Viking Country 3: Road Trip Treasures

One of the more endearing things about the road trip in Sweden was the sheer volume of cool stuff to see that is really close to the main highway. I feel a deep cultural attraction to “the road trip” which I’ve always sort of assumed was part of my American heritage. After all, as a child, my father took me on summer road trips in the RV to all the beautiful national parks of the West. My mom took us on weekend road trips up and down the coast or the town next door. When I got a car, I took repeated road trips with my friends. Loading up on road snacks, blasting your road music and pulling over when some random sign says “world’s largest ketchup bottle” is a basic part of Americana that thrives in my soul no matter how long I’m away.


Sweden is the only other country I’ve been to that I feel really gets it as far as road trip culture goes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved driving across Germany. Those people have amazing gas stations. The New Zealand drive was great and I loved having my own wheels in Bohol. The main difference is that, however beautiful the roadside scenery was in all those places, the road was just a way to get to places that public transit didn’t go. In Sweden, they not only have great gas stations, but also STUNNING rest stops that are basically parks and attractions on their own, AND they have the most wonderful series of roadside attractions.

On the day I fled the not-a-murder-house-we-promise, I found a cool viking church, another old-timey village replica, the most beautiful rest stop I’ve ever seen, and a giant statue by Pablo Picasso.

Viking Church

The Swedish people were late to the Christianity conversion party. After all, the religion’s spread originated in Rome, and the Roman Empire never quite managed to get a foothold in the land of the ice and snow. Vikings were worshiping Odin and co. right up to the 12th century, and even when they finally did “convert” it was… very halfhearted. A lot of the viking cultural and artistic trappings stayed almost entirely the same but with a little “for Jesus” footnote.

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I stopped in at Glanshammar Church in Örebro to see a little bit of how the Viking and the Christian met in the middle. I have to say, I wasn’t much impressed by the exterior of the building. There was an interesting watchtower construction, but the church was remarkably plain for something supposedly Catholic. I mean, think of all those Romanesque arches and Gothic cathedrals in Europe. What was this little white nub of a building?

Fortunately, I stuck it out and found the door. The interior of the very plain white building is filled end to end and top to bottom with highly intricate artwork that uniquely combines the traditional Christian art and architecture from the continent with the Swedish styles seen in earlier Viking tradition.

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Outdoor Museum of Provincial Life

Next, still in Örebro, I stopped by the 18th century village reproduction called Wadköping. According to the sign, many of the buildings were actually transplanted from their original home to create the open air museum. I began to wander the town, noticing once more the extreme prevalence of red buildings. I saw some ladies doing needlework with laundry drying, and I went into buildings for kids that had plaster animals and pretend food.

I found the home of Hjalmar Bergman (Ingred Bergman’s father), a famous if often misunderstood writer who wrote about a mythical town of  Wadköping as a kind of Anytown, Sweden representing a middle class provincial life. The recreational is named after his literary invention as there was no such village in reality.

There was a replica school house which showed a typical education plan for students including Christianity, native language, arithmetic, “knowledge of nature” (the natural sciences), gymnastics, gender segregated crafts, and drawing.

There were a startling number of little artisan shops inside the buildings. Some were simply souvenir and ice cream shops, but others included traditional arts like woodcarving and a silversmith. The Historiska Butiken was particularly filled with the kind of beautiful Norse styled witchcrafty goodies that I know at least 30 people in my immediate friend group would have loved to fill their homes with. Even I had a hard time resisting. Tiny luggage space saves me money again!

A Fully Functioning Castle?

My last stop in Örebro was the Örebro Castle. This was the only place I ever really had trouble finding parking since the castle is quite central and Örebro is not a tiny village. After a few drives around the block, I found some street parking and headed over. It was mainly an exterior photo-op because the castle is not decorated in antique royal furniture the way so many of the castles on the continent were. A small part of the castle was set up as a kind of tiny museum, and much larger parts of the castle are actually used as government and business offices. The governor even lives there. Functional castle!

While exploring, I also found a hiking trail sign that indicated a “walking with death” level of trail difficulty, and a dramatically oversized park bench, just for fun.

Roadside Picasso

Waving good by to Örebro, I hit the highway for another longer stretch in search of the Picasso. That’s right, there’s an original Picasso standing out in the Swedish countryside… or… lakeside anyway. I’m not actually a big Picasso fan, for complicated reasons involving art history and feminism, but this seemed like the Swedish equivalent of “the world’s largest bottle of ketchup” and I could not drive so near it without stopping by. It was a long slow drive down a thin, low speed limit road, but it was such a beautiful day, and the road ran along the waterfront. A worthy side-trip.

On my way, I paused at one of Sweden’s many beautiful and amazing roadside rest stops. This one was a small lake surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The water was so still that the perfect blue and fluffy white of the sky were reflected like a mirror. I ate my sandwich and watched the beauty, just feeling overwhelmed by Sweden.20180815_160148.jpg

When I finally arrived at the Picasso, I was not disappointed. It’s clearly his work, and it’s GIANT. I wandered all around taking photos from various angles before I realized that the absolute best angle for the late afternoon sun also contained a couple having a nice fika (cup of coffee & snack) on a bench below the statue. I tried my best to shoot around them, hoping they might finish and move, but in the end I had to go in for politely asking if they would mind stepping away from the bench for just a moment so I could get the best picture. I do hate asking people to move their picnic, but it’s not like I’m going to be back again any time soon. They were quite gracious about the request, and I got my “shot”.20180815_172959.jpg

Fine Dining

I had reserved a cabin in a campground for the night, but was slowly learning to plan dinner before checking into the more remote accommodations. With no desire for another grocery store dinner, I decided to stop in Karlstad for a nice restaurant meal. Thanks to Google, I found a place called Elektriska. It’s built in the remains of an old electro-technical plant and focuses on high quality, sustainable, local, ethically sourced food cooked with an eye for haute cuisine. It is not cheap, but it was just inside my price range, and sounded right up my alley. Not to mention, it was in an adorable neighborhood.

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Their cocktail menu alone could have kept me happy. In the end I chose a lingonberry Gin and Tonic made with Stockholms Branneri Pink Gin, lingonberry, grapefruit, and Mediterranean Tonic. ($15)

The appetizer menu also looked like something I could just happily graze my way through, but the waitress advised that even the larger sampler was unlikely to be quite enough for a dinner. I settled on the “16 Ampere” appetizer platter which included rainbow trout with dill and vinegar, truffle salami with ricotta and sunflower, and wild boar with plum and tellicherry. ($17) The menu is seasonal and based on what’s available, so don’t go expecting to get exactly the same.

The wild boar sausage and the wild trout sashimi were entirely delicious, but the star of this dish was absolutely the salami. I would never in 10 million years have thought to combine salami, ricotta cheese, AND sunflower butter. I love all three of these, and I have probably had salami and ricotta together, and might have tried ricotta with sunflower seeds in a salad or something, but… wow. I can’t even explain how amazing this flavor combo is. Get u sum.

My main course was more rainbow trout, and if you like fish you know you just can’t go wrong with fresh caught local rainbow trout in season. This was skin fried rainbow trout with root vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and crayfish tails in a buttered crayfish broth. (28$)20180815_202844.jpg

I included the prices because this was the MOST expensive meal I ate on holiday, and I kind of wanted to put in perspective what that means for me. A high quality meal and cocktail at a fancy restaurant is not something I do often, but I’d been saving by eating in grocery stores and local delis, and this was a splurge that was 100% worth it. Amazing food isn’t cheap, but it sure does make the pleasure centers in my brain light up like Christmas and New Year’s all at once.

Cabin In the Woods

I got to my “campsite” in Värmland after dark and had a little trouble finding the bathrooms, but fortunately I was the only one there, and I’m not afraid to pretend to be a bear. The cabin itself was very plush with wall to wall carpet and a sort of beach house all white linen decor, as well as excellent WiFi. Despite being an actual cabin in the woods, the whole vibe of the campsite was homey and friendly which was a nice change after the farmhouse fright night.20180815_220708.jpg

The next morning I was able to easily find the bathroom and kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and prepare a bit of breakfast from my grocery supplies. Traveling in a car means I can stock up on food for most meals and snacks more easily than when I’m traveling by bus and train. I was in no particular hurry to hit the road, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table and chairs out front of my cabin while watching the sheep across the road.

Once I felt full and rested, and put all my bedding in the laundry room, I hit the road once more. The cabin rules had included a rather extensive list of guests cleaning responsibilities and it wasn’t the first time I encountered such. The Langholm hostel had similar rules instructing guests not only to strip the sheets for the laundry staff, but also to take out the trash and sweep the floor before checking out! I try to be a good guest and never leave a big mess behind, but for me that usually means putting all my waste IN the garbage and cleaning up any big spills. I know pretty much all US hotels/hostels have housekeeping that have to clean the rooms between guests, but I’ve never seen the need to make extra work for them. Still it was a stretch even for me to be told that I had to go to the main building and get the vacuum cleaner, haul it over to the cabin and vacuum, then take it back, and also fold all the bedding after removing the duvet covers. I guess I’m just saying if you go to Sweden, expect to be your own housekeeping.

Winging It and Winning

I was getting used to following the roadsigns to roadside attractions by this point in my road trip and I happily turned off to explore Borgvik and Hyttruin without really knowing what I’d find. Hytta means “foundry”. Hyttruin is therefore the ruins of a foundry. I’m not a person who is typically interested in ironwork, and I think if the sign had said “iron foundry” I might have kept driving, but then I would have missed these wonderful ruins, and you know how much I love ruins.

Looking at the size of the defunct forge, I could imagine mythical dwarves making Thor’s hammer there. It was enormous, but it’s not from the days of antiquity, it’s just from the 1800s. Alongside the ruins ran the waterfall that was created to supply the foundry with hyrdropower. There were signs around the place explaining the history of pig iron, and the ins and outs of manufacture, but it turns out I’m still not interested in iron production. Very cool ruins, though.

Art & Lunch

Next I popped into a little art gallery nearby (still in Borgvik) called Sliperiet. It turned out to be a restaurant/art gallery and I opted to do both. Being hungry, I started with the restaurant and once again indulged my salmon habit. It was another highly artisan place with only a few chef chosen dishes on the menu each day. The salmon and veg were perfectly lovely, but what made the dish sing was the lemon cream. I don’t know how he made this stuff, but it was absolutely lemon and cream in the best possible way. Both are great with salmon but together it was heaven. I could eat that lemon cream every day on everything.20180816_130950.jpg

While I was eating, the staff brought me a booklet with little biographies of all the artists on display in the gallery which gave me a chance to think about what I was going to see. I decided to do the museum as a break between lunch and dessert, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of art on display in what was really the “middle of nowhere”. I took photos of absolutely everything, but I’m only going to share some of my favorites here.

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In case you want to follow up on any of these fine creators, I’ve tried to include relevant links: Albin Liljestrand, Kjell Engman, Stephan Westling, Ann Lillqvist, Rodney Smith, Christian Coigny, Nino Ramsby, Ylva CederTim Flach, Sara Nilsson, Jonas Rooth, Eka Acosta

After a lovely dessert of crème brûlée, I asked the very kind and helpful staff people where to go next. I had planned a day “in Varmland” but had no idea what was there, and had been going off of roadside stands and Google Maps markers with some success so far, but it never hurts to ask a local. They told me about an artist commune called NotQuite and I resolved to include it as my last stop in Varmland for the day.

An Artist Commune

20180816_161751NotQuite is an artist community built in an old paper factory in the middle of nothing. The art on display is far more experimental and boundary pushing than anything else I’d seen that summer, and not all of it was good, but all of it was sure trying to BE something. I wandered into the abandoned factory floor where art installations were scattered around almost as though they had been abandoned along with the paper. Small bright displays stood alone in large concrete rooms, and almost all of the signage was only in Swedish.

I found a mattress with some cobbled together VR goggles and a vague sort of “play me” note. It was an odd distorted and block color reality with a voice over in English of a person of indeterminate gender exploring the concept of sexuality. Very much everything you might stereo-typically think of when you think of experimental art commune.

It was mostly empty, but I’m not sure if that was because of the time of day or time of year. After spending a while wandering through the factory buildings and trying out the art, I headed back to the main gates. I stopped in at the gift shop on the way out where some of the more polished and “ready for home consumption” kind of art was on sale. I had a chance to ask a few questions about the place to the lady behind the counter. She explained that while a few people did choose to live on site, that most simply came there to work, and that they were funded by a grant from the government to support the arts. You can learn more on their website.


Sweden still makes me sigh with longing when I think of these days. Staring now down the barrel of planning another summer holiday, I’m deeply tempted to return and explore a new part of the country. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Korea these past few years, it lacks the freedom, the nature, and the stunning variety of culture and food that I yearn for. Still, until I have a stable landing pad for my next “home base” I guess I’ll take what I can get in the holidays. 

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Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

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I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

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I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

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The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

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Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

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When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

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I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

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I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

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When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

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My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

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They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

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According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

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I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

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If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

Valkenburg: Catacombs, Castles and Vlaai

The week I spend in the Lanaken/Maastricht area had spikier ups and downs than usual. One of the ups was this day trip to the small, picturesque town of Valkenburg. There’s not much here, but the whole town feels a little like main street Disneyland. I could not stop the opening music from Beauty and the Beast from running through my head every time I walked around. Aside from it’s rustic village charm, Valkenburg is also home to a strange and unique personal museum: a private replica of the Catacombs of Rome. I’m a sucker for weird museums, and during the crazy summer heat wave, any underground activity floated to the top of my to-do since it was the closest thing to air conditioning I could get.


The transit out to Valkenburg was a little tricky in terms of timing. Once you’re outside the big urban centers the public transit is much less frequent. Nevertheless, I made it to the catacombs in time for the 2pm tour. The tours are only offered once an hour, so I’m really glad that I made it because there is nothing to do in easy distance of the museum, and I was getting pretty fed up with walking under the scorching sun.

Not only is Valkenburg too small to have reasonable buses, most places in town only take local (Netherlands bank) credit cards, their old card machines can’t handle fancy foreign credit cards. It’s really a time capsule! Thankfully I  grabbed extra cash on my way over.

I had seen posts online about the “Roman Catacombs” in Valkenburg so I went there thinking “hey the Romans used to live here, they probably built stuff”. Nope. Well, yes, Romans did live in large parts of what is now Europe, including the Netherlands all the way up to Utrecht, and Valkenburg was well inside the Imperial borders. But, no, these catacombs in Valkenburg were in no way built by Romans.

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Our guide explained that what we were going to see is a replica of the catacombs in Rome. Back in the Victorian/Edwardian days, rich people were supposed to spend part of their wealth investing in public parks, gardens, museums, and other public displays of art and education to enrich the lives of those less fortunate. A large number of Europe’s parks and museums were built this way. The “Roman Catacombs” of Valkenburg are no exception.

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The richy rich guy who commissioned these was Jan Diepen. The museum was opened in 1910 and although it’s gone through some closings and re-openings, it’s now Valkenburgs main claim to tourist fame. Despite it’s lack of originality, it’s still massively interesting since it’s a faithful reproduction of the catacombs of Rome that were visible at the time of construction. It’s now the only place we can see some of the displays that have since closed in Rome, and because of it’s obscure location, the art generally in better shape than it’s Roman counterpart and you don’t have to share it with as many tourists. Yeah, I’ll probably still go to the real ones if I ever get to Rome, but this was a good visit.

The air was nice and cold underground, the frescoes and history were interesting, and my guide patiently reexplained everything to me in English even though I was the only non Dutch speaker in the group. He said sometimes he has to do it in as many as 4 languages.

I sadly did not write any of the stories down that day, so looking back on my photos I have a general sense of “that was fun and interesting”, but no real ability to tell you about the pictures in detail. It felt a little like we were traveling through time as well since the replicas were arranged chronologically.

 
We started with areas of the Catacombs that actually did predate Christianity, and saw the way that the Romans buried and revered their dead, and then the gradual shift in artwork and symbolism as Christianity took over and moved in. It was quite fascinating to see the artwork of the early Christians that still incorporated a tremendous amount of Pagan imagery from Rome’s pre-Christian culture. By the end we’d moved all the way up to medieval art styles of statue and fresco.

At one point our guide pointed out this particular image as being representative of a trend to depict Jesus as fair skinned with long flowing hair. Although previous generations of artists had each picked a different look for the central figure of the Christian religion, it seems this one endured and still remains the most popular depiction.

Although there were several stone replicas of tombs and grave markers, there was one statue that struck me particularly, that of Saint Cecelia. She was an early adopter of Christianity before the Roman Empire made it the official state religion. Back then, Christians actually were persecuted by the state, and Cecelia was married off to a pagan nobleman against her wishes. When she refused to give up her beliefs, she was beheaded… almost? The legend is that she was struck in the neck three times with a sword yet did not die… right away. Her ability to withstand the pain and her prolonged life were seen by Pope Urban I as a holy sign. More than 1300 years later when the Roman Empire was long gone, but Christianity was having a great time ruling the Western world, it is said that her body was exhumed from it’s tomb and found to be intact with no signs of decay. Another miracle! Oh, and that’s not a necklace, it’s the wound from those three sword blows and a little blood oozing out. Martyr art.

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At the end of the guided tour we were turned loose at a small museum that displayed the tools and techniques that had been used to replicate the catacomb art. I admit I was a little tempted to go back and look at some of the art again, but I didn’t want to get lost by taking a wrong turn. After the main event, I did a little wandering around the town square. It is insanely quaint. There’s a whole area of shops and restaurants that looks like it’s out of a story book.

I walked all around the ruins of the castle but declined to go inside. I think I was just too tired for an above ground tour that oh so hot day. And if you think I talk about the heat wave too much, believe me, I’ve cut out most of the references to my heat-borne misery from my notes… it was soul sucking.

As an antidote to heat misery, I stopped off at a little cafe for some vlaai. Vlaai is kind of like pie. I had strawberry that day. It was cool, sweet and refreshing. The base was more like a cookie than a pie crust. It was quite thick but neither cake nor pastry. There was a thin layer of chocolate, a creamy layer and fresh strawberries in a pie gelatin. Clearly fresh berries from the flavor and texture. Served with a little shot of whipped cream and a cup of coffee. Stopping for vlaaii and coffee is a must do in the Netherlands.

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When the sun moved to take away my shade for the 5th time that afternoon, I gave up on staying cool and headed back to the bus stop. No part of the town failed to be cute so I distracted myself from the weather by taking more photos and singing Disney songs under my breath until the bus arrived to take me back.

The Ruins in Ghent

Although I only stayed overnight in a handful of cities last summer, I often made day trips to nearby smaller, quainter European towns along the way. While travelling in Belgium, everyone says “go to Bruges, go to Bruges” and I thought about it, but that damn heat wave… Instead, I went to a similar quaint, canal-ridden, castle-bearing, sleepy little sidewalk-cafe-having town called Ghent. There I had one of the most stunning photographic opportunities and most memorable experiences of the whole trip.


I prioritized Ghent over Bruges for my small town detour for one main reason: the ruins of the Abbey of Sint Bavo. As I learn more about the history and development of churches and cathedrals in Europe, I’ve come to realize that there are not that many styles. About 7 (I’m not counting Revival and Modern, fite me). And of those 7, I’d say that 3 are the most common and distinct in the places I visited: Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque. They’re stunning! High arches and flying buttresses, lots of fiddly bits on the architecture and beautiful decorations. However, churches within the same style are not overly unique unless you are an architectural scholar. I have now seen nearly a dozen Gothic style cathedrals, and I would be hard pressed to tell them apart without other landmarks.

Am I jaded? I don’t think so, because I do still think they’re stunning, I just don’t feel the need to prioritize another Gothic or Romanesque cathedral. I’ll go and admire one if I’m going to be in the neighborhood, but I don’t put it on my “to-do” list anymore. I might still go see a few more Baroque ones before I’m tired of that style, and I’m quite looking forward to seeing more Byzantine. What I do love is finding the cathedrals (or other historical landmarks) that are unique in some way, that bear the mark of history, of a life lived.

The Abbey of St. Bavo promised to be just that. Ruins left unrestored yet maintained, and only open to the public a few hours a week to prevent them from being damaged further. I was fascinated and determined to go. I found the opening hours and even emailed the caretakers to be sure I didn’t need a reservation, and then set about making sure I would be in Ghent on a day I could go inside.

This turned out to be a Sunday, which meant Ghent was even sleepier than normal. I’ve been living in Asia so long that I forgot about Sunday as an off day in the West. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think that western Europe closes down even more than America on Sundays. Live and learn.

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I looked into transit options (oh how I gnash my teeth at the transit of EU countries, but that’s another post) and found a “hop on hop off” boat! I’ve done hop on hop off buses before, but this would combine my desire to take a canal tour with my need to get around town. For the moment, lets just skip the challenges involved with getting from my Airbnb in Brussels to the main boat jetty in Ghent. Wave your magic wand, and there we are. The last bus of the series let me off directly in front of Gravensteen Castle where my day of “quaint European town” began.

Gravensteen Castle

I studied the boat tour schedule. It only had 6 stops and it was an hour between boats so I wanted to be sure I knew where to go and when to be back to get on for the next leg of my journey. I wanted to start at the castle, hoping to explore it before the boat even started running that morning. For those of you who imagine European castles as these lonely stone fortresses in the middle of rolling green hills and woodland, let me disillusion you. The Lord’s Castle was the center of town. Back in the feudal days, serfs worked the land around a castle, but the markets would be held within the castle’s courtyard. Also during times of war or bad weather, people would move in bringing families and livestock with them to be safe behind the walls while Vikings or whoever attacked.

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In some cases, those castles and farms were left empty for long enough that you get the Disney picturesque castle in the middle of nature. For many places, the castle continued to function as the center of town as the town got bigger and bigger around it, eventually turning into a modern city. In Ghent, it’s a giant fuck off castle in the middle of everything. You can’t actually get far enough away for even a proper photo because it’s so surrounded by traffic and other buildings. It dramatically changes the atmosphere of the public square to have a giant castle overseeing the open air restaurants and sidewalk cafes, though.

Canal Boat Bus

I checked into the boat bus and grabbed some coffee. I also topped up my water bottle at a decorative public drinking fountain. I saw these in several places during the summer. They look like a small artistic fountain, similar to what you might put in your back garden at home if you’re feeling fancy, but they dispense potable water (they have signs, don’t drink out of fountains without signs). Additionally, there is usually a little bowl at the bottom so dogs out for a walk can get a drink, too. It’s a wonderful way to provide a public service of free drinking water (not common enough in Europe if you ask me) while still beautifying the park or public street.

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The canals in Ghent are truly beautiful and the hop on/off tour goes father through the canal infrastructure than than most of the other boat tours on offer. Our driver was young and friendly and spoke English well. Perhaps because it was Sunday there were not many other tourists, so we chatted about Game of Thrones and Harry Potter as well as the city itself.

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I skipped several of the stops because I was still worn out from Paris and the heat wave, but I chose 3 to get off and have a look around. My sightseeing was somewhat hindered by the massive stages being constructed all along the main street and public squares. My guide informed me that the following week would host a huge festival in town. I’m not actually sad I missed it, since I never had enough energy that trip for crowds, so it worked out for the best.

Saints, Dragons and Devils!

I visited St. Peter’s cathedral, which was very predictable and yet still pretty. There was a woman with two children sitting just inside the door and begging. She was not the first begging immigrant/refugee I saw during my travels by any means. I tried to give when I could, although I still struggle with giving money. I’ve read a number of ethics debates about this topic and still can’t decide, so I gave them the food I had in my bag that I’d been planning to eat for lunch.  

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Having given away my picnic, I went in search of another snack, but nearly everything in Ghent was closed on Sunday afternoon.  I was attracted by a nearby sign advertising waffles, waffles I never found. Instead, I ran into an art installation of dragon skeletons which was far more interesting. While I was taking photos, someone came by and asked me if they were real and almost didn’t believe me when I said “no, they’re dragons”, until he read the small informative sign. They were part of a display for a children’s museum. 

 
Continuing through the inner courtyard, I emerged behind the cathedral at the abbey where I found the orchards and vineyards and a less obscured view of the buildings.

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From the boat I got a good view of the castle of Gerald the Devil. I was initially disappointed that I didn’t get to go inside, but it turns out that nowadays the building is not actually interesting on the inside. Gerald himself was nicknamed “the devil” (Duivelsteen in Belgian) because of his dark complexion and hair color. He didn’t do anything remotely devilish to earn the moniker. Additionally, while the building has an interesting history ranging from a meeting place for knights to an insane asylum, it was most recently used to house the national archives. According to Wikipedia, it’s not even good at doing that, and has been on the market since 2010. Cool name, though.

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Lunch Stop, the Soda that Yodels

I got off the boat again at the stop nearest St Bavo’s and immediately set about finding lunch. This was a bit extra challenging since I was also suffering from mobile data issues that day (another post is forthcoming). I can usually get Google Maps to work just on GPS, you can’t plan a route, but you can usually see where you are but suddenly I had no map at all! No where in my plan did I account for this. You can say what you like about guidebooks or paper maps, but suddenly having my GPS not work is no different than loosing your map or guide book unexpectedly.

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I had given away my picnic lunch already, and I should have just gone into a Carrefour to replace it for a similarly low cost meal, but I was freaking out about my map, since I needed it to find St. Bavo’s, and I really wanted to sit somewhere cool and comfortable after so much walking in the hot sun.

I found a burger place called Jack’s. I splurged on the set and got fries and a drink and tried a drink I’ve never heard of before. It was described as “an herbal drink” and the best way I can describe it is as an herbal infused sparkling lemonade. I have since researched the drink Almdudler and learned that it is the national soft drink of Austria, that it is named after yodeling in the alpine pasture, and that it no more has a description of it’s flavor than Dr. Pepper. Seriously, try and explain what that tastes like to someone who’s never had it. Anyway, I liked it more than Dr. Pepper.

The burger and fries were huge and the cashier gave me some extra sauce because I couldn’t make up my mind about the flavor. I did start learning to love mayo on fries while in Belgium, but I think that’s because their mayo was so much better than Hellman’s. It took me a long time to finish eating, and I wrapped half the fries up for later.

I drastically overspent on lunch, since a good deli sandwich and a drink can be had from any grocery store around for close to 5€. It’s another lesson in planning. I did get to use the WiFi and the restroom, which are otherwise pay-to-use in most public places in Europe. (oh how I missed the free public restrooms in every subway station in Korea)

Sint Bavo’s Abbey

My map came back to life in the restaurant’s WiFi and I was able to plot the route from Jack’s to St. Bavo’s before leaving.  When I crossed the last bridge (canal towns have a lot of bridges), I could see what I was pretty sure was the right place but no visible way in. It looked to be completely surrounded by a fence. I walked clear around the perimeter in search of the entrance. Tragically, I went the wrong way and went nearly all the way around before finding it. On the way out later, it was obvious that if I’d headed straight to the square white building, I would have found the gap in the fence right away. You know, in case you end up going some day.

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At first I was surrounded by a maze of tall rectangular trees. Completely befuddled I took a few pictures in hope of solving the mystery later (spoilers, I did). In many of my travels, I don’t worry too much if I don’t know what something is at the moment I encounter it. I just try to take enough reference pictures amid my artistic ones to do more research later. Research is how I make the holiday last longer. I visited this abbey in July, and here it is the end of November while I do the last of my research about it.

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The ruins themselves were everything I hoped and more. Inside the walls of the Abbey was a rambling network of crumbling walls and once-rooms bring reclaimed by nature. I forgot my physical discomfort almost at once and began to take photo after photo, pausing between sets to admire the details of centuries old carvings and stonework.

I walked through courtyards and down hallways and found spiders and snails and bumble bees in the flowers, and the wild berries. I found where stone carvings had fallen from walls or been pried from floors and were laid side by side on display. There were beautiful corridors with arched ceilings, rooms that had lost their ceilings and now we’re indistinguishable from courtyards.

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There was a Roman style bath area with a secret winding staircase up the short tower where the remains of an art installation collected dust. Someone had done a project through social media about communication online and all the responses were published in newspaper form. Perhaps once they were there for visitors to take away, but the layers of dust and cobwebs told me it had been a while since anyone had looked at them. 

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About halfway around the space, I met up with a table of volunteers who had informative booklets in many languages. One helpful lady explained a little about the places I’d seen and then showed on the map where I would go from there. I thanked her very much and took the booklet off to a bench in the shade to look through it and to take pictures of the articles for reference.

I didn’t read the whole thing at the time but I did discover the purpose of the tree maze out front was to outline walls of the original church, now long gone. While reading the history of the abbey, I was approached by a black cat who very desperately wanted to be friends. Sadly I’m allergic and had to decline the offer for pets, but I took pictures instead.

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When I finished skimming and recording the brochure information, I headed up a far less secret stairwell and went inside a space that had retained all its walls and ceiling. I was greeted by a huge and looming partial crucifix. The cross and arms were gone, leaving only the faded wooden head and body of the suffering Jesus gazing down the stairs at those who entered.

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Monastic chanting was piped through a hidden sound system, giving an appropriately medieval and gloomy air to the dark and gutted room. The walls were lined with rescued stone carvings of saints and martyrs, but rather than being the main display, they served as the walls upon which a modern photography exhibit was mounted. It was a strange contrast to see the brightly colored photos against the dark and crumbling remains of the abbey’s old artwork, all topped off with the eerie and Gothic music.

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Moving back into the sunlight I continued to be awed by the variety of spaces. Wild grapes growing along one wall, pieces of statues littering the grass or reassembled in part and mounted wherever space allowed. I wandered until my feet couldn’t take it, then I sat until I could walk again. Even with many other visitors it was overwhelmingly peaceful and stunningly beautiful. Only when I felt like I’d explored every possible inch did I out to catch the last boat back to the town center and my train back to Brussels.

I took so many beautiful pictures that afternoon, please enjoy the video slideshow.

A Short History Even Shorter

The binder I was given had a map of the grounds, and 8 typed pages of information. About half of that was a detailed description of the rooms, including architectural style, building materials, and original use. I am not an architect, I couldn’t actually follow most of this part without my eyes glazing over. The second part was more interesting to me, since it encompassed a brief history of the abbey. I am not going to try to replicate the same level of detail here. If you REALLY need to know, comment, and I’ll post the photos of the pages I took, but for everyone else, here’s the very short ‘short history’.

7th century: Missionaries showed up to convert people. They built an abbey with the backing of the Merovingians. A rich nobleman became a monk and went off to live as a hermit, taking the name Bavo. After his death, his remains were transferred to the abbey which subsequently bears his name.

9th century: Vikings! Not yet converted Nordic types were still raiding the land, and loved to raid churches cause people donated like mad, and also decorated with lots of silver, gold and other valuable things. Way to put your money far away from the soldiers, guys. Vikings burned it all down. Twice.

10-12th century: The Roman Empire finds Ghent is on it’s side of the river and offers Imperial protection at last (meanwhile poor St. Peters which I visited earlier that day was left on the French side!) Under the shining eye of Rome, the abbey was not only safe, but experienced a period of growth, getting lots of beautiful Romanesque architecture which makes up the majority of the stone ruins seen today.

16th century: Charles V is rude. He pulled off a bunch of shenanigans to embarrass and shame the locals of Ghent, culminating in the ordered destruction of the abbey, and the use of it’s building materials to create a military citadel. The citadel was completed in 1545, but was destroyed in 1577 by the Calvinists, then rebuilt again in 1584 by the Spanish. It underwent nearly constant de- and re-construction until it was finally abolished in the mid 19th century.

19th-20th century: Conservationists had to fight against industrialists for the space. There’s a whole sordid affair over the meat merchants’ iron grip on Ghent during the 19th century and they managed to claim the abbey land for an abattoir at the height of their power. After much cajoling by conservationists, the abbey ruins were given to the city of Ghent on the condition a museum was established on the site in 1887. In 1936 the ruins were made a historical monument by Royal Decree; however, the abattoir remained in operation until 1989.

Now: The Neighbors of the Abbey formed in 2007 as a volunteer group to upkeep the museum and to organize visits for tour groups and solo travelers like myself.

Nagoya Castle: Now with 10% more Ninja!

If there is one famous place that exemplifies Nagoya, it is the sprawling grounds of the reconstructed Nagoya Castle. I couldn’t possibly visit Japan’s fourth largest city without spending some time at it’s most famous historical monument! I was hoping to get a sunny day and take some sweeping landscape photos of this majestic structure, but the weather was not on my side. Even without the sun, Nagoya Castle was beautiful, fun and educational to visit. Plus, there were Ninjas!


I woke up Tuesday to the sodden realization that the weather forecast had changed again, and the rain was not going to stop until I was back in Korea. It wasn’t as bad as Monday, however, mostly cloud cover and the occasional sprinkle. I had forgotten my umbrella at the katsu restaurant the night before, but I wasn’t worried since umbrellas are for sale in every subway station and convenience store (right next to a huge steaming pile of foreshadowing).

Golden Bus or Subway?

I looked into the possibility of doing the Golden Tour Bus day pass. The Me-Guru is a kind of hop on hop off bus that runs around the most popular places in Nagoya. You can get a Me-Guru day pass for 500 yen which is great if you are planning to hit up several tourist hot spots in one day. Unfortunately for me, there wasn’t a stop anywhere near my friend’s house, so I was going to have to take the subway at least 2 times (out and back) making the 500 yen ticket less attractive to me. If the Me-Guru isn’t getting you where you want to go, you can also get a city day pass for subways for 740 yen, or subway bus combo for 850 yen.

Nagoya Subway ticket machines

Photo Credit: Nagoya Station.com

The main attraction of the Me-Guru Golden Bus is that it drops you very close to tourist attractions that might otherwise be a hefty walk from the nearest regular bus or subway stop. Atsuta Jingu is very central and easy to access, but the Nagoya Castle and Tokugawa Gardens are rather out of the way. Lucky for me, the Me-Guru bus also offers single ride tickets for 210 yen which you can buy on the bus just like any other city bus. I would recommend the Me-Guru day pass if you happen to be staying anywhere near one of the bus’s stops, however I opted to take the subway (270 yen trip) to Nagoya Castle, then the Me-Guru to Tokugawa (210 yen), and finally the subway again (270 yen) back to my ersatz home base for a grand total of 750 yen.

I mention all this because it’s acutely important to figure out transit in Japan before you go unless you are made of money and time. Since most of us aren’t… Data plans and mobile WiFi hot spots are expensive and not really necessary given the proliferation of free WiFi, but it does mean you can’t to a Google search any time anywhere, you have to find the WiFi first. I like to research my routes over breakfast and take screenshots of the map and directions to reference later when I’m out of WiFi range. So, Tuesday morning, while I was enjoying my “morning service” again, I pulled up a million maps to see where I would go and how far I would have to walk/wait between each one. The public transit options between the Castle and the garden are dreadful. Hence the one stop Me-Guru ride.

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If you don’t plan ahead, you may not know where the next bus stop/subway station you need is (it might not be the one you came out of or the closest one may not go where you want to go). You could find yourself walking farther than you want, which doesn’t sound like much, but we tracked our walking on Sunday and got almost 10 km in one day of aimless tourist meandering. It adds up fast, and while I don’t mind walking for health or enjoyment, I don’t want to waste vacation time and energy walking extra to the bus stop when I could be using it to walk through something cool! Plus, if you suddenly find yourself knackered from unexpected heat, humidity, and ridiculous amounts of walking (this happens to me at least once per vacation), taking a taxi back to your hotel in Japan could cost 50-100$, that’s US dollars, folks. Taxis are EXPENSIVE in Japan. Ubers are not better.

Let Them Eat Gold

From the nearest subway station, the walk into the Castle compound is down a little restaurant corridor that sells everything from Nagoya specialties to the Castle’s very own gold plated ice cream. Yes, gold plated ice cream. It’s not actually very expensive, and it’s highly Instagramable, but I couldn’t bring myself to buy one as I have recently been complaining about the out-of-touch rich people in America eating gold plated tacos while children can’t get fed in school… soooooooo…. no gold ice cream for me.

The ice cream isn’t trying to be Richie Rich, it’s actually meant to imitate the golden tiger-fish that is the symbol of the castle. During my post vacation research phase, I got curious about how they could afford to sell these golden ice creams for 6-9$ a pop, and I discovered that you can buy edible gold sheets for surprisingly cheap. One seller on Amazon is selling 10 sheets for 7$. The gold taco I was upset about? 25,000$… US….At 0.70 per sheet, it may be silly to eat a golden ice cream cone, but it’s not actually Louis XVI levels of decadence and class warfare. Eat the rich.

Fire Bombing Damage

Nagoya Castle is the number one tourist stop in Nagoya and it’s not even finished! Almost everything you see there was destroyed by Americans in WW2 during the fire bombings. A fact the informative signs will not let you forget since everything you read will tell you how the original was destroyed and whether what you’re looking at is a transplant or a reconstruction.

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Traveling around Asia, you inevitably see signs like this because nearly every temple, castle and historical site has been sacked during one war or another. In China and Korea, you find things that were destroyed by the Japanese. In Japan, you find things that were destroyed by the Americans.

The castle and grounds were still heavily under construction during my visit, but I’m told with some degree of excitement by the locals that the reconstruction should be finished this (2018) summer.

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Hommaru Palace

The first sight that greeted me walking in the gate was the tower of Hommaru Palace. The tower is done in a similar style to the main castle, but is much smaller. Once you get around the corner and over the moat, there is a beautiful brand new palace. According to the literature I was given to take home, the Nagoya Castle was declared a National Treasure back in 1930, but sadly destroyed in the 1945 air raids… ok they don’t call out America by name, but we all know. The palace compound has been undergoing reconstruction on and off since 1959, but the Hommaru palace reconstruction only started in 2009!20180508_134013

I am not an architecture buff, but I do enjoy a beautiful building. I especially appreciate that Nagoyans decided to use all traditional materials and craft techniques to remake the structure. It doesn’t just look like the original, it preserves the artistry and history of Japanese culture — not only the woodwork, but also the fittings, metalwork, and paintings. There was an intense research project designed to microscopically and chemically analyze the original scraps that survived the fire bombing (have we mentioned that recently, because Nagoya Castle does not want you to forget) so that the paintings could be replicated as authentically as possible.

Despite the chronic reminders of our history of conflict, the restoration process is fairly interesting. If you want to see more details, they’ve got a lovely website.

As I approached the palace proper, there was a group of Japanese businessmen having a chat in front of a very photogenic area. However, my faith in Japanese politeness was rewarded. As soon as one noticed me holding my camera (phone) nearby, they gestured to the others to move out of the way and we all smiled and bowed to each other before I went on to take the photo. So much politeness!

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Following the path, I noticed an area where a few other visitors were lining up and entering the building so I paused to check it out. The staff were sooooo excited to share with me. They showed me a little video of how to tour the building correctly (no touching, no flash photos, etc) and explained the character in costume stopping all the bad behavior on screen was the father of the famous king who had ruled from this palace and a famous general.

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I was asked to wear my backpack on my front to avoid bumping anything, and all of us were asked to remove our shoes before going inside. Slippers were available, of course, and there were free shoe lockers as well. For an extra 100yen, an audio tour of the palace was availble in several languages. I thought about getting the English one, but it was taking the staff 10+ minutes to set up the couple at the front of the line, and I wasn’t second in line. I decided to risk moving on less informed.

The palace itself is bright and open. Although the day was cloudy, the inside of the palace somehow still managed to feel sunny with the warm wood halls, paper windows, and gold accents. Drifting sock footed through the hallways, I felt a sense of what visiting the royal palace might be like. Everything was hushed and clean. The halls were made of the same pale wood on all 4 sides creating an effect of being inside a tree. Every few meters, the interior hall wall would open up into an opulent room. The 3 visible walls inside each room were covered with the ornate and painstaking replicas of the Edo period paintings.

In practice, each of the rooms would have had a specific ceremonially significant purpose. A room for receiving guests of a certain social standing or another. A room for dining, one for tea, one for drinking sake and listening to music. One room had a fire pit built gracefully into the floor and a hidden vent in the ceiling to carry the smoke of roasting meat and fish up and out. The low wooden bars are just to keep people from walking into it, not an actual part of the function. Indoor fire pit is now added to my list of things I want in my imaginary dream house of the future.

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The palace doesn’t take long to explore and it’s included in the park entry fee. I highly recommend a walk through. On my way out, I ran into the very helpful staffer again. It turns out she had lived in America a while ago and was happy to practice English with me (although I don’t think she really needed “practice”) She told me some more about the restoration process and said I really needed to come back after the construction was complete to see it at it’s best. It made me happy that the people working there take so much pride and interest in the history and culture of the site. Enthusiasm is highly contagious and just talking with her made me more excited to be there.

Surprise! Ninjas!

Just after leaving Hommaru, the path turns a slight corner and suddenly there’s the first real view of the Castle proper. This was the real moment I was sad about the weather. Nagoya Castle is elevated, and huge, so any photo will have plenty of sky in the background. My cloudy, rainy day resulted in a very plain light gray sky instead of a fluffy cloud filled azure backdrop. Is it cheating to use filters?

Did I mention there are ambulatory ninja on the castle grounds? It’s part of a cultural and historical show. According to the ninja website, two words I never thought I would string together in a non-hyperbolic fashion, there are performances every weekend, but weekdays are listed as “hospitality”, a kind of meet and greet.  I was there on a Tuesday, so I only met the two posing for photos and promoting their future shows.

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No Nagoya Castle for Me

Sadly, the castle was closed for the finishing touches of construction, so I couldn’t go inside, but I’ve heard there’s an excellent view from the top. Looking at other people’s photos online, it seems the decoration style is very similar to that of Hommaru palace. The only truly distinctive thing I missed out on seems to be the huge Shachihoko (the tiger fish) that you can sit on and pose with, and the tall geometric stairwell. Next time.

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photo credit: Matcha Magazine

Since the castle proper and some of the other areas were closed off for construction, I was encouraged to wander a little off the beaten path. In addition to stopping for teeny tiny flowers which earned me some very strange looks. (Why is she looking at the grass when the castle is right there?) I also wandered off into a little forest grove filled with large, semi-flat stones. It was not cordoned off, but also not really connected to the main walkway either. After some assistance from the Google oracle, it seems I discovered a stone tomb of unique historical properties.

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I’m still unclear if it’s an original or a replica given the whole bombing debacle, and I don’t know why it was over there all by itself in an extremely unmaintained state in the middle of what were otherwise meticulously maintained grounds. The only informative sign was in Japanese and it mostly focused on the description of the architectural style, geography and time period with no mention as to its context near the castle. Still, it was pretty, and from inside the trees, I got some fun new perspective angles on the castle itself that don’t look identical to every other tourist shot on the web, so yay!

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A large chunk of the grounds were completely blocked off during my visit. I found a few more interesting goodies like ancient gates and the working tea house where you can stop and have a traditional cup of matcha green tea and a sweet. Of course the souvenir shop would never be closed for construction, but I found the gardens to be a bit lackluster, as though they had not been tended to yet this year, so even though they were not blocked off, they weren’t exactly visitor ready.

Samurai and Shachihoko

20180508_131428On my way back toward the main gates, I happened to run into the Samurai. Ninjas AND Samurai. It’s like cosplay meets museum, so very Japanese. Much like the ninja, the Samurai pace the palace grounds daily for photo ops and perform shows on weekends and holidays. My desire to avoid weekend/holiday crowds may have backfired here, but the guys I met were pretty cool nonetheless.

The last important sight before my path led me outward was the Shachihoko – the fish tiger. What’s up with that? Well, it’s a mythological creature that is half fish (specifically a carp) and half tiger. The Japanese characters that make up the name of the creature is also a combination of “fish” and “tiger”. 鯱 (shachi) = 魚 (sakana, fish)+ 虎 (tora, tiger) Some argue that the fish is really an orca because “shachi” also translates as “orca” in Japanese.  I love language.

It’s often put on temples and palaces to ward off fires, but in Nagoya it has become the special symbol of Nagoya Castle due to the two large golden Shachihoko on the roof. Most of the souvenirs, or omiyage, of the castle involve this magical creature in some way, and of course, so does the golden ice cream.

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I do hope that I’ll have the opportunity to return to Nagoya again after the construction is complete. I would not only enjoy seeing the inside of the Castle proper, I suspect I would greatly enjoy the gardens and side buildings that were inaccessible during my visit. What little I could see through the scaffolding looked intriguing. Plus, next time I won’t feel guilty about trying that glittery frozen treat now that I know more about the edible gold market.

Due to the weather, there is no accompanying photo album to this trip, but I hope you’re enjoying the Instagram photos in the mean time. As always, thanks for reading ❤

Oh, and the umbrella foreshadowing? I’m afraid you’ll have to read the next post to find out about that adventure. 🙂