Beauty on the Water

Our first thoughts for this day were “had we woken in Muskoka?”
Perhaps we should explain...While the ship wasn’t expected to dock in Stockholm until 9:30am, we had been told that the ship would be travelling through the Stockholm archipelago (Stockholms skärgård) starting very early in the morning. The archipelago consists of something like 30,000 islands and islets, and as we woke and opened the curtains in our room we marvelled at how much this looked like Ontario’s own Muskoka area as the ship navigated the cottage filled islands. The trip was not a nice straight sail, with Azamara Journey having to turn often to make its way through the shipping lane. Some of the islands we got to see up close and personal - surprisingly close. We stood on our veranda for a while watching the pleasant scenery pass by interrupted only by getting ready for the day - the first of two in Sweden’s capital city.

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  • Friday July 9, 2010

    Vasamuseet, Sigtuna and strolling around Stockholm

    As Azamara Journey weaved through Muskokaholm we decided to make our way to Windows Café for some breakfast and then made our way to the open deck to watch the final approach into Stockholm. To complete the Muskoka moment, we even saw a Canadian flag flying at one of the properties closer to Stockholm. With the rush hour traffic, our arrival turned out to be a bit later than the scheduled time but that didn't affect the start time of the tour we had booked. We went through the normal tour arrangements at the Cabaret Lounge and set off for our tour around 10:30am. The disembarkation was quick and easy and we were off quickly to our first stop of the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet).

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      The story of the Vasa is very interesting: a ship commissioned in 1625 by King Gustav II Adolf (Gustavus Adolphusto) to be his mighty flag ship - the first of an intended four ships. Before it was completed, the master ship builder responsible for the Vasa died and his assistant took over. During construction, the King wasn’t happy with the might of it firepower and subsequently ordered an additional gun deck to which the now in charge assistant ship builder agreed to add. Big mistake: the Vasa did not have a big enough keel to handle the extra gun deck and its compliment of 64 cannons. On its maiden voyage in 1628, the Vasa travelled the total distance of 1300 metres from its launch in the Stockholm Harbour before capsizing and sinking. Gusts of wind caused the ship to heel to the port side enough for water to flow into the lower open gun ports. With that the ship heeled further resulting in the sinking of the Vasa. After many years of effort, the Vasa was raised once again to the surface of the Stockholm Harbour in 1961 and following many years of restoration it now is impressively on display in its own museum. We enjoyed our time in the museum - looking around the ship and the many displays and artifacts from the Vasa. Verdict?: absolutely a place to visit on a trip to Stockholm.

      After the time in Vasamuseet we took a bus ride to Gamla stan, or Old Town, for a walking tour of this pretty and historic area of Stockholm. The town can be traced back to the 13th century and the myriad of cobblestoned narrow roads made it easy to imagine a bygone time. We started our tour outside the Stockholm Palace and saw a bit of the changing of the guard. Very close to the royal palace sits a church with a few names: Sankt Nikolai kyrka (Church of St. Nicholas), Stockholms domkyrka (Stockholm Cathedral) and Storkyrkan (The Great Church) - with the latter being the more commonly used name. It was here just 20 days before our visit that Sweden had the pageantry of a royal wedding, with the eldest daughter of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia - Crown Princess Victoria marrying commoner Daniel Westling. According to our guide not many Swedes are all that interested in the royal family, but this particular wedding drew a lot of positive public attention that appeared to generally improve the image of the royals thereafter. The walk around Gamla stan was certainly enjoyable and interesting - historically and architecturally. You can get a sense of the area from our first photo page from Stockholm. Something to point out: not for the first time on this cruise we were in a city with more than a passing interest in Saint George and the Dragon. The Baltic region seemed well immersed in the legend (or one of many legends, that is) and had the statues, reliefs and paintings to prove it. After the walking tour we boarded the bus to head out of Stockholm to the city of Sigtuna. before leaving the city, though, the bus stopped at an elevation point of Södermalm for a terrific view of the Stockholm Harbour. From this vantage point it was easier to get a sense of the islands that make up Stockholm. Our guide pointed out something mounted on windows of a house nearby the location we had stopped - gossip mirrors, intended to be able to check out what was going on outside the house from the comfort of a living room chair. We noticed many more gossip mirrors throughout the day and took a photo of one while we were in Sigtuna - you can see that on our second photo page. It seems Stockholmians, or maybe Swedish people in general, like to keep an eye on what the neighbours are doing outside without being obvious.

      After the views from Södermalm we took the bus to Sigtuna on the shores of Lake Mälaren. Its claim to fame is that it is the oldest city in Sweden, or as they say “where Sweden begins” - dating back to 980. You know...as we drove to Sigtuna there was something that we failed to see - in fact it was something that we never saw throughout our our entire time in Sweden - an Ikea store. We figured we would have stubbled upon at least one, but nope. Anyway, back to Sigtuna: It is a quiet and quaint area - not really big enough to be truly classified as a city - more of a small town with the last census putting the population just over 7000 people. After a walking tour of Sigtuna we had quite a bit of free time - too much, actually. Frankly, it would have been much better to return to Stockholm after the walking tour - Sigtuna didn’t have enough to offer to spend too much time there. A nice area, but not worth the time that had been allocated to it. We can’t be sure, but based on comments we heard later that we think most of the people on the tour had the same impression. Unlike Stockholm, English wasn’t spoken much here and it had a rather limited selection of places to get food or drink, although the city propaganda said that the Sigtuna Municipality has more restaurants per capita than Stockholm. The municipality had to extend beyond what we could see of this “city”. On our own we wandered around the sleepy town, watched people learning to be vikings on the shore of Lake Mälaren before heading out in a Viking boat, and relaxed a bit with some ice-creams and pastries and cold drinks. The Main street (Stora Gatan) was the location for most shops and restaurants - and it is reported to be unchanged in length or curvature since its original formation over a thousand years ago. When we met back up with the tour group, we continued our walking tour a bit further out of the city centre - focussing on some of the Viking runic stones that were dotted around. Siguna has the largest collection of runic stones of anyway in Sweden. We’d say that this was the most interesting element of Sigtuna. The 11th century stone on the left is one such runic symbol, discovered in 1956 - and translated to show the self grandizment of a man named Anund. It reads: “Anund had the stone erected in memory of himself in his lifetime”. Anund must have been a “rock” star among Vikings. Records indicate that there were seven large stone churches erected in the Middle Ages. Today ruins of three of them remain, and we made our way to one of them - St Olaf’s before heading into the nearby parish church of Sigtuna - St Mary’s (Mariakyrkan) which dates back to the 13th century, first as a Catholic church until the Reformation in 1530 when it became a parish church. Inside the church is evidence of the various phases of its existence. Strangely, also inside was an art exhibit of the work of Lars Holm - compelling watercolour images, but a strange venue for such an exhibit. With that our time with Sigtuna was done and we made our way back to Stockholm. We should have had an opportunity to get off the bus somewhere in Stockholm, but because of bad traffic as the bus approached Stockholm our driver changed the route and we bypassed the city. Our plan was to spend more time in the city, so we took the opportunity back at the ship for a quick freshen up and then we took the shuttle into the city.

      Back in Stockholm, we started near the Royal Opera (Kungliga Operan) and then made our way to take a look around Sergel’s Square (Sergels tog) - the most central public square in Stockholm. A roundabout in the centre of the square encircles an oblong shaped fountain with a modern obelisk made of glass and steel at the very centre. Nearby Sergels tog is Sweden’s largest and most opulent department store - Nordiska Kompaniet, more commonly just referred to as NK. You may recall the shocking murder of Anna Lindh, the Swedish Foreign Affairs Minister, in 2003 - it took place just outside NK after she had been shopping there without the protection of a bodyguard in the open and generally peaceful Swedish society. NK was really quite impressive, and well worth the time to look around. Gary had been interested in buying a piece of Mats Jonasson’s crystal art - so it was nice to be able to purchase it here at NK. From there we walked along some of the pedestrian streets in Gamla stan to check out the other end of the shopping spectrum. Worlds apart in just a few steps. In the light of the early evening sun, we had a nice stroll around Gamla stan and meanered back towards the location of the Royal Palace (Kungliga slottet) and the Parliament of Sweden building (Riksdagshuset). It was about 8:00pm when we decided to make our way back to Azamara Journey.

      Something we should have thought about ahead of time was perhaps to research and book a dinner reservation for this night in Stockholm. We had passed by many good looking restaurants, but we didn't have a feel for the better choices and we certainly weren’t dressed for dinner as we wandered around the city. Next time for sure. Onboard Azamara Journey, we changed for dinner and made our way to the main dining room Discoveries. It was a nice and relaxing dinner at the end of a full day of touring. The service was attentive and food was good. Following dinner we wandered around the ship - both inside and outside before making our customary stop at Mosaic Café for espressos and machiattos, plus perhaps a cookie or two. With that our first day in Stockholm was done. Overall impressions? well, Stockholm is a clean, elegant and quaint city with a nicely balanced mixture of old and new. The city had been spruced up for the recent royal wedding...so the metal on historic buildings glistened in the sunlight; that didn’t hurt the image. Beyond that, it appeared to us that Stockholm was doing quite well economically - if there had of been an economic downturn here then it had certainly recovered nicely. It was also a popular tourist destination. The highlight of the day for us had to be the Vasa Museum - we could have easily spent longer there. The only negative was that we felt we had stayed too long in Sigtuna. The good news was we’d have another day in Stockholm...that being tomorrow. For now, though, our day was done.

  • Saturday July 10, 2010

    Walking tour of Stokholm, Gamla stan and the Absolut Ice Bar

    The plan for our second day in Stockholm was to be up and ready early enough to catch the first shuttle bus into town - and that was scheduled for 8:30am. For that to go smoothly we decided to be up at 6:30am so we had time for a leisurely breakfast at Windows Café. The anticipated weather for the day was a high of 30°c, but the forecast was also calling for rain. The good news was that there was no sign of the rain as we sat outside on the open deck of the Sunset Bar to enjoy our breakfast. Even in the early morning we could feel the start of the warm day, and this under a beautiful bright blue sky.

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      We were done breakfast and off the boat before the shuttle bus was ready to leave, so we took a few photos around the ship while we waited. The shuttle service was efficient and the first shuttle of the day brought us to a convenient spot in the city for our self directed tour of Stockholm. We spent an enjoyable morning wandering around the city - taking in the sights of an attractive city. Our meandering route was, in fact, planned out to make sure we’d make it to Stockholms stadshus (Stockholm City Hall) - and we were rewarded with a terrific look around the beautiful building and a very nice view from that location. The building was inaugurated in 1923 on the day that marked the 400th anniversary of former Swedish King Gustav Vasa’s arrival in Stockholm. It took 12 years for them to construct the hall using traditional techniques to honour its Nordic “National Romantic Style”. The Blue Hall within the building is best know today as the dining hall used for the annual banquet held after the Nobel Prize award ceremony. It is one of Stockholm’s major tourist attractions - with good reason. It certainly is a place well worth visiting.

      Following our time at the city hall we decided it was time for a nice coffee, so we set off in search for a suitable place to stop. Not too difficult a task in Stockholm - Swedes love their coffee and there are plenty of cafés. We settled on one we both like the look of and had probably one (or two, depending on how you count it) of the best cappuccinos we’ve ever tasted - well, at least in recent memory for sure. To accompany the coffee we also some of the local wienerbröd (Danish pastry). The pastry was good, the coffee was better. We needed to be back at the ship before noon to connect up with an excursion we had booked that left at 12:15pm, so following our coffee break we made a quick calculation of the route we could take back to the shuttle bus location in at the harbour and then set of to enjoy a few more sights of the city. Our timing was almost perfect to reach the harbour in time for the departure of one of the shuttles. The short trip back to the ship also gave us a chance to retrace our steps a get a further handle on the layout of the city. Once back on the ship we had time to freshen up and then enjoy small sandwiches with customary espressos at Mosaic Café before we had to meet up with our tour group for the afternoon’s excursion.

      Our afternoon excursion was in two parts - first a walking tour of Gamla stan (Old Town) and then a visit to the Absolut Ice bar. We had purposefully avoided Gamla stan in our morning walk around the city, but it was an area we had toured on the first day in Stockholm. We were hoping there wasn’t going to be too much of a duplication. It was, though, a pretty part of the city - so even a bit of duplication wasn't going to be too bad. Our guide was aware that most, if not all, of the people on the tour had likely toured the old town, so she promised she’d adjust things accordingly. That was a good sign. We took a bus ride to the Stockholm Palace - and arrived with time in hand to get a spot to watch the full changing of the guard complete with marching band - quite a bit more than we had seen on the previous day. The walking tour of Gamla stan started from the palace at the conclusion of the changing of the guard. We made our way to Stortorget (The Big Square) where our guide described the tour itinerary and gave people the opportunity to tour individually and then meet up with the group at the bus located at the Stockholm Palace. It was about a 50/50 split on that decision, with us opting to explore more of Gamla stan on our own. It was a good option based on what we’d already seen of the historic area. We enjoyed wandering around some of the narrow streets and checking out some of the very trendy and expensive shops that dotted the area. The day was truly beautiful - sunny and hot, so it was always pleasant to nip into a shop here and there to savour a moment or two in air-conditioned comfort. The comfort was indeed present-day technology in historic Gamla stan. At the appointed time we made our way back to where the bus was parked and from there we took a short ride to the location of the Absolut Ice Bar.

      Our group had a scheduled time, so it was a short wait once we arrived at the location of the ice bar - which is inside the Nordic Sea Hotel. When it was our time we made our way through a line of people (whom you’d figured hadn’t booked a time) and then went through a locker room area where we selected a fur-lined poncho with kindergarden-style attached gloves to combat the -5°c inside the ice bar. Everything inside the ice bar is made from frozen water taken from Sweden’s Torne River - the walls, bar stools, artwork and even the glasses used. The tag line, of course, is that the drinks are served “inside the rocks”. The theme for the bar while we were there was nautical, so all of the artwork followed that theme. The experience was fun, albeit rather touristy. The sensation of wearing a poncho over summer clothes (with bare legs) at -5°c was interesting to say the least.

      We arrived back at the ship around 3:20pm, just ahead of the ship’s scheduled time for departure from Stockholm of 4:00pm. Our first stop was or fav Mosaic Café for some snack and coffee. We returned to our room for the sail away at 4:00pm and Gary then took the opportunity for a bit of photo maintenance before heading up on deck to take some more photos. The ship would take about four hours to clear the Stockholm Archipelago. We had a reservation for dinner at 8:30pm at Prime C, so we were in no rush as the ship twisted and turned its way once again through the Swedish version of Muskoka. It was both familiar and beautiful. About a half hour before dinner we sampled our first martinis of the cruise at the Looking Glass Bar on Deck 10, which was nice. Following the nice drinks we made our way across the ship to Prime C Restaurant at the other end of Deck 10. We enjoyed another fine dinner here. It was also another opportunity to enjoy those wonderful donuts they had on the dessert menu. After dinner we took a peak at the last few minutes of the “Broadway” show going on at the Cabaret Lounge. With that we decided that our night would end at Mosaic Café for a couple of espressos. It was a good way to end the day and yet slightly sad as we reminisced over the last port of call on this cruise. Our next day would be a relaxing day at sea and then the following day would be disembarkation in Copenhagen. The silver lining this time was that we had some more time planed in the Danish capital with Gary’s cousin Nicola who would be travelling to Copenhagen the day before us. We are getting ahead of ourselves...this night was done so we ventured back to our room following our night caps at Mosaic Café. After so much touring it did feel good knowing that we didn’t need to wake at the crack of dawn on our final day on board Azamara Journey.

Stockholm Image Gallery

Sailing through the Stockholm archipelago that looked very much like our own Muskoka region
Looking across Deck 10 on the approach to Stockholm
Stern view of the Swedish warship Vasa at Vasamuseet
A look at the ports for some of the Vasa's 64 guns
Changing of the guard in Slottsbacken outside the Royal Palace
Dutch looking buildings in Stortorget (The Big Square) in Gamla Stan
Church of St Nicholas (Storkyrkan) & obelisk in Slottsbacken
View of the Stockholm Harbour from near the Viking Line Terminal
Stockholm Harbour
Main street (Stora Gatan), Sigtuna
Tourists learning to be Vikings in Stigtuna
Old Swedish guy in Drake Garden (Draketrädgården), Sigtuna
The “look & feel” of Sigtuna - Sweden's oldest town and first capital
Norrbro (North Bridge) over Norrström River & Riksdagshuset (Parliament of Sweden building)
Church of St Nicholas (Storkyrkan) & Royal Palace (Kungliga slottet)
Sergel's Square (Sergels tog), Stockholm's central public square
Inside the inner courtyard of the Royal Palace (Kungliga slottet)
Linda & Gary in the Absolut Icebar, Stockholm
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WHITEonline is the digital home of Gary & Linda White. We’ve been married since 1980 and live just outside Toronto in Ontario, Canada. Linda was born and raised in Toronto while Gary was born in London, England and moved to Canada at the age of 11. We enjoy travelling and taking photos while we travel. WHITEonline provides the opportunity to share some of our photos & experiences.

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