Travel Detour: How an upset stomach gave me time to explore Stockholm

Coronavirus has had me, like the rest of the world, self isolating for the last six weeks. Given that I won’t actually be travelling for the foreseeable future, I’ve taken to listen to a few travel podcasts. On a cold evening walk tonight that was carefully planned between bouts of torrential rain, the podcast I was listening to happened to mention the ABBA museum in Stockholm. Maybe it was the cold or my recent rewatching of Mamma Mia, but I realised that it’s been five years since being in Stockholm. What a better time to reminisce on past travels (and check how my memory holds up).

It was March 2015 and I had arrived in Stockholm from Riga, Latvia. The few days that I’d spent in Riga prior to arriving were memorable for all the wrong reasons. I’d been in Riga as part of a research project for my Masters. Being March, it was still cold. The days were shorter than I’m used to back home and there were not many smiling faces around in Riga. Nonetheless, I’d got my research done and was ready to head off to Estonia when I got hit with a gastro bug that had me searching for an international hospital. A day and a half inside my hotel room trying to keep anything down and I decided the bus and ferry were not going to be possible options.

A quick route change to somewhere comfortable was in order which had me, after a sizeable dose of Imodium, set to fly direct to Stockholm a few days ahead of schedule. The original plan was to visit Tallinn to compare it to Riga, take the ferry across the Helsinki then arrive in Stockholm just before Melodifestivalen. This short cut gave me a few extra days in Stockholm for recovery and hopefully some sightseeing.

I flew Norwegian Air Shuttle and in a sign of how unwell I must have been feeling I don’t even have a photo of the plane. The Imodium held up for the 1:15min flight over the Baltic and I was willing to pay the high fee for the Arlanda Express high-speed train that connected the airport to Stockholm central in 18minutes. I’d selected a hotel directly opposite the central station and was checked into my hotel within 45min of landing in Stockholm.

Stockholm Central Hotel Bed

The Central Hotel was, as its name suggests very close to the main train station and downtown Stockholm. My room was small but filled with natural light and felt cosy. A single bed running the length of the room sat in front of a wallpaper image of the Stockholm’s town hall while a small desk was complimented by a mini workout station (consisting of two sets of dumbbells). Contrasting to the cold air outside the room was the perfect warmth inside without being stuffy. Only places that get so cold outside seem to be able to maintain this fine balance between warmth and stuffiness. Still feeling pretty ordinary I drew the curtains and took a nap on what was one of the most comfortable beds I’d slept in in the last few weeks.

The rest of the day included several naps, hot showers and sweating out whatever bug I’d caught in Riga. By the time I started feeling like eating again I ventured out in search of something plain and easy to eat. This is when I remembered that staying around train stations, while convenient, is often a more dodgy area of the city. I felt like something plain so settled for some fries from the Burger King across the road. While slowing enjoying my fries and lemonade (it had been a few days since I’d kept anything down, so this was a slower than normal process) a dishevelled guy sat at the table opposite me. I didn’t pay too much attention to him at first as, quite frankly, most people at this railway station Burger King late at night looked pretty dishevelled.

Perhaps it was the constant staring from him that made me notice that he was after more than just a burger as I noticed that, beneath his table he had proceeded to play with himself. If I had to be exposed to by someone in Sweden, I’d rather it be one of the tall, blond, muscled Swedish man that stereotypically adorns Swedish tourism materials. It still wouldn’t be right, but it might be better. Leaving the Burger King I hot footed it back to my hotel as the man adjusted himself and then proceeded to follow behind. I was glad for the swipe card entry to the main hotel and was even happier when the doors closed and locked behind me with my new admirer out in the cold. Safely back in my room alone I realised why I’d been able to afford such a nice hotel. I kept my meal down and by morning I was ready to explore Stockholm.

Stockholm Royal Palace Staterooms

Although Australia’s head of state is the Queen of England, we don’t have real palaces or castles in Australia so, I often find myself making up for our lack of palaces when I travel. Stockholm was no exception. The Royal Palace is located on the island of Gamla Stan, the old city of Stockholm. The old city itself is beautiful to explore with its colourful 17th and 18th century buildings lining cobblestoned streets. It was easy to wander without purpose throughout the island, looking into shop after shop selling hand made or antique bric-a-brac in their small shopfronts. The Palace itself was easily accessible and before long I found myself on a guided tour through some of the 600 rooms in the palace. I enjoyed the old and new components of what is a working palace. My guide informed me that the tour route changes depending on which rooms are being used for official functions and its possible to cross paths with royalty in the corridors (if only I had any idea what any Swedish royalty looked like).

Like many castles and palaces series of staterooms connect with each other in a never ending sequence of formality. The castle has been around in its current form since it was finished in the 1770’s although earlier castles have been on the same site since as far back as 13th century (or so they think). I did find it interesting that amongst the history and ceremony that fills the many staterooms, there was signs of modernisation. One room we were shown had been renovated to be more practical for modern times and reflect a modern Sweden. I couldn’t help but think that IKEA had sponsored the room. The group guide was informative throughout the guided walk however a standout memory was her describing, with some pride, of being able to work a fire marshal when events are held. Her role has been to watch balls occur while standing in the corner, fire extinguisher and sand bucket at the read. Now that is dedication to the family.

Stockholm Royal Palace

After completing the tour of the palace, I ventured underground to the Treasury. The thick stone walls in the basement provide an authentically secure home to the royal Regalia that is housed and used for formal occasions. Unlike the crown jewels at the tower of London, it was possible to take time exploring at my own pace (read, no travelator whisking you past the jewels in Sweden). It’s amazing how these beautiful jewels and gowns have been prized for generations and how each has a story on its creation and purpose, not to mention their worth. I leave the palace and want to learn a little more on Swedish history, which I must say I’m terribly uneducated in.

I cross the bridge to and again find myself underground in the medieval museum, or Medeltidsmuseet as it’s called. The key takeaway from this museum is a small replica medieval town that wander through within this underground complex. While mainly targeted to a younger audience, my lack of any prior history on the area made it a perfect introduction to medieval Sweden. From adapting to the cold and creating an empire this small museum was a great place to get some local history and perspective. Excavations of what are believed to be original walls or foundations were also pretty impressive. Being indoors it was warm and close enough to the old town area while I waited for the changing of the guard to occur.

Being off season, the changing of the guard ceremony doesn’t occur every day, but I was fortunately enough to catch a glimpse of it during my stay. Unfortunately, due to renovations on the facades, the background to the parade was protective wrapping of the buildings which probably took some of the pomp and ceremony from the event. Speaking of pomp and ceremony, I was surprised by the relative lack of it. Yes, there was marching, drumming and shouting here and there as the soldiers formed positions but it was nothing like the pompous scenes you’ll see outside Buckingham Palace. All in all, it seemed efficient with a side of pride thrown in.

Stockholm Changing of the Guard

On my final day in Stockholm, it was time to turn the culture level a notch and so decided to check out two must see museums before an evening of pop culture entertainment at Melodifestivalen. I’ll get into Melodifestivalen more in another blog post as its worthy of its own discussion. In short, Melodifestivalen is Sweden’s answer to Eurovision. The outcome each year is that the country picks its entry to Eurovision. I was fortunate enough to witness Mans Zelmerlow win with Heroes later than night who then went on to win Eurovision that year.  Eurovision is a great Segway into my first (and most enjoyable museum) the ABBA museum.

That’s right. A museum dedicated to ABBA. In 1974 ABBA won Eurovision with Waterloo and the rest is history to which this museum is dedicated to sharing and letting you experience. The costumes, singing, formation and life of ABBA are celebrated in this interactive museum. The museum follows the history of the band through which I was unashamedly singing and dancing my way through (they literally encourage this with singing booths and dance floors part of the exhibition). The museum also hosts the Swedish Music History Hall of Fame where you can listen to the best of Swedish music by decade (more than a few will be familiar to any Eurovision fan). The ABBA museum was really enjoyable that is not to be missed. It seems impossible to think you can’t leave it without a big smile on your face and a spring in your step. Even travelling alone I found plenty of people to sing and dance with.

Stockholm ABBA Museum Clothing

The next museum was targeting the nerd in me with a salvaged Swedish naval warship from the 1600’s. The Vasa museum was short walk from the ABBA museum and is somewhat of an oddity. Most history or military themed museums often celebrate wars (generally celebrated by the victors) but this museum I found pretty comical. The Vasa was a warship built over two years concluding in 1628. The ship was designed to be a flagship vessel in a war with Poland and Lithuania armed with the latest bronze cannons. That didn’t exactly pan out.

To cut a fascinatingly short story even shorter, the Vasa capsized and quickly sunk a little over 1km into her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour. There she lay for centuries before being salvaged in the 1950’s, restored and turned into one of the most popular museums in Sweden. The museum celebrates probably one of the most embarrassing naval achievements in Swedish history in an entertaining yet educational way around the full size restoration of what was supposed to be one of the most powerful vessels of the day (if of course, it had of stayed upright for long enough). Even if you’re not that into ships this is worth a visit.

Stockholm VASA Museum Ship

Getting between the museums and my hotel and around Stockholm generally was easy to just walk around. The waterways that intersect the city are beautiful and nothing is too far from anywhere. Having been neutral in the second world war there are many historical buildings to look at mixed in with more industrialised and recent constructions. By the end of my short stay in Sweden I was somewhat glad that my plans had taken a hasty change which allowed for these extra days visiting the city. Of course, no visit to Sweden would be complete without trying some meatballs.

On my last night I found a small bar and enjoyed some pseudo traditional Swedish meatballs. Despite some ‘fake news’ being tweeted int 2018 that Swedish meatballs were actually Turkish (which was later rebuked), my 2015 were pretty similar to those you’d experience at an IKEA anywhere in the world. Maybe it was my low budget and short patience for searching for foods or maybe that’s just how they taste. Either way, my short trip to Sweden was complete. All that remained was another high-speed journey back to the airport to start my travels back home.

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