Uppsala, Sweden: A University Town With Viking Roots

Uppsala
Uppsala University in Sweden is 535 years old today, having been inaugurated on this date in 1477. As one of the older universities in Europe, it has quite a few sights to see and is located in a town of ancient importance.

The city started as a religious center for the pagan Vikings and the location of their Thing, a general assembly. An ancient temple at Uppsala was said to have had statues to Thor, Odin, and Freyr and the entire building was encircled by a golden chain hanging from the gables. While the old temple has disappeared, there are still some Viking remains in the form of runestones and three large earthen mounds. Legend has it that they’re the barrows (tombs) of the three principal Norse gods, but excavations showed them to be the resting places for three early Norse rulers.

As with many pagan sites across Europe, Uppsala was turned into a center for Christianity and became the site for the country’s first archbishopric in 1164. There’s a little medieval church dating to the 13th century and a much more elegant cathedral from the 15th century. I wish I could describe the interior of the earlier church to you, but on my visit I walked in on a wailing baby getting baptized and had to walk right out! Such are the hazards of travel.

The later house of worship still serves as the cathedral today. Its brick exterior has a warm, homey feel, but when you go inside you find the soaring arches and fine stonework that you’d expect from a European cathedral. Inside you can find the tombs of important Swedes such a King Gustav Vasa (of Vasa ship fame), scientist Carl Linnaeus and mystic Emanuel Swedenborg.

As for the university itself, such an old center of learning is bound to have some attractions. In good weather visit the Linnaean Garden, a beautiful botanical garden founded in 1655 and reorganized by Carl Linnaeus, who created the taxonomic system still used to categorize plants and animals today. He got in trouble with church authorities for categorizing humans as primates. Above is a view of the gardens courtesy Andreas Trepte, who caught them on one of those warm, sunny days that are so precious this far north. The gardens are an easy stroll from Uppsala Castle, complete with throne room and a rich collection of European art.

%Gallery-167737%The Gustavianum, formerly an operating theater where 17th century medical students could watch dissections, is now a museum showing off the university’s art and archaeological collections. There’s also a cool exhibit of early scientific instruments. The old operating theater still exists if you want to see what it was like to get cut up in public.

Take some time to soak up Uppsala’s atmosphere. Stroll through the narrow medieval lanes and along the riverside where the students like to lounge. Being a northern city, it changes dramatically with the seasons. My first visit was in winter and was in fact my favorite. Standing atop an old Viking barrow and looking out across the snow-covered fields as the church spire rose in the gray distance, I felt like I was seeing Sweden at its best. Sure, we all like sunshine, but biting cold wind and short, overcast days seemed more properly Scandinavian!

Uppsala makes an easy day trip from Stockholm and is one of the top places to see in Sweden. Gamla Uppsala (“Old Uppsala”) with its pagan remains and early church, is just outside the more modern town.

London day trip: Oxford

Oxford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe because of its eclectic shopping, crazy nightlife, and world-class museums and galleries. It can get a bit tiring and stressful, though. For those who want to get out of the Smoke and see a bit more of England, Oxford makes an easy and enjoyable day trip.

Getting there
The best way to get to Oxford from London is the Oxford Tube, which has regular bus service from various points in London up to four times an hour. There’s train service from Paddington station too, although it’s more expensive. There are also direct buses from Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

What to see
Oxford is famous for its university, one of the oldest in Europe. The Gothic and Victorian architecture of its more than two dozen colleges give Oxford much of its charm. Most are open to the public and feature beautiful quads with ivy-covered walls, and medieval chapels with stained glass and soaring roofs. Be sure to take a guided tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the largest in the world and home to some ornate medieval interiors. In the photo above courtesy Tejvanphotos, you can see the ornate Radcliffe Camera, one of the library buildings where I do research in the summer. If you see a guy in a Gadling t-shirt buried in a pile of books on medieval history, take him out for a pint.

Being a seat of learning, Oxford also has several good museums. Three of the best are the Pitt-Rivers for its ethnographic collection, the Ashmolean for its ancient artifacts, and the Museum of the History of Science. The River Thames passes through town and is locally called the Isis. There’s a pleasant riverside walk you can do, or you can strike out on the water by going punting. The best way to get orientated to Oxford is to go on one of the many tours. There are regular walking tours, bicycle tours, charity fundraising tours run by Oxfam, and ghost tours.

%Gallery-131760%Eating and Drinking
Oxford is filled with restaurants, many of them rather disappointing. Here are some of the better ones. The Grand Cafe is on the site of England’s first coffeehouse, built in 1650. Today it serves Continental cuisine in a refined atmosphere. The Vaults and Garden Cafe under the Church of St. Mary serves up healthy food and good coffee under the medieval vaults that give it its name. Chiang Mai Kitchen serves excellent Thai food. High tea at the Randolph Hotel is an Oxford tradition. For a more diverse selection, head down Cowley Road for a variety of Arab, Indian, Caribbean, and Slavic restaurants.

If you like English pubs, you’ll feel right at home here. The White Horse on Broad Street is popular with visitors as well as scholars who flee the Bodleian for a mid-afternoon pint. The Turf just off Queen’s Lane is another popular spot and has outside seating. The Eagle and Child on Saint Giles is famous for being the drinking spot of the Inklings, a writers’ group that included J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

Hiking
Oxford makes a great base for hikes to nearby villages and ancient monuments. You can walk along the Thames Path to Abingdon, visit the Rollright Stones (a stone circle), see a folly, and hike England’s oldest road–the Ridgeway.

Staying Overnight
With so much to do, you might want to stay overnight. Unfortunately Oxford is filled with mediocre or just plain bad B&Bs and hotels, and they’re all overpriced. I’ve found only two I would recommend. The Ethos Hotel is in a quiet residential neighborhood and an easy walk into town. Some rooms come with a kitchenette so you can stock up food and save a bit of money. The Mercure Oxford Eastgate Hotel is utterly lacking in atmosphere but it’s right in the middle of the action on High Street. Living on a writer’s wages I’ve not tried the luxurious Randolph but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.

When to go
If at all possible avoid going in the summer, when Oxford is crammed with tourists and English-language students. The autumn is nice with the ivy changing color, and the spring is fine too. Winter isn’t as bad as you might think. Yes, it’s gold and gray, but the university hosts a lot of cultural life such as concerts and lectures during term time.

Art museum to close and all paintings sold: Another economic fallout

The Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham Massachusetts is in danger of being closed and all its paintings sold as a way to pump up its endowment. From reading the story in the New York Times, it seems this is another fallout to partially attribute to Bernard Madoff who ran the Ponzi scheme that snagged rich folks (and the rest of us) in its disastrous financial net. Because donors are hurting, they’re tightening their purse strings, thus they are not giving as much money–if at all.

Universities and colleges that rely on donors to keep their endowments bolstered are needing to find new ways to make ends meet. Brandeis has cast its eye on its vast collection of art that includes works by Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. The collection, in a good economy, could fetch up to $400 million. In this economy, the total may not come close to that at all.

The university’s board is not happy with the plan–they weren’t consulted about the decision, and it’s not even clear if closing the museum and selling the artwork is legal. Either one depends on the agreements made when the museum opened and when donations were given. There is a fear that this museum’s closing may signal other universities to follow suit. What a shame.

Personally, I hope this doesn’t set off a trend. University art museums are some of the more interesting places to see art and they are often free–or if not free, very inexpensive. Also, what does this mean for people who are looking for places to donate art?

Interestingly, an exhibit that opened at the museum on January 15 is called “Saints and Sinners.” Kind of fitting for the times, I think. The painting in the photo is by Hans Hoffman, an American abstract painter. Several of his works, never seen before in the U.S., are also on exhibit until April 5.

More University Students Taking Part in Study Abroad

Washington PostNot to rip off the Washington Post or anything today, but they’ve just got the travel news that seems worth sharing. In this article they talk about the rate at which student study abroad travel is going. I don’t know about you, but I’d say it’s booming – it has tripled in the last 20 years. Basically it used to be a time when only foreign language geeks would scurry off some place exotic like Cairo for a semester, but now more students in a wide range of majors are seeing the benefits of studying outside their mother country. Bravo, bravo!

Something like this should be a university requirement if you ask me, but it warms my heart more students are doing it anyway. I never got the chance to participate in the whole study-abroad experience in my colleges days, but I didn’t go to a traditional college and I seem to be making up fine for it these days. Kudos to the college kids out there doing it right!