Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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I’m having a great time in Stockholm — biking around the city, placing a call from my own private telephone, and bumping into one of those Rick Steves tour groups.
Stockholm is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities — and it’s like none other for joyriding on a bike. Bike paths are a city-planning priority, and they run along the entire harbor. And parklike islands are biking utopias. Djurgården (“Animal Garden”) was the king’s private hunting preserve. Today it’s a vast park dotted with fun sights. I’d make a point to bike in the early evening, when lots of people are out, the light is warm, and colors pop. Getting a bike is cheap and easy in Stockholm (there’s a good rental place and a welcoming info center with good biking maps right next to the bridge that connects Djurgården to the rest of the city).
While in Sweden, I bumped into one of our happy tour groups. Scandinavia is Europe’s most expensive region, so it’s our challenge to be sure this particular itinerary is as good a value as possible. And, of our 35 different Rick Steves tour routes, Scandinavia is selling really well this year. As a Norwegian myself, I’m particularly happy that we have a new guide — Paul Johansen, our first from Norway — who’s getting rave reviews. The entire group thought we looked like cousins, which — in a Viking sort of way — we are. Can you spot Paul in this photo?
I’m really enjoying my time in Sweden. Here are a few random photos that capture what I’m experiencing — as well as some practical advice.
Sweden may not have staggering fjords like Norway, but all along its coast, you’ll find some impressive abs. The city of Kalmar has opened a wonderful new beach, called Sundsbadet, just beyond its castle. On a hot summer day, this is a festive and happy slice of Swedish life — well worth a stroll even if you’re not actually “going to the beach.” This new facility put Kalmar (quite popular with RVers and the yachting crowd) on the fun-in-the-sun map. With showers, snack stands, sandcastles, beach access for wheelchair users (a ramp goes right into the water), and views of the castle, it’s a delight. And if you enjoy people-watching, it’s a combination Swedish beauty pageant/tattoo show.
This dinner I enjoyed on a train ride through Sweden was a $5 feast. Sure, I can afford a good restaurant meal even in expensive Sweden. But a cheap, healthy, and fast picnic helps the train ride go by quicker. Even in the most expensive corner of Europe, you can eat well and affordably. Convenience stores are big throughout Scandinavia (with a 7-Eleven on seemingly every corner). While convenient and cheaper than any restaurant, these places charge about double what you’ll pay for basic food in a grocery store. With a trip to the grocery store, I can get a big, cheap bag of almonds to munch on for days. A kilogram bag of carrots reminds me of the days when I didn’t know how to communicate a smaller amount and ended up with a kilo of whatever I was buying. A big bag of carrots may be cheap…but it lasted for days’ worth of snacks. Yogurt is drinkable, cheap, and tasty anywhere in Europe. A box of juice cost about two dollars (always look for “100%” — easy to spot in any language — or else you’ll get a sugary “juice drink”). And the main course: the ham-and-cheese sandwich I pocketed from my breakfast buffet. (I wouldn’t advocate this petty theft publicly. But somehow I don’t feel bad stealing a sandwich from my hotel breakfast buffet in Scandinavia, considering how much of the room cost is taxes — about $50 a night — that support a lavish social system I’ll never benefit from).
I used to dread having to get a haircut in Europe. It was one time that the language barrier had real and enduring consequences — and besides, finding a barber took precious time out of my sightseeing day. But for the last few years, I’ve relished the opportunity to get a haircut wherever I am in Europe because it gets me in a chair talking with a real person who’s not in the tourist trade. Here in Växjö, in the middle of Sweden, I enjoyed getting to know Maria — an immigrant to Sweden from Bosnia — who gave me unique insight into Swedish culture today.
When I’m researching my guidebooks in Europe, I have to be disciplined about staying on top of my “inputting.” Each day I have, on average, six hours with a local guide. That’s a lot of notes. And each hotel room becomes my office: I arrange my desk for the best light, and sort through my marked-up maps, business cards, and scribbles in my chapters. If notes are not dealt with in a shipshape way, all that hard work in the streets can be ultimately wasted.
A few blocks in front of the train station, an inviting commercial center bustles around Uppsala’s main square and along its scenic riverfront. Across the river towers its historic cathedral and a venerable university, with a museum showing off a rare 17th-century anatomical theater along with its prestigious academic accomplishments, and a library with literary treasures on display.
Uppsala was also home to the father of modern botany, Carl Linnaeus, whose home and garden — now a museum — provide a vivid look at this amazing scientist and his work. Linnaeus lived here from 1743 until 1778, while he was professor of medicine and botany at the University of Uppsala. It was here that Linnaeus developed a way to classify the plant kingdom. The museum fills Linnaeus home (which he shared with his wife and seven children) with the family’s personal possessions and his professional gear. You’ll see his insect cabinet, herbs cabinet, desk, botany tools, and notes. Wandering the garden where the most famous of all botanists did his work, you can pop into the orangery, built so temperate plants could survive the Nordic winters.
Just outside of town stands Gamla (“Old”) Uppsala, a prehistoric series of mounds where the nation of Sweden was born back in the Iron Age. This site gives historians goose bumps even on a sunny day. It includes nine large royal burial mounds circled by a walking path, all with English descriptions. Fifteen hundred years ago, when the Baltic Sea was higher and it was easy to sail all the way to Uppsala, the pagan Swedish kings had their capital here. Old Uppsala is where the petty Swedish kingdoms came together and a nation coalesced. It was here that Sweden became Christianized a thousand years ago. In 1989, Pope John Paul II gave a Mass right here to celebrate that triumph of Christianity over paganism in Sweden.
If you’re not traveling anywhere else in Sweden other than Stockholm, Uppsala makes a pleasant day trip.
The highlight of a visit to Gamla Uppsala is climbing the burial mounds and imagining the scene over a thousand years ago when the democratic tradition of this country helped bring the many small Swedish kingdoms together into one nation. Entire communities would gather at the rock that marked their place. Then the leader, standing atop the flat mound (where Håkan is in this photo), would address the crowd as if in a natural amphitheater, and issues of the day would be dealt with.
In Uppsala’s Lutheran cathedral, you’ll find a different take on the Virgin Mary. This eerily lifelike statue from 2005, called “Mary (The Return),” captures Jesus’ mother wearing a scarf and timeless garb. In keeping with the Protestant spirit here, this new version of Mary is shown not as an exalted queen, but as an everywoman, saddened by the loss of her child and seeking solace — or answers — in the church.
Strolling the first botanical garden in Sweden, at the former home of Carl Linnaeus, I felt like this child: filled with wonder. Carl Linnaeus ran this botanical garden, living on site to study the plant action — day and night, all year round — of about 3,000 different species.
Twenty years ago, I visited the historic but cutesy town of Sigtuna (half an hour north of Stockholm) and wrote it off as a tourist trap. I just revisited with my Stockholm friend and guide, Håkan Frändén, and reassessed the place. Sigtuna is great. I’d recommend it…and it comes with some sassy rune stones. Check this one out.
Cities all over northern Europe have loaner bike programs. Some cities lend themselves to biking, while others don’t. Some programs seem designed exclusively for locals, while others work well for foreign visitors, too. Stockholm is the best of both worlds: great for biking, and with a system that’s very tourist-friendly.
The Stockholm City Bikes have no locks, so you can only joyride or go from point A to point B (rather than parking it while you’re visiting a sight). And many of the stations are around town are either completely without bikes (a pain if you’re looking to borrow one) or already full (problematic when you need to drop one off). Fortunately, the Stockholm City Bikes app — which is free, easy, and fun to use — lets you know exactly how many bikes and open spaces are available at each station.
As I worked on the Stockholm chapter for the upcoming 2015 edition of Rick Steves’ Scandinavia guidebook, I proposed merging this “be a temporary local” experience with the best biking joyride route…and suddenly, Stockholm has another great activity. This video clip is your intro to a cheap and breezy experience next time you’re in the Swedish capital.
For some reason, the Swedish town of Kalmar got me in a good mood. We have a great chapter on it in my Scandinavia guidebook, but almost no Americans visit. Here’s a little clip on the fun of language faking — which comes in handy even in a place like Sweden, where virtually everyone you meet speaks English.
One of my favorite towns in Scandinavia is Kalmar, on Sweden’s east coast. This clip captures the fun of being in a perfectly Swedish scene surrounded only by Swedes… and then being struck by the fact that scenes like that are commonplace all over the world.
Part of the fun of traveling in Europe is using massive and inspiring infrastructure — like this bridge that connects Denmark and Sweden. In this clip, my train is in an erector set-type tunnel under an-eight lane highway crossing the Øresund Bridge. Behind me is Copenhagen (not Stockholm, as I say), and up ahead is Malmö, Sweden.
What are your favorite “infrastructure” experiences?
This little clip — shot just minutes before catching my train to Sweden — explains why the Copenhagen station, back in 1969, gained a special place in this traveler’s heart.
For me, a fun part of any visit to Copenhagen is dropping in on the alternative community of Christiania.
In 1971, the original 700 Christianians established squatters’ rights in an abandoned military barracks just a 10-minute walk from the Danish parliament building. A generation later, this “free city” still stands — an ultra-human mishmash of idealists, hippies, potheads, non-materialists, and happy children (600 adults, 200 kids, 200 cats, 200 dogs, 2 parrots, and 17 horses). There are even a handful of Willie Nelson-type seniors among the 180 remaining here from the original takeover. And an amazing thing has happened: The place has become the third-most-visited sight among tourists in Copenhagen. Move over, Little Mermaid.
“Pusher Street” (named for the sale of soft drugs here) is Christiania’s main drag. Get beyond this touristy side of Christiania, and you’ll find a fascinating, ramshackle world of moats and earthen ramparts, alternative housing, cozy tea houses, carpenter shops, hippie villas, children’s playgrounds, peaceful lanes, and people who believe that “to be normal is to be in a straitjacket.” A local slogan claims, “Kun døde fisk flyder med strømmen” — “Only dead fish swim with the current.”
Stepping into this squatter town of 800 people, you feel like you’re entering another world. As you walk in, the sign welcomes you to Christiania. When you leave, the flipside of that same sign says, “You are now entering the EU.”
Tourists are entirely welcome at Christiania, because they’ve become a major part of the economy. Visitors react in very different ways to the place. Some see dogs, dirt, and dazed people. Others see a haven of peace, freedom, and no taboos. Locals will remind judgmental Americans (whose country incarcerates more than a quarter of the world’s prison inmates) that a society must make the choice: Allow for alternative lifestyles…or build more prisons.
For the first few years, junkies were tolerated. But that led to violence and polluted the mellow ambience residents envisioned. In 1979, the junkies were expelled — an epic confrontation in the community’s folk history now — and since then, the symbol of a fist breaking a syringe is as prevalent as the leafy marijuana icon. Hard drugs are emphatically forbidden in Christiania.
Pusher Street was once lined with stalls selling marijuana, joints, and hash. Residents intentionally destroyed the stalls in 2004 to reduce the risk of Christiania being disbanded by the government. Now there’s a small stretch of Pusher Street dubbed the “Green Light District” where pot is being openly sold. Signs announce three rules here: 1. Have fun; 2. No photos; and 3. No running — “because it makes people nervous.”