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

The Restaurants: A Week in Jeddah

Staying in a hotel means not cooking for yourself for a while, so naturally, I tried a lot of restaurants. The heat and quantity of food did mean that I usually only went into 2 a day, but since I hate fast food, I did get a pretty good culinary cross section. One piece of advice, bring your own water. In Saudi, water isn’t free. In fact, even the cheap water costs more than the gasoline, and restaurants will charge 10-30 SAR for something you can get for 1-2 SAR in the convenience store or from your hotel concierge. I didn’t go walking without a bottle because of the heat, so I often still had some by the time I got into a restaurant and not one of them complained. Plus, then I could use the money I saved to get one of the delicious juice, tea or coffee drinks 🙂

Indian

My first night in Jeddah, I had a long walk along the Corniche just outside my hotel. I didn’t really want to stay out any longer because I was pretty tired and wanted to get up early the next day, so I popped into an Indian restaurant on the way back. I don’t know the name and can’t find it on a map, but its pretty hard to miss if you’re walking between the Hyatt and the Corniche park area.

I got myself a veggie korma and some naan and headed back to the hotel. Important side note, the restaurants here don’t give you plastic eating utensils. They sort of assume that folks are just taking the food home to eat, I guess. So I had to improvise a spoon out of the foil, yay girl scout training! Also, good food.

BBQ

img_20141001_232826On my way back I’d spotted a BBQ restaurant and figured I’d try it another night. I think BBQ might be international code for “meat cooked over fire”. We have an assumption about BBQ in America that involves a sweet yet tart sauce, but this place seemed like it was trying to represent the BBQ of every nation on earth focusing on America, Brazil and the Mediterranean.

I got the lamb chops with mint BBQ sauce and a side of grilled veggies. It was quite excellent. No room for desert, but I finished off the night with a turkish coffee, lightly spiced with cardamom.

Cafe Aroma

This might be my favorite restaurant in Jeddah (close to a tie with the Marina). The restaurant itself is built to mimic an outdoor garden cafe. Its divided by little stone walls, fountains and trellises, and the ceiling is inset and painted to look like a beautiful blue sky. It gives the illusion of sitting in a cool oasis while allowing one to escape the heat and humidity.

The menu is varied, mostly Western style food with a few traditional dishes. There are breakfasts, salads, pizzas, pastas and entrees of meat and fish. I had the Shakshouka on my first visit. Its a poached egg dish with tomatoes and onions. As my culinarily inclined US roomie pointed out, it might be impossible to find an egg and tomato dish that I don’t like. Another meal I had a sort of chicken stir fry and a green mint tea.

IMG_0165I also had some coffee and tiramisu for dessert. The tiramisu was actually served in a portion size that was slightly smaller than my coffee cup, which was refreshing because I’m so tired of American oversized but underflavored desserts. This one was a taste explosion in every bite, although I’m sure they had to use a non-alcoholic beverage to soak the ladyfingers.

The staff are attentive and polite without being obsequious. The food is really good, plentiful and reasonably priced. Its possible to eat healthy there, which is not always easy here in the land of meat and starch. The atmosphere is soothing and you can spend a few hours lingering over a meal either while waiting for the sun to drop low enough to walk the Corniche, or unwinding and cooling down after a night exploring the town.

The Marina

This one is the close runner for favorite. Just a teeny walk south of the Park Hyatt (like half a block) there is a building set back a bit from the road. Apparently they use this for art exhibits and business expos, but if you walk through it, you reach the Marina and Yacht Club. There’s a lovely restaurant there where you can eat indoors or stay on the balcony overlooking the water and the people walking below.

I had two separate people recommend this place to me when they heard my hotel was near the Hyatt, one among the group of South Africans I’d met on my first night on the Corniche, and the other a Palestinian lady I met at the beach. So I decided I should definitely check it out.

img_20140929_211600In addition to the stunning view, there is a fabulous (if expensive) menu and a great shisha menu too. I got myself a veggie pizza and a lemon mint shisha. The food was good, but this wasn’t a surprise. The shisha is really what I want to talk about.

In the US, any time I’ve had a hooka, its been with these pre-packaged, kind of dried out cubes of tobacco. Here the shisha is a goopy sticky mess of molasses, flavor and tobacco– fresh. The shisha was brought out in a large hooka pipe, and the waiter placed a new plastic disposable mouthpiece at the end of the hose and pipe handle. This was pretty cool because it allowed them to use these high quality hookas without having to worry about cross contamination.

The shisha was delicious, and there were a fleet of coal bearing shisha attendants who circled around making sure we all had fresh coals, and blowing the ash out of the dishes to keep the shisha as fresh as possible. After a while I got myself an iced mocha. Most places seem to equate ‘iced’ with ‘blended’ and this was no different, but the quality of the chocolate and the coffee was much higher.

They were having a promo on the shisha to buy one get one free, so I ended up staying until almost 2am watching the people walking on the waterfront below, reading my book, sipping my coffee and smoking shisha. Cost me around 55$ US for the diner, the coffee and the shisha and probably about 4 hours of relaxing evening.

Additionally, I’m told they have a great brunch deal at 11am that includes a full breakfast and a shisha for something like 180 SAR, which is a pretty good deal.

Park Hyatt

Right next to the Marina, and probably much more famous is the Park Hyatt. It seemed like a must do for the trip, so on my last night in Jeddah, I headed over to the Hyatt for diner  and shisha. I compare this to the Marina because they are similarly located and offer similar services.

The food at the Hyatt is downright gourmet awesome. I splurged on the salmon. Now, I’m a good cook, not a chef or anything, but I like my food to taste good, so I learned how. Most of the time a restaurant is just a place that makes food I could make, but don’t want to be bothered to. Every so often, however, there is a meal that makes you remember why it is culinary art. The last one of these for me was that little diner off the Oregon coast on my Thor’s Well camping trip. The Park Hyatt was another.

Starting from the bread. Fresh and made on site if I’m any judge. It wasn’t right out of the oven, but was likely less than an hour old. There was a light dusting of flour from the baking process and a light taste of sourdough that made me believe the dough had been well rested and even slightly fermented before baking. It was hard to resist filling up on the bread alone while waiting for my meal.

IMG_0272I’m picky about salmon. The Red Sea is famous for its seafood, so I decided the chefs here should have a clue. They managed to serve me a slice of salmon filet that was still moist even on the thin edges. The fish was so lightly breaded it was just a thin crust of crumbs and herbs that gave a light contrast to the texture and flavor of the fish without overwhelming it. The potatoes were tiny fingerlings sliced in half and pan fried with rosemary and sundried tomatoes. Accents included a small scoop of caviar and a kind of white cream sauce. I alternated combinations to see how the flavors blended. Not a meal you want to talk or read through, because it might distract some of your attention away from your taste buds.

img_20141004_224831I did not have room for desert, but I stepped out onto the terrace for coffee and shisha. The Park Hyatt has the best view of the King Fahad fountain around. The outdoor seating area is right on the water and includes a small decorative pool, a couch lounging area, and a dining table area. There are outdoor air conditioners to keep the dining area cooler and drier than the surrounding areas. In this respect, it outdoes the Marina with an even more stunning view and a cooler environment that is not dependent on the sea breeze.

However, I think I’d still go back to the Marina if shisha and coffee was my goal. The coffee at the Hyatt was quite nice, but not quite as good, and I think they may be the only place other than Starbucks that actually served coffee over ice instead of blended. However, the shisha menu was much more limited in flavors, only about 1/4 the options as the Marina. Also, when the hooka was brought out they used a disposable hose, rather than just a mouthpiece, which meant that the hose and handle were all plastic. Maybe that’s more hygenic? I’m not entirely sure, but I can say that the feel of the full weight hose and handle are much more appealing than the plastic.

All told, the Hyatt is a great place for a delicious meal with a great view, a decadent indulgence.

Sushi Yoshi

I passed a little sushi place on my way back from the Corniche on my first night and decided I really needed to have Sushi in Jeddah. So, Tuesday afternoon [redacted] and [redacted] came to take me to dinner and we went to Sushi Yoshi. Turns out this is a small chain, so we didn’t go to the one by my hotel, but rather one up on the north end of the Corniche that overlooked the sea. The family section was on the second floor, so we actually had a really great view.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a chain sushi joint in Saudi, even in a coastal city, but it turned out to be quite delicious. I’d say mid-range price, reasonable for the quality and quantity of food. I’m a little spoiled by our conveyor belt sushi in Seattle, but really, 30-35$ per person for a large sushi dinner is pretty good.

Also, I don’t think I could ever get tired of eating dinner on the ocean front. Ever.

La Plage

I’ll talk more about the beach itself in another post, but La Plage beach had a restaurant as well. The prices are about what you’d expect from a nice restaurant, possibly a little on the low side for a private resort, on par with Aroma and less expensive than Hyatt.

img_0135I chose the Oriental (by which they meant Middle Eastern) breakfast and logged into the wifi. A delicious meal of sliced tomatoes, some kind of pickled vegetable, fresh cheese, labneh – this creamy yogurt stuff that’s like a halfway point between cream cheese and sour cream, some beans in a tart sauce, mint leaves, olives and pita. Everything came in separate little dishes so I could mix and match. Who knew mint and tomato were such a great combo? I made a little wrap with the cheese, tomatoes and mint and it was so yum! The rich cream was a nice compliment to the tart beans, and the olives and pickled veggies were little refreshing bites in between. I admit, with the whole day before me, I lingered a long time over this meal, chatting to folks online and savoring the flavors and the view.

Later in the day I came in for some snacks and an iced (blended) coffee. I’m pretty sure they put frozen whipped cream on my coffee. Ridiculously good.

On the weekend, apparently they also have a sushi menu, but it was really expensive, and I’d already had my sushi fix for the week, so I stuck to the regular menu.

I think if I lived in Jeddah I’d have to find a way to learn to sleep after work so I could go out late at night to enjoy the Marina, and I’d never save any money from going to La Plage every weekend. I might also gain 30 lbs even if I did go for a walk on the Corniche every night. *Sigh, but it was nice while it lasted.