FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Night crossing to Helsinki

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 7, 2017

The thought of nearly 17 hours on a ferry to get from Stockholm to Helsinki might not be everyone’s idea of a good way to spend time on holiday but I knew from the outset that it would be one of the highlights for me, just as it had been 33 years ago.

The debate about whether the Viking Line or Silja line is the better option for the crossing has been going for years and has found a new lease of life online. I ploughed my way through pages and pages of opinion but the thrust seemed to be that there is very little difference these days, though I gleaned that perhaps the Silja Line ships were better for regular travelers who value the on-board shopping experience and that the Viking Line ships are possibly better for tourists who want to admire the changing scenery. No matter, the choice of shipping line was never in doubt as far as I was concerned – my brand loyalty had been won at the age of 12!

The Viking Line super-ferry M/S Gabriella

Our ship, the M/S Gabriella (1991) for the crossing, is not the largest operating the route but at 35,492 tons was still substantially larger than the ship we boarded in 1984 (the 15,179 ton M/S Viking Saga). The Silja Line ships that ply the route come in at 58,377 tons by comparison.

The Viking Line adventure began in the city centre, checking in at Cityterminalen to get our bus transfer tickets, cabin keys and meal cards. It seemed hard to comprehend how the bus transfer could take as long as 20 minutes, given that we could easily see the terminal from our walks around the old city. However, we soon discovered that the bus looped back and forth in all directions before depositing its passengers at the Stadsgården ferry terminal. I suspect the extensive roadworks around Slussen have some part in this strange routing.

Boarding was a relatively leisurely affair and soon enough we were up on the ninth deck (we opted for the extra space and views offered by a LYX Seaside Premium cabin, one of the mid-priced options available). If you didn’t know that you were on board a ship you could easily have mistaken our smart cabin for a hotel room, complete with complimentary mini bar and television.

It was lucky that we had such a beautiful afternoon for our departure as the route offers wonderful views of Stockholm, Djurgården and the archipelago of 30,000+ islands that stretches along the eastern coast for many miles. There were plenty of viewing spots on this ship, ranging from the vast open deck at the top of the ship to the balcony at the prow, all offering a great view of the Swedish coastline.

One of many tall ships seen in the early stages of our voyage

I had a vague memory of a continuous landscape of green forests from thirty-three years ago, but probably hadn’t appreciated the variety of striking sights lurking amongst that.

Early sights on our voyage included two stunning residences designed by the Swedish architect Ferdinand Boberg – the Italian Embassy, originally built in 1910 as a palace for Prince Wilhelm and the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna of Russia, and the mansion of Waldemarsudde built for Prince Eugen, now the rather beautiful setting for an art museum. Next to Prince Eugen’s Waldemarsudde is a rare 18th century oil mill dating to 1784. Other sights included the Skansen; the distinctive Danvikshem retirement home and the Kaknäs Tower.

Later, the fortresses of Oskar-Fredriksborg and Fredriksborg on either side of the channel proved fascinating. The fortresses were intended to defend the approach to Stockholm from the Russians at different stages in Swedish history, though never in tandem. Fredriksborg was constructed in 1735, but was superseded by an upgraded Vaxholm Fort in the early 19th century. Oskar-Fredriksborg was constructed in the 1870s and looks strikingly different, built into the rock and today blending rather well with the natural landscape.

The Viking Line ship M/S Amorella (1987) passes Fredriksborg fortress around 5.45pm on the final leg of her journey from Turku to Stockholm

Between all of these sights we got glimpses of the many small communities that lie on the archipelago, inter-linked by ferries. All the while a seemingly endless supply of pleasure-boats headed to and from the small islands that surrounded us. It probably helped that it was a national holiday – everyone seemed to be out on the water or basking in the sun.

We gave up on our sightseeing at 8pm, heading inside to the curiously titled ‘No name restaurant’ for a nine course tasting dinner. The setting was superb, at a table with a stunning view of the changing coastline, but the 9 dishes of Finnish flavours were quite something else.

The next two hours saw us taste asparagus with dried egg yolk; salsify served in many ways; marinated herring with pickled cucumber; a stunning garlic millet porridge with snails; pike perch with vegetables; duck parfait with rhubarb and pickled red onion; a beautifully cooked lamb medallion, served with a lamb’s tongue croquette and charred turnip; sorrel sorbet and diced apple; carrot cake and butter ice cream on a hazelnut crumb; and last, but not least, a rhubarb and meringue tartlet with an exquisite elder-flower sorbet.

The expense of eating out in Sweden and Finland might have limited our culinary ambitions for the trip but the tasting menu proved to be a pretty amazing experience from start to finish and very reasonably priced. The bottle of Black Cottage Sauvignon Blanc that accompanied it was lovely too. I was more than a little relieved that it proved to be a terrific distraction for my ship-phobic prone better half, rather than a calamitous prelude to a night of seasickness!

As the light faded our ship made it into the open waters east of Kapellskär, crossing the Baltic sea to Mariehamn, the capital of the Åland Islands (where we found another Viking Line ship, the M/S Rosella). Our ship only made a very short stop here, around 10.45pm (Swedish Time), with time enough only for foot passengers to embark or disembark. The night ferries used to sail from Stockholm to Helsinki without interruption but a stop at Mariehamn was added in 1999 to use a loophole that allowed the lines to continue offering tax free sales on board.

Once our ship vacated the berth at Mariehamn our fellow tax dodger, the M/S Silja Serenade, prepared to take it over. This ship had followed us out of Stockholm from a point just beyond Fjäderholmarna island (where the Silja line and Viking Line routes converge) but was scheduled to overtake us during the early hours and arrive in Helsinki first.

The Viking Line ship M/S Rosella (1985) in her berth at Mariehamn, capital of the Åland Islands

After our ship left the Åland Islands behind we decided it was time to turn our clocks forward an hour to Finnish time (British Summer Time + 2 hours) and hit the sack. Strange as it seemed, we knew that it wouldn’t be that long before the sun started to rise.

Sure enough, the light was streaming through the gap in the curtains before long and it was time to grab a buffet breakfast and prepare ourselves for the morning ahead. As arrivals go, it’s hard to imagine that anything could beat the approach to Helsinki with the passage between the fortress islands of Suomenlinna and Vallisaari or the view of the market square straight ahead.

The crossing had been incredibly smooth and tucked up in our cabin there was little to give away the fact that we were moving (assuming you hadn’t tuned in to the live TV feed from the prow of the ship available through the television!).

M/S Gabriella at her berth in Helsinki

Our arrival, at 10.10am, was perfectly on schedule. It didn’t take long for us to disembark and make the relatively short walk through the compact city centre to our hotel. Refreshed and ready for some sightseeing, where better to begin than with another ferry…

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Stockholm in 36 hours

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 6, 2017

Our schedule gave us around 36 hours to see Stockholm before we had to make our way to Stadsgården to board the ferry to Helsinki. It might not seem like much time to do justice to such a great city, but it is surprising how much you can pack in with the assistance of the Vasa Museum’s early morning summer opening (8.30am between 1st June and 31st August).

A view of Stockholm from the gangway to the out-of-use Katarina Hissen

As our time was relatively limited we focused on three top sights – tackling the Skansen Open-Air Museum and Drottningholm Palace on the first day and the Vasa Museum the following morning. However, as our last half day happened to be the National Day of Sweden we were also able to take advantage of a special ‘Open Palace’ event to visit the Royal Chapel, Royal Apartments, Armoury and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities free of charge in our last few hours.

Other delights of Stockholm included the intriguing art in the underground stations, the wonderful views from the Katarina Hissen and the simple pleasure of the hop on-hop off Djurgården ferry.

1. The Vasa Museum

The story of the Vasa is nothing short of astonishing. A magnificent but top-heavy warship that sank 1,300 metres into her maiden voyage on 10th August 1628. An epic fail in her time, but our good fortune today because the black sludge at the bottom of Stockholm Harbour preserved her beautifully (it was also a great help that the Baltic sea is not salty enough for the shipworm that eats away at shipwrecks in other parts of the world).

The position of the Vasa was re-established in 1956 and the ship was raised five years later. The conservation phase that followed would see the ship housed in a temporary building at the Vasa shipyard (Wasavarvet) whilst she was sprayed with a chemical solution (1962–1979) and then allowed to dry (1979-1988).

The Vasa Museum

My first visit to the Vasa fell in the drying phase and looking back on my pictures it’s clear that it was hard work to appreciate the ship, even if the footbridges just above the upper deck made it possible to feel as though you were walking across the hull. I much prefer the presentation in the ‘new’ building of 1990 which delivers maximum visual impact from the moment you step inside and allows you to admire the ship from every angle.

The artistic decoration of the ship is quite unbelievable. I had no idea just how incredible until we stepped into the hall and soaked up that first ‘wow’ moment, standing underneath the three metre long sculpture of a lion which appears to be leaping from the prow. More ‘wow’ moments follow as you work your way round to the incredibly intricate stern and up onto the balconies to get a closer look at the many other sculptures, such as the 20 Roman Emperors sculpted as decorations for the beak-head.

It is quite impossible to explain how exquisite the carving and decoration is on this ship – has it ever had a rival on the seas? I’m just glad that the design was so flawed, after all if she had been fit for service she would never have survived to the present day. The museum itself stresses that she won’t last forever – who knows how long we will be lucky enough to be able to admire her.

The decorative stern of the ill-fated Vasa (1628)

It has to be said that the brilliance of this museum is not just down to a star exhibit. The presentation of the entire story is among the best I have seen anywhere – feeding lots of information to you in small chunks and in a variety of formats (including scale models, a recreation of the gun deck that you can walk across, cross-sections, a terrific scene-setting film, replica elements painted in their original colours, a great model of the shipyard and a splendid sequence of models showing how she was lifted). The innovative presentation, perfectly executed, kept us fully engaged and enthused throughout our visit.

The reconstruction and extension of the museum a few years back gives it a capacity of 2,000 visitors at a time and you can see exactly why that is necessary. In 2016 the museum received 1,341,676 visitors, roughly 40% higher than the visitor numbers seen a decade earlier. All of this makes it a must to get there at 8.30am, when the doors open, to have the space to enjoy the Vasa and the exhibits that surround it. The crowds were enormous by the time we left after two and a half hours of wonderment and moving around the museum was already quite tricky by this point.

2. Skansen

The delightful Skansen at Djurgården, established 1891, holds the title of the world’s oldest open air museum and is the most visited museum in the country. It’s not hard to see the appeal as you take a wander round the grounds to seek out a selection of the 150 buildings re-located here from all over Sweden. It offers that wonderful combination of space to relax, fascinating interiors and unexpected pleasures (such as the delicious freshly baked treats in the town quarter). On top of all that it contains a modest zoo.

A charming model of the Skansen stands at the main entrance

The highlights of our visit included a very active young brown bear, some wonderfully decorated wall paintings in the Delsbo farmstead and the Hällestad Belfry (one of the tallest belfries in Sweden). We were also fortunate to stumble across the Royal Swedish Army Band rehearsing on the Solliden Stage ahead of Sweden’s national day (the founder of Skansen, Artur Hazelius, came up with the idea of the national day and it has been celebrated here since 1893). Tomorrow the royal family will join a procession to the Skansen for a concert in the early evening.

3. Drottingholm Palace

A little way out of the city, by an easy combination of T-Bana and bus, you can find the royal palace of Drottingholm. I had heard some say that it was not worth visiting as it can’t compete with Versailles and the palaces of the Russian Tsars, but if that is the benchmark then your sightseeing list will be very short indeed. Personally, I thought Drottingholm was rather marvelous and offered up plenty of delights.

Drottingholm Palace

We soon began to appreciate just how much detail there was to take in, from the depiction of perpetual enemy Denmark as a medusa in one painting to the unusually angry Buddha atop a rather confused faux Chinese stove which mixed up Chinese and Japanese elements horribly. We would have been blissfully unaware of so much history without a guide to point the details and bring the place to life with a story or two.

My personal highlight was Queen Hedwig Eleonora’s State Bedroom, one of the rare survivals from the lavish baroque period, most of which was lost during later phases of redecoration. The room itself is splendid enough but look up and you can see a rather striking ceiling painting which depicts the all-seeing eye of god being held up on a gold rod.

Drottingholm is another of those sights where it pays to arrive early. We turned up for the opening time of 10am and were surprised to find that we were the only visitors on the english tour that started in the near empty rooms shortly afterwards. On our return to the starting point the crowds had really built up and it was quite a bit more difficult to revisit the rooms when we sought out details we wanted to get another look at.

Art on the T-Bana

I will undoubtedly need to come back to Stockholm to see the many sights we missed in the city and in the neighbouring territory. Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Hallwylska Museet, Rosendal Palace, Vaxholm fortress and Millesgården are just a few of the sights on the wishlist for my next visit. Maybe next year!?

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Steam to Taxinge-Näsby

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 4, 2017

After a good wander around Gripsholm Castle we made the short walk up to the delightful Mariefred station to take a journey on the 6.8 mile long narrow gauge railway to Taxinge-Näsby and back again.

The Östra Södermanlands Järnväg (ÖSlJ) can justly lay claim to the title of the first preserved steam railway effort in Sweden having started life in 1959 at a brickworks line at Södertälje. The ÖSlJ set out to collect, preserve and restore the rolling stock from Sweden’s seven 600mm gauge passenger railways and the many industrial lines that existed across the country.

No. 2 Vira at Taxinge-Näsby

The focus of the operation moved west to Mariefred after the Swedish State Railway made the decision to close the standard gauge branch line between Läggesta and Mariefred. The ÖSlJ rebuilt the line to 600mm gauge and began to operate steam traffic on the line in 1966, with an official opening following in 1968.

In the late 1990s the closure of the line between Läggesta nedre and Taxinge-Näsby presented an opportunity to extend the railway. At first services over the extension were operated with a standard gauge railcar but the line was subsequently rebuilt to 600mm gauge with EU funding, re-opening in May 2011.

Taxinge-Näsby station (1895)

It’s not the easiest of lines to photograph at the best of times but I was persuaded to ride the train rather than photograph it following a forecast of afternoon rain. We opted to take a return trip to Taxinge-Näsby, taking up a seat in a charming carriage built by Decauville in 1898 (HRRJ CFo7) for the 12:43 departure.

The only small downside to taking this trip was that we missed the arrival of the steam ship in Mariefred and the only train to run along the harbourside to meet the boat from Stockholm. I suspect that is the most photogenic opportunity on the line, but probably not so great under such murky conditions!

Our train, hauled by steam locomotive No. 2 ‘Vira’ (a 2-4-2 well and side tank engine built in 1901 by Motala Verkstad for Stavsjö Railway) made the 14 minute run down to Läggesta nedre tender-first. The loco ran around here and then hauled the train chimney first to Taxinge-Näsby. It’s a pleasant route through woodland with occasional glimpses of Gripsholm Castle and Mariefred from across the lake.

We reached the striking red brick station at Taxinge-Näsby on schedule at 13:31 where most of the passengers left the train here (the loco was uncoupled and ran a little further on, past some bright yellow rape fields, to a small turntable where it was turned ready for the return).

If I had done my homework I might have discovered that you could take a two hour stop here and then return to Mariefred by boat at 15:55 but there’s usually something on holiday that you would have done better with the benefit of a little local knowledge. It was probably a lucky escape as I’m not sure that we would have made it out alive if we had discovered northern Europe’s largest cake buffet at Taxinge Castle with over 60 varieties of cake to sample! Instead, we headed back to Mariefred on the 13:45 service, arriving at 14:32.

It was a delightful journey, made all the more special by the enthusiasm of the volunteers who clearly wanted their passengers to get the most out of their trip.

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Mariefred and Gripsholm Castle

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 4, 2017

It may seem a little strange, but for our first full day in Stockholm we immediately made our way to the central station and headed out by train to the beautiful town of Mariefred on the shore of Lake Mälaren.

The town is charming in its own right, but the main attraction here is the distinctively red Gripsholm Castle which was built here in 1537 by King Gustav Vasa. If that wasn’t enough, a short walk from the entrance you can also find the Östra Södermanlands Järnväg, a 6.8 mile long narrow gauge railway.

Morning reflections

The exterior of the castle looked impressive from a distance, reflecting beautifully in the still waters of the lake, but I was still a little nervous going in. I’ve been to many a castle that looks wonderful on the outside but has little to offer inside and I had come across some mixed reviews on a certain well-used travel website. I should have known better – the interior was stunning and incredibly extensive with 65 rooms to view!

Before you step inside there is much to admire on a wander around the grounds, including two marvellous bronze cannons captured from the Russians in 1581 and 1621. These pieces have been a point of interest here since 1623 with delightful touches, such as the shot in the mouth of the wolf at one end (although they have apparently been known as ‘The Boar’ and ‘The Sow’ throughout their time in Swedish hands).

A captured bronze cannon from Russia

A tour of the interior immediately takes you into a sequence of richly decorated, wood panelled, sixteenth century-ish rooms that have a real wow factor. I was amused to learn later that this is largely a confection of the fairly liberal 1890s restoration of the palace, drawing on surviving material from across the country. In fact, nothing had survived here apart from the ceilings and fireplaces! I’m not sure it matters as it still looks stunning, but it is a helpful indication of the degree to which the castle has been altered (the guide book is invaluable in this respect).

The highlight of our visit was the unexpected discovery of a wonderfully intimate neo-classical theatre built into one of the towers dating to 1781. The use of space is quite ingenious – the semi-circular auditorium could hold an audience of sixty over three levels (comprised of raked stalls, a royal box/circle and an upper circle). It would probably feel quite claustrophobic were it not for the illusion of space created by mirrors around the auditorium.

It’s not hard to see why an earlier design (from 1772-73) built entirely within the footprint of the tower was unsuccessful. The auditorium we see today takes up most of the space bounded by the tower’s walls and the stage only overlaps slightly with the footprint of the tower, sitting mostly in the Queen’s wing. You can pass through the under-stage at the back to see the stage machinery. It’s well worth worth seeking out the model in the exhibition space next to the shop to get a better idea of the way this all fits together as its a little hard to visualise when you are standing inside.

Gripsholm Castle

We spent a couple of hours in the castle enjoying the incredibly variety of styles, decoration and artworks on display in the 65 rooms but you could easily spend much longer, absorbing the history and paying more attention to the royal portraits (including many paintings from beyond Swedish shores, such as Charles I, George III and even Cromwell).

There are some intriguing curiosities in the castle that it is worth looking out for, in particular ‘The chicken picture’ (1747), which shows Crown Princess Lovisa Ulrika’s ladies of court as hens, and the ‘Gripsholm lion‘, which must win the prize for the least threatening lion in history (apparently the taxidermist had never seen a live lion and had very little material to work with). I’m not the first blogger to have noticed these – the lion in particular is something of a celebrity these days!

If I took away nothing else it was instrumental in teaching me how pivotal 1809 was in Swedish history. It was really illuminating to read about the story of Gustav IV, a king who refused to bow to the inevitable and instead planned to wage an all-consuming war against the enemies surrounding Sweden on three fronts. Faced with the terrible consequences of such an insane decision the army staged a coup d’etat, imprisoned the king at Gripsholm and forced him to abdicate. In this moment, the nation we know today was forged.

Practicalities

We made our visit on a Sunday to take advantage of the combination of the castle and the railway (which only runs at weekends and on public holidays during June).

Our regional train back to Stockholm was topped and tailed by Rc6 electric locomotives 1356 and 1361

To get to Mariefred we took SJ Regional Train 919 at 8.51am which reaches Läggesta at 9.30am, connecting with bus 304 towards Mariefred at 9.37am. It’s an easy transfer to make with the bus stopping at the railway station and the display inside the buses helpfully shows the stops coming up. You can buy combined rail and bus tickets that save on hassle (we bought ours online ahead of the journey).

It takes under 10 minutes to reach Mariefred depending on which stop you get off at – the closest stop to the castle and railway is Gripsholms Slott but we missed this and got off at the next stop. Not really a problem though, as this just leaves you with a short and pleasant walk through the centre of the town.

If you time it right there is an alternative – you can take a pathway from one end of the platform at Läggesta which takes you down to the narrow gauge railway station at Läggesta nedre.

The castle opens from 10am until 4pm during the summer season and admission cost us 130 Swedish Krona each (plus another 30 Krona for a guidebook). I thought that was a very fair price given the incredible amount that there is to see inside – I’ve certainly paid far more to see far less in other places!

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Thirty-three years later…

Posted in Finland, Helsinki, Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 3, 2017

In 1984 I spent a blissful holiday in Helsinki that was one of the highlights of my childhood, sparking a lifelong love of travel that has taken me places that I didn’t know existed at the time. On my return I immediately set about compiling a three volume trip diary that I still have to this day, plastered with receipts and souvenirs, whilst many a school project took a Finnish theme. In time, I moved on but deep down I knew I would always be a finnophile!

1984: The thrill of international travel

It is strange to think that in the thirty three years since that 12 year boy stepped ashore at Katajanokka I have somehow never quite got around to making a return – until now. I don’t know if it is a mistake to tread in these childhood footsteps but it will be fascinating to see how much I remember.

I have already recounted the tale of my adventures from London to Helsinki in the first trip. On that occasion we made the entire journey by train, but so much of that is no longer possible (the station at Hoek van Holland Haven was downgraded to a tram stop in early 2017, the train ferry from Helsingborg to Helsingør closed in 2000 and sleeper services have largely become a thing of the past in Europe). However, it has been reassuring to see that the Viking Line still operates ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki.

British Airways B767-300ER G-BNWX

The plan is to stay in Stockholm for three days and then travel on the Viking Line ship M/S Gabriella to Helsinki for a four day stay. Book-ending the trip will be flights on an aging British Airways 767 and a youthful Finnair A350-XWB. I will be steering clear of computers on this trip (I spend too much time behind a PC in my working life as it is!) so any posts about our travels will appear once we return…