Things That I Have Learned In Stockholm, Sweden

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Things I have Learned In Stockholm, Sweden.

“Mamma mia, here I go again.” ABBA 

Stockholm is often known as the ‘World’s Smallest Big City’ or the ‘World’s Biggest Small Town’.

 Gamla Stan (Old Town) is a small island in the center of Stockholm and was once the entire city of Stockholm. Now it is a very cool place to explore.

Since the city streets are so narrow, there is no room for cars, making this part of Stockholm “pedestrian only.” It is great for photographs and souvenirs and can be very crowded.

Fotografiska,  is a real Stockholm success story. They opened 8 years ago in a beautiful old brick building (a former tollhouse) in Stockholm harbor and have, over the years, presented some fantastic exhibitions with many of the world’s best photographers.

It is one of the largest photography museums in the world with branches scheduled to open in New York and London.

The city is sometimes referred to as ‘Venice of the North’, thanks to its beautiful buildings and exquisite architecture, abundant open water and numerous parks.

The total absence of heavy industry makes Stockholm one of the world’s  cleanest cites.

Don’t worry about tap water. I’ts delicious.

The city became the venue for the  first Nobel Prizes awards, in the year 1901. The Nobel Museum in Stockholm is a small museum on a big, noble subject.

Small displays cover Alfred Nobel, the Nobel Prize ceremony and artifacts donated by Nobel Prize winners. Current and past Nobel Prize winners are honored through display panels and touch screens.

It barely ever gets dark at night in  the summer .

At the height of its empire, Sweden built a large warship the Vasa to symbolize its power. It was so big and heavy that on its maiden voyage in 1628, it sank less than a mile out of  dock. In 1956 the ship was rediscovered and then salvaged. Now, you can see this ship in the Vasa Museum. It was weirdly very interesting.

The Swedes have a lovely afternoon tradition of taking a coffee break (often accompanied by a yummy pastry). This tradition is called fika, and you should definitely indulge, too!

The Abba museum is perfect if you are an ABBA fan. With a slogan “Walk In, Dance Out” you know that this is not going to be a boring museum visit. Learn about the history of ABBA, try on costumes, and even sing on stage.

One of the most popular candies in Sweden is salmiak, licorice flavored with ammonium chloride – a salty chemical compound resulting from the reaction between hydrochloric acid and ammonia.  Most people outside Scandinavia and Iceland hate it but I am now addicted to it.  

A hop on hop off ferry is a fun, comfortable way to experience  Stockholm. 

Moderna Museet is situated on the pretty island of Skeppsholmen and can be accessed via a ferry from Slussen or on foot from the Östermalm district. It is located in a former power station. The bright red museum attracts big names in contemporary art.

The museum is specialized in Scandinavian and International art of the twentieth and twenty first century. The changing exhibitions throughout the year are attracting visitors from all around the world. .

Sweden’s largest architecture museum, Arkdes, was founded in 1962.

It is attached to Modern Museet and worth it if you are into architecture and design.

The Lydmar Hotel is a great place to stay.  The location is fantastic, being within walking distance of Gamla Stan, Kungsträdgården station, and the Strömkajen ferry.

Sweden is moving closer to a cash free economy. It was impossible to use cash in Stockholm – except at Seven Eleven.  

Fly safe,

JAZ

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Pinxtos In San Sebastian, Spain

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“Laughter is brightest where food is best.” Irish Proverb

San Sebastian is one of the best eating cities in the world, it has more Michelin star restaurants per square foot than anywhere else.  If you are a foodie, San Sebastián is utter food paradise. The quaint, narrow streets of its Old Town (Parte Vieja)  are home to a countless number of bars serving pinxtos. 

Luckily we have Imanol from Cultural Xplorers to organize our first night of pinxtos and recommend other bars.  Imanol grew up in San Sebastian. There are over fifty pinxto bars in the Old City and trying to narrow them down and find them can be daunting. 

The fare at traditional pintxos bars is pretty straightforward, and heavy on meat, cheese and seafood.

Items like: gildas (a spanish chili pepper wrapped around an anchovy and olive, speared with a toothpick), tortilla (Spanish-style frittata), jamon (Spanish cured ham), fried croquettes stuffed with salt cod, anchovies (in many forms), and grilled shrimp with ham, can be found in almost every pintxos bar.

It is tempting to just grab a seat or a place standing at the bar and feast away, but you should fight the temptation. Pintxos culture encourages people to bounce around to different establishments all night, sampling just a few bites from each. Since most of the best pintxos are found within the compact Old Town section of San Sebastian, you never have to walk more than a few minutes to your next destination.

Our first pinxto  lesson  came at Astelehena. It quickly seemed to me that the best pinxtos were made to order in the kitchen.  We ate Duck Magret with corn and pineapple sauce, octopus with a cream of avocados & potatoes and ‘Gilda’ composed of tuna, olives, anchovies and guindillas (local green peppers).

We drink Ribera de Duero which  is a red wine from the neighboring region. I don’t really like anchovies but after having this dish a few times, my life is not the same. 

Our next stop was Haizea for codfish (Brick de Bacalao) with leak and carrot and scallop and shrimp brochette.  Bacalao is a word you should learn when traveling to Northern Spain and Portugal. There is always bacalao. Haizea is the bar that Chef Arzak  (of the three star Michelin restaurant) takes Anthony Bourdain to on No Reservations in 2008. We had our first glass of Txakoli (pronounced chock a lee) -the light local white wine. Yes it is another Anthony Bourdain day.

Mendaur was our third stop. We had boiled egg with truffles and parmesan cheese, mushrooms and crispy Iberian Ham.

But my most favorite pinxto was the European squids with caramelized onions and three sauces (mustard and honey, chimichurri of Txakoli and black garlic). I have no words for how good this was.

We were full and I thought I couldn’t eat any more but I was wrong. We went to Urola where I was about to have what turned out to be one of the best desserts of my life.  It is called ‘Torrija’, and is similar but not to bread pudding, served with coffee ice cream and caramel.

We did a few nights on our own of pinxtos as well but since I told the chef in my bad Spanish to give us his favorites and they were crazy busy, I don’t know what they were called. It involved shrimp, meat, fois gras  and risotto -all were delicious.

We also found our way back to Astelehena for duck breast and anchovies. (which involved a lot of walking in circles).

If you are looking for a romantic, relaxing night out, pintxos bars are not for you. They are all about socializing, eating, and drinking in small, confined spaces. The more cramped, the more frenzied, the more you have to fight your way to the bar, the better.

Fly safe,

JAZ

Bilbao, Spain

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Bilbao, Spain

“On the Continent people have good food; in England people have good table manners.” Unknown 

Bilbao  is our first stop in the Basque Country. The city has its own personality. It is quite small which makes it easy to walk around and enjoy the Basque culture. The Basques have their own language which is different and unrelated to any other language in the world.  If you are linguistically obsessed, this is a good place to be. There are also several different dialects of Basque, so the Basque that people speak in Bilbao is different from the Basque that is spoken in San Sebastián. You will notice a lot of k’s and tx’s.

We meet our guide Kyle from Cultural Xplorers. He is carrying three umbrellas -just in case.  As we were to learn, some days, it seems like all it does is rain in the Basque Country. They even have a word for that light, misty rain that seems to never stop – txirimiri.

  We start with breakfast at a pinxto bar and have a  potato and egg torta and a cortado coffee.

Walking through the beautiful city, we head to the train station. There is a large stained glass window depicting Basque life.

There are lots of architectural gems  scattered all over the city,.

We enter Casco Viejo (Old Town). At its heart are Bilbao’s original seven streets, dating back to the fourteen hundreds when the city was founded.

There are many historic buildings like the Gothic Cathedral and tiny streets lined with quirky shops and bars.

I find an authentic hat store and  buy a Basque beret -ish.

I could have wandered around here all day – except we were getting hungry again.  That could only mean one thing in Basque country. It was time for pinxtos.

Pinxtos are foodie heaven.  Imagine sitting in a bar having a nice quiet drink and being able to steadily munch your way through a range of amazing food from wonderfully cured meats, steak, cheese, olives, rich foie gras, duck and fish in various guises. It’s overwhelming and Kyle helped us find the best ones.

They are in every bar so even if you just plan on going for a drink-you will end up eating. Kyle points out some of the better bars so we can come back on our own.

The truth is I don’t think you can find a bad meal in Basque country. It is known for amazing food. 

We continue eating in the nineteenth century Plaza Nueva.- full of pinxto bars which come alive between three and eight pm. 

It is a custom to go from bar to bar and try different pintos along the way. 

Refueled, we take a walk down the waterfront toward the Guggenheim Museum and our hotel.

The riverfront promenade has an eclectic mix of traditional and modern architecture and is buzzing with both tourists and locals. We see the La Salve Bridge and the big art installations outside the Guggenheim Museum.

There is Louise Bourgeois (Maman -spider),  Jeff Koons (“Tulips” and “The Puppy” which is a giant flowering topiary in the shape of a terrier).

There is Anish Kapoor (“Tall tree And The Eye” aka a stack of metallic balls)  and Fujiko Nakaya’s Fog Sculpture, which is a unique sensory experience of a jet of fog emanating from the water in the moat surrounding the museum at every hour -odd to experience in the pouring rain.

We meet for a late lunch early dinner at La Vina Del Estanche. On a trip of best food ever, this meal rates very highly and was only the beginning of the food to come.

The next morning I go over to the new exhibit at the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum. It was their 110th anniversary and newly renovated and reopened the day I arrived. The exhibit was ABC including Spanish, English and Basque letters and words.

Through a selection of more than 300 pieces and 200 artists, they created an alphabetic story.in 31 rooms. Each room was a word. Arte (art), Bilbao, Citoyen (Citizen), Desira (Desire), Espejo (mirror), Friendship………( P was for Portraits- from many different artists)

It was really cool and the museum has some interesting pieces. (love this one – John Davies-Every War Memorial)

And then it was back to eating.  After a private tour of the Guggenheim we went to the Michelin starred Nerua. Nerua is an ancient Latin name for the Nervion River  where the restaurant in the Guggenheim museum is located.

Nerua,

The small restaurant is designed by Frank Gehry with white walls and tablecloths and his signature curvy chairs.

When we arrived it was pretty much empty.

Chef Alija’s tasting menu was a beautifull and artfully prepared take on Spanish flavors.

I did not know what to expect from my visit to Bilbao. A bucket list place doesn’t always live up to the hype. Bilbao’s enchanting mix of old and new with a focus on food and people makes it a wonderful place to visit.  Special thanks to Kyle for making us feel so welcome, comfortable and extremely well-fed in his wonderful city.

Fly safe

JAZ

Things That I Have Learned In Eastern Europe (or the former Soviet Union)

Things That I Have Learned In Eastern Europe (or the former Soviet Union)

“The salvation of this human world lies nowhere else than in the human heart, in the human power to reflect, in human meekness and human responsibility.” Vaclav Havel

I  have traveled around Eastern Europe a few times before I was a blogger or ‘photographer’. This was not one trip.  It was  earlier in the tourism stage of these countries and I’m sure things are a lot different now.   This is what I remember.

There is something not warm and fuzzy about being in countries of the former Soviet Union.  Especially countries that sent so many innocent people to concentration camps before that. The vestiges of communism are still there. The first thing you notice in  Budapest and Prague is that people don’t smile. (a train in Budapest)

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“If you need directions, ask young.” Most of the older generation do not speak any English. The young are trying to be modern.  But they have missed the sixties, seventies and eighties. The music went from folksongs and communist anthems  to rock and roll. The results are sometimes odd. Same with the clothes.

Shopping streets were emerging like Vaci street in Budapest with chain clothing stores  where once there was State Grocery no.19.  Things cost more and consumerism has definitely hit these countries. Keeping up with their neighbors is harder these days. There is still a lot of black market profiteering. But slowly a middle class is appearing.  (tagging in Budapest)

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After the fall of Communism,  Eastern Europe was faced with the problem of what to do with all those  Lenin, Marx and Engels statues. Several of the finest minds of the time got together in St Petersburg in 1991 to thrash out the quandary and it was decided that every city would display them in their very own tacky sculpture park. There is Fallen Monument Park in Moscow, Memento Park in Budapest and Grutas Park (known as Stalin’s World) 130km south of Vilnius. There are Museums of Terror in many of these eastern European cities showing their treatment in the time of the Soviets.  (Statue Park in Budapest )

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Lithuania was my first Baltic Country..  During the Holocaust around 95 per cent of the Lithuanian Jews were murdered, the highest percentage in Europe, many by local collaborator-killers. There is a Genocide Museum in Vilnius  in the old KGB headquarters. It was occupied by the Gestapo during World War Two for the deportations and later the Lithuanians suffered there under Stalin. In Eastern Europe I found the Lithuanians the most friendly and most open to talk about stuff. I wasn’t prepared for that. It is hard to understand. ( a street in Vilnius Lithuania)

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Trakai castle surrounded by Lake Galve is about an hour out of Vilnius.  All the brides come on the weekends to take photos. There were many because if you don’t get married on a Saturday, the neighbors start counting the months.

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Palanga is the busiest summer resort in Lithuania and the traffic on a Sunday proved that point.

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Riga, Latvia has the largest collection of Art Nouveau buildings in Europe. This is designed by Max Eisenstein (father of filmmaker Sergei.)

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Rumbala,  which is 10 kilometers  outside of  Riga, is where 25,000 Jews were murdered during WW2. Rumbala and Babi Yar (in Kiev, Ukraine) were the two biggest  massacre killings in Eastern Europe until the death camps. This was the only Jewish  Holocaust memorial in the original Soviet Union.

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Parnu, Estonia is an elegant beach town with depressing Soviet architecture.

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Estonia is between Latvia and a ferry ride to Finland. ( 43 miles away, yes I was there)  The influence of their Nordic neighbors is very noticeable, in the spelling, the food, and the design.  Talinn, the capital of Estonia is a blend of a historical Baltic city and cool Nordic  food and fashion trends. The former KGB headquarters are now the Hotel Viru. I did major shopping and eating here. The Wall Of Sweaters is fun for everything wool and located on the old city wall by the Viru Gate. The leather stores from Italy have  better prices here. (Talinn, Estonia, cathedral of Alexander Nevsky, sweater wall)

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Prague is considered to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. I have been there twice. It  is called the Paris of the East.  There is culture, history, five-star restaurants and hotels. The Charles Bridge connects the old town with  the Mala Strana and is one of the most iconic structures in Prague. (Art Museum and Charles Bridge)

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The Jewish Quarter dates back to the thirteenth century. The Old New Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Europe in Gothic thirteenth century style.  It is in use today. The Old Jewish Cemetery was established in the first half of the 15th century.  it is one of the most important historic sites in Prague´s Jewish Town. The oldest tombstone, which marks the grave of the poet and scholar Avigdor Karo, dates from the year 1439. Burials took place in the cemetery until 1787. Today it contains some 12,000 tombstones, al though the number of persons buried here is much greater. It is assumed that the cemetery contains several burial layers placed on top of each other. (Prague Cemetery)

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Leadership in these countries has not been great. Decades of totalitarian rule damaged the way people in power think and behave; and the harm has not been repaired.

The mindset of the younger generation is everything  anti Communist or anti the time of the Soviets as they say. Under Communist rule, the State was responsible for everything – even for little things. Today people must make decisions and take responsibility for them – not an easy task for those who have been raised to follow, not to lead.

Fly safe,

JAZ