Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I Heard Scandinavia Calling

The Wanderlust grabbed me by the throat and just wouldn’t let go! I returned from Lithuania fully energized and couldn’t sit still so I immediately booked another weekend trip for early June, this time to yet another city I hadn’t yet visited: Stockholm, Sweden. I had heard it offered some interesting sights and sounds, albeit quite expensive ones, but I had a contact there so decided why not? I had first met Mats back in 1986 when he was an exchange student in Albuquerque and had made friends with my Norwegian son/exchange student Erik. I hadn’t seen him since then, but we had somehow managed to stay in touch over the years, mostly through the wonders of Facebook. I was looking forward to a renewed acquaintance.
I arrived at Arlanda Airport, Sweden, around 7 PM on Thursday, June 5, 2014. It was an easy one-stop flight with KLM, an extremely efficient airline. Since Arlanda Airport is around 47 kilometers north of Stockholm, I opted to take the Arlanda Express train into the city. This train is one of those 200-kilometer-per-hour trains, and got me to Stockholm in 20 minutes. Whooosh!! Quick and easy. I had changed some euros at the airport and bought my (Pensioner) train ticket and had no sooner settled down in my seat than the train pulled into Stockholm’s Central Station. Damn! And for only 26 euro round trip. Such a deal – and almost the only good deal I would find during my visit. Stockholm is one expensive city.
Rather than splurge on a taxi, I decided to try and find a bus to take me over to the Gamla Stan (Old Town) area, which was really only about a one-kilometer walk. Naturally, all of the bus ticket offices were closed by this time, but I found that the convenience stores in the station also sold bus tickets, so I picked one up there. Now to find the bus stop. I quickly got turned around and finally asked a local on the street where the hell I was and how to find the correct bus to Gamla Stan. He was a really friendly and helpful Swede and actually walked me to the Metro and made sure I got on the right train for my one-stop ride (my ticket was good for any mode of public transport). I thanked him profusely when I got off and made my way up to street level. I oriented myself per the Google map I had printed out and walked the five minutes to my hotel, which was on the major Old Town shopping/pedestrian street, Vasterlanggatan.
The Lord Nelson is one of the Collector Hotels, a small oasis in the midst of all of the excitement and music and shops of Stockholm’s Old Town. What a great little hotel! Only six meters wide and the rooms were all furnished like cabins in a ship. The theme of the hotel was, of course, nautical English, with statues of Lord Nelson scattered here and there, sailing ship accessories along the walls and on window shelves, and lots of brass and glass and dark wood. Another fun choice.
By that time it was 8:30 PM and I was hungry and thirsty, so I walked out of the hotel, turned left for about 20 meters, another left and down a narrow street to Jazzpub Stampen. Dinner could wait, I needed a beer. There was a Dixieland band playing as I walked into what I thought from all the reviews I’d read would be a large hall with tables and chairs surrounding a spacious dance floor. I was expecting a much more formal place and was surprised to find Stampen is a really small pub with a raised stage at one end for the band(s).
There’s a long bar with tables and benches along the windows and a not-very-large middle area for dancing and/or mingling. The crowd was definitely older – not a lot of dark hair in that pub. And it was casual to the point of raggedy. I really had the impression from the Trip Advisor reviews I had read that it would be much more formal and somehow more upscale. I was disabused. But happy nonetheless, as I bellied up to the bar and ordered a local draft beer. Stockholm pubs have the fine art of tourist-screwing down to a science as the prices for value received pretty much overshadow the end results of happiness and joie de vivre one hopes to find in a fun, noisy pub. A 04.L draft beer, nothing special, was nearly seven (7) euro, or $10 US. Damn! Gonna be an expensive visit.
But the beer was cold and the music was loud and the crowd was friendly. I struck up a conversation with Swedish Leonard and was welcomed to the city with a resounding “Skol!”
I decided to check out some of the other places I’d researched, so walked just down the street about 40 meters to Wirstrom’s pub. I pried open the stuck-together menu pages there and finally found something for dinner that wouldn’t break me my first night in Stockholm: a plate of cold cuts (meats, cheeses and pickles). I also had a satisfying Samuel Adams beer (very popular in Stockholm), which cost more than my dinner.
Friday, June 6, my first full day in Stockholm, started off with a small, but adequate, continental breakfast at the hotel. On my way out I checked with the receptionist as to what was happening that day, only to find out it was Sweden’s National Day, which meant, of course, that most of the shops would be closed. Sigh. Why isn’t this information easily and obviously available when booking tickets? Well, at least the restaurants and bars would be open. I could save my shopping for another day.
I took an orientation walk across a couple of bridges, over to the Opera, back across two more bridges and around the Royal Palace. I strolled the cobblestone streets, found the Nobel Museum and squeezed down the narrowest alley in Stockholm. My Google Walking Tour map led me to all the interesting places in Old Town. The weather was cloudy but warm and I inhaled all of the fragrances and sights of this northern Scandinavian city as I walked and gazed and snapped photos.
Lunchtime, and my taste buds screamed for some Swedish meatballs, so I answered the call and had them, accompanied by mashed potatoes and lingonberries (whatever the heck they are). Satiated for the time being, I resumed my walk around Old Town, changed some more money (terrible rates, coupled with a 9.5% service commission charge! They should have had a sign in their window saying ‘Tourists Screwed Here.’). I needed an ice cream cone after that.
Since it was Friday early evening, my guidebooks had told me the place to go for a fun after-work special was Jazzpub Stampen again, so that’s where I headed, to have a beer (I could only afford one – at least I cut down on my beer intake while in Stockholm). There wasn’t a large crowd at that time, probably because of the National Day holiday, so I took off in search of food, which I found while sitting in a window seat at The Corner Bar. This time it was lövistek with bulgur, fries and beer.
Another stroll around the area looking for Friday night entertainment. The recommended Engelen restaurant, bar and night club had a cover band playing 50s and 60s rock, but they wanted a 12 euro entrance fee. No thanks, I’ll stick to the free bands. Wandering back along Stora Nygatan I was passing by O’Connell’s bar when I heard zydeco music issuing forth. I veered in and found, sure enough, a local band named Bayou, playing Cajun and Creole and zydeco and other popular songs from the Louisiana swamps, so I stayed and had a few beers. Ok, OK, I hear you, and YES, it was expensive, as I was enjoying Caffrey’s Irish beer at 7.5 euro a pop, but there comes a time in an evening when you just don’t care any more and figure what the heck, there’s always ATMs.
I stayed at O’Connell’s for a couple of hours then cruised by Stampen on my way back to the hotel. I would have stayed there longer, but I was singled out by one of the local Swedish drunks for a conversation he wouldn’t remember in the morning – or, probably, an hour from now – so I polished off my beer and headed back to Lord Nelson.
Saturday was my planned Hop On Hop Off bus tour of Stockholm, to include the world-famous Vasa Museum, of which I had never heard. I hopped on the bus at its Stop No. 4 near my hotel and was off to the races. The Vasa Museum was Stop No. 13, and I hopped off (as one does) and found the entrance to the gigantic building housing the Vasa.
For those of you who have never heard of it – like me – the Vasa was the biggest warship of its time, a huge, lavishly decorated sailing ship with two rows of cannon on each side. It was built in a Stockholm shipyard in the early 1600s. The Vasa was launched in August 1628. It slid down the ways, hit the water in the Stockholm harbor and sailed majestically away….for 1500 meters, at which point a stray gust of wind apparently took its sails and canted the ship to an angle where it could not remain upright. The Vasa sank in Stockholm harbor just minutes after setting sail on its maiden voyage.
The Vasa sat submerged in the mud for 333 years, at which time it was raised and cleaned up and removed to a museum worthy of the supreme effort to rescue this ship from final oblivion. The museum is huge and does an excellent job of portraying all aspects of the Vasa’s short existence. I spent a happy two hours there and could have stayed longer, but the sunny day was beckoning so I bid the Vasa a fond farewell and hopped back on my bus tour.
I completed the tour and saw the major sights of Stockholm. They were okay; a lot of big imposing buildings and royal residences and offices, a clean, bright city, happy people walking along the boulevards and lots of water. All in all, a nice, safe, rather bland city. Sort of like Geneva. Or Helsinki. I’m glad I visited it, but doubt if I’ll return.
I had a light lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the Old Town. I had some really yummy Swedish ice cream (but still not as good as Turkey’s!) and I finally retired for a short nap after that grueling day. Dinnertime crept up on me and I was in the mood for another typical Swedish meal, so I had a lovely Taco Salad at one of Old Town’s faux-Mexican restaurants. Hey! It was only 8 euro, the best deal I could find. My funds were beginning to run low and I needed to watch my expenses for the remainder of my visit.
I wandered into Stampen for an hour or so of blues, then headed down to O’Connell’s again for some real traditional Irish music, always a good time. My newfound buddy Jed, the English bartender, was working that night again and took care of me at the bar while I sang along with the band. I managed to nurse a Guinness for longer than I should have, but Mr. Wallet was smiling when I left the bar.
Sunday, my last full day in Stockholm, and I was scheduled to meet up with my “Old Buddy” Mats. Sure enough, he appeared at my hotel around 10:30 and we reminisced and chatted for a while and then took off for the harbor area. After a stroll around the docks, we caught one of the two-hour boat tours that went around the lake and islands. It was a nice afternoon, the sun was out and we just sort of drifted with the tide. Mats pointed out some of the sights and added more details to the recorded guide.
After the tour, we walked up to the Modern Art Museum and had lunch. Since Mats had paid for the boat tour I picked up lunch. We each had the roast chicken leg with rice and beans and some sort of sauce and two soft drinks. Total cost: $46 US! And you wonder why I probably won’t return to Sweden.
We checked out a food fair in one of the nearby parks, then walked back to my hotel where I bid a fond farewell to Mats. It was fun seeing him again after all that time, and he promised to try and visit Budapest one of these days.
For my last night in Stockholm I thought I’d splurge a little bit and have a nice dinner in one of the many squares around the Old Town. I walked down Vasterlanggatan to Jarntorget (Iron Square, where all of the iron imported into Sweden used to be weighed and taxed) where I found yet another typical Swedish restaurant, the Taverna Bazaar. Turkish and Greek food. Gotta love it. Anyway, I was hustled (nicely) by one of the waitresses to come join them and, after looking at their menu and seeing they had saganaki, I was hooked.
I joined the dinner crowd at a small table set on the cobblestoned square and decided upon the saganaki appetizer (toasted cheese, usually brought flaming to your table, but I hadn’t had that since Santorini, and this time was no exception; it was tasty but not afire), the mixed meat plate with Greek salad and potatoes and a couple of Greek beers (Mythos, if you must know).
The food was good and tasty, the ambiance wonderful, the weather perfect, service was speedy and efficient and I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. And the whole thing only cost me $70 US! If I still had a car I would have had to give the restaurant my pink slip. Jeez, Stockholm’s expensive!
I took a nice after-dinner stroll, but since it was Sunday there was no music and all the clubs were closed, so I turned in early. Monday I walked from my hotel to the Central Station to catch the Arlanda Express back to the airport. On the way I stopped in at a vintage clothing store and, talking to the owner, found out she was originally from Georgia (the state, not the country) and had, in fact, attended the University of Georgia, one of my alma maters. Go Dawgs! Our small world continues to shrink.
And that was it for my weekend in Stockholm. It’s a pretty place, clean and shiny. The state controls the sale of liquor in its state stores, which hasn’t deterred many of the Swedes from continuing to abuse their alcohol. And as much as I enjoyed seeing the sights and meeting up with Mats again and trying the Swedish food and music clubs, I must admit the excessively high price of EVERYTHING really sort of put a damper on my visit. Too expensive, and I hate having to worry about what I’m spending. But I went through 500 euro (around $700 US!) in just four days and that’s just too much for a carefree weekend.
But I’m glad I saw Stockholm and can check it off my list. Besides, it was my 58th country. And now, on to the next adventure!