(Completely forgot to post this. It’s been left in drafts for the past few days…)
When last we left my ten-years-ago self, he was speeding through the German night, not entirely sure of his heading but hoping to make it to his connecting train in time. Well, he made it to Copenhagen in the end, after a quick ferry trip across the Baltic from Rostock, though with only a quarter of an hour to spare instead of the planned several hours. Falling in love with that city of fine pastries and finer cycling would have to wait until my multiple visits during later travels.
Finally back on track, or at least the correct tracks at the intended time, I was probably a bit too tired and out of it to appreciate the crossing of the Øresund Bridge and the long trip through the wooded Nordic landscape of Sweden that came after. The best recollection I have of that journey is trying to read and recover in between naps.
Thankfully, Stockholm was more than welcoming in its no-fuss, Scandinavian, slightly overpriced manner. Arriving on the afternoon of the 25th, the plan was to spend the next couple of days exploring before shipping out on the evening of the evening of the 27th. And that is essentially what happened. I have almost no recollection of the place I stayed other than an “if IKEA did B&Bs” vibe, but Stockholm itself made a stronger impression.
From the viewpoint of years later, the first thing I remember is how scattered and yet compact the city felt. Built across an array of islands, connected with many bridges, it felt welcoming to an explorer. Undoubtedly I benefited from my arrival by train, which dumped me into the heart of the city, and the late summer sun of August, which meant that my first port of call was having yet another of those new-city beers at a streetside cafe.
Stockholm, then, was for exploring. From the curious streetside lion sculptures to the presence of a Games Workshop store, to strange shops containing bric-a-brac piled high to the rafters on the old island of Gamla Stan with its narrow streets. (I also found some towels branded by the then-current Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie and still regret not getting one.) I visited the Royal Palace and the Nobel Prize Museum, then made my way out along the streets and shores, surrounded by greenery and spotting hot air balloons while standing beside a statue of Jenny Lind. I delved into the Vasa Museum, then had some fun at the Gröna Lund amusement park.
Knowing that I was still at the introductory stage of what was going to be a longer trip than I’d ever been on, I probably luxuriated in my Stockholm stay just a bit. The second day of my exploring, I ventured as far as my limited time allowed. I made my way to the Stockholms Stadshus, where the Nobel prize ceremonies take place and where I ticked off two travel habits that would stick with me: visiting every museum I had time to, and climbing to the top of the tallest building or edifice in sight. The sight that sticks with me though is of a group of Swedish ladies dressed all in black, standing cheering in a circle in a sunny park as two of their number did battle in padded sumo suits on the green grass.
It would stick in your mind too, admit it.
Eventually though, I hefted my bags and made my way to the ferry port. I had a ship to catch across the Baltic. A ship that, it turned out, was full of Russian tourists, heading for St. Petersburg like I was. I definitely felt a bit isolated, though I was happy enough at having a cabin all to myself for the two-day crossing. The weather was good enough though that I spent a good chunk of my time on deck, luxuriating in the sunset while some finely dressed Russian pre-Influencers posed and photographed themselves against the sunset.
That sense of isolation probably kept me from wandering too much, though it wasn’t the largest of ferries. The big attraction every night was the strip club “Torn Off Balls.” Which, well, maybe it lost something in translation, but I didn’t feel like the advertising was working for me. So I never did venture in during the midnight hours and find out how the tearing off was meant to be accomplished.
Strip club posters aside, the highlight of the trip for me was an afternoon in Tallinn, capital of Estonia. The ferry pulled in a bit before lunch and we had around five hours to roam before it would steam away again. So most of us jumped on an open-topped tour bus, myself included, for a whistle-stop introduction to the Baltic state. I almost lost my cap to an errant gust of wind, but another traveller caught it for me before it was gone.
Tallinn marked a further degree of pushing past my usual caution and testing the bounds of what I’d normally do. I raced around town on foot, practicing archery at the base of the massive city walls, climbing to the top of a mediaeval church tower with questionable safety standards, and exploring a grafitti-strewn Soviet-era parade ground by the sea. I scampered back on board in plenty of time, but it was a step forward for me from the relative comfort and familiarity of Stockholm. Russia would be a step further yet.
So that was Stockholm and Tallinn. Two sides of the Baltic, taking me from the familiar into a world that had been behind the iron curtain a few decades before. After another night of avoiding having my balls torn off, I had St. Petersburg to look forward to and the beginning of the longest land-based part of this trip.