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Aboard Sweden's X-2000 train - photos by Kent St. John
Aboard Sweden's X-2000 train - photos by Kent St. John

Steel Rails in Sweden and Finland

Kent E. St. John





By Kent E. St. John
Senior Travel Editor

 

 

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In less than twenty-two minutes I traveled from Copenhagen Airport to the Swedish city of Malmo. I wondered if the rest of my rail trip through Sweden and Finland would be as easy, and it was. Rail travel in the Scandinavian countries was reasonable and satisfying, a win-win situation.

Trips to Finland

My trip took me to Stockholm, Helsinki and several other delightful Scandinavian hideaways. Traveling on the steel rails in Scandinavia opened up the possibility of meeting locals as well as hitting spots not on the usual tourist zones.

An added plus was taking an overnight ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki, a wonderful seafaring interlude. All aboard.

A Royal Gathering   

A short walk from Malmo’s central train station in the heart of the old city took me to the Hotel Master Johan, a wonderfully half-timbered building that fits in perfectly with the city’s old heart and very near the Lilla Torg. It is from the Lilla Torg that Malmo’s late medieval streets emanate.

Central Station in Stockholm
Central Station in Stockholm

It was a great coincidence  that I was visiting just as the Danish Royal Family was hooking up with the Swedish Royal family on the square. Malmo has been under control of both several times over the years, and the city is worth battling over. These days, however, the two royal families get along royally.

Malmo has recently risen like the phoenix after some years of decline. Now the city sparkles with energy. Just outside the old center industrial space has been converted into ultra sleek living spaces and fantastic modern architecture.

The keystone of the city’s revitalization was architect Santiago Calatrava’s 54-story marvel, the Twisted Torso.

The Torso is a spectacle of engineering and anchors Malmo’s emergence as one of Scandinavia’s fastest growing centers. Many choose the city as home, and work across the Oresund Straight in Copenhagen. The combination of old and new makes Malmo a special place to start a journey through Sweden.

The studio and shop of Jan-Erik Ritzman
The studio and shop of Jan-Erik Ritzman

Crystal Dreams

After a night of Bacchanalian behavior in Malmo, I wheeled my bag to the central train station to board one of Sweden’s X 2000 trains to Alvesta -- the departure point to visit Kosta Boda, the oldest glass manufacturing factory in Sweden.

As luck would have it, Kosta is located in Smaland, one of Sweden’s nicest regions, forested wilderness interlaced with small villages. The area is where Sweden’s roots began and is where Sweden’s glass works were first built in 1742.

 

Kosta Boda has a world class reputation for stunning glass works and is also the largest facility that is open to the public and free of charge to boot. It is the heart and soul of the Kingdom of Crystal.

Trips to Sweden
Besides the several exhibition buildings and shops a must-see is the Glass House where workers today produce blown glass treasures. Feeling the heat of the furnaces while watching these skilled artisans will make you a fan.
Kent blowing glass at Kosta Boda
Kent blowing glass at Kosta Boda

To gain another perspective of glass work, a visit to Transjo Hytta is a wonderful choice. Transjo is the studio and shop of Sweden’s foremost master glassblower today, Jan-Erik Ritzman. Ritzman started his career at the Kosta Factory in 1957 and moved out on his own in 1982.

This gentle glass genius is the youngest blower to become a Master Glassmaker and when not touring, works at his studio with apprentices from around the world. This place is a treasure to behold and will turn you into a lover of glass work forever.

Taking Stock in Stockholm

Back aboard the X 2000 the next morning I really got a chance to test out the services that Sweden’s trains provide. Lunch was provided at my comfortable seat and served white glove style. While devouring my salmon platter I surfed the web for some Stockholm tips; wireless is free on the first class seats.

All too soon I arrived at the Central Station and caught the Stockholm subway (Tunnelbanan) to the Radisson SAS Strand Hotel, the second oldest grand hotel in the city. It was opened just in time for the Olympic Games of 1912. From my window in room 410 the city’s position on the waterfront was amply displayed. It was tough to hit the streets.

The waterfront in Stockholm
The waterfront in Stockholm

Stockholm is built on 14 islands and buzzes with excitement and style, a visual seaside paradise. I started my exploration on Gamla Stan, the historical heart of the city.

Amidst the narrow streets and medieval buildings, the Kungliga Palace was a fantastic base for exploring Stockholm’s vast offerings.

To the east is the island of Djurgarden where most of the city’s museums are interspaced with stately homes and parks, while to the west is Sodermalm. Sodermalm is the funky bohemian section, filled with clubs and night time diversions.

While bridges connect all the islands the small ferries are the way to go. Stockholm constantly reminds you of its position on the sea.

As I sat at dinner at the Sture Hof that evening, I was astounded by just about everything -- fresh seafood served in a historic building with an amazingly modern interior. Blond gods and goddesses sipping glowing cocktails in animated conversation filled most of the outdoor tables. Laughter mixed with the live background music was all the proof I needed that Stockholm is a city with a great blend.

The Silja Serenade
The Silja Serenade

Unfortunately my stay was ending the next day; leaving the steel rails behind for a crossing of the Baltic was my next plan of action. It would have been easy to stay, but Helsinki called.

Seafaring to Helsinki

As I boarded the Silja Serenade I knew that my lapse in train travel was justified; as Vikings have in the past I was continuing my journey via boat.

One side of the ship was dedicated as a duty-free shopper’s zone and the rest for sheer pleasure. After stowing my gear in my cabin, I headed up to the top deck to watch Stockholm slip past.

Truth told many Finns and Swedes take the trip because with the high cost of booze and the ability to purchase alcohol at sane prices duty free is a draw. You might just want to stock up yourself. The casino and spa however add to the very good reasons to cruise the Baltic. My après dinner massage was soothing and well done.

Siberius Park in Helsinki
Siberius Park in Helsinki

After a night of gorging at the smorgasbord I hit the casino, a few extra dollars won to be dispersed in Helsinki. The best part of the trip, however, was going back up to the top deck in the cool air as the stars sparkled above. Arriving at the Helsinki Harbor via ship is fabulous. I cannot think of a better way to reach a destination.

Helsinki has its Own Style

Though ruled by both Sweden and Russia in the past, Helsinki is its own, not a homogenized version of either. It deserves its current popularity. Helsinki is compact yet complete in every sense of the word. The predominant architectural style is Art Noveau and Neo-Classical with broad parks and modern shopping.

The best park to check out is the Sibelius Park, named after the immensely popular Finnish composer Jean Sibelius. The park is filled with sculpture and people enjoying good weather.

A shop in Helsinki
A shop in Helsinki

Senate Square is in the heart of old Helsinki and is dominated by the snow white Lutheran Church. In the center of the square is a statue of Alexander the II, the Russian Czar, a reminder of Russian occupation days.

On the same square is the University library open to the public, a reminder of the natural intelligence of the Finnish people. It is, perhaps, why so much modern technology is developed in Finland. Very few cities have heated streets for melting winter snows. 

After a morning checking out the main shopping streets of Aleksanterinkatu and Fredrikinkatu, I decided to take a small ferry to the island of Suomenlinna, complete with fortress and an artist colony. It was begun by the Swedes, captured by the Russians and shelled by the British and is today listed as a World Heritage site. There are several cafes and restaurants on the island. Ending my day over a coffee at the Esplanad Café put me just right for Helsinki’s vibrant night life.

Tramping Around Tampere

With my handy Eurail pass, I headed north of Helsinki to Finland’s third largest city, Tampere, on the S2 Train. Tampere is located in the midst of 200 lakes, one reason that industry boomed here years ago.

The shop at the Lenin Museum
The shop at the Lenin Museum

Today Tampere has incorporated the old industrial buildings into museum and gallery space. This city is tops for Finnish travelers and will soon be on the international list also. It was in Tampere’s Workers Halls that Lenin, while in exile from Russia, built up his worker party ideology. In fact the city has the only permanent Lenin Museum in the world.

Another interesting little museum gem is located in Tampere, the Spy Museum. The museum follows the history of espionage throughout history, especially during the cold war. Finland’s geographical position made it a place for both sides to wheel and deal in information.

To end my visit I headed to the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame. Finland is prime hockey territory, a good fit for a country with 188,000 lakes.

Viking Heritage and an Ancient Capital. 

Spread out along the banks of the Aurajoki River is the lovely city of Turku, once the capital of Swedish-held Finland. Swedish is still spoken and signs are often in both languages. Its position on the river and Baltic Sea has made it a shipping and trading center for centuries.

The village of Naantali, Finland
The village of Naantali, Finland

Today those banks are filled with restaurants and cafes and the good times roll. University students blend with fishermen and businessmen. Tall ships are interspaced with modern sailing craft and small ferries cross the river.

The sentry of the harbor is the Turku Castle, an imposing white fortress dating from 1280. One guest of the castle was King Eric XIV of Sweden who was imprisoned, having been declared insane.

Perhaps he sampled too much of Turku’s lively night life. Another must see is the Huge Turku Cathedral, the “mother church” of the Lutheran Church of Finland.

For a real treat head eight miles from the city to the stunning seaside village of Naantali and its horseshoe harbor. The village grew up around the founding of a convent in 1440; today the presidential summer residence, called Kulturanta, is a major draw and its 56 hectare grounds are filled with blossoms. The area is most pleasant to say the least.

The Steel Rails of Sweden and Finland  

On the upper level of one of Finland’s new trains for my trip back to Helsinki and home, I had time to review my train travels through both Finland and Sweden. With just enough frequency the drink cart appeared and I was offered a refreshing Finnish beer.

A Finnish train
A Finnish train

To sum it up I would make train travel in this neck of the world my first choice for exploration. The convenience and efficiency as well as comfort were undeniably grand.

As I have for past travels, I acquired my rail pass from Eurail and was once again so very pleased. I have yet to have anything but great experiences with them.

They offer several options for traveling, such as a three, four and five-day pass within three countries or single country passes. They have the most conclusive offerings available. Check out their website to see what pass suits you best.

The regional options they offer are unbeatable, the prices reasonable and their website is helpful in planning.

A prime example of benefits is that my pass entitled me to ride the ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki for free in a Tourist II cabin, upgrades available for a nominal fee. Another example of Euro rail benefits is that they cover the crossing via land between Boden, Sweden, and Kemi, Finland; it is free with your pass. Check their website to plan a seamless journey.

Sit back and relax. It is what riding steel rails is all about.

Helpful Links:

Sweden Tourism

Finland Tourism

Cities:

Malmo

Crystal Kingdom

Stockholm

Helsinki

Tampere

Turku

The ferry between Stockholm and Helsinki was sheer delight due to the services that Silja Lines provide; check them out at their helpful web site.

A sugar bird in Nevis Visit our Kent E. St. John Page with links to all his stories.

 

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