The flight from Rome to Stockholm via Munich was uneventful but I was fascinated to watch the Italian landscape change from the chaotic patchwork of farms to the cool green meadows of the alpine region of the Alps. The stone houses and barns of the Italian countryside are surrounded by brown fields, newly ploughed or a tapestry of ripe wheat and corn waiting to be harvested. Dense oak forests hug craggy hillsides where small hill top towns adorn the summits and spill over the edges like icing dripping over a cake.
As I fly across the Alps, the landscape changes to a vivid green in the deep valleys that vast glaciers cut between the mountains long ago. Nestling in the bottom of these glacial valleys, are quaint villages of white houses with red roofs which cluster along the river banks that meander through these picture book valleys. On either side of the valleys, the mountains rise up vertically from the valley floor. The verdant meadows give way to rocky grey summits where in some sheltered pockets there is perpetual snow.
The view from the aeroplane window could be described as panoramic unlike the sight of my lunch tray which drew gaps of horror not delight from my lips. Lufthansa as you know is the national carrier for Germany so this nationalistic fervour may account for a dinner of meatballs (closely resembling male anatomical parts) floating in a soggy soup of sauerkraut. This may not be the wisest meal to feed to 100 or so people who are trapped in a tin can 30,000 feet above the earth for 4 hours -the atmosphere in the plane may get a bit ripe after consuming this dinner!
My wish for cooler weather after the unrelenting heat of Italy was granted. On arrival in Stockholm, I was greeted with driving rain and a cold blustery wind whipping the fallen leaves out of the gutters. The drive from the airport was through dense pine forests and after about 45 minutes we are in the centre of Stockholm. What a beautiful city this is. There is water everywhere. The buildings are low rise and this makes for an intimate city on a human scale. No soaring canyons that block out the light and create great wind tunnels.
Founded around 1250 Stockholm is a conglomerate of 14 islands on the coast in the south-east of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren and it has a population of around 1.5 million. Sometimes called the “Venice of the North” Stockholm is known for its beauty, its buildings and the many styles of architecture. The first part of the name (stock) means log in Swedish, although it may also be connected to an old German word (Stock) meaning fortification. The second part of the name (holm) means islet. We explored the city by foot, bus and canal boat gaining an insight into the life of the City and its different sectors.
One of the islands is Stockholm’s core – the present Old Town – Gamla Stan which was built on the central island in the 13th century. This small island is a warren of cobbled streets, interesting buildings dating from the Middle Ages and later, cute little squares and tiny green spaces. There is a central square which is surrounded by beautiful buildings and is a congregation point for many tourists who flock there to people watch or take a breather to rest their feet after navigating the treacherous cobble stones.
Gamla Stan is also the site of the royal palace, an imposing square building that overlooks many parts of the city and other islands. Today this is the administrative centre for the Royal household and a place where important ceremonial duties and functions are carried out. It is an impressive sight when it is time for changing of the guard at the palace as a large cavalry troop parades through the streets, all gleaming, pressed and handsome on their chestnut horses.
The city originally rose to prominence as a result of the Baltic trade between many of the neighbouring countries: Denmark, Estonia, Norway, Germany and Poland. This ideal geographic position also brought many wars and disputes to its shores, the aggressors hoping to steal more land, power and wealth. These battles see-sawed over the centuries particularly between Denmark and Sweden and to this day there seems to be some underlying tensions often disguised as humour.
The next leg of the holiday is a 2-week cruise around the Baltic. We made our way to the harbour where we could see giant ferries that traverse the Baltic from Stockholm to St Petersburg, Helsinki, Estonia and other ports to the east and to the west Copenhagen, Oslo and other ports along the way. These giant ferries take hundreds of passengers and trucks, bikes and cars traversing the shipping lanes of the Baltic.
Our ship was easily identified by its gracious nautical profile and the 5 masts that will carry the sails when we are out to sea. It is the largest sailing ship in the world and carries about 300 passengers and 150 staff. All your creature comforts are catered for, a beauty salon for massages and facials, gym (I am not inclined to venture in there), a coffee shop where you can get a coffee and sandwich, 3 restaurants, a pool deck with a small pool and 2 hot tubs, 2 bars and lounges, quiet nooks to lounge both in and out of the sun.
We set sail around 6 pm and head out to sea through the myriad of pretty islands that make up Stockholm’s harbour. We turn east and head for St Petersburg – a 2-day sail away. I sink into life on board – relaxing by the pool in warm sun (no scorching Mediterranean heat here), reading, gazing out over the deep blue sea, contemplating the world from the other side of my eye lids, lulled by the quiet as the only sound is the swishing of the wind and the waves.
Some people say that the only clock needed on board is the one in your tummy. The day starts with breakfast where there is an ample buffet of fruit, yoghurt, smoothies, juices, hot savoury dishes – prepared and on order, smoked salmon and the trimmings, freshly baked bread, rolls and pastries. Lunch is a buffet – a range of salads and cold cuts, cheeses, fruit, deserts, ice creams and a daily bread and butter pudding, to supplement this there is a made to order pasta dish. Afternoon tea is served on deck – mini rolls and cakes and cookies. At dinnertime savouries are served with cocktails in the lounge and then dinner comprises a selection of appetisers, salad and soups, main course and finishing with cheese and dessert. After all that if you wake up at 2.00 am and have the munchies there is 24-hour room service.
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Next port of call – St Petersburg – stay tuned for more fun on the high sea.