Sunday, August 18, 2013

Scandinavia’s Unknown Gem: Visby, Sweden

Central Town in Visby, Gotland, Sweden
The quaint town of Visby situated on the western coast of Sweden’s largest island can easily be described as an unknown Baltic gem. Not many people would think to visit the more relaxed pace of Swedish island life, but this ended up being my mother’s favorite port city, even surpassing the Baltic highlights that are Stockholm, Helsinki, and Tallinn. And really this small city should be better known by tourists through out the world. Visby, a city that has been given the coveted UNESCO World Heritage title, is unique in its preservation of medieval Scandinavia. The city had played an intrinsic role in the Hanseatic Trading League. It is impossible to miss the ancient 12th and 13th century church ruins and ancient walls while simply strolling through the town. Even though my parents and I only had the time to spend 4 precious hours in Visby, we were certainly able to explore many of the highlights that historic Visby has to offer. 

View of Visby and Baltic Sea from Klinten
From the shore, the structure that infamously dominates the Visby skyline remains Visby Cathedral. This Luthern Cathedral, which dates back to the 12th century, is a most see while in Visby. It is most remarkable as a beautiful example of Swedish church architecture. The towering black spirals of the church are easily visible even from our cruise ship anchored away from shore. And just beside the church are stairs that lead to one of the best vistas on the island. Lined by vibrant red, orange, and yellow tulips, these stairs head toward the region of town known as Klinten where views from a winding walkway offer a panorama of the city, its stone wall, and the Baltic Sea. 

Santa Katarina ruins
View from thee top of Drotten ruins
Other highlights in the city include a visit to the vast array of 13th century church ruins that are interspersed between houses and boutique shops that are in use by the residents of today. One of my favorite church ruins was named Santa Katarina. This church hosted unforgettable archways that towered overhead and grass that grew in bunches on what was left of the church’s ancient roof. Even though most travel informational centers highlight St. Nicholas with its beautiful rose window as one of the must see church ruins in Visby, I personally think the ruins of Drotten were more memorable. Drotten, like Santa Katarina, showcases large vaulted ceilings and towering archways. The best part of this ruin was the stairs, still intact, that allowed visitors to climb to the upper levels of the ruins. Climbing the winding medieval staircases brought its own small adventure and will certainly last in my memory forever. I only wish we had more time to spend in Visby and the surrounding Swedish countryside, to walk along the stoned wall and to visit the neighboring cliffs of Högklint. Visby, Gotland is quite the historic destination. Hopefully, I will return soon to wander along its cobblestone streets once again. 

With this port, we had finally visited all the locations on our Baltic Sea tour. As I travel more around this world, I will continue to write about my adventures and offer more recommendations. Happy Traveling and Hello again America!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Stockholm, Sweden

Finally after almost completing our entire ring around the Baltic countries, we had arrived at my favorite destination of our two week cruise- Stockholm, Sweden.  Two full days in Stockholm just wasn’t enough. I would love to spend more time wandering the 14 islands that make up this national capital on another trip to this country. But, I must admit that we did see plenty of the main wonders to get a comprehensive view of what this northern city has to offer. 

View of Sodermalm from Gamla Stan
First stop- a self guided walking tour around the island Gamla Stan, known as old town Stockholm. One of the best parts of Stockholm is taking in the breathtaking scenery of the island city and walking along the streets admiring the beautiful architecture. And that is exactly what we did. We explored the cafe lined cobblestone streets of Stockholm where the Swedish blue and yellow flag hung from every corner. We made sure to stop by all the historic highlights of this small island, including the residential Royal Palace (we even witnessed the changing of the brightly colored Swedish guards as they road on the Stockholm streets on horseback). Then it was off the the royal cathedral before we walked upon a square in Gamla Stan on which the Nobel Prize building is located. Since we were visiting on a Monday, the building where Nobel Prizes are awarded each year was unfortunately closed, but on any other day it is possible to take a tour of the interior halls where some of the world’s peace keeping leaders have walked. The most memorable aspect of my time exploring Gamla Stan was most definitely the view of Stockholm from the southern and eastern sides of the island. From this vantage point, it is possible to see the large brown Parliament complex across a small canal and the Royal Palace perched upon a sloping hill above the cobblestone streets of Old town. And across the major waterway, a bridge connects Gamla Stan to the beautiful region known as Södermalm, where impressive Swedish architecture, quaint seaside cafes, and strikingly beautiful spires dominate the landscape of the city. Most of all, we were lucky to have visited the city on such a nice day; the suns rays glittered in the blue waters of the surrounding water, allowing the natural beauty of this northern capital to be more easily admired. 

Vasa War Ship as seen in Vasa Museum
After lunch, it was time to visit one of the most highly recommended attractions in Sweden - the Vasa Museum. To be honest, before our trip to Sweden I wasn’t too excited with visiting the museum. However, almost every Swedish travel site demands a visit, so I felt obligated to check it out. Let me tell you, it was worth it (even for the $30 per person price). The Vasa Museum’s entire focus is centered around the Swedish Vasa warship which sunk on its maiden voyage in 1628 (pictured left). For more than 300 years the ship sat on the bottom of the Baltic Sea’s floor until 1960’s when the ship was resurrected and found to be 98% preserved. This massive 17th century ship is now housed in the Vasa Museum as a testament to ships dating back to the age of exploration. It was really neat to see a warship from the 1600’s up close and personal; the ship was very similar in size and style to ships seen in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean. Very cool indeed. The museum offered information about how the ship sunk (it was top heavy- the ship held too many canons and was decorated with heavy ornate statues). I also learned about the harsh and draconian treatment of the Swedish people during this time period. Punishments onboard ships were extremely harsh and often deadly. Plus ships from this era were constructed from oak trees. As a result, Swedish citizens who were caught chopping down an oak tree three time were given the death penalty. This museum was highly informative and interesting- I definitely recommend a visit to this unique attraction if in Sweden. 

Ice Bar, Nordic Hotel
The end to our first day in my favorite Baltic port involved a walk through the financial downtown district of Stockholm where more modern architecture and restaurants inhabited the streets. To be honest, we were lost looking for our final destination of the day- Stockholm’s infamous Ice Bar in the Nordic Hotel, but I did enjoy our time among the locals in the non-touristy area of the city where we noticed how few people drive cars and how many people bike everywhere. No wonder Swedish people are in such great physical shape. When we finally arrived at the bar, we donned on the provided parkas and headed into the wildly unique bar. Yes it was a bit touristy, but what a fun experience! For $30 we were provided a parka, gloves, and given a drink of our choice. The ceilings, floor, walls, tables, seats, the bar itself, even the glasses were all made out of ice. It was an entirely enjoyable experience which was made our time in Stockholm even more memorable. 

Drottningholm Palace surrounded by water
Our second day in Stockholm involved a long excursion to Drottningholm Palace in the suburbs of Stockholm. Technically a residential palace of the Royal Family, the palace is most memorable for its picturesque location on a remote lush island in the Swedish archipelago. To get to the Palace, my parents and I found our way to Stadshuset City Hall in Stockholm where we hopped on an hour boat ride out of the city to Drottningholm. We were probably the only tourists on the full boat, so it was interesting to interact with local Swedes who spoke English impressively well as they spent a gloriously beautiful day in the sun while enjoying the natural wonders that Stockholm has to offer. The scenic ride through the smaller islands of the archipelago offered beautiful views of the deep blue water winding between the tree studded islands. Interestingly, as we made our way the palace, 5 Swedish military vessels followed us there and then again followed us on our return journey to Stockholm. When we arrived at the palace, it was already noon, perfect timing to watch the changing of the guards in front of the palace’s front doors. The exterior of the castle was quite spectacular. Sitting on a remote island overlooking the water and adjacent to the lovely royal gardens, this UNESCO world Heritage sight is quite memorable and worth the trip if you are spending a few days in Sweden. However, I don’t know if I recommend touring the inside of the palace. Photos were strictly forbidden, the price of entrance was steep, and no where were there signs inside offering historical perspective to the palace’s significance. Overall, our second day in Stockholm marvelous day spent in the Swedish countryside among the locals. 

As we frantically attempted to make it back to our cruise ship in time for departure on public transportation, I was sad to be leaving this city so soon! Even though I want to return to this city and country one day, I don’t think I could ever live here. Prices are astronomically high. Among our many discussions with the Swedish people, we learned that the Swedish minimum wage is very high, but so are the tax rates. Yes many of the Swedish do enjoys these benefits of what can be considered European socialism, but the results of theses high wages and high taxes are high prices for everyday items and food, making it exceptionally difficult for tourists to stay in this country for too long. Along with this line of thought, it cost $17 for each of my family members to buy a 24 hour public bus transportation card. Once, we even attempted to take the metro, but we decided against it when we figured out it was a little over $6 one-way to our next destination (making Sweden 6 times more expensive than Russia). Next time though, I would love to travel on the metro in order to see some of the top ranked metro stations in the world for design (rumor has it that Stockholm’s blue line is the best).

Cruising the Stockholm Archipelago
As our cruise ship departed and we said Adjö to Stockholm, we were gifted with a three hour cruise through the larger islands of the Stockholm Archipelago. Luckily for me, the Stockholm Archipelago had been on my bucket list, and I was all too excited to see the beauty of more than 3000 islands as we made our way south to the largest island in Sweden, Gotland. As the wind blew in our faces and the seagulls followed our cruise ship, we passed beautiful scenery and took pictures of some of the archipelago’s most famous destinations: Voxholm and the large Swedish fort. The archipelago was definitely a site worth seeing and I would recommend a boat tour through the area for anyone visiting the Stockholm area.