Swedish Greetings Snowy-Stockholm: Travels with my Mother

Stockholm makes frequent appearances on best-Christmas-market lists, and rightly so. Part of the Scandinavian peninsula, Sweden’s capital city is just 2.5 hours from London. The City of Stockholm floats on fourteen islands where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea.

My Top Five Stockholm:

Skansen — A vast open-air museum showcasing Swedish life and culture through the ages. Some attractions include 150 historical buildings, botanical gardens, fairgrounds, animal habitats, restaurants and shops, festival stages and in December a Christmas market.

Stadshuset (City Hall) — Take a stroll in the courtyard and gardens, and gaze at the symbolic three golden crowns (Tre Kronor) atop the Tower; climb to the top for stunning old-city views. A guided-tour is only way to visit the interior rooms of the imposing red-bricked landmark to see the Golden Hall, Prince’s Gallery and the Blue Hall which is the venue for the Nobel Prize banquet. Stadshuskällaren, the cellar restaurant, serves classic Swedish dishes.

Gamla Stan (Old Town) — Comprised of four islands, amble along medieval cobblestone streets, chock-full of beautiful old buildings, churches, boutiques and galleries. Try to find Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the city’s narrowest street, a mere 90 cm (35 inches). On to the Royal Palace for changing of the Royal Guard; do see the Royal Chapel and ornate Royal Apartments displaying jewelled treasures, tapestries, paintings and furniture. Don’t miss the Houses of Parliament and Nobel Museum. Final stop, Stortorget (Old Square) has a traditional Christmas market; warm-up with a kanelbulle (cinnamon bun) and some glögg (mulled wine).

Drottningholm Palace — On the outskirts of the city, this palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the permanent residence of the royal family. The stunning grounds and royal rooms are open to the public. From May to October, you can arrive via steamship departing from Stadshusbron (City Hall Bridge).

Stockholm Archipelago (Skärgård) — Around 30,000 islands and islets are best enjoyed like a true Stockholm-er in summer for boating, kayaking hiking and camping.

Where to Stay: If you can, reserve a room at the luxurious Grand Hôtel Stockholm, centrally located, perfectly situated on the waterfront. After a day in the city, unwind at the Spa, a Nordic Bath complete with plunge pool or ice bucket shower – to boost your immune system, a steam sauna with stone reclining-benches and granite footstools, a waterfall jacuzzi and a cozy fireplace in the relaxation room. Have a drink at Cadier Bar or savour a Michelin-starred dinner at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren or Matsalen; the food is divine. Nobel Prize winners (laureates) always stay at the Grand Hotel, and on December 10th the lobby is filled with very intelligent men and women in gowns, tails and sashes.

Nobel Day – 10th of December

Nobel Prize Ceremony

Nobel Prize Ceremony

The Nobel Prize is the legacy of Sweden’s Alfred Nobel, a chemist, engineer, inventor and entrepreneur who was born on 21 October 1833 and died on 10 December 1896. On Nobel Day in Sweden and Norway, prizes are awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” In the Stockholm Concert Hall, Nobel Prizes are awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature; the ceremony is followed by a gala banquet at City Hall. The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded in Oslo City Hall.

Walking near the hotel on a bitingly-chilly morning, I was mentally contemplating the rest of the day’s program, working out timings and considering dinner options; my intention was to seek input on the choices.

Me [absent-mindedly]: Do you want to….  Do you want to…. Do you want to….

Mother: Do you want to… finish that sentence?!

God Jul (Merry Christmas)! #Sweden

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A very British Christmas

This year marked my first Christmas away from a familial home, instead deciding to remain in my English domicile. Upon relaying this intention to friends, the oft-reply wished me glad tidings, “you’ll be having a Charles Dickens Christmas!” Somewhat confused by this comment because I intended to stay in posh North London, not removed to the 19th century Victorian era. Nevertheless, I decided to ponder the prospective meaning of an English Noël.

One lovely aspect of Christmas in the U.K. (a nominally Christian country) is the unabashed awareness and unreserved “Happy Christmas” that passes many lips. Most everyone celebrates the holiday in some fashion regardless of religious persuasion, largely due to the cultural importance and inclusivity of the day.

My Christmas-day dawned with midnight Mass at St. Dominic’s with excited chirps of children blended into carols and Latin sung choruses. Evergreen branches sparsely decorated the church’s towering columns with vaulted ceilings compelling the eye toward enormous stained glass windows rising above the ornate gothic altar. When the pipe organ bellowed the closing hymn, Adeste Fideles, the church bells gracefully began to chime and I instinctively reached for my iPhone to capture the uplifting experience. Suppressing the notion, I momentarily chastised myself, closed my eyes and continued singing.

Somewhere betwixt the quaintly illuminated High Street decorations, a BBC special showcasing the nation’s best loved Christmas food and my own feast finale of flaming traditional pudding, I realised the magical merriment of Christmas in Britain – a truly Dickensian* Yuletide.

*Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] b.  characterized by jollity and conviviality a Dickensian scene round the Christmas tree

Joyous sentiments of British Christmas culminate in New Year celebrations and fireworks over the Thames ~ for those observing the Gregorian calendar, best wishes for 2013!

London Nightscapes: Parliament, Big Ben, River Thames

London puts on a show for Christmas. We have Trafalgar Square’s giant Norwegian Spruce, the glamorous glitz of Oxford Street bursting with lights, a Winter Wonderland extravaganza in Hyde Park, and various “traditional German” Christmas markets. Multi-cultural Londoners universally wish each other “Happy Christmas” bidding glad tidings and good-will to one and all. When I recently visited the Christmas market held on London’s South Bank, it was one beautiful night in the capital. Here are my seven favourite photos.

~ Season’s Greetings from merry old England 

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Getting Christmas-y in Prague

Germany and Austria reign supreme among Europe’s best traditional Christmas markets, however Prague is consistently a top ten pre-Noël destination in part for its atmosphere, market food, and Bohemian crafts, but more-so for the quaint picturesque city that has been proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ever since I saw Tom Cruise dashing through Prague’s postcard framed streets in the film Mission: Impossible, I planned to visit the city that seemed to have captured an aura of romance, elegance, and beauty of a by-gone era. Prague does not disappoint.

History

The Czech Republic has a variant and tumultuous history for such a young European country. For quasi-historians like myself here is a very brief romp across the centuries. The area known as Bohemia was settled by and named after a Celtic tribe called the Boii. From early Slavic dynasties to the fourteenth century’s Golden Age, Prague developed into an important cultural centre and capital of the Holy Roman Empire. Wars, upheaval, Catholic Church versus Protestant Reformers, and the subsequent 300 years of Austrian-Habsburg Emperors. After World War I Czechoslovakia became an independent country in 1918 however the freedom of this first Republic ended abruptly in 1939 with German occupation. Nazi Protectorate then post-war communist Republic until 1968 when political liberal reforms known as “Prague Spring” (and I thought CNN coined that phrase this year) resulted in Soviet invasion and occupation. Not until 1989’s Velvet Revolution did Czechoslovakia’s dissidents defeat communism and democratic presidential elections followed. After an amicable “Velvet divorce” from Slovakia on 1st January 1993, the Czech Republic was born – the country is not old enough to legally drink alcohol in the US.

Today

Six million tourists a year visit the Czech Republic. According to guidebooks (Lonely Planet’s Encounters by Brett Atkinson was my favourite this trip) Prague has something for everyone – history, culture, art and architecture, music, clubs, and the famous Czech beer. Despite Prague’s recent reputation for a bit of debauchery, wild stag and trashy hen nights courtesy of cheap beer and budget airlines, it is not seedy and being mistaken for a working girl by taking a solo late-night stroll in Wenceslas Square is easily avoided. The four quarters that comprise central Prague each have a distinctive character; the historic Castle District (Hradčany), Lesser Quarter (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město), and New Town (Nové Město). Buildings, bridges, and spires aplenty paint the town Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Art Nouveau. Everything is accessible via bus, tram or metro, but provided you have decent walking shoes it is better to wander through the cobblestone streets and explore hidden alleyways on foot.

Prague Christmas Market

Spring and summer are probably stunning and mid-winter with a blanket of snow must be magical but take the city centre– a European Norman Rockwell meets Thomas Kinkade painting– add decorative lights, Christmas trees, festive market faire and you have the charming Christmas markets in Prague. There are two main markets, Old Town Square and Wenceslas Square. King Wenceslas from the Christmas carol, “Good King Wenceslas came out on the feast of Stephen” (oh you know it) was in fact a Duke and a Czech patron saint. Hum that tune for a minute and already you’re in a festive mood. Shops and stalls sell all kinds of local crafts in varying levels of quality as you’d expect. I bought multi-coloured Bohemian crystal wine goblets and several bottles of Becherovka, a bitter-sweet herbal drink served as an aperitif or liqueur. If you like duck or pork based dishes, you are in for a real treat in the Czech Republic; roast pork served with dumplings and red cabbage is a national favourite. I opted for street stall dining; dinner for two cost less than £10.00 at the Old Town Square –including grog and mulled wine. For dessert a tubular sugar-crusted cake called trdelnik or trdlo. This special pastry is made by ever-so-carefully wrapping dough around a long wooden pole or “trdlo” and then roasted golden brown over an open fire. The hot tubes of crispy-outside-soft-inside baked cylinders are then rolled in a mixture of almond, sugar, and cinnamon powder. For an extra ten crown you can have Nutella spread around the inside. Delicious. To end the day, many churches and venues like the Municipal Building host classical concerts during the holiday season. It’s beginning to feel a lot like Christmas.

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Enjoy a little of Prague at home – Have a Pilsner Urquell. Czech’s consume more beer (pivo) per person than any other country. Listen to Mozart and wish for someone to invent time travel. Mozart himself conducted at the premiere of Don Giovanni in 1787 and the legendary Casanova attended. Wish I was there. Be inspired to read or re-read The Trial by Franz Kafka, a Prague hometown literary hero.