Bruges

Beautiful old buildings on a Bruges canal.

Beautiful old buildings on a Bruges canal.

We had the great fortune to visit Bruges, Belgium. Bruges is a remarkably intact medieval city, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and bustling with tourists all year long. Friends we made in Dominica, Peter and Mieke, generously offered to put us up at their house just outside of Bruges city limits. Bruges is a fantastic city and it was that much better to get insight and recommendations from our hosts. We stayed in their comfortable modern-feeling 20-year old house, with a beautiful garden that Mieke created, four cats (three of which are rescue cats), and their large dog named Bokito, after a notorious gorilla that escaped from a nearby zoo. Bokito, the dog, is intelligent, graceful, and well trained.

The Belfort. We climbed 366 steps to the viewing area which is in the openings above the clock face.

The Belfort. We climbed 366 steps to the viewing area which is in the openings above the clock face.

Peter and Mieke took time off work in order to show us around. The afternoon we arrived, Peter took us on introductory tour around Bruges. He works in the city center and showed us how town was laid out, the main sites, and the loveliest spots in a picturesque city. Peter pointed out that many of the old elaborate buildings are not churches. They were built for government or trade and are still used that way today. One example is the Belfort, a tower built as a trade center, now a museum, on the edge of the traditional market square. Together we climbed 366 stairs to the top to view of the city and the 47-bell carillon that plays every 15 minutes (see pictures of it here). The Belfort is about 800 years old and is leaning very slightly to one side because the foundation is built upon cowhides!

On the Markt Square, this row of cafes was perpetually busy.

On the Markt Square, this row of cafes was perpetually busy.

In the city center, we spent another afternoon in the Groening Museum, which is renowned for their collection of “Dutch Primitives.” This is a group of painters who mastered oil painting, resulting in tremendous detail and realistic textures. Their paintings look 3-D and make you want to touch them. Such virtuosity seemed an odd use of the word “primitive.”

Bokito, our hosts' dog

Bokito, our hosts’ dog

On two mornings, we joined the dog Bokito on his morning walk. Peter led the way for miles on an extensive system of public trails (some of which are shared with bicycles and others for pedestrians only). We passed through public and private ownership, woods and agriculture. It was a great tour of small farms, cows, horses and sheep, corn and pasture. Wonderful to have such peace and quiet close to the city! In the remnant of the morning mist and heavy dew, all the plants sparkled adding a fairy-tale feel.

Damme, Belgium. Very sweet village near Bruges. Note how quickly the buildings dissolve into farm land.

Damme, Belgium. Very sweet village near Bruges. Note how quickly the buildings dissolve into farm land.

Peter and Mieke also took us on a countryside car tour one afternoon to visit several nearby towns and the coast. We drove along one of the many canals in the area lined with poplar trees all leaning in one direction from the prevailing wind. The lovely small town of Damme has cobbled streets, a crumbling church, and a moat with remains of a defensive wall in the shape of a star. To see what the star looks like, click here to open Google maps view. We stuck our toes in the cool North Sea at Knokke, and had a traditional dinner of muscles at a restaurant back over the border in the Netherlands. The next day on borrowed bicycles, we made a smaller tour around Bruges. It was such a delight to ride on flat land almost entirely on cycle-specific paths away from car traffic. The paths are well-traveled by other cyclists.

Evening in Sluis, Netherlands. Similarly in Bruges, the old buildings are well lit at night.

Evening in Sluis, Netherlands. Similarly in Bruges, the old buildings are well lit at night.

You can see some more pictures of our time in Bruges here.

Our first view of the old center of Bruges was looking across a canal with many of swans.

Our first view of the old center of Bruges was looking across a canal with many of swans.

Peter and Megan walking into Begijnenhuisje. Like in Amsterdam, Bruges also has a community just for religious women but not as isolated as a convent.

Peter and Megan walking into Begijnenhuisje. Like in Amsterdam, Bruges also has a community just for religious women but not as isolated as a convent.

One of the beautiful spires in Bruges peaks over closer rooflines.

One of the beautiful spires in Bruges peaks over closer rooflines.

Many buildings have entrances on/off the canal like this one. Some also used wall ties to display the year they were constructed, 1608 for this building.

Many buildings have entrances on/off the canal like this one. Some also used wall ties to display the year they were constructed, 1608 for this building.

Peter and Megan walking down one of the old narrow lanes.

Peter and Megan walking down one of the old narrow lanes.

City Hall is an impressive building off a square in Bruges.

City Hall is an impressive building off a square in Bruges.

Busy street in Bruges. The 120,000 residents deal with over 3 million tourists each year.

Busy street in Bruges. The 120,000 residents deal with over 3 million tourists each year.

Some of the 47 bells that make up the carillon in the Belfort. Note all the wires that allow the bells to be played by a central keyboard.

Some of the 47 bells that make up the carillon in the Belfort. Note all the wires that allow the bells to be played by a central keyboard.

Carillon in the Belfort. See how the clapper has been pulled to the side and each bell has a couple of exterior hammers.

Carillon in the Belfort. See how the clapper has been pulled to the side and each bell has a couple of exterior hammers.

Detail of how the carillon is played. Sounds are produced either by a keyboard (shown as #1) or a large wheel similar to what you see in a music box (shown as #5).

Detail of how the carillon is played. Sounds are produced either by a keyboard (shown as #1) or a large wheel similar to what you see in a music box (shown as #5).

We biked by this in Bruges. The bridge lifts when the counterbalanced arms rock.

We biked by this in Bruges. The bridge lifts when the counterbalanced arms rock.

The rocking bridge. Note the rolling mechanism on the right side.

The rocking bridge. Note the rolling mechanism on the right side.

One of the medieval gates into Bruges. Note the pedestrian-only path on the left.

One of the medieval gates into Bruges. Note the pedestrian-only path on the left.

Us in a Bruges courtyard. Megan loved how colorful the bricks are: red, yellow, green, brown, white.

Us in a Bruges courtyard. Megan loved how colorful the bricks are: red, yellow, green, brown, white.

A quiet dead-end courtyard we stumbled into while exploring Bruges.

A quiet dead-end courtyard we stumbled into while exploring Bruges.

An example of the farmland around Bruges

An example of the farmland around Bruges

A canal with a path for bikes and pedestrians.

A canal with a path for bikes and pedestrians.

Mieke's, our hostess's, lovely garden.

Mieke’s, our hostess’s, lovely garden.

Old windmills dot the countryside. We didn't see any that are still in use for their original intent.

Old windmills dot the countryside. We didn’t see any that are still in use for their original intent.

Peter, Jim, and Mieke walking on the outskirts of Damme.

Peter, Jim, and Mieke walking on the outskirts of Damme.

View of one corner of the star-shaped moat around Damme, Belgium.

View of one corner of the star-shaped moat around Damme, Belgium.

Beach at Knokke, Belgium. Large tides and shallow slope make for very long beaches. The green line across the foreground is part of a sand stabilization system.

Beach at Knokke, Belgium. Large tides and shallow slope make for very long beaches. The green line across the foreground is part of a sand stabilization system.

A Dutch dike at the edge of the North Sea.

A Dutch dike at the edge of the North Sea.

The high-speed train that took us to Paris.

The high-speed train that took us to Paris.

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Amsterdam

A typical street scene: scooter passing bikes in the cycle lane, a miniature car parked in the bike parking, the rest of motor traffic in the middle, and pedestrians up against the buildings.

A typical street scene: scooter passing bikes in the cycle lane, a miniature car parked in the bike parking, the rest of motor traffic in the middle, and pedestrians up against the buildings.

We just finished a week in Amsterdam. It did not make a good first impression on either of us. Amsterdam has 800,000 inhabitants and appears very busy. Walking down the street felt like a challenging sport for which we were woefully out of shape. A typical main street has one lane each way for things like cars, trucks, and busses. In the middle, the trams run both directions, sometimes vehicles inexplicably drive on the tracks too. On each side is a cycle path that is full of bicycles and scooters and I mean full with exponentially more bikes than vehicles. Then there is the sidewalk, which is often narrow and broken up by lampposts, trees, front steps, benches and parked bicycles/scooters. What made us particularly uncomfortable was the scooters in the cycle lanes, passing bikes and pedestrians within inches at about 30 mph. The sidewalk seemed like it provided no relief and no escape. Did I mention there are a lot of bicycles? They say the city has 1,000,000 bikes which is 200,000 more than there are residents. After seeing thousands upon thousands parked, being ridden by wobbly tourists, or in shop windows for sale and rent, I believe it. We saw few helmets on bicyclists or scooter operators.

Begijnhof in Amsterdam. This is a community established for and by single women in the Middle Ages. They wanted to live a religious life in the world, less secluded than nuns, and with a community to care for each other. Today, all residents are still single women. It was a quiet oasis through a mostly hidden wooden door in the middle of the oldest part of the city.

Begijnhof in Amsterdam. This is a community established for and by single women in the Middle Ages. They wanted to live a religious life in the world, less secluded than nuns, and with a community to care for each other. Today, all residents are still single women. It was a quiet oasis through a mostly hidden wooden door in the middle of the oldest part of the city.

Fortunately, we learned how to go with the flow and to avoid main streets, which allowed us to begin to appreciate Amsterdam. By the time we left, we were happy to be there and liked the city. The chaos of the first day became more understandable. You have to value a place that lets bicycle riders be king. Beyond traffic, Amsterdam appears vibrant, diverse, and easy to get around. You commonly hear multiple languages spoken on the street and almost everyone speaks English. Our guide book said that Amsterdam has more English speakers than Los Angeles! Public transportation is extensive with trams, busses, subway, and trains. Boats cruise up and down the canals as well.

One of the many canals. Note the house boats on the left and the floating herb gardens on the right. We never saw anyone tending or harvesting the herbs but they were a common sight.

One of the many canals. Note the house boats on the left and the floating herb gardens on the right. We never saw anyone tending or harvesting the herbs but they were a common sight.

The city itself is very old, settled about 1200, and built on land recovered from wetlands. There are many canals and dykes built by hand with shovels and wheelbarrows. The land is flat, so a height difference of a foot makes quite a difference in how the water flows. There are reminders of the past everywhere. The house in which Anne Frank and her family hid is a museum. Plaques are common with stories of heroes, leaders, and events.

One of the many leaning houses, slowly settling back into the wetland. It is cheaper to remodel and level the interior floors than rebuild or try to fix the exterior problem.

One of the many leaning houses, slowly settling back into the wetland. It is cheaper to remodel and level the interior floors than rebuild or try to fix the exterior problem.

Houses are all narrow town homes because properties were taxed on the width of street frontage, so they built up and back while keeping a very narrow face. Because the front doors are so skinny, people cannot fit furniture through so each house has an extended beam with a pulley at the top. Furniture is brought up and through the windows! Many old houses are leaning and there are two types of leaners: intentional and unintentional. The intentional leaners come forward, towering over the street. Our walking tour guide said that they did this for several reasons: 1) they thought it looked pretty, 2) it gave a little more space on each floor, and 3) it helped protect the windows when moving in. The unintentional leaners are listing to one side or the other. This happens because Amsterdam is built on wetlands. Old houses were built on wooden poles that extended 12m into sand. Modern houses and repaired older homes have 30m concrete pillars under them, still only in sand. With the passage of time, the wood rots away and things shift.

Most commercial boats in Amsterdam are very long and thin, to fit in canals. The captain lives aboard in the back, often with family.

Most commercial boats in Amsterdam are very long and thin, to fit in canals. The captain lives aboard in the back, often with family.

Close-up of the back living area. He has a little crane to move his car and small motorboat on and off.

Close-up of the back living area. He has a little crane to move his car and small motorboat on and off.

Because of our interest in history, we signed up for a harbor cruise. We were the only passengers on a boat built for 150! The Amsterdam Harbor hasn’t been really active for a couple centuries, with most shipping going through Rotterdam. Nonetheless, we saw many long narrow motorized barges for long-distance canal shipping. Our captain explained that such a boat can take canals and rivers from Amsterdam all the way southeast into Turkey! These barge captains live aboard so barges have laundry hanging, dogs on the deck, a car and/or small boat craned onto the back. The most recent action around the harbor in the last decade is the creation of new islands filled with apartment buildings to provide housing in a growing city.

NDSM, a neighborhood in North Amsterdam that has been transformed from a derelict shipyard to a hipster arts community. The giant building in the right background now is full of artists' studios. The crane in the foreground has been converted into a hotel. Much of the area remains open and slightly decrepit.

NDSM, a neighborhood in North Amsterdam that has been transformed from a shipyard to a hipster arts community. The giant building in the right background now is full of artists’ studios. The crane in the foreground has been converted into a hotel. Much of the area remains open and slightly decrepit.

One afternoon we took one of the free ferries across the River Ij to the northern part of the city. The area ,called NDSM, is an abandoned derelict industrial site that has been converted to an art community. An old enormous shipbuilder’s warehouse has now been turned into working space for hundreds of artists. There are 350 homes made from old shipping containers. The place is buzzing with hipsters, artists, graffiti, bars and restaurants. An old crane has been turned into a hotel. An old ocean platform (that once was positioned 6 miles off the coast and housed a pirate TV station before the government shut it down) has been moved into the river and converted to a fancy restaurant. A platform for movable cranes to load containers now has offices of many marketing companies and organizations like National Geographic. Wandering around NDSM was a great way to spend an afternoon. You can see more pictures of the area in our picture gallery.

Statue of an artist working on the enormous art museum, Rijksmuseum.

Statue of an artist working on the enormous art museum, Rijksmuseum.

The Rijksmuseum is a very large art museum. If a line was drawn through each room you would have one and a half kilometers of gallery. It would take many visits over multiple days to do it justice. We focused on Dutch art, looking at masterpieces by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Hals, and Van Gogh among unfamiliar names. The collection is in a gorgeous building that they spent ten years renovating and finished last year. We also had the opportunity to look at art in the private collection of a wealthy family. Jan Six the First was the mayor of Amsterdam, heir to a large textile dyeing company, and a friend of Rembrandt. Twelve generations later (and several marriages to other wealthy families that brought their own art) the collection is quite impressive. They open the house a couple days a week to small groups and we were able to see one floor of the family mansion and many lovely pieces of art. Megan particularly liked seeing the old family portraits and the original props that appeared in the painting (like a riding whip, a pair of wedding gloves, and a feather-adorned hat).

Floating bicycle parking in Amsterdam. It was rare to see unused bike parking in the city.

Floating bicycle parking in Amsterdam. It was rare to see unused bike parking in the city.

As is our custom, we sought out a neighborhood farmer’s market. The Jordaan market, or as Jim called it ‘the on and on market,’ had a range of great food (bread, produce, cheese, mushrooms, chocolate, berries) and lots of stuff like books, shoes, clothes, electronic gadgets, toiletries, etc. In addition to a tasty lunch and fruit, we liked the neighborhood, the active cafe scene, the busker, and people watching. A warm early-fall weekend brought a lot of people out into the sun.

To see all of our Amsterdam pictures, click here.

Plan B Tour visits Plan B

Plan B Tour visits Plan B

Bicycle parking near the center of Amsterdam. This parking "garage" had four stories and extends a long way from where we took this picture. As you can see, it was very full.

Bicycle parking near the center of Amsterdam. This parking “garage” had four stories and extends a long way from where we took this picture. As you can see, it was very full.

Street chaos. On the left, the cafe has taken 75% of the sidewalk for seating. In the middle, bikes spill out of the cycle lane, vying for who gets to cross first. Pedestrians are squeezed into a couple feet. Tram tracks down the middle of the street.

Street chaos. On the left, the cafe has taken 75% of the sidewalk for seating. In the middle, bikes spill out of the cycle lane, vying for who gets to cross first. Pedestrians are squeezed into a couple feet. Tram tracks down the middle of the street.

On the center right, an example of a house intentionally leaning forward out into the street.

On the center right, an example of a house intentionally leaning forward out into the street.

Sculpture of the unknown violinist. The tour guide said this sculpture appeared one morning in a canal. The artist has remained anonymous and has secretly delivered about a dozen other sculptures into the city. The officials wouldn't let this one stay in the canal so they moved it to the foyer of the opera house.

Sculpture of the unknown violinist. The tour guide said this sculpture appeared one morning in a canal. The artist has remained anonymous and has secretly delivered about a dozen other sculptures into the city. The officials wouldn’t let this one stay in the canal so they moved it to the foyer of the opera house.

A half-submerged damaged Russian submarine near NDSM. Our tour guide said it was brought there by Russian entrepreneurs who wanted to convert it to a floating restaurant. They turned out to be mafia, the deal fell through, but the sub had already been transported. Now it sits rotting near the ferry dock.

A half-submerged damaged Russian submarine near NDSM. Our tour guide said it was brought there by Russian entrepreneurs who wanted to convert it to a floating restaurant. They turned out to be mafia, the deal fell through, but the sub had already been transported. Now it sits rotting near the ferry dock.

Some of the 350 container homes in NDSM.

Some of the 350 container homes in NDSM.

Inside the giant old shipyard warehouse at NDSM. Artists and others have made little work spaces out of old containers.

Inside the giant old shipyard warehouse at NDSM. Artists and others have made little work spaces out of old containers.

Canal cleaning. The orange machine digs into the water and picks up bicycles that were thrown over. While we watched, they scooped out about 8 mangled bicycles.

Canal cleaning. The orange machine digs into the water and picks up bicycles that were thrown over. While we watched, they scooped out about 8 mangled bicycles.

A typical small residential street.

A typical small residential street.

The Central Train Station in Amsterdam. The tower on the right is a clock, on the left is a wind vane.

The Central Train Station in Amsterdam. The tower on the right is a clock, on the left is a wind vane.

Dutch humor in pseudo-Latin at the entrance to this shopping mall.

Dutch humor in pseudo-Latin at the entrance to this shopping mall.

Sweden continued

Our time in Sweden has been divided between exploring Stockholm, which you read about in our last post, and exploring outside Stockholm, which we’ll share in this post.

Helsinki, Finland. The entrance to Central Rail Station.

Helsinki, Finland. The entrance to Central Rail Station.

A popular short jaunt from here is Helsinki, Finland. There are multiple ferries that make the trip each day, often with an additional stop or two. One reason it is popular is that locals can do duty-free shopping in the international waters between countries. We left Stockholm in the late afternoon, arrived in Helsinki the next morning, and returned to Stockholm over the following night. The boat generally looked like a cruise ship: many stories with all kind of berths, expansive dinner buffets, bars with karaoke, and gambling. The biggest difference was that a couple decks were dedicated to cars as many people use the ferry to get their car to another country. The extended hours of daylight allowed us to watch the long exit and entrance from the archipelagos on either end as we came and went. With just one short day in Helsinki, we set out to amble around. We found five icebreakers at dock, one 50 years old and the others more recent. We enjoyed the old ornate architecture on many buildings and saw several remarkable churches (you can see them too in our pictures). One was the Kaampi Chapel of Silence, an egg-shaped building in the middle of a square. It is supposed to be completely silent inside. We joined the other international tourists, all cringing at the small noises made by a camera, a jacket zipper, or brushing against a pew. We had an excellent vegetarian meal at a place that was packed with locals on their lunch break. As the clouds thickened and thunder started to rumble, we headed to the National Museum, which turned out to be much more than a good place to stay dry. It was fantastic, covering geology to prehistory, through to modern times. Megan was taken with cases full of stone boat axes carved about 4500 years ago; they mostly appear to be unused as axes but their function is unknown.

Another beautiful granite island in the Baltic

Another beautiful granite island in the Baltic

A trip to Sweden wouldn’t be complete without spending time on the Baltic Sea. The Stockholm archipelago has 30,000 islands and islets and is only one of several archipelagos that make up the east coast of Sweden. The Baltic provides unique sailing: no tides, very low salinity, and lots of traffic. Land is rising as fast as one centimeter each year or three feet each century, which means historic and future waterways are significantly different from today.

Passing through the narrow Baggenstäket channel near Stockholm, it is less than 20 meters wide here!

Passing through the narrow Baggenstäket channel near Stockholm, it is less than 20 meters wide here!

In addition to several day trips, Sven took us sailing around part of the Baltic for a week on his 37-foot Hallberg Rassey. School just started and summer vacations ended (many Swedes take much of August off), so we were in low season. This meant we able to pull into marinas in the late afternoon and not worry about finding a place. It is hard to describe our experience in words and pictures; they always seem to fall short. We saw thousands of small islands of smooth granite, some with one or a few buildings, many uninhabited. Over the course of our trip, we probably also saw a thousand other sailboats. In the islands, we rarely were in a place where we didn’t see other sailboats (even though the high season was over!) Among the beauty of the islands are shallows and stones, which make it difficult to navigate, so we were constantly reviewing our position and direction on paper charts and GPS. Every good sailor wants to avoid the ignominious fate of colliding with a stone and having it named after you. South of Stockholm, we also visited the Sörmland Archipelago where islands are smaller, more frequent, less inhabited, and lower lying. Often the granite was streaked with orange/white veins and sparsely dotted with small evergreens, purple heather, and patches of moss. Coming back north, we started encountering islands with small farms on them, lush and verdant, or stands of timber next to meadows and pebbly beaches. Just a few miles from home, we went through a famously small passage leading back to Stockholm where the channel is less than 20 meters wide and as shallow as 4 meters. A bit nerve wracking in a sailboat with oncoming traffic in the twilight! Good thing Sven knows his boat and these waters very well.

Visby, Gotland.

Visby, Gotland.

Our farthest sailing destination was Gotland, which is a large island in the middle of the lower Baltic. Historically the island has been an important location for trade and agriculture. The people living there had tremendous wealth in the 12th century and at that time built up the town of Visby, complete with a 3.4 km defensible wall around the town, and a hundred large churches across the island. Many of the churches were neglected after the Reformation and stones that fell from them were taken to build new structures or reinforce the wall. In Visby, there are a dozen such churches that range from a single remaining column to a set of ribs and towers to the one still in use. The town of Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized as a complete medieval city with a nearly complete fortress wall. The city is full of narrow winding lanes lined with 800-year-old homes and commercial buildings (some wood, some stone), still maintained and utilized, often for their original purpose. We spent a couple days wandering, lost in the beauty, taking hundreds of pictures, and yet feeling like we were never able to capture it.

Inside S:ta Katarina in Visby, Gotland. Like all the churches it town, this was built in the 12-13th century. Post-Reformation, they fell into disrepair but the ribs still stand today.

Inside S:ta Katarina in Visby, Gotland. Like all the churches it town, this was built in the 12-13th century. Post-Reformation, they fell into disrepair but the ribs still stand today.

The Gotland Museum provided an excellent overview of the history and detailed several of the battles and power struggles that colored Gotland’s past. Most of the forts we have visited in the Americas never saw battles. Visby is different; the protective walls were tried time and again. Battles have been fought at the base of Visby’s walls with enormous loss of life. Interestingly, most of the fighting was between the city dwellers and the farmers over trading rights. In the passage of time most stories have lost their connection to fact. Little can be proven and oral history lends itself to exaggeration. The museum exhibits reinforced how many questions are unanswered and invited us to speculate about the rationale for what concrete evidence remains. In the last century, archeological digs have added veracity to some of the tales. Mass grave excavations explained how many people died in battle, what kind of armor they were wearing, what tools they used to fight, and how healthy or unhealthy people were.

Megan and Eva walking into Eva’s apartment. It is on the top floor of this building. The builder tore down a decayed historic building on this location and built modern housing while recreating the original exterior appearance.

Megan and Eva walking into Eva’s apartment. It is on the top floor of this building. The builder tore down a decayed historic building on this location and built modern housing while recreating the original exterior appearance.

Eva invited us to see where she lives in Uppsala, a university town about an hour north of Stockholm. We really enjoyed Uppsala. The center is full of beautiful old buildings. A small river runs through town providing many quiet corners to reflect. Parks and gardens are full of interesting plants, as a testament to the life and work of Carl Linnaeus (or Carl von Linné as the Swedes know him). Students fill the cafes, eat at food carts, study in the grassy fields, and almost overwhelm the bicycle paths. Eva explained finding a place to park her bike in town is as difficult as finding a place to park a car and yet there are literally thousands of bicycle racks. Uppsala University was founded in 1477 and today has 40,000 students. The detail and maintenance on all university buildings was impressive. Uppsala also has the largest cathedral in Sweden. It was built between 1287-1435, and is as long as it is tall (118.7 meters or 389 feet). Inside there are many crypts (including Carl Linnaeus and Gustav Vasa), beautiful paintings, stained glass, and museum-like exhibits. The Cathedral or Domkyrka in Swedish is also used for coronations for today’s royalty.

Protective wall around Visby, Gotland. The wall was first constructed in the 12th century.

Protective wall around Visby, Gotland. The wall was first constructed in the 12th century.

This trip reaffirmed for Jim that Sweden is one of the most beautiful places he has ever been. Gotland in particular is a place where beauty takes your breath away and overwhelms you around almost every corner. Our memories of this trip will be with us for a long time. You can see many photos of our attempts to capture it in the photo album. All new pictures have been added to the bottom.

A narrow passage on the way into Helsinki, Finland. The cruise ship before us looks like they will barely fit.

A narrow passage on the way into Helsinki, Finland. The cruise ship before us looks like they will barely fit.

Now it is our turn to go through. Note the boat ahead of us making a hard turn--the channel can be like a maze.

Now it is our turn to go through. Note the boat ahead of us making a hard turn–the channel can be like a maze.

Five icebreakers waiting for winter. Helsinki, Finland.

Five icebreakers waiting for winter. Helsinki, Finland.

Helsinki, Finland is also full of interesting architecture. We found streets to be wider than in Stockholm and more modern buildings mixed in with the old ones.

Helsinki, Finland is also full of interesting architecture. We found streets to be wider than in Stockholm and more modern buildings mixed in with the old ones.

Upenski Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland is the largest Orthodox Church in western Europe

Upenski Cathedral in Helsinki, Finland is the largest Orthodox Church in western Europe

Helsinki, Finland. Fun animal-like details in white on this old building.

Helsinki, Finland. Fun animal-like details in white on this old building.

Helsinki. The Kamppi Chapel of Silence provides a quiet place in the middle of a bustling city.

Helsinki. The Kamppi Chapel of Silence provides a quiet place in the middle of a bustling city.

This graphic shows the 200ft fall of sea level over the last 8000 years on the Baltic. The land is rising. The Vikings had quite a different coastline than the one we see today.

This graphic shows the 200ft fall of sea level over the last 8000 years on the Baltic. The land is rising. The Vikings had quite a different coastline than the one we see today.

Sven and Megan aboard Season.

Sven and Megan aboard Season.

Sandhamn, a popular old town on the edge of the Stockholm archipelago.

Sandhamn, a popular old town on the edge of the Stockholm archipelago.

Navigating in the Baltic is difficult due to the quantity of small islets

Navigating in the Baltic is difficult due to the quantity of small islets

Visby, Gotland.

Visby, Gotland.

A rough day on the Baltic, with waves breaking on this rare gravel beach in Gotland.

A rough day on the Baltic, with waves breaking on this rare gravel beach in Gotland.

Visby, Gotland. Close up of the impact of tar applied for centuries to wood.

Visby, Gotland. Close up of the impact of tar applied for centuries to wood.

Visby, Gotland. These wooden houses are said to be 800 years old, blackened by preservative tar.

Visby, Gotland. These wooden houses are said to be 800 years old, blackened by preservative tar.

Visby, Gotland. Many houses here have asymmetrical rooflines.

Visby, Gotland. Many houses here have asymmetrical rooflines.

Visby, Gotland. Given that most building are 500-800 years old, they have been remodeled as the owners and purposes change. Can you see the signs of what this building used to look like?

Visby, Gotland. Given that most building are 500-800 years old, they have been remodeled as the owners and purposes change. Can you see the signs of what this building used to look like?

The roof of this cathedral in ruins shows the skill of the masons in building arched roofs.

The roof of this cathedral in ruins shows the skill of the masons in building arched roofs.

Protective wall around Visby, Gotland.

Protective wall around Visby, Gotland.

One of the tower entrances to Visby, Gotland. While there is not a traditional moat around the town, there is a low wet area. The wooden planks that make up this bridge would be removed when the town was expecting intruders.

One of the tower entrances to Visby, Gotland. While there is not a traditional moat around the town, there is a low wet area. The wooden planks that make up this bridge would be removed when the town was expecting intruders.

A residential street in Visby,  Gotland. These houses are centuries old.

A residential street in Visby, Gotland. These houses are centuries old.

Visby, Gotland. Megan and Sven enjoying the view from one of Sven's favorite places

Visby, Gotland. Megan and Sven enjoying the view from one of Sven’s favorite places

Visby, Gotland. Inside a tower on the protective wall. The wooden floors are gone but you can imagine what it may have looked like when occupied by lookouts and archers.

Visby, Gotland. Inside a tower on the protective wall. The wooden floors are gone but you can imagine what it may have looked like when occupied by lookouts and archers.

Visby, Gotland. The ruins of S:t Han are now an open-air restaurant.

Visby, Gotland. The ruins of S:t Han are now an open-air restaurant.

Strike a pose in the ruins of S:t Olof, Visby.

Strike a pose in the ruins of S:t Olof, Visby.

Strike a pose in the ruins of S:t Olof, Visby.

Strike a pose in the ruins of S:t Olof, Visby.

Visby, Gotland. Wooden houses are preserved by a regular application of tar. After centuries, they acquire a bubbly texture. This one is slighty red, which means it has likely be painted with a mixture of tar and copper oxide.

Visby, Gotland. Wooden houses are preserved by a regular application of tar. After centuries, they acquire a bubbly texture. This one is slighty red, which means it has likely be painted with a mixture of tar and copper oxide.

Visby, Gotland. This street, called Fiskagränd, was the old fish market and is one of the most photographed places in all of Sweden. We were lucky to be there while the roses were still blooming

Visby, Gotland. This street, called Fiskagränd, was the old fish market and is one of the most photographed places in all of Sweden. We were lucky to be there while the roses were still blooming

This is a båk, which was used before there were lighthouses to let sailors know they were nearing the mainland. Each one is unique in shape and design so you can locate your position on a chart relative to the båk.

This is a båk, which was used before there were lighthouses to let sailors know they were nearing the mainland. Each one is unique in shape and design so you can locate your position on a chart relative to the båk.

One of the many small lighthouses that help sailors navigate safely. Note the swans in front of it for scale. Swans and large signets are all over the place right now.

One of the many small lighthouses that help sailors navigate safely. Note the swans in front of it for scale. Swans and large signets are all over the place right now.

Paying respect at the famous "Kejsaren" navigation marker. Someone put a crown on this decades ago and now sailors toast as they pass, offering thanks for a safe passage.

Paying respect at the famous “Kejsaren” navigation marker. Someone put a crown on this decades ago and now sailors toast as they pass, offering thanks for a safe passage.

One of the many narrow passages between islands in the Baltic

One of the many narrow passages between islands in the Baltic

Picture stones carved between 500-700AD on Gotland. Many of them are thought to contain cosmology.

Picture stones carved between 500-700AD on Gotland. Many of them are thought to contain cosmology.

Picture stones carved between 500-700AD on Gotland. Many of them are thought to contain cosmology.

Picture stones carved between 500-700AD on Gotland. Many of them are thought to contain cosmology.

Uppsala Cathedral, looking nearly the length of it. Note the elaborate gold pulpit in the middle.

Uppsala Cathedral, looking nearly the length of it. Note the elaborate gold pulpit in the middle.

Uppsala Cathedral, looking up

Uppsala Cathedral, looking up

One of the many crypts on the floor of the Uppsala Cathedral. Note the dates 1620-1666. The elaborate carvings and rungs attached to many of these created trip hazards.

One of the many crypts on the floor of the Uppsala Cathedral. Note the dates 1620-1666. The elaborate carvings and rungs attached to many of these created trip hazards.

Jim’s vain attempt at speaking Swedish failed to bring life to this otherwise perfect statue.

Jim’s vain attempt at speaking Swedish failed to bring life to this otherwise perfect statue.

Hej! Välkommen till Sveriges!

A typical beautiful summer day in Stockholm

A typical beautiful summer day in Stockholm

We have spent the last couple weeks in Sweden. Our good friends Sven and Eva live just outside Stockholm, so we’ve been staying with them and enjoying both being tourists and being with friends. This is not our first time in Sweden yet we managed to see new things and go to new places. Sweden is remarkable. It is clean and safe. Swedes take responsibility for our planet and actively practice stewardship and conservation. (For example we are staying very close to a place that collects sewage from over 500,000 residents around Stockholm and the treatment process creates biogas that powers buses and taxis in the city.) Sweden has a rich history that can be found walking down the street as well as in museums. They escaped the damage much of Europe experienced in WWII. Swedes seem to know their history and are proud of their country and the efforts to preserve archaeological sites. The Swedish flag is hung outside many houses.

Sandhamn, a popular old town on the edge of the Stockholm archipelago.

Sandhamn, a popular old town on the edge of the Stockholm archipelago.

On the morning we arrived, Sven and Eva met us at the airport. After feeding us, we packed up and sailed away on  Sven’s boat to a nearby town. Ever since, we have been steeped in the beauty both of nature and man’s constructions. We’ve taken more pictures here than anywhere else on our trip.

Downtown Stockholm has bustling pedestrian malls

Downtown Stockholm has bustling pedestrian malls

Even without friends, Stockholm is worth a visit. It has been easy to spend multiple days sight-seeing, like good tourists. Some of the things that we love about Stockholm are: lots of squares and green spaces, easy-to-use public transit, many pedestrians and aware drivers who keep an eye out for walkers and cyclists, bikes left unlocked as often as they are locked, a large quantity of museums and public art, clean streets, buildings hundreds of years old still in use, and the ever-present connection to the sea with many boats shuttling people between the islands that make up the Stockholm Archipelago. As part of a cultural festival, we enjoyed live dance, music, and a children’s carnival.

The white building houses a bank that was robbed in 1973. The robbers held hostages for six days while negotiating with police. During that time, the hostages came to empathize with their captors, which led to the identification and labeling of Stockholm Syndrome.

The white building houses a bank that was robbed in 1973. The robbers held hostages for six days while negotiating with police. During that time, the hostages came to empathize with their captors, which led to the identification and labeling of Stockholm Syndrome.

We attended a couple walking tours which have allowed us to learn even more about the history and culture. We visited H&M’s headquarters, the house from the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies, and the bank where a robbery took place that led to identification of the Stockholm Syndrome. Megan loved when our guide suggested we play hipster bingo; coming from Portland, we had an advantage in already knowing how to spot a hipster. Our guide explained how Sweden gives couples 480 days of parental leave to use between them and requires each parent to take at least 2 months off, how Ikea names furniture after Swedish cities while naming floor coverings after Danish cities, and how Swedes consume on average 7 cups of coffee each day.

Vasa. Look on the right hand side to see the scale of this ship by comparing it to the people and 7 floors of this museum

Vasa. Look on the left hand side to see the scale of this ship by comparing it to the people and 7 floors of this museum

One of the most amazing museums is the Vasa Museum. The Vasa is a warship that accidentally sunk in 1628 due to design flaws, a mile into its maiden voyage. It sat at the bottom of Stockholm’s harbor for 333 years before being excavated by divers and refloated. Today it is the largest single archeological piece in the world. Vasa itself is huge at 226 feet by 155 feet. It was the first warship to have two rows of cannons and had a total of 64 gun ports, the king took a large part in designing it. Despite being a great maritime failure, the resurrection of Vasa has been a publicly funded project. What could have been a source of embarrassment has been turned into a window of the past and a major tourist attraction. In addition to the ship itself, there are exhibits on what people on board would have eaten, social classes, how warships work in battle, meaning of the decorative carvings, and much more. The skeletons, clothing, and possessions of 15 of the souls who went down with the ship have been given forensic analysis to recreate a bit of their life: how old they were, what ailments they suffered, what job they may have had on board, etc. We listened to a visiting archaeologist speak and she explained that most museums have only 3% of their collection on display—there is still much to learn and understand from all the pieces that were recovered with Vasa.

Fun at the ABBA museum

Fun at the ABBA museum

The ABBA museum was a lot of fun. It gave us an entertaining look into Swedish popular culture and history of contemporary music in Sweden. There was a floor that had a room for each decade in the last century that highlighted successful performers and popular music of the time complete with their influences. We watched grainy old recordings and saw music videos released in 2014. The ABBA exhibits were extensive: outfits, recording equipment, paraphernalia, awards, posters, green rooms and photos. There was also an interactive component that let you sing and dance with ABBA. Jim created an avatar that was dressed in their outfits, followed his dance moves, and kept alternating from male to female.

Our next post, in a few days, will share some of our experiences outside the city. Here is a link to the Sweden’s photo album.

We are staying in one of the buildings on the shore. The 450-foot tower in the background is part of the sewage treatment and biogas plant. It is built tall so all possible odors are undetectable to the neighbors. Indeed, we have only smelled fresh air while here.

We are staying in one of the buildings on the shore. The 450-foot tower in the background is part of the sewage treatment and biogas plant. It is built tall so all possible odors are undetectable to the neighbors. Indeed, we have only smelled fresh air while here.

Sven and Eva on Season, Sven's boat.

Sven and Eva on Season, Sven’s boat.

Swedish words often make us smile for how different they are than English

Swedish words often make us smile for how different they are than English

Many houses on near the shore have a small sauna building right down on the water.

Many houses on near the shore have a small sauna building right down on the water.

Jim and Sven sailing Season.

Jim and Sven sailing Season.

Children's carnival in Stockholm. Each ride was human powered by parent volunteers.

Children’s carnival in Stockholm. Each ride was human powered by parent volunteers.

Ferris wheel at children's carnival with a parent cranking the wheel on the right.

Ferris wheel at children’s carnival with a parent cranking the wheel on the right.

While the children rode around, a ferris wheel attendant playfully tried to steal shoes, hats, or anything she could reach from the children.

While the children rode around, a ferris wheel attendant playfully tried to steal shoes, hats, or anything she could reach from the children.

By the end of the ride, she had quite a collection.

By the end of the ride, she had quite a collection.

If you look carefully you can see Megan in a pink blouse outside the tourist office in Stockholm.

If you look carefully you can see Megan in a pink blouse outside the tourist office in Stockholm.

Fun at the ABBA museum

Fun at the ABBA museum

This is a very common sight: bicycles "parked" anywhere, unlocked or locked only to itself with a small cable, and carrying a childseat and/or basket.

This is a very common sight: bicycles “parked” anywhere, unlocked or locked only to itself with a small cable, and carrying a childseat and/or basket.

National elections in Sweden take place in mid-September. Candidates and parties are only allowed to post signs for 40 days before. The combination of English and Swedish on one sign is not uncommon.

National elections in Sweden take place in mid-September. Candidates and parties are only allowed to post signs for 40 days before. The combination of English and Swedish on one sign is not uncommon.

Bicycle and pedestrian paths are very common, so you rarely are walking alongside a road. Lidingö, the island we are staying on, is half green space crossed with trails like this.

Bicycle and pedestrian paths are very common, so you rarely are walking alongside a road. Lidingö, the island we are staying on, is half green space crossed with trails like this.

Every stairway we've seen in Sweden has accessibility track for bicycles and baby strollers

Every stairway we’ve seen in Sweden has accessibility track for bicycles and baby strollers

Recycling is common here. You can see different bins for plastic, paper, metal, and everything else. Unlike in the States, virtually every kind of plastic, paper, and metal can be recycled from Saran wrap to lids to the bag cereal comes in.

Recycling is common here. You can see different bins for plastic, paper, metal, and everything else. Unlike in the States, virtually every kind of plastic, paper, and metal can be recycled from Saran wrap to lids to the bag cereal comes in.

The royal band making their way to the palace in Stockholm

The royal band making their way to the palace in Stockholm

We rented bicycles one day to tour one of Stockholm's island that used to the hunting ground for the royal family and today houses many museums.

We rented bicycles one day to tour one of Stockholm’s island that used to the hunting ground for the royal family and today houses many museums.

Vasa. Despite being submerged for 333 years, the ship is well preserved and you can see the elaborate statuary on the stern. In it's day, these would have been painted bright colors.

Vasa. Despite being submerged for 333 years, the ship is well preserved and you can see the elaborate statuary on the stern. In it’s day, these would have been painted bright colors.

Stockholm. Royal soldiers making their way to the palace. Note the mock bedroll at the back of each saddle; these folks are not sleeping outside today.

Stockholm. Royal soldiers making their way to the palace. Note the mock bedroll at the back of each saddle; these folks are not sleeping outside today.

Stockholm. The peach building cleverly attached a mirror outside each window to allow every room a water view.

Stockholm. The peach building cleverly attached a mirror outside each window to allow every room a water view.

Yet another stunning street in Stockholm

Yet another stunning street in Stockholm

Public forest and meadows on the island on Lidingo comprised more than half the land. We appreciated the hiking trails, berry patches, and soft grassy seats.

Public forest and meadows on the island on Lidingo comprised more than half the land. We appreciated the hiking trails, berry patches, and soft grassy seats.

An old steam boat, still used everyday as one of the ferries shuttling people around the Stockholm archipelago.

An old steam boat, still used everyday as one of the ferries shuttling people around the Stockholm archipelago.

A crane painted like a giraffe, Stockholm.

A crane painted like a giraffe, Stockholm.

Here is one of the old wooden boats, a common sight around Stockholm.

Here is one of the old wooden boats, a common sight around Stockholm.

As we sailed into Stockholm, we passed through a fleet of old wooden sailboats.

As we sailed into Stockholm, we passed through a fleet of old wooden sailboats.