If Nordic Expedition II is a song, then this bit is the middle eight.
So far this week (as in the last week of March 2018), we've been to Copenhagen and Malmo, visited a new BrewDog bar and done several other fun things. Without wanting to give the game away too early, by the end of the week our journey will climax in a country that's entirely new to us. But in order to get there, we need to revisit some of the highlights from Nordic Expedition I: Stockholm, Helsinki, and a ferry journey between Sweden and Finland. The challenge is therefore to find new angles that we didn't already cover two years ago.
Let's see how we do, shall we? (Bearing in mind that all that 'new angles' shit is probably going to go straight out the window as soon as we get near a BrewDog bar.)
The roads surrounding the hotel are a chaotic building site, as the long-term building work around Slussen drags on and on. Still, it's an easy part of town to get out of, with the bus and rail stations being close by. To start our evening, inspired by the previous night’s discovery in Malmo City Library, I’ve decided that I want to buy a DVD copy of The Garbage Helicopter. We identify two video shops in central Stockholm to explore. The first is Monkey Beach Video, but as soon as we squeeze through the door we realise trying to find a specific film here is pointless. Floor to ceiling shelves are crammed with randomly arranged DVDs, augmented with huge piles of them stacked on the floor, like a game of cineaste Jenga where you have to buy all the ones you knock over. It’s less of a shop and more of an outsider art installation, but a fascinating one: every so often you hit a sequence of thematically related discs, or a selection in approximate alphabetical order, and it’s genuinely thrilling. You can discover films here that you wouldn't find anywhere else - for us, the biggest surprise is the Australian comedy You Can't Stop The Murders, which was doing the rounds when we went down under in 2003, available here in a Belgian edition dubbed into French. It’s a lot more fun than visiting Bengans, a more traditional record store with a feeble DVD selection, which The BBG suggests may have been reduced in size to make room for the renewed interest in vinyl albums. (They do have the film listed on their website, but it's currently shown as out of stock. It might just be easiest to apply for a Malmo library card after all.)
For the rest of the evening (after a quick trip back to Slussen to take some pictures of the frozen waterfront), we reacquaint ourselves with Stockholm's two BrewDog bars to get a couple more stamps in our BrewDog visas. Conveniently, both the bars and our hotel all sit comfortably on the number 3 bus route. Kungsholmen is our first stop, and on a Tuesday evening it’s got a noisy post-work crowd taking up virtually all the table space, apart from a small spot we eventually grab on a shared table. The bar no longer has the dedicated restaurant that it had when we first visited, but its burger and dog menu is different enough to keep us there for dinner, accompanied by a couple of local beers from Oppigards and O/O. While we're eating, we get chatting to two local punters who learn that we'll be hitting the Sodermalm bar straight after. One of them suggests that Sodermalm has more of the low-key vibe of a proper neighbourhood boozer than Kungsholmen's office worker hangout, and that's exactly what we find when we get there. It’s quieter, more relaxed, but still reasonably buzzy: we don't notice the lack of music for the first hour until James' Laid kicks in. We stay localish for our last few beers of the night, with Iceland's Kex Brewing and the more obvious Stockholm Brewing, finishing off with Dugges Big Idjit as our traditional OTT nightcap beer.
We only have time for one morning activity the next day, a visit to the Fotografiska museum, which we last went to on our 2013 visit and enjoyed immensely. There are three very different exhibitions on offer: Zanele Muholi’s self portraits celebrating her blackness, Ellen von Unwerth’s flashy portraits of glamorous women, and Christian Tagliavini’s intricately constructed narratives (also showing his gradual move from paper props to 3D printed ones). As it’s a nice day, if none of the pictures take your fancy you can always just look out at the harbour view from the café windows. We don’t, as we’ve got lunch booked along with the even better view at the elevated Gondolen restaurant nearby. Their lunch deal is especially decent - fish stew, meat quenelles, house wines and coffees, adding up to just under thirty quid a head. Plus you can go on the roof afterwards for one last look over Stockholm.
Everything we'd planned in advance for Stockholm (i.e. not counting the abortive DVD hunt) has been within easy reach of the hotel - the BrewDog bars, the Fotografiska, and Gondolen. And there's one more thing: it's just a short bus ride from there to the Viking Line terminal. This is where we went two years ago to get the ferry between Stockholm and Turku, allowing us to spend a couple of nights in the latter city before getting the train over to Helsinki. This time, we're getting the ferry directly to Helsinki instead. Well, Turku doesn't have a BrewDog bar any more, does it? (Sob.)
Having done all this before, boarding turns out to be a surprisingly straightforward process. Checking in takes virtually no time at all: it's all done with self-service terminals these days, which pump out your cabin keys and tickets as soon as you wave a QR code in front of them. Within minutes, we're occupying a very nice seaside premium cabin on the M/S Mariella. At this point, it's about 3.30pm in the afternoon, one hour before the ship pulls out of the harbour, and eighteen hours before it pulls into Helsinki.
Thankfully, as on our previous voyage, there's plenty to keep us occupied. Although when we did this on midsummer night in 2016, we spent most of the night marvelling at how light the nights were and gawping at the pretty islands gently floating by. This time around, the view's somewhat different, as it's quite a lot colder. For the early part of the sailing, we're fascinated by the small bits of ice that we see bobbing across the surface of the water. But around 6pm, it suddenly coalesces into a single solid sheet stretching in all directions, and the ship becomes a literal icebreaker. For half an hour or so we watch through a window as the ferry audibly rams its way through a surprisingly thick layer of frozen water, with cracks spreading out away from the hull and large chunks of ice spinning off into the distance.
It’s probably the most entertaining part of the journey, though it’s not for the want of them trying. We get an excellent buffet dinner in the restaurant, and follow it up with a couple of bottles of Punk IPA, incongruously served in the Cava Bar. A couple of cups of green tea in the café and then we’re ready for bed, on a surprisingly calm sea. The restaurant does a similarly good job for breakfast the next morning, with a wide variety of Swedish and Finnish options, including the first Karelian pies we’ve seen in two years. Back in the cabin, we get to watch a bit more ice being broken before pulling into Helsinki pretty much bang on time.
Our first job in Helsinki is to pick up the by-now-traditional 24 hour travel passes from a machine at the ferry terminal, before using them to get a couple of trams into the centre of town. There are little clumps of snow and ice on the streets, but the pavements are largely clear – nevertheless, it’s a clue that things are about to get cold again. We arrive at the Glo Hotel Art around 11am expecting to just drop our bags and go away again, but they kindly allow us to check in a good three hours early and go straight to our room. Located in a former castle (although we're actually inside its connected annexe), the room turns out to be a Smart Double in both name and character. It’s relatively cheap, and they tried to get us to upgrade at reception because it’s theoretically one of the smaller rooms, but its two-person-sized shower is just fine for us.
Again, we just have one day in town, and a couple of time-critical tasks to complete, so we can't just hang around watching Moomins on the telly. First stop is the Art Deco delight of Cafe Ekberg, because one day in Finland leaves us only one opportunity for a lounasbuffet. Today’s selection is pea soup to start, a fish stew and salad main course, a dessert that appears to be something like Yorkshire pudding with jam and cream, and coffee to finish. From there we get a tram out to the Design Museum, where there are three exhibitions to explore. Back To The Present gives a solid overview of the modern history of Finnish design, taking in everything from classic furniture to Angry Birds. An interesting-sounding room entitled Lorum Ipsum – Talking About Graphic Design disappoints because it’s too much talking about the process by which graphic designers organise themselves, not so much about the actual work. (The one online display in English is on a broken computer, but this link gives you the chance to play along at home.) The best of the three is an excellent collection of work by glass designer Timo Sarpaneva, much helped by his wife's comprehensive video documentation of his process. It’s everything you could want from a design museum exhibit: it looks nice, it's practical, and it's fascinating to see how he did the work.
Our beers for the day are inevitably centred around BrewDog Helsinki: the bar impressed me two years ago with the dedication of its staff and its cosy atmosphere, and it’s still the case today. We keep it local for the couple of drinks it takes for us to get our beer visas stamped: Maku’s Mosaic IPA and Cool Head’s Sea Betrayed Us, followed by BrewDog’s own Hello My Name Is Sari. From there we take a tram into the centre of town, where we check out the newish Sori taproom, a brightly-lit modern bar specialising in the Estonian brewery’s beers. We grab two - Out Of Office and Madonna Of Sori – but are disappointed to find they're served in far-too-big measures, and with what we suspect is some sort of sneaky markup added to the listed price.
Still, by now we’re getting used to the idea that the Helsinki leg of this trip will be the most expensive. That’s emphasised by our dinner at Juttutupa, featuring a pair of Olvi beers accompanying a meal that's as stereotypically Finnish as our lunch two days ago was stereotypically Swedish - salmon soup, fried whitefish and sautéed reindeer. The main reason why we’re here, though, is the ability to nip into the attached dancehall immediately after our meal to catch a free gig by Boothill Billy. They're a local country rock covers band with a decent sound, augmented with some surprisingly groovy twin lead guitar solos. They're playing to a generally restrained audience, but at one point the two drunkest people in the room break into a waltz, and The BBG is convinced that we’re now living in an Aki Kaurismaki movie. Afterwards, we manage to safely traverse the iciest bit of pavement we've encountered so far this holiday, and celebrate back at Brewdog with a pair of okayish Ruosniemi stouts, Porvari Oloroso and Vuorinuevos. It’s a short walk back to the Glo hotel from there, and we wind down with a couple of cups of tea in the lobby bar.
We have our Good Friday breakfast at the Glo, in its almost empty restaurant: despite the designer loveliness of the hotel, I suspect that it's another one aimed at a business clientele who have other things to do today. All off on their Easter holidays, I guess. Which is fine: after all, that's what we're about to do next.