Friday, January 21, 2011

Walking in a Winter Wonderland (part 3)

Still with full bellies from the dinner the night before and some hearty breakfast, our 4-hour train ride to Stockholm went rather quickly between sleeping and reading our guide books on the wooden train car.  Meant to look old, the doors for the car were on the corners and were curved, something I had never seen before, but was fitting as we chugged along in the snow.  When we arrived in Stockholm and caught the subway, or as it is called there, the t-bana (short for tunnelbana) to Gamla Stan - the Old Part.  Stockholm, being comprimised of hundreds of islands, big and little, is connected with the subway and tons of bridges.  Gamla Stan is the oldest part of the city and is on its own small island in the center of the city. 

With the building of a fort in 1255, the city claims the date as its official birthday.  It wasn't until the 17th and 18th century that the tall, slender buildings we saw when we got out of the metro station were built.  With small alleys (about two people wide) mixed between the wide snow-covered streets, it luckily didn't take us long to find the hostel.  Dragging a suitcase in the snow is not as charming as it sounds.  Archipelago Hostel, our home for the next four days, was smack-dab in the middle of everything and somehow we got an amazing room for a great price with huge windows looking out over the main street in Gamla Stan, Stora Nygatan.  With a big flat screen TV, a couch, closet and big bed, it didn't really seem like a youth hostel or a place to get a bargain, but shhhh we didn't say anything and got away with it!

Although dark already we were anxious to get out and see the Old Part.  Already having walked a few minutes in it arriving to the hostel, we were amazed with the warm-colored buildings that glowed in the night with the hazy street lights shining upon them.  With the snow as a base, the colors popped even more and made each corner, each balcony, each doorstoop or shop entrance magical.  Without a map, we zigzagged around the island - from one side to the other and from top to bottom - enchanted with the crisp air and beautiful scenery.  All of the streets were donned with boughs of trees with white lights strung in them, lighting up the streets even more.  Of course, our favorite place was the site of the majority of post cards from this city - the main square, Stortorget.  Squared in by 18th century homes built for the elite, the square wasn't always a whimsical as it was that night.  Although the window frames and wrought iron street numbers ooze character, what they don't tell is of the blood bath that happened in this exact square a few centuries before.  In 1520. Christian II, in power in Denmark at the time, used Stortorget as a massacre spot for those who opposed his overtaking of Sweden.  A monument set up to honor the historic event still doesn't steal the attention from the steep buildings that each tout thier own special color, be it a rusty maroon or a seedy mustard yellow or a weathered country blue. 
In a stout (well, 4 floors, but short for this square) goldenrod building, we entered the bottom floor for a warm drink in a spot called Chokladkoppen and ordered a cappucino and a hot chocolate.  Even without speaking Swedish, the name of the place kind of give it away, and easily you can imagine it was full of scrumptous chocolate desserts and also gooey apple pies and to-die-for cakes.  Happy with the hot chocolate, I was estatic to see it come out, in a huge bowl which seemed more like a soup bowl size than a coffee or hot chocolate.  With the handle broke off (all of the cups were like that, not just mine), I could only drink it by putting my freezing hands on both sides and cupping it while the warm chocolate goodness went down.  Set up to maximize the space, we were seated at a short picnic style table with narrow stools and elbow to elbow with the people next to us.  Although cramped like sardines, everyone was enjoying thier hot drink and talking amongst themselves happily, just like us, eyes gleaming to be in Stockholm.

Warm from the inside we continued our meandering through the streets, popping into shops, always on a fruitless search of flower seeds.  Joseba tries to bring a bag of seeds back from each country he visits for his uncle who has a large garden, so we made it a mission to find some stunning tulips or something similar but were running into dead ends left and right.  When the shops closed to resigned to dinner, a Mexican restaurant, to add to our international eating habits.  Happy to finally have some good enchiladas, we went to bed early so we would be fully charged for Stockholm in the daylight.

When we woke up, we already had plans waiting.  A friend of mine, Laura, that I met in San Sebastian, had recently moved back to Finland and we were meeting up with her and our mutual friend Alain from San Sebastian.  After showering and dressing, they were waiting for us in the kitchen of the hostel, ready to conquer Stockholm.  Our first stop was a small café that I had been into when I was here last, which I remembered had apple strudel to die for.  Along with that, I ordered a massive coffee to wake me up and warm me up simultaneously. 
We retraced our steps from the night before, seeing the old part in a whole new light - daylight!  With sun, we were able to appreciate the small brick details of the buildings, the elaborate doorways with swirls of stone adornments, the cornicestones still managing to hold the old homes together, the steamy 4-pane windows and of course the pastel pallete of colors. 

Crossing the bridge to Norrmalm (north neighborhood) we headed up towards the SaluHall (food hall in Swedish) to see a lively gourmet market at its best.  Bustling with a heavily-jacketed crowd, I was taken aback by mix of garland hanging from the booths along with the Swedish flags.  The whole place feeling busy, like the days before Christmas usually feel, we were standing right in the middle taking it all in, kind of like we were in a dream.  We woke up from the dream when I found a sample of some delicious salami.  From then on, we realized a lot of stands had free samples, which we hadn't noticed earlier.  From deli meats to fresh parmesean cheese we oogled at all the possible lunch options and even though we weren't hungry, it was impossible for my stomach not to growl a bit looking at little pastries in the shape of reindeer or cheese rolled in bacon ready to fry or stuffed-to-the-brim sandwiches being eaten by wine-sipping people. 
Conserving our growing hunger, we headed towards the water again.  At this point we started to notice the extreme ice wave that had taken over the city. 
From frozen over water pipes to icicles that almost touched the ground hanging from the gutters.  Along the shore, boats were docked, snow resting on the tarps.  Across the water we could see the massive Nordic Museum, which when completed in 1907 was meant to be the home for all of Sweden's material inheritance.  However, it was never completed to its original size and now only stands at 1/3 the designed size - which I can't even imagine, seeing as it is huge.  After our stroll we headed across a narrow bridge to Skeppsholmen, a small island that used to be a fort and naval area, but now houses museums and hostels. 
With stunning views across the water, we watched the sun sink behind the spires and rooftops of Gamla Stan.  Being an island, the wind whipped us a lot while we walked around and eventually with the sun gone we headed back to the Old Part for lunch in a small spot called Café Art.  About the same temperature inside as out, we were happy that the coffee was free and warmed us up immediatley.  Later came our warm pasta dishes and we again warmed to normal body temperature.  With full stomachs, we decided it was a smart time to go grocery shopping for the next few days breakfasts and that nights dinner. 

Later the boys cooked us a tasty dinner and dabbled in some Scandinavian alcohol Laura had brought with her - my favorite being a cranberry flavored pop that I guess had some alcohol in it.  I couldn't really tell, except that it was delicious.  With layers upon layers, we headed out towards Sodermalm to live up the last few hours of the decade.  Told by the friendly receptionist, we planned to spend the evening outside on a bridge that connects two islands that was shut down for the occasion.  On the side of the bridge opposite the Old Part was a concert which we enjoyed with a little dance party of our own.  When the big screen showed midnight everyone cheered, Joseba popped the champagne top, we kissed and then everyone toasted to a 'urte berri on' - Happy New Year in Basque.  A few minutes later the fireworks above the water started and 2011 had officially started!


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