Sweden was a nice change of pace after my marathon expedition
in Norway. Cheaper prices, better food, pay phones as far as the eye could
see… It was glorious!
My first clear impression after getting off the train from Oslo
was the escalators. The train station escalators were so fast that while riding
up, you could actually get a little air when the thing leveled off at the
top. I zipped up to street level and acquired some Swedish kroner at the nearest
minibank. The exchange rate here was hovering at about eight Swedish kroner
to the dollar. Another conversion that I was too dumb to do in my head. These
odd number exchange rates made me very thankful for the calculator in my Timeport.
I used it constantly while I was in Scandinavia. I knew things would be easier
once I moved into Euro territory. With the near one-to-one Euro to dollar
conversion, converting prices was going to be infinitely easier. Though with
the speed that the dollar was falling, it would probably be closer to something
like .7 Euros to the dollar by the time I hit Germany. Stupid economy.
Due to poor planning I did not try to secure a hostel in Stockholm
until the day before my arrival. Little did I know that Stockholm was such
a free-wheeling, happening place. There was not one single open bed
in any of the hostels in Stockholm for the two days that I planned to be there.
I couldn’t believe it. I verified this lack of bed vacancies at two
different hostel search engines before I threw in the towel and started hunting
for the cheapest hotel room I could find. The Ibis hotel was a comparative
bargain to the hotel prices in Norway, but it was still a little beyond my
budget. Unless I wanted to camp out on the beach (probably not good for the
Office), I had little choice so I booked a room for two nights. Performing
this task under duress, at the last minute caused me to briefly space out
on my geographical need to have lodgings near the city center. After being
literally thrown into the subway by the high speed escalators, I was able
to find the subway to the Ibis in just a few minutes. Finding the subway stop
took much longer. I scanned all of the stops in the Stockholm central area
repeatedly and could not find the right stop. Then it hit me, I had absolutely
no reassurance that my hotel was even in Stockholm itself! I skimmed over
the map in ever widening circles out from the city center and found my stop.
Second to the last stop on the bloody rail line, out by the airport!!! Arg!
I had been duped! When I thought back to the moment that I was booking my
room, the conspicuous lack of location information on the web site was suddenly
a glaring warning sign. When one is usually searching for accommodations online
in European cities, one often encounters such phrases as “Five minute
subway ride from the city center” or even better “Ten minute walk
from the bar district!” The Ibis had no such claims on their web site
and it was immediately clear as to why. Even during non-rush hour time frames,
it was a horrendous 25 minute subway ride. And if that weren’t enough
of a pain in the ass/back/legs/feet, the hotel was a 10 minute walk from the
subway station! In my humble opinion, bait-and-switch, false advertising establishments
that are no where near the goddamn city center should not be allowed
to advertise on the em-effing Stockholm city lodging web sites!!! Grrrr.
Needles to say, I arrived at the Ibis gripped in a total hissy
fit and drenched in the usual sweat from having to haul my bags for more than
two blocks. I was not kind to the reception people. Not only was I exhausted,
starving and filthy, but while they were processing my arrival, a portly German
chick came tottering up and totally distracted the entire desk crew from helping
me with her inane requests. I have no idea what she needed, because my German
sucks, but compared to my needs at that moment, I think it’s
safe to say any issues she had did not warrant priority over me getting my
By the time I got settled and cleaned up, it was far to late
to make the journey back into the city for a little adventure seeking. It
had been a long day. I was up after only about three hours of sleep at 5:00AM
to catch my flight from Stavanger to Oslo, then I walked around Oslo for six
hours, then I took the five hour train ride to Stockholm, then it took me
about an hour to find my way to the hotel. My feet were toast and I was exhausted.
I ate a quick appetizer in the hotel bar and went straight to bed.
The next day, knowing that my time was limited in Stockholm
– I was leaving for Göthenborg the following morning - I dragged
myself out of bed early and headed out to absorb the city. Stockholm is much
lager and hectic than Oslo. It is also dirtier and more difficult to navigate.
My first stop was the library to check email and make arrangements for Göthenborg.
After that I floored it and covered the city like a madman.
Stockholm is made up of seven separate islands, hence water
related activities make up a huge part of their identity. Stockholm used to
have a huge annual “Water Festival,” highlighting their unique
cityscape, but it has since been discontinued due to lack of participation
by those good-for-nothing locals. The entire length of Sweden’s east
coast is pock marked with more than 24,000 islands that are collectively called
the Archipelago. Sweden has parlayed boats tours of the Archipelago into a
cash-cow tourist attraction with numerous ferries leaving daily to wind through
the islands and channels.
My first stop was an obvious tourist trap, but it was screaming
for my attention. Anyone who is even casually acquainted with me knows that
I love ice. I need ice in every beverage that I consume, year round
to satisfy my oral fixation. So, when I opened up the Stockholm tourist guide
and saw the Ice Bar, I knew it was the mothership calling me home.
Located in the lobby of the Nordic Sea Hotel, the Ice Bar had
been in business for just over a year. Everything in the bar, including the
bar, was made of ice. The glasses, the tables, the benches, the art on the
wall… all sculpted in ice. I was in heaven. They keep the room at about
20° Fahrenheit to prevent everything from falling apart, so you are required
to don a furry, muumuu with attached mittens before you enter the Ice Bar.
I learned later that this is just as much for the safety of the Ice Bar as
it is to keep you from literally freezing your ass off on an ice bench. The
specially design Dutch muumuus not only keep you warm, but they insolate your
body heat to keep you from inadvertently raising the temperature in the Ice
Bar and melting the chair that you’re sitting in. This made perfect
sense to me. With my metabolism and higher than average body temperature,
I’m like a walking, unlicensed furnace. Ask anyone who has ever had
the pleasure of sharing a bed with me. Even if I have just one knee in contact
with you, I will heat you up to an uncomfortable level in just a few minutes.
A couple of customers like me, left unchecked, could put the Ice Bar out of
business in one afternoon. Despite these careful measures, everything in the
Ice Bar is replaced every six month. They like to keep their ice nice and
clear and even with their precautions, the ice eventually suffers a freezer
burn of sorts that makes it cloudy and much less attractive.
There’s a $15 cover charge to enter the Ice Bar, which
also buys you your first drink. I chose the Absolute Apple. Absolute Vodka
is the one and only sponsor for the Ice Bar, so their name is prominently
displayed everywhere. All drinks are served in thick, square, hollowed-out,
hand-made ice “glasses.” (pictured) I was so preoccupied with
taking pictures that I impulsively grabbed my drink with my bare hands when
it was served. This is not good. Not only is it slippery, but as you may have
guessed, it is very, very extremely, shockingly cold. Being the quick study
that I am, I went out of my way to don my mittens whenever I wanted to touch
my drink after that.
Knowing that I was going to write about this place ad nauseum,
I took many pictures. Too many pictures. Two groups of people came
and went before I even took a sip of my drink. It felt weird to be drinking
vodka at 3:00 in the afternoon, but my early arrival was by design. If you
are planning to visit the Ice Bar at night, you need to have a reservation,
preferably made weeks in advance. The Ice Bar is a hugely popular destination
not only for us lame tourists, but also for hoitty toitty, post-business meeting
outings and entertaining important out-of-town guests. Groups are booked in
30 minute intervals. This may seem like a very short time to be herded in
and out of the place, but to be honest, once you’ve been in the Ice
Bar for 20 minutes and the cold starts to get to you, it starts to loose it’s
appeal in a hurry. I was in jeans, a t-shirt and my sandals that day. Even
with my freakishly warm natural body temperature, I was soon uncomfortably
cold. This was mostly due to me running around without my mittens on, taking
pictures and screwing around with the bartender and the other patrons. Once
I realized that my toes were turning purple, I finished my drink and got the
Hell, Norway out of there.
Little did I know that this was just the beginning of my education
about the Ice Bar and Destination Kiruni, the company behind the Ice Bar.
I hadn’t noticed on my sprint into the place, but there was a 10 minute
long video playing in the lobby that chronicled the origin of the Ice Bar.
I cranked up the volume and waited for the video to reset.
Apparently, the Ice Hotel predated the Ice Bar in ice themed
destinations. Established in 1989, the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjarvi, Sweden (waaaay
up north) was the flagship to subsequent ice-related enterprises. What started
out as a small ice dwelling the size of a large garage has evolved into an
annually constructed 66 room hotel with a friggin’ wedding chapel! I
hear they are putting in racquetball courts next year. Just kidding.
The Ice Hotel gets an alarming amount of business every winter.
I love ice, don’t get me wrong, but given the choice between staying
in what amounts to a meat locker and going to Ibiza, you can bet your sweet
little ass that I’d choose the beach every time. People come from all
over the world to stay, get married and contract hypothermia at the Ice Hotel
before it is abandon each April, so that Mother Nature can reclaim it. Then
the following winter, they rebuild it all over again. The water/ice in the
area provides an ideal environment for the harvesting of perfect, clear ice.
When they aren’t constructing the Ice Hotel or manufacturing ice related
paraphernalia for the Ice Bar, Destination Kiruni keeps a team of artists
on hand for ice sculpture orders from around the world. I would write another
paragraph about how totally bizarre this whole endeavor is if I weren’t
from Minnesota and know full well, that if they had the means, some Minnesotan
would conceive of the same wacky idea sooner or later.
Once I had gotten the feeling back in my extremities, I pushed
on into Stockholm’s shopping district. They have a mammoth fruit market
going on in the square in front of the Stockholm concert hall. After admiring
the cockring that someone had lovingly attached to the member of the male,
nude statue in front of the concert hall (pictured), I noticed that this area
also seemed to be one of the designated hang-outs for the Stockholm street
hustlers. In the span of five minutes, I ran across two lawless games of “Find
the Red Ball” running, consisting of a guy with a small tarp with three
matchbook covers, trying to convince people to lay down money for the chance
to guess which matchbook had the red ball underneath. It was almost laughably
predictable. The guy had an easy-to-pick-out wingman serving a dual role as
his lookout and lucky player. His responsibility was to keep an eye out for
the authorities in between occasionally dropping some cash to take a guess
(usually guessing correctly, imagine that?) to get the betting going with
the rubes standing around watching. After all these years, this game still
attracts it’s share of knobs who get predictably robbed whenever it’s
their turn to try. I watched this public mugging for a while before moving
on for lunch.
I decided to take in the local culture and get something native
for lunch, so I stopped at a kebob place. The Arabic kebob places are so common
in Scandinavia these days that they might as well drop the charade and adopt
kebobs as their national dish. I ordered the “beef” kebob in rice.
It was surprisingly good, though I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t
beef. Whatever it was, I was satisfied and that’s what counts when you’re
on the road.
After getting my fill of the shopping district, I made my way
to the Old City. This is the isolated area of Stockholm (water pretty much
surrounds it) that has survived modern city planning. Much like the equivalent
Norwegian areas, the cobblestone streets are barely wider than the width of
your average yak-drawn cart and the structures are small and cramped. The
micro-apartments and businesses in this area do very well, despite the intimidating
stature of the modern Swedes. Three to four hundred years ago, when these
structures were first built, the Swedes were standing not-so-tall at an average
height of about 5’-3”. Actually, this is a wild guess, but judging
from the height of the door frames in these buildings, I can’t be too
far off. These days, from my vantage point, the Swedes are among the tallest
people on Earth. It could just be my over-active imagination (it usually is),
but it seems to me that the average Swedish female is about 5’-11”
and the guys are well over 6’-2”. I’m only 5’-9”
at the best of times (i.e. first thing in the morning before my spine telescopes
down to about 5’-7½”), so I feel like a total dwarf walking
around Sweden. The apartments in the Old City are among the most coveted in
Stockholm, despite that it’s residents probably could hand wash their
ceilings flat footed and they probably have to take out insurance policies
against head injuries suffered while walking through the thresholds from one
room to the next.
The Old City is also the home of the Swedish Royal Palace. Much
larger and more ornate than Norway’s palace, but with the same pathetic
security of a lone teenager guarding the door. I was pretty sure that I could
take him bare handed. Anyone need some royal jewels?
By the time I had finished crisscrossing the Old City, it was
getting to be about 8:00. Time to start bar hopping. I kept moving south from
the Old City, which meant crossing the bridge into the Södermalm neighborhood.
This area of Stockholm is much more relaxed and quiet than the city center.
Almost every bar and restaurant has some degree of outdoor seating that they
unfold for the summer so the streets, squares and sidewalks are overrun with
people during the dinner hour. After tip-toeing through a restaurant, perched
high above the city, for the requisite panoramic, photo-stitch assisted shot
of the cityscape (pictured), I wandered into the café and pub district.
With the help of a few ciders, I started accosting the locals and asking them
specific questions about what they loved and hated about their city. I got
similar answers from many of them. They roundly loved the beauty of the city.
Some thought that the city center dwellers were too snobby, but otherwise
they thought that the Stockholmers were friendly. I got one lone comment about
the subway system being unreliable. This person had obviously never spent
any length of time in the U.S. I’ll concede that there are several U.S.
cities with public transport that is so efficient that it makes owning your
own car completely unnecessary, but the rest of us Gringos know better. My
own Minneapolis has the worst public transportation in the Western Hemisphere.
Compared to that, Stockholm was a utopia of transportation solutions.
I also got several predictable negative comments about how dark
and miserable the winters are. This was one point that I could empathize with.
Those of us from the northern parts of the U.S. know that Seasonal Affected
Disorder (S.A.D.) is diagnosed more often than snow-shovel elbow. On a personal
note, S.A.D. is directly responsible for my annual drop in energy level and
desire to leave my house after 6:00PM between January and March, which eventually
led to my well-tuned appreciations for NBA basketball and my incredibly comfortable
At the urging of some locals, I went to a place called the Dancing
Dingo later in the evening. What I expected would be a hangout for Australian
expats, turned out to be a very hip bar/restaurant combo. After admiring the
menu, I decided to sit down for dinner and ordered the grilled spicy chicken
with risotto and red wine sauce. It was by far the best meal I had had on
my trip up to that point. It was also the first time that I had seen the word
“risotto” in almost a month. Considering that I had been in Norway
up until recently, none of this came as any surprise. Max, the Dingo’s
chef, was definitely over-qualified for his job. I learned this and more while
chatting with his beautiful girlfriend who was sitting across from me at my
outdoor table. I gave her the now well scripted quiz about Stockholm as I
gulped down her boyfriend’s creation, happily moaning with every mouthful.
I think the moans frightened her as she eventually ran inside, complaining
of being too cold. Yep, I still got it with the ladies!
Once I had snarfed down my dinner it was after 10:00PM and I
made the prudent decision to start my journey back out to the Ibis. I had
a ticket for the 9:00AM bus to Göthenborg in the morning and I needed
Go to Göthenborg