I’d Put My Stock in Stockholm

Stockholm, Sweden! THIS is what I expect when I think “Scandinavia.” From a distance, Old Town Stockholm was beautiful and welcoming. Even though the crew of the ship told us we wouldn’t be able to walk to town from where we docked, it was only about a 30 minute walk with a dedicated, color coded walking path from the ship right to the heart of everything. Our friends and cruising companions Ben and Caitlin had no other tours scheduled, so they joined us for another one of my (okay, the internet’s) self-guided walking tours.

Good morning Stockholm!

Good morning Stockholm!

It was bright and early, and Gamla Stan – Old Town – was just waking up, so we didn’t have to contend with too many other tourists at first. It also meant that several things weren’t open yet. That was okay, though; Stockholm is easily appreciated from its streets. At this early hour, we had views of the Royal Palace, Gustav Adolf’s Torg and the 19th Century Swedish Parliament building all to ourselves. Down by the waterfront is even a statue reminiscent of Philadelphia’s statue of Rocky Balboa. There is also a museum of Medieval Stockholm which we opted to pass on, not realizing that admission was free.  (Later on our friends told us it was worth stopping there, so go if you have the chance!)

After Mynttorget (Coin Square) where the original Swedish mint building still stands, was the Riddarhuset, or House of Nobility. In the 17th Century, Swedish aristocracy would meet here. Today it’s a place where people try to figure out which direction their vague walking tour is sending them in next.

Eventually we figured out how to get to Riddarholmen – a small island of medieval buildings dominated by the giant Riddarholmskyrkan church and its giant cast-iron spire. We walked a quick loop of the tiny island before continuing on to the Stortorget or Great Square, pausing on the way to get thrown out of the Lady Hamilton Hotel. It turns out this exclusive, ultra-expensive hotel frowns on non-guests using their restroom. (Stephanie managed it anyway.) So, in retaliation, there are no photos on our world famous blog which is read by literally tens of readers. Take that, Lady Hamilton!

The Stortorget seems like a place to relax and meet up with friends now, but this plaza was the site of the Stockholm Blood Bath of 1520 when Christian II of Denmark beheaded 80 Swedish noblemen and displayed a “pyramid” of their heads in the square. On a more tranquil note, this square is now where the Swedish Academy meets to choose the Nobel Prize winners in literature each year.

706 Great Square plus Segelbaums and Ben & Caitlin

Great Square plus Segelbaums and Ben & Caitlin

707 Swedish Academy

Swedish Academy

The Storkyrkan is one of the most important churches in Stockholm. Need to hold a royal wedding or a coronation? This is where you do it. The church goes all the way back to the 1200s, and contains Royal pews where royalty seats their royal selves during services, as well as a giant sculpture of St. George Slaying the Dragon.

After winding through half a dozen more tiny old alleyways, we came upon Mårten Trotzigs Gränd – the narrowest street in Stockholm.  It’s narrow, that at the top of the street, there is a stairway you can span with your arms.

The narrowest street in Stockholm

The narrowest street in Stockholm

The German Church of Stockholm (Tyska Kyrkan) and a pedestrian shopping street called Västerlånggatan brought our tour to an end at Järntorget – a square where people were once publicly punished for their infractions. Having committed no crimes, we settled for a photo op with Swedish poet Evert Taube.

Swedish poet Evert Taube

Swedish poet Evert Taube

Back on board the Serenade of the Seas, we found that Stockholm wasn’t finished with us yet. We headed on deck for one of the most beautiful sail-aways ever.

The scenery as we headed out to sea was strikingly reminiscent of Alaska with little pine-covered islands all over the place. I kept expecting to see bears and eagles just like in the Pacific Northwest.

The ship set up stations outside serving hot soup in bread bowls to ward off the chill in the air.  Eventually, it started snowing on us was we sailed. So naturally, we did the only thing we could – we threw on our bathing suits, and went hot-tubbing in the snow!

771 Hot tubbing in the snow

Hot-tubbing in the snow

There was nothing left to do but get dressed up for formal night. Oh, and appreciate the Swedish candy we purchased. You didn’t think we forgot, did you?

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Finn-tastic Finland

Having never been to Scandinavia before, we were pretty excited to set foot in the land of Vikings and legos.*  We got up and out the ships doors before 9am.  The weather was a cold 38 degrees Fahrenheit but the sun was out and it wasn’t windy at all when we started walking from the pier into town.  As tour guide for the day, Elliott was armed with maps and a walking guide on the Kindle.  As if that weren’t enough, there were signs pointing into the center of town.  But Elliott had better ideas – he saw a tall steeple and was convinced it must be our destination.  He guided us towards it using only his eyes and intuition!

(*Elliott’s note, as that’s all of his general knowledge about Scandinavia.)

Okay, so in the end it turned out the steeple wasn’t the one he thought it was, and so we wandered a bit, eventually finding our way into town.  As we like to put it, we sort of “spiraled” in to our destination, which was the starting point of our walking tour.  We passed Kauppatori Market Square on the way but didn’t really shop; we figured we could always come back if we wanted to and had time.  The spiraling into town was also okay because we found all sorts of cool things on the way, not the least of which was snow!

In addition, we came across the Uspenski Cathedral at the top of a hill.  It was of Russian Orthodox denomination, gorgeous inside and out, and wasn’t even on the walking tour!  We went inside to warm up and admire its beauty.

We left the warmth of the church to go back outside and finally begin our walking tour.

The snow had stopped but then started again in force before we even got all the way down the hill to the harbor.

The cold was so intense, we found ourselves ducking into whatever places we could find just to get warm for a few minutes at a time.  We found a dark hallway in an old office building, had hot chocolate in a Finnish McDonald’s, and pretended to read Finnish books in a local bookstore.  (Was it obvious we were imposters?)

But the snow made it all worth it – stopping and starting, I got excited every single time.  It was May, after all!!

611a Loving the snow

Loving the snow

611 It's beginning to look a lot like Christmas

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas

We carried on in through our Winter Wonderland.  We saw some “official” houses, then finished our walking tour with the art museum, national theater and train station.  I was thrilled to see that the National Theater was decorated with carvings of owls, and Elliott was thrilled to see the Art-Deco Helsinki Railway Station which was used in the movie “Batman.”

The Helsinki Train Station

The Helsinki Train Station

After our tour, we had just a few more stops.  We found the local Hard Rock so we could buy a guitar pin for a friend.  Then, on our way to the Temppeliaukio Church, we found some giraffes hanging out on a balcony, and Santa Clause!  (Santa, at least, seemed quite appropriate given all the snow.)

Our last stop for the day was the Temppeliaukio Church, also known as the Rock Church.  This church was carved out of a rock hillside, and has some of the best acoustics in the world.  The ceiling is a giant coil of copper wire – literally miles of it!  The dome spans 70 feet and is covered on the interior by 15 miles of Finnish copper wire.

Our day in Finland had quickly come to a close.  We arrived at the ship just in the nick of time – having had to jog a couple times there at the end!  We never thought we’d be able to say we walked a snow-covered gang plank.  It had snowed FIVE times on us in the one day!

 
After we appreciated the majestic sight of our ship in the snow, there was nothing left to do but check out our haul of Finnish candy before we returned to our floating, Baltic home.

Tiptoe Through the Tulips

Amsterdam was the last port of call on this transatlantic sailing that we had visited before.  Originally I thought we might not even do anything in Amsterdam, as we had spent several days there last time and had done everything I thought we wanted to do.  That was before Stephanie remembered that the Netherlands are famed for their tulips, however, and it turned out that we were going to be there around the right time for their big show!  We were a little late, but due to a colder-than-usual spring, the tulips were still blooming.

The place to see tulips is a botanical garden called Keukenhof featuring over 7 million blooming tulips.  But taking a bus there is the boring way to do it, and we don’t do boring things.  (Unless you count filing taxes.  That’s pretty boring.)  Instead, we took a train from Amsterdam about 15 minutes to the town of Haarlem.  From there we rented bicycles for the 40km round trip to Keukenhof.

But before we could be on our way, we had to run the gamut of silly little problems of the sort that crop up when you’re doing something new for the first time.  To begin with, the (somewhat brusque) bike rental guy couldn’t tell us how to get to Keukenhof, so it was off to a bookstore to buy a map of the area.  Back at the bike rental shop, he then told us he needed a €100 cash deposit.  Couldn’t you have told us that the first time, dude?

In no time at all we were on our way – to getting lost.  We thought we were following the verbal directions we were given by several different people, but we kept going in circles. At least Haarlem is a pretty town!  At last we found the road we needed, and we were headed south.  The Netherlands take their cyclists very seriously, and we had two lane bike paths that were somehow routed to get around the automotive traffic circles without having to stop for any cars!  We even had our own traffic lights.  The best part was how often cars yielded to us.  So different from some other places we’ve ridden.

 

The other nice thing about riding through the Dutch countryside is how pretty the scenery is.  In addition to Downton Abbey’s stunt double of a house, we passed plenty of tulip fields.  Because we were there so late in the season, most of the fields had been beheaded.  It turns out that the bulb is the valuable commodity, not the flower.  And so the flowers are chopped off the stems so the bulbs can be sold. Still, some of the tulips had escaped their fate, and were blooming prettily for us.

Stephanie's tulip dream has come true

Stephanie’s tulip dream has come true

 

At last we arrived at Keukenhof along with some 30 tour buses, eleventy billion bicycles and what seemed like half the population of Beijing.  Keukenhof, however, is so big (almost 80 acres) that it really didn’t feel all that crowded inside.  The tulip displays were beautiful with so many varieties we had never even seen before.  There was also an orchid display, a flower carpet and even a wind-powered windmill.  Take a look….

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing the tulips in Holland was something that Stephanie has wanted to do for decades, and was really special for her.  Even I found myself getting all excited about them.  Not bad for a non-flower guy.

After retracing our bike and train steps, we found that we had some time to spare so, we thought we’d walk around downtown Amsterdam.  Whoa!  If we thought Keukenhof was crowded, it was nothing compared to Amsterdam itself.  After about five minutes, we decided we’d had enough and headed back to the ship.

 

If you’re planning on visiting Amsterdam, let me offer you two pieces of advice.  First, don’t go during the height of tourist season unless you like crowds of slow-moving people all following someone carrying a flag.  And second, there’s something a bit fishy about the “Coffee Shops” they have there.  As you walk past them, they smell less like fresh brewed coffee, and more like a Neil Young concert I once attended.  Just sayin…

No France For You!

The next port of call on our trans-Atlantic was Le Havre, France; or so we thought.  We had been excited to go see the beaches of Normandy.  We even watched a documentary a week before the cruise in anticipation!  Unfortunately, the port workers in France had other designs.  They were on strike, as were the pilot boat operators, and so we could not dock there.  Instead, we went to Dover, England – home of the famous White Cliffs of Dover.

119 The White Cliffs of Dover

The White Cliffs of Dover

120 I can see why they're famous

I can see why they’re famous

Dover turned out to be a charming little town.  After spending a few hours in the library using their WiFi, I dragged Stephanie off for that most important of British traditions: fish and chips.  The way to find the best food anywhere you go is to ask the locals, so we did, and we were pointed to a little take-away joint that apparently wins awards for its fish and chips.  This was one of those food experiences where I was tempted to go back for more despite being full – simply because it tasted amazing.

We tooled around the town exploring shops and parks and admiring the quaint architecture and how the streets all seem to curve in that oh-so-British way.  We walked up a huge hill to Dover Castle, but at more than £20 person just to get in, we decided that our photos and memories of Blarney Castle would serve us just fine.

There was only one logical thing to do. It was time to hike up the White Cliffs and check out the views.  We had seen the cliffs before on our crossing of the English Channel from London to Paris, but this time we could get up close and personal. It was only about a half hour by foot from the center of town to the visitor’s center up on the cliffs.  As the land dropped away behind us, the views just got better and better.  The cliffs themselves are white because they are made largely of calcium carbonate (aka chalk).  Considering how soft and soluble chalk is, it’s amazing that the cliffs have stood for so long.  They reminded me of The Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride.

Next stop was Bruges in Belgium.  We spent about five days here before and completely loved it.  We were still in touch with our couch surfing hosts, so we had arranged to meet them. Unfortunately a communications snafu led to delayed transportation.  Once we realized we had to make the short run into Bruges on our own, the shuttle was sold out.  We took a different shuttle to the town of Blankenberge, only to find that we had *just* missed the train to Bruges, and the next one was in an hour.  That was fine with us!  We explored Blankenberge a bit, and checked out the seaside promenade.

By the time we got from the port in Zeebrugge to Bruges itself, we only had about two hours to spend there, so we had to be efficient.  This is Belgium, and in terms of edibles, it’s known for four things: chocolate, waffles, beer and French fries.  Guess which one was most important to Stephanie.  We wasted no time at all in heading to local chocolate shops.  Stephanie’s favorite of all the Belgian chocolates is Leonidas, where she hand selected a whole pile of assorted truffles to sample.  My favorite is Neuhaus – more expensive, but seriously yummy.

Elliott's favorite Belgian chocolate

Elliott’s favorite Belgian chocolate

As a result of our quick turnaround, our friend Pascal wasn’t able to make it, but Yannick met up with us, and took us through more of Belgium’s culinary delights.  We went to Chez Vincent’s, for what Yannick said were the best fries in Belgium.  Remember what we said about trusting the locals when it comes to food?  Well, the line out the door backed up Yannick’s claim, and we were not disappointed.  French fries were actually invented in Belgium, and I believe they truly are the best in the world.  They have a double frying technique that renders them crispy on the outside, yet soft on the inside.  By the way, the trivia buff in me wants you to know that the word “French” refers to the way the potatoes are sliced, and not the country of origin.

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Elliott, Yannick and the best frites in Bruges

Lastly, we stopped for a Belgian waffle. Again, it was amazing.

174 Finally - a Belgian waffle

Finally – a Belgian waffle

Suddenly, it was time to go.  Yannick, sweetheart that she is, walked with us (and her bike) back to the train station, and waited with us on the platform until we pulled away.

Back in Blankenberge, we stocked up on Belgium chocolate to bring home with us.  The Belgians take their chcocolate VERY seriously.  As a result, the stuff in the supermarkets is held to the same high standards as the artisan chocolate houses.  We took it easy, and only bought about €30 worth to take home.  With our case of chocolate in hand, we felt our quick return trip to Belgium was a complete success!

177 Our Belgian candy haul_cr

Our Belgian candy haul

Blarney…Tastes Like Chicken

After sailing across the Atlantic, and spending nine glorious days at sea, we finally reached the Emerald Isle.  Okay, I’m jumping ahead a bit.  Let me back up…

We had this amazing Royal Caribbean cruise booked that sailed out of Copenhagen and covered seven Baltic countries.  (Look for details in future posts.) While Stephanie was diligently researching the best airfare, I happened to discover that the sailing right before ours was a transatlantic crossing.  What better way to arrive in Copenhagen than having spent 16 days already at sea?  Finally, Stephanie cracked under my relentless hinting and we booked our first ever back-to-back sailing.

The transatlantic leg began with six days in a row at sea.  Now, for those of you who have never cruised before, you should know that sea days can be even better than port days.  There are so many activities, shows, and of course, opportunities to eat.  We always tell people “If you’re bored on a cruise ship, it’s because you’re trying to be bored on a cruise ship.”  We spent our time relaxing by the pool, reading magazines, cross stitching, ballroom dancing, winning trivia contests, going to the gym, making friends, watching movies in the ship’s cinema, playing miniature golf, climbing the rock wall, and of course, eating.  As you devoted followers of this blog know, we usually travel pretty hard, so having a week of forced relaxation was heaven.

We did actually call in another port before Cork, Ireland, but if I had started with Ponta Delgada in the Azores, the opening for this post wouldn’t have had the same “gotcha” factor.  In truth, we had been to Ponta Delgada before when we were traveling around the world in 2012.  The Azores are beautiful islands belonging to Portugal, and located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.  The only reason Ponta Delgada was less notable this time is simply that it rained all day, and so we didn’t do much on shore.  Stephanie and I did manage to wander around the town for a bit, and of course, we found the obligatory free Wi-Fi so we could catch up on the important goings-on at home.  In the end, however, we were glad we didn’t have big elaborate plans for the day.  We tried some local hot chocolate to stay warm, and looked in the local stores to see what types of treats and candies they had.

Ponta Delgada was just as we remembered it with interesting patterns in the sidewalks made out of black basalt and white limestone.  No two are alike.

Another two days at sea saw us to the port of Cobh, Ireland.  Cobh (pronounced “cove”) is just a quick 25-minute train ride away from downtown Cork, which in turn is only a 25-minute bus ride from famed Blarney Castle – home of the famed Blarney Stone.

The castle itself is exactly how one pictures an old castle: equal parts ominous and charming.  We climbed the narrow, spiral stairs to the top where we hung upside down over a 40 foot drop and planted our lips where thousands of other people planted theirs before.  It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s one of those bucket list things, so we did it anyway.  See….

The grounds of Blarney Castle are huge and varied.  Our first stop was the poison garden where they grow toxic plants including hemlock, belladonna, and nightshade.  Stephanie was delighted to find that Harry Potter favorites mandrake and wolfsbane are actually real, live plants and not just made up for the series.  The garden even had cannabis.  I never thought of marijuana as poisonous, per se, but just in case, it was safe in a cage where no one could accidentally lay their hands on such a toxic danger.

The Poison Garden

The Poison Garden

We strolled through glades and glens, saw waterfalls and caves, and even found a swing for Stephanie to play on.  There is a rock staircase called the wishing steps where if you walk up and down it backwards with your eyes closed, the Blarney Witch is said to grant your wish.  (Stay tuned for confirmation.)  We also strolled through the Pinetum which I’m sure is pronounced “pine-ee-tum,” but we had fun calling it the “pine-tum.”

Rock Close Waterfall

Rock Close Waterfall

Back in Cork, we discovered Dealz.  Dealz is to Ireland what Poundland is to England or a dollar store in the U.S.   Now, having British parents, I know a thing or two about candy from the U.K., and Dealz had great prices on two of my all-time favorites: Fry’s Turkish Delight, and jelly babies.  I know I went into detail about jelly babies once before on this blog, but they’re worth mentioning again.  So much better than jelly beans!  I may have gone a wee bit crazy stocking up on British candy. (A note to the jelly baby purists:  I looked for Bassetts, but couldn’t find them anywhere.  Crilly’s taste exactly the same.)

The UK candy stash

The UK candy stash!

What we saw of Cork was nice, but between the trek to Blarney Castle and the candy, we didn’t really get to see the town itself.  So, as with many places we’ve been on our travels, we resolved to come back again someday.