Always a lovely vista of architecture and the sea

I’m not sure what exactly these guys were up to, but they were pretty serious about it

Great food in Stockholm

The last stop on our eight-week summer escape was in Stockholm, where we spent three days before catching our flight back home. I think Stockholm is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. It’s a city of islands and waterways chock full of great architecture, public art, and museums galore.

We did a pretty good job of playing tourist here. We visited important churches and a couple museums. I even took a tour of City Hall. And of course we found ample time to sit in parks and read and people watch.

We also reveled in our ability to find great food here. Stockholm lived up to our general experience in Scandinavia — that the food is exceptional, especially in the capitals. With one exception: Norway. Looking back, we had little of the stunning fare in Norway that we find in Stockholm or Copenhagen or Helsinki. There were no food pics on our blog post from Oslo.

So that wraps up a great summer adventure for us. Now we get a month at home in New York before we take off again for Germany, where we will experience Oktoberfest and spend a couple weeks traveling around Bavaria. See you there!

A stunning architectural detail

Cool public art

Jim checks out the cool public art

Shideh recommended this amazing tapas place. Diet starts tomorrow!

At the Moderna Museet I saw a placard on the wall for a painting of a Greek entablature by Roy Lichtenstein. But there was no painting. I couldn’t figure out what was going on until I looked way up because, of course, it’s where it would belong on a Greek temple.

This is almost a stereotype, but Jim was pretty thrilled with his beautiful plate of Swedish meatballs and lingonberries

Even the coffee is beautiful

Mark & I with Lars & Shideh at the Tännforsen waterfalls, the biggest in Sweden

Five years ago, almost to the day, we visited our friends Lars and Shideh in their house in the Swedish mountains. They built the house as a winter vacation home so they could ski but discovered they love it year-round so now it’s their primary residence. We loved our stop five years ago (just as we loved visiting them in Hong Kong before that) and loved it again this time. Great hiking, great food, great friends.

First up was the train ride from Trondheim. I mean, who knew you could catch a train from Trondheim, Norway, due west to Edsåsdalen, Sweden? Ok, you can’t, but you can get a train to the nearby town of Åre, a ski resort of some 3,200 people. After our experiences in Norway so far we were a little leery of the trip, which would require a train change when we got to the Swedish border, but it was the perfect European train ride we love: comfortable, fast, and timely. With great scenery as an added bonus.

Yup, reindeer. We did a long hike up to the peak of a mountain behind their cabin. Lars was surprised that we didn’t see any reindeer, but then when we stopped for lunch near the peak four of them came by, circling the little alpine lake where we sat. I’d never seen reindeer in the wild and was wildly impressed with their beauty and majesty. And I particularly appreciated their willingness to walk along the ridge so we could get this great view.

Once there we did the things one does in the Swedish mountains in the summer: we hiked, we ate, we poked around in Åre, we went to the biggest waterfalls in Sweden, we watched reindeer gambol about, we watched Shideh cook for us. Anticipating our imminent return to Manhattan after one last stop in Stockholm I found myself wanting to hold onto every quiet, peaceful, cool, empty moment there. I love New York and I love our home there, but I know that in a few days a Swedish mountain retreat will feel almost unimaginable.

Shideh and Mark high up in the mountain, with Lars off in the distance. On the very right of the picture you can vaguely see the houses way down in the valley where we started.

Mark on the hike. The weather would alternate between overcast, windy, cold, and wet and then – always briefly – a bit of warm sunshine.

When Lars suggested going to the waterfall I thought it would be … OK. I mean, we’ve seen a lot of waterfalls. This one was pretty great though and definitely worth the trip.

It was impressive

The four of us

The two of them

That’s me down there, trying not to fall in

OK, that’s enough waterfall pictures

Lunch our first day was in a cute café in a very cute hotel in Åre. There is a lot of Arctic char in the region and it is always a treat.

One last photo from the top of the mountain

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