Category: Destinations

The Great ?Swedish? Roadtrip

The Great ?Swedish? Roadtrip

Ok, so as you probably know by now, we’re Americans living in Stockholm. We use public transportation exclusively. We don’t even have a car over here! And we love it! But we do sometimes yearn for the open road, cruising down the countryside under your own power. And so, we decided to rent a car and brave the open highways of southern Sweden!

F5678C9F-5C4F-4829-BBD9-0E1B3045D900

For our first Swedish road trip, we decided on a small, but well known town along the eastern coast called Kalmar. It was highly recommended by the locals, was easy to get to, and was about a five hour drive.

Not only is it a great historic area with a still intact renaissance war castle, but Kalmar is also well known for its glass crafting. We did visit a couple of outlet stores while there and we bought some nice crystal glasses and bowls.

We really lucked out on the weather this time. For the first time since old man winter wrapped his icy fingers around Stockholm, the temperature was actually around 60 degrees Fahrenheit! By far the warmest day of the year. And since we were headed south, it would be even a little warmer than that.

Unlike most of our other adventures that begin with the subway, for this one we took the bus to the Hertz rental office. When we got to the office, there was no one there. The place was deserted. And mind you, this a work day, Friday around 9am. Jana wasn’t worried, she said she had special instructions in case this happened. So we went a couple of doors down. There was a keypad on the door. We entered our secret code from Jana’s special instructions, but nothing happened. Oh look, there’s another keypad over here. We entered the code into that one, got a confirmation buzz, then I pulled the door open and we stepped inside.

It was a small room with what appeared to be an elevator door. There was only one button: down. We pushed it. After a minute or so, the elevator door slowly parted open. It was a very small elevator. Following the special instructions, we stepped inside and pressed the button for negative three. That’s right, three levels down. There was a long pause. Finally, the inner door moaned and creaked as it slid shut, sealing us in. Then there was a violent jolt as we started our decent. I looked at Jana and said, “And they were never seen again.”

8FCACEDF-C453-4A2D-B8C2-7FD2A43D2248

Ha ha, we had a good laugh. After a brief argument with an unmanned kiosk, we got our keys for our fancy Volvo wagon (it even had dual exhausts and a spoiler), and off we went. I leaned out the window and raised my fist as I yelled, “ROAD TRIP!” A column in the garage nearly took my head off. I knew it was there.

Söderköping (Mayberry, EU)

We had a great recommendation for a place to stop along the way. It was about an hour and a half into the trip. It was supposed to be a cozy ice cream parlor with an outdoor area that overlooked a beautiful canal. And it was there, and we found it. And it was cozy, and it was right on the canal. And it was closed due to construction!

But because it was closed, it forced us to explore this wonderful, quaint little Swedish town, er uh village. I swear this place was like a Twilight Zone mirror image of  Mayberry. I kept thinking I would see Barney Fife (Bårnet Fifé) slapping a parking ticket on our fancy city slicker Volvo (with dual exhausts). For those of you who don’t know what the Twilight Zone is or have never heard of Mayberry, you’re too young to be reading this, so get out.

Since it was such a warm, beautiful day, we figured we would find another place with outdoor seating. We scoured the entire town, which took ten minutes. We found an area where a dozen or so people (half the population of the town) were waiting in line to get into this one place. Turns out, it was another ice cream place. I guess with the one by the canal shut down, this one was picking up the slack. But there was nowhere to sit, and I was ready for a frap or a latte. We did find a coffee shop, but it was a misunderstanding on our part, it was an actual coffee shop, as in coffe beans, ground roast, etc.

We finally found this one place that had outdoor seating (they had put out some lawn chairs). There were only six, but two were actually vacant. So I rushed to secure our territory, while Jana went inside to get our refreshments. Turns out it was another ice cream shop. This town really does love ice cream! It just added to the Twilight Zone aura. And even more weird, the whole time we were there, we didn’t see a single person using an electronic device.

We sat outside, eating ice cream, right off their main square. We were pretty sure we were the only tourists there. A young mom walked by pushing a stroller and chatting with her friend. Nothing unusual about that. Except that she was barefooted <play the Twilight theme music in your head>.

6883C113-BFD2-4155-998A-F7F03C65164B

But the place really did do the trick for us. It displaced us from our hustle-bustle big city Stockholm mindsets and made us sit and relax in the warm sun enjoying each other’s company and some magical ice cream.

And then we were, that’s right: On the Road Again.

691D7C63-2C91-45A6-B1AC-344FFE42862C

Driving to Kalmar

They say it isn’t the destination, but the journey that is special. And this trip was no exception. We had traveled many times along the waterways marveling at the beautiful archipelago scenery from a boat or ship. But this trip showed us what was behind all that, what rural Sweden was really like. And it was spectacular.

Wide open highways, gorgeous backcountry homesteads, spawling green pastures. Well, see for yourself below, but please forgive the quality as they were snapped while flying down the highway:

EFFD27D2-CF39-43E5-AE88-5548048A12F5234A4EF2-4F7D-49BF-B928-2FE0406D7F9C22679EF4-530A-4B81-9DBD-DE9B91448E50

9E535DCB-9BA7-46F1-A05B-1D6AC0EC9B9C

And it literally just went on and on and on. One really nice thing was that, apparently, in Sweden they have some strict laws about keeping the landscape free of billboard clutter.

D26D7D5D-9762-41EB-ADE6-4152F76E5E4E

A note on driving in Sweden. We didn’t really see it as being that much different than what we were used to in the US. Most of the signs were intuitive, and of course everything is in the metric system. The roads were smoother than any I had ever seen in the US. No construction to speak of, and not a single pothole. And yes, that is a warning sign for a moose crossing!

There was one oddity, however. As we were driving, the car would occasionally make a beep, like a warning tone. We checked the gauges and lights, but everything looked good. I did have my phone BT’d to the car and was streaming music and navigation, so we figured it had something to do with that. On the trip back, it started doing it again. I started exploring the visual tools in the car itself and brought up the navigation map. There was a symbol of a camera pointed at a car. I looked out the window and, sure enough, there was an automated camera taking pictures of speeders. The car had been trying to warn us of this. I can only imagine how many times the cameras must have caught us speeding. Hopefully, we won’t get deported as a result!

Kalmar

Like most European cities, Kalmar has a long and violent past. This is especially true of the cities that were on the coast. Particularly in the 1600’s, Kalmar saw a lot of war and bloodshed. At the time, it was located very close to the Danish border. The area just south of Kalmar used to belong to the Danish, but it is part of Sweden today.

CD58AB79-85D6-48EF-AE69-C67B0EA25D52

See the model of the city, above, with the castle right on the water. This is a battle castle complete with moat, drawbridges, and cannons. It was under siege 22 times, but was never taken. Also note the walls encircling the entire city itself. The mark of a true war city. We all think of Sweden as a peaceful, neutral-ish country. Perhaps it was all the wars and violence from the past that made it that way.

But today, the town is bursting with charisma and elegance.

049FBEF5-B71E-4AC5-BBB7-5BCFD4741FB56871BF40-D454-4F86-A16C-F17E13DCD630

Stately European architecture that just takes your breath away.

A5EA1FD0-20F0-4E02-B43C-FA06BECF5C87

Here you can see part of the original wall that once circled the city. The tower looking over it all is more modern, but awe inspiring to behold.

Magnificent parks, bridges, canals, and tunnels. Great restaurants, bars, and cafes. What else could you ask for on a long weekend getaway?

Kalmar Castle

Definitely one of the better castles we have toured in Europe. You can see the effort they have put into keeping it in such great shape. It is integrated into the town’s landscape.

BD6D3C8A-00AC-489A-B35E-881587AE0699

See above, the approach to the castle from the town. Stunning. Note that you can see two of the short cannon towers. There are four total, one on each corner. Here’s a closer view of one of the towers:

ECF49C83-D63E-4EAE-914F-9745219DD01F

If those ducks think they’re gonna take the tower, they better think again! As I mentioned before, this castle had been under siege at least 22 times, but was never taken.

See below a view of the seaward defensive battery:

An all around fabulous castle. The interior was well done, too. Sorry I didn’t get any pictures of that. It was well presented and had lots of good information about all the rooms. Some of the ceiling work was still in its original form, but the pictures didn’t come out well (too dark).

The Island

If you recall, from the top of the article, the town is situated just west of a rather large island. There is a 6km (3.7mi) bridge that connects the mainland with the island. As you can well imagine, the island was ravaged and raided time after time during the wars. In fact, there are still remnants of old castles on the island dating back to the 300 A.D. Unbelievable!

AAD150ED-8168-4DEB-81C7-58D7179FB438E0C66654-2CDF-4719-B79F-FC7762A5910C

We did venture over to the island. It is covered with farms, pastures, and homesteads. And it’s incredibly beautiful!

See below, we even ventured off the beaten path a couple of times in our city slicker fancy Volvo wagon with dual exhausts!

 

4BFCBBDF-7DBE-4EE6-9B19-CBD74122F330

We stopped at one of the castle sites. Unfortunately, it had fallen to ruins. But not after hundreds of years of being the center of a war culture. It was built around 300 A.D. and was still in full operation as late as the 1200’s.

And that was really it. After touring around on the island, we returned to Stockholm. It was a great visit and a great town. Given enough time, we would gladly return to Kalmar and yes, even stopping again at Mayberry, EU.

 

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Why?

12068C11-8E95-492F-AA4C-B39277EE5039

This is one of those popular long weekend destinations from the Stockholm area. The nice thing is, you get on a cruise ship in Stockholm, cruise overnight, then wake up at your destination.

 

There are a couple of other popular locations for doing this:

  • Talllinn, Estonia – we did this one and it was spectacular! Unfortunately, this was before I became The Travelin’ Man. Which basically just means we have to do it again!
  • Helsinki, Finland – Very popular long weekend destination. Jana has been on this one and recommends it, so we will definitely do this one, probably this summer.

If your geography is a little rusty, check out the map below. I’ve drawn a line to show where we are, and I circled Tallinn and Helsinki for reference:

94610D1C-2355-4F8B-B4AE-DB07918437EF.jpeg

So from Stockholm, all these locations are a one night cruise each way. It is so nice doing the one night cruise. There is nothing to do but party and eat. It’s a great way to get you in the mood for your upcoming long weekend!

The Cruise to Riga

The cruise takes us out into the open Baltic via the all to familiar path through the Swedish archipelago we have taken many times before. But the big difference here is that now we get to see what it looks like with snow on the ground. Yes, I know technically it’s spring, but we’re still in winter mode out here. Anyway, the same path, but it looks totally different. Take a look at these pics:

IMG_9871

IMG_9874

IMG_9886

The ice was actually a bit of a problem. Beautiful to look at with a glass of wine in your hand. But we went through large patches of this overnight, while we were trying to sleep, and the ice grinding against the hull of the boat is quite loud.

IMG_9889

But even though the ice cost us a little shut eye, it was so beautiful to see. What a unique and rare experience.

The next morning, while eating breakfast by the window, it was actually snowing! First time I’ve ever been on a cruise ship while it was snowing.

Things we did in Riga

Riga is a town that has been tortured by history. I get it; lots of European cities have rough histories. But this one in particular has had it rougher than most. Hostile take over by the Christians in the medieval period, violent repression by the Soviet Union, then the Nazi occupation during World War II. The city was heavily bombed during this time. The Soviets eventually got the Nazis out, but then they decided to stay. More repression, more violence. Nearly 100 people had been secretly executed by the KGB after the war (the graves were found after they left), and thousands had been deported. In both cases, their families had never been notified, the victims simply disappeared. In 1991, Latvia (and Riga) once again regained their independence from the Soviet Union and has been free ever since.

Despite this painful and heartbreaking history, the city is a strong, resilient hub of culture. Great museums, bars, pubs, restaurants, and beautiful parks. But everywhere you go, you still hear the whispers of their past.

Old Town Walking Tour

We hired a private tour guide from Riga Old Town Tours. Surprisingly, they have a web site called rigaoldtowntours.com. Our guide was really nice and very professional. It was a two hour tour spanning nearly three miles of primarily, you guessed it, Riga old town.

Riga was heavily bombed during WWII by the Soviets in an attempt to dislodge the Nazis. Many of the buildings and churches seen throughout the city were rebuilt. Some of the squares you see in old town were not actually squares, but areas that got decimated during the bombings and were not rebuilt.

It is amazing how some of the things in the city somehow managed to avoid damage from the bombings. This statue, for example. It is 138 feet tall (42m).  This is the Freedom Monument and was erected in 1935 to commemorate Latvia soldiers lost in their previous war of independence (1918 – 1920). It survived the WWII bombings and subsequent Soviet occupation. The Soviets nearly demolished it several times, but each time, fate intervened and thwarted their efforts. The Soviets never knew the true meaning of the statue. But imagine how the people of the land felt for the nearly fifty years while the Soviets occupied the area. Imagine how they felt each time they saw this monument.

There is an entire museum dedicated to the occupation, but it was closed during the  time we were there.

BA63D86C-689D-48F0-979B-4F86279A9C58

Another interesting relic that survived it all. As you can see, the rest of the world has moved on, but this bar, appropriately named Medieval Bar, is determined to freeze itself in time. Can you believe it can entertain 150 guests!? That’s because it is primarily underground. The restaurant/bar is built where the old wine cellar used to be back in 1201!

Historic statues, artistic sculptures, and unforgettable art. So rich in history and culture that I could easily spend an entire week here exploring and learning.

The city is also adorned with many beautiful green areas and parks. While the frozen scenes above were beautiful in their own, wintery rights, I can only imagine how gorgeous this place is in the height of summer.

The KGB Building

I could easily write an entire article on this attraction. Notice that I didn’t call it a museum, because it’s not. It is the actual local headquarters for the KGB during the Soviet occupation. It is presented as-is, or should I say as-was, with few modifications from how it was discovered. The only changes they made were in the name of preservation.

This was a very dark era for Riga, and you take a small residue of that with you after touring this building. It is demoralizing and depressing. But it is a part of history that deserves to be remembered, lest it be forgotten and repeated. This is the building people were brought to once they were “identified”. Arrested is the wrong word there because no records were kept of the abduction and no family was notified.

They were brought here and exposed to various forms of interrogation and questioning. If the authorities didn’t hear what they wanted, it escalated to imprisonment and torture. If sufficient evidence was found that the person or persons were working against the Soviet Union, or they got the confession they wanted to hear, the victims were taken to the execution room and shot (the bullet holes are visible in the wall). If sufficient evidence was not found and they concluded that they would not be able to get a confession, then the subject or subjects were deported and never seen or heard from again.

On a side note; when the KGB vacated the building, the wall in the execution room with the bullet holes had been bricked up. The entire building was analyzed and the fake wall was discovered. At the behest of the government, the bricks were taken down and the wall was exposed.

What’s even sadder about this whole affair is that, unbeknownst to the citizens, all this was happening right in the KGB building, right in the center of town. They never knew, because no one ever escaped, and no one was ever released.

Accommodations

Jana always manages to find the absolute coziest little hotels and B&B’s, and this one is no exception. Located right next to the river, and convenient for walking everywhere we went.

It’s called ‘St. Peter’s Boutique Hotel’, and it’s located at ‘Peldu Street 23, Riga, LV-1050, Latvia’. You can get to their website by clicking here.

We were only here for one night, so we only got to experience one restaurant. We went to a place called Folkklubs Ala Pagrabs. Like many of the establishments here, it was down in the basement. Very cozy atmosphere! I was a bad Travelin’ Man cause I didn’t take any pictures. The food was delicious. I got a pork hock, which is a very popular dish here. It was splendid. It was really more of beer environment (over 50 to choose from), so don’t come here for the wine.

Modern Riga

Across the river Daugava was a thriving, bustling metropolitan Riga. We didn’t venture over on this trip, but there were tours available. We really want to come back here in the summer and see what it looks like with everything in bloom.

The End

That was pretty much it. We had a great time and will try to come back. One final note for those who do take the cruise over; this is a shipping town, meaning they make a living primarily from ship commerce on the river. If you are awake when the ship comes into town, you will see the complete shipping operation. It ain’t pretty. And it wasn’t meant to be. So take it for what it is and enjoy the rest of the city!

 

 

Romme Alpin Ski Park

Romme Alpin Ski Park

Why?

This trip is another leg of our campaign to get out and enjoy the Nordic winters. Recall that we were abandoning the warmth of the hearth and getting out to see why so many people actually prefer colder weather environments. We conquered snowmobiling, reindeer sleds, and horse drawn sleighs in The Great Arctic Adventure . So it only seemed natural to take on snow skiing next!

About the Park

A lot of people from Stockholm like going to the Romme Alpin park in the winter. So many, in fact, that there are packaged deals available, where you pay a single fee and you get:

  • Bus trip to and from Stockholm Central Station
  • Rental skis, boots, helmets, plus whatever else you need
  • All day ski pass for the lifts on all slopes

577E6FF0-1688-4276-9EC4-2E80E7B2FB08

We did the one day outing, where you go out and come back the same day. Our cost was 800 kr ($100) each, but the prices vary based on various factors, so be sure to check their web site. We were able to book our package from the web site. There are other packages available that are multi-days/weekends. There is a hotel at the park, so it is ultra convenient. There are three or four different restaurants that vary by price and food selections. There is also an indoor area with tables set up so that if you brought your own lunch, you would have a place to sit and eat. There are plenty of areas to store your things, like backpacks, shoes, etc. Essentially, these folks have thought of everything!

Transportation From Stockholm

As with most of our adventures from Stockholm, we began our journey on foot to the subway. For us, that’s about a five minute walk. We took the red line to central station. Once at central, go out and all the way up to the ground floor. There are actually signs for Romme Alpin, or ask an attendant for directions to the bus station if you get disoriented.

 

The morning buses leave at 6:30am, then another batch at 7am. Don’t be late! The bus ride itself was about two and a half hours. It was a standard, but comfortable bus, much like any tour bus. There was a bathroom on the bus as well.

Once you arrive, make special note of where your bus is parked, and what time it is going to leave. Ours left at 4:15pm. Be sure to allow thirty minutes or more for returning your equipment.

Let’s Ski!

BED10648-0C76-4DBC-A8F6-F9807C4BF5C7Not so fast! This was my very first time on snow skis! And Jana hadn’t been on them in a long time. So we booked private lessons. This is not part of the package deal and has to be booked and payed for separately from the Romme Alpin package deal. You will need to call the number listed on the web page to book your lesson.

Getting the lessons was a great idea! Our instructor, Maja, was so helpful. Once I got to where I was able to stand up and made it to the top of the bunny hill, she would ski in front of me, backwards. So she was able to talk to me the whole way down and even caught me and prevented me from falling several times. This really helped me get up to speed quickly.

There is a special break in the lines that allows people accompanied by an instructor to get right on the lift, so there is no waiting to try again. By the end of the two hour session, I was able to hold my own. I even went down the next hardest hill. I guess all told, I probably fell four or five times, but they were all low speed, so no harm was done. Jana only fell once (I think she did it just to make me feel better).

 

Was it fun? It was absolutely a great time! Am I hooked on it and can’t wait to do it again? Well… by the end of the day, I could get around okay, and yes I went down the next hardest hill a few times. I even got down it once or twice without falling! But I essentially spent the majority of the day worrying about keeping my balance, so I couldn’t completely relax. I am sure that once you get the hang of it, you love it. But I am going to have to reserve judgement until I have been a few more times and am able to relax and enjoy it a little more. We plan to go out at least one more time this winter.

 

The Great Arctic Adventure

The Great Arctic Adventure

But Why?

The winters in Stockholm, Sweden, are long and cold. Unbeknownst to a Travelin’ Man raised in the sweltering summers of the southern United States, a lot of people prefer an area with more cold than warm. They enjoy snow skiing, snow boarding, cross country skiing, snowmobiling, ice skating, bandy (like hockey but with a ball instead of a puck), and much more.

We are expats, and have lived in Stockholm for almost two years now. Last winter we buckled down and admired the snow from underneath our warm, cozy blankets. But this winter is different. This winter we decided to go out there and see what all the fuss is about!

Let’s Go!

As I mentioned, we live in Stockholm. And we don’t even have a car. The public transportation system in Stockholm is top-notch. Modern, efficient, and cheap. So we walked five minutes to the subway station. Since it hadn’t been able to get above freezing for a few days, there was still about two or three inches of old snow on the ground, which was a tad slippery.

7AC7A558-8B36-48EE-AE29-FCCA703D1842

We took the red line subway to central station, then hopped off and bought our tickets for the high-speed train. This train will whisk you from central station to the Arlanda airport in under twenty minutes (up to 45 min drive). From there, we hopped on our connecting flight to Helsinki. This was about a 45 minute flight. After a short lay-over, we boarded the plane destined for the Ivalo airport.

After about an hour and a half, our plane approached the frozen town of Ivalo, Finland. As we circled the airport, we could see what we were up against. It was like seeing a beautiful, frozen fantasy world. Thick forests of evergreen trees loaded with snow. While the color palate was simple, it was the presentation that blew me away. Bright white snow, tree branches loaded with powdery snow, silvery-grey frozen trunks, black shadows. The sky had distinctive layers of color. It was an odd bluish-grey that changed to an eggshell closer to the horizon.

Then I could see what I was sure was the airport, but where was the runway? You couldn’t even see it as it was covered in snow! And I’m not sure airport is the right term here. Air strip is more appropriate. See for yourself:

 

But here we are! After we got our luggage, we went out to the main area where there was a driver waiting for us. He would take us, plus about four others, to the resort. The roads, like the runway, are covered in snow. But the driver doesn’t seem to notice as we fly down the highway in the van like there was nothing to it.

E678EE93-547F-48C7-8DAB-ED213CA21EF6

I took this one (above) as we were zipping along in the van. There’s a lot of information in this picture. Firstly, it shows that we’re moving pretty fast. And the white space between here and the woods is the other lane, so you can see how snowy the road is. You can also see from this picture how desolate and beautiful the area is. I think we saw two other vehicles during the twenty-minute drive. I have never seen this much snow in my life. 

The Resort

So here we are, at the Kakslauttanen Resort near Laanila, Finland, in the Lapland district of Scandinavia. Wait… where? That’s right, we are about 200km inside the arctic circle. Wintertime high temperatures here typically vary from (Fahrenheit) 10 to -20 degrees. It snowed some while we were here, but there was already about two and a half feet of snow on the ground. Daytime highs hovered around a balmy 0 to 12 degrees, falling quickly after the sun sets. And, mind you, the sun rises at around 10am and sets before 3pm this time of year.

 

But I have to tell you, this place is an awesome experience. The resort is incredible, there are tons of great things to do, and the staff is extremely helpful and friendly. They treat you like a VIP. By the time you get to your igloo, you can tell this is one of those vacations that’s going to leave a lasting impression on your life. And you should check out their website, it has more details and some fantastic pictures. Check it out by clicking here.

9AFE3EAE-FAEB-4547-A686-D9E03E23D00F

We had booked all of our activities from the web, so when we checked in, they reviewed our itinerary with us. We got a map and directions on how to get to our igloo, then we loaded up our luggage on the “luggage sled” and off we went to our cozy igloo. As you can see, above, I got to do the uphills while Jana did the downhills. I could lie and say it was a five-mile trek through a raging blizzard. But in real life, it was a pleasant ten minute walk. It was snowing lightly, and there was no wind. While still completely covered with packed snow, the path had been recently plowed. Get off the path, sink in snow. More on that later.

Their big claim to fame here is the glass igloos. There are two different types of igloos. There is the stand-alone igloo, and there is the attached igloo. The stand-alone igloos are regular glass igloos. They are small but cozy and have a small bathroom but no shower (public shower building nearby). These are located in what they refer to as “the east village”.

The attached igloos are physically connected to a larger cabin and are a separate room inside the cabin. The cabins are set up for six people, so they are large, and they’re located in the “west village”. They have full bathrooms with shower, sauna, and a small kitchen.

The east and west villages are a good distance apart. You can only get from one to the other via a shuttle van, and it’s about a five-minute ride. Thus, each village has its own reception area and restaurant. We tried both sides and, from what we could tell, they both served the same food. The east side, the one with the small igloos, has a smaller, cozier restaurant since there are only 30 or 40 guests, compared to 70 or more on the west side. The west side restaurant isn’t as cozy, but it has more panache.

We stayed in the stand-alone (east village) for two nights, and the attached igloo (west side) for one night. I’ll detail each of them below.

The Stand-Alone Igloo (east side)

59E1CCBD-1159-49AA-820B-F84AD168DDA5

 

In a word: cozy! It almost felt like entering a little hobbit-house. And even with all that glass, they were warm and toasty on the inside. Come on in and have a look!

There are two twin beds, one on each side, that you can push together in the middle, and a bathroom. The bathroom is toilet and sink only, no shower. There is a building not far away that has public showers. It also has additional bathrooms. There’s also a sauna and, for the true Vikings, an outdoor dipping pool. Seriously.

9140918D-A3FF-4C73-AC85-568B0586E217

If you Look closely there, you will see that some snow has accumulated on the top glass sections. That’s because it was snowing at the time I took the pictures. When it’s not snowing, the snow on the glass melts away and you can see the sky above.

 

The beds recline, so you can comfortably lay and watch the stars above you and, if you’re lucky, you might even see the Northern Lights right from your bed!

The small igloo felt like a camping trip, you know, a little wild. Like a big, civilized tent protected from the frozen wonderland. This definitely wasn’t one of those leisurely sit around vacations, so we didn’t actually spend a lot of time in the igloo. We were either on an adventure, or in the restaurant/bar area. Which brings up the next subject….

East Side Restaurant/Bar

12D777A4-0235-481B-BA62-E8B586725DAD

I told you it was cozy! The service was top-notch, and the food was outstanding. It may be a rustic, cozy resort, but make no mistake, this is fine dining. Each dish was cooked to perfection, and eloquently presented.

Now, in case you haven’t ever been to Scandinavia, they have a lot of reindeer here. We actually saw some in the wild. And as you know, they’re great for pulling sleighs through the snow (the flying ones are further north). We actually did a reindeer sleigh ride while we were here. So why am I bringing this up in the section about the restaurant? Well, because they also like to eat reindeer. I have to admit that I have eaten them, too, even in Stockholm, and…. they taste better than beef steak! I’ve never been a big fan of venison. It has that wild taste that is actually not bad, it just takes some getting used to. I always thought reindeer would be like that, but it’s not. It just tastes like a more flavorful steak and, in most cases, is more tender than beef steak.

 

 

So, having said that, the reindeer steak here was exquisite. So tender and juicy, and cooked to perfection. It was served with a red wine sauce and tasted like heaven. It really was the best dish I had the whole time we were there. You cut it with a butter knife, perfectly pink on the inside, melts in your mouth. YUM!

I know, hard to hold a candle to a review like that, but the wild boar was also good in it’s own right. And the desert was very unique and tasty. Cloud berries on top of a custard-like pudding inside an edible pastry bowl. Delicious Nordic tart!

 

 

The bar is downstairs from the restaurant. While yes, it is a bit dated, it just adds to its charm. There was a good selection of wine and plenty of custom cocktails. They didn’t think it was cold enough to light the fire (far right-hand side of the pic), but happily did so at our request.

The West Side Igloo

Brace yourself… here it is:

1F09D6E4-E4F6-45D0-8D5A-B02799526D40

We stayed in this one for one night. As you can see, the igloo is literally attached to the cabin as an adjacent room. The log cabin architecture with the attached glass structure gives it a modern-primitive hybrid appeal.

4A5112AB-83FB-43A4-845F-94CF7C183F50

There is way more space than two people could use here. As I mentioned before, there isn’t a lot of downtime since you are pretty busy with all the activities.

 

 

But if you do have a little downtime, this is a great place to have it! Fireplace with rocking chair, comfy snuggle area, kitchen (with fridge), and yes, that’s a sauna in the bathroom! Now for all you city slickers out there (like us), there is one tiny catch. As with the small igloos, there is no TV, radio, or WiFi (there is WiFi in restaurants/bars). You come here to unplug and relax (so bring your WiFi hub).

 

Now I know it seems like I’m up-selling the attached igloo over the smaller stand-alone, but they are really just two different types of vacation. We actually did like staying in the small one every bit as much as the larger one. In fact, if we came back by ourselves, we would prefer the smaller one. However, if we had some friends come with us, staying in the cabin would be a total blast! Did you hear that part about having some friends come with us? Oh, and you have to make your reservations about six months in advance. So…. friends, let us know ASAP!

West Side Restaurant/Bar

 

As I alluded to earlier, the west side facilities are a little more upbeat, vs. the cozy, rustic appeal of the east side. They are also bigger and, at peak times, more crowded. The food is the same on both sides. For the dinner over here, we had beef steaks. They were cooked perfectly and served in a feisty pepper sauce. But as soon as I took that first bite, I realized how much tastier and juicy reindeer was over beef. Just sayin’.

D82A81B2-55BF-44E3-8B7B-6AF1FC5BCF22

The bar on this side maintained the igloo theme to perfection. There was also a regular bar if this one was full. Spectacular, eh? They’re also working on a tower that has, you guessed it, a glass igloo at the top. Unfortunately it wasn’t quite ready when we were there.

Snowmobiling Excursion

Everything we did here was first-rate fun. But I have to say the snowmobiling was my favorite. This was my first time on one, and it was a real blast. Very much like riding a motorcycle. This was a two-hour adventure. Next time we’ll opt for the four-hour deal.

 

B341E070-3976-45FB-B1F3-D25071095232

As you can see, above, we are pretty bundled up. I must say I always thought riding a snowmobile in 10 degree (Fahrenheit) weather would be cold. But with the gear, the windscreen on the snowmobile, and the fact that it had heated handles and heated foot holds, it wasn’t the slightest bit cold. In fact, as Jana demonstrates, you can even roll around in it! She said that the effort made her sweat a little.

 

7161AC7E-1D02-4283-A750-A3C45AA21630

After riding the trail through the breathtaking landscape for about an hour or so, we stopped for a snack. The guides provided ginger snap cookies and warm blueberry juice (very popular out here). Then we mounted up again and rode for another hour.

That was our morning run. We had another run that night, yeah pitch dark! The idea was to try and get a glimpse of the Northern Lights, but we weren’t able to catch them. But it was still a fun three hours of night riding! I actually got tossed on that ride. The trail got really bumpy, so I drifted over to the edge a little bit, trying to get away from the bumps. A little bit more, a little bit more, then sloosh, two and a half feet of unpacked snow! The machine literally just sank into it, then went on it’s side, and off I went! The helicopter ride to the hospital was actually kind of fun – haha, just kidding! The guide came over and together, we heaved the snowmobile back onto the trail and kept right on going!

Reindeer Sleigh

1A2FBCEC-C442-4123-96A1-8D5D63091A3B

This one requires a little backdrop detail. Our host, pictured here, was an authentic Sami. Sami are an indigenous people of Scandinavia. They inhabit the extreme northern regions of Scandanavia, extending into the far north-western reaches of Russia. They are similar to the American Indians in that they live off the land, and they put back more than they take. They were, and still are today, fisherman, hunters/trappers, sheep herders and, of course: reindeer herders. They are very good at these things as their people have been doing them for over 5,000 years. In fact, in some regions of the Nordic countries, Sami are the only ones permitted to herd reindeer.

So our reindeer sleigh activity was extra special since it was fully executed by our Sami guide. He lives in a remote area of the remote area we were in! In fact, some inhabitants of his small village did not even have electrical power until 1989. And in his own words, he does not live in the forest…. he is the forest. He hand crafted all of the harnesses and equipment used for our trip, and he owned and trained the reindeer.

 

On Vixen, on Dancer…. oh wait, ours was named Uril. Hmm, and the only red noses I saw were on people’s cold faces!

It was a great time. We plodded along at a decent pace. The thing about this was, it was not only taking us through some magnificent wintry forest land, but it was so calm, peaceful, and quiet. These next pictures are just too beautiful to put in a smaller arrangement, so bandwidth be damned, I’m going to give them to you raw and full-sized so you can really take them in. Note that the lighting here is just fascinating. These are completely untouched.

78356AC7-B57F-4940-8B89-FA278C0F28E5CEAA7353-5659-44E1-A05D-FFEC81B428DE5B0F1FF6-2A81-43E8-AA95-ED15288E4FF050E55B2F-61E3-462C-BB65-FCD5F9DE2C4B

I think that last one was Santa’s summer-house. After an hour or so, we returned to village. Our guide had a tepee all set up for us with coffee, tea, or hot chocolate, and a warm fire to help us thaw out.

 

He even sang us a song in his native language and told us some stories about his village and their customs. It was a special time that we will never forget.

The Horse Ride

02E0E494-8727-44C8-9CDC-B22E199BA812

This was another nighttime excursion with a side benefit of possibly seeing the Northern Lights. And darn it, they eluded us again. It started out nice and clear, but a few minutes into the ride, it clouded up and even snowed a little.

But even despite being thwarted by the Aurora Borealis again, it was a wonderful and romantic time clip-clopping along the snow packed trail.

9DED45A1-F08D-4026-A225-6B779DA00C4E

Unfortunately, once the clouds rolled in, it was pretty dark, so we didn’t get a lot of pictures after this one. I know we look insanely photo-chopped into this picture, but I swear we really were there. No really, we were there. The whole trip was real. Of course it was…. no way it was a fake trip!

Epilogue

All-in-all, this turned out to be the trip of a lifetime. You’re so remote and in such a different climate and environment that it almost felt like being on a different planet. And everywhere you look is like seeing a postcard because it is so beautiful. I know a lot of people are scared of the cold and the snow, and I used to be one of you! But with the right gear, it isn’t really that cold. There was only one time the entire trip I felt cold, and that was after the reindeer sleigh ride. My feet got really cold and took a while to thaw out.

We would love to return to this frozen dream world. And would especially like to come back with some of our friends and stay in the party cabin, er uh, the attached igloo. There are still a lot of other things that we didn’t squeeze in. Like the husky sled adventure, Santa’s village, and hey, we have to go back since we didn’t get to see the lights!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bordeaux Riverboat Cruise

Bordeaux Riverboat Cruise

This is last post for the 2017 Riverboat Cruise. This article summarizes our seven day adventure spanning across the beautiful and historic French appellation of Bordeaux. We traveled by ship, hikes, bikes, and buses to get you this coverage! I also gave more detail here about the ship we were on and our accommodations. For those of you who follow jcmarxblog.com, you already got the daily articles, which are also in this summary, but you didn’t see the info about the boat, which is at the top of the article that follows.

For each day detailed below, some of them may be in the form of a link if that particular day had its own separate article. In those cases, just click the links and they will open on a separate page. Those can also be accessed from the buttons on the main page. Just click on Destinations then select France and you will see the areas under there.

Why a Riverboat Cruise

We just love riverboat cruises. They typically have around 100 passengers. The boats have a main lounge, and two restaurants. This is vastly different than a regular commercial cruise, where you might have 1,000, even up to 5,000 people or more. On a riverboat cruise, there are no lines for drinks or dinner, and the staff eventually learns your name. Riverboats have planned stops up and down their route along the river. Rivers were the life blood of any country back in the day. They provided a means to transport large quantities of goods long distances. As such, each city or town along a river usually has a story to tell. In Europe, those stores often go as far back as 60 or 100 BC. Riverboat cruises have planned daily stops at these historic gems. Activities include walking tours with local tour guides, bicycle tours along the countryside, or dinners and wine tastings inside local castles. And the nice thing is, after a day of adventuring, you get back on the boat and continue drifting down the river.

IMG_8930

Our cruise was along the two rivers that feed the wine vineyards of a region called Bordeaux, which is also the name of a famous city there. We spent several days after the cruise in the city of Bordeaux. The area of Bordeaux has been producing wines for over 2,000 years, and it occupies around 300,000 acres with 6,500 vineyards.

What is a Riverboat

We arrived in Bordeaux and boarded our riverboat around lunchtime on November 16, 2017. And as you can see in the picture below, riverboats are….oh wait a second, sorry wrong picture!

IMG_9121

Ahh, here we go! Riverboats are long and short. They have to be short in order to get under some of the more low hanging bridges. They also have to be narrow enough to go through the river locks.

But the first picture, with the sunken ship, is also interesting. This is one left over from WWII that never got removed. The Germans did this all across the river, in addition to leaving sea mines as they left the area. And it was effective, it took two years to make the waterway safe again. Soooo much history here!

IMG_9125

Not all of them are exactly the same, but they tend to have the lounge in the front of the boat. This affords the premium view while enjoying a beverage in the lounge, and they usually have an outdoor sitting area on the front so you can feel the wind in your face as you cruise!

The main restaurant is usually just underneath the lounge and most all of the tables have a view with a window. Nothing like eating breakfast while seeing the beautiful countryside scroll by your window.

 

IMG_8935

They also have another restaurant in the rear of the ship. This one typically specializes in the local cuisine and is a little more fancy. And of course, on the top is the sun deck. It has a hot tub, small putting green, and a walking trail around the outer rim. Plus lots of places to lounge both in the direct sun, and underneath a cover if you prefer.

 

 

While there are a few VIP staterooms, the majority of the rooms are all the same size. Each has a queen sized bed, or double twins, a bathroom with shower, and a small desk to work on. We also have a sliding glass door that functions as a giant window that we can either look out of, or open. This room had an extra benefit I had never seen, which was an Apple monitor used as a TV, but also with keyboard and mouse to surf the internet if you wanted. Yes, of course, they are all connected to the internet. You have wifi access everywhere on the boat. Another feature here I had never seen was that you could bring up the bow cam on your in-room monitor – how cool!

Day One – Arrival and Bordeaux Lite

 

After our arrival, we had a light lunch, then left the boat to just do a preliminary recon of the town of Bordeaux. We hit the jackpot on weather for this time of year. While back home, in Stockholm, there was a light dusting of snow already, here it is bright and sunny with highs in the low 60s.

As I mentioned earlier, we spent two days here after the cruise, so we will be discussing the city of Bordeaux in a separate article.

Day Two – Cadillac, Chateau de Rayne, and Roqueataillade Castle

img_8960

We did a early morning walking tour of the town of Cadillac. It is a very quaint, very medieval town. They have done a great job preserving as much of the architecture as possible. There is also a cool castle in the middle of of the town. I did do a full write-up of the town and the castle, so be sure to click here to go see that.

Chateau de Rayne

 

After the morning hike, we came back to the boat and had brunch, then piled in the bus for a short ride out to Chateau de Rayne. Great 17th century vineyard located in the Sauternes appellation of Bordeaux. This is considered “Grand Cru”, which means it is the pricier stuff that will probably never make it to our table back home, but we thoroughly enjoyed the tour and the tasting. They specialize in white wines, utilizing mostly Semillion and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. This ends up as a smooth, white wine that is not as bright as a majority Sauvignon Blanc wine would be.

Roqueataillade Castle

 

Spectacular classic war castle from the 12th century. It has remained in the same family since 1306, and they still live there today. It has a dry moat, and a two layered defense. It went through a major upgrade in 1860 to modernize it and it make more inhabitable during peacetime. This was a ten year construction effort and is known the world over among castle connoisseurs. There is also a perfectly preserved chapel on the grounds.

And the car, I have no idea what it is, but it looks really old. Inspecting it up close, it appears to be still in use!

Day Three – Pauillac Township and Chateau de Gruaud Larose

 

Started the day with a five mile walk. This included a tour of the very historic and cozy town of Pauillac, then out into the vineyards. These vineyards were literally out in the countryside of southern France. There was nothing pretentious or showy about them, they were just there. This is where they have always been for nearly 2000 years. But it is this lack of showmanship that makes them so appealing.

 

You feel this history as you walk through the area. These are vineyards that have been handed down from one generation to another, and whose roots and even dirt have countless centuries of producing the same quality and type of wine throughout history.

Chateau de Rayne

 

This vineyard is a shining example of continuous improvement. While these vineyards are extraordinary historic, they continue to reinvent themselves with the latest technology and customer facing presentations. This is outrageously expensive, but trust me, the profits are well worth the efforts. A vineyard like this produces some of the best quality wines at prices the average person can only dream about, and they will produce over 300,000 bottles per year (at premium prices).

IMG_9048

Check out this tower. It was built a couple of years ago. It allows the customers to go up six stories high and observe the beautiful grounds surrounding the chateau.

 

When we got to the top, they press a button and the walls fold out, affording us a spectacular view of their vineyard. This is above and beyond and sets the pace for their local competition.

Day Four – Blaye to Bourg

IMG_9076

The Citadel of Blaye

Easily one of the most historically interesting places we visited the entire trip! A UNESCO historic site, it was designed by the famous military architect, Vauban, and built to his specifications under the guidance of King Louis XIV in 1685. The idea was to seal off the Gironde river, thus indirectly protecting the city of Bordeaux from (primarily English) invasion. This was accomplished as the stronghold was so fortified, and so intimidating in the completeness of its design that it was never approached by the enemy during that time.

 

As you can see it is a sprawling endeavor, occupying over 95 acres. And the defensive goals were not only for the river, but also to protect invasion by land. Inside its walls was a complete, self sustaining village capable of housing up to 900 soldiers.

 

The site has been strategically important as far back as the Romans. To expedite construction time, Vauban´s design incorporated, rather then demolished, the presence of an existing 12th century castle.

There were even secret tunnels built into the design that would allow troops to reach fallback positions very quickly. Part of our tour included exploration of some of these tunnels.

Believe me, I could go on and on about this place and even break the internet by posting a flood of pictures. If you are ever in this region of the world, be sure to get a guided tour of this incredible military masterpiece.

Bicycle ride from Blaye to Bourg

 

 

This was a pretty intense ride. While only 18km (11mi), it was through some of the more hilly areas of the coast. And it also required a commitment; once we left on the bikes, the boat also departed! So there was no turning back. It was interesting because as we reached the top of one of the biggest hills, we were just able to see the boat cruising along the river below us. I hate that I wasn’t able to get a pic of that, but we didn’t really make any stops for the duration of the trip.

 

 

We got back to the boat just in time for lunch, and boy were we hungry after a ride like that! Jana was, apparently more hungry than me; you won’t find any frog legs on my plate! And the look on her face, well, she just doesn’t look that enthused about them. She does claim, however, that they were delicious; we’ll just have to take your word for that one!

IMG_9130

After that, we went in town for a wine festival. It was in a facility overlooking the river. If you look through my glass, you can make out our boat down there docked on the river.

 

And fortunately, I will not be running for any political office, so I don’t have to worry about this picture coming back to haunt me! But seriously, it was a great time. They had the cutest little French band you ever saw. There was wine, music, and dancing!

Back down the hill for another great dinner on the boat, and another magical day comes to an end. Hard to believe that was all just one day!

Day Five – Bike Ride to Saint Emilion

IMG_9185

Day Five – Saint Emilin. This is a beautiful medieval town about thirty minutes outside of Bordeaux proper. It was the fifth day of our cruise, and we rode our bicycles out here from the boat, which was docked in Libourne. It took us about two hours, stopping for photos and historic landmarks, etc. I documented this adventure in its own article, so click here to get the full story.

Day Six – Fronsac

Up and out early today. After a quick breakfast, we took the bus and headed out into the Fronsac appellation. This is an area northwest of Libourne and is known more for red wines. Being a right bank appellation, it uses a majority of the lighter and fruitier merlot category.

Chateau Boutinet

This is a privately owned vineyard, meaning it is not in compliance with the strict French regulations known as AOC, rather, they are experimenting and sort of going their own way. That means you will never see this wine in your local store, nor will it ever be exported. This is how wineries begin. This one is run by a husband and wife team. The wife, Nathalie, walked us around the gorgeous property.

IMG_9196

Note that there is a medieval castle on the property. Unfortunately, it is in pretty bad shape. Not from wars, but from time. They are slowly working to restore it, but it is a time consuming and expensive endeavor. Their goal is convert the castle into a Bed & Breakfast.

 

The fog this day was a dense shroud, inhibiting our sight, but at the same time, was also kind of romantic. After a fascinating and educational tour of the grounds, we were honored with a tasting of wine, which was of course from their own sweat and blood. It was quite good, we even bought a bottle to take back to the boat!

Chateau Rivière

 

This is the only pool I saw the entire time we were in France. This was an amazing castle surrounded by vineyards and beautiful gardens. The views are spectacular. Too bad we didn’t bring our bathing suits…. maybe next time.

 

And talk about history? Oh yeah. There are 25km of underground caves that were originally created through mining shale. There is a secret entrance that the French resistance used right under the noses of the Germans who had occupied the castle during the war. The small carvings you see in the stone there were done by the rebels as a means of secret communications.

 

There was even an underground spring running through the caves. See the rut carved into the floor – pure, clear spring water flowing through there. There were sitting areas and meetings rooms scattered throughout the underground labyrinth, all carved From the shale.

IMG_9221

Yup, that says gallon, yup as in US gallon! You would be very hard pressed to find any other French wine bottled in a gallon jug. The guy that owned the place back in the 70s wanted to be able to impress his American friends when they came to visit, so he always kept some around.

I was just fascinated with this place. We didn’t stay long enough to see the entire sprawling estate so will come back here if we are ever in this area of the world again.

This, combined with the private tour given by the owners of the other vineyard we did today just made for a great day.

IMG_9271

Day seven – Cognac. It’s amazing how many people associate the Cognac with the brandy, without even realizing it is actually a city in France, and a wine appellation as well. I’m not saying I was one of them, just pointing that out… Anyway, Cognac is covered in its own separate article, so please click here to review that on a separate page.

Sadly, that was the last day!! It was an amazing adventure that I would give a five star rating to anyone who either has an interest in seeing southern France, or who is interested in learning about French wines. Or both! Thanks for reading along and for all your continued support!

Cognac, France

Cognac, France

Sadly, this was the last day of the cruise. 😦 It has been the most amazing and certainly in the top five of all of our travels! But it’s not over yet – Cognac was a unique and fascinating city! This was a full day excursion. Our boat was docked back at its starting point in Bordeaux. It took around an hour an a half to get to Cognac by bus from Bordeaux, but as you can imagine, it was a scenic ride. There may have been a small nap or two along the way…

Cognac, the Brandy

You think wine is complicated? Hmph. It takes seven liters of wine to make one liter of cognac. Cognac is in the brandy family. The word brandy comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, which translates to burnt wine. Cognac is made by heating up the wine, then capturing the vapors and converting them back into liquid. As part of this process, the liquid is separated into three different types. One of those parts is collected over several iterations, then it is run through the process in place of the wine. It gets stored in special containers, eventually making it into oak barrels. Then later, based on the master brewers sampling, it may or may not be transferred to different barrels, and/or moved to different locations, or it may be blended with another batch. It is mind boggling how complex the whole process is.

IMG_9291

Once completed, it can be stored indefinitely without impacting the flavor or quality. We saw some racks, shown above, that had been stored since 1815! Might be a tad expensive, I’m thinking.

IMG_9271

Speaking of expensive, here’s a bottle of Baron Otard premium. Note the price. People pay untold fortunes just to get an empty crystal deancter that it was stored in. Think about how rare they would be; when you pay almost 4,000€ for a bottle of cognac, how long do you think it would last? Exactly, that’s why finding empty ones is a challenge!

Chateau de Cognac

We arrived at the castle of Chateau de Cognac at 11am. The original castle was built way back in the year 950 in response to Viking raids in the area. Funny to hear this sort of history after living in the land of the Vikings for a year and a half!

IMG_9244

Fast forward another five hundred or so years to 1494, Francis I was born in this very castle. In fact, see the window on the bottom right? He was born in that room. But his father wasn’t king, so Francis wasn’t born a prince or a king, he had to work his way to it. He became the king of France in 1515, and reigned until his death in 1547.

King Francis I was a battle king, and rode many times into the bloody battles with his men. One of his more famous conquests was the taking of Milan. He was even captured once by the enemy.

IMG_9250

King Francis I was close friends with Leonardo da Vinci. Leonardo came to settle in France in his later years. In addition to being a painter, he also had a great passion for architecture. The room shown above was designed and constructed by Leonardo. Isn’t it amazing that things like this are just sitting out there? And, in this case, in such great condition and open to the public.

IMG_9245

And although it’s hard to tell from this picture, it was inside a chapel that is inside the castle. This is the exact spot where Richard the Lionheart married off his son, Philipp.

The castle took on several different owners over the centuries, including King Charles X. At one point, in 1795, it fell into the hands of the government and was targeted for destruction. Two local wine growers recognized the historic value of the property and purchased it. The two gentleman were monsieurs Otard and Dupuy. And ever since then, its deep, dark cellars have been used to store and age some of the worlds finest cognac.

Today, it is still used to age Baron Otard cognac. Rows upon rows of old and new barrels. And the storefront is located here, as well. There is an elegant sales floor where they have their product displayed.

IMG_9292

After touring the castle, we walked across town towards the Hennessy showroom. We toured their cellars as well and had a great tasting, shown above. Classy, huh? If you are even a remote fan of cognac, then you have had Hennessy before. They are world renowned. They only keep 1% of their product for sale in France, the rest is exported all over the world.

We did get spend some time strolling through the small, cozy town that is Cognac. As you can imagine, it is a town rich in European history and culture. It has a very small town feel to it. They have tried as much as possible to preserve as many of the old buildings as they could.

And, sadly, this concludes our cruise. I hope you have enjoyed the trip, although probably not as much as we did! But I thank you for following along with us and for your continued support – thank you!

 

Saint Emilion Bike Tour

IMG_9143

Definitely one of our more laid back days. And we deserved it! Slept in a little, and had a late breakfast. It was nice to slow down a little bit. I know, poor me, wha, wha, wha. Anyhow, we were docked at Libourne, France, which is where we departed from on our bicycles at around 1pm.

What’s nice about bike tours is that you can penetrate deep into the mainland, but you get a view of an area that other tourists just don’t get to see from a car or a bus. We really hit the back roads on this one, and even got to eat some grapes right off the vine. I had always thought wine producing grapes didn’t taste very well, but these were actually juicy and delicious. Think about what just happened for a second. A bright, sunny day, riding a bicycle on the bumpy back roads of France, stopping to eat some freshly picked grapes right off the vine! Wow.

Along the way, we would stop so that our guide could give us information about significant landmarks or historical sites. Plus I think she maybe wanted to give us a rest. 🙂 This particular site is of the ancient trenches built by the Romans, probably around 50 B.C. This is the technology they used for controlling the vines and irrigation to produce grapes they used for making wine. And here it is, just sitting out here in the middle of this vineyard, essentially the middle of nowhere. You would never see things like this without a local professional guide.

We worked our way up some fairly hilly terrain (phew, glad I don’t smoke anymore) to the magnificent medieval town of St. Emilion.  This is the same name of the famous wine appellation that you will see on some french wine. Don’t worry, I’ll be giving a wine lesson later.

Saint Emilion was an 8th century monk who left Brittany to seek refuge in the caves of Ascum bas. He wasn’t actually a saint then, haha. His goal was to become a hermit, but he managed to develop something of a following over the years. He and his fellow monks worked the lands to produce wine, utilizing the caves beneath the city as cellars. He became very well known in the area, with his fame extending beyond his lifespan. In the 9th century, the town of Ascum bas was changed to Saint-Emilion.

This is one of those towns you definitely want to spend some time wandering around and enjoying the local shops. Some of the local wineries are represented right here in town, so you can even go to a tasting or two if you wanted. Beware, it is a tad hilly in some places, and others are near 45 degrees angled! We really enjoyed this town. There is a lot to do and see, so we would very much like to come back here again.

From there we were bussed back to our beloved ship, the Amadolce and once again enjoyed a lovely dinner and a relaxing evening aboard the boat. On some evenings, we had a lecture from an onboard wine expert, which was very educational and informative. This was, of course, accompanied by a tasting.

Cadillac, France

So you learn that France has a town named Cadillac. Should you have already known this? Do you know the relationship between the French city and the famous car company in Detroit? I sure didn’t. I will tell you, there is actually a relationship, but I’m not going to tell you what it is – ok maybe I will tell you at the end of this article.


Just an absolutely lovely medieval town right off the Garonne river near Bordeaux. Like many towns in this area, it has a good and bad history with the river. Prior to having modern river locks and dams, the towns along the Garonne would occasionally be inundated with the angry backwash and literally flood. At certain times in history, flood levels in the city were as high as 12 meters – that’s nearly 40 feet! But this is the same river that helps water some of the oldest vineyards in the world, and was the lifeline for supplies and commerce for the people living here. Today’s locks and dams keep the river at bay, for the most part, although some minor flooding does still happen on occasion.


As much as possible, the town has preserved the structures from the days of yore, some dating back to the 12th century. Much of the town is built around the 17th century castle. It was a party castle, meaning the famous duke that built it used it to entertain other aristocrats and politicians. It boasted 60 bedrooms, over 20 fireplaces, and had walls covered in gold and silk tapestries. Old Duke Epernon fell from the kings favor and died in disgrace. His son took over the castle and continued construction and decoration efforts. It eventually came to be plundered during the French revolution. The state took it over in 1818 and converted it into a women’s prison! This remained until around 1952, when it was converted into a tourist attraction. Just love the european history!

And that’s it. Oh wait, yes, the name Cadillac. The name of the French town was adopted by Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac, the founder of Detroit and Governor of Louisiana, on his arrival to what is now the United States. The Cadillac division of General Motors, and Cadillac, Michigan are named after him. Pretty interesting!


Uppsala, Sweden

Uppsala, Sweden

Overview (stats courtesy Wikipedia):
Population: 149,245 (2015)
Density: 3,100/km2 (7,900/sq mi)
Elevation: 15 m (49 ft)
Weather: Cold winters, mild summers
Warm season: May – Sep
Language: Swedish, English is very common
Currency: Even though Sweden is in the EU, they do not accept the euro or any currency other than the Swedish crown (SEK).

Founded in the 12th century, Uppsala is 71 km (44 mi) north of Stockholm. Some scenes from The Girl With the Dragon Tatto were filmed here, and it is the hometown of the fictitious character Christine Daaè In Phantom of the Opera. There was also an episode of Vikings that took pace here.

But its biggest claim to fame is its impact on religion, especially during the 13th and 14th centuries, but still largely influential even today. It is also the locale where the famous Queen Kristina, daughter of Gustavus the Great, abdicated the throne in 1654.

The city is also home to the Uppsala Cathedral, where Gustavus Vasa is buried. And it is home to the oldest university in Scandinavia, built in 1477. There is a ton of additional history and sites here, so you can easily spend a day or two taking it all in.

Logistics

We took the train from Stockholm central station. You don’t need an exact time to rush to; there is a train that leaves about every 20 minutes. You do have to commit to a time when you buy your ticket.

The train cost was 190 SEK ($30) for both of us, one way. Different trains will make different stops and so travel time will vary. Ours got us to Uppsala in about 40 minutes.

It was a very grey, overcast day, so sorry if the pictures are a bit dreary.

The Castle and Botanical Gardens

IMG_8764

It´s a working castle and only has tours in the summertime, but the beautiful castle grounds and botanical gardens are open year round.

The gardens began construction under the rule of Queen Kristina (that’s not her in the pic, that’s my lovely wife Jana), but were turned over to the University in 1644 by King Gustav III as a botanical garden.

IMG_8773

While this is not the University itself, it is affiliated with the university. I just included it here because of the fantastic Scandanavian architecture (above).

The Uppsala Cathedral is much older than it looks. It was built (inaugurated) in 1435 and is one of the largest in northern Europe, with towers reaching 118.70 metres (389.4 ft). And as I mentioned, the crypt of Gustav Vasa is in this cathedral. He is considered the  Father of Sweden since it was he who raised the army that retaliated against and defeated King Christian for the infamous blood square. That battle was the catalyst that permanently separated Sweden from Denmark.

After the church, we walked around town some more. It´s a small and cozy town, easy to move around in and not over run by tourists (like us, haha).

Then we ended up at the nicest little Italian restaurant called Villa Romana. I had the pepper steak, and Jana had pasta with beef. Both were delicious! Great food and a good wine selection, highly recommend.

And that’s about it. We walked back to central station and took the train home. It was also around 40 minutes to get back. We want to go back in the summer to see the botanical garden in all of its beauty, but there is also a viking burial mound that we didn’t get a chance to see, so we will be back!

Copenhagen

Copenhagen

 

Copenhagen, Denmark
(stats courtesy Wikipedia 2017 data sample):
Pop City Proper: 1,295,686
Metro Pop: 2,036,717
Municipality: 86.39 km2 (33.36 sq mi)
Elevation: 1 m (3 ft) to 91 m (299 ft)
Weather: Cold winters, mild summers
Warm Season: Jun – Aug
Currency: Danish Kroner (DKK or kr), credit card friendly
Language: Danish, but good English in most areas

This article documents our 2017 (second) trip to Copenhagen. Our very good friend, Melissa, was visiting from the US and we all went together on this trip. We were there a total of three nights and four days. The weather was warm but cloudy most of the time, and we got caught in the rain a couple of times. But when you’re with people you love, a little rain doesn’t stand a chance of even putting a dent in your fun!

The journal below is organized by day, with the events of that day underneath. This is more of a diary format, not as formal as my write ups. Click on the underlined links to get the full details of that discussion. It will open the event in a separate page so that the journal will remain open for you and you can come right back to where you left off. All of the restaurants will be reviewed on a separate page, and the link for that, along with a quick review of the hotel are at the bottom of this article.

Day One

Central Station always feels like crazy hustle bustle to me. Everybody’s rushing around, most pulling luggage behind them, all going in different directions but all seemingly focused on where they’re headed. Shops and stores, restaurants, cafes and bars all around, all crowded. It’s like seeing the inside of a giant human anthill.

Jana has been here so many times she could navigate it with her eyes closed. Melissa and I were like country comes to town pacing behind a very confident Jana. Up, down, around, and eventually outside and down a long exterior walkway next to the rails. Since we arrived at central by subway, we couldn’t completely trust it being on time, especially with the summer schedule still in play, so we arrived pretty early. Nothing to do now but dig in and wait. At least it was a nice sunny day.

IMG_8406

Click here to come ride the train with me! This is my second time doing this. I just love a long train ride. And southern Sweden, in particular, has some of the most gorgeous countryside in Europe. We arrived at Copenhagen Central Station about five and a half hours later, a half hour later than expected.

We checked in at the Manon Les Suites hotel (see review of hotel at bottom of article). We were pleasantly surprised at the size of the room and overall swank factor of the hotel.

IMG_8434

After we checked in, we went over to the Tivoli Gardens. Click here to see the full write up of this magnificent park. We walked around the park and gardens for a bit. It was a pretty crowded, as you might expect of an amusement park on a warm summer evening, but the layout was done so well that you just didn’t feel cramped. Every now and then, this formal marching band would just appear on one of the main paths, then disappear after a brief show. Dreamy.

Once we had walked up a good appetite, we went to the Nimb Restaurant and had some drinks and a savory dinner on their private terrace as we watched the people go by.

Day Two

We went on the The Culinary Experience food tour. This was a four hour, four kilometer (2.5 mi) walking food tour.

It was delicious, even though the rain tried but failed to ruin it. We got to see some some very nice sights that most tourists never see, and our guide gave us a great historical perspective of the areas we went through and even how the food itself changed over time. It was very nice.

We did the one hour canal tour from Nyhavn. It was a guided tour that went up the main canal and around some of the smaller ones. It was fun and educational, plus we got some great pictures from the water.

After leaving a wine bar, we got ambushed by a really bad thundershower. We were all soaking wet, even though we had umbrellas. Returned to the hotel and ordered pizza delivery!

Day 3

Lounged around a bit in the morning, then went and had a great hamburger at Halifax Burger Restaurant for lunch. This is one of the places I formally reviewed on the restaurant list. You must go here if you’re in Copenhagen!

IMG_8545

We did the Urban Tour, which is a 3 hour 15 kilometer (9.3mi) bicycle tour. There were frequent stops for our guide to tell us the historical perspective of things around us. The clouds built up during the tour – did we make it without getting drenched? Click here to find out.

After the bike tour, we walked around some, did some more window shopping, then had dinner at Peder Oxe. Cool name for a restaurant, eh? It was a pretty unique place. Check out the review of it at the end of this article.

 

Day 4

Once we checked out of our hotel, we left our bags with the front desk and took the metro down to the National Aquarium of Denmark (Den Blå Planet). Very well done aquarium and media presentations.

IMG_8608

Click here to check it out. Also got lunch at the cafe, which wasn’t half bad, and was also included in the restaurant reviews.

Well, that’s it. We went back to the hotel, got our luggage, and walked over to the train station. A great visit with our friend Melissa. The rain tried to douse our fun a couple of times, but we didn’t let it ruin our good time!


Accommodations

Manon Les Suites – Good location. It was a 15 minute walk from the train, and we easily walked to all of our attractions.

Nice hotel suite. Around $400/night. Sounds pricey, but it really was a suite and it was very roomy for three guests. A private master suite with full bath. Comfy day bed in living room and half bathroom. Could even sleep another on sofa in living room. Refrigerator and sink. Full bath has no shower door, causing bathroom floor to essentially flood. Not a malfunction, typical European shower design.

IMG_8577

Awesome and unique pool, which we ooo’d and ahhh’d over but did not swim in, this time…

Restaurants

Click here to see the full reviews of all the restaurants we went to, complete with pictures, addresses, and The Travelin’ Man’s recommendations.