Saturday, July 23, 2011

Going Baltic

It was a beautiful day -  most of them were during our week+ stay in Sweden - as we enjoyed an easy drive to Oskarshamn where we boarded the ferry to Gotland. Gotland is the biggest island in the Baltic sea and quite the tourist attraction. Visby, where we stayed, is supposedly party central for the hipsters and the rest of the island is a retreat from the aforementioned. We were lucky to miss the summer crush. I might have mentioned that. I forget.

It was a comfortable 2-1/2 hour cruise and if not for the reliable timing of the squeaking bathroom doors, it would have been restful as well. We arrived in Visby, another charming, walled, medieval city. Very small city, but the only one of any size on the island.  Visby is a mix of ancient ruins and modern chic. Lots of history which Darrell could explain in interesting detail. Many trendy restaurants and shops.

We found a nice pub that was a little easier on the wallet. Have I mentioned that the Swedes love outdoor cafes and patio bars? So much so that most places provide blankets for chilly evenings. And they are put to good use by people other than me, being the fan of indoor eating and drinking that I am.

Our hotel (not the one in the picture) was simple, quiet, clean and just fine. Thumbs up on the Hotell Stenugnen.

We spent two days on Gotland. Day One was a stroll around Visby. On Day Two we visited Bro Church, which has drawings that date back to the 6th century. Fwaaa? That is OLD. This was a good stop.
From there we made our way to Faro, a smaller island to the north. There's a free ferry that runs regularly, so it's easy to get there. 

Driving along in silence, just the two of us, with no other people and not much else in sight, this place somehow reminded Darrell and me of Death Valley. It was so arid and surreal looking. Very open, sparse landscape. Along the beaches are limestone formations that jut out of the water and the sand. Very cool. Ingmar Bergman lived on Faro and filmed on location there. You can picture it. 

Sidebar: I'm not presenting the word Faro properly here because it has a couple of different umlaut-looking symbols over the "a" and the "o" and I don't know how to produce that. And God knows how it's really pronounced. We said Fairo. It was lucky that everyone speaks English in Sweden, because their native language is a bear to figure out and pronounce. I'll tell you a little more about that when we get to Stockholm. Soon.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Road to Gotland

Hello! I'm back to share more about our trip to Sweden. Remember Sweden and the Volvo? The Falkenberg freebie? Anthony Weiner? Yeah, well, more on him later. Now that I have your attention.

After a memorable dinner and a comatose-like sleep in Falkenberg, we hopped in the car and hit the road to Gotland. The road trip was only one part of the journey because Gotland is an island off Sweden's west coast, which made driving the entire way a bit risky.

In the southern part of Sweden it's not terribly far from east to west, so we took our time as we headed out, stopping off in the pretty town of Halmstad. Halmstad is a medieval, walled city. It has a seriously old castle and a possibly older church, St. Nicholai. 

Halmstad does naturally what Crocker Park can only contrive, with beautiful existing structures that are filled with shops, restaurants, homes, businesses and history that make the town charming and interesting.

This link gives you more pictures of Halmstad, so have a look.

After Halmstad we headed for our day's destination - a tiny town in the middle of nowhere called Broakulla, aka "Dracula" to us crazy kids in the Volvo. We booked a room at a bed and breakfast called The Dutch Dreamcatcher. It was nice enough, mostly because we had the place to ourselves. Our room was not ensuite and there was a private kitchen area just outside our door. Great for a family, and fine for just us. But otherwise much too close for comfort. Speaking of comfort, I barely slept at the DDc. The mattresses in Sweden are very thin, dense and firm - not uncomfortable really, but our hosts had odd scratchy sheets that about drove me nuts. (Too late you say? Ha! You have no idea.)

Finding a place for dinner that night was not easy. But we had the GPS and it led us to a tiny Italian restaurant in the town of Lindas. The restaurant was on the main floor of an apartment building in this goofy rundown suburban neighborhood. No other commerce nearby and we're the only ones there, except for some old local guy watching TV. Don't ask me. I can't tell you. But I can tell you that the spaghetti bolognese was not half bad.

The next morning we had our breakfast of cold meat, cheese, bread, yogurt and cereal and were on our way. Passed a sign for the town of Pukeberg as we headed for Oskarshamn and the ferry to Gotland. Gosh, we sure wanted to pay a visit to the people of Pukeberg but had to keep going.

We arrived in Oskarshamn in plenty of time. We had booked the ferry in advance. Big, comfortable reclining seats for us and a place for the car below. This ferry is a huge ship making the 2 and-a-half hour trip to Gotland Island very enjoyable, indeed.

I'll tell you all about Gotland and Visby and Faro very soon. It gets better and better.
Cheers for now.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Varberg Affair

Hello out there. I'm back, as promised, to share highlights of Darrell's and my trip Sweden. In a nutshell. Remember the Volvo? We picked up our beautiful new car in Goteborg and drove to Varberg, a nice little stop-off port where we would cool our jets for one night. It's May 23. When we started the trip it was May 22. We'd been without sleep for I forget how long, but suffice it to say it was well past our bedtime, yet only around noon. Go figure.

We arrive at the Hotel Varberg, a nice enough, older hotel. At the reservation desk I announce our name and proudly present our printed confirmation. The nice enough, older lady behind the desk looks and looks for our name on her list, while I rediscover my ability to read upside down. No Starnik. No (insert expletive here). The lady behind the desk immediately calls her boss who shows up right away, while she makes phone call after phone call, speaking rapid Swedish. They admitted to screwing up our reservation and were calling all the hotels to find a room. We're too tired to even cry. There's a convention in town and all the hotels in the area are booked solid. We're feeling more like crying now. But wait. There's a hotel in Falkenberg, about 35-40 minutes from there. Not too far out of our way. The Grand Hotel.

"It's a beautiful hotel, right on the river," says the boss. "And they have a room for you." When I asked what it would cost (Sweden is very expensive), boss man said, "It won't cost you anything. This was our mistake and we're paying for your room." The clouds parted and the angels sang and we were in business. Darrell started to cry. (not really. I'm just being silly.)

Let me back up a little: earlier in this episode I had asked for a ladies room. They just say "toilet" in Sweden. No frills there. I was taken to an as-yet unoccupied hotel room to use the facility...I mean toilet. The room was OK, clean and fine, but a tiny bit rundown and a little sparse amenity-wise.

We get to The Grand Hotel and it was indeed on the river and very beautiful. They had our reservation and there was no issue about who was paying for it. We had one of the few rooms with a balcony, and our room was mighty fine. Spacious, with a sitting area and comfy everything. And Falkenberg was nicer than Varberg, so we totally made out on this deal. Totally. Welcome to Sweden. The beer bottle was not there upon arrival. We added that later after enjoying a gourmet dinner at Gustat Bratt, a charming upstairs restaurant just around the corner from our grand hotel.

Dinner was around $200. Yikes. But the hotel was free, right? Get used to those prices, friends, because that's the deal in Sweden. $20 hamburgers is standard. But you get fries with that. The bad news is there's a 25% tax, but the good news is tipping is not expected. Leave the change or give 5% or so and everyone's happy. Restaurant workers are paid a decent wage.

It's expensive in Sweden, yes, but the service we had was exceptional. The Varberg Affair could have been a nightmare, but it turned out great. We were very impressed with the way the Hotel Varberg handled the situation, jumping on their mistake and making it right without batting an eye.

So far, between the people at Volvo, the people in Varberg and the people in Falkenberg, Sweden is on the ball.

Next stop: Broakulla and the Dutch Dreamcatcher.