Sunday, April 29, 2012

Overwhelming Stockholm- Part I

Before, I begin let me warn you, as I always do. This is the first of the four part series of long posts, about my trip to Stockholm, Sweden.

The beginning and the plan.
From the time we had come to Finland, we were planning a trip during the Easter weekend (long weekend). The names that came up was Lapland (Northern Finland), Stockholm, Norway and Switzerland. But almost all of the trips got dropped as they were turning out to be way off budget. Then we got the news that one of our friends from Bangalore was in Stockholm. The fact that we did not require to pay for accommodation made the trip lucrative. Coupled with it was the prospect of travelling to Sweden by cruise ship made the trip irresistible. So, once the mode of transport was decided, I began searching for cruises to Stockholm from Finland and found that there were only two competing companies, who operate between these destinations. Looking at the pros and cons of both we decided to try both the companies. That is go by one return by the other.
My friend in Stockholm, requested me to chart a tour plan for the 3 days that we were supposed to spend there. While I was researching, the first fact that overwhelmed me was, Stockholm has more than 80 museums and places of attraction. This made my job extremely difficult (I think you can imagine). Let me tell you that, for visitors, there are a lot of tips, accurate and official information about Stockholm available online. This helped me in getting a meticulous plan in place. After all the parties agreed to the plan we were ‘ready to go’.

The journey to Stockholm.
We are in a city called Pori and nearest city from where we can get ships to Stockholm is Turku. And as per plan we were to take the Viking Line ship M/S Isabella to Stockholm. We reached Turku harbor about two and half hours earlier. After a quick check-in we were waiting at the terminal. As we were hanging around in the lobby I spotted a huge, humungous ship approaching the terminal slowly. As it came closer we spotted its name. It was Viking Line M/S Isabella, our ship for the night. As the ship docked we got ready for boarding. Thirty minutes later they started the boarding process. On the entrance to the ship a boy and girl were performing Caribbean dance. Oh! Did I forget to mention that Viking Line was celebrating Cuba festival in all their ships? Yes, they had given everything from food to entertainment a Caribbean touch. After we were inside our cabin, we freshened up a little bit and then headed for the dinner. We had booked buffet dinner, which was a grand affair, with a wide variety of fish, chicken, ham, game meat (reindeer), desserts, ice-cream etc. My long time wish for tasting deer meat was finally fulfilled. After the sumptuous dinner we went around the ship to explore different sections like restaurants, tax-free shops, club, disco et al. Then we moved to the ‘sun deck’, it was dark and nothing much was visible outside. Yet the mild sound of ship’s engines, the view of the ship chipping through sea and the chilling winds created an out of the world experience. Though the night was still very young, actually it was just beginning, we decided to retire into our room. We were told that most of ship’s passengers would be youngsters looking to ‘have fun’ on the ship. I must admit it was quite correct. So, if you are travelling with your family it may be little disturbing at night. Next morning we were up early and quite excited. So, we walked up to the ‘sun deck’, to greet the morning sun but to our dismay, the sky was overcast with light showers washing the deck. One gentleman, let out the last puff from his cigarette and said ‘It’s going to be like this the whole day’, shaking his head with disappointment. Yes, the weather looked really annoying. The ship was entering the harbor and all the passengers were requested to proceed to de-boarding area.

First Day in Stockholm.
After reaching the harbor, our friend instructed us to reach Slussen the nearest T-Bana (Metro) station. We had to take a bus to city center (a service run for the benefit of passengers using Viking Line) that went via Slussen. He said he would come and pick us up from Slussen. After waiting for a while, our friend came and we went to his house.

Stockholm’s T-Bana (Metro)

The original plan for the day was to take some rest and have breakfast at my friend’s place. Then go to Stockholm tourist center for the Stockholm Card and other queries related to various places of attraction. From there, we were to take the 3-hr Archipelago tour conducted by Stromma. Like, I mentioned earlier the weather that day was really dampening. So we had to drop the plan of the Archipelago tour and reserved the day for shopping and going around in general.
As per the revised plan, we had brunch and set-off for the tourist center. Now let me mention here, the tourist center is near T-Centralen(Central Metro station, it’s here all the metro lines cross each other). It's little difficult to find the place, as there are no signs or markers for tourist center in T-Centralen. But, if you ask around, the friendly staff and stall owners in that area would guide you. So, after asking around we reached the tourist center and got quite good amount of information. And let me mention that alongwith Stockholm card, you get a map, a book of information about the various attractions and list  with opening hours for all the places of interest. Rest of the day was spent going around different places for shopping. Like Kista (on blue line metro towards Akalla) a store named Kista Grossen for Asian/Indian grocery, then largest IKEA store at Skärholmen for furnishing items etc. After shopping bags full, finally we end the day by returning to my friend’s apartment.

Few words of advice: 
If you are having more time, like 2-3 days in Stockholm then getting a Stockholm card would be a very good deal. It gives free access to all major museums and attractions, free access to public transport and much more. Otherwise you can take hop-on hop-off-combi bus tour conducted by Stromma. As I mentioned earlier you can plan your tour around Stockholm with precision thanks to the website of SL, the public transit system of Stockholm.

Some useful website links:
 Stockholm tourism related information 

Additionally you can click on the hyperlinks in the post to learn more. This is certainly not the end of the series; please wait for more in following posts….

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Overwhelming Stockholm- Part II

After a dull and damp day, weather gods showed some mercy and let sun smile brightly on our second day. We had a number of places to cover as we had lost a day. So, quite naturally the day was packed. The plan was to first visit Gamla Stan(the old town) and visit the Royal Palace and witness the changing of guards. Then have lunch at Govindas (a pure vegetarian restaurant run by Hare Krishna Society of Stockholm) and finally view the entire Stockholm city from top of Sky view.

Gamla Stan, Royal Palace and Changing of Gaurds.

As per plan, the first stop of the day was Gamla Stan. So, we reached Gamla Stan via metro (All the green and red lines cross Gamla Stan) by 11.30 AM. The changing of the guards generally begins at 12.15. As we had time, we started strolling along the narrow streets of the old town (one of its kind medieval city center where the city was founded in 13th century) looking for Storkyrkan (Stockholm Cathedral), Nobel museum etc. Walking through those alleys with warm sun peeping through the building we were transported to the 13th Century. Would you believe if I say I spotted a real Viking? But he was gone before my friend could take a picture, so…. Anyway, the architecture of the old buildings was breathtaking and picturesque. My vocabulary is not good enough for describing the beauty of the place. Let me allow some of the pictures to do the talking instead...

Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan
The oldest thoroughfares of Gamla Stan
Gamla Stan
View from the harbour of Skeppsbron, the eastern waterfront of Gamla Stan

We reached the outer courtyard of the Royal Palace around 12 noon and the authorities were preparing the place for the changing of guards. Just in time so that we could grab the front row seats (I mean literally, as there is no real seat, you need to stand and watch). At around 12.15 the spectacle began with music of marching band and a marching column of soldiers. In next 45 minutes we witnessed one of the best changing of guards’ ceremony.  Again I’ll let the pictures do the talking...

Royal Palace outer courtyard
Outer courtyard of The Royal Palace

Changing Of Gaurd
Changing Of Gaurds
Changing Of Gaurds
Changing Of Gaurds
Changing Of Gaurds
Changing of Guards @ the Royal Palace


After the ceremony we were quite hungry and it was time for lunch. So we proceeded to Fridhemsplan (from Gamla Stan you can take any of the green lines towards Alvik/Åkeshov/Hässelby Strand) for Govindas. But when we reached the restaurant we found a notice on the gate which said the place was closed for entire Easter weekend. My friends looked at me for a back-up plan which to their utter dismay I didn’t have. We began a frantic search for a place to eat. I remembered having read about some Indian place at Rådhuset which was one stop away on blue line towards Akalla/Hjulsta. After reaching Rådhuset we asked at the ticket counter for directions and realized that I had got name and address wrong. We were directed to another far away station on another line. Then lady at the counter told that us there was another Indian restaurant just outside the metro station which we may try if we like. We may try? I almost rushed out of the station and found a place named Indian Khusboo. The food, ambiance, prices were quite nice.

Sky View

After a delicious and filling meal we headed for our next and final destination of the day, Sky view, which is at Globen on green line towards Hagsätra. In the words of their website “SkyView is one of the most remarkable attractions in Sweden, and an experience far above the ordinary. A gondola made of glass takes you up along the outside of the Ericsson Globe - the largest spherical building in the world”. But when we reached the ticket counter we were told tickets for that day were sold out and we could only book for the next day. It was the second disappointment of the day. Nevertheless, we booked the tickets for the next day. With that we called it a day and returned to my friend’s place tired yet contended. Again this is not the end of the story, I have got more….

Overwhelming Stockholm- Part III

After the previous day’s running around some of our friends were worn out and decided to rest for a day but we could not afford it so we started the day early.  The plan for the day was first visit the City Hall of Stockholm. Then visit Drottningholm Palace, from there go to Djurgården where Vasa Museum, Skansa, Nordiksa Museum et cetera are located.

The City Hall of Stockholm
We set out for City Hall which can be reached from metro station Rådhuset on blue line towards Akalla/Hjulsta. You have to walk approx. 500 meters to Hantverkargatan 1 to reach City Hall. According to their website “City Hall of Stockholm is one of Sweden's most fascinating and impressive buildings! You can visit the City Hall on a guided tour all year round. Since the venues can only be visited together with a guide, there are no general opening hours.” We reached City Hall just before one of the guided tours began. So were taken around the inside of the city hall with a lot of information about the building, its heritage, architect etc. It was truly amazing experience to be standing at the ‘blue hall’ where Nobel banquets are held every year. Then walk through the chambers where city council meets or the ‘golden hall’ which is made of gold. Well, some pictures again...

City Hall
City Hall from Hantverkargatan side
Blue Hall
The legendary ‘blue’ hall
Golden Hall
The 'golden' hall
City Hall outer courtyard
View from the outer courtyard of City Hall
Street outside City Hall
Street near T-Bana Rådhuset

After breath taking views outside the City Hall and other overwhelming information it was time to move towards our next destination, Drottningholm Palace.

Drottningholm Palace
We took blue line towards Akalla/Hjulsta and alighted at Fridhemsplan. Then took green line towards Åkeshov/Hässelby Strand and alighted at Brommaplan. From Brommaplan you can take bus 176 towards Stenhamra or bus 177 towards Ekerö, Skärvik and alight at Drottningholm. As per the official website “The Drottningholm Palace is on UNESCO's World Heritage list. It is the most well-preserved royal castle built in the 1600s in Sweden and at the same time is representative of all European architecture for the period.” When we reached the visitor center we were told that we had missed the guided tour and the next tour was scheduled about 2 hours later. Since we had the Stockholm card we could go around the palace and its garden. The royal garden is called Chinese pavilion which is open during summers but we could go around it. In summer and autumn, place seemed to be a very nice spot for day long excursion with loved ones. Well, it’s time for some more pictures…
Drottingholm Palace
Drottningholm Palace
Drottingholm Palace
Drottningholm Palace another view
Drottingholm Palace
Drottningholm Palace from Chinese Pavilion
Swan at Drottingholm Palace
Swan @ Drottningholm Palace lake

The place was so beautiful that eyes and heart wanted to soak it for some more time but the brain pushed us into a bus that was leaving. At Brommaplan we spotted a McDonalds’ and decided to have an American lunch. After lunch we took the green line towards Skarpnäck/Farsta strand/Hagsätra and alighted at T-Centralen to go to our next destination Djurgården.

Djurgården, Vasa Museum, Skansa, Nordiksa Museum.
We needed to take bus 69 from Sergels torg to Vasa Museum but we lost our way at City center (it’s really confusing for new visitors). After asking around we reached Nybroplan and took tram number 7 towards Waldemarsudde. The tram ride was an experience in itself. Once we reached Vasa museum stoppage we found the surrounding area of Djurgården was quite picturesque. Vasa museum according to their website is “the only preserved seventeenth-century ship in the world, and a unique art treasure. More than 95 percent of the ship is original, and it is decorated with hundreds of carved sculptures.” The ship looked amazing with its masts, high decks, sculptures etc. and for a moment it felt that Captain Jack Sparrow will holler from the upper deck. Also, the technology with which the ship was salvaged is too overwhelming. Well enough of talking, it’s time for pictures ...
Vasa Museum
Vasa (front view)
Vasa Museum
Vasa (rear view)
Nordiksa Museum
Nordiksa Museum

Different views from  Djurgården bridge 

Sky View revisited
We returned from Djurgården to Sergels Torg by bus 69. Then took green line from T-Centralen towards Hagsätra and alighted at Globen for Sky view. We had about an hour before we go could go up the Ericsson Globe. So, we hung around Globen shopping mall, which is next to Sky view. The Sky view adventure (that’s what they call it) started with a short ten minute movie explaining what it is, its history, the challenges, technical details etc. Then they take you to the glass gondola. What happens next, when you go up, is something that needs to be experienced to express it. Fortunately, it was a very clear and bright day so we could see the entire Stockholm city’s skyline. It was quite amusing to look at the buildings which looked exactly like the cardboard models we build for our school projects. Ok, time for pictures…
Sky View
The gondolas view from the bottom of the globe
Stockholm skyline atop Sky view
Stockholm skyline from the Sky view gondola

After the spectacular experience it was time to return to base (friends’ apartment). The three days seemed to have gone by in a snip.

Northern lights – god’s bonus. 
As we were looking back and contemplating at the eventful and exciting trip, I noticed a pink aura in northern sky. When I showed my friend , he said that one of our Finnish friends had texted that there was a forecast of Northern lights in this region. You can read about northern lights from internet if you already do not know about it. We were looking for a chance to ‘see’ Northern lights from the time we were in Finland. Well, this wish too got fulfilled.
Northern Lights
Northern Lights
Northern Lights in sky

 With the Northern lights as icing to the trip it was the end of our stay in Stockholm but certainly not the end of the story, so wait for the return journey.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Overwhelming Stockholm- Part IV

We had to wake up quiet early the next day as we had an early morning ship. We were returning by Silja line ship Silja Europa. Our friend’s apartment was very close to the Silja terminal (actually couple of blocks away) so we just walked into the terminal. As we entered the waiting hall we found the ship berthed. It was huge and grand.  Large trucks and other vehicles were going in, it looked amazing.
Silja Europa
Silja Europa
Grand Finale
The return journey was a grand finale to the marvelous tour. The interiors of Europa were grandiose. After check-in to our cabin, we went for a breakfast, which was no less than a four course meal. After stomachs full we headed to the ‘sun deck’, which was much larger space with much better 'view'. We were passing through the Archipelagos and I felt that the skipping of the Archipelago tour earlier was not quite a loss. As Europa was surging ahead through the calm waters of the Baltic Sea, a couple tried to emulate the famous scene of Jack and Rose from James Cameroon’ movie Titanic. Whereas, I tried to spot the dolphins like the ones that were swimming ahead of Titanic. Then we lodged ourselves into ‘seaside café’ with a cold coffee and warm sun. As I was sipping through the coffee, I looked out of window for some of best sceneries of my life.
Then we went to our cabin for some rest. I switched on the TV and found a channel was playing the movie ‘Troy’, though I had watched it umpteen times, I watched it again, only difference this time, I was on a ship. After movie, it was time for some lunch and we headed for the restaurant. The lady at counter assigned us a table which was just below the bridge. That is, we could see Europa’s nose navigating through waters and it was an amazing view. The lunch was lavish and delicious. With our stomach busting literally, we walked into the ‘shopping area’. After browsing through the shops, we purchased some exotic chocolates and goodies. Rest of afternoon I lazed out in our cabin. Ok, enough of words, now it’s Showtime (pictures I mean).
Archipelagos of Sweden
Helipad on Europa

Europa leaves a trail

small boat
small boat
Other 'small boats'

Sun deck
sun deck
'Sun deck' of Europa
Europa interior lobby

As, Europa was entering Turku harbor, I spotted a few excited kids on shore running up to the edge of the sea and waving frantically, just as children do to a passing train in India. Though the trip had come to an end but memories of lifetime remained as an after taste. Like, my friend had remarked that this trip has left us asking for more, Stockholm is calling us again. As they say ‘Yeh Dil maange more’…

Finally, before I finish this marathon series, would like to share a thought. While I was researching about Stockholm, I found, besides the talk about beauty of the city, there was lot of debate about Swedish women. That is, how beautiful they are? I would just like to say that in these 3 days, I have seen some really pretty blondes, walking on streets, commuting in public transport or manning the counters. On that note, I am signing off.

PS: I must thank my friend in Stockholm, PB,  for making this awesome trip happen and my friend MS for those spectacular pictures that I have used throughout this series.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Me and the ski

Yes, today I am going to talk about ski. If you think it’s a very odd topic for me to post after ages of silence then let me give you some background. It so happened that I had to travel to Pori, a nice little town in Finland on an office assignment. While reading / learning about Finland one thing that caught my eye was that Skiing was a very popular sport in winter (which is the season now). So, it was a distant wish that if I could….

Likewise, when I reached here and got acclimatized to the climate (hit -24 C on the day I landed). One thing that struck me was the warmth of people here. I mean almost immediately I felt at home. At a Kahvi (coffee) break discussion I was informed that colleagues in office are organizing a Ski class and we were invited too. Was I excited? You bet …. I mean I am not Aladdin with little genie. Yet ….

I have already said how nice people here are. They arranged ski shoes and skiing gear for me and my friend. Let me skip the story about shoe sizes debacle. So, we reached the skiing venue. Quickly we were huddled into a cabin where the instructors started giving demo on how how to maintain and wax the skis for better performance. Though the instructions were in Finnish I could understand the context (a skill to figure out things without knowing the language is something I have acquired in last five years by living away from home state). After the session and brief summary in English by our colleagues, it was time for putting on or rather fitting the skis onto the shoes, which was done with a little help from the friendly instructors. With skis on and ski sticks in hand what next? Well you ski like the rest. But hey wait wasn’t this suppose to be a class? Well yes it was a class but you need to move to the training area first then you would be taught. Again my helpful colleagues from Finland came to the rescue with basic instruction about how to move and ski. I was able to slide and ski. And one of my Finnish friends was guiding me and asking other expert skiers coming from the opposite to give way as if some champion was on move. Along with that came the applause with exclamations like ‘very good’, ‘you don’t look like you are skiing for first time’, ‘excellent’. All these boosted my confidence to the seventh heaven. And then slush… swish… bang…before I knew anything I was on ground deeply entrenched in snow. My Finnish friend, all the while kept encouraging ‘come on get up’, “it’s fine, you came so far… that’s great” etc. etc, which enabled me to be back on my legs. Somehow, I reached the area where all other colleagues and instructors were waiting for us. Now the instructors said throw away your ski sticks and try to ski without them. They gave us the demo and asked us to try it. So, one by one everybody tried. When my turn came I was sort of looking away. It was like ‘you got to be kidding, balance without the sticks?’ but again words of encouragement from my friends did the trick. I was able to balance without the sticks. Then, we moved to the next lesson on how to do it right with sticks. The new confident me started cruising on snow and then slush… swish… bang… another slip and fall. The instructors were showing everything right from how to hold the sticks and how to push and how gain speed etc. Clearly it was class for people who already knew how to ski and want to improve their techniques but since they had begun right from the beginner level it was fine for me. The next 2 hours of the evening I tried few techniques and fell once more but had great fun slipping, sliding and swaying cautiously on snow. We could not get any pictures because it was dark (you know winter nights are quite dark in Finland).

So, it was an awesome experience and I want to thank all my friends in Finland, who made it possible. It was truly a rare opportunity. Kiitos! :)