The bonus of training for Ötillö (www.otillo.se), the SwimRun World Championship ranked by CNN “as one of the toughest endurance races in the world” held the first Monday in September, is that, despite three months of having to drag myself out of bed at 4 am to workout, the race destination is as rewarding as the event itself.
Part of my immediate affiliation to Stockholm is its familiarity to many Canadian cities: it’s clean, has reliable public transport, people are terribly polite (and speak English, thanks to watching undubbed American TV), there are gorgeous lake districts, and, of course, there’s the similarity in the weather, with people embracing the climate in which they live: nearly a quarter of Swedes still manage to jog regularly and a third cycle to work despite windy, wet springs; short summers; crisp falls; and snowy, chilly winters.
Stockholm offers a welcome contrast to Nice – civilised not chaotic, cheery not dispirited – and its wintery conditions provide the perfect backdrop for the city’s Christmas market, open from the last Saturday in November to December 23rd (daily 11 am to 6 pm). That’s not to say sea-facing palm trees decorated with flashing white lights don’t provide a festive atmosphere here on the Riviera but, having grown up in a snowy and severe winter climate, tingling cheeks and seeing my breath gets me more in the mood for Santa’s impending visit than dropping by the Nice Christmas market on my way home from a run, wearing shorts and shades.
With origins dating back to the medieval markets in 1837, Stockholm’s Christmas market at Stortorget Square, near the Royal Palace, in the enchanting Gamla stan (the Old Town), is the oldest in the country, operating officially since 1915. It’s been called “one of the world’s best” and “a Christmas market to see in your lifetime”, so what could be more joyful than sampling Swedish Christmas sweets, pepparkakor (gingerbread) and glögg (mulled wine) from some of the 40 red chalets selling traditional handmade knitted caps, candy floss, a range of Swedish handicrafts arts and gifts – especially knowing that all the proceeds from the booth rentals goes to charity? And if you really want “to dive into the Advent atmosphere”, sign up for the 90-minute Stockholm Christmas stoRy Walking Tour™ (www.storytours.eu).
Stockholm’s “New Nordic” food scene deliciously balances pickled herring, salmon, Swedish meatballs with lingonberries and dark, hearty breads (that, ahem, you may want to avoid before a run) … with carrot cake, Prinsesstårta sponge cake with jam and cream and authentic Swedish cinnamon buns. And thick-moussed, seasonally flavoured café lattés are available from an abundance of coffee houses, where you will be served with a smile – a dose of friendliness that only helps to improve your festive mood.
Gamla stan and Kungsträdgården, the city’s 15th-century central park, are easy to get around on foot – or skates, there’s a winter ice rink in the King’s Garden, open from lunch to 6:30ish pm – with shops a plenty peppered with boutiques, chain stores and restaurants. Treat yourself to a beverage at the iconic Grand Hotel bar, and certainly a visit to a spa is a no-brainer. The world renowned Sturebadet Spa, founded by balneologist Carl Curman in 1885, is one of Stockholm’s oldest and although the original bathhouse was destroyed by fire a century later, it has been reconstructed from original pictures.
For the history buffs, a 30-minute walk from Central Station to the Djurgården district will take you to the marine Vasa Museum, while the pop culture fanatics may be more inclined to visit the nearby Abba Museum.
According to Vogue, Södermalm, south of Stockholm, is “one of the coolest neighbourhoods in the world”. Scenes from The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo were filmed here and you’ll find no shortage of vintage shops, food trucks and cafés.
No matter what part of Stockholm you explore (and don’t forget to pack your wetsuit), you’ll find no bah-humbug here this holiday season.
Where to stay
The family-owned Kungsträdgården is Stockholm’s newest boutique hotel, located 50 metres from the King’s Garden. Offering outstanding service in an exquisite setting, each of the 98 classical Gustavian decorated rooms leaves no detail overlooked, and the buffet breakfast is equally as impressive. See www.hotelkungstradgarden.se
How to get there
Norwegian Shuttle Air (www.norwegian.com) flies direct Nice-Stockholm daily and offers free in-flight Wi-Fi.