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27 March 2011

C'est Norrmalm

As I have mentioned a few times before, I don't make New Year's resolutions but this year, I did want to travel to some new places. Much as I love visiting New York and Cannes, I missed the more exploratory travelling I did while at university -- Cuba, Hong Kong and Mexico, for example. All of the guidebooks say that you should visit Stockholm in the summer (so too do the locals) but because Sweden is a winter country in my mind, it is best experienced in winter.
That's enough ice. (Ed.)
I was too wussy to want to go in January, of course, but it turned out that even late March was very cold indeed. Sure, the sun shone brightly and often but the wind was bitterly cold, making me want to seek shelter in some of the more built-up parts of the islands. On the bright side, Stockholm is crammed full of cosy cafes and patisseries, where you can linger over a mug of varm chokolade (hot chocolate) -- usually served with whipped cream and chocolate chips -- and a kanelbulle (cinnamon bun). The cafe at Hotel Rival, owned by Benny from ABBA, was a very funky place to hang out on a sunny afternoon. Espressos, macchiatos and other more Italian forms of beverage are also widely available; indeed, in a lovely cafe in Gamla Stan, the old town, the latte art rivalled that of many of London's and New York's best espresso bars.
Leaping in Stockhom's narrowest alley, Mårten Trotzigs Gränd
Three days is just about enough time for an introductory trip to Stockholm. It takes a little while to get used to the city's geography. We were staying on the main island, in Norrmalm, about a 20-minute walk to the city centre and then just another five minutes on to Gamla Stan and another ten to Södermalm. The latter (particularly the area south of Folkungagatan -- SoFo) is often compared to SoHo in Manhattan but I think Brooklyn is a better comparison. The area near Fjällgatan, for example, with its pretty houses looking out into the sea and over the city centre is not dissimilar to Brooklyn Heights. The shops and cafes in SoFo, meanwhile, while similar in style to those in SoHo, the area is definitely a lot more residential -- more like Williamsburg.

The view from Gondolen

It isn't as though the city shuts down in winter, either. We went on a boat trip around some of the islands, visited the excellent (and, unusually for Stockholm, free) city museum, and walked through Gamla Stan, Söder and Djurgården (the "animal island"), which looked a little sad to be so deserted in the winter but still has several good museums that are open year-round. As well as the fika, I also tried some meatballs with lingon berries and a mouthful, at least, of elk at Clas på Hörnet, a very intimate, romantic restaurant in Norrmalm. Unfortunately, I was somewhat under the weather for most of the trip so we didn't make it to the Ice Bar (I'd had enough of being cold during the daytime) but we did make it to Gondolen for cocktails. This bar, at the top of the Katarinahissen, 100 feet above Södermalm. The cocktails are delicious and the views are great, especially at sunset; I'm sure the ginger vodka and cinnamon in my drink did wonders for my sore throat...

As for the language, I went to Stockholm knowing almost nothing beyond hej and tack, which, for a linguist, is quite scary. As I speak French and Italian well and Spanish and German a little, the only other time, since childhood, that I've been to a country where I didn't speak the language was Hong Kong and on that occasion, the level of English spoken by the residents was generally not as good as I was expecting. Not so in Stockholm, of course, where everyone speaks perfect English, even if they do often have an American accent. I still felt guilty speaking in English and by the end of the trip my pronunciation and reading comprehension had improved quite a lot (thanks mainly to my knowledge of German and English etymology) and I'd learnt that ö is a "soft" vowel and so köttbullar (meatballs) are pronounced more like "shurt-booluh" than "skurt-booluh."


From the boat trip, meanwhile, I learnt that in the early 19th century, Sweden ran out of potential kings and so they asked Napoleon to recommend one of his marshals for the position. He did -- a guy called Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, who took on the more Swedish name Karl Johan, which is why the Swedish royal family has a French name. For a city so surrounded by water, meanwhile, my guidebooks and the city museum seemed to be rather full of stories of how various buildings were destroyed by fire. Craziness. The museum also had an exhibit on the Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larrson, which included several newspapers they had made up with headlines about the depravity of Lisbeth Salander, as well as a map of some of the Stockholm locations from the film.

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