Falling Head over Heels in Love with Stockholm

Gosh, Gamla Stan is so crazy beautiful!!!

“…I stood in the lobby, a vertical puddle, wiped the steam from my glasses with a corner of shirt tail and realized with a touch of horror, as I hooked my glasses back around my ears, that this was much too grand a place for me. It had potted palms and everything. For a moment I considered bolting, but I noticed a reptilian young reception clerk was watching me narrowly, as if he thought I might roll up a carpet and try to carry it out under my arm, and I became instantly obstreperous. I was damned if some nineteen-year-old pipsqueak with zits and a clip-on tie was going to make me feel loathsome. I marched to the front desk and enquired the price of a single room for one night. He quoted me the sort of sum that would necessitate a trip to the bank with a wheelbarrow if paid in cash.”

Neither Here nor There- Bill Bryson

As soon as I finished chuckling, I put the book down, turned on my laptop, and started composing this blog post.

Bill Bryson is my most favorite travel writer. At that point in Neither Here nor There, Bill is recounting his experience arriving at Gothenburg in Sweden and walking into the first hotel he saw. Even though our circumstances are different (he visited Gothenburg in 1990 while I visited Stockholm in 2015), his experience- or the way he describes his experience- is uncannily similar to mine. It gives me goosebumps!

—–

I came to Stockholm in the middle of April this year after spending two weeks in Morocco. It was my very first visit to Stockholm (actually, to any Scandinavian city for that matter), and it couldn’t have been more cursory. I had about 15 hours to spare before my next flight to Reykjavik, Iceland.

(A 15-hour transit time is inadvisable, but I did a lot of that in the past when I flew back and forth between the US and Vietnam so I…don’t find it excruciatingly painful.)

My Ryanair flight landed at Stockholm Skavsta Airport at 11.30PM, which is 1.5 hours away from the center of Stockholm. The distance is ridiculous, but the flight was only US$25. (I’m a beggar and am not allowed to choose!) Since my flight to Iceland the following afternoon departed from Arlanda, the main international airport of Sweden, I had no other choice but to stay overnight somewhere in downtown Stockholm to catch the airport shuttle.

My plan was to stay inside Stockholms Centralstation (Stockholm’s equivalent of Grand Central in NYC or Gare du Nord in Paris) for the night and explore Stockholm just a little bit the next morning with my luggage kept in the station’s storage room.

However, the plan fell flat on my face when I arrived at 2AM. Stockholm is not like New York or Bangkok where people are willing to be overworked, underpaid, and undersexed. Well, don’t quote me on this last part. You need to verify with the Swedes 😀 The point is a lot of places that would otherwise be open throughout the night in other cities are closed in Stockholm.

Know in advance where you’ll stay at least the first night.

Within minutes, I was there almost by myself, as fellow bus passengers either got picked up by their families or took taxi to their hotels. Despite Stockholm’s reputation as one of the safest cities in the world, I was still quite unnerved, to be honest with you guys. I knew absolutely no single soul in Stockholm. I had no Swedish Krona, no map, and no 3G on my iPhone. The streets were vacant, and the night was quite chilly. There’s something about a combination of emptiness, darkness, and cold that really sends shiver down my spine.

I trudged on toward the more brightly lit streets and began to see sleek club-goers and swanky hotels. Knowing they were not made for me, I kept walking around until I saw the word Hostel a few streets away. But when I arrived, it was closed with a little note on the door telling guests arriving late at night to use the key code provided in their confirmation emails.

Before I had time to let my heart sink to the pavement, I heard a shout. Turning back, I saw a car heading toward me with three men in it, two of whom were looking out of the windows and yelling something indiscernible.

OH MY FUCKING GOD!!!

Me (and my luggage. How helpful!) versus 3 guys with a car in some dark corner of Stockholm at 2 in the morning? What the actual fuck?

I ran like madman in the opposite direction, toward the crowded crossroad. I could hear the car’s engine running, but didn’t dare to look back to see how close they were to me. I was so scared that if I had stopped, they would have jumped out and got me.

I had never been that petrified for my life.

When I came to the crossroad, I turned back and didn’t see any car tailing me. Relieved, I went right into the first hotel I saw, Elite Adlon Hotel, and gave the receptionist my credit card to get the US$120 single room without blinking.

I plunged straight to bed when I entered my room. It was the best sleep I had during my one-month crisscrossing the world.

—-

I woke up the next morning to shafts of sunlight penetrating through the window curtain. I looked out the window and squealed with delight at the glorious beauty of Stockholm.

Again, thanks to Instagram, I knew exactly what I wanted to see in the 5 hours I had: Gamla Stan and Stockholm’s legendary metro stations.

But first, let me have my Swedish breakfast. You guys! This part of my experience at Aldon completely justified the $120 I had paid. It was the most sumptuous, decadent breakfast I have ever had in the last 4 years roaming the world. Cheese, bread, salmon, tuna, salami, prosciutto, fruit, coffee…there was everything. I gorged myself on salmon and fruit to compensate for two weeks of eating poorly in Morocco.

Aldon’s central location made it easy for me to go to where I wanted to go. Just after 10 minutes, I arrived at the strangest, most jaw-dropping and evocative metro station–Rådhuset.

(Some background information for those of you who don’t know about Stockholm’s subway system yet, courtesy of Visit Stockholm: The Stockholm subway system is said to be the world’s longest art exhibit – 110 kilometers long.Traveling by subway is like traveling through an exciting story that extends from the artistic pioneers of the 1950s to the art experiments of today. Over 90 of the 100 subway stations in Stockholm have been decorated with sculptures, mosaics, paintings, installations, engravings and reliefs by over 150 artists. The Kungsträdgården subway station looks like an archaeological excavation, with the remains of the old Stockholm Makalös palace. At Östermalmstorg the artist Siri Derkert highlights women’s rights and peace and environmental issues.)

Rådhuset is located in central Stockholm, on the T-Centralen blue line. It was designed by Swedish artist Sigvard Olsson and “uses organic architecture, which leaves the bedrock exposed and unsculptured, appearing to be based on natural cave systems.” When I posted this photo on Instagram, the prevalent comment was “wow, look like staircases to hell” 😀

T-Centralen is another favorite of mine. It’s the heart of the Stockholm metro system, designed by Finnish artist Per Olof Ultvedt in 1975, and “features boldly painted blue silhouettes of vines and flowers on the walls and ceiling, giving the impression that you are passing through a large forest.” I’m here to testify that the blue silhouettes of vines and flowers really do have some calming effect.

I didn’t have much time so the last station I paid a visit was Kungsträdgården. According to Stockholm Our WayKungsträdgården was designed by Swedish artist Ulrik Samuelso in 1977 and features “art and special creepers” and “is known to be the home of spiders that doesn’t exist anywhere else in Sweden.” I didn’t encounter any spiders, but that’s one chilling fact.

Because its platform is located 34 metres below ground, Kungsträdgården is the lowest situated metro station in Stockholm.

A visit to Stockholm wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Gamla Stan, also known as The Old Town. I only had an hour before I had to head back to the hotel to pick up my bags, so I barely scratched the surface of Gamla Stan. But it was an incredibly lovely morning stroll, not just because Gamla Stan itself is so enchanting and atmospheric but also because I had it almost to myself and thus had the silence and solitude to absorb what was in front of me.

As you can see, most of the shops weren’t even open. I thoroughly enjoyed the quietness, but next time I come back to Stockholm, I want to see how lively the area is when it’s business time.

I have to be honest and admit that before I came to Gamla Stan, I was feeling ambivalent about Europe. After 5 countries, the continent had started to lose its luster. I found it homogeneous and repetitive. Gamla Stan and Stockholm truly have resurrected my affinity for the Old Continent.

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