’s now in semi-retirement back in his native Sweden.

Edsåsdalen is that yellow star way north, not far at all from the border with Norway

So part of this summer was planned around visiting them in the house Shideh – an architect, besides being a great friend – designed up in Edsåsdalen, a tiny town up in the mountains several hours north of Stockholm. The house was supposed to be just a holiday retreat while they lived primarily in Stockholm. Instead, after trying it out, they discovered they love the peacefulness up there and now live there most of the year.

This is, by a fair margin, the furthest north we have been on this adventure, north even of the various stops we made on the Trans-Siberian Railroad four-plus years ago. To put it in context, it is only slightly south of Fairbanks, AK. So we were way up there.

The area is primarily known as being a ski area and there are, allegedly, nice mountains in the area. Unfortunately the three days we were there, though, were dark, cloudy, cool, rainy days and we couldn’t see the mountains a bit. Since Shideh and Lars are friends, though, we had to accept their word that there are mountains around. Their house, in fact, is almost directly under one chairlift that, in the winter, ferries people up the slopes for skiing. And despite the latitude and the accompanying cold weather, they say they love it most in the winter when they can ski, both downhill and cross-country, to their hearts’ content.

The mountain house, designed by Shideh, with sweeping views over the valley

What did we do for three days up in the mountains? Well, notwithstanding a calendar that said mid-August, the weather wasn’t notably cooperative; it was overcast and often raining, with temperatures typically in the high 40s or low 50s. So we spent more time just sitting around the house chatting than perhaps we otherwise would. And that’s not a bad thing; Lars and Shideh and seriously interesting people. Of course hanging around the house also means eating plenty. From pancakes to local walleye, and paella to rhubarb crumble, along with plenty of wine and some serious Negronis, it was a feast. I’ll spend a few weeks getting the pounds back off.

Despite the less-than-ideal weather, we did a couple nice hikes too. One was up the mountain from their house on a trail through some remarkable fields and forests where we discovered cloudberries, a wonderful Northland berry that I’d never heard of before. The next day, with a forecast even more ominous, we hiked down to a beautiful lake. Apparently if you live in an area like that you don’t let the prospect of a little rain slow you down, particularly when you have all the gear you need to stay reasonably dry. And then there was the afternoon jaunt to Åre, the “big” ski resort town (population 1,417) about 12 miles away where I found a nice pair of hiking shoes. That’s the sort of souvenir I can appreciate.

Me & Mark with Lars on our hike up the mountain. Notice that I’ve borrowed some of Lars’s boots to stay dry. Mark’s feet were too small, though, so he just got wet on the very moist trails.

Shideh, Lars, and Mark down at the lake well below their house. The hike down was easy but it was a long way back up.

The big event, though, was the annual opening of “surströmming”, a fermented herring that translates as “sour herring” though we thought of it more as rotten herring. As explained by Wikipedia, “just enough salt is used to prevent the raw herring from rotting.” Call me skeptical that they actually use that much salt. In fact, Wikipedia adds, “According to a Japanese study, a newly opened can of surströmming has one of the most putrid food smells in the world…” OK, after our experience, I can attest to that.

Potatoes, a can of surströmming, and a fabulous herring dish that Lars made. There was a lot of herring in a variety of forms that night.

And what’s with the “annual opening”? Back in the 1940s, to prevent surströmming from being sold too early – presumably before it was fully rotten – the Swedish government passed a law forbidding its sale before the third Wednesday in August. And while the law is no longer on the books (even nanny-state Sweden has its limits), people still treat that third Wednesday as the official launch. So the little town of Edsåsdalen hosts a party the following weekend to celebrate and share this little delicacy. And, with Lars & Shideh, we were invited.

First, though, we had pre-dinner gin-and-tonics with Sven-Olaf and Renate, Edsåsdalen’s first couple. Sven-Olaf, you see, is a fifth-generation local whose great-great grandparents were some of the area’s first non-native settlers. His family once owned most of the land in the area, including the land on which Lars and Shideh’s house now stands, along with the one inn and pretty much everything else around. Their pre-dinner soiree included smoked moose and turn-of-the-(last) century paper napkins that had belonged to Sven-Olaf’s grandmother.

Pre-dinner drinks with Lars, Shideh, Sven-Olaf, and Renate

Then it was off to dinner in a little cabin (on land that Sven-Olaf and Renate own, of course) that functions as the town’s community center. As we walked up the steps to the cabin the smell was simply overpowering; it was all I could do to not gag. And that was outside still. Once inside the 30-or-so people already there were already chowing down. In that sense it was a strange kind of potluck. The several families all brought various dishes, as in potlucks I’m familiar with, but people didn’t really share their dishes. If you’re family brought a particular dish to go with the surströmming, you ate that dish. And, in a move that felt very much at home to this Minnesotan who grew up amidst a large Scandinavian population, when we got there at 7:05 people were already well into their meals. The event had, after all, been scheduled to start at 7:00. None of this “fashionably late” stuff going on here.

How was the surströmming? I can’t tell you, actually; I just couldn’t get over that smell. Mark was more adventurous, though, and said it was … OK. You eat it with potato and chopped onion and bread, so the taste is reasonably hidden. I should add that I wasn’t the only one who resisted the temptation. While Lars claims to genuinely like the stuff, Renate herself – a native German – gently declined to join. Fortunately even among surströmming aficionados, it’s only a small part of the full meal and there were lots of other great dishes – including a cloudberry cake Shideh made – to fill us up. Along with plenty of Aquavit (the local Scandinavian distilled drink) to wash it all down with.

The annual opening of surströmming isn’t just about eating rotten fish – there are lots of toasts and singing and general fun. This woman was a particularly entertaining part of the event.

Thus ends our time in the mountain house and our visit with Shideh & Lars. It was pretty much a perfect visit despite the weather. All that’s left is a quick overnight stop in Stockholm and then we’re off to the former Yugoslavia for a few weeks to explore more of the world we still haven’t seen. After four-plus years on the road it’s a little surprising just how much of it there still is!

The view from the mountain house. There are, apparently, real mountains back there but they were hidden the whole time we were there.

And the view to the lake off to the side a bit at sunset

Lars, Shideh, and Mark on our hike

I loved the sight of Shideh in her bright red rain jacket heading off through the fields

Me & Shideh

And another shot of us on the trail

Me & Mark down at the lake. We opted against going for a swim.

When we got down to the lake they showed us this little community spot where you can split some wood or use some life preservers if you’re headed off in a boat. Amazingly, the splitting maul and life preservers are just there for anyone to use … and no one steals them. Something about these Swedish socialist you have to love.

These fireweed plants are *everywhere*, adding brilliant color even on dreary days

They make pretty great flower arrangements, too

Lars’s creative and delicious herring dish

And finally Shideh at her architect’s workspace, where she’s developing plans for more houses in the area

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