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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

From Sweden to Finland: Adventures in the Nordic Archipelago

For those of you just tuning in, I went on a month-long holiday in Europe last summer (yes, I’m behind). Next stop - Stockholm, Sweden.

Friday August 10, 2018

Nothing like landing in a new country on two hours sleep.  If dancing at that Mojito bar in Macedonia last night hadn’t been so much fun, I’d be really regretting life right now.  The VERY long line for customs, being asked a ton of questions about my reasons for being there and the crowded 1.5-hour bus downtown didn’t help – PLEASE LEAVE ME ALOOOONE.

Two of my Macedonian travel buddies lived in Stockholm, so after a much-needed nap on the couch to restore my spirits, we went to one of their favorite places, Mahalo, in Hornsgaten. I’m a carnivore, so I’m always suspicious of vegan/vegetarian restaurants, but this place was fantastic.

After food, we went to a going away party and then once night fell continued on to Trädgården is an outdoor club located under the Skanstull bridge in Södermalm. The concept of the place is exactly my kind of scene, similar to Sisyphos in Berlin – very Burning Man sound camp.  We arrived around 12am, which the locals seemed to think was fine, but I was shocked to find on a Friday night there weren’t very many people.  

However, it being my first time there I still enjoyed exploring the grounds.  There are a bunch of outdoor stages with spiral staircases leading to second level dance floors and hidden gardens.  Very cool but the vibe sadly wasn’t there that night – we left just before it closed at 3am after dancing to one DJ who was pretty good.  I would definitely return here even though it was a bit lackluster that night.  Can’t win them all.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

This would prove to be my favorite day in Stockholm.  We woke up early to take the 30-minute ferry to Fjäderholmarna, an island in the amazing Swedish archipelago.  The weather could not have been more perfect – bright blue skies, warm sun, gentle sea. 

On arrival, I don’t know how we snagged a table outside on the water for four people at the height of lunch hour at Restaurang Rökeriet, but it was a truly magical meal.  I had a salmon dish with lingonberries, which is very Swedish (and delicious).  

The next ferry wasn’t for awhile, so we spent the next hour or so wandering the tiny island taking in the little shops, fishing spots and (randomly) massive fleet of swans!  We didn’t plan very well because as we returned to the ferry, we realized it was first-come first-served and we were at the back of a line of close to 100 people.  It took three rounds of ferries before we were able to get back to Stockholm! 

We hurried back to our respective apartments to change and then went to a woodland home way outside of Stockholm for a birthday party.  It was an amazing night but probably not super relevant for anyone else reading this 😊 I will say that I absolutely love the Sweds – everyone was in costume, they’d made really random, yet delicious drink concoctions, and played fun games that revolved around music.  My kind of people.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

Yuck – it rained ALL day and I spent it cooped up in my friend’s apartment.  I did find this amazing show called Cosplay Melee, which is basically Project Runway, but the designers create these incredible cosplay outfits based on video games and other sci-fi/fantasy games and novels.  Whoever invented television marathons…I thank you.

The rain finally let up, so we ventured out to Nytorget 9 in the “trendy” SoFo section of Södermalm for dinner.  I ordered the veal shank with potato puree and lingonberries – trying to get my Swedish on while I’m here! 

However, I’m not sure if they were down a server or not, but the table service was erratic. Also not sure if I had been overly-charmed by the “cuteness” of the place, but the food didn’t really live up to the hype for me. They do have some very inventive, delicious cocktails, which I highly recommend, and the surrounding area is very cute – perfect for a date night. 

Monday, August 13, 2018

It was my final day in Stockholm and I finally had a chance to be a tourist because my friends had to go back to work – but not before they met up with me for lunch at Barrels Burger in Gamla Stan, which is the old town district of Stockholm.  SUCH a cool area and wow that burger was one of the best I’ve had.

After lunch, I walked across the bridge towards Hornsgaten and spent the rest of the day taking pictures, visiting heaps of vintage stores and buying a ton of Swedish licorice from Lakritsroten. Omg I LOVE their licorice – it’s hard and black and salty. I bought so much of it.

I hopped on the subway back towards my friend’s apartment and walked through MOOD Galeria, which is a mall, not an art gallery.  It had a similar vibe to most luxury malls, just with fancy Swedish brands.  I would be returning to America as a member of the unemployed, so couldn’t afford much in this area but it was fun to walk around.

Low and behold, I ran into my friend on the street, so we walked back to his apartment together so I could pack my bags and embark on the next phase of my trip.

The next part of the trip was one of the things I was most excited about when I booked my holiday.  I’d be traveling by overnight cruise ship from Stockholm, through the archipelago to Turku, Finland.  There are two different cruise companies, Tallink Silja and Viking, and I’d decided on Tallink.  In retrospect, I was I knew why I made that decision, because it was all very old people and families. Usually I can spot like-minded people and make friends on trips, but there was no one who fit that description. I was bored by myself, but I could see where this would be really fun with a group of friends.

My room was very nice with my own shower and plenty of cozy blankets because it can get very cold at night.

I’d booked the buffet dinner as part of my ticket, which essentially started right after we disembarked so I ran to get in line first (not my first buffet).

Some tips for dinner (although you should just do Viking instead) -

  • Book the later dinner seating so you can sit on the top deck and enjoy the scenery before dark (I mistakenly did the early seating and by the time I finished eating it was pretty much dark out – how annoying since the scenery is the best part of the experience and why I did this damn boat)
  • Book the buffet (35 Euros a person), because it comes with unlimited beer and wine (remember you are on this trip with friends so it’s fun)
  • Get in line at the front of the restaurant before your seating time and make sure to get a table assignment from the guy at the front.  I walked right by him, grabbed food and then ended up at a shitty table in the middle of the room (instead of by the window) because I didn’t have a table assignment.  ARG
Because I’d done the earlier table seating, I made it to the top deck just in time to get a few shots before the sun went down and then had nothing to do until the “club” started their entertainment.  To be fair, the entertainment was HILARIOUS, but I eventually grew tired of it and went to bed early.

Another important tip– because I’d basically missed sunset and I went to bed early, I decided to set my alarm to get up for sunrise (surely that would be just as beautiful right?) Foiled again!  Turns out time shifts forward an hour in the middle of the night so if you want to catch sunrise you need to set your clock an hour BEFORE Finnish sunrise - I completely missed it and barely had enough time to shower before disembarking the boat.  I epically failed this portion of my trip – guess I’ll have to come back and do it again (with friends on Viking).

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

So weird to go to sleep in one country and wake up in another.  I haven’t done that since the overnight train from Hungary to Prague back in 2011(or was it the other way around?).

As previously mentioned, I messed up the time change so I raced off the boat at 7am where my Finnish friend was waiting patiently to pick me up.  You are probably thinking that my itinerary has been really random – Berlin, Macedonia, Stockholm, now Turku.  Well, summer in Europe is when everyone in Australia leaves the “cold” (it is never “cold” in Australia) and heads to the northern hemisphere.  So I decided to just meet people wherever they were, as long as it was a place I hadn’t been before.  And now I was in Turku.  If you’ve never heard of it, Turku used to be the capital of Finland before it was moved to Helsinki.

After “checking in” to my friend’s family home, we hopped on bikes to tour downtown Turku.  I love that you can just bike around wherever – it’s very safe.  

We boarded the Vesibussi ferry from Forum Marinum stop and took it to Kansanpuisto stop (it’s an island – love all these islands) so that we could bike to Saaronniemi Beach.  It’s one of my friend’s favorite childhood spots – and it was indeed very cute, although WAY too cold to be in the water which was unfortunate. It was very entertaining to see the little weekend "spa" buildings - Fins love their personal spas apparently.  

We drank some beers and then returned to the pier for lunch at this incredible pizza place called Sergio's al Mare, which is right on the water.  By this point, the sun came out, so it was lovely sitting on the deck eating pizza and drinking wine.  This was my favorite moment of my Finland experience.

Back in the city, we stopped by Turku Castle for a bit of history.  What a cool castle and in pretty good shape.  You can wander through most of it for free too.  It is actually one of the oldest buildings still in use and the largest surviving medieval building in Finland (founded in the late 13th century).

My second favorite thing about Turku is that the downtown is built along either side of the Aura river and along its banks are all these little boats that are floating bars.  We stopped at Donna, one of the boats, and I was so excited to learn they had NAPUE GIN! What is Napue Gin? Well, it is only the finest gin in the world – no really it won Best Gin at the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC) in February 2015 and the gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirit Competition premium gin-series in 2016.  And it deserves the titles – literally my favorite gin ever.  Best enjoyed with Fever Tree Indian Tonic, a sprig of rosemary and some cranberries while sitting on a boat on a river in Finland.

Back at the house, I had the rare treat of dinner with a legit Finnish family – my friend’s parents, sister, brother-in-law and his two little nephews.  In Finland, you don’t learn English in school until you are nine years old so neither nephew understood anything I was saying (this will become relevant later in the post).  They were intrigued by the foreigner, albeit shy, especially when I so readily tucked into the Reindeer soup.  Yes, reindeer is a pretty common protein in Finland, and tastes delicious (sorry Rudolph!)  It’s made into a stew with… you guessed it, potato puree and lingonberries (while the Sweds and Finnish don’t love each other, they share an affinity for similar foods).  I ate probably three rounds of the stuff before stumbling into bed exhausted.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018 

I woke up and realized I’d slept for 13 hours straight – the constant travel and early mornings had finally gotten to me, I guess.  After a simple Finnish breakfast with the family, my friend introduced me to a Finnish game called Molkky – it’s like bocce ball meets bowling meets pool.  The game consists of 12 pins (like bowling pins but numbered 1 to 12) and a skittle (the “bowling” ball).

On the first round, you draw to see who goes first (subsequent games the previous winner starts, and you go in order to the person with the lowest score). First, you put all the pins together in a pile (like pool balls) and draw a throwing line 3-4 meters from the pins.  Then you throw the skittle at the pins (always underhand) and try to knock them over.  Your score is either the number on the pin (if you only knock down one) or the collective score of all the pins you knock over.

Here’s where it gets tricky… you can only win if your score adds up to exactly 50 points. If you go over 50, you go back to 25. If you miss three times in a row, you are out.  I was terrible at first, but once I got the hang of it… I was unstoppable!

It also made me very hungry, so I was not upset in the least when my friend’s mom appeared with leftover reindeer stew – yes, please!  By this point, the older of the two nephews couldn’t contain his curiosity any longer, and in rapid Finnish, asked my friend if I would like to play UNO. After explaining the family’s rules for UNO, I sat down to play with his nephew.  We had a GREAT time!  He taught me UNO words in Finnish (draw two, skip, reverse) and I taught him the word in English.  It’s pretty cool to spend the day interacting with someone who doesn’t speak your language and find that you can have the greatest time without too much talking.  Americans could learn a thing or two.

My friend was eager to see some friends who lived in Helsinki and I was eager to take advantage of seeing another Finnish city (I had only planned to do Turku) so we hopped in the car and spent the next two hours driving through the beautiful countryside.

We met his friends for dinner at Baari and Keittiö, which had an amazing salmon burger that I quickly devoured out on their beautiful patio.  From there, we went to Onda for drinks (yes, I ordered more Napue) where we sat out on the patio until it got dark and then moved inside to listen to a DJ.  The place kind of reminded me of bars in Southeast Portland (Oregon). The people watching was outstanding (smirk).

Thursday, August 16, 2018

My final day in Finland and I felt kind of stupid that I wasn’t just flying out of Helsinki – instead we’d have to drive back to Turku for my early morning flight the next day, but not before spending a lovely day walking through most of Helsinki.  We covered a lot of ground.

To start, we woke up and walked to Cafe Regatta in the Taka-Töölö district on the western side of the downtown area for their famous cinnamon buns.  It’s such a cute little café right on the water – a must see.  

From there we walked south, more or less following Mechelininkatu Street to Löyly at the south-western tip of the city.  It’s a really cool multi-tier outdoor sauna and cafe restaurant – wish I had a swimsuit because I would’ve loved to kick it here all day.  

Instead, we opted for a glass of rose to enjoy the water views and then continued southeast along the water, stopping at occasional bars for snacks and more until we reached Allas Sea Pool on the western side.  Another multi-tier bar with amazing views back towards Helsinki.

After enjoying the view for a bit, we walked back through the markets along the port towards home, stopping for pizza at Linko (delicious) before jumping in the car for our long drive back to Turku.

I thought at first my Finnish adventure was over, but back in Turku, it was Night of the Arts, a festival that the whole city attends.  All the boat bars were festooned in lights, beer gardens had popped up and all the bars, restaurants and art galleries were open and teeming with people.  It was great fun just walking up and down the river stopping into the galleries (all free for the night) and enjoying the energy.  It was the perfect end to my time in Finland.