Wednesday, 31 October 2018

STOCKHOLM: MY TOP 10


Stockholm is Europe’s coolest and classiest city, but a long weekend there doesn’t come cheap. Nevertheless, it’s well worth saving that little bit longer to fully enjoy all that the posh Swedish capital has to offer. Here are my Top 10 Stockholm favourites


1. Vasa Museum 
On August 10, 1628, the magnificent but catastrophically top-heavy wooden warship Vasa was launched in Stockholm Harbour. Twenty minutes and 1,300 metres later, Sweden’s Titanic tipped over and sank with the loss of 50 of its 100 crew.

Thanks to the brackish water, the ship’s timbers remained intact on the seabed for 333 years. In August 1961, the wreck was raised and, after three decades of drying-out, reconstruction and ‘embalming’, it was unveiled in showroom condition in a museum built around it.

At the opening ceremony in June 1990, King Carl XVI Gustaf cut a ribbon, much to the relief of the curators who had feared he might break a bottle of champagne against Vasa’s bow and undo 29 years of painstaking preservation.

Details: Galarvarvsvagen 14, Djurgarden, vasamuseet.se; SEK130/€12.50


2. ABBA Museum
You can dance, you can jive, and you’ll definitely be having the time of your life here. In a recording booth, choose an ABBA hit and sing along, then download your effort with a computer-generated score (the average is around 2,500 points  ̶  I got 744).

Become the fifth member of the band by performing on stage with holograms of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid  ̶  the free downloadable video is a unique souvenir.

There’s a red phone on a table, and when it rings once a day, whoever answers it can chat with one of the four superstars  ̶  they’re the only people who know the number. Fans will love the original memorabilia including costumes, instruments and album covers in umpteen languages.

The sign at the entrance reads “Walk in. Dance out”, but you might have to be dragged out as it’s such a fun-filled experience. 

Details: Djurgardsvagen 68, abbathemuseum.com; SEK250/€24


3. Subway Art
Stockholm has 100 Metro stations, and 90 of them have been decorated in spectacular style by 150 painters, sculptors and mosaic artists. The half-million commuters who pass through the stations every weekday hardly notice the remarkable renderings, but visitors will be bowled over  ̶  especially if they stand taking photos during rush hours.

Free guided tours in English are available on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from June to August; they start at 3pm from the SL customer centre in T-Centralen station (enter from Sergels Torg square) and last around an hour, and all you need to tag along is a valid Metro ticket. 



4. Skansen
The world’s oldest open-air museum, founded in 1891, depicts five centuries of how Swedes once lived and worked. The 100-odd historical homes, farmhouses, shops and workshops are originals, brought from all over the country and rebuilt on site.

Staff wear period costumes, and there’s a Little House on the Prairie look to the place, though no nasty Nellie Olson running around sticking her tongue out. Popular attractions include the glassblower’s cottage, where visitors can watch craftsmen at work; and Seglora Church, which dates from the early 18th century and is a venue for posh weddings.

When kids have had their fill of giggling at long johns hanging on washing lines, there’s a great petting zoo.

Details: Djugardsslatten 49-51, skansen.se; adult tickets SEK195/€19


5. Millennium Tour
Join a guided walk in the footsteps of journalist Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ Salander. Saturday morning tours (plus Thursday evening, July to September) of the trendy Sodermalm district begin at Bellmansgatan 1 (above), where Blomkvist lives, and end at Fiskargatan 9, where hacker Lisbeth has her €3m penthouse.

There are stops at several of the characters’ hangouts, including the fictional Millennium magazine’s offices (above the real Greenpeace HQ) and the 7-Eleven where Lisbeth stocks up on frozen pizzas and cigarettes. 

You’ll also visit Melqvist Kaffebar, where Blomkvist gets his caffeine kicks, and Kvarnen, the beer hall and restaurant where Lisbeth meets her rock chick pals and the Millennium journos wind down (go there for lunch post-tour). Tickets cost SEK 150 (€14.50). 



6. Meatballs For The People
It sounds like a revolutionary rallying call, but Meatballs For The People is a corner diner, bar and shop in Sodermalm that’s busy morning, noon and night serving a dozen varieties of meatballs including reindeer, wild boar, rooster, salmon, bear and vegan. They all come with boiled potatoes and a choice of sour cream, tomato sauce or oxtail gravy, and a dollop of lingonberry jam is de rigueur.

The diner closes for a summer break, during which the same moreish menu is served from its food truck, the Meatball Mobile, from noon to 7pm on sunny days next to Restaurant Djurgardsbrunn (Djurgardsbrunnvagen 68; check Instagram for details).

If your only experience of Swedish meatballs is those bland little musket shots from Ikea, you’re in for an awakening. 

Details: Nytorgsgatan 30, Sodermalm, meatball.se; instagram.com/meatballsforthepeople


7. Grand Hotel Smorgasbord
The Veranda Restaurant at the Grand Hotel lays on the smorgasbord by which all others are judged. At 565 kronor (€55pp) it’s not cheap, but the views of the harbour, Royal Palace and Old Town help take the sting out of the bill.

This is a five-course affair, so pace yourself. Start with the herring dishes with boiled potatoes and tangy cheese. Next comes the gravlax  ̶  dry-cured and spiced salmon with dill and mustard sauces  ̶  plus several types of smoked salmon. This is followed by egg dishes, salads, pates and charcuterie. Then come the hot dishes, including meatballs. Finally, the decadent desserts. 

Wine is scarily expensive in Sweden, so drink shots of the hotel’s homemade aquavit (schnapps) and beer chasers.

Details: Sodra Blasieholmshalmnen 8, grandhotel.se


8. HTL 
This city centre hotel, which is so hip it should have a beard and tattoos, has cut out everything deemed unnecessary to keep accommodation costs down, including apparently the vowels O and E from its name.

This great-value, good-vibe place to stay is a five-minute walk from Central Station and staffed by the cool kids who graduated top of the class from the school of Scandinavian charm but without the smarm. 

Pay and check-in online before you arrive and receive your room key direct to your smartphone, meaning no reception desk queues on the way in or out. The HTL app includes a frequently updated Stockholm guide with top tips from local journalists, bloggers and bar and restaurant reviewers who know their capital city inside out.

Details: Kungsgaten 53, htlhotels.com; rooms from €120 B&B


9. Gamla Stan
The best bar in town, Wirstroms, is also home to the Stockholm branch of the Oxford United fan club, who are two very nice fellas.Wirstroms (founded 1998), which does great pub grub, is in the heart of Gamla Stan (founded 1252), which does great Instagram  ̶  it’s one of the best-preserved and most beautiful medieval old towns in Europe and is a joy to wander around. 

The cathedral is worth a quick look inside, and the changing of the guard at the Royal Palace is a top photo opp, but a visit to Gamla Stan is really for chilling and watching the world go by from a terrace table in Stortorget, the city’s oldest square.

For a laugh, try getting up or down the 36 steep stairs at Marten Trotzigs Grand without meeting someone halfway and having to turn back  ̶  at only 90cm wide, it’s Stockholm’s narrowest alley (the world’s narrowest alley, at 31cm, is the Spreuerhofstrasse in Reutlingen, Germany). 

Details: Wirstroms, Stora Nygaten 13, wirstromspub.se


10. Archipelago Tour
Stockholm is built on 14 islands, but there are 30,000 of them in the archipelago, where the River Malaren meets the Baltic Sea. Baltic might be a byword for hypothermia, but throughout the summer, when Stockholm swelters in temperatures of up to 25C, you can join outdoors-loving Swedes for a dip  ̶  or a skinny dip  ̶  a stone’s throw from the city centre. 

Water buses and tour boats take sightseers out into the archipelago from dawn to dusk, dropping off and picking up at the bigger islands that offer visitors beautiful sandy beaches, great cafes and bars and fine restaurants.


GET THERE
SAS (flysas.com) flies from Dublin to Stockholm Arlanda, with one-way fares from €49 (hand baggage only). 

The Arlanda Express train takes 20 minutes to the city centre (arlandaexpress.com; departures every 15 mins). 

Friday, 27 April 2018

TRANSYLVANIA: WHATEVER YOU DO, DON'T MENTION YOU-KNOW-WHO

Transylvania rocks at least it will for four days in August when its main city, Cluj-Napoca, welcomes 300,000 party animals to the third Untold Festival of electronic music. For the rest of the year, Romania's biggest region plays host to a more sedate yet no less enthusiastic influx of tourists who quickly discover that it's not all vampires. The scenery is spectacular, the people are warm and welcoming – and the beer is a mere 1.40 a pint. Put it on your bucket list now.

Romania's No1 visitor attraction, the spectacular and spooky 'Castle Dracula'
For tour guide Radu Zahanie, memories of life under the cruel dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu are triggered by the most innocuous of sights, such as an apple tree in a roadside garden as we approach Bran.

“When I was a boy in Sibiu,” says Radu, “our teacher told us Ceausescu was coming to visit our school and we must make a good impression. The few leaves on the trees outside were brown, so we painted them green and tied apples to the branches. They weren’t even apple trees, but Ceausescu was an ignorant man and didn’t know the difference.

Like all of his compatriots who endured the hunger and other hardships of the Communist era, Radu relishes the freedom that post-revolution democracy has brought. However, while the machine gun execution of Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, on Christmas Day 1989 rid Romania of two real life monsters, it’s stuck with a fictional one, and most people don’t like it one little bit.

It’s ironic, then, that the 14th century Bran Castle, brilliantly marketed worldwide as Castle Dracula, is Romania’s number one tourist attraction. Even more ironic is the fact that Bran has nothing to do with the blood- sucking count created by Dubliner Bram Stoker, whose 1897 Gothic horror novel has spawned scores of films; nor is Dracula based on 15th century Vlad the Impaler, Prince of Wallachia, who disposed of his enemies by skewering them on sharpened wooden poles.

To put it bluntly, Bran, a fortress built on a rock, is a business built on a book. It’s a national monument, but a national embarrassment to millions who resent their go-ahead country being viewed as steeped in silly superstition and primarily identified with a vampire. Nevertheless, the Dracula legend provides a living for thousands of people in an economy where the average monthly take-home salary is 2,100 lei (€465).

Despite the detractors, the castle is a spectacular and spooky must-see, though only from a distance as the interior is a bit of a disappointment. Every year, Bran lures 600,000 people through its creaking main door (“They deliberately don’t oil the hinges, for effect,” says Radu) and then lets them down.

Professionally translated and edited information boards and literature and some interactive displays would help make the visitor experience a more positive one. Until that happens, the 40 Lei (€8.50) entrance fee would be better spent on six pints of the excellent Ursus lager or a three-course lunch with wine − food and drink in Romania are remarkably cheap.

Stunningly beautiful Peles Castle, former summer residence of Romanian royals
The late Christopher Lee, who played Dracula in six Hammer House of Horror films in the 1960s, said while on location in Romania that it was “the saddest country I have ever visited”. It’s a happier place now, and Bogdan, our ever-smiling tour bus driver, is the epitome of the ebullient spirit we note in encounters with people throughout Transylvania.

Earlier in the day, the bus rolled into the ski resort of Sinaia, which in late October was snowless and all but deserted. Half-a-kilometre after what had appeared on approach to be a kitchen showroom but turned out to be full of coffins, Bogdan swung a left and drove up the steep, snaking road to Peles Castle.

The Beauty to Bran’s Beast, Peles was built in the German Neo-Renaissance/ Gothic Revival style between 1873 and 1883. This 160-room former summer home of the first king of modern Romania, Carol I, and his queen, Elisabeth, appears to have been crafted by a master chocolatier using Milky Bars for the main exterior structure, Dairy Milk for the timber features and Caramac for the ornamental brickwork. It’s exquisite.

Peles, which has been a museum since 1953, was recently inherited by Princess Margareta, the eldest of deposed King Michael I’s five daughters and an old girlfriend of former British prime minister Gordon Brown − they were an item during their five years as students at Edinburgh University.

Michael, who was born in Peles in October 1921, died last December at the age of 96 in Switzerland. On  December 30, 1947, he was forced to abdicate by the Communists. With a pistol pointed at his head and the threat that 1,000 student protesters under arrest in Bucharest would be shot if he didn’t step down, he signed on the dotted line. Later that day, the monarchy was abolished.

The late king was a great great grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria and a fourth cousin of Charles, Prince of Wales. Charles’ connection with Romania comes as a big surprise: the heir to the British throne is a great grandson 16 times removed of Vlad and besotted with Transylvania. However, Radu is saving that story for later the next day, which begins with a pleasant dander around the medieval city of Brasov.

Brasov's version of the famed hillside Hollywood sign
Anyone arriving blindfolded in Brasov would know exactly where they were as soon as sight was restored − look to the top of the 960-metre Mount Tampa and there’s the city’s name in giant white letters that are illuminated at night.

In October 1950, Brasov was renamed Orasul Stalin (Stalin City) and remained so until 1960, when it was changed back. There was no Hollywood-type sign in those days, but local people swear that huge swathes of the forested mountainside were cleared so that the treeless spaces spelled STALIN.

Only one photo exists of the comrades’ tribute to ‘Uncle Joe’. It could be genuine, but weighing up the flimsy evidence − a grainy old black and white image that looks like it has been doctored − it might be a tale as tall as Mount Tampa.

Brasov’s star turn is the originally Roman Catholic but long-time Lutheran Black Church, which was built between 1385 and 1477 and is Transylvania’s biggest Gothic place of worship. Officially the Church of Saint Mary, it got the name by which it’s known from its charred facade following a fire in 1689 that was so ferocious it melted a six-ton bell in the tower.

Outside the church is an age-tarnished bronze statue of Brasov-born theologian Johannes Honter (1498 to 1549), with his extended right hand pointing into the distance. Fans of Mel Brooks’ comic horror movie, Young Frankenstein, never miss the opportunity to stand beneath the statue, point like Honter and say: “Werewolf? There wolf.”

Statue of Johannes Honter in Brasov. Below, the poky
'cells' where Prejmer people sought refuge during siege

We leave Brasov for Prejmer and a tour of the town’s fortified church, the first of two on today’s travels and one of seven in Transylvania that together are classified as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Built by Saxon settlers between the 13th and 16th centuries, these seven, plus scores more throughout the region, offered protection to villagers in times of assault by Wallachian, Mongol and Ottoman raiders.

From the street, Prejmer’s whitewashed circular fortifications resemble an Andalucian bullring. Germanic Teutonic Knights began building the church within in 1218, but were expelled seven years later; it was completed in 1240 by Cistercians and is worth a quick peek inside, no more, because it’s the impressive defensive structure that tourists come to see.

The walls are five metres thick and 12 metres high and house 270 poky rooms on four storeys. In these cramped spaces, 1,600 villagers would shelter, sometimes for weeks or months and to the point of starvation, when invaders descended on them. The terror, and the increasingly unsanitary conditions that led to the rampant spread of disease as families cowered under the onslaught from without, can only be imagined.

It’s with these unsavoury scenes in mind that we reboard the bus and set off for the heritage village of Viscri, where the only invaders these days are tourists.

Interior and exterior of the Unesco World Heritage Site fortified church in Viscri

Romania’s membership of the European Union, to which it was admitted in 2007, has brought many much-needed improvements to the country’s transport infrastructure. However, when Bogdan indicates right as the sign for Viscri hoves into view, we’re in for a 7km bone-rattling ride along a cratered gravel track. This is the village that Tarmac forgot and which, says Radu, Prince Charles adores.

Two hundred years ago, Viscri was 100 per cent Saxon. Today, it’s home to 430 people − 65pc gypsies (the name they call themselves), 30pc Romanians and 5pc German-speaking Saxons. However, for one week every summer the population increases by half-a-dozen when the royal visitor and his small entourage come to stay.

Charles owns a four-bedroomed house for which he paid €15,000 in 1996 and which caters to paying guests. It’s also the headquarters of his Romanian charitable trust, which works to preserve rural architecture through training courses for unemployed people who graduate with restoration skills that often lead to full-time jobs.

Walk the streets of Viscri − there are only four − and you’ll soon have a gang of nosy and noisy ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys in tow. A 150-year-old scooped-out tree trunk serves as a water trough for horses, which are the main means of transport and haulage for the gypsy families. In the surrounding fields, it’s horses that pull the ploughs, threshers and other antiquated agricultural machinery. It should all be in black and white.

The village’s time warp charm is reason enough to visit, but the fortified church dating from 1230 steals the show, which is hosted by Saxon caretaker, historian and local tourism promoter Gerhild Gross, who immediately apologises for the state of the access road. She’s appeased when we tell her it’s like an airport runway compared with some of the potholed obstacle courses we have to negotiate while driving in rural Ireland.

The whole ensemble, including the surrounding defensive walls and towers, is a lot smaller than Prejmer’s yet just as impressive; however, Viscri’s modest church looks and feels lived in, like a much-loved pair of old slippers. In a Daily Telegraph list of the world’s two dozen most beautiful churches, it ranked fifth.

Count Kalnoky's lovely guest cottages in the quaint village of Miclosoara

Prince Charles’ old friend and fellow conservationist Count Tibor Kalnoky is also in the bed and breakfast business, and it’s to his cosy, 200-year-old guest cottages in the village of Miclosoara that we proceed after saying auf wiedersehen to Gerhild.

The half-dozen former hunting lodges, set around a grassy area with a redundant well in the middle, were heated by log fires and lit by oil lamps and candles until only a couple of decades ago; now they have electricity and en suite bathrooms but, refreshingly, no TVs.

The count’s PR executive, Iulia, is the perfect hostess in her boss’s absence and tells us about his admirable heritage and educational projects over a splendid dinner in the main house that starts at 8pm and ends at ridiculous o’clock. It’s a cockerel with a death wish that rouses us from our hardly-slept-in antique beds just after dawn.

Breakfast is a subdued affair, and despite the enticing spread of fruits, charcuterie, cheeses and hot-from-the-oven bread, everyone craves coffee. Romanians like theirs black, and the waitress has presumed we do, too. Iulia asks her to fetch some milk, and she returns 15 minutes later, not with a carton from the village shop but with a pail filled to the brim, courtesy of the next-door neighbour’s cow. There’s another wait while she boils it (the milk, not the cow) before delivering a jug to the table.

Count Kalnoky’s the main mover and shaker in these parts, and must have been shaking when he inspected his wine cellar after our departure. Luckily, we have a head start as Bogdan bowls along the highway towards the 12th century citadel of Sighisoara, where Vlad the Impaler was born. “Not Dracula − Vlad,” Radu stresses.

Tower gateway entrance to Sighisoara's medieval citadel
Like Bran, Sighisoara is full of souvenir shops overflowing with vampire-themed tat. If your mantelpiece is missing a statuette of a bald, dicky-bowed Dracula wearing a black cape and pink, stone-washed denims and about to sink his fangs into a naked young woman’s neck, this is the place to buy it.

It’s a couple of minutes before midday, and in the main square all eyes are on the gilded clock face high up on the 14th century gateway tower. Radu explains that every hour, on the hour, animated mechanical figurines emerge from a niche to the left of the clock and put on a bit of a show.

His commentary attracts a dozen or so American tourists who edge closer to listen, until one of them spots a plaque on the wall of the nearby mustard-coloured building and excitedly beckons her friends to follow her. The inscription reads: “Vlad Tepes Draculea was born here in 1431.”

“No, please − the information is wrong,” Radu calls as they hurry off. “Vlad could not have been born there. It’s impossible! That house was built in the early 1600s − the original one is gone.” So, too, are the Americans, who spend the next five minutes posing for pointing-at-the-plaque photos.

Next door to the house is a restaurant that purports to contain the small, dimly lit room where the newborn Vlad drew his first breath – and many a terrified tourist nearly drew their last.

“Maybe four years ago, a fellow dressed like Dracula worked in that restaurant,” says Radu. “His job was to remain silent in the coffin in the small room and listen for visitors, then throw open the lid, jump up and scare them. Unfortunately, one day a lady tourist fainted with the shock and her husband punched Dracula very hard on the chin and he fell back into the coffin, unconscious. When he woke up, he told the boss, ‘PIease, I don’t want to be Dracula any more, it’s too dangerous’, and now he’s a waiter in another place.”

The beautiful city of Cluj-Napoca, the gateway to Romania's Transylvania region
Radu and Bogdan join us for a farewell dinner later that evening in the university city of Cluj-Napoca, from where we’ll fly home the following morning. The early chit-chat is of how our preconceptions of Transylvania – based, to our discredit, on decades-old horror films – have been blown out of the water.

There were occasions when we’d wished Radu would lighten up and stop doing the whole Dracula thing down, but in hindsight he’s right to focus on promoting Transylvania’s rich history, remarkable natural beauty and outstanding architectural heritage.

“Transylvania isn’t all Bran,” he says, and we wait for the punchline to his breakfast cereal joke. We’re still waiting. Our guide doesn’t tell jokes, he tells fascinating stories about the country of which he and Bogdan are so rightly proud.

At the airport, Radu exhorts us to “take home happy memories of Romania”. We need no urging, but it’s a good thing he doesn’t know that in our hold luggage most of us are also taking home tacky mementoes of you-know-who.

Just what every mantelpiece needs
GET THERE
I travelled to Romania as a guest of low-fare airline Blue Air (www.blueairweb.com) and the Romanian National Tourist Board (www.romaniatourism.com). For summer 2018, Blue Air flies on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday direct from Dublin to Bucharest from €45.49 one way; and on Monday, Wednesday and Friday direct from Dublin to Cluj from €49.74.
GET AROUND
Our tour of Transylvania was organised by long-established and fully-licensed Romanian operator Eximtur (www.romaniaforall.com). The company offers a wide range of escorted tours and tailor-made packages including transport, hotels and multilingual guides. 
STAY
Bucharest: Concorde Old Bucharest Hotel, 38-42 Franceza Street, Splauil Independentei. (http://www.hotelconcorde.ro)
Cristian (near Brasov): Ambient Resort, 23 Morii Street (http://www.resortambient.ro)
Miclosoara: Count Kalnoky’s Cottages, Miclosoara village (http://guest.transylvaniancastle.com)
Cluj-Napoca: Hotel Beyfin, 3 Piata Avram Iancu. (http://www.hotelbeyfin.com/)