Sunday, August 24, 2014

Öland is Swedish for "island country" and that is exactly what this piece of land is: a skinny, 140 kilometer-long island of Swedish paradise located just off the southeast coast of the mainland. 

They say that at the beginning of time, Lake Vättern in the middle of Sweden was carved out by a giant, who grabbed a chunk of earth and threw it into the Baltic Sea to form what today we call Öland. To me, it makes no difference how this island came to be - I'm just happy to have finally been there after almost 4 years in Sweden. It's truly a magical place. 

We arrived last Friday afternoon, driving north for almost an hour once we crossed the Öland Bridge, headed toward the village of Löttorp. I expected to see the many windmills we passed (a trademark of Öland), but not the dozen camels we drove by. Who decides to start a camel farm in Sweden?

And there was more on the exotic-animal front: our accommodation - a quaint bed and breakfast-type place - was home to a gang of alpacas. A very welcome surprise, although they weren't so receptive to my alpaca calls.

On Saturday, NS and I explored tree-lined country lanes right out of a fairy tale. Stunning views of the Baltic backdropped green fields of cows. We borrowed bicycles from our B&B and discovered the most beautiful beach I've seen in Sweden - Sandby - with fine, white sand and sparkling blue water. 

At 4pm, guests from all over the country - the continent really - gathered in a gorgeous grassy garden for NS' cousin's wedding. It was ever-so-perfect, full of music and love. A pair of eagles flew over our heads before the ceremony and a rainbow appeared on the horizon after - it must mean a match made in heaven.

We ate and we sang and we drank, and late into the night, we danced and then we ate some more and by the end I was happy and tired and full and in love with this place and these people. I can only hope to return to Öland sometime in the not-so-distant future, hopefully for more than 2 nights next time.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When in Berlin...

3 words: beers and stairs. This seems to be the winning concept, at least where NS and I spent most of our time - in the borough of Kreutzberg. Beers are readily available any time of day from almost any kiosk, no matter how small. And it's okay to drink on the streets. It's just a matter of finding somewhere to sit. Of course, beer gardens are another option (as are the wealth of bars everywhere) - but why complicate things?

our view of Mauerpark's karaoke

When in Berlin's Mauerpark on a Sunday (a must-do for any summer visit), there is a slight upgrade from stairs to the stone amphitheater built into the side of a hill. Crowds of several thousand gather there each week to see Joe Hatchiban host Bearpit Karaoke, a pastime since 2009. 

Hatchiban lugs the whole battery-powered set up on his Bullitt bike for showtime around 3pm (or 4 in our case, following some technical difficulties). People of all ages and nationalities volunteer to perform their favorite songs, as long as it's not Alanis Morissette (she's on the forbidden list). Bring a few beers and/or some bubbly (thanks Nils!) for an afternoon of free entertainment.

Berlin is a place of contrasts: the relaxed, tattoo-covered crowds of areas like Mauerpark make it hard to believe the horrors that divided the city until just 25 years ago. The infamous Wall itself is the most obvious evidence of this period in history, and is hard to miss as you wander through the streets. It can be seen at its finest (that is, if one can ever describe a thing of such terrible division as fine) at the East Side Gallery. Today, these graffiti-covered slabs of cement provide a groundwork for the street art that so distinguishes Berlin from its fellow European cities.

When exploring a new city, it is very important to nourish yourself not only with beer, but also with food. And so we ate - well and plenty. We ate Saigon street food at the lovely District Mot; Italian pizzas along the river at Il Casolare; American burgers from an old toilet house under Schlesisches Tor Ubahn station at Burger Meister; and schnitzels bigger than our heads at Austria. Oh, and the Berlin favorites, too: döner kebab and currywurst (both in a rush to the train station on our trip home, so I can't give a fair rating on those).

dinner @ District Mot

Eating and drinking wasn't all we did - there were a couple museums thrown in there: the DDR for a glimpse at life after WWII under Soviet rule and also the museum under the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe - emotionally tough, but so worthwhile. We did a free Sandman's walking tour - my fourth, they're always really interesting! And spent an evening watching a movie under the stars - or rather, a rain cloud - in a park by our apartment. Gorgeous, despite the rain (and the bad movie).

view from the An der Schilling Bridge

We also walked a lot in Berlin. There's so much to see - so many details to soak up on foot. Bottle caps between bridge bricks, street performers, playgrounds with crocodile swings. Oh, and an amazing trampoline (thank you again, Nils!) hidden away in one playground. Even more fun after a few glasses at the pay-what-you-want wine bar Weinerei, where you can fill your glass as much as you want and pay what you think it was worth when you leave. It's genius!

from Victoria Park

Thank you, Berlin, for giving us a peek into your craziness - we'll be back! 

Friday, August 8, 2014

A day on Hasselö

My vacation days are ticking away - 10 down, 9 to go. They've certainly been well spent so far. 

Last Thursday, we took a day trip to the archipelago outside of Västervik, to an island called Hasselö. It was a glorious day - breezy; a nearly cloudless, blue sky; and about 75 degrees F. We set off from the city on the 10am ferry, Freden, passing several other tree-lined islands on the 1-hour journey. 

Freden turned off a small harbor where waves were blowing against the sandy beach. Small tractors awaited our arrival to shuttle us to the island's only restaurant, Restaurang Sjökanten. But we decided instead to rent bicycles and explore Hasselö and its neighbor island, Slado, to the south. The two islands are linked by a tiny, 3-meter bridge over a cloudy moat.

We cycled along country roads, across fields, and down narrow paths between cottages painted in the classic Swedish red. It was like a ride out of a Pippi Longstocking story - flower boxes nestled in antique wagon wheels; cows bunched together in the shade under a tree, swinging their tails to ward off the flies; boathouses stretched out in clusters over the edges of tiny creeks. 

We cycled and we trekked and then we cycled some more, and eventually ended up at Restaurang Sjökanten where a beautiful lunch buffet awaited us. 

Fish soup, herring, roast beef, pork, tomato salad, pickled radishes, fruit, and cold beer. It was perfect.

We were pretty exhausted by the time the 3pm ferry arrived, and collapsed in our seats with cold beers in hand for the ride home. Thank you KN for such a wonderful adventure! Next stop: Berlin!