Snowmobile Adventure

At the end of our arranged tour in the arctic, Norwegian Airlines cancelled our morning flight from Kiruna back to Stockholm. They booked us on an evening flight, which, once we thought about it, gave us another full day in the beautiful landscape. We checked with the activities desk at the IceHotel where we had just spent the night. Happily, there were available places in the afternoon snowmobiling activity for the two of us.

At the appointed meeting time and place, we were standing with about a dozen other people, assuming that we all were waiting for the snowmobile tour leader. Right on time, a young woman walked up to the group, calling out “Bylund?” in the Swedish pronunciation: Beeluund! We assumed we were just the first name on her list, but that was the only name she called out. Smiling, she, Beatrice, said that she assumed that based on my name we were Swedish, and she said that we were the only two people on this day’s activity. She was excited because she could take us to a special location that she can’t take larger groups to. Sounded very good to us too! She was full of good cheer and excitement to be out on an afternoon’s snowmobiling.

Beatrice walked us over to three snowmobiles; we each got our own. I’m a complete novice; Mike, because of his many years’ experience of motorcycle driving, finds a lot of familiarity. We headed out with Beatrice in the lead, me in the protected middle, and Mike finishing our little convoy. It was a gloriously sunny day with vivid blue sky and no wind. Our route started on the frozen Torne River (which provides the ice for the IceHotel). The river was covered with at least a half meter of super dry snow powder. While riven by lots of snowmobile tracks, it also still offered big expanses of untouched powder. Beatrice instructed us to drive through the fresh powder to enjoy the float and glide. Each time we crossed an existing track, which is really just air, the snowmobile sped up just a bit. It revealed the fact that the snow powder is only slightly more dense and substantial than plain air.

Beatrice watched over us to make sure we were comfortable with the snowmobiles. We stopped at the edge of the woods where she explained that we were going to go to the top of the mountain above us. She said that some of the track is steep, but not to worry because the snowmobiles are powerful. Was she reassuring us, or warning? But she was so happy that we followed her eagerly.

The trail wound through a gorgeous snowy forest. The sun shone brightly between the tree boughs.

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Then, as she had explained, the track turned straight up the hill amid the trees. I kept her in sight while concentrating as hard as I could on the track, trusting the power of the snowmobiles. We ascended for what seemed like quite a while. Then Beatrice stopped, exclaiming, “We made it!” We couldn’t see Mike behind us so we waited a few minutes in the sunshine. And a few more minutes. No Mike.

Beatrice said that she would go see if he needed help. She bounded back down the track on foot, and disappeared around a bend and into the forest. I took some photos and just soaked in the cold beauty. I was wearing a balaclava for warmth and the helmet for protection, both of which made it hard to hear much. After a while, when the time seemed heavy, and I started to wonder if something was wrong, I could barely hear a voice. I pulled my helmet off and called out. I still couldn’t make out the words, but if someone was calling out, then they definitely were calling for help. Now it was my turn to bound down the track. Even though it is was a track over which snowmobiles had obviously previously run, it was still only lightly packed powder. Bounding down the hill was more of a controlled fall.

After what felt like a long distance, I found Beatrice and Mike standing by the snowmobile which was on its side just off the track. Beatrice was laughing and positive; Mike looked more serious, obviously feeling guilty for having slid off the track. In fact, in the first minutes after the overturn, he had been pinned under the snowmobile. It was the very deep powder — up to our hips — that had caused the tumble, but it also had kept the full weight off of Mike’s leg. He had been able, with effort, to squirm out from under the snowmobile without its falling further. Other than a bruised knee, he was OK.

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The snowmobile was also deep in the powder and would require at least all three of us to get it back up on the track. Part of the approach was to pack more snow under the main tread of the snowmobile, while digging out the front skis. The snow was so powdery that, when we packed it with our feet under the snowmobile, it just flowed back out again, like water. It was also almost impossible to get sturdy footing in the powder from which to push on the snowmobile. While it was still a really beautiful day, we were working up a sweat packing snow, trying to rock the snowmobile, and attempting to get traction again. Beatrice said a few times that, “This happens all the time. Don’t worry!” We weren’t so sure about that!

At last, she said that we should leave the snowmobile where it was. She would call her colleagues who would come to pull it out of the snow. We then trudged up the snowy track which seemed even steeper now that we were on foot. Beatrice, fit outdoorsy twenty-something that she is, sped up the hill. Mike and I, not quite any of those attributes, took the ascent in segments, working up a good sweat. (Notes to selves: Must exercise more at home!)

After a few minutes to catch our breath and cool our clothing layers a little, Mike and I hopped on the snowmobile that had been mine, and Beatrice on hers. We proceeded further through the forest, which was now almost level. Very soon, we emerged on the top of the mountain. A glorious immense view lay out before us: The frozen Torne River and its islands, the IceHotel and village off in the distance, snowy mountains and forests as far as we could see. The view, the setting, the shiny day, and the arctic landscape were all stunning. We couldn’t stop saying that we now understood why Beatrice liked this spot so much. We were very grateful!

She asked us if we’d like some hot lingonberry juice. Of course! She lay two reindeer skins on the snow. In between them, she lay down fresh evergreen boughs, followed by an alternating grid of logs and birch bark. She knelt over an unrolled portion of bark, with a knife in one hand and a small rod of magnesium in the other. She scraped the rod with the back of the knife blade repeatedly until a spark leapt onto the bark and ignited it. Within a few seconds, the wood construction was fully ablaze. The metal pot of lingonberry juice heated up in a matter of minutes. We knelt on the reindeer skins, sipped the hot juice, and enjoyed the glorious view and setting, and Beatrice’s animated company.

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Except for our conversation and the crackle of the fire, it was very quiet on this summit. So we could catch the distant sound of snowmobiles long before two of Beatrice’s colleagues arrived. Two handsome young men pulled onto the summit, with our snowmobile and one of their own. They had towed the fallen snowmobile back on the track. We all joked about all the drinks that Beatrice would have to buy her colleagues to atone for our having tipped over one of the snowmobiles. She grimaced and said that yes, in fact, at least 24 drinks, one for each of her entire team. The two guys bounded past our fire and reindeer skins to peer over the edge of the snow field and down the steep side of the mountain. I thought they would tumble over and disappear. They were just excited to see if there were good skiing slopes and conditions up here. All five of us chatted for a while. One of their colleagues back at the hotel was French; he was trying to teach them some French. In their funny accents, they shared a few of the expressions they were learning. I wanted to know if their colleague was teaching them phrases that were funny or obscene while telling them that they meant something innocuous. Fortunately, there wasn’t any of that. But he was teaching them some pretty direct pickup lines.

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The two guys finished their lingonberry juice, got back on their original snowmobile, and headed back down the mountain, waving goodbye. We put out the fire and stowed the supplies.

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We were back to our three-person convoy. We were out in the open snowfield. Beatrice headed out, with me back in the second spot, and Mike in the third. Within about four seconds, it was now my turn to tip into the deep powder. It only took being a little bit to the side of the track. I wasn’t under the snowmobile, but it had definitely sunk deep into the snow. Now Mike and I could feel equally guilty about our snowmobile performance. The three of us applied the packing, rocking, and pulling techniques from the first time, with exactly the same results: no movement! Beatrice finally said that we should just leave this one here like we had done with the first. She stayed positive the entire time, remarkably! Mike and I definitely worried that she was going to have a difficult reception once she got back to her boss. While these mishaps were not what we anticipated, we were safe and sound, and having an adventure. We explained as clearly as we could that, while perhaps Beatrice would have problems with her boss, for us, we were having a great day and had zero complaints. She, even with her cheery demeanor, looked a little relieved.

Once again a convoy of two snowmobiles, we headed down the mountain. Mike drove (much better to have the experienced driver at the handlebars). Downhill tracks look even steeper than uphill tracks. You have to balance a mixture of gentle breaking and keeping the snowmobile going fast enough to stay atop the snow. We were both pretty gun-shy by now. Mike did great. I did great too, saying, “You’re doing great!” a lot.

Finally at the bottom of the forested hill, we emerged back onto the frozen river. Mike could relax a bit and enjoy floating over the untouched powder. The snowmobile was still rather hard to steer precisely; it tended to float to one side or the other even while speeding over the snow. But it was a wide river with only our two snowmobiles on it. Glorious sunshine and landscape. Really beautiful.

After an outing of almost four hours, we pulled into our starting place. We reiterated how much fun we had had, and how sorry we were for having gotten not one but two snowmobiles stuck in the snow. She gave us big hug. She took a deep breath, and said, “Now I’d better go talk to my boss!”

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Arctic Gourmet Cabin, Kaalasjärvi

Charming, delicious, intimate accommodation in the arctic countryside

We stayed one night in one of the two free-standing cabins set in the snowy landscape. The couple and their two young children who own this accommodation live right next door. The guest area includes two double-bed cabins, one tiny kitchen / dining room, a separate sauna / shower / incineration toilet structure, and an outdoor hot tub.

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You can’t believe how important these boots were!

The husband drove us from our previous lodge to his place, detouring along the way to help us spot moose in the wild.

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Upon arrival at the cabins, he told us that he was also the chef and would be preparing dinner for the four of us that evening. The kitchen / dining room was just large enough to hold two two-person tables, a stove and oven, and small refrigerator. Somehow however the chef prepared, with good humor, a fine three-course dinner right next to us. The menu included a traditional fish roe / sour cream / onion / lemon / toast starter; and perfectly cooked reindeer main course. The food was really good. The chef’s energy was playful. It was like we had a private chef in our own country cabin.

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Our rooms were cozy and comfortable, with large windows looking out through the trees to the frozen lake beyond. Our host gave us detailed instructions about how to use the incineration toilet! Since the accommodation cabins are separate from the toilet / shower / sauna cabin, if you need the toilet in the night, you must dash a short distance across the snow to the facilities. Your bed will feel warm and cozy once you get back!

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From the cabin window
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On a dusk walk on the adjacent frozen lake

Dog sledding in Lapland

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent many days out in the gorgeous landscape. On one of these days, six dogs toured us around on our two-person sled.

The leaders of our sled day, and the dogs’ trainers, told us to wait until the dogs were silent before calling out to them to start. The dogs are so eager to run that they jump, bark and yelp in anticipation. The owners want to ensure that the dogs associate quiet and order with the pleasure of running.

Once the dogs became still and attentive, we called out and they leapt forward. They were running full-tilt instantly, tails wagging all the way.

At one point during the outing, we all stopped in an open snow-covered spot. Suddenly many of the dogs, including “ours,” started pulling to the left and barking. We held the sled in place while the owners coerced the dogs back onto the track. Apparently, a vulnerable reindeer was standing in the nearby woods, attracting the eager attention of the dogs.

Once back at home base, we were instructed to give “our” dogs a post-run massage; it is important to help relax the dogs’ muscles after the exertion and assist their circulation from feet back to heart. We were instructed to massage the front legs from feet up, then down the back from head to tail, and finally the back legs from feet up. The dogs were in heaven! They nuzzled us, licking, tails wagging furiously.

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Oh yeah, and we saw some moose sauntering by across the nearby frozen lake. Just another day…

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Dinner Time Stories

We had seen a YouTube video of the Petit Chef experience a few years ago, so when we discovered that the show was being offered in our Stockholm hotel (AtSix Hotel), we jumped at the chance to experience it.

The hosts escorted all the diners into a room with long nicely lit tables, set against a giant display screen. At each place setting was a closed leather-bound book. Once everyone was settled, we were asked to open the books to a middle blank page. Projected from above, a tiny animated French chef appeared on each book. He started to tell us all about his history as a young chef in Marseille.

(The stripes in the images come from trying to photograph the projected computer images.)

We all sat transfixed, smiling and laughing as the little chef wandered around the table and turned virtual pages in the books to show us post cards and animations of his travels across Asia.

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Images and patterns from his adventures spilled out beyond the books, coloring the entire table with gently animated patterns, like living fabric.

At various points in his story, the illustrations slowed to attractive background, and the waiters brought remarkably tasty clever dishes.

Depending on the theme of the dish, the display screen filled an entire wall with lovely evocative imagery. For example, floating candles in paper rose into the night sky as we ate our Chinese-inspired course.

The experience of the table’s coming alive with the Petit Chef’s charming story delighted us: a little theater magically appearing on the table. To our surprise, the food was good too! Highly recommended!

Reindeer Sledding & Sami Culture

During our travels in the Swedish arctic in search of the Aurora Borealis, we spent another day out in the gorgeous landscape, this time with reindeer and their Sami (Lapland indigenous people) owners.

First we fed and harnessed the reindeer. They were smaller than we expected; their backs were about as high as a table top. Our Sami guide said that, while the reindeer are slightly domesticated, they remain mostly wild. We accepted the invitation to have a young male reindeer for our sled, one that was new to going out with visitors. It wasn’t that hard to harness him, but he pushed me against a fence, and stood there with my rubbing his back. He wasn’t aggressive; he just stood there against me, waiting.

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We headed out on a long sled ride through the beautiful snowy arctic countryside. We took turns with one of us “driving” and the other enjoying the ride. There were about four other sleds on this tour, and we were in the middle. Our reindeer took off at a good clip. Once he spotted the sleds in front of us, he put the pedal to the medal. All his adolescent competitiveness and hormones surged. We overtook two other sleds. All the humans were laughing. After this sprint, he stopped suddenly, tongue out panting wildly, eating snow, and ignoring our commands to keep going. He evidently hadn’t yet learned to pace himself. As soon as the sled that he had passed passed us, he was off again, in full competitive mode. Rinse; repeat.

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A glimpse of the frozen beauty
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Our speed demon rehydrating after the run

Upon return to the reindeer home base, we learned how to throw a lasso Sami-style.

We enjoyed lunch (of reindeer meat) and coffee around a fire in a lavvu, which is the traditional teepee-like Sami all-purpose structure. Our host and his sister presented us with a flat bread filled with reindeer stew, followed by hot lingonberry juice and coffee. He explained that, traditionally, when one is invited into another family’s lavvu, one must wait quietly just inside the tent opening until the host makes and offers coffee. Only then, can the visitor enter fully and start conversing.

Our host taught us with charm about the fascinating and difficult history and current life of the Sami people. His ancestors have lived for millennia in what is currently northern Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia. Originally, they followed the reindeer to hunt them. About 400 years ago, they started to domesticate the reindeer. Since that time, they keep the reindeer in the valleys in the winter, and move them up to the mountains for grazing through the summer.

Our host had also driven the van from our lodge to his place, and I had had the opportunity to sit in the front passenger seat. Some of the stories he told me had similarities to the proud and difficult history of the Hawaiian people, as well as the Maori. Once I mentioned that we had lived for a long time in Hawaii, he told me of his travels to New Zealand to meet with Maori there. He was deeply aware of the Maori’s challenges with European invaders, and the crucial 19th century treaty between the English and the Maori that underpins contemporary Maori rights. He lamented the fact that the Sami don’t have the equivalent in the Nordic countries. The history of the Sami people includes the later-arriving Swedes’ taking traditional lands, suppressing the language, forcing duplicate taxation, and more. The clash of indigenous people with arriving peoples has been fraught throughout the world.

Stockholm Winter Days

We visited Stockholm during three days at the start of March, and three more days a week later. This city was still pretty frozen during our first days. Bundled up, we enjoyed walking through the snowy parks, along the icy waterfronts, and down the crunchy streets.

We walked from the largely 20th century commercial district of Norrmalm, across a river, to the medieval heart of the city, Gamla Stan.

Over the course of our travels, we’ve discovered that food tours are a fun way to start to get to know a new city. We were eager to join the food tour on our first morning in Stockholm. We rendezvoused with four other tour members and our enthusiastic tour leader, a young Swedish woman, at the Östermalms Saluhall; the current Saluhall is the temporary home of the 19th century Stockholm City Market while it undergoes renovation. She invited us to enjoy some popular cheeses (often eaten at breakfast), and some Swedish charcuterie, including moose and reindeer (delicious!). Of course, you must sip breakfast beer with the meats!

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Along our tour from the Östermalm district, through modern Norrmalm, to Gamla Stan (the medieval heart of Stockholm), we sampled locally made chocolates, a celebratory fish soup with shrimp canapés, and finally, Swedish meatballs! The setting for the meatballs was in a vaulted below-street-level room of a charming café restaurant. We thought we would share some bites from the first plate that arrived, but no, each one of us received a full plate. The plates included the meatballs covered with a rich cream gravy, mashed potatoes, lightly pickled cucumber slices, and lingonberries. While each family will have its own take on Swedish meatballs, apparently this combination of meatballs, gravy, potatoes and lingonberries is the classic. And both tasty and filling. Throughout, our guide was charming, full of history and stories about the neighborhoods we walked through.

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Our tour group was small. Joining the two of us was a 30-something gregarious man from Vancouver. He had attended a conference in Copenhagen, and was trying to pack in as many culinary experiences as he could before he returned home. He was far from shy, with a great sense of humor. The remaining two tour members were Swedish, around our age. We came to learn that they were sister and brother. She, who lives in Mälmo, near Copenhagen, had given this tour to her lawyer brother, who has lived in Stockholm for over 30 years. She told us that she has enjoyed food tours in other places, such as Venice, and thought it would be a good experience to share with her brother. He, on the other hand, looked like he thought this was all an enormous waste of time. Why as a Swede would he enjoy a tour of basic Swedish food with foreigners? Selfishly, we thought that this was great: We had two more Swedes who would share their knowledge about Stockholm and Swedish food. But the lawyer brother stayed pretty sullen, even when we asked open questions. As the tour proceeded, he from time to time related a little about Stockholm landmarks as we passed them. Perhaps with stereotypical Swedish restraint, he was little by little expressing pride in his city. During the last stop of the tour, in the restaurant with the Swedish meatballs, he grew a bit more open. We all spent time talking about Ikea (you can’t be in Sweden and not talk about Ikea it turns out) — the products as well as the company and its founder. At the very end, somehow we each were saying what we had particularly enjoyed about the tour. The formerly dour lawyer brother said that enjoyed meeting all of us, and sharing some of Stockholm with us. Tourist enthusiasm is infectious!

 

We spent part of a cold gray day in the Nordic Museum. The Nordic Museum is home to over one and a half million exhibits, including exclusive items and everyday objects, all with their own unique history. The collections reflect life in Sweden from the 16th century to the present day. One area of the museum was particularly interesting to us. The exhibits, of which this table setting is one, showed aspects of Swedish life, in different periods and related to different life milestones such as Christmas, weddings, birthdays and even funerals.

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A favorite simple Swedish dish is this: bleak (a white fish) roe, crème fraîche, finely diced red onions, lemon, dill, and buttery toast. We enjoyed this modest but delicious starter during a number of our Swedish meals. We enjoyed it so much that we have tried to recreate it at home. We needed to substitute trout roe for bleak roe, and our store-bought crème fraîche was a bit creamier than the Swedish version. Delicious nonetheless!

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Most lists of top Stockholm destinations include the Stockholm City Hall. Toward the end of our trip, we still hadn’t really had an architectural activity. So we gave it a shot. The City Hall’s visitor office offers an interesting and pleasant tour of the public spaces. The complex was built in the early years of the 20th century, the winning entry in a competition. The style (or styles) express a conjunction of nascent modernism, romantic nationalism, and italianate and byzantine references. A seductive mashup.

While the Nobel Prize program is not a city or even Swedish national institution, for many years, the Nobel Prize banquet takes place here, mostly because the City Hall includes a number of very large dramatic venues.

We read about and were told about a design store called Svenskt Tenn. We found a beautiful luxurious design and textile store. The store offers furniture, accessories and textiles, mostly related to a remarkable collection of printed fabrics. The following comes from the store’s own literature:

Eighty per cent of Svenskt Tenn’s range consists of products that are of its own design. Josef Frank alone left behind 2,000 furniture sketches and about 160 textile designs. The store also has furniture and other objects by some of the most skilled designers and craftsmen of our time.

IT IS NOT ONLY the aesthetic heritage that makes Svenskt Tenn so special, but also how the company is formed. Svenskt Tenn is owned by a foundation, with the goal that the company should live forever. All profit generated by the company is donated to research in areas such as environmental sustainability, genetics, biomedicine and pharmaceuticals.

Josef Frank designed gloriously bold and exuberant patterns in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. It seems that his designs remain today the heart of the collection at Svenskt Tenn. 80 years after their design, they struck us as stunningly current and vibrant. We bought some fabric with his designs to make pillow covers at home. Only after we had made our selection did we learn that the name of one of the designs is “Hawaii.” Apparently, that’s just who we are!

My (David’s) heritage on my father’s side is Swedish and Norwegian. My great grandparents came to the US in the late 19th century. For this trip to Stockholm and Sweden, I was much more focused on our goal of seeing the northern lights and staying a night in the IceHotel than on my family’s background. So I was surprised and taken aback by two things. People kept assuming I was Swedish, and would sometimes launch into Swedish conversation. Part of this was my facial shape, and part of it was when they read my family name. (While my name may have been an invention of an Ellis Island functionary, it does include “lund” which is a common Swedish name component.) The second surprise was a corny feeling of, “Oh these are my people.” Especially after having lived for so many years in the diversity of Hawaii, I can’t recall being somewhere where the people are so connected to my forebears. If anything, I had expected that I would note an intellectual connection. I didn’t expect to feel the emotional connection.

Here’s the note we found in our hotel room when we returned after our tour in the north. They obviously assumed I was Swedish! (Google Translate reveals: “Welcome back, David. We wish you a pleasant stay!”)

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We had gotten into Stockholm late the night before from a trip to the arctic of northern Sweden, and to our surprise slept until about 10 am. We headed out on a lightly snowy later morning in search of lunch (or perhaps brunch for us). Spontaneously we stopped into Strandvagen Restaurant at just after noon. Because we arrived without reservations, the hostess offered us a high bar-like table to her left, from which we could sit side-by-side and watch much of the dining room and bar. For us, this table was great since there were so many people to watch, and we could see busy Stockholm amid snow flurries just outside the dining room.

We ordered an eclectic selection: steak tartare, bi bim bop (who’d have known that there would be a Korean dish on offer?), and a white fish with lemons, capers, cheese and potatoes — all of which were very tasty.

What was most fun, though, was our server. Our raised table was considered part of the bar territory, so our server was also the bar tender. At one point we asked him his advice about where we could by some vodka to take back home to France with us (we have found it hard to find moderately priced good vodka in France). After he gave us some options, he brought three bottles of Swedish aquavit to our table, and then offered tastes of two of them (very effective up-selling since the tastes were really drink orders!). But they were very tasty and fun to try. (We changed course later and bought a bottle of aquavit to take home instead of vodka.) We enjoyed our tasty lunch, people watching, and an introduction to aquavit.

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This little restaurant is immediately next door to our hotel. Who’d have known?!

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