Sightseeing in sub-zero: a tourist’s guide to winter in Uppsala

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Considering that I’m on exchange in Sweden for a full 10 months, you’d have maybe thought that friends and family would confine their visits to see me to the spring and summer months. Whilst summer temperatures in Sweden are never going to set any records, my hazy recollections of the first weeks here in August are marked by long warm days, where having fika outdoors, wandering through parks in the sun and even taking off the occasional layer *gasps*, was a tauntingly brief reality. Unfortunately for those who booked to visit me, however, the perks of being a summer tourist were a very distant memory when they came in November, January and February respectively.

 

Uppsala’s a wonderful place to be a student throughout the seasons, but when you’ve only a few days to experience what it has to offer, and those days happen to be consistently below zero and filled with intermittent bursts of snowfall, sleet or icy rain, the pressure to get creative with your tour-guiding is on. To save future Uppsala-students this panic, I’ve compiled this handy list of sightseeing musts, for when the elements are very much not on your side.

  • Escape the cold by ducking into Uppsala Domkyrka. The tallest cathedral in Scandinavia, this masterpiece boasts some truly beautiful wall paintings, King Gustav Vasa’s tomb and the relics of Sweden’s patron saint – St. Erik. It’s also free to enter, open until 6pm and, as a bonus, has an amazingly effective central heating system…

 

  • Use your student ID (guest cards from the uni also work) to get free entry to Museum Gustavianum. Learn about the university’s history, wander around one of the world’s oldest anatomical theatres and marvel at the Augsburg Art Cabinet, a 17th-century cabinet of curiosities which is, quite simply, mad.

 

  • Botaniska trädgården is maybe more attractive in the warmer months, but is still worth a visit for the tropical house (also free entry for Uppsala students) as an escape from the cold.

 

  • Bror Hjorths Hus is one of my favourite spots in Uppsala. A little out of the way, it’s well worth the walk for a look at the quirky art of local favourite Bror Hjorth, displayed in his own home. (Also free!)

 

  • Uppsala konstmuseum is another great place to seek refuge from the cold whilst getting to feel lovely and cultural. Set within the castle, the museum has a decent collection of artwork, regularly changing – so perfect for multiple visits with friends! (Need I say, this one’s also free…and open late on Thursdays, if you need somewhere warm to wait before getting dinner)

 

  • If you’re blessed with a sunny day, it’s worth embracing the cold and walking/biking to Gamla Uppsala. This site, inhabited since the 3rd Century AD, was an important economic, political and religious centre before activities were shifted to present-day Uppsala. There’s a museum (not free, sorry), a 12th Century church which still holds services, and most impressively of all, monumental burial mounds which offer an amazing view across to the cathedral.

 

  • If you want to pretend to be a true Swede for the day, a trip to Fjällnora Recreation Centre is a must. Serving as a haven for swimmers, hikers and canoeists in the summer, this massive lake entirely freezes over in winter, and swarms with skaters and cross-country skiers. It’s accessible by bus from Uppsala centre, and equipment is available for hire at a reasonable price. I went skiing with friends a few weeks ago, and can honestly say that despite it being the coldest day of the winter so far (lows of a very chilly -13°), it was absolutely worth it for the scenery and the fun of trying a new, and very Swedish, sport.

 

  • Bandy is a sport I hadn’t encountered before moving to Sweden, but for those also not in the know, it can be summarised as a slightly less exciting version of ice hockey. It’s immensely popular in Sweden, and Uppsala has its own team – IK Sirius – which plays regularly throughout the winter in a stadium not far from the centre. It’s possible to watch for free as a student, and though I’ve only been a spectator, I’ve heard it’s also possible to play.

 

  • If outdoor activities aren’t really your thing, however, or the cold is simply just getting to you, it’s always good to know that cafés and Nations are only ever around the corner. Both are an integral part of student life here, so you can easily justify spending a significant part of your tourism-time indulging in fika or enjoying drinks.

 

Lapland Larks

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Hej hej,

Apologies in advance for what is about to be a somewhat hyperbolic and unrepresentative reflection of how amazing studying abroad is, but, still riding the high of recent travels, I want to endorse seeing life in a different country as a unique experience to exploit your new geography and travel to places more accessible than from the UK.

Before coming to Sweden, I’d only a very vague understanding of what and where Lapland is, and had never considered it to be somewhere I’d prioritise travelling to. I had visions of lots of snow, extreme cold and perpetual darkness in the winter months, which wasn’t entirely unappealing, but also didn’t do much to sell the idea to me. When my newly-found friends decided to book a trip advertised at the welcome fair, however, the fomo hit, and I too signed myself up for 5 days in the far north on the ‘Lapland Express’ tour.

As a budget tour catering for students, compromises were made to keep prices low, including taking an overnight coach to spare expenditure on accommodation and transport. Laden with a rucksack filled to the brim with every piece of warm clothing to my name, I was collected from town, and we began the long drive north. Amazingly, despite what seemed to be the entirety of the UK being coated in a generous blanket of snow in previous days, Uppsala had been distinctly free from wintry weather, which I soon realised wasn’t a reflection of the situation in the rest of Sweden… Once we were outside of the city, the scenery changed dramatically, with every road, house and tree obscured by thick layers of snow. I won’t lie, the reality of spending 17 hours cooped up on a bus was as unpleasant as it sounds, but the excitement of what lay ahead (and occasional drama on the road – stopping the bus to avoid collision with a baby elk etc.) kept spirits high.

The distance from Stockholm to Kiruna

Our first stop was Kiruna, Sweden’s northernmost city, famed for its enormous iron-ore mine, which – fun fact- is causing the entire city to be gradually relocated 3 km east to allow for further extraction. After a quick change into warmer clothes, we were bussed to a local activity centre, where we immersed ourselves in the full tourist experience, driving snowmobiles across the snowy plains and being taken by husky sled back to base. It was a fantastic way to begin the trip, and definitely succeeded in waking us up after such a long journey!

The afternoon was spent touring the city, but we didn’t have the energy for much more. The darkness isn’t totally complete, as you can see from the photos, there’s a degree of light at midday, but we’d arrived right in the middle of the polar night season, meaning that for the entirety of our stay the sun never actually rose above the horizon. Regardless of how often you check the time, your body can’t keep up with such a dramatic change, and I spent most of the afternoon bus journeys napping and then waking up, disorientated, to see that it was pitch black at 3 pm…

On Tuesday, we left our hostel and headed further north, stopping at the Ice Hotel on route for a tour of the production rooms and a nose around the ice suites. I can confirm that the beds are very comfortable, but the visit did nothing to help me understand why people willingly pay £150 to sleep in the extreme cold, despite the attraction of some seriously stunning artwork. Before arriving at our accommodation, we made another stop to visit a Sami community, who continue to practice their traditional livelihood of semi-nomadic reindeer herding (though nowadays with the aid of snowmobiles and helicopters). After feeding the reindeers lichen, we warmed up inside a lavvu, a tent heated by an open fire, and drank a broth made from reindeer antlers. All very touristy, but bucket-list activities for any trip to this corner of the globe.

We were meant to be staying in Abisko National Park for the remaining days, but a twist of fate in the shape of a vomiting virus meant we were relocated to a ski resort in Björkilden, and rather than having hostel rooms, we enjoyed the luxury of wooden cabins with lakeside views, a kitchenette and PRIVATE SAUNA! Smug is probably an understatement to describe the general sentiment, and I have to say that, standing outside our cabin watching the Northern Lights that evening, life felt pretty damn good.

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Wednesday happened to fall on the 13th of December, an important day in the Swedish calendar, also my name day, Luciadagen – Saint Lucy/Lucia’s Day. This page gives a nice introduction to the general idea. I was gutted to miss the celebrations in Uppsala, but we got a taste of the festivities when a local school came to perform Swedish carols in the hotel lobby, dressed in traditional attire with the ‘Lucia’ donning white dress and crown of candles. There were also free festive snacks, which I exploited as breakfast: lussekatter (buns flavoured with saffron) and pepparkakor (hard gingerbread biscuits).

Fortune was shining on us again, as the weather was declared good enough for a trip across the Norwegian border to Narvik to be given the go-ahead. We drove across the snowy landscape listening to Christmas songs, stopping at a fjord on route to take photos before being dropped off to explore for a few hours – the longest our guide was willing to risk waiting before returning, for fear that the heavy snowfall would close the road back. She wasn’t being paranoid: a group the previous week had delayed their return by 10 minutes, and found themselves stranded in Narvik for two days thanks to extreme weather, with only the possessions they’d brought for the day with them. I can’t really speak much for the city itself, but, as a true history student, I can wholeheartedly encourage a visit to the war museum. Military history isn’t usually my style, but it turns out that I was amazingly ignorant when it came to Norway’s role in WWII, which is well worth a look into if you’re interested.

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A fjord on the outskirts of Narvik

Wednesday evening was spent in possibly the most stereotypical Swedish fashion imaginable. Not only were we drinking glögg (Swedish mulled wine, can taste uncannily like Ribena, take care) in a cabin in the snow, we were lounging in our very own sauna, and even slapped on an ABBA mixtape to complete the picture. When the heat of the sauna became too oppressive to cope with, we all dashed outside, straight into a fresh pile of snow. I kept telling myself my muscles would thank me for the rapid changes in temperature, but I can’t say it felt like they were appreciating it the next day.

Thursday was our final day in Lapland, and, having decided not to join the excursions for ice climbing and cross-country skiing, we spent it ticking off all the wintry activities we hadn’t found the time for before. We borrowed sleds, and half walked, half slipped down to the lake, taking in a magnificent frozen waterfall on our way.

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‘Olaf’ enjoying the view 

The journey back to Uppsala was as painfully long as the first, but broken up with stops – such as a visit to the ‘Arctic Circle’, which, as shown on the above map, we’d crossed days before without the slightest notice or mention. We were warned not to get our hopes up too much, which I’m grateful for, considering that it is quite literally an inflated road sign, obscured by the dark and a generous layer of snow.

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Wow what a spectacular sight (sarcasm intended)

Student Nations: a 101

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The thought of  escaping the comfort of the Durham-bubble for 12 months was a big factor in my decision to undertake an Erasmus year – a notion which is becoming increasingly ironic as I spend more time here in Uppsala. Researching before I moved to this small, medieval European student city, reading about it’s dominating castle and cathedral, rural surrounds and strong café culture, I’m still not entirely sure whether I missed the uncanny parallels, or was drawn to them. Obviously, Sweden has presented some degree of culture-shock, even if it’s only in the form of the weather (snow in October, anyone?), but I can’t help feeling at times that I’ve entered some sort of colder, more expensive parallel universe.

The most obvious counterpart to Durham has to be the tradition of Student Nations. I’ve alluded to these previously, but, as the core of student culture in Uppsala, they deserve an explanation in full. The notion may seem a bit foreign, and my friends here were certainly perplexed by the system, but, as a Durham student, I had an immediate point of comparison. The idea of belonging to a small student body, complete with its own housing, pub, societies and formal dinners was completely new to most internationals; to a Durham student, however, this is a simply our collegiate system dressed in stylish Swedish garb.

The ‘nation’ model was adopted by Swedes from the French in the 17th century, and today exists in Uppsala university and our greatest rival, Lund. There are 13 nations in total, each named after a Swedish province: Stockholms Nation, Gotlands Nation, Västgöta Nation (VG), Östgöta Nation (OG), Gästrike-Hälsinge Nation (GH) , Göteborgs Nation, Värmlands Nation, Norrlands Nation, Uplands Nation, Kalmar Nation, Södermanlands-Nerikes nation (aka Snerikes), Västmanlands-Dala (V-Dala) and Smålands nation.

Traditionally, to be eligible to join a specific nation you would have to be from the province it represented. In today’s international academic environment, however, that logic doesn’t translate too well, and all students are now free to chose to join whichever nation/s they wish. This is with the exception of Snerikes, which still maintains that Swedish students reside in/ have close family residing in its associated province if they wish to become members. I’ve heard that people go to the lengths of presenting their grandparents’ birth certificates in a bid to join, so I was very relieved to hear that this condition is waived for Erasmus students!

Each nation varies massively in size, history and character, making for a lot of overwhelmed students in the first week of term, each very conscious of the looming deadline to join a nation before the temporary, all-access card given upon arrival expires. I, being true to form, deliberated for hours over the pros and cons of each nation, but finally settled for Västgöta and Snerikes, the two oldest nations – an apt choice for a history student.

The famous ‘Pink Castle’ of Snerikes nation

Snerikes is a very popular choice for international students, mainly because membership grants you free entry to a weekly club night held in the incredible ‘pink castle’. Built in the 1890s, it’s what it says on the tin, and its grandiose exterior is continued inside, with a large staircase winding upwards from the first dance floor to a balcony flagging the other two club rooms, in which portraits of sombre-looking old white men stare down at you disparagingly whilst you dance. It’s quite the experience.

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VG’s beautiful nation house

Västgöta nation, whose house boasts a candlelit medieval cellar as its pub, is one of the smaller nations, but equally historic and charming. Sitting on the riverbank, it has a lovely beer garden (which I only got to glimpse before it closed at the end of ‘summer’ in early September), quaint library upstairs and the most amazing daily vegetarian soup lunch.

Every nation serves food of some variety, whether it be three-course vegetarian dinners at Kalmar, study fika at Uplands, Sunday brunch at VG or traditional Thursday pea soup at Norrlands, the choice is expansive, the prices are good and the best thing is that they are entirely student designed and run. Working at a nation is something every student should try at least once – the pay is never the incentive (you can expect about £10 for a 6 hour shift, and if, like most exchange students, you don’t have a Swedish bank account, you won’t be able to receive it anyway), but it’s a lovely friendly environment, there’s always free food, and it’s a rare chance to meet elusive Swedes. I worked at Sunday brunch a few weeks ago with a friend, and the ‘work’ consisted largely of making industrial scale pancakes and hummus, which we ended up bringing home with us.

If nations are the body of student life in Uppsala, gasques are the beating heart. Best described as Durham formals on crack, these evenings need to be experienced to be understood, but I’ll give it a try. The night begins at around 5pm, when members of a nation gather in varying degrees of formal wear (according to dress code) for a drinks  reception. Following this, a three course dinner is served in the nation’s great hall. So far, so Durham, you might be thinking. You’d be wrong. Whereas Durham formals are occasionally enlivened by some odd traditions, in Uppsala the traditions are the gasque.

Firstly, every student owns a songbook specific to their own nation, which is employed at increasingly regular intervals throughout the night. You arrive for the dinner, you sing. Your food is served, you sing. Someone gives a speech, you sing. A choir or theatre group performs; you sing a special song to thank them for their efforts. And, of course, all these songs are unfamiliar and entirely in Swedish. After every song, a shot of snaps is drunk, involving an elaborate toasting ritual which had to be taught to us new students at our recentiors (freshers) gasque. The songbooks also serve as a journal for your friends to write notes in during the evening, which tradition dictates cannot be read until the morning after. The dinner ends with, you guessed it, another song, which is finished whilst standing on your chair – if you take a seat after this point it’s said you’ll never graduate…which is a convenient means of emptying the room of rowdy students and releasing them into wherever has been assigned as the dance floor for the night’s festivities.

Often, the gasques are themed: in the Backwards Gasque desert is served first and guests dress in pyjamas;  the Luccegasque celebrates Sweden’s St. Lucia by serving a traditional Christmas smörgåsbord ; and the Sångbooks Gasque provides extra singing for those who find the usual schedule to be a little too quiet for their taste…

Every year around Halloween, one of the most famous of Uppsala’s gasques occurs: the Skelettgasque. The story goes that, a few hundred years ago an Uppsala alumnus died, donating his body to the university in his will. The problem was that he was a member of two nations, Östgöta and Gästrike-Hälsinge, so his remains belonged to both. This issue was creatively resolved by separating his skull from his body, and ceremoniously bringing the two parts together once every year at a feast held in his honour. This tradition became the Skelettgasque, which is now distinctly Halloween themed, with a costumed dress code and the nation house replete with cobwebs and bloodied hand prints, and of course the skeleton of the great man himself taking pride of place on stage. I had a brilliant, if somewhat bizarre, evening, though was greatly disappointed when my (less naïve/ better sighted) friends pointed out the plastic qualities of the skeleton… our suspicions were confirmed when the hosts started dancing onstage with the bones, but I still like to imagine that the real thing was lurking in a cupboard somewhere nearby.

So that’s nations in a nutshell. Job opportunities, dancing, studying and, most importantly, singing. Student life in Uppsala just wouldn’t exist without them, and, as a Durham student, you can be sure that you’ll feel right at home.

 

 

 

Screaming, saunas and sunsets: A belated rant about accommodation 

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Hej hej folks!

Apologies for the delay in posting, I’ve been documenting my days by taking an excessive number of photos over the past few weeks, but have only today found the time to sit down and write. Too much has happened for me to produce anything comprehensive that’s even vaguely succinct, so I thought I’d focus on addressing the issue of accommodation, which is a pretty vital starting point for any exchange student.

I can’t say that the Erasmus application process was particularly smooth for me, but beyond a doubt the most stressful aspect was the month or so I spent in search of private accommodation online this summer. The standard procedure for exchange students at Uppsala is an accommodation guarantee for the duration of your studies, but for one reason or another this had fallen through for me, so I was informed I’d need to find somewhere to live on my own. Okay, okay, so I know this probably sounds a bit melodramatic, considering the stress a lot of my friends living abroad have been under, actually moving to a new country with nothing more than a few nights in an Airbnb secured. The difference is, however, that said friends were moving to cities where the housing market is relatively navigable. I’m not entirely sure what the issue is in Uppsala, or indeed in Sweden as a whole, but finding property to rent at short (or even long) notice is pretty much a no-go.

Articles such as this https://www.thelocal.se/20100928/29292, filled with their horror stories of students sleeping rough in the cathedral, lingered at the back of my mind through exams, and firmly made their way to the forefront as I divided my time between celebrating the end of second year and scouring the internet for available rooms. I paid to join a housing queue in which I never achieved a place below 100, sent numerous messages in response to ads (and learnt never to expect a reply) and eventually started to consider the possibility of abandoning the whole endeavour and begging the history department to find space for me this October.

As you’ve probably guessed – apologies for spoilers – this story has a happy ending. The scare-mongering emails I’d received from the housing office never came to fruitation, and I was able to secure a room through the university in a later application in June. It’s worth noting, however, the challenges you might have to face if you can’t get an accommodation guarantee. It’s by no means impossible to find somewhere, but determination and a little creativity (a friend of mine is currently living in a vicar’s house some miles out of Uppsala…) may need to be called upon.

So, as to where I finally ended up living! The point of that rather excessive context was, I think, to emphasise my belief that, so long as you’ve a roof over your head in Uppsala, you’re good. I’ve been rather envious of friends here who’ve the luxury of beautiful self-contained flats in the city centre, but at the end of the day, I’m here, and that very nearly didn’t happen. For exchange students applying for accommodation through the university, you’ve the option of selecting your top three choices. I won’t list them here, but the various options can be viewed at http://housingoffice.se, and I’m more than happy to chat to any potential applicants about the housing available.

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The deceptively charming path to Flogsta…

I mentioned Flogsta in passing in my first blog post, but, as an institution in its own right, it deserves returning to. I’ve been reliably informed that Flogsta emerged as the product of a rather endearing, if entirely naïve, belief that consigning hundreds of students to a purpose-built complex, in woodland 3 km outside of the city, would result in an environment conducive to peaceful study. The environs are indeed beautiful, with bike paths from the city leading through densely forested, bilberry studded grounds, but its charm ends there. Despite the presence of families, Flogsta is very much a microcosm of student life, and somewhat deserved of its affectionate (?) nickname the ‘Swedish Ghetto’. Flogsta consists of both ‘low’ and ‘high’ houses, the latter of which there are 10, each with 7 floors of two flats of 12 inhabitants…you do the math. As a result of such a large student populace, and a questionable housing company, the standards of hygiene leave a lot to be desired, and my initial excitement at realising I had a balcony was quickly shattered when I saw the state the previous inhabitants had left it in.

 


Flogsta found fame online a few years ago when a video of one of Uppsala’s strangest student traditions went viral. If you’re ever on site at 10 pm, beware, as the peace of the surrounding countryside is brutally shattered by the ‘Flogsta Scream’, a nightly exercise in stress relief which sees students leaning out of their windows and yelling with gusto for a good few minutes. Having participated on my first night in Uppsala, after a long and stressful day of travel, I can confirm its therapeutic properties, but I’m since finding it more useful as a timepiece – the punctuality never ceases to amaze.

 

Flogsta is also renowned for its parties, which test the limits of student ingenuity with brilliant results. I’d only been in Uppsala for a few weeks before word got around about a rooftop party on the building next to mine. The bizarre appearance of the high houses, which is best described as a fusion between brutalism and sci-fi, is partly a product of the colourful corrugated structures which sit atop of each building. These roofs actually house saunas, which were once accessible to all students, but after a series of escalating incidents – culminating in a flaming sofa being tipped from a rooftop – have officially been closed. The construction of metal bars on the steps up to the roofs has, however, failed to entirely deter students. Which is how I found myself climbing  through a narrow gap in the bars to join a host of others enjoying the sunset nine stories up.

 

The housing company has apparently since got word of this unintentional access point, and clamped down further, but I was so glad to get a chance to see the view whilst I still could. Looking east across to the lights of the city and westwards out over vast expanses of beautiful Swedish countryside, the quirks of Flogsta could be forgotten. Until of course, the clock struck ten…