Day 1- Stockholm to Helsinki, Temppeliaukio Kirkko
4.10am saw us up,alert and surprisingly okay. We were making the journey from Sweden to Finland today. I shuffled to the bathroom, half-expecting to see semi-naked guy again but I was sorely disappointed. We checked out while feeling sorry for the lonely night shift receptionist (Connect has a 24hr reception).
We waited for a bus just outside the hotel to take us to Telefonplan t-bana station and onwards to Centralen. From there, we got the Arlanda Express train. It was quite swanky.
Arlanda Airport was easy as pie. There is self check-in and security is fast. Boarding was easy and the airport staff zipping about the place on scooters was our morning entertainment. Slightly perturbed by the fact that my passport was not checked at any stage (I could have been a drug-dealing murderer!), I enjoyed the short and underbooked flight.
Once in Helsinki Airport, we got a Finnair bus to the main rail station and continued on our lumbering journey to our accommodation in Ramsinniemi. We hadn’t planned for the amount of snow that was on the ground (it was late March) and dragged our wheelie cases through snow drifts before reaching our spectacularly picturesque hotel, courtesy of Hotwire.
Extremely relieved to be free of our baggage,we got the train back into Helsinki and went to see Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the Rock Church. On the outside, the place was a pile of rocks and snow with a cross stuck on it. Nothing special. On the inside though, it was stunning. Interior carved from the rock, wood beams, plush purple pews and a giant bronze dome. We were lucky enough to arrive 15 minutes before it became available for public viewing. A small trickle of mass-goers exited and gazed at the tourists which vastly outnumbered them.
Most places had closed by the time we got back to the city centre, so we people-watched in a shopping centre for a while before having dinner in an Italian restaurant. After picking up some essentials (read: copious amounts of snacks), we headed back to Ramsinniemi.
We had purchased a day transport ticket, which was proving good value.
Once back at the hotel, we wandered the grounds for a while to take in the view.
Day 2- Suomenlinna and Ferry to Tallinn (Estonia)
We checked out and took lots of scenic pictures on the hotel grounds to bore people at home with. The water was solid. An early bird had built an igloo under the emergency buoyancy aid. One brave man was walking his dog on what is normally a deep lake.
Suomenlinna is a series of small islands just off the coast of Helsinki. (For Irish people: picture the Aran Islands). A regular ferry takes people on the short journey to the islands. Tickets are reasonably priced. (The islands are inhabited so it’s not exclusively a tourist service).
Suomenlinna was beautiful, but pretty treacherous in parts due to thick sheets of ice coating the paths and hills. The snow and ice melted over the course of the day and made the going easier. We walked on the fortress, witnessed the might of the Baltic Sea for ourselves and rambled over to the smaller islands (one of which is a naval training academy).
Many of the buildings were closed for winter and were quite decisively snowed in.
We got the ferry back and were entertained by the regular cries of “Wow Chiwawa!” by two small boys, as they delighted in the waves splashing the boat.
On Mannerheim, we stopped at an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet. We retrieved our luggage from the rail station and made our way to South Harbour, after some confusion about which harbour houses the ferry terminal to Tallinn. (The West houses the Stockholm ferry, the South the Tallinn and St. Petersburg lines. Of course, thinking about this now, this makes basic geographical sense).
We arrived at the airport-like terminal just in time to witness a massive brawl, reminiscent of traveller fights at home. Balls to the wall, everybody involved, an ever-growing smattering of blood on the ground.
About a dozen police officers broke them up while our taxi driver waved happily at us, completely oblivious to the violence. I laughed that a guy despondently dragging a crate of beer after him and sporting a bloody and broken nose was my last impression of Finland.
We boarded a raucous ship (the “Superstar”) after watching 3 teenage boys be escorted off the Baltic Princess, bound for Russia. We wondered if they were runaways or stowaways. We sat on a large leather couch outside the on-board perfume shop, with a view of the arcade games. Before the ship had even begun to rumble to life, a man took up residence at the poker machines and proceeded to play two games at once (one machine with each hand). The girls behind us shared a litre of white wine while, bizarrely, the Corrs (an Irish band) came on over the sound system. I traipsed over to the supermarket to stock up and accidentally bought carbonated water for what seemed like the hundredth time that trip. The motion of the ship threw me off-balance while waiting to pay. I returned to my seat, dizzy. (And fizzy. Badum-tish!)
The first Swede we saw was an Adonis. Tall and muscular, floppy white-blond hair and startlingly blue eyes. Turns out Alexander Skarsgaard is kind of an average joe. Landing in Skavsta airport, we got a flygbussarna to the city Terminalen. It took a little longer than anticipated and we briefly considered throwing ourselves out the window after half an hour of being bored to tears by business men and women talking in great depth about lipstick profit margins and growth projections. Unfortunately, the windows didn’t open wide enough.
When we got to the Terminalen I had a brief scuffle with an ATM, which I couldn’t insert my card into. A Japanese guy was having the same problem and between us we discovered that the ATM wanted us to put our cards in upside down, chip down. It’s the silly little things like that about travel that can really throw you. You get all the way to your destination only to be stumped by a mystifying lift or slightly different ATM. We crossed the road to the t-bana (tunnelbana, the stockholm underground train system) and proceeded to work out how to get to our accommodation in Alvsjo. We bought our tickets in the convenience shop (standard practise, there are no single ticket machines). Three trains later (we would later discover there was a commuter train we could take instead to make things simpler), we arrived and looked forward to laying our heads down. It was late and we were tired.
We were staying in the Connect Hotel in Alvsjo, courtesy of Hotwire. It’s a nice, if unusually-structured, hotel. The reception is on the third floor of what seems to be an office building and it doubles as a bar. We made quite the scene trudging in with our bags at 11 at night, edging past the people enjoying a beer after a day conducting business at the International Fair Centre (Stockholmsmassan) across the road. Almost exclusively frequented by Swedish business people, we stood out. However, the staff had perfect english and we were soon opening the door to our…eh,”compact” room. To be fair to the hotel, we knew the room was going to be small, but we still had a bit of laugh to ourselves upon seeing it for the first time.
We had bunkbeds and I, reliving my childhood, took the top one. The bed had been cleaned and fresh sheets were folded neatly on it, but it was not made. Obviously someone forgot, so I gamely began to dress the bed. I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to dress a top bunk, but it’s slightly difficult. Clinging to the stairs with a vice leg grip, I clumsily dressed it to my satisfaction. I went to sleep vaguely bitter that the wifi was restricted. (Not uncommon in Sweden, but a part of me dies when wifi signals stop passing through my body).
I like to plan a lot before trips, so the day isn’t wasted deciding what to do. That way you can adjust as you go if something catches your eye or you hear on the ground that you should give something a miss. However, my friend and I were a little overwhelmed by the amount of museums in Stockholm. I can safely say I have never heard of so many museums in the same city. So, we had a very loose plan for the next day. We decided to start in Gamla Stan.
8.15 start. We crawled out of bed, unjustifiably tired. I had a rather startling encounter with a half-naked gentleman in the unisex bathroom in the hall. Connect provided a nice complimentary breakfast which was pretty standard fare but nice and fresh. It was here I had my first introduction to intense swedish rye bread. It was cold outside and we sacrificed style for warmth, unlike a lot of the very fashionably-dressed Swedes. We got the t-bana to Gamla Stan and began exploring. We walked by the water over to City Hall, which is incredibly photogenic. We doubled back to see the Riksdag (parliament) and the Palace. We were in time to see the changing of the Royal Guard, which turned out to be pretty easy, as the ceremony was never-ending.
We agreed that the nearby Royal Armoury Museum was a good place to start. It’s obviously run by people who love history. There are three floors: the top is an interactive learning experience for kids (and childish adults), the middle is where the costumes and weapons are kept and the bottom houses some royal carriages. There was also a small Modern art exhibition taking place entitled “What you would do with the royals”. Artists had painted images of how they would spend the day with a particular royal. It was surprisingly light-hearted and funny. Perhaps the royals have a sense of humour?
The museum cost 80KR and was worth it, in my opinion. I got to see the blood of Gustavus Adolphus and the gun that killed him.
(I realise I may sound oddly excited about something so morbid, but I spent a significant part of my history degree writing about GA and to see his clothes and see that he really was real was quite the experience). My friend enjoyed the gorgeous Afghan daggers and gifts from foreign dignitaries on display.
While we gathered some free maps by the door, the Royal Guard passed outside the window.
Our next stop was the Nobel Museet. A very nice man let us have the student rate even though it’s been a while since we were students, so entry with audio-tour was 80KR. I went in knowing next to nothing about the Nobel Prize and came out thoroughly educated. It has a fascinating history, from Mr. Nobel himself to the current-day winners.
I hadn’t know that the same person could be nominated over a number of years, nor did I know that Mr. Nobel insisted rather cryptically that all the prizes should be awarded in Sweden, except for the Peace Prize, which must always take place in Oslo. It was interesting and exciting to hear about the developments in physics, chemistry, literature and peace. The special exhibit at the time was dedicated to Marie Curie and there was a large French contingent there to see her. (They have enthusiastically claimed her, despite her being Polish). I enjoyed the museum quite a lot. From reading online, not everyone shared my favourable opinion so I guess it’s a judgement call.
I went to the bathroom before leaving and had just sat down when the bathroom was suddenly filled with the booming voice of Nobel-winner W.B.Yeats, telling me to “COME AWAY, O HUMAN CHILD!”. At the time, it was un-nerving. In retrospect, hilarious. When we were handing back our headphones, we noticed the royal guard passing outside the window yet again and wondered if they ever just sat down for a while. On the way out, the automatic door revolted and smacked me bodily in the shoulder. As I stumbled around trying to regain my balance, the very nice man ran out exclaiming “my god, that’s never happened before!”. Taking it as a sign that the museum had “tapped me” as a future Nobel Prize winner (for Literature, obviously), I strode out happily. My friend theorised that it could also have been the museum forcibly ejecting me. I prefer my idea.
We went for a quick meal in a tacky margarita bar nearby. There we were treated to the dulcet tones of Celine Dion. On Repeat. Trust me, that doesn’t help the food go down. My friend browsed for souvenirs while I went my own way (I have an aversion to souvenirs because I sell them) and looked in some shops selling local art and craftwork. The streets of Gamla Stan are an attraction in themselves and make for a nice, soothing walk.
We reluctantly headed back to the Gamla Stan t-bana station, while admiring the slushie-like appearance of the half-frozen water. I had worked out that we only needed to get one train (a commuter, outside of the t-bana system) to get back to Alvsjo but my friend insisted we go for the 3-train option again because it was tried and tested. It’s the one frustrating aspect of travelling with someone who is overly cautious but great in every other way. It was rush-hour, but we gritted our teeth and it wasn’t too long before we were back in our beloved Alvsjo. Not before hearing one young Swedish girl’s plaintive cry on the t-bana: “JUSTIN!!! (Bieber) JUSTIN, FOREVER!!”. Once back in Connect, I utilised the sole computer available for guests in the lobby. It has a 10-minute limit but I figured that would be lots of time to check emails and do basic stuff. Unfortunately, for some inexplicable reason, it took 4 minutes for it to load a single page. I thought my head would explode at the slowness of it and I gave up.
Back in the room, we made plans for the next day and watched “Tunnelbanen” on Kanal 5. It follows the t-bana security and medics responding to calls from the public about incidents in the stations. There were no english subtitles and we didn’t understand any of it, but I still consider it to be the best show ever made.
Another 8.15 start, extended to 8.45 due to laziness. I met the semi-naked man again in the bathroom for what was becoming a semi-regular, semi-naked encounter. We had heard good things about Skansen (a large open-air museum and zoo in Djurgarden) and decided to brave it, despite the cold. We got the train to centralen and a tram from there. (Stockholm train tickets are transferrable to connections within a certain time frame). It’s worth mentioning that the transport authority is extremely vigilant about fare dodgers. We had our tickets checked every single time.
Skansen seemed only half-open when we got there, which we had expected. It’s very much a summer-orientated idea and a lot of attractions were closed. We learned more than we ever wanted to know about tobacco and matches in the museum of the same name. (I can still smell the dried tobacco leaves). We headed off in search of some nicotine-free animals. We were in luck.
Owls, wolves, wolverines, foxes, bears, otters, seals, bison, deer, goats, horses, boars and reindeer were all in our crosshairs. Skansen was very quiet, with only a brave few taking on the ice and the cold. It meant we got an unobstructed view of the animals. The bears had come out of hibernation early and were the stars of the show. It was some time before I realised they were ice-skating. Ice-skating bears, folks.
Apart from the animals, we took in a traditional Sami village, some nice windmills and great views of Stockholm. Flourescent children on school tours belted fearlessly through the ice as haggard teachers slid awkwardly after them.
We started to get “properly” cold after a so we crossed the road to the Nordiska Museet (Nordic Museum). Before we got in the door, I gave the most complicated directions anyone has ever given to some lost Russian tourists. They were using a Cyrillic map and, even though I can read Cyrillic, the place-names were in Swedish and made no sense to me. In broken Russian, English and French (don’t ask), I managed to get them where they wanted to go.
The museum building itself is very impressive and attractive. We got a free audio tour and free postcards. The audio tour proved to be our downfall. It gives directions at first but then leaves you to it. We kept coming into exhibits “backwards” for the audio tour, so the audio would be in the wrong order. We eventually gave up on it. The museum is very comprehensive but wasn’t quite to my taste. They had one or two great photography exhibits on the ground floor, which I really enjoyed. But the focus of the rest of the museum was very heavily on textiles and fashion and the design of living (furniture design through the years, etc). It got a bit tedious at times. However, the giant stature of King Gustavus Vasa in the foyer is well worth seeing. Colourful and imposing, it’s quite the achievement.
After an hour or two, we headed back to the city on the tram. We browsed the shops for a while. I made a killing in H&M and Gina Tricot, finally procuring some reasonably-priced earmuffs. An item I would never consider wearing at home for fear of looking ridiculous, I embraced the earmuff in Stockholm. We got the J-train back to Alvsjo, where we ate in the hotel. I had a nice salad with Cheese Paj (Pie, kind of like a quiche) with a glass of wine, which was the deal of the day (105KR). My friend ordered a burger and chips and was happy with her choice. For all its quirks, the food in Connect is very good and the staff are extremely pleasant.
I showered in the disturbingly spotless bathroom on the hall (no sign of semi-naked man). I caved and got a 24hr internet connection, timing it so I would have internet until we left for Helsinki. We planned to visit the National History Museum the next day.
8.15 start again. We got the t-bana to Universtitet to go to the Natural History Museum. We were going to see some dinosaurs. The museum was good, if a little lax on English (or Russian, etc) translations in some of the temporary exhibits. There were a few quirky rooms like the “Animals in Music” room, featuring album covers involving animals. The dinosaur, evolution and human body exhibits were all great, and positively teeming with kids. I discovered that I have low blood pressure, can jump as far as a frog and have *some* lung capacity. (My swedish let me down in my understanding of that result).
There was a pretty poor food selection in the canteen so if you plan a trip, bring snacks.
After a few hours, we returned to the hotel, exhausted. We stocked up on supplies in the adjacent supermarket and I indulged in some online browsing. We needed an early night for our extremely early start to get our morning flight to Helsinki from Arlanda airport.