Friday, July 2, 2010

Stockholm, Sweden

Map picture

Where The Baltic Begins

The city of Stockholm is an absolutely charming mixture of historic structures and a thriving modern ultra-clean city. Our trip over was completely without incident and was unremarkable. We arrived at our hotel, The Grand, around 8 in the morning and after grabbing a quick breakfast, spent the rest of the day trying to adjust from the jet-lag.

There is no question that if you come to Stockholm, you absolutely MUST stay at The Grand. Built in 1874, it is designated a “Swedish National Treasure.” From the window in our room, we look directly across at the Royal Palace, and everything of historical significance is within easy walking distance.

However, this charming OLD building does have some drawbacks. During our first day the temperature in our room steadily climbed to over 80 degrees. The first time I inquired of the front desk if their was some problem with the air conditioning, I was politely informed that because of the age of the building, it had “air cooling” not “air conditioning,” as if that explained it all. It did not to me and so finally after another phone call, we were moved into a new room where the temperature was a comfortable (?) 75 degrees. After yet one more phone, call a fan showed up in our room, and clearly that was to be the end of that discussion.

On our first full day in Stockholm, we had a private car and driver to provide us with the standard “city tour.” Since we had been here once before, we asked our driver to skip the tourist stuff and really show us the city. He broke into a big smile and said that “this is just what I really like.” During the next four hours he quite literally drove us all over the city, and even into the surrounding county side. He showed us quaint villages, and hidden estates. We drove on dirt roads, and went up roads that were clearly marked for “no cars.” In fact, he seemed to relish driving where no car had gone before. As we entered the city, the traffic was backed up for miles from construction. To my surprise, he jumped the curb and starting driving down the trolley track, all the while looking back at our amazed faces as he explained that Stockholm has only two traffic policemen, and that both are on holiday this month!

He really amazed us when he offered to provide us a tour of old town and the royal palace. That old part of the city is designated as a pedestrian enclave, but that made no difference to our driver. He headed up narrow streets filled with people, who jumped back in horror. He traveled on sidewalks and alleyways as easily as traversing the narrow streets. He explained to us that since the windows of the car were darkly tinted, people would assume we were dignitaries and think nothing of it, particularly since there had been a Royal Wedding just a few days before and the city was filled with dignitaries. Eventually we found ourselves driving into the entrance to the Royal Palace as the guards snapped to attention. We drove around the courtyard until some security personnel seemed to take notice, whereupon he said it was time to go.

In all fairness to our driver, we learned that he was quite senior and was usually the driver assigned to visiting dignitaries. He had a sign that he had thrown in the window that I suppose let him pretty much do what he wanted, and anyway, it was fun and we saw more than we could have ever seen on foot.

The one stop I will share with you was our visit once again to the Vaasa Museum. No matter how many times I visit this place I always walk away in complete awe. The Vasa was a Swedish Warship built around 1628. It was not just any warship, but was to be the biggest most feared vessel of the time. After construction was well underway, the King decided that he wanted another deck added to the ship in order to accommodate more cannons. The builders of the ship were hesitant, however the King persisted and the work was done.

In August, 1628, on a glorious sunny day, the ship set sail from its berth. It was a magnificent sight, all decked out in banners. The entire basin was filled with little craft here to watch the event, and it is said that the entire city lined the hillsides to watch this glorious moment. The builders of the ship secretly wondered if the ship would roll over, but no one dared to challenge the King. In fact, the ship sailed less that a mile from her berth before encountering a light breeze that caused her to roll over on her side and sink in the harbor. Needless to say, heads literately rolled. The loss of the Vasa represented the loss to Sweden of 10% of its worth.

What makes this story so compelling today is that in the late 1950’s a lone fisherman begin a quest to locate the wreck. It took him over three years before he finally discovered her location. Miraculously the ship was intact, buried deep in the silt of the harbor. In 1959, a salvage attempt was launched which involved digging six tunnels underneath the hull of the ship and then running steel cables under the hull. In August of that year, the still intact Vasa once again surfaced hanging by the cables and with tons of water being pumped out of her still solid hull. The ship was moved ashore near where she was originally launched and covered in a temporary tent. The tent was filled with a fine mist of chemicals that would slowly remove water from the wood and impregnate it with a preservative. I actually visited the ship at that time, and through the mist it was very difficult to see but I could tell that it was huge. Today the ship rests in a magnificent museum and is fully visible to visitors. I never tire of admiring this huge structure and this glimpse back into time.

This morning we have a few hours at leisure before boarding our ship, the Crystal Symphony. Tomorrow we will join in a ship tour of the Swedish Countryside and the following day, we will be sailing the Baltic on our way to St. Petersburg, Russia.

It will get very busy once we reach St. Petersburg, and so I will most likely run behind on my writings, but I will try to at least get something out. I hope everyone is fine.


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