Vasa Ship Carvings, at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Sweden

Since childhood, I had dreamed of visiting the Scandinavian countries. I had hiked throughout Norway, visited a former exchange student and his family in Denmark, and toured with a small international group in Finland, and now I was headed to Sweden. The daylight is long in this part of the world, and it was beautiful summer weather. I took an overnight ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Stockholm, Sweden.

After a few hours of sleep in my cabin, I headed for the deck to view spectacular scenery as we sailed along the coast of Sweden on the Baltic Sea. We sailed slowly, very close to shore. I saw islands, many of them with no inhabitants, and there were only granite rock and evergreen trees on some of the more protected ones. There were white houses, lighthouses, and an occasional fishing village. The ferry trip was a great way to enter Sweden for the first time.

We sailed into Stockholm, a bustling port, by late morning. I went to my hotel to drop my bags and then to a bank exchange for Swedish kroners. Sweden is a member of the European Union but opted to keep their own currency.

Stockholm is a city made up of islands. A good way to see the city is on the Hop On-Hop Off system. It includes buses, trams, and boats. It is well organized, easy to use, and runs daily, with long hours.

My young granddaughters had visited Europe the previous summer, and their recommendation spurred me on to my first destination. One of their most favorite “likes” was the ABBA Museum in Stockholm. I boarded a harbor boat and in only a few minutes was docked a block from the ABBA Museum. The Museum is modern, lively, and encourages participation, such as in the recording booths to try out your own voice.

It all began for the group of four: Freda, Björn, Benny, and Agnetha in 1974 when they won the Euro Vision Song Contest with their song, “Waterloo.” They created “Dancing Queen” and “Ma Ma Mia,” and in 10 short years made music history along with Miche, their producer. At that time, there was nothing in the world like winning the Euro Vision Song Contest. I could see why my granddaughter chose a Halloween costume that year as one of the ABBA girls.

Madelyn Given poses as one of the famous ABBA group!

The famous ABBA group…or wait, is that Madelyn hiding there?

After the ABBA Museum, I went to the Vasa Museum. On August 10, 1628, Vasa set sail on her maiden voyage, but sadly she sank and never left the outer harbor. It was one of the grandest, most splendidly decorated ships with carved figures to ever set sail. In 1961, after 333 years under the sea, the Vasa was salvaged. It is 98 percent original and one of the only ships in the world that has been found intact from this era. The museum building was constructed around the ship.

I toured a few other islands that day, becoming familiar with the city of Stockholm. The weather was sunny and warm, and Stockholm is a safe city for walking. Wherever I went, whether in city parks or different parts of the city, places were clean, filled with friendly people and interesting architecture, and there were lots of cafes to stop and take a break. I was enjoying Sweden.

(posted February 21, 2017)

Madelyn Given at the Sibelius Sculpture, made in honor of the famous Finnish composer, in Sibelius Park in Finland.

Scandinavian Travels 2016: Finland

After my travels to the Baltic States and Poland, I was excited to continue my journey to another Scandinavian country, Finland. I took a ferry from Tallinn, Estonia to Helsinki, Finland. The Baltic Sea is not deep, and yet it is a busy port crossing. It was a short day trip on a nine-story ferry.

One of the first things noticed after landing in Finland is that life is much more expensive here. The standard of living is good and very modern. They are proud of being coffee drinkers and the 600,000 people of Helsinki and 5 ½ million in Finland are also proud of their connection with Nokia. They do not seem concerned with Russia as a neighbor.

I stayed at a centrally located hotel near the grand central train terminal; my hotel was within walking distance of museums, restaurants, and trendy shopping centers.

Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki, Finland. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Kamppi Chapel, Helsinki, Finland.

From my hotel room, I could look down on a large unusual structure with no windows, trim, signage, or doors. It was round with a flat top, like a giant canister, except it was larger at the top than at the bottom. It was like the curiosity that got the cat; I needed to know what this was. I went down and walked outside the plaza surrounding the structure, but saw no signs, nor any sign of people near it. I finally came inside the hotel and asked at the desk. It is the Kamppi Chapel—with the entrance inside a passageway to an underground mall nearby. It is a place for meeting people and appreciating peace and quiet in the center of Helsinki. This simplistic chapel is 11.5 meters tall and made of three types of wood: the lightest colored wood is on the outside, coated with a special type of wax as a sealer and preservative. Inside there are a few wooden benches to sit. No services are performed here and no religious symbols are displayed.

I took a ferry to Suomdinna, an island fortress off Helsinki. Finland was once part of Sweden and this fortress was the largest in the entire Swedish realm. After the 1808-1809 war, it was controlled by Russia for 110 years. It is now a recreation area with parks, museum, and shops, with 850 remaining inhabitants still living there.

I toured Helsinki, going to the marketplace, the Art Nuevo section of the city, and the great and quite plain Lutheran Cathedral with 44 large wide steps up from the plaza. It was worth seeing Sibelius Park and the monument there, which is a stainless steel sculpture erected in honor of the Finnish composer, Sibelius.

The old Olympic Park still is in use for ice skating and track. Hockey is the number one sport for both men and women.

From my hotel, I took lots of short walks to nearby parks, to the Church on the Rock carved into bedrock, and to the Amos Anderson Museum. I was given a small book to solve the mystery at this museum, which is the mansion townhouse of the famous owner, Amos Anderson. There are five floors, and there are benches to sit and read throughout the entire building.  As I passed a numbered piece of art, I would study it to find a clue to help me solve the mystery, and at the end, the mystery was solved.

Each evening, our little group gathered for dinner. The last night was a farewell celebration, and then all would head their separate ways: back to Ireland, South Africa, Australia, Canada, India, and Malaysia. I would sail on an overnight ferry to Sweden.

(posted February 7, 2016)

Old town in Tallinn, Estonia. Photo by Madelyn Given.

Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, Part 3

By the time I reached Tallinn, Estonia, having driven from Poland through Lithuania, Latvia, and part of Estonia, I had developed a nice feeling about the Baltic Countries. The countries are beginning to prosper and there is so much history. According to my guide, the Baltic States were the last to be “barbaric.” Estonia is the smallest state, and Tallinn, on the Baltic Sea, is the capital. I enjoyed seeing the friendly people, busy with their daily lives. Some were farmers, some were craftsmen, others were professionals; all seemed happy with life in their Baltic States.

From the time I left Vilnius, Lithuania until I reached Tallinn, Estonia, I kept being reminded of the historic Baltic Chain of Freedom. It was a peaceful demonstration, held on August 23, 1989, against the rule of the Soviet Union. Approximately two million people joined hands to form a human chain spanning 419.7 miles across three Baltic States. In 1989, this human chain drew global attention for the independence and solidarity of the three countries. Can you imagine the emotionally captivating and visually stunning scene? Within seven months after this demonstration, Lithuania became the first of the Soviet Republics to declare independence. August 23rd is now an official remembrance day in the Baltic Countries and the European Union for victims of Stalinism and Nazism.

In Tallinn, I stayed in the tallest building, a restored former KGB headquarters. There is a trendy three-story mall attached to this high-rise. Across the street was the entrance to Upper Town and Old Town, with ancient walls, narrow cobblestone streets, and buildings with great character. There were museums to visit, cafes with great hot chocolate, and tiny shops with many souvenirs.

For dinner one evening, our guide arranged for us to go to an interesting place, as he called it.  That night, we decided, was the time to dress more elegantly.  The ladies had on open-toed shoes and even stilettos, with their silk scarves on bare shoulders, and the men were in dress shoes and ties. To our surprise, our driver drove us far out into the country and parked at the end of a muddy dirt road.  We walked to this little farm with a few chickens, a pig pen, and a few cows out in the pasture.  We went into a quaint rustic building and sat down on old wooden benches and were served a humble, so-called Viking dinner. After a while we began to laugh about this unexplained situation. And as we swatted flies and sat with muddied feet, we created our own entertainment. It was an evening to remember.

Soon it was time to leave the Baltic Countries and say good-bye (Head-aega in Estonia) and thank you (Tänan).

(posted January 23, 2017)