Monthly Archives: September 2019


It would be irresistible, if only for its visual appeal, like the set of a period movie — Stockholm has backdrops for nearly any era you like, since its buildings go back to the 13th Century. We settled in at the Grand Hotel (1874).  That’s the one with the flags in the panorama below — the Royal Palace is on our right hand just out of frame.

Another way to think about architecture is to mosey down to ArkDes, Sweden’s National Center for Architecture and Design, to the left of that three-masted ship, where we found a big exhibit of architectural models, in an inventive space. Skeppsholmen, the island it’s on, is littered with museums, so we looked at some other art as well.

It’s not just the waterfront that has these staid edifices.  We walked up to the observatory atop Vasastan and, though we saw some modern commercial buildings along the way, it was obvious that plenty of charm remains.  Here’s a view to the southeast, I think:  

Sometimes our wanderings were food-directed.  We ate at two places on tourist-dense old-town Gamla Stan, first a cozy little bar and then at Under Kastanjen (shown below), named for that big chestnut tree, basically a bakery with extra seating — though less seating than befits its popularity with locals and visitors combined.  There’s a sort of a bar downstairs, and, on its optional gluten-free menu, both the traditional meatballs (with the traditional lingonberries) and the fika-worthy oat-and-cocoa balls.

Other wonderful meals depended more on chance.  We stumbled upon a sweet little neighborhood creperie in Sodermalm when the one we were planning on decided to change its opening time.  We ended up at Oaxen Krog on Djurgården because that’s where we also ran out of steam while exploring that fabled island.

Djurgården earned its name as the royal game preserve, and today is a kind of in-city destination resort, with a couple of marinas, half a dozen museums, an amusement park, a school, and big wooded or open spaces with a web of footpaths popular among joggers.  Private residences!  A riding academy!  It was close enough to walk from our hotel — but not so close as to walk back, so we took the water taxi that leaves from the dock right next to the ABBA museum.

A bonus!  Right after our arrival on the island, I was inspired to film this three-minute-long fable of resoluteness, redemption, and the perils of modern living, “The Commons.”

We did not limit ourselves to strolling and dining.  We went paddling out in the islands, a trip described in our kayak blog, Sea Creatures.  We took the tour of the Royal Apartments, like any good tourists, and the Treasury.  It had not occurred to me that the first time any noble is welcomed at Court, a new batch of splendid insignia and regalia needs to be created, which, over the centuries, can really accumulate.

Back when we first started traveling, I would send postcards to my colleagues in the States to share with them various visions of municipal employment in other parts of the world.  While laboring in a refurbished department store or a future car dealership, they might be treated to a picture of the Hôtel de Ville in Paris or the Mirabell Palace in Salzburg, or Seville’s Ayuntamiento.

Here in that same spirit is a look at Stockholm’s Town Hall. It’s basically a big brick building, like the old offices above the fire station in Spokane.  But on a somewhat grander scale.  And a little closer to the water.  Oh, and, the Nobel Banquet is given here annually, after presentation of the awards for literature and the sciences.

When we finally left Stockholm, it was only to to join a cruise that would take us around the Baltic Sea, with stops for daily bicycling. A farewell to the Grand Hotel!  (Where, by the way, the Nobel Banquet was held until 1930.)


Our Time in Iceland

Iceland’s appeal starts with its geology — it’s the only spot where, with dry feet, you can see the meeting of the North Atlantic Plate and the Eurasian Plate — or rather, see their parting. This rift in the earth’s crust offers active volcanoes, and geothermal heat for communal bathing or radical environmentalism; plus a beautifully stark and frequently changing landscape.

It’s a landscape that’s closely linked to a twelve-hundred-year human history, recorded from the very beginning with gossip-column granularity in the Old Norse sagas and other works. They describe the early days of a crowd-sourced DIY justice system and what is now the world’s longest-running parliament. For a lapsed medievalist and sometime student of jurisprudence, this stuff is catnip.

Reykjavik’s working harbor includes museums and a modern concert hall.

There’s even more to recommend the country though. It’s one of those places where people go to watch for the Northern Lights, for example. Icelandair promotes the island as the ideal stopover on any transatlantic journey. The growth of tourism means that good food and accommodations are easy to find — though they may be pricey.  After all, most things that don’t contain wool, fish, or lava need to be brought in from far away.

Thus, traditional fare is somewhat idiosyncratic. We were offered whale. And foal!  And — puffin!  We declined all of these, on the basis of either sympathy or scarcity. It’s worth noting that the small, stalwart Iceland horses, their bloodlines traced as carefully as those of the Vikings, are thought by some to be about twice as numerous as really necessary, perhaps because others join us in refusing to dine at their expense.

One surprising example of local plenty is the tomatoes grown at Friðheimar. The big indoor farm there uses geothermal heat for energy, cold well water for irrigation, and, at any one time, hundreds of workers brought in from the Netherlands.

In white cardboard boxes. Because they’re bumblebees!  The bees, the yards-tall columnar plants, and soup-slurping tourists cheerfully share a one-and-a-quarter-acre greenhouse. Cucumbers are grown there as well and, I suspect, basil.  And those sturdy little horses, right next door.

We can’t claim to have toured the island thoroughly. We had some of our bike stuff with us though, on our way to a different trip, and we rode around the capital with Reykjavik Bike Tours.  On another day, they took us with some mountain bikes out to the Westman Isles, site of one of the earliest human occupations (and the first visit by a foreign scholar).

What a thrill, on that excursion also, to hear the story of Njals Saga retold by our guide, though in somewhat abbreviated form, virtually within sight of Njall’s home at Bergþórshvoll and Gunnar’s at Hlíðarendi.  All but perhaps the oldest Icelanders speak perfect English, by the way, thanks in part to American Forces Television, which arrived in 1951.

On that same outing we visited the town of Eyrarbakki, once a bustling port but now, after the consolidation of the fishing industry elsewhere, mostly a monument to an earlier lifestyle.  It’s the location of the country’s largest prison too, currently home to some of the bankers who helped to precipitate the 2008 financial collapse.  I was moved to observe that Americans, who value deceit more highly, gave their bankers bonuses instead of sentences.

Icelanders are proud of their past, and are good-natured about their tourist-intensive present.  The future is uncertain but they’re in a better position than people in a lot of other places, with a seemingly limitless source of clean energy.

The effects of a warming climate can be seen within their borders, but the causes lie mostly without.  Glaciers currently cover about 11 percent of Iceland; in 2014, the first one of them was downgraded to a snowfield:  it’s no longer thick enough to flow as ice.  In August, while we were there, the former glacier was commemorated with a bronze plaque. The text is “A letter to the future:”

. . . In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.

Of course one of the things that may need to be done, is a lot less air travel.  With Greta Thunberg sailing, instead of flying, to the U.S. at about the same time, we were beginning to notice some flygskam.  We’re hoping to do more rail travel in the future.  I feel lucky that Iceland is one of the places that we got to visit.

Back to the subject of bumblebees, here’s one we found at work near Reykjavik’s city hall.  I thought at first that it might be one of the guest-workers who had been out-placed, but the gray abdomen suggests that it is Bombus hypnorum, the New Garden Bumblebee, arrived this century from mainland Europe.  The bumblebee of agriculture is B. terrestris,  the Buff-Tailed Bumblebee, which sports a second ginger stripe and a fascinating sociology.  I think we saw some of them on a later part of our trip, in Sweden.