Ever dreamed of seeing the magical Northern Lights stretched out across the skies in their full splendor? Who hasn’t?! I had seen pictures from a friend’s trip northward, and of course – it totally fired up my imagination. Uday started scouting good viewing locations. Iceland, Finland, even Scotland – everywhere we looked, we had only two options. One, we had to drive – oops! neither of us had a driving license. Two, we had to be driven around, at midnight by touring companies with a bunch of other strangers – Err.. No – and definitely not at those wallet-unfriendly prices. There were no blog posts about “seeing the northern lights without having to drive around”. And then fortunately, we came across someone on a Tripadvisor forum who had seen the Northern lights many times and suggested the little village of Abisko, in Northern Sweden. A little more research confirmed that his suggestion was indeed fantastic.
So, it was early on a cold Valentine’s day, we departed from Paris for Stockholm. This was still the thick of winter, and getting into a snow-covered “big” city was as visually bland as one can imagine. We took a public bus to the city center, and wandered around looking for the right metro to head to our B&B. Meanwhile, the telescoping handle on one of our carry-ons refused to extend, and after several attempts at trying to avoid carrying it around, we were exhausted enough to head straight for lunch instead. We’d heard of a nice place called Vete-katten and decided to go there.
Café Vetekatten (literally ‘Wheat Cat’) is one of Stockholm’s most authentic cake shops and cafés. Lonely Planet even calls it an “institution”. This is a non-trendy traditional coffee house, that has maintained its interior decor from the 1920s. Unlike the early 1900s in France, Stockholm seems to have had designers who appreciated natural light, and well-lit spaces. The coffee house had sprawling room after room of wooden chairs and tables, any of which you could sit at and nibble on one of the many intriguing baked goodies delectably placed on display.
The Swedes apparently have a strong café culture – life revolves around a “Fika” (inverted ca–fi), and there are plenty of coffee places around town. This short NYT piece gives a good sense of the Swedish Fika experience.
My personal favorite (and I discovered it only because nearly everyone in the entirely packed café was having one) was the Semla – a wheat bun filled at the bottom with an almond paste of some sort, spiced ever so slightly with cardamom and topped with the lightest whipped cream I’ve ever had – oh delicious! We enjoyed Vete-Katten enough to return the next morning for breakfast, and more semla :-)
Stockholm at night was quite beautiful, with the snow and ice on the buildings adding its own hue to the skyline. Rows of highly symmetric and interconnected buildings form a labyrinth of rooftops through parts of the city. So much so that, there are very popular “Rooftop tours” in summer when you get to climb onto them and walk along from rooftop to rooftop! Coming from Paris, it’s difficult to wax poetic about the city’s beauty, it is a lot more modern and young in its taste. That said, the old town is charming – with its narrow streets, crooked buildings and most of all its cozy restaurants.
Our highlight of the evening though was the Ice Bar in Stockholm. As a promo for the now-famous-but-wallet-breaking Ice Hotel in Kiruna, this is actually a brilliant marketing gimmick. Here is a single room bar, entirely made of ice. Yes, the walls, the counter at the bar, the stools to sit on, the glasses in which drinks are served, even the bowl for tips are all made of ice. There are apparently 30+ ice bars around the world including in New York City, Paris, Amsterdam, London and even New Delhi & Mumbai! It was still cool (no pun) to see one of the originals, given the idea originated from this region.
You pay for entry and get a drink free. But you are allowed to enter only after donning a heavy-duty parka, ostensibly to protect the ice from your body heat! The marketing spiel goes that the ice is brought from the river Torne near Kiruna (northern part of Sweden), where the water is so clean and the ice made so slowly by natural freezing of the river that it makes it ideal for ice sculpting. So, they actually truck the ice over all the way!
I can only imagine that the ice hotel is exactly like this except you get to even stay and sleep in it – inside your parka of course.
We wandered around the city until late, going up the few tall buildings there are in the city to try and get an aerial view. Nearly all of them were bars and to our delight, none insisted that we buy a drink! So, we walked in, checked our winter coats, took some pictures (from a tripod no less!), chatted with the waiter, and sauntered out. Wholly satisfying.
When we returned to our bed and breakfast for the night, we were already excited about the next day – one that would be spent journeying in no less than four different modes of transport to Kiruna and on to the little village of Abisko.
End of Part 1 of the Northern Lights series.
Follow the photographs & the adventure in Part 2 – Towards Abisko in Sweden and Part 3 – Dog Sledding, and finally seeing some Auroras