Sweden

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

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.

For me, life doesn’t get much better than this: sunshine, a beach, a kindle, my Twins cap, and a pink shirt

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