The Arctic Circle – Winter’s Disneyland

I have never been to Disneyland but I imagine that it is a little like the Arctic Circle in December.  Manic children, frazzled parents, staff in costume, a babel of languages.

Just outside the town of Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland is a strange world, of gift shops and reindeer rides, plastic pod hotels and Christmas trees; 66 degrees north, Napapiiri, the Arctic Circle, self-styled home of Santa Claus.

You can fly direct to Rovaniemi from the UK on special ‘Santa flights’; three hours in the air, a bus ride, a photo with the big man, throw a snowball and back you go.  Maybe you select the three day option, ride a snowmobile or a husky sled, scan the sky for northern lights, herded in packs, in matching snowsuits, by young Finnish guides with fixed smiles.

Our journey to the Arctic was different.  Landing mid-afternoon in Helsinki the day before, driving nine hours north in to the darkness through hypnotic, falling, snow.  We spent the night at an old fashioned motel on the southern fringes of Lapland.  Arriving late and leaving early we didn’t see another person.  Keys waiting in the doors, a breakfast buffet laid out in an empty dining room, the only suggestions that we were not alone.  Three more hours on the road.


Finland is a land of lakes and forests, of vast, flat, unpopulated plains.  Its people have a reputation for stoicism and a quietude verging on the mute.  Stepping out of the car in to the technicolour, sensory assault of the Arctic Circle was a surreal and stark contrast after twelve hours of tree lined silent roads.

It is by no means a bad experience.  Strip back the kitsch of perpetual Christmas and you can’t escape the strangely satisfying sensation of standing on a physical embodiment of the point above which the sun does not set on the summer solstice, and does not rise on the winter solstice.

But Finnish Lapland is more than winter’s theme park.  Photographs taken, souvenirs bought, we were back on the road, pushing north.

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The mask-maker of Bangkok

Twelve years ago, the back streets of Bangkok.  We are somewhere near the river taxi dock for Wat Phra Kaew, and very far from home.  It is early but already the heat and the humidity are high.  I feel a familiar pressure behind my eyes.  A storm is coming.

Twelve years ago I carry only a small film camera; automatic, point and shoot.  With 36 frames a roll I must choose my subjects carefully.  A rationing that is at once restrictive and freeing.  I look first, absorb more.  My nostrils are pricked by the smell of drying fish.  Stall holders cry out above the buzzing traffic.  Their words reach me but not their meaning.  My finger rests on a grid on a map but I am lost.

The rain begins.  Through a curtain of water, jewelled eyes stare at us from the window of a mask-maker.  We go inside.  A quiet man behind the desk watches as we marvel at his creations.  Words like ‘need’ and ‘want’ form in my mouth.  The mask-maker senses his spell is working.  ‘They are gods’ he says.  ‘Choose the one that speaks to you.’


A black and gold monkey.  I turn it over, looking for the price.  Twelve years ago I am months from graduation, no job waiting.  Our plane tickets have been bought with the air-miles of a friend in exchange for half their value.  The monkey goes back on the wall.  ‘There is more than one price’ the mask-maker says.  He nods towards a passing tour group, a procession of umbrellas.  They are middle aged, western, their wealth on display.  ‘That price is for them’ he says.  ‘For you, another.’

Times passes.  The rain continues to fall.  As we wait for the gods to claim us, the mask-maker talks.  He talks of his home village in the north, of his family he leaves behind to work.  Soon it will be Songkran, Thai New Year.  A time to return home, if you can afford the journey.  ‘Will your travels take you north?’ he asks us.  ‘Not this time’.  ‘Next time’ he says.  ‘It is very beautiful.  Very different to this.’  The sweep of his arms stretches beyond the stalls outside, beyond the street dogs and the tuk tuks, beyond the thousands of tourists at the palace.  It brushes against the city limits, encircling all the people, all the colour, all the noise.

We choose, or are chosen, by a grinning Yaksha, giant guardian of temples, by Garuda, eagle-headed mount of the god Narayana, by a green skinned, serene eyed Buddha with a golden crown, and by the monkey, the god king Hanuman.  The mask-maker wraps each one with care.   ‘Thank you’ he says.  ‘Now I can close my shop for the holiday.  Now I can go north’.

The rain has eased.  We turn to leave.  ‘A present for you’ the mask-maker says.  I reach out my hand.  He places a small bronze Buddha in my palm.  I do not recognise it from the shelves.  He closes my fingers around it, holds them there, tight.  Our eyes meet.  ‘It is lucky’ he tells me.  ‘Blessed by a monk at the market.’  With his gesture he has transferred that luck to me, bound me to my amulet.  I have no words.  I stare at my hand, still closed.  Khob Khun Mark Na Ka.  Thank you.

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333 years underwater – Stockholm’s Vasa Museum

Sweden’s most visited tourist attraction is a museum with just one exhibit.  How does something so simple draw such large crowds?  Well, it’s one special artefact.  The Vasa Museum, situated on Stockholm’s Djurgården island, is home to the world’s only surviving, almost complete 17th century warship.  Visiting it is a truly unique experience that quite simply cannot be found anywhere else.

The story of the Vasa is one both of over ambition and too much caution, an unusual combination.  The ship, which sank shortly in to its maiden voyage on the 10th of August 1628, with the loss of 30 lives, was at the time the largest ever built.  Designed to hold 64 cannon, its sheer size made it unwieldy but not necessarily fatally so.  Over the decades since its discovery in the murky waters of Stockholm’s harbour, there have been on-going investigations in to the reasons for the Vasa’s capsize.  That it was just too heavy seemed a fair assumption.  Examination of the upper deck has revealed that, daunted by the prospect of supporting more guns than had ever been carried, the ship builders erred on the side of caution, reinforcing the deck with far more wood than was actually needed.  The result was a top heavy ship, even fully laden, liable to tip in rough water or windy conditions.

The weight of the Vasa was not the only mistake in its construction.  The detailed measurements taken by the archaeologists working on preserving the ship have found that it is asymmetrical.  This is not, in itself, unusual in something produced before the aids of modern manufacturing, and as a result it was common for alterations to be made to a vessel for months after it first set sail.  In the case of the Vasa the mis-measurements were significant.  Amongst the artefacts recovered from the ship are four rulers, two in Swedish feet (12 inches to the foot) and two in Amsterdam feet (11 inches to the foot).  It would seem that each craftsman working on the ship brought with him his own tools and the units of measurement were not always the same; a problem encountered on large scale projects even today, for example the loss of NASA’s Mars-Orbiter in 1999 which failed as a result of confusion over the use of English imperial and US metric units.

So human error led to the Vasa’s loss, and it was human endeavour that caused it to be found.  At various points in history the ship’s resting place has been marked on maps charting Stockholm’s harbour but, as time passed, and inaccuracies crept in to drafts based on copies of copies, its location was forgotten.  That was until 1956, when navy engineer and amateur archaeologist Anders Franzen, having studied the historic sources and armed with a home made coring device, pulled a sample of wood from the harbour floor.  Tests revealed a match for the presumed age of the timbers used in the Vasa’s construction and divers were sent down to investigate.

Diving conditions were difficult; the water cold, dark and thick with mud.  In limited visibility and with adrenalin flowing it is hard not to let your imagination run away with you.  I can only guess at how the divers felt as the structure of the Vasa began to emerge from the gloom, but I think it is a safe bet to assume that mixed with the excitement was a little bit of disbelief, a failure to adequately process.  That is certainly how I felt, standing in the dim, cavernous hall of the Vasa Museum, staring up at the towering ship and struggling to comprehend that before me was not only something almost 400 years old but that it had spent more than three centuries underwater.  Human brains are not designed to understand such things, if we could we would be in danger of imploding with the knowledge of our own transient insignificance.  Instead I spent a lot of time saying inane things such as ‘I can’t believe how well preserved it is’, ‘I can’t believe how big it is’, ‘I can’t believe how old it is’,  ‘It’s hard to believe it’s real’ and generally feeling rather overwhelmed.  Though slightly disconcerting, it is an experience I would highly recommend and certainly one you are unlikely to have again.

The practicalities:-

The island of Djurgården, where the Vasa Museum is located, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram (line 7N).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

The museum is open from 10 until 5  from 1st September to 31st May (with extended hours until 8pm on Wednesday) and from 8.30 until 6 from 1st June to 31st August.  Entry is free for 18s and under and at the time of writing in October 2018 student tickets cost SEK 110 which is roughly £9/US$12/€10.50 and adult tickets cost SEK 130, roughly £11/US$14/€12.

For more preserved wooden boats, this time of the Viking sort, read my post on the Roskilde Viking ship museum here

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Skansen, the world’s oldest open air museum – Stockholm

National history museums are often high on my ‘must see’ list when visiting a country for the first time.  They are the perfect place to learn about the local culture, both from the artefacts on display and the displays themselves: what a people consider important and why is often as interesting as the material thing.  Museums also lend themselves to photography, the buildings as much as their contents, as nothing sets a treasure off better than a grand backdrop.  But even the most avid museum buff can find their loyalty tested by some unexpected sunshine.  The weather during our long weekend to Stockholm was, quite simply, glorious.  Luckily for this vitamin D deprived traveller, Stockholm is home to Skansen, the world’s oldest open air museum, the ideal combination of sunshine and history.

Skansen is located on the central island of Djurgården, which is where you will also find the Vasa Museum (more on this in my next post), the Nordic Museum and Gröna Lund amusement park.  Spread over 75 acres of parkland, Skansen opened in 1891 as a means of preserving and celebrating Sweden’s architectural and social history, bringing together original buildings from all over the country, ranging in date from 1720 to the present day.

Maps are available at Skansen’s website and from the ticket office with suggested walking routes to make sure that you don’t miss the key sites. We chose to follow the two hour itinerary.  This is definitely a minimum rather than a maximum time as you could easily spend a full day in the park.  We started in the Town Quarter, home to a mixture of replica and working shops, including a glass blowers, bakery and printing works.  The photos above are from the iron mongers, whose displays date from the 1930s.  Throughout the town, as with the rest of Skansen, are people in period costume who will happily chat about the history of commerce and craft in Sweden and show you a whole range of interesting artefacts.

After the town, our route took us by a number of farms, formal gardens and allotments which in late May were full of spring flowers, cherry blossom and wisteria.

Other highlights included:-

Selgora Church (above left), an entirely wooden construction dating from the 18th century which was moved to Skansen in 1916 when it was scheduled for demolition and replacement with a modern building.  The church was closed during our visit but is open on Sundays and can be hired for weddings.

Vastvest storehouse (above centre), one of the oldest buildings at Skansen, dating from the 14th century.  It was used as a store at a farm in Telemark, Norway and is the only building not to come from Sweden.  It is covered in Norse carvings and its position on a rise at the edge of the park means that it is a great spot to take a break and soak in the peaceful atmosphere and the fantastic views over the city below.

The imposing Hallestad belfry (above right), from the Ostergotland region of Sweden, was built in 1732 and is over 40 metres tall.  At the time of the tower’s construction most churches had separate bell towers, presumably to reduce the risk of the main building being destroyed by a lightning strike.  When wood is the building material of choice, fire prevention is a real concern.

If historical buildings are not your bag, or if you need something to entertain smaller members of your travelling party, Skansen has plenty of other attractions to offer, including a petting zoo, aquarium, playpark, cafes and funicular railway.  If you are in Stockholm then do consider adding Skansen to your itinerary.  I can’t promise that you will get the weather we had, but I do hope that you will enjoy your visit as much as we did.

The practicalities:-

The island of Djurgården, where Skansen is located, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram (line 7N).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

Skansen is open from 10 until 8 during the week and until 6 at the weekend.  Entry is free for under 4s and at the time of writing in August 2018 costs 60 SEK (£5/$7/6 EUR) for children up to 15 and 195 SEK (£17/$21/18 EUR) for adults.

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Vintage Fun at Gröna Lund, Stockholm’s city centre amusement park

Gröna Lund from Södermalm

It had been a cultural morning, a stroll around Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, followed by a visit to contemporary photography gallery Fotografiska in the Södermalm district.  The gallery is on the waterfront and, as we stepped out in to the sunshine and let our eyes wander across the city skyline, our attention was drawn to a glinting jumble of structures on the opposite shore, the unmistakable towers and tracks of an amusement park. My travelling companions’ faces lit up.  My insides tumbled.

Gröna Lund, Stockholm’s city centre amusement park, has a long history.  Established in the 1880s it was owned by the same family until 2001, and you can tell.  There is a peculiar charm to the place despite the crowds and the noise, the colour and the fear.  Part of its character is its size.  Perched on the edge of Djurgården Island it has nowhere to expand, on three sides there is water, at the back the road.  But small is beautiful and nothing is lacking, from the more sedate teacups and merry-go-round to adrenalin fuelled 95 metre drops and rollercoasters that hurtle at over 55 miles an hour.

Then there is the styling.  Love fairground kitsch?  Love 50s pastel hues?  Love lights and glitter and vintage fonts?  You will not be disappointed.

It is a photographer’s dream and a voyeur I would happily have stayed.  It is no secret that I am ever so slightly risk adverse and the thought of plummeting to my likely death strapped to a flimsy bit of plastic is not my idea of entertainment.  For someone who has only recently made peace with the use of lifts (elevators to my US friends) and once had to sit down on an escalator in Japan because it was ‘too high’, a rollercoaster ride is kind of a big deal.

Perhaps it was the balmy spring weather, perhaps fun is infectious, perhaps it was peer pressure, perhaps it was my faith in Scandinavian health and safety standards.  Whatever the cause, I took the plunge, metaphorically and literally, and braved my first ride (above left).  Admittedly a ride designed for children but a ride none the less.  Feeling jubilant, having survived my swift swoop through a witch’s house (the ride is called Kavasten which is Swedish for broom), we took it up a notch and boarded ‘Jetline’, sitting in the front cart.  Needless to say, my time on the park’s oldest, highest and faster rollercoaster was spent screaming and swearing I would never do anything so foolish again!

My companions laughed.  I ate a restorative ice cream.  All was right with the world.

The practicalities:-

Gröna Lund, and indeed the whole island of Djurgården, is not on the subway line and so you will either need to walk from the centre or take the tram.  The tram is a good option, with stops directly outside (line 7N), but be warned, at peak times they can get very crowded and you may not make it on to the first to pass (unless you have sharp elbows and low morals!).  The tram is included in a Stockholm travel pass (see my previous post here for more details).

Entry to the park is free for children under 7 and for adults 65 and over.  For everyone else admission is SEK 120 (roughly £10 or $13 at the time of writing).  Each ride costs 1 to 3 coupons.  You can purchase an all day pass, with unlimited rides, for SEK 340 (£29 or $37) or various sizes of coupon books.


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Subterranean Sweden – Stockholm’s subway art

Stockholm is a beautiful city, famed for its open spaces, waterways and islands.  So my travelling companions were unsurprisingly shocked when top of my itinerary for our long weekend in the Swedish capital was a tour of its underground train stations.

Known as the Tunnelbana or T-bana in Swedish, Stockholm’s subway system dates from the 1950s and consists of three main lines, red, blue and green, all converging on T-Centralen, or central station.  The system is clean, efficient and easy to navigate.  It is also a relatively inexpensive way to travel around the city.  Tickets cover a 75 minute, 24 hour, 72 hour or 30 day period and are valid on all public transport including commuter trains, trams and boats.  But the best thing about it is the art.  Come with me on a tour through some of my favourites.


If you land at Stockholm Arlanda airport, chances are that your first introduction to the city centre will be stepping off a connecting train at T-Centralen station.  There are two trains that run from the airport, the express and the commuter.  The express currently costs SEK 540 for a return (about £47 or $60 or EUR 53).  The commuter train is included in a standard ticket although you do have to pay a SEK 120 surcharge for getting on or off at the airport.  We opted for the commuter train with a 72 hour pass, costing SEK 250, bringing us in at a total each of SEK 490.

As a hub, T-Centralen has more than one platform.  One of the platforms serving the green and red lines is decorated in pearlescent mosaic tiles, an ode to the style of the 1950s when the system was built.

In complete contrast the blue line platform was the first to feature murals and was painted in 1975 by Per Olof Ultvedt.  It is one of Stockholm’s cave stations, where the bored rock has been left in natural form, leaving you in no doubt that you are underground.  The upper level, depicts silhouetted images of the construction workers who built the station whilst the lower level, where the trains arrive, is covered in a network of organic shapes as though the platform lies beneath the roots of a giant tree.

Solna Centrum

Descending the escalators at Solna Centrum, on the blue line, is a little unsettling.  The dim light, cavernous ceiling and red and black tones, make it is hard not to think of Renaissance images of hell, or the bubbling liquid heart of the earth.  In fact, the murals at this station, painting by Karl-Olav Bjork and Anders Aberg are depictions of Sweden’s countryside, the red the sky at night and the black and green the land.  The mural was designed as a social commentary on rural depopulation and deforestation, a significant problem for Sweden in the 1970s when the station was painted.


Painted by Ake Pallarp and Enno Hallek in 1973 Stadion on the red line is perhaps one of the most iconic of Stockholm’s stations, featuring amongst other colourful installations, a blue sky emblazoned with a rainbow.  Stadion is the stop for the 1912 Olympic stadium (hence the name) and an area still used for music concerts and annual Pride events.


Universietet station on the red line is your stop for Stockholm University and the Natural History Museum.  Mosaic is the media of choice here with walls dedicated to Carl Von Linne (otherwise Carl Linnaeus) Sweden’s famous botanist who formalised the system of naming organisms.  The tiles may homage to his cataloguing methods and also to the countries he visited and creatures he saw.


The translation of Kungstradgarden, on the blue line, is King’s Garden and is built beneath what was once the French gardens of Makalos Palace.  The station is a homage to the Palace, and other buildings, that were lost as the city redeveloped.  It features a number of statues that are replicas of those that would have stood on the site in its former incarnation.

I hope you’ve enjoyed your journey through the subway and please do join me as we venture in to the sunshine for my next post from Stockholm.


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Virtual Travels – journeys through the weird world of Instagram

After a summer of relative regularity, my posting activity became a little sparse.  One reason for this is that, towards the end of July, I dipped my toe for the first time in to the inviting waters of Instagram.  I had been wary for years, having heard tales of stolen intellectual property and copyright ownership by ‘the Man’ but, after a conversation with a friend who is a regular user, was persuaded to give the platform a go, primarily as a means of increasing traffic to this site.  I would like to say that I was successful but statistics do not lie.  WordPress records advise that in the last five months there has been a grand total of one referral to my blog from Instagram.

So has the whole thing been a pointless exercise?  No.  No journey is ever wasted and, because I set off with a purpose my travels in Instagram Land have been with my eyes open bringing me  a healthy dose of reality.  Once I had accepted that this was not to be the route to more readers my first task was to get to know the inhabitants of my new world.  From my initial encounters I have identified three main tribes:-

  1. Those selling
  2. Those buying
  3. Those wanting to sell

The buyers are the smallest group of the three.  Often their accounts are private, followers are restricted to friends and family.  They post pictures of their pets, their children, their dinners and their holiday snaps.  They ‘like’ similar posts by their friends and family but also images from strangers that appeal to them.  Occasionally that image is one of mine and I am grateful for it.

My encounters with the sellers have also been generally positive, largely because they have involved choice and action on my behalf. Successful sellers do not need to approach you.  They lay out their wares, whether they are actual things you can buy for money, or more intangible, a lifestyle, an art form, which you can support, validate, approve of with the craved for, powerful, ‘like’.  I went to Instagram to sell but have often found myself in the role of buyer.  There are some truly talented and interesting people in the world and I continue to be amazed by the electronics that allow me to admire the drawings of an artist in Mexico, to laugh at the hilarious anecdotes of an antiques collector in the US, to follow along on the travels of a Geneva based UN employee working to combat the use of torture, to marvel at the drone photography skills of a Finnish teenager, all from a 3 x 5 inch screen in my hand.

The tribe of would be sellers is the most troubling. There is real money to be made as a social media influencer.  Unsurprisingly it now ranks amongst the dream jobs sought after by the next generation, usurping the old staples of sporting and music star.  Often a would be seller holds themselves our as a buyer.  This is part of the like for like, follow for follow culture that is rife in Instagram Land.  Sometimes the approach is subtle; a ‘like’ on more than one photo, perhaps even a comment (often using the words ‘my dear’ which I suspect is an attempt at friendliness by those for whom English is not a first language but to me appears strange and unsettling, conjuring images of the wolf in grandma’s bed).  The comment will likely praise the image or gallery and ask for a visit to the ‘buyer’s’ site to give them feedback, a request for attention disguised as a complement.  Other approaches are brazen; an unexpected follow from a random account, sometimes connected to a recent post of yours but sometimes wildly off key.  By example a few months ago I posted a photo taken at the Viking ship museum in Roskilde, Denmark and used the hashtag ‘viking’.  Within minutes I was being followed by the official account of the Minnesota Vikings American football team.  In this environment ‘likes’ and follows become commodities with monetary value.  It is possible to buy both.  This explains the accounts with one or two pictures and thousands of followers.

Now that I know it a little better will I continue my adventures in Instagram Land?  Would I recommend it to a fellow traveller?  There is certainly something appealingly (or should that be appallingly) easy about it.  Select your chosen image, add a filter if you wish, a few words, a few hashtags and boom – it’s out there in the world.  No hours of careful crafting, no redrafting.  It is, as the name suggests, instant and, I must grudgingly admit, gratifying.  Back to those statistics.  On average my Instagram posts generate 15 to 20 ‘likes’, roughly double my average for WordPress.  Yesterday one particular image reached the dizzying heights of 58 and is still climbing.  I appreciate that this is very small fry when the top ‘grammers generate views in the thousands but to me, it is unprecedented popularity.  And yes, it is addictive.  We all crave acceptance and there is nothing more perfectly designed to generate inner smiles of smugness than the approval of a stranger for something we have created.  It makes us feel important, it masks, for a fleeting second, our insignificance, it calms our fear of mortality.  It is massively distorting and unhealthy but, like all other things that are bad for us, we keep reaching for it because it is also oh so good.

The lesson here, if there is one at all, is that we must be varied in our travel.  A week’s beach trip to Instagram Land should be alternated with a cultural exchange to WordPress World, a place where it is much more difficult to buy approval and where more meaningful, long term, relationships can be formed, something that will last beyond the holiday romance.  My new year’s resolution is to remember this and to write more often and maybe I’ll see you on my travels in the virtual country of your choice.


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