Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet), Stockholm

The Vasa Museum wowed me when I visited it over 10 years ago, did so again on this visit and is surely one of the great museums. Many museums in Stockholm are free to visit; this one is not, but the 190kr (£15) is worth it. It’s located on the same island as the Djurgarden, to the East of the very centre of the city. “Is it the funny-shaped building?” someone asked me, and well, yes, probably. Note that much of the supporting material, audio and visual, is available from outside the museum – see the bottom of this post for links.

Vasa Museum, seen from the Gamla Stan (where the National and Modern museums are).

It has long opening hours, 8:30-18:00, to cater for everyone who calls in during the day. I came reasonably early at around 10 (it was a 4km walk there, too, so that stopped me being super early). That may have been peak time for groups, and it was noticeably quieter around lunch time (midday onwards), but I only really noticed it at a couple of exhibits that were blocked with people being informed, and I went back to those later in any case. As for entering, don’t be put off if you see a lot of people entering – groups have a separate entrance and queue, and individuals can be in within moments. I wandered up to a self-service machine, pressed the screen for adult entry, held my card to the machine, took the printout, had it checked, and I was in.

I sort of wanted to see the ship last, and to hold the pictures of the whole thing till the end, but it makes some sense to just let you see it. My jaw didn’t actually drop, but I certainly stopped (and there is a big, wide space after the entry doors, allowing a lot of people to stop dead if necessary).

Vasa ship from 1628, in a museum
The Vasa.
Vasa from above, showing some of the carvings.
The Vasa from above – different colours mean reconstructed parts, but there aren’t many.

The ship was built between 1626 and 1628. It then set sail, made it 1,000 yards or so, sails set and all gunports open, before a gentle breeze rocked it and another one made it capsize, take on water and sink, with 30+ deaths (some captions still suggest 50, so I think the estimate has come down over time). When I last came I remember distinctly describing it as “set sail, fell over, sank and that’s why we still have it”, and being fairly sure it was bad design. The museum was probably never so definitive. Certainly the ship is not wide enough for the two gun decks and remarkably high ship, but it also didn’t have enough ballast (related to the width, as there wasn’t enough space), the original designer died, and the king interfered and insisted on sailing soon. None of those are pointed to as the main cause, but since an inquest at the time found no-one guilty, we’re left to think it was a combination of those factors (or that it was the otherwise-great King Gustavus Adolphus, and no one was going to blame him).

A smaller model (10ft or so) of the ship stands in front of it
Vasa and mini Vasa

There are several floors, each of which has exhibits and in some cases, especially ground and lower ground, galleries to wander through. The higher floors are mostly for viewing.

To the right of the entrance is the information desk, toilets and lockers, and a cinema with an excellent film about the history of the ship, particularly focusing on the work done to salvage it. Efforts were made periodically, including at the time, but the most successful two were a slightly destructive 17th century set of dives that retrieved a lot of cannon, at the cost of much of the top of the ship, and the 1950s full floatation.

A photo of the ship being floated, in a partial wooden shell, from the 1950s
The recovered ship being floated

The picture below of the rear of the ship gives a small idea of how high above the water she must have sat. The picture is taken from roughly the water line. There is still a *lot* of ship above.

Rear view of the ship, with gun ports open and preserved dark wood
Rear view of the ship
Ornate carving of a lion. They haven't all survived, but it is remarkable how many have.
Lion carving on the back of a gun port

The ship is so well preserved because it luckily – for us – sank in anaerobic conditions, and much of it sunk into the mud, more so after an early salvage attempt. The usual cause of ship decay, Teredo Navalis or shipworm, does not live in the conditions where the Vasa was. Still, conservation was intense from the beginning and continues, with initial supposition that it had been conserved and was now good replaced by the understanding that ‘we have the Vasa, but not forever’.

To give an idea of some of the conservation work: First the ship had to be sprayed with water continuously to prevent the wood drying out. Once it was in a temporary home, the water was then replaced with a Polyethylene Glycol (PEG) solution, which meant continual spraying over days or longer, leaving a mist over the ship. Iron rivets had been driven into the ship underwater in the 1950s and those were more recently found to be rotting and damaging the wood. Most have now been replaced by a special steel mixture. The air conditioning within the building was found not to be powerful enough during one especially wet summer, and had to be completely replaced by a better system. And the ship is in a cradle, for which it is not designed, so is settling (if I remember correctly) by a mm each year, and not evenly, so they are currently trying out new bolsters.

It’s a lot of work.

Look at all those carvings. Incredible. It’s 98% original, and you can generally see the newer bits, as they’re different colours to the dark PEG impregnated wood, and mostly on the top. And people had to walk out onto that bowsprit to get to a lookout (not pictured) at the end.

A long view of the Vasa from behind; the back of the ship is particularly ornately decorated
The ship from behind, and the longboat below
Carvings of people and Sweden's coat of arms on the back of the ship
The stern (back) of the ship. I told you there was a lot of it.

There’s plenty of sea-jargon to take in, if you want to, though it is generally explained. That said, there are a few exhibits that are a little like reading Greek. An excerpt, talking about one of the sails (preserved, if holey, and on display, of course).

“The port clew, formed by a seized eye on the bolt rope.
The seizing used is a racking seizing…

A part of the port leech rope with the lowest bowline cringle…

Part of the rope with one of the five cringles for the buntlines.”

A reproduction of the crow's nest overlooking the ship
Your chance to step onto a crow’s nest. Even with the protection, I didn’t go to the edge, thanks
Reproduction of a gundeck with cannons on either side
A reproduction of a gun deck. It is not high, but much higher than they would normally have been, contributing to the top-heaviness.

It’s an extraordinary sight, and I recommend this museum wholeheartedly. I had no doubts about returning, and saved it for my final day in Stockholm. It did not disappoint and I was there several hours. There’s free wifi and a restaurant and then the gardens to wander round afterwards, too.

A front-on view of the ship within the museum.
Designed to strike fear into enemies’ minds, now it just inspires awe in visitors’
My face in front of the ship
A bonus view of me

Links

The Vasa Museum’s own website.

Vasa Museum audioguide (English) – 15 tracks, available in the museum, via the free wifi.

An interactive ‘up close’ guide to the exhibits.

Haga parkrun, Stockholm

Haga parkrun route. Start heading North, through the gates, turn left up the hill, run the loop twice and then back to the beginning.

Haga park is to the North of the centre, an easy walk from where I was staying, near Stockholm Central, a bike ride for some, a jog for others. There’s a car park right by the start, too, for anyone who had driven.

A parkrun flag flying on the grassy area that makes up the finish line. Trees line the path behind. A few runners and several hi-viz volunteers are gathered.
The start (by the finish line) and finish.

This was to be a cloudy and cool day with drizzle, but you wouldn’t have known it from the period up till just after 9, which was very warm and sunny. It was only as we came out of the trees after the second loop of the park that the sun had properly disappeared, making only intermittent appearances afterwards. The run director tried gamely to convince us that this was typical Stockholm weather, but no one was fooled, especially not an English runner who had made the trip from Helsinki. We all enjoyed it throughly, mind.

The Haga gates, head through them shortly after the start.

I arrived early, standing around in the sun, just a little too warm to be wearing a long-sleeved top. Everything was already setup before 9, despite the start at 9.30, so it was very easy to find, but it isn’t tricky – the bottom end of the park, just North of the parking, on the road-side of the first grassy area.

There are no facilities at the park, or all that nearby – toilets at Odenplan, the course page says, which is a little walk away.

We were warned that the left-side of the loop is mostly uphill, and there are two hills/lumps on the other side, too. You’re heading uphill from the start, too, to get through the Haga gates, but none of the hills go on for too long. I had two quick miles, bookending a significantly slower one, and ran exactly the same time as at Vallaskogen, in Linköping, so must have made the most of the downhills. I was pushed all the way by a Ukrainian who was walking up the hills, which was humbling, and he tucked in behind me down the last hill before racing off to the finish, then joining me and a festival-attending Brit for a drink afterwards. It was only the Brit’s second parkrun, and already he has run events in two countries.

Tall trees stand in the park, with open spaces all around.
Heading back downhill at the top of the loop.
Runners on the path to the right of a lake.
Lake on your left as you head downhill

There are just a couple of marshals to check on you as you go round, but plenty of signs at the top right of the course, and no chance to go wrong. Each kilometre is marked, too.

A runner in shorts and t-shirt on a wide path, with trees lining the route.
A kilometre marker on the path.

The paths are all wide, if a little gravelly to slow you just a little. There’s a gravelly area just as you come downhill at the top of the loop, which acts as a brake but is soon over. Essentially, with all this space and tree cover, there’s little to stop you getting on with the event – people are easily avoided, the sights are clear and even on a sunny day you are in the shade often.

Cones mark the finish, heading off the path and onto the grass, with plenty of room for finishers to mill about and a few bikes parked by the finish line.
The finish, and a crowd eating watermelon to celebrate a finisher’s 100th parkrun.

This event couldn’t go ahead on the National Day, because the park was being used for other celebrations, though it still had an attendance spike on the Saturday before, with 133 finishers. We had 87 this Saturday, which is a nice crowd – a fair few people, but soon spreading out. I thoroughly enjoyed my morning, both here and chatting afterwards in the cafe – possibly the wrong cafe, with hindsight, given that only the Ukrainian joined us, but perhaps we were just there and finished before everyone else. It didn’t matter. We managed to confuse the lady in the cafe by putting in two orders – she seemed to think the second order overruled some of the first, so we got exactly half what we’d ordered. Given I’d offered to pay, that was a big saving – orange juice and small pastry, £6.32. I popped into a supermarket on the way back. Perhaps because UK prices have risen/are rising so much, supermarkets seem more reasonable than I remember (two pastries, £1.60). But everything else (hotels, as I found on my first night, when the key had been swiped from my AirBnB, cafes, restaurants etc) is reassuringly expensive.

That evening, as I wandered the decks of a Polferry from Nynäshamn to Gdańsk, I could immediately see the difference, and my wait for a beer was rewarded – even the ferry price was only just over £3. Just remember to always choose to pay in the local currency. On small amounts, the markup when they offer to let you pay in your own seems less of a ripoff than I remember, and it was still a bargain, but I was happy with £3.01 rather than, I think, £3.35. The 50cl topped off my time in Sweden, and memories of running in Swedish warmth, nicely.

Results from Haga parkrun, event 209, 11/6/22, 87 finishers.

Vallaskogen parkrun, Linköping, Sweden

Each country can choose a day on which they can hold an extra parkrun. Sweden chooses its national day, 6th June. Because it was a Monday, and also because it followed some national holidays in the UK, many of the runs in Sweden were busy – Malmö, which I ran in 2019, especially so. In 2019, we nearly set an attendance record with 144. This year, they all-but doubled it, with 287.

Route map of Vallaskogen parkrun.
Route map – one short loop at the top, then onto the longer loop. The marshal at the Lap 1 marker directs you three different ways – left (anti-clockwise) first, round the small loop, then straight on, down to the longer one and finally left again (clockwise), to head to the finish.

Vallaskogen was much quieter. They’d had an influx of tourists on the Saturday before, taking their attendance to 38, and today they were at a still-higher-than-average 27.

Vallaskogen is a nature reserve to the NW of Linköping. I was staying in Skaggetorp, a self-contained suburb further NW, but even that was a straightforward 4km walk to the start. From the centre of town, it would be much shorter.

Everyone meets at the edge of the reserve, still within the confines of the Gamla Linköping, an open-air museum preserving buildings and more from small-town Sweden of 100 years or more ago. The red cabins you can see in the start pictures above are typical. There are picnic tables to gather round afterwards, ground to lie on if you need it and toilets nearby.

There was one other Brit there, who managed to take better pictures while on the run, which I’ve reproduced below. Thanks!

An open-air area with picnic benches and the parkrun flag.
A gathering point
A tree-lined path with wooden fences on either side. The ground is covered in pine needles.
Pine needles on the ground.
A gravel path running through tree-lined surroundings
Me, running.
A marshal in hi-viz at the junction of several paths.
The busy marshal, here at the first turn.

The course is mostly on forest paths, which at this time of year are covered in pine needles, giving a slightly gentler landing. It’s all run on a good surface, and with not too much up and down, making for a quick course. Plenty to divert you as you progress, too, with trees and wildlife everywhere.

There’s a short loop to get you going before you head out into the forest. The course doesn’t take a right-turn it used to, because there are goats there – an unusual reason for a course change. I couldn’t spot the old route while running, though, and just followed the signs. On the main loop, you’re following yellow diamonds and yellow runner signs. I was lucky enough to have an actual yellow runner up ahead, so was in no doubt as to where to go.

The event can run with very few volunteers. The lady handing out finish tokens was also scanning people’s barcodes, which is perfectly possible but I couldn’t really stand by while she was busy, and ended up giving out finish tokens to everyone finishing behind me, which is why you’ll see me standing at the finish in the picture below.

Signs in Swedish at the finish line, warning people to watch out for runners.
The finish line.
A runner comes in to the finish line, tall trees surround the path.
The finish line from behind.

It was a glorious morning – later it clouded over – and so while others had things to head back to, Graham and I headed to a local cafe to chat. Dahlbergs cafe is just round the corner, and popular enough to have a queue to get in when we got there and when we left, some time later. Time spent in the cafe meant we were still in the museum when a concert of Swedish songs (that is the sum total of what I know about it, and that’s a guess) started later, and we stood for a while to let the atmosphere roll over us.

A crowd of people on a paved area stand listening to a small group of singers on a stage.
Listening to the music.

Heading back, I deviated from the main road that took me directly to Skaggetorp and found that just over the road to the North of the nature reserve is a whacking great forest (Rydskogen), which was a pleasure to stroll through, dotted with wide trails and smaller ones taking you off into the trees, along with a frisbee golf course to avoid getting in the way of.

Tall trees in the forest.
Tall trees.

I’d heard a few people saying they’d considered going to Uppsala but that they didn’t think there were trains. I’d considered Uppsala, assuming I’d stay in Stockholm, and there seemed plenty of trains, so bear in mind that one’s a possibility. Unless I’ve missed something, but I wonder whether the number of train companies means it’s possible to check one operator and not find trains – seat61.com recommends sj.se, which I used with no issues – buy the tickets online, in advance for the best price (see the possible differences below!) and just show the pdf on a phone if you have one.

Train times and prices from Stockholm to Uppsala.
Stockholm to Uppsala

Results from Vallaskogen parkrun event 80, 6/6/22, 27 finishers.

Örebro parkrun, Sweden

Starting from Oset and Rynningeviken, to the East of the city, the parkrun is an easy walk from town. Walking there alongside the canal was a highlight of my morning, and the meanders don’t add much to the distance – I turned a 2.5km walk into a 4km one by heading South to the canal and walking round the castle before I went East.

Örebro parkrun route.

You can walk on either side of the water with no worry about getting stuck – there’s a bridge right by the start of the run. It is surprising how quickly your surroundings change from urban to country as you move East out of town, and good for the soul on any morning, though I particularly enjoyed the fact that it was warm and therefore pausing to look around didn’t mean getting cold.

A bridge over the water next to a paved area from where the parkrun starts and finishes. Several people milling around in Hi-Viz and parkrun vests.
The finish line, with bridge behind. The start is on the other side of this paved area.
A paved area right by the water, with a path heading off through the trees.
The start line and briefing area.
Sign explaining parkrun and showing the route.
Örebro parkrun route, shown on a permanent sign.

I passed a few toilets by the canal, but didn’t check to see if they were open. I think some used the ones at the Naturens hus, 100m from the start, before the event. Certainly the cafe was open afterwards for drinks and food.

This being Sweden, and in the EU, various things are banned, and no one has any common sense, so we had only the loosest explanation of the course and then everyone set off running in circles before working out that a straight line would be best. Meanwhile, back in the glorious UK, the barriers of annoying civil servants who insist on the truth have been further weakened, and the government is able to pretend in an official press release that the EU banned the pint symbol and that the notion of “common sense” is going to stand up to more than a second’s scrutiny and will serve as the basis for law (as QC Joshua Rosenberg put it when talking about the human rights rhetoric/bill “Promises to end abuse and restore common sense are political rhetoric that deserve no place in a briefing note of this sort”). Bless them, that brain drain has kicked in *awfully* quickly. It’s also possible to now see a clip of Johnson arriving in front of a crowd of royalists to loud boos, only with the boos removed. Pravda are in town to take lessons, apparently.

The contrast is stark in a country that isn’t trying to pretend that there are benefits where there are not. In reality we had a lovely briefing in two languages, and no one felt that running 5km was a tyranny that would be fixed by calling it 3.1miles or 24.86 furlongs. It’s a one lap course, with the first and last bit the same, and plenty of time to look out over the water.

The water opens up to the right.

The course heads through trees before soon opening up with water on the right as it heads into the nature reserve. That first section is pretty shaded but after that it’s mostly open to the weather, which made for a warm run on a summery day.

A wide path with long grass and bushes on either side.
Still not much shade.

At the finish, sitting by the water I could hear several birds singing, and a cuckoo making merry that punctuated the rest. It’s pretty idyllic.

Waterfront view of the finish area, red short poles mark out the finish.
Waterfront view of the finish.

Results from Örebro parkrun, event 181, 4/6/22.

Malmö Ribersborg parkrun, Sweden

Malmo Ribersborg parkrun route
Malmo Ribersborg parkrun route.

Each parkrun country can choose a special day on which to hold an extra run, and for Sweden, that’s the National Day, June 6th (for most others, it is Christmas Day). Three (out of eight in total) of the country’s runs were holding the extra, with Malmö the most easily accessible for UK tourists. And many duly arrived. The event record stays intact, with 152 from New Year’s Day 2019 (a day when many could choose to do two parkruns, one in Sweden and one in Denmark), but we had 144, which is well clear of the 79 people at the third-highest attendance.

Malmo group photo
Group photo, tourist upon tourist.

I was there already, having hopped on the ferry from Travemünde (which also stops at Rostock, though it looks harder to get on as a foot passenger from there). Malmö is a pretty city, clean and efficient-seeming. All week there has been much excitement as students graduate, the day-time portion of which involves decorating their car with blue and yellow balloons or flags and riding the streets, honking the horn.

I’m also told there was a shooting in the centre last night, almost camouflaged by noises of revelry.

But it is lovely, and so is the run, a flat one-lapper, a 3km loop West, out and back, then a 2km one East, all with the water off to one side and the bridge to Copenhagen off in the distance. The start is on a narrowish track (3-4 people across) and shaded, but after that you’re mostly fairly exposed to any sun.

It was very hot today, mid to high twenties already by the 9:30 start, rising to 30+ in the afternoon, just as they had the day before (on Sunday, I was wearing a jumper). That and the general humidity made it a tough run, but the socialising before and after with fellow parkrun tourists made it a great day. The cafe afterwards is on a pier out into the water and also very genial. Pick the wrong door out the back and you’re among naked sunbathers – not my error, honest. If you don’t read Swedish, look for the “no photos!” icon.

Results from event 62, Malmö Ribersborg parkrun.

Malmö Castle (Malmöhus Slott) and museum

The castle was founded in 1434 and was made into a museum in the 20th century. At the time it was very modern, and had masses of space though posters suggest they are starting to run out. Entry costs 40kr (under £4) and gives you access to a range of exhibits.

Carl Lewis' spike shoe

In the basement, through the shop, is the aquarium, a riot of colour and different fish and aquatic life. I ended up with only 10 minutes in here and still enjoyed it.

Professor Balthazar exhibition poster
Professor Balthazar exhibition poster.

On the top floor at the moment is an exhibition/installation about Professor Balthazar, a cartoon from the 60s and 70s; I didn’t know it, but it links people in many countries, and the exhibit shows some of the cartoons and explains some of the political context. I lucked into a free guided tour (2pm) which gave me a much better idea of what was going on. The non-aligned movement was an attempt by a group of countries, led by Yugoslavia, to not pick a side in the Cold War. At the time there were 20+ members, and the exhibition shows parts of the peace parade in Belgrade (which has plaques from each country’s leader) and the now-decaying brutalist monument in Petrova Gora, Croatia. That monument is referred to in the episode, “Professor Balthazar and the Monument to the Invisible Citizen“. There are a couple of long videos about Professor Balthazar and the Zagreb Cartoonists which are worth watching.

Stack the nails game
Stack the nails game.

On the ground floor, there is a room of games – can you pull with the same power as one horsepower, block puzzles and so on. I was proud my ability to stack the nails, above.

Graduands gathering outside the castle
Graduands gathering outside the castle. This is the only exit.

This week, Malmö has been filled with the noise of students celebrating the end of their studies by decorating their cars and cruising the streets, honking their horns. On the Wednesday there was a big gathering at the castle, with groups taking it in turn to appear from the gate, dance and pose to music and then run across the bridge to join the others, before hopping into trucks and heading off for a cruise. It was all very charming. That is the only entrance and exit, but people were able to get through if they had to. I suspect it cut down on people actually entering the museum for a little while, though.

Prisoner photographs
Prisoner photographs – taken as they are released.

Prisoner photograph
Prisoner photograph.

The castle was also a prison for a good while, and there’s an exhibition devoted to that which is billed as not suitable for children. I could see why: the sound effects made me jump a couple of times, and the prisoner stories are a bit grim in places. You’re invited to pull out drawers for information, and peer into nooks and crannies (including the odd jump-scare).

Prisoner photographs
Prisoner photographs.

Puffer fish in the aquarium
Puffer fish in the aquarium.

The whole museum is a great mix of information and installation. I spent a good three hours there, at times reading, others listening and in other places just letting it roll over me. Even after that, I still had to rush through the aquarium before closing time. It’s a great museum.

Ferry, Stockholm to Turku on the Baltic Princess (Silja line)

Ferry journeys to Finland are great. Inexpensive, and known for their party-friendly overnight timings, but with inexpensive cabins in case you want to ignore all that and sleep through. I did, and booked into a shared cabin for €24. The cheapest are around €20, which perhaps are more likely to be grabbed by the partiers. But even then, if they are out all night, they’ll hardly disturb you. The ferry left promptly at 19:30, turfing us out of cabins at 6:30, ready to dock at 7. I had a slight shock at that, as Finland is an hour ahead – beware, one hour fewer than you may be ready for.

Stockholm City hall, from the water
Stockholm City hall, from the water.

Waiting room, ferry. Ships are 'fartygen'
Waiting room, ferry. Ships are ‘fartygen’.

Check in is straightforward, and the whole process uses digital technology for convenience. You can go to one of the windows, shown in the window above. But you can use technology. There is a bank of machines, and a quick scan of the QR code sent via email will check you in and give you a boarding pass. In Finland I caught two trains, this ferry and went to an ice hockey match and museum, only needing paper for the museum and ferry, and even then those pieces of paper were scanned by machines. There are still plenty of staff standing around to help, or just to greet you, spared scanning duties.

4 person cabin
4 person cabin – only two of us in there, it was still cosy.

There is nothing behind the curtains in this cheap cabin, but they do the job of making it look like there is more to the place than there really is.

Boarding pass and key
Boarding pass, wifi code and cabin key.

I clicked the link in the email I received on booking, and that sent me to a webpage with the QR code on. Nothing I couldn’t have got from the email itself, but using the webpage version to check in meant I got further info. As soon as I had checked in, the page updated, telling me my cabin number (also on the boarding pass), its location and other info. That page then updated itself as the journey progressed, giving directions to town as the boat docked.

Silja line booking information, updated on check-in
Once checked in, the webpage updates to show boarding time, cabin number and so on.

Docking in Turku
Docking in Turku.

We docked in the dark. Buses were available right outside to take people into town. Passengers disappeared as I got my bearings, choosing to walk into Turku. It’s about 3km, through a quiet park and along quiet streets.

Turku in early morning light
Turku in early morning light. I walked there, so you could get there in the dark on the bus.

Not believing everything could be on time, I had booked the 1pm train, so had time to pass in Turku. I walked along the riverfront for a while, then headed for the public library. It’s a good place to pass some time, and even has some English-language books (graphic novels, at any rate). Turku itself has everything you need and is an easy place to stroll around. It was a little cold to explore too much, but I still enjoyed my view of the place.

Graffito with name of the city, Turku
Turku graffito

Turku public library
Turku public library.

Europe! Stockholm

11 months since I was last in Europe, and I returned, via flights that were blissfully (relatively) short, albeit in a very tiring configuration. I flew at 9.30pm on Monday night, from Seattle to Boston. Boston is three hours ahead, so after a five hour flight, we landed around 5am. Then I hung around all day, which passed nicely, helped by Terminal E being very quiet until mid afternoon. My flight to London left at 9pm and was only 5.5 hours or so, but with the time difference, it landed about 8am. Then I had just over an hour in Gatwick, which is more than enough – British airports are excellent for three things. Cramming in shops, because we know the price of everything and the value of nothing (it compares very unfavourably with the amount of space simply for sitting in Boston – choose between chairs, desks and deck chairs, charging points and water fountains everywhere). Cheap food (a marvellous thing) via the meal deals at Boots and WH Smith. What other airport in an expensive country lets you get food cheaply? And sterility. Most unlovely.

Boston Logan airport - dreary outside
Not missing much, weather-wise, by staying indoors at Boston airport.

Stockholm’s Arlanda airport has wooden floors, for instance. You still have to walk long distances, and the airport itself is mostly functional (no gardens, or cinemas, for instance). But simply by not having cheap and tacky flooring, not feeling like an institution (in the worst possible sense) it is several steps ahead of Gatwick (and Heathrow. And Stansted. And Luton). But then, there’s no money in making things look and feel a bit nicer.

Stockholm City Hall
Stockholm City Hall, seen from the South.

I handed my passport over. I was in the EU queue, as it happened – there wasn’t much difference in queue length, so it was by chance as much as by choice. Still, the customs lady took it, smiled, then smiled a little more deeply. “There you are!” she seemed to say, welcoming me in. “Might not be so easy for much longer, English twit!” One of many Brexit muppets suggested a benefit of leaving would be that we could use the much shorter non-EU queues from now on. How lovely that will be.

Looking west from Vasterbron
Looking west from Vasterbron, biggest steel suspension bridge in Sweden.

I ran a couple of times in Stockholm, heading off the post-travel sleep. Once in the dark, once in the daylight. It’s a lovely place, interesting architecture abounds. It is also on a few different levels, not always with an obvious way to step from one to another. At one point I was on a high bridge, looking for a way down to the road below. Fine on the run – head a couple more blocks West and head round. On foot alone? I am not sure there was a simple way.

Staty av Carl Eldh
Staty av Carl Eldh, Park Tegnerlunden.

Tonight, I head for Finland, on an overnight ferry. After that, I slow down. One great highlight of being on a great continent – I can use land and sea transport from there on in; no more flights.

Stockholm park and buildings
Stockholm park and buildings.

 

Plain of Jars

Plain of Jars, site 1
Plain of Jars, site 1.

A tourist day. Kong Kee’s guesthouse is recommended by reviews on booking.com and in

Runway, Phonsavan
At the peak of the bombing, an airfield in Laos (possibly the one in the ‘secret area’) was the second busiest airport in the world, after Chicago, with flights leaving every 4.5 mins.

Lonely Planet (the latter a nice bonus for me when I spotted it, having booked). The owner, Kong’s, tours are also recommended, and after getting up early to keep my options open, I decided to splurge the money (280,000 kip with three people, prices vary with the no. of takers) on a tour of all three sites, rather than rent Kong’s bike. That freed the bike up for a German girl, who later reported that she hadn’t been able to find any other bicycles to rent in town (so be decisive if you want one, though

Bombs and rusted arms
Bombs and rusted arms from cleared areas. The MAG (Mines Advisory Group) are working. At current rates, they’ll be done in 280 years (guide) or 100 (guidebook).

the town is growing so quickly that maybe it will not be an issue – currently 52,000 people, but it is a tourist hotspot and will be the site of the ‘Lao Olympics’).

Immediately it felt like a good decision, with Kong’s initial warmth and good humour setting the tone, albeit qualified early on by the gravity of what he told us about the secret war. The war was secret in the sense that no one really acknowledged it was happening; even now information boards will tell you that US airplanes flew out of Thailand to bomb Vietnam, dropping bombs on Laos only when they couldn’t drop them on Vietnam, because returning with a full load was dangerous. In reality, though, some areas were clearly targeted. For a start, Vietnam only took c.20% of the munitions dropped, which seems low if they were always the target. Near Phonsavan, 60odd people were killed in a cave, by a rocket strike (not a simple bomb dump, that). Plus friendly soldiers were told that to stay safe they should avoid temples, and avoid livestock. That’s because those were targets, the logic being that people would be nearby.

Sweet apple
Sweet apple, scrumped for us by Kong. Local knowledge wins! Tasted a little grapefruit, a little apple.

We headed straight for the tourist information centre (which is not in the centre of town, so fairly quiet, at least at this time of year) for war info and a sight of the munitions. Kong pointed out the secret area, between Phonsavan and Vientiane, which is still closed to tourists, and showed how tourist travel routes have to go round it. He wouldn’t tell us what was in the area till we were out of the info centre, showing that it is still sensitive, even in English. All that’s there is whatever the US left – it is said that people are still fighting, but Kong has been many times and not found them. More likely that as part of the deal done at the end of the war, it was agreed to not allow foreigners too near the area – military secrets, or proof of involvement, hidden.

With the scene set, we headed for Site 1. There are many many sites with Jars on;

Flowers at site 1
Flowers greet you at site 1. Every year it’s likely to look totally different.

Kong explained that the numbering is just done by proximity to the town (and some sites are as yet uncleared of ‘UXO’, unexploded ordnance, possibly they are being cleared in order, too). My cousin came here some years ago and so won’t have seen the new visitors’ centre (opened in 2013) and possibly the site has been further developed. The flowers look well maintained, at least. Kong’s tour covered the entry fee, but it is just 10,000 kip to each site (<£1).

Site 1 cave
Cave and AA/tank emplacement position, site 1.

The largest jar, 10 tonnes or so, is on site 1. All are big and heavy, though, so moving them from the mountain at which they were carved is in itself an impressive feat. The original thought was that people were cremated in the central cave, then their ashes spread, then that bodies were placed into the jars to decompose, then the bones buried next to the jars. That would account for the bones found by the jars, when excavated, at most sites (site 52 is an exception – maybe it was for storage). Really, the truth is not known, though it seems most likely that people were buried first, then a jar erected by the body as soon as the family could afford/move one. But work is ongoing in Australia to identify and age the bones, and to prove bones can be found next to jars at sites other than the mysterious area… er, site, 52. Kong’s parting shot was that the ancient Lao people must have wondered ‘how will we get Falang people here in 3,000 years time’ and worked on a long-term tourism project, which is a good gag to end on.

Site 2, in the trees
Site 2, in the trees.

We moved on to sites 2 and 3, which are not as large, but both different. Although all the sites are called ‘plains’, they are always on a hill of some kind, even if not the highest around, probably to spare them from flooding. Site 2 is mystical feeling, at least with the peace and quiet we had, midweek, out of season, while Site 3 is a brief walk through rice paddies. The infrastructure is changing rapidly, though.

Site 3
Site 3, different again, through the rice paddies.

Ignore the signs that say there is a waterfall between 2 and 3, as that doesn’t exist any more. And if your guidebook says it’s a 2km trek to site 3, don’t worry – right now, it’s 500m or so and who knows, maybe it will be even shorter by the time you get here. If your day is punctuated by explosions, don’t worry – that’s the MAG teams working to remove UXO.

We headed back, avoiding cows who are just as happy walking across the ro

Rice drying
Rice drying. It needs 3 days of dry weather, then is gathered.

ad as standing in the middle of it, though mostly they were heading home at 4pm, as conscious of the time as the MAG groups who head away around then, so you might see their vans parked by the houses they’ve rented in the area, assuming they haven’t cleared it by then.

For one final bit of sightseeing, I walked out the back of Kong Kee to the Wet Market. I wasn’t shopping (though I did get some flip-flops for $2.5), just curious to see it – it is on the site of the old airbase, until 1997 a civilian airport, but during the war, a US one. Plenty of space to grow, but I found it heartening to see a

Cows in road
Cows in the road.

thriving market, Garden hotel and, at the end of the runway, a golf driving range, bouncy playpark, bars and a restaurant – repurpose the infrastructure of war for entertainment. Which, incidentally, is what Kong has done, with a fire lit each night in an old bomb casing in the covered social area.

For more about the Secret War, see legaciesofwar.org/about-laos/secret-war-laos/, and there are documentaries on Youtube.

Stayed: Kong Kee guesthouse. Saw: bombs, guns, stone jars, saddening and happy info.

End of runway, old airbase
End of runway, old airbase.

Train and ferry

Train and ferry
Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden


The day dawned. Story wise it seems fitting for that to be the beginning, but I didn’t have to get up till after 7, some time after summer’s dawn, though time flew from 5.30 to 7. One false alarm, as the German rower’s alarm went off at 7 as she’d promised in conversation last night, and I was up at 7.20. The walk to the station was lovely with the sun glinting off the river and sparse Sunday traffic moving through the city.

Castle-like building reflected in a man-made lake, Copenhagen
Copenhagen, Saturday evening.

First trip a short one, half an hour to Malmo, though that does involve going over the sea bridge which is pretty cool. It’s a long old bridge. On the Swedish side was the sad sight of a boat on its side, though it looked otherwise in good condition. A quick change and I was on the 9.18 to Stockholm, due to arrive after 2pm. It started to occur to me what large distances in covering; already I’ve gone from England-France-Belgium-Germany-Holland- Germany-Denmark-Sweden.

A busy pedestrian area with shops on either side, Stockholm
Gamla Stan, Stockholm.

The train was a wide, very comfortable, wooden trimmed thing, and as I was in the last carriage I spotted that you could look out the back and watch the tracks disappearing. Not sure I’ve ever done that before. I thought I’d be disconnected for the day but no, wifi on train and ferry, all free. The train allows a gb free in a month before it starts charging, though it is possible that with a seat backing on to first class I was picking up their perk. We arrived in Stockholm on time and I, having convinced myself it was easy enough, walked to the ferry port. It’s a couple of km, maybe a bit more, and you stroll through the bustling pedestrian area of Gamla Stan before heading left the other side. My shoulders felt it a little, especially as once you reach the port you have to walk the length of it to get to the passenger terminal, but given that it is 30sek to take the metro to Slussen then walk the last km, or 70 for the bus direct from station to port, I reckon I’d saved myself the hassle of lugging my stuff down into the metro and saved the cost of the bus. Plus I only had 20sek and was going straight through Sweden. Passing the port you see cars queuing to drive on and nearer the terminal, a flock of people in red and yellow t shirts. Cleaning staff, I reckoned, like a private army temporarily at ease before action.

Nearer the port a sign asks ‘tourists’ to follow he blue line. What could come more naturally to a runner? I was even temporarily annoyed that a couple coming toward me were on the line, but walking next to it isn’t really a problem. I took the line thereafter, obviously. The queues for check in looked long, but the longer lines were for the huge ship Cinderella that had just pulled in, and I had my ticket/pass/cabin key within minutes. The shared cabins are in the bowels of the ship but nice enough. It’s not expensive, though I have spotted one bloke with his seat and backpack, checking for a good spot on deck. He’s also on his second beer half an hour into he journey-if the plan is to spend what he saved on a cabin on beer he may not have many more to go.

Once we moved off my curiosity at whether I’d have the cabin to myself was too great and I took myself downstairs, and that way met Andy, the Aussie who lives in Helsinki, and Kendo, the Japanese who is visiting there en route to London. Social hour was good, and enough for me so I emerged from the below water line cabin to take in the sights of the Stockholm delta (subs please check it is a delta. And let me know what one is) while there was still sun.

Inside cabin, ferry
The cabin, MS Gabriella. Curtains at the end for show only-well down in bowels of ship

There are plenty of decks to see. 7 has shopping-if the on board restaurants seem expensive, the duty free restaurant will do you a sandwich for €2.60, cider for €1.50 and chocolate for cheap. 8 has restaurants and a bar-the programme of entertainment had got to disco time for the young, which seemed to involve girls dancing together. A distinctly Little Miss Sunshine vibe, not a place for a single man to hang about. Not this one, anyway. 9 has the sun deck, dj and all, but round the corner places to lounge about, with no sound escaping the plastic/glass barriers in place. 10 lets you walk about and you can go up to the wide open space of 11 if you like, make the most of the sun’s rays and spot the helicopter pad. I passed time reading and eating, though I passed on the shop’s Pussi portion and Goteborg rape.

As time went on I spotted a few more youths without cabins who were changing position to a kid boredom, looking like they were lapping the ship with all their worldly goods. The English posh boys would have been sad to see them, their youth giving the lie to the idea that the poshos are ‘a bit young’ to spend three weeks in Europe. I suspect they’ll stay ill informed giving undue credence to what posh dad told them, rather than learn that the rest of Europe is getting on with life rather ahead of them. It reminds me of my own daftness in Ireland, wondering if cycling (about 3k) on a more major road Han previously would be a pain, only to spot first two 10-12 year olds on their bike on he other side, veering across the road talking as kids do, and then steering around two younger girls walking along the road (no pavements).

The delta, or whatever, fascinated me. Lots of little islands, some that might have been a few hundred metres round with a house on. Only accessible by boat, would I like that remoteness? I suspect they may be summer homes but still. Most of all, where would you run? As the sun sunk towards the horizon we were finally emerging from the islands, the last of them slipping by as things going past on a ship are contractually bound to be described, and were into the open sea. A younger man would be heading for the disco.

Though immediately I’ve written that I look to my right and find, as life refuses to conform to my script, the younger men in sight, two significantly younger men, in fact, are sitting with their packs, one looking out to sea, the other reading a book. Their relaxed approach gives me quite the warm glow inside. I dare say that when they speak the German words come out naturally, too. “Battray”, indeed. On the clubbing front, though it is too early to write them off as non participants. I daresay they’ll be up later than me, and it is only 20:45.

I caught: 8.32 Copenhagen to Malmo, are 9.06, 9.18 Malmo to Stockholm, arr 2.38, 4.30 Viking line to Helsinki.

Reading: Cyclist, WSC (brilliant this month, any football fan should have a copy; particularly loved the 1973 story of Oxbarn Social, from the Wolverhampton 7th div who visited Mainz, thought it would be nice to play a game out there, arranged it with the mayor then ‘thought it was posh’ when they turned up to find people queuing to get in and a team on an £80 bonus to win. Probably not expected to pay out, given SVW Mainz were 3rd div and the mighty Wolves a powerhouse, but they could take on a sunday league side and win 20/21-0, depending who you believe (German accounts go for the lower score). Zimler, The Warsaw Anagrams – interesting book found some time after the author’s death. With ghosts and so on the atmosphere is odd enough that I misread ‘failed to see a puddle in time’ and expected him to be in a new century, rather than a little wet.

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