My Travel Map

My Travel Map

28 December 2014

Kiruna, Sweden

Most people wouldn't jump at the opportunity to visit Northern Sweden at the end of February, in the heart of the Arctic winter.  However, it is a great time, maybe around the best time of the year actually, to visit Kiruna and Swedish Lapland.  The food was excellent, showcasing a surprising diversity of local ingredients.  There are also plenty of cross-country skiing, dog-sledding, and snowmobile adventure options outside of town.  And if you're more in the mood for a social atmosphere, I have to be honest and admit I felt a little like James Bond while drinking high-quality cocktails at the IceBar.  In my personal opinion, you can't go wrong with any of that.

Kiruna... the place is what it is now because of one thing, a mine.  Kiruna, the northernmost town in Sweden, is first and foremost a mining town.  Since the early 20th century, Swedish entrepreneurs have been making a fortune on iron ore extracted from the deep, dark holes in the ground in the middle of that enormous, manmade, tiered pile of earth seen here.  I've heard that the Swedes still somewhat regret their decision to stay neutral during World War II... and Kiruna played a central role in that decision.  During WWII, Kiruna, and more importantly its mine, played a strategic role and was a coveted piece of territory for both the Nazis and the Allies.  Sweden maintained its neutrality by denying British troops access to Finland from Norway via Kiruna in 1940, for fear of Nazi retaliation and invasion.  To give them credit, the Swedes also refused to transport Nazi soldiers north on their trains to help in the fight in northern Norway (see my post on Tromso and the surrounding area).  However, the Swedes also sold iron, sourced from the mines in Kiruna, to Germany throughout the war... Iron used to make MG42s and Tiger tanks.  They made a lot of money doing so.  And they continue to make a lot of money now.  Dollar signs always seem to win in any war.

But I wasn't there for money... no, I was there for science!  I was in Kiruna for a radiation belts meeting, hosted at the Swedish Institute for Space Physics, and as part of that meeting, we got a tour of the EISCAT incoherent scatter radar facility... one of only a handful in the world.  

Now into town.  Central Kiruna... a not so bustling place in the middle of winter.  However, it had some perks.  The things I'd recommend are local food, beer or drinks, exploring the surrounding wilds, and the Icehotel.  Other than that, there is the church...  

Kiruna Church, one of the most prominent buildings in town and considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Sweden.  This place is worth checking out... it's a pretty neat building.

The church was built over 100 years ago.  It is a wooden building incorporating a double A-frame design.

Check out the detail on one of those statues... lovely

The church has a very interesting tower too.  All of the architecture is uniquely northern European.  The all-wood construction is like many other churches in Norway and Russia, the red paint is classic Scandinavian, and the dome on that tower is quite reminiscent of Russia's onion domes.

Now, heading out of town to the nearby village of Jukkasjärvi and its main seasonal attraction, welcome to the Icehotel.  Kiruna is probably most famous for this, even though most people have no idea it's in Kiruna.  The entire building, consisting of over 80 guest rooms plus halls, a chapel, and a bar, are made only of ice and snow.  The ice, which is remarkably clear, is sourced from the wide Torne River, which runs adjacent to the village.

The Icehotel is really a series of ice bunkers connected by tunnels.  The main structural components are formed by spraying a slush over huge metal forms.  When the slush freezes into the snowy shell, the metal is removed.  Ice-glass blocks are used to make vertical walls, columns, tables, chairs, bed frames, drinking cups, and decorations.  The doors are about the only thing in the buildings not made of ice.  And reindeer hides are used as padding, bedding, and additional decoration.

Inside the main tunnel.  The Icehotel design changes every year, so seeing it once means you saw it once.  The design you witnessed will melt away in the spring and summer and be replaced by something completely different next winter.  I was really, really impressed by the whole thing.  I mean, just look at that... first of all, it's huge.  Second, look at the ice-glass columns, fountain, and unicorn statue at the far end of the hall... a lot of time and detail went into this place.  It is kind of like the ultimate snow fort, which, for a guy who grew up making snow forts, added that bit of childhood nostalgia to the whole experience.

Oh, and yes, those are indeed ice chandeliers.

Notice the decorative detail on the wall and fountain.  Several times, I was left somewhat stunned thinking about the amount of work that obviously went into the place.

Now, off to the rooms.  This is looking down one of the ice tunnels lined with guest rooms.

The rooms themselves range from lavishly decorated to relatively simple to outright insane.  Most of them have a nice touch of humor too... the comic relief is probably useful considering guests are paying to spend the night on ice-hard (literally) beds in sub-zero temperatures with essentially no comforts offered by a typical hotel room.  I guess it's an experiential thing.

Well, I guess there are some of the standard "comforts"... there is some other furniture in there too, like these chairs and table.

Did I mention some of the rooms are outright insane?  This was one of them...  many of the rooms are themed, like this one on the cinema.

This was one of my favorite beds... that partial ice block sphere is just fantastic.

This room was called "Pole Dancing" and featured dancing polar bears... one of which (behind the camera) actually was dancing on a pole.

Then there was this one, themed on the London Underground.

The bed was inside the train!

I mentioned those little touches of humor... this cartoon was one of my favorites.

I don't really know what was going on in this one, but it was still neat.

If you feel like escaping the not-so-warm comfort of your room, you can head over to the bar...

Welcome to the Icebar, where the bar and even the glasses are made of crystal clear ice.

The Icebar had a sushi theme this year (Winter 2013/2014).  The story behind the theme was written on the wall, and the giant chopped up fish sculpture was the centerpiece of the theme.

The drink menu had some very interesting options... for some reason, they didn't offer any hot drinks though!  Wonder why that was...  These were definitely the most expensive cocktails I've every purchased though... around $18 or more per drink.  Tasty though and nice and cold.  Just make sure you have some well-insulated gloves to hold the glass!

There is even a chapel for weddings and other religious ceremonies and occasions... this is located in a structure separate from the main one.

Inside the ice chapel.... I loved the angular design... very focused on the altar.

One thing I was not expecting from Northern Sweden was amazing food, but was I ever wrong in that assumption.  Kiruna cuisine focuses on local, seasonal ingredients and Lapland specialties.  I wouldn't figure that there were many seasonal ingredient options in the winter, but it was actually pretty rich.  Pickled and root vegetables, berry preserves, and dried mushrooms were on many of the menus, and then there was all the fresh local game.  I was amazed and absolutely delighted by the food up there.

 This was at the Jukkasjärvi Wärdshus och Hembygdsgård restaurant near the Icehotel.  This charcuterie platter featured reindeer cuts from all parts including heart and liver and lots of fatty spreads and hard cheese.  The main courses there included options such as Arctic char with apple cider sauce, reindeer filet with lingonberry sauce and Arctic shitake mushrooms, plus whatever local berries or mushrooms are currently available (in season).  We were there in the middle of the winter, so it was mostly dried and preserved or fresh game on offer.  The food was phenomenal.  They have plenty of local beer options up there too... there are micro-breweries throughout northern Sweden and Norway, and the locals really do a lot to help promote them.  Oh, and the beers were excellent too!

Back in Kiruna at Landstroms restaurant, I started the meal with a ptarmigan carpaccio... which was amazing.  Ptarmigan was not like any bird meat I've ever tasted... it was soft, almost buttery smooth, and quite rich, plus it had that deep red color.  Someone could have told me it was some kind of mammal, and I would have believed them.  For dinner there, I had a perfectly cooked reindeer filet with lingonberry sauce and creamy stewed mushrooms.  Incredible.  Kiruna was a neat place... I think you'd have to be a real winter enthusiast to devote a trip there, but it really seems like winter is the best time to visit. It was cloudy the entire time I was there, but Kiruna is also one of the better places in the world to experience the aurora borealis... so that is definitely a plus too (and yet another reason to go sometime during the winter half of the year for the darkness that comes with it).   It would be neat to compare with summer though, when you can experience the midnight sun and enjoy hiking through the surrounding wilderness interspersed with some stops for berry picking and mushroom hunting.  All in all, I was quite satisfied with Kiruna... it is an interesting little town in the middle of beautiful, polar nowhere.

27 December 2014

Copenhagen, Denmark

Copenhagen must be taken, must be taken, must be taken... I really couldn't get that song out of my head on this trip.  Denmark was the last of the four Scandinavian countries for me to visit.  I showed up for a weekend in Copenhagen with practically no idea of what to expect other than more of the pleasant order and quality I've become accustomed to in Scandinavia.  Looking back, what I should have been ready for was one of the most cosmopolitan, productive, liberal, and progressive cities in Europe.  I had plenty of hits of those qualities beforehand but just hadn't really put much thought into it before I landed at the international airport.  Anyway, despite the abysmal weather, which ended up lending a surprisingly photogenic touch to the place, I really enjoyed my time in Copenhagen.  In addition to being pleasant and orderly, Copenhagen also proved to be a wonderfully hip and vibrant place with a youthful, playful energy and excitement about it that I just didn't find as much of in Oslo, Helsinki, or Stockholm.

It was pretty gray and dreary while I was there.  That was not all bad though; with the fog and mist, a lot of the pictures actually turned out perfect for black and white shots.  I really like these in an old city like Copenhagen, since most of the scenes are temporally ambiguous anyway; they seem as if they could just as easily have been taken a century ago as today.  The black and white go hand-in-hand with that feeling too... I just love it.

Copenhagen really is one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities and entirely its own place.  The city doesn't worry about what others think; it does its own cool, bohemian, and often weird thing.  I wasn't expecting so much industry around, but it was there, driving the wealth that was clearly evident around the center, posing an intriguing contrast to the strong socialist national ideals.

Tivoli Gardens: a true Copenhagen classic.  Tivoli is the second oldest amusement park in the world; it opened in 1843.  It is right in the middle of the city, and many of its original attractions went on to be copied by other parks around the world, even the biggest of them all, Disney, and supposedly, Tivoli was Walt Disney's prime inspiration for the original Disneyland. 

Copenhagen is a city of elegant buildings and sky-scraping church spires.  It's an immensely enjoyable place to wander around by foot or bike.   

Another piece of classic Copenhagen: the Nyhavn.  This charming, boat-lined canal is a great place to take a stroll, people watch, enjoy a coffee, take in some food, or go out for a drink.  In addition to the boats, it's also lined with 17th and 18th century townhouses that are painted a variety of wonderfully bright colors.

Check out the detail on this brickwork... how often do we include such details in modern architecture nowadays?  It doesn't seem as often, but maybe I'm biased, since many of the old buildings that have survived thus far have done so because of their charm.

What did I say about those bright townhouses?  Pretty awesome, eh?  The ground level and some of the cellars are now all restaurants, cafes, and bars, making the Nyhavn a great place to kill some time.  And can you say charming?  

The colors around the Nyhavn are just so vibrant, especially on dreary days like they were when I visited.

Then there are all those little extra touches, like the old, decorative business signs above doors and all the extra details like the silver gutters and colored framing.

The place just oozes character too... like this fish pub.

The only bad thing about the Nyhavn was the busloads of tourists that came through regularly during the day on guided tours.  Like swarms of locusts overwhelming a field of crops, these seemingly senseless travelers descend upon beautiful and charming areas like the Nyhavn and just completely drain the beauty and charm right out of them.  I wish tourists had more respect for the places they visit and wouldn't so easily give in to the group-think, drone mentality that seems to permeate tour groups.  I just don't understand how people can prefer wandering around in huge, mindless groups compared to small groups, couple, or even individual exploration.  Anyway, enough of that rant... if a tour group does show up, the great thing is that, as an independent traveler, you can always just sit around and wait 15 minutes for them to sheepishly be herded on to the next attraction on the tour.

The city has some grandiose and monumental architecture too, like Frederik's Church seen here.

Gotta love quality architecture.

Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark, and thus is also the home of the Danish Royal Family.  The current monarch is Queen Margrethe II, hence the "M" seen on the royal guards booth here.  Anyone that knows me or reads this blog regularly knows how I feel about royalty... I'm disgusted by so much of what they stand for and/or represent.  However, I can respect that countries, like Denmark, appreciate the historical significance of their royal families.  Now, a couple of the finer points that I'll gladly debate with any supporters of royalty are just how much political power any given monarchy still wields and whether it is at all appropriate for any national funds (from tax payers) to support that monarchy!  OK... enough of that topic.     

Looking in on the square in the middle of the Amalienborg Palace, the Danish Royal Family's official winter residence.  The royal guards are stationed all around this place, and the square is actually quite interesting since the palaces symmetric buildings are all at a 45 degree angle to the surrounding urban grid.  The equestrian statue in the middle is of King Frederick V, the founder of Amalienborg.  His horse points towards his namesake church (shown a few pictures above) too.

As with any place that has royal guards, there is a ceremonious changing of the guard.  I was lucky enough to catch one while I was there.  Notice the rifles... those aren't any ceremonial props, they are fully functional M16s.  The Royal Life Guards are an active infantry regiment of the Danish Army.  They serve both as an elite front line combat unit (in times of war) and as the protectors of the royal family and their residences.

One of Denmark's most famous and widely recognized exports: Lego.  Right up there with Carlsberg beer, Lego is an incredibly popular line of childrens' toys sold all over the world.  There is a flagship Lego Store on the very pleasant pedestrian street (not just one name, it is a series of streets; the Lego store is on Vimmelskaftet) that runs through the center of the city.

Back out on the street... just wandering around.  Copenhagen is a very pleasant city that feels very genuine and lived in.  It isn't at all like some of the picturesque yet somewhat sterile (since few real locals can actually afford to live there) city centers in other parts of Europe.  This city is very picturesque and authentic; it actually is a city where people can still afford to live.  Another nice quality of the city is all the bicycles... bikes are a very popular mode of transportation around Copenhagen.  Like in Amsterdam, security is kept pretty minimal as well, with locks usually just connecting the front tire to the frame, just another sign of how safe the city is.

Another thing I wasn't at all expecting from Copenhagen was all the art.  There are art galleries all over the place in the northern center.  The styles are mostly quirky and free-spirited from what I could tell, but maybe that is just the type of gallery that most drew my eye.

Keep your eyes up when wandering Copenhagen's streets or else you'll miss all the unique little architectural touches and plenty of examples of one of my newly found favorites: art nouveau.  Art nouveau will feature strongly in my upcoming post on Riga, Latvia, but the above picture is a fine example.  The style has hints of art deco as the base, but it is decorated up with plenty of fluid, flowing lines and these amazing sculptures of animals, nubile figurines, and bizarre, eerie, and haunting faces or masks.  

Probably the most iconic image of Copenhagen, the Little Mermaid.  Like the Merlion of Singapore, this small, out-of-the-way little statue is a major tourist draw.  The statue is a nod to Hans Christian Andersen, a 19th century Danish author famous for his fairy tale stories.

And on to a statue practically no one associates with Copenhagen: a bust of Winston Churchill.  The statue is actually found in a park named after Churchill over near St. Alban's church.  To understand all this, one must remember that Denmark was occupied by the Nazis in World War II.  

Adjacent to Churchill Park is a cathedral that took me to another place, on the other side of the world... St. Alban's church, pictured above, had a near-twin in Christchurch, New Zealand.  The Kiwi version was devastated by the 2011 earthquake, but I was really surprised to see such a similar church in Denmark.  

Also adjacent to St. Alban's is this enormous statue of Gefjon, a Norse mythological character that played a fundamental role in the formation of Denmark.  I mean that quite literally too, in the myth, Gefjon actually formed the islands that make up Denmark.  The myth goes that Gefjon was offered as much land from Sweden as she could plow in a single night.  She did this using a plow driven by her four sons, who she transformed into oxen for the task.  The land she plowed was pulled from Sweden (forming one of Sweden's many lakes) and thrown into the sea, forming the Danish island of Zealand. The statue above is the centerpiece of a large fountain, which is well worth stopping by for its epic scale.

Moving on in the northern part of the center, it is almost impossible to miss the fortress, the star-shaped Kastellet.  This place seems to be pretty popular with folks taking a pleasant stroll or jogging.  It is surrounded by a water-filled moat, and there is a complex of buildings within the old walls.

There were a lot of people exercising, either jogging or speed walking, around the top of the old fortifications.  Most interestingly, there are only a few access points into the complex, none have been added from the originals.  

The fort seemed to still be in active use, I saw several armed military troops wandering around on patrol.

The place had a kind of surreal feel to it, but it was still much more pleasant than uncomfortable.

This windmill is also located inside the fort's walls.

Back into the city and heading across the river to Christianshavn. 

Christianshavn is an interesting neighborhood surrounded and interwoven by water.  It sits on one of the city's extended fortifications from the 17th century.  I was there on a Sunday morning, so it was kind of sleepy, but seemed like a popular place to go out for some fresh baked goods and coffee at one of the several cafes scattered around.

Yet another church spire, but this one having that fantastic and almost fairy-tale-like spiral staircase up around the outside.  I mean honestly, that spire looks like it's something out of a cartoon! 

Last stop: Christiania.  This hippie enclave and semi-autonomous free district, arguably one of the world's capitals of hippiedom, is definitely worth a visit.  I found it to be an ultra-bizarre place... it had a quite sketchy vibe despite it's best world-peace, equality, all-good intentions.  I'm sure people can blame that on my pre-conceived notions or bias towards such lifestyles, and maybe that's true.  Anyway, this is my take on it, and we're all entitled to our own opinion.  

Don't get me wrong though, I have an appreciation for what people are trying to do in Christiania and places like it around the world.  It is really about an interesting mix of socialism/communism and personal freedoms.  And wow, do they have some fantastic street artists working there.  

Wonderland, a skate park in Christiania.  Despite the bright colors and art, this place is really gritty, and many of the people wandering around look and act like they are hiding something or have just done something wrong or are out of their minds on heavy drugs.  I'm sure some of these feelings stem from the dreary, drizzly winter day and the fact that Christiania is a former military barracks, but there is also that grungy, not well-cared-for or not up-kept feel to the place that is impossible to overlook.

The Green Light District... this is where everyone was hanging out.  Hmm.. I wonder why?  Must be that no running rule.  The Green Light District does not allow photography, so this was the closest I could get with my camera out.  This part of Christiania was a bit warmer, but that's probably just because it actually felt lived in and not some abandoned, criminally active part of town.  This part of town is also the heart of Christiania's marijuana market.  Marijuana is illegal in Denmark, yet, as with several other things, the authorities just look the other way when it comes to Christiania.

Christiania was founded as a social experiment of sorts, a way to develop a micro-society from scratch.  In the 1970s, it was formed out of the homeless and bohemian people that were squatting in the former military barracks.  Since then, the people of Christiania have formed their own laws and system, mostly independent of the local and national governments.  Christiania residents now pay for things like taxes and utilities, but for the most part, it is an island in the middle of the city, quite cutoff from so many other things.  It is such a strong microcosm for the yin and yang of every society. Christiania boasts some of the fairest and egalitarian rules and events and offers up some incredible works of art, from graffiti to music performances, yet they have also had some very serious issues because of their ultra-liberal drug policies.   Hard drugs have been evicted and are no longer tolerated in the open, but there have been several lethal showdowns and conflicts with several of Copenhagen's criminal drug pushers and gangs, including a violent takeover by a biker gang.  So what to say about it all?  I really can't say... I don't know how well it all actually works.  The thing I wonder most is, what about the children?  How do they fare in this communal and open society?  I didn't see any children when I was there, but I do know they live there.  How they are educated (considering they pay taxes, I assume they are schooled in Copenhagen public schools) remains a mystery to me.  I also wonder what the impact of icon-like worship of marijuana does for a young, developing mind... let alone the negative impact of the illicit drug trade.  Maybe this haunting piece of artwork, which appeared on one of the barracks walls, represents how some mothers feel there.  I don't know, and I don't want to judge.  Christiania is an amazingly interesting place... standing in such stark contrast to the city of Copenhagen that envelops it.  As with the rest of Copenhagen, it is well worth a visit.