Fire and ice
GO SWEDEN:STOCKHOLM MAKES ME want to have an affair. Beautiful people are everywhere – men and women – all of them sculpted, fit and beaming. The dark days of winter are gone and this incredible island city is out in force. Our small group of Irish stand in our own shadows in the lobby of the brand new Scandic Grand Central as
Sweden’s young burst out of hibernation. Fashion matters here and, with no recession to dwell on, the city is celebrating in style.
I’m on a two-hop SAS airlines ticket to Sweden, letting me stop off for two days in the capital before taking in the flipside of the country in the Arctic Circle. The atmosphere in the Grand Central is electric, and not just with the young: even grey hair gets a sharper cut here. Located right next to the uncool central station, Scandic seem to have taken an entire business block and turned it into one of the hippest hotels in the city. Free wi-fi brings the tech-savvy inside, and the music bars and great accommodation all add up to a great hotel in a fantastic city that’s found its stride all over again.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has put some of that stride there for sure. We take the Millennium tour around the sites and inspiration of the books. As snow falls, we’re led into and around Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm. But don’t just follow your guide – launch yourself fully into Sweden’s capital. Stockholm is on the east coast, where Lake Malaren meets the Baltic sea. It’s built on 14 islands, so getting around should be complicated, but of course it’s not. It has a shockingly good public transport system, with a metro, light rail, bus and city bike service with dedicated bike lanes, all competing to ferry you around. Green parks are everywhere and, since we’re in Nobel prize country, museums are the real thing. There are far too many for one person to see in a weekend so I choose one, the Vasa, reportedly Scandinavia’s most visited museum.
The Vasa is a huge 64-gun warship that sank 15 minutes from shore in 1628 on its maiden voyage. There really is something in the water here because when they finally found it again in the 1960s it was so well-preserved in the deep mud of the Baltic that they were able to raise the entire structure – skeletons of the dead included – and build a massive maritime museum around it. The story of the Vasa is a great in-road into the story of Stockholm itself, its wealth through the centuries, the rise and fall of monarchs and its ever-changing place in the world.
Another way to find the story of Stockholm is in the city’s restaurants. The trendy B.A.R. restaurant with its fresh (and sometimes live) fish bar is one of the more recent and popular additions. Nearby Den Gyldene Freden, on the other hand, is the oldest restaurant in a single premises in the world, and it has been serving the same style of Nordic food since 1722. The building is rich with history, the staff incredibly professional, friendly and inviting. Every table is filled with well-dressed Stockholmers who all seem to be marking an event in this beautiful place. I start with bleak roe with goat cheese pudding, spiced pork and brioche. For my main I choose halibut with scallop, avruga, cress cream and oyster sauce. Food simply matters here: the presentation, the service, the taste. It is no exaggeration to suggest that hundreds of years of preparation is behind every meal.
It really is a beautiful city, stuffed full of culture, but no country can be measured only by its capital, and Sweden proves that better than most. The flipside of Stockholm is in its far northern reaches – a two-hour flight to the city of Kiruna inside the Arctic Circle, where life is truly dictated by the weather. The Arctic is stunning: the curves of snow drift, the light, the mountain-tops and deep, perfect valleys containing huge frozen lakes.
Our SAS flight is full, with Stockholmers heading north for snow sports and foreigners hoping to catch the northern lights and a night in the Ice Hotel, another of Sweden’s great modern attractions. Kiruna is in Swedish Lapland and its winter season lasts from November to May. If there’s a winter activity you’ve ever dreamed of (fancy climbing a frozen waterfall?) you can do it here. It’s a vast wilderness that the Swedes might not have tamed but have at least learned to live within with great comfort.
If it’s the lights you’re after, then Swedish Lapland is one of the best places to chase them. Bjorkliden Mountain Resort is right up against the border with Norway. It has very low precipitation and little light pollution, which means no clouds and very dark – just the conditions the Aurora Borealis likes. We only have to stroll out the front door and up a hill to catch them. We pull on our Arctic gear and start climbing through the snow. We’re clumsy and fall over, laughing. The sky is full of stars and as we round a hill we stop and stare. Slowly shapes take form. A pale colour – is it a weak hallucination? We desperately want to see them. We want to be stunned. We relax and wait and yes, the lights appear, calm and slow. They move overhead and waft through the night sky. The drama is personal and the world slows down – you get them or you don’t. Right now, for millions of people, they’re the hottest thing on the planet and the Swedes aren’t really sure why. But they’re delighted. They’re in their backyard after all.
If time is on your side then the best place for the lights has to be a night at the Aurora Sky Station at Abisko. Take a chair-lift up mount Nuolja and have dinner beneath the stars in the Sky Station and wait for the show to begin. Then settle down into your Arctic sleeping bag and spend the night watching the sky light up, knowing that next morning the sauna awaits.
This is a great family destination: children are skiing, snowboarding and laughing everywhere. They have no idea how cool they look and there’s so much for them to enjoy. The dog-sled rides, the snow-shoe hikes, ski school, snowmobile tours to mountain-tops, and even visiting a Sami village and lassoing your own reindeer. The Sami people are a nomadic group who are indigenous to Lapland, a region that stretches across Norway, Sweden and Finland. In a village near Kiruna they teach us how to tie a lasso, help each of us catch a reindeer and harness it to a sleigh, and suddenly we’re off, in a convoy of reindeer sleighs, driving through a snow-laden forest. Afterwards we enter the warmth of a Sami teepee, eat reindeer cooked over an open fire, drink lingonberry juice and listen to tales of the Sami life, of the Arctic and the magic of Sweden. Show me a child who won’t remember it for life. Show me an adult who can’t see the magic in the air.
(Gary Quinn was a guest of SAS airlines)
How to . . .
SAS flights Dublin to Kiruna via Stockholm (Sample booking on flysas.comfor March 1st – 8th 2013, high season for the northern lights in Kiruna). From Dublin to Stockholm return: €166.80. Stockholm to Kiruna return: €185.33 (23kg baggage allowance, free seating, free check-in, 25 per cent child discount and all taxes and charges incl)
Sweden suffers from a perception of very high prices but compared to Dublin, and because it offers very high standards, Stockholm is a surprisingly good value citybreak.
WHERE TO STAY
A superior double room in the Scandic Grand Central: High season €200/ Low season €167
WHERE TO EAT
Den Gyldene Freden (one of the best restaurants in the city): Approximately €65 (without drinks)
SAS airlines flysas.com
Bjorkliden Mountain Resort Bjorkliden.com
The Ice Hotel icehotel.com
Sami Eco Adventures nutti.se