In St. Petersburg, the immigration workers really earn their salary. They sit in a little booth, and even though everything below their necks is hidden from view by a screen, it is obvious there’s a whole cottage industry at work down below. First you stand in line and wait to be called by one of about fifteen officials who are on duty. You approach the wicket, slide over your passport and wait again. They scrutinize it, peer at you, consult a computer, stamp, staple, fold, examine, look at you once more, and finally let you into Russia. It takes about five minutes per person. Do not smile, as that will convince them you are demented. And definitely don’t crack a joke. The Russian customs agents have no discernible sense of humour and are highly suspicious of those who do.
In Stockholm, on the other hand, there’s one fellow standing by the automated doors while everyone streams past, and his chief job seems to be pointing out the bathrooms and the wifi. If you’re good enough for a cruise ship, you’re good enough for Sweden.
There is no use getting up early in Stockholm. Nothing opens until 10 a.m., not the museums, the bus service, or the boat service. And you need the boat service to get around because Stockholm is built on islands – many, many islands. In fact, if you’ve ever sailed the St. Lawrence Seaway (near where I live in Canada) and past all the cottages on the Thousand Islands, well, the approach to Stockholm looks exactly like that.
Gamla Stan, the Old Town, is on a central island, but not the biggest one. Another island has several museums (including the ABBA museum!), and yet another island has an amusement park and zoo.
We had tea (and pastry!) in Gamla Stan, and admired the medieval architecture and items for sale in the tiny shops – knitted sweaters, Dala horses, chocolate shaped like Nobel prize medals, along with the usual tourist kitsch.
Then we took a boat to the Vasa Museum, which contains a 17th century warship named, surprise, the Vasa. The very name means “ship” – probably because next to this iconic vessel, everything else is just … a boat.
In August 1628, this marvel of naval technology was launched from Stockholm in splendid ceremony. Special guests and nobility were invited to enjoy a sail-away party on board. Crowds lined the dockyard to admire the cannons – TWO rows of them bristling from the open gun decks, look, 64 in total! And over 120 life-size statues on her exterior! Each one hand-painted in expensive bright colours. The bowsprit, carved from iron-hard black oak into a lacy filigree – no one has ever seen anything like that before or since!
The crowd cheered as the mighty ship pulled away from shore. Dwarfing the Dutch and English ships, more powerful than the Spanish Armada. They watched as it pulled away from the dock, on her way to Poland. That’s where the king of Denmark was waiting to show it off to his allies. None of them had anything as grand as the Vasa, and he had been rubbing their faces in that fact for months.
The cheering had not yet died down and the Vasa was not yet out of sight when, twenty minutes later, the first gust of wind puffed into her sails. The Vasa rocked with it, and righted herself. But then there was a second gust, and this time a small wave rolled into the bottom row of open gun ports. The Vasa rocked from side to side as the water sloshed about, gently at first, and then with an ever greater sway. And then she gurgled – and sank. Straight down, like a stone. Sadly, thirty lives were lost.
There she sat for the next three hundred and thirty-three years until in 1961 she was raised, restored, and put on display, 98% intact thanks to the cool Baltic waters that preserved her. The museum displays not only the ship and its artifacts, but has exhibits on why it sank (basically, topheavy) and the efforts to raise and preserve her.
The following day the Navigator and I were back in town, this time to visit the Swedish History Museum, which holds the largest collection of Viking artifacts anywhere. We were assigned a Viking named Adam as a tour guide for the main exhibit. After that, we visited the Gold Room, containing hoards of Viking gold and silver; several kilograms of gold, in fact. This is held in a very secure facility underground, as you may imagine.
“That hygge crap” (see heading above) is how the Navigator describes my current fascination with everything Scandinavian. In Sweden I learned about fika, which is like a coffee break, except with cake (or a cinnamon roll) and always with company, never alone. Just google it and you will see I’m not the only fascinated person!