Wednesday, 17 December 2014

SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA: FOLLOW THE YELLOW PLAQUE ROAD

Most pilgrims who set out on the Camino de Santiago walk it while others cycle and some go on horseback. When I checked it out earlier this year, I could almost have swum it. The journey begins where you want it to begin and ends in Santiago de Compostela, the capital of Galicia. That’s the bit of northern Spain that sits on top of Portugal like an umbrella, and it gets more rain than Dublin in the spring. However, when the sun shines it’s hot to trot – or pedal or walk.

MAJOR MILESTONE: The yellow scallop shell symbol
of St. James, like this significant one in Finisterre, marks
each kilometre along the Camino for pilgrims, below 

Follow the yellow scallop shell signs that mark the Camino de Santiago and you won’t get lost, except perhaps in your thoughts. You’ll arrive days, weeks, perhaps even months later in Santiago de Compostela, no doubt weary and probably wiping a tear. Completing the journey can be a very emotional experience, especially if you continue on to Finisterre – what the Romans considered to be the end of the known world.
People ‘do’ the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) for reasons of faith or fitness or friendship, to find themselves or forget, or to raise much-needed funds for worthy causes, and they return home with a tale to tell. No one, however, has a tale quite like the one told by life-long best buddies Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray.
One Saturday afternoon two-and-a-half years ago, Justin was flicking through the channels on his TV at home in Boise, Idaho, when a programme that was just starting caught his attention. It focused on pilgrims following the Camino de Santiago. Intrigued, he watched it right through and thought: “I wonder if that’s something I could do?”
Some days later when Patrick called round, Justin showed him the programme, which he’d recorded. When it ended, he said: “Well, what do you think?” Patrick didn’t think. Not for one second. He simply turned to his friend who was sitting in his wheelchair and said: “I’ll push you.”

PULLGRIMS: Justin and Patrick get some help from
fellow adventurers on this hilly part of the Camino
When Justin was 16 (he’s now 39, as is Patrick), he was involved in a car accident that triggered a progressive auto-immune disorder that left his legs, arms and hands paralysed. But it didn’t paralyse his zest for life, one in which he could count on the unstinting support of pal-in-a-million Patrick.
These guys were born 24 hours apart, played together as little boys, went to school together, grew up together and each was best man at the other’s wedding. Their wives are best friends and their children could be forgiven for sometimes forgetting which parents they belong to, such is the bond between the two families. So Patrick’s automatic response of “I’ll push you” was perfectly natural.
Justin and Patrick spent two years meticulously planning their pilgrimage along the Camino Frances – the French Way – from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the foothills of the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela, a distance of 766km (nearly 500 miles). But all the planning in the world couldn’t have prepared them for the magnitude of the task they’d set themselves when they began their journey last June 3.
As Patrick said: “It will live on in infamy as the hardest physical, mental and spiritual challenge I have ever or will ever encounter. It was mind-bogglingly difficult, but you don’t really know what you can do until you’re faced with a difficult challenge. Honestly, through some divine intervention we were given the strength to carry on.”
And that was only the first day.

CHAIRLEADERS: Justin and Patrick set the pace out
on the road. Below, the guys pose with some pals 

Justin and Patrick faced one obstacle after another as they continued on their arduous way, including knee-high rivers, cloying mud and steep slopes that sometimes proved impossible to get up or down without the help of fellow pilgrims, which was always offered without having to be sought. At one point, Justin had to be carried all the way up a mountain in an improvised sling by Patrick and half-a-dozen hikers before they returned for his wheelchair and hauled it up too.
But despite everything the Camino could throw at them, and determined to prove the doubters wrong, they made it to Santiago – a day ahead of schedule.
 “There’s nothing more satisfying than setting out to accomplish a goal and have so many people tell you it was impossible, and then to achieve what we set out to do,” said Patrick.
“Just because you have limitations doesn’t mean you have to be defined by them. You can overcome them if you choose to do so and let people help you and love you. We knew there was no way we would accomplish this alone. We were gonna have faith that people would show up and help and they did, time and again.”
People certainly showed up last July 7 when, 35 days after leaving St. Jean Pied-de-Port, Justin and Patrick arrived exhausted but ecstatic in the Praza do Obradoiro in front of Santiago Cathedral. There to greet and embrace them were their wives and hundreds of cheering pilgrims they’d met on their journey. There too were total strangers who’d followed the friends’ progress on radio and TV, in the newspapers and online and wanted to be present to give them a heroes’ welcome.
That’s the true spirit of the Camino de Santiago, and it can be found all along the way. It’s there in something as simple as a cheery salutation – “Buen Camino!” – from a shepherd, a shopkeeper or a child skipping to school or a glass of water from a villager. When the going gets tough on this toughest of journeys, a kind word can lift the heart and melt the miles, but three kind words – “I’ll push you” – can move mountains.

BUD BROTHERS: An emotional moment
for Justin and Patrick in Santiago
 
Nearly a dozen recognised pilgrim routes lead to Santiago and the resting place of St. James the Great in the cathedral. The three most popular are:

The French Way from St Jean Pied-de-Port via Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and Leon (766km). For walkers who don’t have a month to spare, the last 100km from Sarria to Santiago are enough to earn a ‘Compostela’ – a certificate of completion.
The Portuguese Way from Lisbon via Porto and Pontevedra (610km).
The Northern Way from Irun via Bilbao, Santander and Oviedo (820km).

There’s also an Irish Way dating from the Middle Ages when pilgrims set out from St. James’s Gate at the western entrance to the city where the Guinness brewery (a latter day place of pilgrimage itself for more than a million tourists each year) now stands. In those days they sailed to either La Coruña or Ferrol in northwest Galicia to join the English Way. That sea voyage took a couple of weeks, but Aer Lingus has regular flights from Dublin to Santiago that take only a couple of hours.

HIGH HORSE: Rooftop equestrian statue of St. James
Former fisherman St. James, who was one of the apostles and the brother of St. John the Evangelist, twice travelled to Galicia, the first time on business when he brought Christianity to the pagan Celts. When he returned some years later it was, according to lore, on a stone boat pulled by three angels blowing trumpets. He was an awful show-off – for a dead man. Known for his fiery temper, St. James frequently lost his head. This didn’t endear him to Judean monarch Herod Agrippa, who had him executed in Jerusalem in AD44, thus making the frequent permanent.
His decapitated remains were interred by his disciples Teodoro and Atanasio on Mount Libredon, where for nearly 200 years his marble tomb drew pilgrims from throughout Iberia. However, the Roman persecution of Christians in that part of the empire meant the tomb was abandoned in the latter part of the third century and soon forgotten. And forgotten it remained until one moonless night in 814AD when a hermit named Pelagius stubbed his big toe on a rock and hopped around cursing in a very un-Christian manner.
Pelagius wasn’t in the habit of wandering around in the woods after dark, mainly because he was allergic to the wolves, lynxes and bears that roamed Mount Libredon, but he’d seen strange lights in the sky and, almost in a trance, was following their trajectory with his eyes up and his guard down. And that’s how his big toe discovered the long-lost tomb, and the remains therein, of James the Great, patron saint of Spain, Galicia, tanners, vets, pharmacists, furriers and equestrians.
Those remains are believed to now repose in a silver reliquary in the crypt beneath Santiago cathedral’s main altar and were visited last year by almost 216,000 pilgrims and many more tourists. The crypt also houses, according to the faithful, the relics of Teodoro and Atanasio, who were also elevated to the sainthood.

SILVERSMYTH? The silver reliquary that is believed
to contain the remains of St. James in the Cathedral
  
You’d think that having completed their journey, modern-day Camino adventurers would be content to sit outside the cathedral, nurse their blistered feet (saddle-sore cyclists have to be more discreet) and then spend a few contemplative moments in the crypt. However, for those who are able, a trek up the 110 steep steps to the roof will prove rewarding, especially for fans of cult TV comedy series Father Ted, because hidden among the gargoyles is a medieval version of Kicking Bishop Brennan up the Arse.
During construction – no one knows exactly when – the churchman in charge was notoriously slow at paying the stonemasons’ wages. Going on strike was out of the question – they’d have been thrown off the work crew or, just as likely, off the roof. So they wreaked a rascally revenge by carving an effigy of the bishop’s backside beneath a gutter and took great delight in slapping it each time they passed. It didn’t put food on their tables, but at least it put a smirk on their faces.

HOLY SHOW: The effigy of the bishop's backside on
the roof of Santiago Cathedral, below

The cathedral is a magnificent mix of Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque architecture and the main attraction in this historical and famously hospitable city (when you’ve been catering to millions of pilgrims for more than a thousand years you get the hang of looking after visitors, at which Santiago excels). Construction began in 1075 and was declared completed 136 years later on April 21, 1211 when it was consecrated in the presence of King Alfonso IX of Leon.
While the tomb of St. James tops everyone’s list of things to see in the cathedral, many people time their visit to coincide with a remarkable spectacle.
Goldsmith Jose Losada, who in 1886 crafted the reliquary for the saint’s remains, had also produced, 35 years earlier in 1851, the cathedral’s botafumeiro – one of the world’s biggest censers or thuribles. Anyone who has attended a Roman Catholic funeral will have seen the priest circling the coffin at the end of the mass, swinging the thurible – a small, metal incense burner hanging from a chain. The aromatic smoke from the incense signifies prayers rising to heaven.
Master Losada didn’t do things by half. His gleaming botafumeiro (“smoke expeller” in the Galician language), which is made of a brass-bronze alloy and plated with silver, stands 1.6 metres tall and weighs 80 kilos. Shovels are used to fill it with 40 kilos of burning charcoal and incense and then it’s attached to a rope hanging from a pulley mechanism dating from 1604 high up in the dome. That’s when eight red-robed muscle men called tiraboleiros step forward and the show begins.
One of the tiraboleiros gives the botafumeiro a push to get it moving, then each grabs a rope and pulls, setting it off in ever-increasing swings between the Pratarias and Azabacheria doorways at either end of the transept. When it really gets going it travels at 70 kilometres an hour, spewing clouds of thick smoke, and reaches a height of 21 metres, just short of the ceiling.

BEAM ME UP: A spotlight picks out the cathedral's
botafumeiro in full swing during a pilgrims' mass
While all that swinging is going on, fascinated spectators are sitting there wondering: “What if those knots come loose?” It has happened on several occasions, though not lately. The most recent mishap was in July 1937 when the botafumeiro sprung a leak and took on the characteristics of a volcanic eruption, showering red hot charcoal on the tiraboleiros. The most spectacular accident, though, occurred in 1499 when the original botafumeiro broke free on its way to the ceiling and sailed out of the Pratarias high window, killing and half-cooking a cow that was standing outside chewing the cud and minding its own business.
Speaking of cows, Galicia – the greenest of Spain’s regions – produces the country’s most succulent beef and lamb, thanks to the lush grazing land. That’s why the poshest restaurants, from neighbouring Portugal and the Basque country to Barcelona and even as far away as the Canary Islands, take pride in telling their well-heeled diners that the meat they serve is Galician – and charge accordingly. In unpretentious Santiago, the prices are a lot more realistic.
Pork has a starring role in Galician cuisine too, especially in the winter months (pigs are traditionally slaughtered in November). A popular dish is Lacon con grelos, combining cured ham from the forelegs served with boiled potatoes, chorizo and, curiously, turnip tops. Galician stew, made with uncured pork, chicken, chorizo, foreleg ham, salted ribs, smoked pork fat, pig’s ears and snout with potatoes, chickpeas and, again, turnip tops, will keep out the cold. If you haven’t yet discovered potaje de lentejas (lentil stew), you’re in for a treat because the Galician version containing green lentils, chorizo, peppers, onion, carrots, potatoes and paprika is outstanding.

SEALICIOUS: Boiled octopus with paprika and, below,
a selection of seafood on the menu in a restaurant

However, it’s for its seafood that Galicia is rightly renowned. The fishing fleet is the biggest in Spain, and boats daily offload hake, sea bass, sole, grouper, monkfish and sardines plus a huge selection of shellfish, crawfish, crabs and lobsters (you can see what’s served in Santiago’s restaurants in the lively Abastos Market where all the chefs shop).
If you’re a sucker for octopus you’re squids in, because it’s Galicia’s favourite dish. There are many fancy recipes, but it’s at its best and bursting with flavour when simply boiled, sprinkled with cayenne pepper and olive oil and served on a wooden board.
The region’s wines are as good as but cheaper than what the big-name Spanish bodegas produce and include the light young whites and strong reds of Ribeiro; Albariño from Rias Baixas, which is the perfect accompaniment for seafood; and Amandi, from Ribeira Sacra, a red the Roman emperors favoured.
To round off a meal, orujo is a local liqueur made from the residue of wine production that’s drunk as a digestif – or as a dare. It’s potent stuff and highly combustible: from it the Galicians make a drink called queimada, which involves dropping lemon peel, sugar and ground coffee into a clay pot, pouring in the orujo, setting it on fire and reciting a spell against the curses of witches until the flame turns blue (get too close and the air is liable to turn blue too).

HOT DRINK: Try a flaming queimada, made from orujo
It’s said that pilgrims catch their first whiff of burning incense about three kilometres from Santiago and quicken their step, knowing their journey is almost over. The thought of reaching the city of St. James, paying their respects at his tomb and checking in to a proper hotel room instead of a snore-filled hostel dormitory makes the final few furlongs a doddle.
The ritual is to shower, change out of their grubby walking gear and go for dinner. It might be octopus, or maybe Galician stew, washed down with a bottle of Ribeiro. Then comes the coffee, and finally a flaming queimada. In their giddiness, some get too close to the clay pot and suddenly realise that the whiff they first caught on the outskirts of the city wasn’t the scent of burning incense at all – it was the smell of singed eyebrows.
Ah, well. Buen Camino!

PROS AND CORNS: Walking the Camino
is good for the soul, but the soles are
another matter altogether, as I found out
GETTING THERE
CaminoWays.com organises walking and cycling holidays for prospective pilgrims and is behind the big increase in the number of Irish people setting out on the Camino de Santiago (5,012 last year and many more expected next year). Among the special deals for 2015 are:
Classic Camino: The final section of the French Way from Sarria to Santiago. From €492 per person sharing for a 6-night walking holiday.
Portuguese Coastal Way: From Porto, along the coast of northern Portugal and through southern Galicia. From €662pps for a 7-night walking holiday.
Camino del Norte: Try the section from Bilbao to Santander from €536pps for a 6-night walking holiday.
Prices for these and other options include accommodation on a half-board basis, luggage transfers from hotel to hotel and a holiday pack with practical information. Prices do not include flights, transport or insurance.
Optional add-ons include hotel upgrades, airport transfers and bike rental.
Book by December 31 for a 10pc discount on self-guided 2015 Camino trips.

FLY
Aer Lingus operates three weekly direct flights from Dublin to Santiago de Compostela on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from April to October. There’s an additional flight on Wednesday during July and August, the busiest pilgrimage months. www.aerlingus.com

SAN FRANTASTIC: San Francisco Hotel Monumento
STAY
There’s accommodation to suit every pocket in Santiago, from €12 a night hostels and €40 pensions to top hotels. I’ve stayed in the following two hotels, which I’m happy to recommend.
San Francisco Hotel Monumento (Campillo de San Francisco 3). Part of a former convent dating from 1214 and adjoining the Church of San Francisco, this 18th century building in the historical heart of Santiago opened as a 4-star, 82-room hotel (with an indoor heated pool) in 2005.
Hotel Compostela (Rua do Horreo 1). Conveniently located, it’s a five-minute stroll from the cathedral. Free wifi, and the bus stop for the airport is just around the corner in Praza de Galicia. Ideal mid-budget choice.

HARD TO BEET: My beetroot cappuccino in A Tafona
EAT
A Tafona (Virxe da Cerca 7, closed Mondays). What looked like a strawberry milkshake turned out to be beetroot cappuccino, and oh boy, it was amazing. So was everything else on the tasting menu, the ingredients bought only a few hours before from the Abastos Market just across the street. Owner/chefs Lucia Freitas and Nacho Tierna are in the vanguard of Galicia’s emerging nouvelle cuisine that draws its inspiration from the region’s traditional gastronomy. A top recommendation.
Cafe de Altamira (Pazo de Altamira Hotel, Rua das Ameas 9). I would have happily sat in this place all night dreaming about the foie gras and fig pastry starter, only the staff were keen to get to their beds. Being a stone’s throw from the Abastos Market, it’s no surprise that seafood reigns beneath Altamira’s roof, but a Monday evening main course of slow-cooked pork ribs (the fishing fleet doesn’t go out on a Sunday) was divine.
Don Quijote (Calle Galeras 20). Here’s a restaurant that specialises in the best of traditional year-round Galician cuisine and seasonal game. Want to know what the locals eat from land and sea at home? Don Quijote has been serving it in generous portions since 1979. One of the specialities of the house is cochinillo – roast suckling pig – which can be described in many ways, but I’ll stick with mmmmmmm!

MACKNIFICENT: Mackerel sushi and fig in Abastos 2.0
Abastos 2.0 (Praza de Abastos, locales 13-18). A small gastro pub with a big reputation next to the Abastos Market, where whatever catches the chef’s eye each morning dictates what he chalks up on the board. Very popular with the young crowd and those who like to share photos of artfully-presented dishes on social media.
Casa Marcelo (Rua das Hortas 1, closed Sunday evening and Monday). Michelin-starred restaurant and therefore not the cheapest choice in town. There’s no a la carte, just a tasting menu that changes daily. Chef Marcelo Tejedor is known and respected for focusing on how his dishes taste rather than how they look on the plate.
Acio (Rua das Galeras 28). Chef Iago Castrillon and co-owner Eva Pizarro are a breath of fresh air and could probably serve fresh air as a starter, such is the confidence their devoted diners have in these two who refuse to follow trends. If you want to sample some of the most innovative cuisine in all of Spain, this is the place, but reservations are recommended.

INKREDIBLE: Sweetbreads cooked in the ink of an
accompanying baby squid in Restaurante Acio
READ
Father and teenage daughter Peter and Natasha Murtagh’s book, Buen Camino (Gill & MacMillan), is a must-read for anyone planning to walk the Camino de Santiago. They unusually began their journey from the summit of Ireland’s sacred mountain, Croagh Patrick, but set out on the Camino itself from St. Jean Pied-de-Port. Buen Camino is not a guidebook, it’s a travelogue-cum-diary that charts the Murtaghs’ progress from France to Santiago and then on to Finisterre. They write refreshingly honestly about the highs and lows of their adventure, and it’s such an engaging read that I got through all 237 pages in four days.

John Brierley’s pocket-sized Camino Pilgrim Guides (Findhorn Press) to the French, Portuguese and Finisterre Ways are by far the best and most comprehensive guidebooks, which is why they’re the top sellers. Buy online at www.caminoguides.com

My colleague Pol O Conghaile at www.independent.ie/life/travel/europe shares his 10 tips for the Camino de Santiago which are invaluable. Tip No. 2, “break in your boots”, sounds a no-brainer, but it’s remarkable how many first-timers end up banjaxed by blisters. Follow Pol’s advice and prevent your pilgrimage becoming a pain.

Best-selling Brazilian author Paulo Coelho’s The Pilgrimage (HarperCollins) is a work of fiction and a great bedtime companion. Coelho spins a spiritual, mystical tale set against the background of a very personal quest, but this master storyteller weaves in many wonderful descriptions and anecdotes of the villages, towns and cities his protagonist (him) passes through on his journey.

WATCH
Emilio Estevez’s 2010 film, The Way, starring his father, Martin Sheen, is an enjoyable and inspirational introduction to the Camino de Santiago. Watch it for a taste of the camaraderie and scenery that await pilgrims who give themselves up to the experience. This film will probably do for the Camino what John Ford’s Oscar-winning The Quiet Man (1952) did and continues to do for the west of Ireland. You just can’t buy that sort of publicity.

FURTHER INFORMATION
Turismo de Santiago: See www.santiagoturismo.com for information on what to see and do in Santiago de Compostela and to book guided tours of the city.
Spanish Tourist Board: See www.spain.info
The Confraternity of St James: A charity established to promote pilgrimages to the tomb of St. James, its website is packed with essential information. See www.csj.org.uk

ROUTE AND BRANCH: The cathedral as seen from
Alameda Park, where many pilgrims choose to first
view and photograph the city before entering

Saturday, 11 October 2014

STOCKHOLM: I LOVE THE ABBA MUSEUM, I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO, I DO

The illuminated sign outside the ABBA Museum in Stockholm invites visitors to WALK IN, DANCE OUT. It fails to mention that anyone who does walk in might have to be dragged out, kicking and screaming, because it’s such a fun-filled experience that nobody wants to leave. With the group’s universally-loved hits playing non-stop, a visit to the interactive ABBA Museum means you can dance, you can jive, and you’ll definitely be having the time of your life. It’s the Swedish capital’s latest world-class visitor attraction, and it’s ABBAsolutely fantastic.

ANY MINUTE NOW: Still waiting for Agnetha to call

There’s a 1970s-style red plastic telephone in the ABBA Museum that will sometimes Ring, Ring. If you’re nearest to it when the bell trills and pick it up, you’ll find yourself speaking with Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson or Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad. They’re the only people in the world who know the number, and now and then one of them will call and chat with whoever answers. Knowing my luck, if I’d answered it would have been my bank manager looking for some Money, Money, Money.
Then again, it might well have been a member of one of the world’s most successful pop groups of all time – calling to complain. The thing is, there are three booths in the museum where visitors can draw the soundproof curtain behind them and sing along, karaoke-style, to an ABBA song of their choice. Better still, by swiping the bar code on their entrance ticket, would-be chart stars are recorded and the result can be downloaded online. I couldn’t resist. I donned the headphones, stepped up to the microphone and launched into what I thought was a world-class rendition of Dancing Queen. My friends, who can be very cruel, thought otherwise. When they heard the recording later, they said: “Thank You (but No Thank You) for the Music.”
An electronic scoreboard awards points while you sing. The better you sound, according to the software, the more points you accumulate (I’d just like to point out here that computers are fallible). Anyone with half-a-note in their head can expect to score around 2,500. A good singer will get between 5,000 and 8,000. And a really good singer is up there in the 10,000-plus club. I got 744. They’ll have to get a technician in.

ABBAKADABRA: As if by magic, Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny
and Anni-Frid appeared beside me on stage
Undeterred, I jumped at the chance to “become the fifth member of ABBA”. This is where visitors, one at a time, can get up on a stage and sing along with animated holograms of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Frida. There’s a choice of songs, and not wishing to fall victim to another computer glitch I chose Money, Money, Money. The lights came up, the ghostly band appeared either side of me, the music began – and so did the abuse.
It’s not easy trying to dance, read lyrics from a monitor and sing at the same time when, on the other side of the glass that separates artiste from audience, people you thought were your pals are laughing their heads off. They were sticking their thumbs in their ears and wiggling their fingers, poking their tongues out, pulling grotesque faces and making rude gestures. Gimme, Gimme, Gimme a break, I thought. Mind you, when I downloaded the video later (swipe your ticket before going on stage for another unique souvenir) I could see their point. It was comedy gold.

VOULEZ-VIEW: A look inside the studio in which ABBA
recorded most of their singles and albums
Every one of the thousands of exhibits in the museum is the real thing – there are no replicas. The band recorded most of their singles and albums in the Polar Studios in Stockholm, and the ABBA studio has been installed in the museum. It contains the original mixing console, instruments and other gear, but best of all, there’s a piano that occasionally springs into life. It’s hooked up to another one in Benny’s studio on nearby Skeppsholmen – one of Stockholm’s 14 islands – and when he plays there, the piano in the museum plays too.
Turn a corner and there’s the helicopter from the cover of the 1976 Arrival album. Hop in, grab the joystick and have your picture taken. Close by is the green park bench from the Greatest Hits album (also 1976), with a backdrop of Benny and Frida eating the faces off each other. Next to them, Agnetha sits looking miserable and Bjorn reads a pharmaceuticals brochure promoting antibiotics (the photographer was supposed to bring a copy of Time magazine but forgot, and the brochure was all he had in his bag).

I HAVE A DREAM: A quick kiss for Agnetha while Bjorn
is occupied. Below, the helicopter from the Arrival album

Continue wandering and you’ll see the white upright piano from Benny and Bjorn’s songwriting hut on the island of Viggso, band manager Stig Anderson’s office and ABBA’s on-tour dressing room. The most photographed exhibits, though, are the costumes ABBA wore and the star-shaped guitar Bjorn played when they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, with Waterloo (the Wombles were the interval act, God love us). There are many more costumes from the band’s world tours displayed in glass cases, each vying for the gold medal for gaudiness.

HUT PARADE: White piano from Bjorn and Benny's
island hut where they wrote all the ABBA songs
GAUD LOVE US: Gaudy costumes ABBA wore when
they won the Eurovision and, below, Bjorn's guitar

Album covers in umpteen languages cover every inch of wall space, along with concert posters, programmes and tickets. There are gold discs, platinum discs (and the distinct danger of slipped discs if you overdo the dancing in the museum’s disco). If you’ve more than a passing interest in the band, there are several touch screens on your journey through the museum on which you can test your ABBA knowledge with quiz questions ranging from easy-peasy to nerdishly knowledgeable.

WATT A SIGHT: The enormous ABBA light bulb sign 
Just inside the museum entrance is the giant sign with ‘ABBA’ picked out in light bulbs that was used as a stage prop on the group’s 1979 tour of Europe and America. Four years later, they went their separate ways and ABBA was no more. Or rather, ABBA the band and ABBA the two married couples – Bjorn/Agnetha and Benny/Frida – were no more. ABBA the brand, however, lives on.
Since 1974, fans have bought 380 million albums and singles, which still sell by the truckload. Mamma Mia!, the ABBA stage musical which debuted in London in April 1999, has been seen by 50 million people worldwide and grossed more than $2 billion. And Mamma Mia! the movie, starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, which cost $52 million to make, has grossed $602 million since its release in July 2008. DVD sales to date are $138 million and counting.

HAPPY NEW GEAR: Here's how I'd look
in Benny's stage costume
The ABBA museum is clocking up impressive statistics too. A couple of weeks ago, after being open for only 17 months, it welcomed its 500,000th visitor. Even though the computer that gave me a miserly 774 points for my virtuoso singing can’t count, I can (with the aid of a calculator). Half-a-million visitors divided by 17 months is 29,411 a month, which is way beyond what museum bosses had hoped for, so the word is out and people are pouring in.
My taxi driver home from Dublin airport was convinced that if ABBA were to re-form tomorrow and announce a world tour, the tickets would sell out in minutes. It’s a nice thought, but sadly – or maybe fortunately given that the members are now all in their mid to late-60s – it won’t happen. However, we can still be grateful for their songs. So, ABBA, thank you for the music – and thank you for the museum. For two laughter-filled hours I made an absolute fool of myself and enjoyed every second. It was Funny, Funny, Funny.

DANCING SWEEN: Throwing shapes,
and caution to the wind, in the disco
The ABBA Museum (Djurgardsvagen 68, Djurgarden) is part of the Swedish Music Hall of Fame and is open from 10am to 6pm from Saturday to Tuesday and 10am to 8pm from Wednesday to Friday. Tickets (buy online via the website below) are for pre-selected time slots to avoid overcrowding and so visitors can avoid queues.
Admission costs 195 kronor (€21.35) for adults, 50kr for an accompanying child aged seven to 15 and 145kr for each additional child (children up to seven enter free). No cash changes hands, so bring a debit or credit card (prepaid cards are available to buy in the Melody Hotel in the same building). 
A fascinating audio guide narrated in English by the members of ABBA (it was written by Catherine Johnson, who scripted the Mamma Mia! movie) is available to rent for 40kr.

NAME THAT TUNE: Here's a clue to an
ABBA song. Answers on a postcard, please
OTHER GREAT THINGS TO SEE AND DO
Vasa Museum (Galarvarvsvagen 14, Djurgarden): My long-time favourite museum in the world. The great Swedish warship Vasa, which was launched in Stockholm on August 10, 1628, had a very brief maiden voyage. It had gone only 1,300 metres after setting sail when a gust of wind caused the top-heavy vessel to tip over, and within an hour Vasa was 32 metres beneath the Baltic. On April 24, 1961, after sitting upright on the seabed for 333 years, an extraordinary salvage operation brought Vasa to the surface. Thanks to the brackish water and the absence of the destructive teredo worm which can’t survive in the Baltic, the ship’s timbers remained intact for more than three centuries. Step inside the museum on the island of Djurgarden and there she is, a massive, magnificent wooden warship, pieced back together and preserved in showroom condition. It’s an amazing, overwhelming sight. You can read the whole remarkable story of ‘Sweden’s Titanic’ in my article ‘Sweden: Holm Swede Holm’ (www.tomsweeneytravels.blogspot.ie/2013/02/sweden-holm-swede-holm.html).

WOOD YOU BELIEVE IT? The lovingly preserved Vasa
warship. Below, a sentry at the Palace
Photos: Ola Ericson

Kungliga Slottet (Royal Palace, Gamla Stan): The official residence of King Carl Gustav, though his actual residence is Drottningholm Palace, which is accessible by boat during the summer. The 18th century Royal Palace, built in the Italian baroque style on the site of the old Three Crowns Castle which burned down in 1697, is in the old town and is one of the world’s biggest inhabited palaces, with more than 600 rooms. The daily changing of the guard, sometimes on horseback, is great for photos.
Stadshuset (City Hall, Hantverkargatan 1): This is where every December 10 the Nobel Banquet is held. It’s a glittering occasion in equally glittering surroundings – the Golden Hall is adorned with 18.5 million gold mosaic pieces and is a magnificent must-see. Inaugurated on Midsummer’s Eve 1923, this red brick, super-sized Italian Renaissance palace by the water is one of Stockholm’s most popular visitor attractions (there are fabulous views from the 110-metre tower, summer only). It’s also the city’s administrative centre, with hundreds of people working there, so tours (guided only) can sometimes be cancelled at short notice because of events inside. Individuals can turn up and join one of the regular tours, but groups of more than 10 should book in advance.

SUMMER NIGHT CITY: City Hall and the freshwater
Lake Malaren at night
Werner Nystrand
Fotografiska (Stadsgardshamnen 22): If it was captured on film or digital, it’s on show here. Fotografiska hosts four large and 20 smaller exhibitions of international contemporary photography each year. There’s a great restaurant that has helped turn Fotografiska into a popular meeting place, and the bar on the top floor is one of the city’s best viewing points. Open until 9pm, so there’s no excuse to miss it.
Skansen Open-Air Museum (Djurgardsslatten 49-51, Djurgarden): Step back through five centuries of Swedish history in the world’s oldest open-air museum, founded in 1891 and staffed by characters in period dress. Skansen has more than 150 historical dwellings, farm buildings, shops and workshops brought from all over Sweden and reconstructed amid beautiful gardens and woodland. There’s also a zoo that’s home to wild Nordic animals including wolves, lynx, elks, moose, bears and seals; several great restaurants and plenty of snack outlets; plus souvenir shops selling Swedish handicrafts. December is a great time to visit Skansen, when the weekend Christmas markets are in full swing.
Skyview (Globentorget 2): Visitors can travel up the outside of the world’s biggest spherical building, the Ericsson Globe, in 16-person glass gondolas to the top (130m). As you might imagine, the views over the city from up there are something special.

SPHERE OF HEIGHTS: The Ericsson
Globe 
Tommy Andersson
Nationalmuseum (National Museum of Fine Arts, Sodra Blasieholmshamnen 2): You could easily spend all day in here admiring and marvelling at the permanent exhibition of 20th and 21st Century design. There’s everything from pop art and post-modern furnishings to everyday household and industrial items, all displaying the simplicity and functional beauty that are the trademarks of Swedish craftsmanship. The wider collection of paintings, drawings, sculptures and graphic arts includes works by Hanna Pauli, Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn, Renoir, Rubens, Rembrandt, Goya, Degas and Gauguin.

SIGHTSEAING: Cruising around the
Stockholm archipelago 
Conny Fridh
Archipelago Tours: Stockholm’s archipelago is among the world’s most spectacular, making a boat tour a not-to-be-missed opportunity. The Fjaderholmarna group of islands is only 20 minutes from the city centre, so it’s ideal for visitors on short stays. The island of Sandhamn is home to the Royal Swedish Yacht Club plus hotels, an inn and several restaurants and bars so you can make a full day of it or even stay overnight. The charming waterside town of Vaxholm with its wooden houses painted in sorbet shades is postcard-pretty, and the Waxholm Hotel is a favourite with locals and regular visitors for lunch or dinner.
Millennium Tours: Fans of late thriller writer Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy will struggle to contain their excitement on a guided walking tour in the footsteps of Lisbeth ‘Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ Salander and investigative journalist Mikael Blomkvist.
  
GREAT PLACES TO EAT
Meatballs for the People (Nytorgsgatan 30, Sodermalm) sounds like a revolutionary rallying cry, and it hasn’t gone unheard. Opened only last year, this corner diner with additional tables outside is busy morning, noon and night, and no wonder. As the name suggests, it serves meatballs, in 10 delicious varieties – ox, veal, elk, reindeer, pork, lamb, wild boar, roe deer, rooster and veggie – with boiled potatoes and cream or tomato sauce or oxtail gravy. A dollop of lingonberry jam is a must, and you might also order a jar of pickled cauliflower or gherkins or a side salad.

VEAL MEAT AGAIN: Ten varieties of meatballs are on
offer at Meatballs for the People 
Nystekt Stromming (Sodermalmstorg 1) is a Stockholm institution beloved by locals and in-the-know visitors. For 20-odd years this street food cart outside Slussen subway station has been serving the most delicious fried Baltic herring, and from the day it opened squawking squadrons of seagulls have been trying to deprive customers of their combo plates. Order fillets of fish accompanied by mashed potatoes, pickled cucumber, red onion and fresh dill or try my favourite, a herring burger. Open from 10am to 8pm, sometimes later.
Angbatsbryggan (Strandvagen 18) is a floating restaurant built on a barge and flanked by historic steamboats on the waterfront. The open kitchen produces fabulous dishes inspired by the first-class menu from the Titanic, with starters from 45kr (gazpacho and gambas) to 175kr (caviar and toast) and mains from 195kr (shrimp salad with eggs and avocado) to 310kr (grilled halibut with scallop, cauliflower and arancini with blue cheese). Dine inside or out and watch the world flow by.

FULL FEED AHEAD: Dine in style at Angbatsbryggan
Snotty Sound Bar (Skanegatan 90, Sodermalm) is not to be sniffed at, despite the snigger-inducing name. There’s nothing snotty or, indeed, snooty about this affectation-free Seventies-style meeting, eating and well-worth-tweeting place. Album covers and band posters adorn the walls and hipsters adorn the sofas, seats and stools. Eat, drink and take note of what the fashionable Swedes are wearing and listening to (mostly indie rock) and be a much-admired trend-setter when you return home. Open from 4pm to 1am (bar food served until 10pm).
Verandan at the Grand Hotel (Sodra Blasieholmshamnen 8) is ‘the’ place to go for the famed Swedish smorgasbord, the culinary equivalent of running a marathon. Or rather, walking a marathon, because this is a self-service banquet where you take your pick and take your time. A useful pamphlet informs the uninitiated (including Pharrell Williams who was there on the same night as me and looked Happy) that the smorgasbord is a four to six-course meal involving several trips to the buffet, but you’d need to be on a diet (or on fire and in a hurry) if you stuck to only six courses. Forget the guidelines and go for it, in this traditional order: herring (half-a-dozen varieties to try) with boiled potatoes, plus tangy Swedish cheese and crisp bread accompanied by a shot of aquavit and chased with ice-cold beer; other fish dishes, mainly salmon, in smoked, poached and marinated (gravadlax) versions, the last served with mustard sauce with dill; a selection of salads, egg dishes and cold cuts of meat and poultry; and hot dishes, including homemade meatballs. Price per person is 485kr.

DESSERT ISLAND: Bla Porten on the island
of Djurgarden is the place to go for fika 
Bla Porten/Blue Gate (Djurgarsvagen 64, beside the ABBA Museum). The distinctly Swedish tradition of fika, or coffee and cakes in convivial surroundings and good company, is taken to a colourful and irresistible new level in this delightful indoor and outdoor restaurant. You can almost hear the long wooden tables creaking like a ship’s timbers under the weight of the eye-popping array of cakes, cookies, cinnamon buns, open sandwiches and other treats. Fika fare is available throughout Stockholm, but there’s something especially friendly and homely about Bla Porten that makes it stand out from the rest. As an added bonus, it’s a short stroll from some of the city’s top tourist attractions.

CRACKING CHOICE: Choose your own lobster and
get cracking at B.A.R. 
Tuukka Ervasti
B.A.R. (Blasieholmsgatan 4A, behind Grand Hotel). No restaurant in Stockholm loses as many menus as this one – customers keep ‘accidentally’ walking out with them under their coats. While such pilfering can’t be condoned, it’s understandable – anyone who has dinner in B.A.R. wants to show their friends back home what they’ve missed. If any restaurant in the world is going to convert vegetarians, it’s this one. Choose from meat, fish and shellfish specialities (select your own lobster from the tank), grab a bib and get tucked in. It’s a wee bit pricey, but worth every penny.
Kvarnen (Tjarhovsgatan 4, Sodermalm). Busy restaurant by day, laid-back bar by night that’s full of character and characters. Kvarnen’s name will be familiar to Stieg Larsson fans – it’s mentioned in the Millennium books as one of the hangouts of Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist. They have excellent taste.

DELI-CIOUS: Try the cold plate at the super-trendy
Nytorget Urban Deli
Tuukka Ervasti
Nytorget Urban Deli (Nytorget 4, Sodermalm). Every city should have a place like this. NUD, as it’s known to the locals, is a mix of grocery store, food hall and restaurant/bar where you can buy everything you need for a picnic or sit and enjoy a wine or coffee while tucking into a freshly-prepared sandwich, salad or pastry.
Herman’s (Fjallgatan 23B, Sodermalm). Vegetarian buffet with a big veranda (heated in winter) offering views of Gamla Stan that are as tasty as the food. Superb organic dishes and the chance to photograph spectacular sunsets over the Old Town. A message on the website expresses the wish that customers might “walk in peas”. I’m guessing they mean “peace”, though it might be a veggie in-joke.

RAILLY GOOD: The centrally-located new HTL Hotel,
a short stroll from the train station
GREAT PLACE TO STAY
HTL: There’s a hip new hotel in town, and it’s going to be a huge hit. To keep costs down, HTL (Kungsgatan 53) has cut out everything deemed unnecessary, including apparently the vowels O and E from its name. The 274-room minimalist-modern HTL opened only five months ago, but word-of-mouth has quickly established it as a good-value, good-looking, good-vibe place to stay. I stayed there a couple of weeks ago, and I can’t wait to go back. Here’s why:
It’s super-affordable. For example, a room for two people for two nights including breakfast costs from 2,098kr (€230). That’s €115 each, or €57.50 per person per night.
It’s ideally located, a mere five-minute wheelie-bag drag from the central train station.
It’s staffed by the cool kids who graduated top of the class from the school of charm, but without the smarm. They’re really nice, and deserve generous tips.
You can check-in online before you arrive and receive your room key direct to your smartphone, which cuts out reception desk queues. Or, if you’re technologically-challenged like me, just tell one of the cool kids you’ve left your smartphone at home and they’ll give you a keycard.
There’s no checking-out – as your room is paid in advance and incidentals are paid as you go, simply pack and leave. No queuing to get in, no queuing to get out.
The smartphone app that provides your room key comes with a digital Stockholm guide, Local Everywhere, offering great insider tips from Swedish journalists, broadcasters, bloggers, designers and stylists who know their capital city inside out. It’s packed with top recommendations for bars, restaurants, cafes and shops.
Wifi is free throughout the hotel, including in the rooms – none of that old lobby-only nonsense or, heaven forbid, being charged for it.

GOING HOLM: SAS flies from Dublin to Stockholm
FLY
Fly SAS Plus from Dublin to Stockholm from €110pp one way, including 2 x 23kg checked bags, changeable tickets, fast-track security, lounge access and complimentary food/drink on board.
Fly SAS from Dublin to Stockholm from €76pp one way, including 1 x 23kg checked bag, coffee or tea on board, as well as several services to save time, including mobile check-in.
During the winter months, SAS flies four times a week from Dublin to Stockholm.

CONNECT
Frequent Arlanda Express trains connect Arlanda Airport with Stockholm Central Station (20-minute journey). Express coaches connect Arlanda with the Cityterminalen and leave every 10 to 15 minutes. Or travel in a six or eight-seater supershuttle mini-cab with other passengers and share the fare, with hotel drop-offs and pick-ups. The standard taxi fare (you can pay by debit or credit card) between Arlanda and the city centre should be around 500kr/€55.

SAVE
Buy a Stockholm Card and enjoy free admission to 80 museums and attractions. Available for 24, 48, 72 or 120 hours, the card also offers unlimited free travel on the subway, buses, commuter trains and trams plus free sightseeing Royal Canal Tour. There are also discounts on the Stockholm Panorama and Open Top Tours sightseeing buses and on island-hopper boat trips within the harbour and archipelago. Make full use of your card and it will quickly pay for itself.

THANK YOU, MALM: Sodermalm, where
all the hipsters hang out
Ola Ericson