I’ve now experienced Stockholm twice. Once without Couchsurfing which was fairly lame. I remember Stockholm being pretty drab, cold and boring. I basically walked the old town, visited a cafe, ate a cinnamon bun, collected some souvenirs and went back to Tallinn. More recently I re-visited Stockholm with Couchsurfing (CS) which made my trip so enjoyable it changed my view of #Sweden in general and placed Stockholm on my favourite cities list – overtaking Helsinki!
Reaching Out to Hosts
As I planned this new trip (cycling around Stockholm) I logged into Couchsurfing and searched for hosts. After reading their profiles I messaged 3 hosts. The first I sent a 593 word request and received no reply back. Nice. CS now shows that host hasn’t logged in for 6 months… The others – we’ll called them Olivia, Sander and Victor. All agreed to host me. A pretty good “strike rate” for a busy city like Stockholm I thought. I reminded each host that I was traveling with an “expensive” bicycle. All I had to do now was to finalise my bicycle air tickets and meet in Stockholm…
Flying AirBaltic with a Bicycle
Once you’ve bought AirBaltic tickets you then must request a “payment link” for bicycle luggage via email. Their website doesn’t automate this process… It cost me 80 EUR for the bicycle luggage (return Tallinn – Stockholm) and the bicycle luggage must be under 20 kilograms. The price was actually a little more than the actual flight tickets. Airport staff in Stockholm were very helpful and professional. The bicycle bag was ready for collection shortly after landing. I then checked the bicycle for damages before leaving (none found) and proceeded to Stockholm CBD via the Arlanda Express train. I’d heard Swedish trains are not bicycle friendly but this one was. Another train I took was fine too. In fact my cyclist hosts (Sander and Victor) explained that bicycles are not permitted on some trains – but not all. Anyway, the Arlanda Express train cost me 400 SEK/40 EUR (return). Getting the bicycle to Stockholm (return AirBaltic + the Arlanda Express train) cost 120 EUR. There are better and cheaper ways to do this. That’s another story.
Assembling my Bicycle in a Park
In Stockholm CBD I took refuge in a park to assemble my bicycle. I got swamped by a massive group of seagulls. The next park provided better coverage although some druggo did remark something in Swedish before going his merry way… I remember feeling a little embarrassed and out of place in the park but the convenience of getting something done paired with the thought that I’ll never see these local people again got me past that complex. Travel can make one very laid back. It’s as though the longer you travel the more comfortable you feel with your environment or maybe it’s just the less you care about the opinion of others? Lastly all I had to store that damn bicycle bag. During the whole trip that damn bicycle bag caught a lot of looks. It’s actually amazing how something, merely by its shape can catch someone’s attention… The amount of comments and especially in Estonia – the stares was pretty incredible. It’s as though, the moment you pull on the handle of this bag you magically become a caged zoo animal from an exotic part of Africa. Their eyes open and wide as their mouths – staring… Speechlessly they glaze in your direction with stunned faces. Slowly as you begin to move to your next destination you find yourself followed by their thoughtless stares even more closely than your own shadow. People really are basic creatures.
Annoyed at this reoccurring experience I took measures to drop this bag as soon as possible. City Backpackers Hostel in Stockholm helped me. I’d made a reservation for my last night in Stockholm and the hostel staff agreed via facebook messenger to hold it for me. While in the foyer, it of course caught the attention of a traveler who said he wanted to travel by bicycle too. We briefly chatted about cycle touring.
Do you speak English?
By now I was really taking Stockholm people in. I recall reflecting on my customer service experiences thus far – only about 2 hours into the trip. I was impressed. After living in Estonia for many months, I must admit Swedish customer service was refreshingly polite and friendly. Even by Western standards. It reminded me of Australia. I felt welcome and the people I experienced where genuinely helpful.
English is spoken everywhere in Stockholm. It’s as though English is officially the second language of Stockholm. Out of respect I try to at least speak a few words in the local language. Also, asking first if I can speak English with a local seems like the right thing to do abroad. I feel it’s polite to not expect locals abroad to just speak English. It seems as though you’re dismissing their own language… Stockholm’s difference. Asking “do you speak English?” is met with an odd look and responded to in perfect English “yes, of course – how can I help?”. It’s like you’re offending them by asking. I’ve been encouraged not to ask and to just dive in with English but it still feels weird for me. Sweden’s national language is not English. I’ve taken to simply saying “tack” as a compromise.
Both the steep subway and the walk from Central Station was a little grey but other than that there was a fair amount of greenery around. Little parks and benches scattered around the place made the city rather urban and relaxed. Construction seemed to be booming too. I noticed heaps of road works and building construction. The new Slussen area was being re-built – a massive project which has been underway for years. It would be good to revisit Stockholm once it’s done. It will change the face of Stockholm. All around the city I could hear English (and other languages) everywhere. Stockholm was surprisingly more bicycle friendly than I realised. Pretty much everyone was riding, all types of people, all types of bicycles. In fact comparing Stockholm to Amsterdam I found more variety of cyclists in Stockholm. Amsterdam seems to only have “omafiets” – not that there’s anything wrong with those bicycles. It’s refreshing to see a mix of cyclists including roadies. Looking at those walking around it was pretty obvious to who was Swedish, who was an immigrant and who was just traveling. Stockholm was truly feeling like a real international travel destination. After making some observations of Stockholm it was time to go Couchsurfing.
My Host Olivia
Olivia and her boyfriend are Russian arty-types living and working in Stockholm. Olivia and I met in Liljeholmstorget, not far from the market square and metro station. I rode there from Stockholm CBD. She greets me with a welcoming hug and explains sadly her bicycle was vandalised last night! She rides her boyfriend’s bicycle instead. I nervously wonder what the fate of my bicycle will be as we climb a steep hill to their apartment. I lock my bicycle up in the “parking area” next to her vandalised bicycle and then try to think of a way to ask to keep my bicycle in her apartment. Later that night I get a chance to store the bicycle securely in the “Cykelrum” – what a relief. Once in the apartment she offers me a place to put my backpack, a shower, something to drink and we briefly discuss the day’s plan for cycling around Stockholm. Shortly after arriving we head out.
The neighbourhood is very green, surrounded by trees and the locals are friendly. The type of people to give a nod and a smile as you pass.
Greater Stockholm is a cluster of interconnected island suburbs. In a way – the layout is similar to that of Helsinki’s. Stockholm’s archipelago has about 3000 islands so it’s no unlikely chance that our first trip was over the Liljeholmsborn – a bridge from Liljeholmen to the strand (gradually going towards the main chuck of land I called Stockholm CBD). Overlooking the strand from Liljeholmsborn I see six or seven level apartment buildings which although fancy have a sort of Soviet flare to them. At least from the outside. The apartment buildings are in fact all connected together. One building leads to the next and this continues along adjoining streets – eventually forming a triangular container of apartment buildings. From an aerial view the gardens and green spaces within the space are exposed giving the impression of small urban environments sheltered from the hassle of the city streets.
We arrive under the heights of Slussen in Södermalm. It’s an impressive stone wall stair climb to reach Slussen. I decline to leave my bicycle in Södermalm and suggest we carry the bicycles all the way to the top which took about 15 minutes. We swap bicycles, mine’s light and made of carbon. Olivia’s boyfriend’s bicycle felt like it was made of the Slussen materials – stone and steal. The views are in impressive. For the moment the highest points on the skyline are the peaks of several churches, typical Swedish style old town buildings line the harbour and massive construction work underpins the city’s infrastructure of roads, bridges and a railway.
Norrmalmstorg, Kungstradgården and Systembolaget
Along the way to Kungstradgården I observe a lot of Swedes living life well. The more I observed of Stockholm the more I began to realise what a great standard of life the Swedes have made (in many ways, not just bar-life). The Swedes soak up the warm sunny weather in fancy bars outdoors, drinking and socialising with friends. It’s only May so maybe this better-than-usual weather brought out the midsummer vibes early. We ride past the old Kreditbanken building at Norrmalmstorg, where the infamous “Stockholm Syndrome” incident happened before arriving to a significant WWII monument.
We’re outside the Great Synagogue of Stockholm. A portion of the area is paved with cobblestones and a few monuments to Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg appear. I learn Raoul Gustaf Wallenberg saved thousands of Jews from Holocaust. While working in the Swedish Embassy in Budapest he issued Jews passports and hide-out places in designated Swedish territory buildings within Budapest. The paved cobblestones are from Budabest. They form part of the area dedicated to his memory. How and where he died remains a mystery.
Kungstradgården is a short stop. It’s a nice spot to observe Swedes relaxing, going about their lives or hanging out. The park surrounds a water fountain, a hive of calm social activity (like old men playing chess) and its paths are formed between rows of trees. We quickly run into Systembolaget. As per usual a Swede greets us in Swedish and English. She offers help. I ask for a particular Australian red which they didn’t seem to stock. She checks their database and lodges a request to order the bottle in – for next time I visit Sweden. Systembolaget is the only place you can buy alcohol from in Sweden and everybody knows about it. The process is humoursly described in the blog post here by A Swedish American in Sweden.
North East from Stadsholmen (Stockholm CBD, the main chunk island) is Rosendals Trädgård – one of the highlights of my trip. Not knowing what to expect I follow Olivia along a gravel road through massive hedges and small plots. The area looks like a neat little neat village farm co-operative. “The Swedes really know how to live” I think to myself. I’m imaging we’re about to see some garden plots. Suddenly large wooden tables appear in what looks like a restaurant amongst the hedges. We dismount, turn a corner and a gardener’s utopia appears. Wooden barrels of lettuce, rhubard and greens are strategically placed around tables and chairs. More well-living Swedes are sat under white table umbrellas enjoying lunch, drinks and good weather. Green houses contain even more eating and drinking areas. I liked this area the most in Stockholm.
The gardens are entirely functioning too. It’s not Scandinavian fashion. Although containing a restaurant and eatery / cafe, they are also actually producing flowers and plants. This is an area where couples relax to enjoy good food and drink. The ambient environment of plants, greenhouses, rhubarb, tulips and a green walking spaces is very relaxing. Olivia and I talk for a while, mostly about living in Sweden, life in Russia and the Swedish quality of life – which from this trip so far seems pretty brilliant.
Sunset in Hägersten-Liljeholmen and Vinterviken
We eventually head back to Liljeholmen and prepare for a picnic. Olivia’s boyfriend finishes work and joins us. We’ve packed some light food and 2 bottles of wine. We head a little outside the Liljeholmen area to Hägersten-Liljeholmen and Vinterviken. The terrain is worth explaining – green, lush with low-lying bushes, well worn dirt paths eventually become a smooth rock cliff-face with amazing views of a lake. Boats are docked in the water and the local Swedes hang out on the rocks drinking and listening to music. The vibe is very welcoming. Everyone’s here – young and old. At home I’m treated to some interesting conversations about Sweden and many more things Russian.
I remember that night falling asleep thinking I’d totally lucked out on this trip. I got to experience a lot in Stockholm – all for free and all thanks to Couchsurfing and the generous hosptiality of Olivia and her boyfriend. I couldn’t be more grateful. To make things even better I still had another host to meet the following day.