August 23, 2018 – September 20, 2018 (Early fall)
Greeting: Hej (Hey)
Currency: Krona (kr)
Cost of living: High
Sometimes our course is charted less by our desires and more by the winds of Airbnb and Skyscanner deals. That was the case when, running out of planned time in Poland, we stumbled onto a lovely little cabin in rural Sweden. This country wasn’t even on our radar at first. With a high cost of living even by Western European standards, it seemed like a poor choice for nomads. But we saved enough on accommodations and airfare that it no longer seemed crazy to spend a little more on produce. We wouldn’t be staying in bustling Stockholm of course, or Malmö, or Gothenburg. An hour outside of Sweden’s capital is the much smaller city of Eskilstuna, in Sweden’s beautiful and historic Sörmland. The whole county is famous for its lakes, forests, and hiking trails – exactly what we needed. A few relaxing weeks of relative reclusion perfectly capped off our summer in Europe.
Where we stayed
Compared to the other options we juggled to follow up our month in Tri-City, this Airbnb↗ was unique. A tiny mother-in-law cottage, well-equipped, and at a great price. Wizz Air matched the deal with cheap flights linking Poland and Stockholm’s low-cost Skavsta airport. It was a relatively easy choice for us then. Not everyone would appreciate four weeks of seclusion. But we did. Don’t imagine an old and drafty shack, either. This place was brand-new; it still smelled of fresh paint and recently-assembled IKEA cabinets. Some of the appliances had clearly never been used. Our host seemed to have thought of everything, too: washer, oven, full-sized fridge, microwave, even a nice little dishwasher.
That’s not to say we had an awful lot of space. The cottage consisted of just one smallish living area, plus bed and bathrooms. It could have been a recipe for cabin fever. But we’ve gotten used to each other’s company over the years and rather enjoyed our cozy accommodation. A patio set in the front yard and big, airy windows helped open up the small space a bit. And of course, whenever we felt like a change of scenery, we had only to walk out our front door.
Our neighborhood of Borsökna was eminently residential. Single-family homes with Subarus in their driveways ringed a small lake, and winding streets were dotted with flower boxes and “drive carefully” signs. We were essentially in a bedroom community of Eskilstuna, and felt much more remote and inaccessible than we actually were. Aside from one sparsely-supplied shop on the other side of the lake, the nearest supermarket was over 5 km away. But a convenient bus line, ending just around the corner from our house, linked us directly with the city’s central station. Our host also thoughtfully provided us a pair of bicycles, which allowed us to trade sweat instead of cash to get around.
On our way out of Sweden, we spent one night in downtown Stockholm enjoying another unique accommodation: a hotel on a ship! The Lady Hutton is a former luxury yacht, since converted into the Mälardrottningen Hotel and Restaurant. Our cabin was downright tiny, even after four weeks in a one-room apartment. But unlike our last time↗ on a seafaring vessel, we couldn’t complain. It was actually a very nice and welcoming hotel, not too noisy, and all at a reasonable price. Plus, the location (smack in the center of the city) could not be beat.
What we did
Eskilstuna isn’t a major tourist attraction, and we didn’t expect it to be. The city has a couple museums and some nice parks and squares. It could all be seen in a single afternoon. The Konstmuseum (Art Museum) is free, its collection encompassing classic pieces up through eyebrow-raising modern works. We stopped by and admired a wide variety of impressive landscapes, as well as some stranger new favorites. The two-meter square self-portrait Emil och Emelie Österman was probably the most impressive. Occupying the bulk of a small island in the Eskilstunaån River, the Stadsmuseet (City Museum) covered an eclectic mix of subjects, from regional history to hands-on science and industry. Exhibits included a reflection on Eskilstuna’s long-gone castle, the town’s proud (-ish) history as a weapons manufacturing center, and incredible factory equipment from the peak of the industrial revolution. But for all that history, our favorite memory ended up being the working mini excavator that let us play with moving concrete blocks around. On the river’s banks was City Park. It’s a popular picnic spot, with flowers and piers looking over some fountains. Klosters Kyrka is pretty from across the water, but loses some of her majesty up close as the stately brick towers settle into a boxy, fairly unflattering facade.
In Borsökna, there wasn’t much to do aside from spending time outdoors. Our most frequent activity was walking a lap around the lake, sometimes adding a bonus segment down some countryside gravel roads. The last warm sighs of summer gave way to crisp days and misty evenings – perfect walking conditions. The water wore the weather on its sleeve, sometimes mirroring the undulating clouds overhead, but usually defaulting to glass-smooth. Plenty of birds hung around – magpies, ducks, and woodpeckers especially – while the geese flew overhead in long jagged Vs. A beaver caused the most trouble. Seemingly every day, it gnawed through another unsuspecting tree, only for the tree to tip over and… get stuck. By the end of our stay he must have felled two dozen trees, with only one or two of those actually reaching the ground and getting utilized.
Mostly we enjoyed the accessible wilder-less at our doorstep, but just 20 minutes away by bike we could stretch our legs and scratch the wilderness itch a bit more at Skiren-Kvicken Nature Reserve. This was our favorite spot. Even on weekends we ran across few others on the trail. Two ponds nestled in groves of pine and birch forest . Our visits coincided with the height of mushroom season. Everywhere we looked bright flashes of fungi popped up from the undergrowth. Moss-covered rocks dominated the underbrush, the mysterious organic shapes made it easy to imagine how legendary trolls were dreamed up. Walkable, signed paths looped around both picturesque lakes and meandered through the woods. It was easy to lose ourselves here. In conversation that is, or simple appreciation. Not direction-wise. Because of the well-marked trails.
Our one day in Stockholm was little more than a layover for our upcoming flight. Still, we were determined to see some sight or another during our too-brief time there. The city center spans an archipelago of islands criss-crossed by dozens of bridges. Its waterfront is full of imposing architecture, much of it surviving from the “golden age” when Sweden was one of Europe’s most feared powers. Ultimately we decided on the Vasa Museum. This attraction is built around the incredible story of the warship Vasa. The vessel sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 and was refloated in 1961, almost completely intact. A top-heavy design, narrow hull, and an excess of cannons doomed the ship from the start. The main shipwright escaped trial and possible execution by dying in advance, and saved many more lives by posthumously shouldering much of the blame for the mishap. Exhibits delved into every angle, from historical analysis to recovery operations to preservation efforts. Luckily the icy Baltic prevented most of the decay; even some cloth sails and leather gloves survived. The ship’s biggest threat now that it is above sea-level is its own weight. We were surprised by the sheer size of the craft. Standing at keel-level, it ended several stories above us. Accurately-sized recreations of the masts tower over the museum’s roof, too tall to fit inside. It was easily one of the more unique and memorable museums we’ve ever seen.
Food & Drink
Like everything else in Sweden, eating costs more. A rude awakening after stays in Poland and Lithuania↗, and about on par with the States in terms of prices. Still, we were a bit surprised by what things were most painful on our wallets. Some items cost more (chicken), some less (pasta), and some were about the same (pork). But the most obvious difference was the higher “floor” price of cheap staples like rice or produce. Items that should have cost pennies instead cost dollars. Not a lot of dollars, but a noticeable and sizable increase nonetheless. Fortunately, we did at least benefit from an expanded selection. Grocery stores included Coop, ICA, Lidl, and New Chinese Trading, which offered an astounding selection of Asian goodies, the kind of stuff we missed from Thailand↗ and Malaysia↗.
Southern Swedish cuisine shares a lot of influence with Central Europe: bread, potatoes, meats, and cheeses get a lot of love. Of course Swedish meatballs are the most well-known foodstuff, and not very different here than anywhere else. Top them with gravy and serve with a side of starch and voilà! Cheeses, especially hushållsost, come in huge cylinders weighing at least half a kilo that break the bank as much as the scale.
Seafood is also a big part of the local diet. But it sometimes takes some pretty strange forms. Pickled herring is a classic and almost palatable example. Caviar is available pureed into a squeeze-tube condiment. But on the other hand, shellfish (including crab!) was accessible to us for the first time in ages. Crayfish especially are a staple of Swedish end-of-summer parties in the same way Americans would celebrate Labor Day with hot dogs and hamburgers. These days the demand is so great that the majority of mudbugs consumed are imported from Louisiana or even further afield. We actually tried them here for the first time. They’re a bit more work than crab and less filling than shrimp or prawns, but nevertheless lots of fun to eat. In Stockholm we stopped at Nystekt Strömming, a fast-food fish fry. Their herring burger and knäckebröd topped with (also) herring, onions, and cucumber were a filling enough supper and didn’t break the bank (though they were literally raising their prices as we ordered).
For dessert, princess cake is the national favorite. This cake is layered with raspberry jam and cream and topped with green marzipan. It was light but flavorful and gave just the right dose of sugar. Coffee cakes and donuts rounded out the sweetened carb quota. Swedish chocolate is pretty good, too.
Alcohol is tightly regulated in Sweden. Grocery stores only sell liquids containing 3.5% ABV or less. Breweries, even multinationals like Guinness, make alco-light versions of their beers to meet this requirement. We didn’t bother trying any. They were nearly as expensive as actual beer, the main point seemed to be to capture convenience buyers and younger consumers (the nominal drinking age is 18). All other forms of alcohol can only be purchased for take-away at Systembolaget, the state-run liquor monopoly. These are well-stocked and well-staffed, but come with their own drinking age (20), stricter controls, and higher prices. While drinks certainly cost more than in Poland, we were surprised by how reasonable costs were (at least compared to Seattle) and didn’t feel like we were getting shaken down too badly. Though we don’t recommend going on Friday afternoons when everyone stocks up for the weekend.
Though Sweden actually has a handful of vineyards of its own, we stuck to the excellent selection of imported wines. Italy and Portugal provided the best deals. Systembolaget also carried a great selection of craft and regional beers. A typical bottle might set us back around $4 US for 330ml, about 2-3x the cost of a 500ml bottle last month. We kept our consumption low then, only sampling the most intriguing options. Omnipollo’s Noa Pecan Mud Imperial Stout was a decadent, dessert-like treat for our celebration of 1000 days on the road↗. Their Nebuchadnezzar Imperial IPA was similarly rich, only this time with hops instead of syrupy sweetness. Eskilstuna Ölkultur makes a wide variety of beers at their brewpub next door to the Stadsmuseet. Their flavorful flight of in-house and guest brews was a highlight of our stay.
Sweden boasts excellent – if pricey – transit. Uber↗ is available, but costs even more. We stuck to buses. Our arrival at Stockholm Skavsta Airport, the budget airline hub, left us 75 minutes away from Stockholm. Luckily that’s not where we were headed. We instead took a city bus to the Nyköping (pronounced knee-shopping), where we transferred to a county route headed to Eskilstuna. Eskilstuna’s modern and clean city bus service operates routes that run every 20-30 minutes, and Route 1 happened to end just meters from our accommodation. Tickets can be purchased from the Sörmlandstrafiken app, or on the bus with a credit card. Cash is not accepted. Buying via the app saved us 6kr over the in-person price.
Frequent trains link Eskilstuna to Stockholm. To continue to Arlanda (Stockholm’s primary airport), we took the Arlanda Express. This train costs a whopping $20/person, but runs multiple times an hour and gets to the airport in just 20 minutes.
Fabulous bike paths branch around and through Eskilstuna and Stockholm. Some run along main roads, others cut through quieter subdivisions. Sweden is serious about cycling, too. Almost the entire route to Tuna Park (the most convenient and full-featured shopping center) consisted of protected bike lanes, and drivers were always courteous and attentive around us.
Biking for the first time in a decade proved a little challenging. It was – ahem – like riding a bike, but remembering how wasn’t really our problem. Our muscle memory was fine, it was our muscles’ willingness to cooperate that was the issue. But we stuck to it, and within a week it no longer burned to pedal uphill.
Stuff of interest
Our SIMs carried over from our last month in Poland↗. We specifically picked Play because they offered some amount of “Roam Like at Home” compliance, and Swedish plans were even pricier. But our re-up got us a lot less than we were hoping. Examining the fine print more closely, our 1+ GB of roaming data only included 500 MB free, and charged per MB after that from our scant leftover credit. We got by, but only just.
Sweden loves recycling. Glass, metal, paper, plastic, food scraps, and trash all go in separate bags or bins. It was the most sophisticated reclamation scheme we’ve encountered since Malta↗.
English was ridiculously common. Something like 90% of the population speaks it. Communication was never a problem.
Like Norway, Sweden has laws enshrining “Allemansrätt,” the right of people to wander across land that isn’t homes or fields. We never availed ourselves, but it was nice to know we had the option.
What we learned
Yes, the taxes are high (though not as high as you’d think), and many things cost more, but it still felt to us like an unfair trade. The quality of life and general well-being was too good. Everything was clean and in good repair. Transit was on time and ubiquitous, and yet almost everyone could afford a car if they needed to go off the grid. It seemed, for all intents and purposes, a paradise.