Travelling from the Greek island of Skiathos to Stockholm in Sweden – by car

Our summer on Skiathos is over. One last trip with friends in their boat to Katiyorgi on the mainland for lunch.

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Then it is packing. Closing down the house for the winter. All outdoor furniture taken in. Emptying the fridge. Locking up. Packing the car.
On Friday evening, we drive onboard the ferry in Skiathos harbour. The ferry is taking us to Volos on the mainland, a trip of not much more than three hours. We drive strait to the hotel in Volos. Checking in. Then a short walk down to the harbour. A final, typical Greek dinner. Ouzo. Lots of small Greek dishes, mezes. Another ouzo.

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After a steady hotel breakfast on Saturday morning, we set out for a leisurely drive towards Igoumenitsa, just south of the border of Albania. We have plenty of time. The drive is 300 kilometers and the ferry to Italy is leaving at 23.00 in the evening. We are driving over the mountains. The leaves on the trees are starting to get its winter colours. The hot Greek summer is suddenly turning to autumn.1a
We stop by for a late lunch in the town of Ioannina. Ioannina is a town of 65,000 people, located at an altitude of 500 meters on the western shore of Lake Pamvoti. It is a town with a lot of history, dating back to Byzantine times and a big, impressive mediaval fortress is prominently located by the lake shore. On a Saturday afternoon like this, lots of people frequent the many lake side cafes and restaurants. A coffee. A glass of white wine. Talk. The latest gossip. No one is in a hurry this day.

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After a pleasant afternoon walk along the lake, we proceed towards Igoumenitsa. We reach the harbour and get our boarding tickets.

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I have made this trip between Greece and Sweden so many times now so I do not need a map or a gps. And I have learnt a few things over the years. First, always plan the trip so that you drive through Italy on a Sunday. Lorry traffic is banned on Italian highways on Sundays. Then you must plan your entry to the ferry so that you get a quick exit out from the ferry in Ancona. Last in, first out.

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The ferries are big and take several hundred cars and trucks. As you drive onboard the ferry, you may, if you are unlucky, be sent down one floor or up one floor to park. Then you will be late out of the ferry the next morning. Leaving the ferry in the chaotic harbour of Ancona can also be a problem. Trucks are often controlled and if you get stuck behind them, it could be more than an hour before you get out of the harbour.
So after checking in, we don’t drive up to the ques for the ferry. Instead, we park 100 meters away. Now a waiting game starts. We watch as the cars and trucks slowly enter the ferry. Finally, with only five or six more cars to enter, we join the que. And we are lucky this time again. We just drive aboard, being parked immediately next to a few trucks. The next day, we will be one of the first cars out, reversing from the ferry to Italian soil. The strategy worked again!

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The crossing over to Italy takes 18 hours. The ferry is comfortable. Our cabin is comfortable. We sleep, eat, drink, read. I finish the book I started a few weeks ago.
We arrive in Ancona at 14.00 in this Sunday afternoon. We are the second car off the ferry. The drive is smooth initially, the weather great, sunny, just over 20 degrees. Passing Bologna, we make a phone call to Austria. Yes, they have rooms available at Hotel Heiligcreuz in Hall In Tirol. I have stayed in this hotel many times over the years. The lady in the reception immediately knows who I am. The room will be ready when we arrive.

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Darkness sets in as we leave Verona behind us. The weather is getting worse, drizzling rain. More traffic than expected. We go over the Brenner pass. It is pitch dark outside. The road is made with black asphalt, very black. Rain. Lots of cars meeting us with strong headlights. It is a tiresome drive. But just before nine in the evening, we reach our hotel in this small village outside Innsbruck. After checking in, we walk to one of the nearby restaurants. A pizza and a glass of red wine will do this evening.

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Monday morning. After a heavy breakfast, we set out on the road. It is a beautiful day. High alps surround us. The trees on the mountains slopes are dressed in autumn colours, yellow, brown, red. Traffic is smooth. But subconsciously, I drive carefully in Austria.

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Once in my life, I have been fined for speeding in the traffic, and it was in Austria. That time, I was driving from Vienna to Prague in the Czech Republic, a drive of four hours. A few kilometers from the Czech border, Austrian police stopped me. I had been speeding, not by very much but it was still speeding. When the polite police officer told me the size of the fine, I burst out laughing. The fine was small. The police officer could not understand what was so funny. I told him what the fine would be for a similar offense in Sweden. “That’s too much”, the police officer said and now he started laughing. I paid my fine on the spot and the police officer wrote a receipt, both of us still smiling.

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This day, we have the longest drive of our trip, 930 kilometers. We take turns driving. Our marching speed is 130-140 kilometers per hour but we are constantly passed by other cars at much higher speeds. A few times, we are slowed down by road works and also by a traffic accident.

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We are reaching the ring road around Berlin. Twice I have made the mistake of missing an exit here, causing me to have to drive into the city center of Berlin. Both times, this cost us an extra 70 kilometers drive. This time we do it right. On the ring road, we make a phone call to TT Line, one of the shipping lines with ferries between Germany and Sweden. No cabins available at the 22.00 departure from Rostock but there are cabins available at the midnight ferry. We book the tickets.

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The ferry ride over to Trelleborg in Sweden takes seven hours. We sleep six and a half hours in our cabin. Getting off the boat in Trelleborg is smooth this Tuesday morning and we set off for our last 650 kilometers before we reach our home in Stockholm.
The autumn weather is fine, cool, sunny most of the time with rain showers occasionally. The traffic is not as intense in Sweden as it had been in Italy or Germany.

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As we pass Jönköping, we call friends who live along the road. Yes, they are at home. Yes, we would love to come by for a cup of coffee. So just outside Nyköping, we leave the main road for a few kilometers drive to our friends’ home. We have a pleasant half hour break before we resume our drive. Ant then, finally, at four in the afternoon, we reach Stockholm.
We started our trip from Skiathos on Friday evening. We arrived in Stockholm on Tuesday afternoon. We have been driving a total of 2,620 kilometers. We have slept two nights in hotels, two nights in cabins on ferries. And now, we are back home in Sweden again!
We will stay in Stockholm a week, doing some shopping, having several dinners with family and friends. Then we will return home to Malaysia for the “winter”. In Malaysia, the temperature is 24-34 degrees, all year round. We will have a pleasant “winter”.
This is my last blog in 2017. Probably….
I will write the next time in 2018. Possibly…
In the meantime, enjoy your lives!!

Summer of 2017

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The summer if 2017 has gone by fast. We came to Skiathos in early April, just in time for Greek Easter. And then, days passed by at an incredible speed.

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We did some travelling in the summer. Enough for jet lag to interfere with our days of sun, gardening, boating, socializing. And of course, sleeping, eating, drinking and lazying around in general.

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It was a mixed summer for our gardening. Our new vegetable garden, with tomatoes, green peppers, cucumber, hot peppers did not do particularly well. We must improve the soil for next summer. Our new compost should produce good soil. But as usual, our herbs grew abundantly – oregano, rose marine, thyme, mint, basil, lemon grass and trees with bay leaves. Some of our fruit trees have done well – plenty of lemons in the early summer and a record crop of apples now in September. Our new fruit trees, pears, plums and nectarines have all given us small crops. As well as the fig trees growing into our garden from the land outside the wall. We also had plenty of grapes this year – not enough to make wine but enough to pick a few bunches of grapes in the morning to make fresh grape juice for our breakfasts.

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It has been a record tourist year for the island. There is no Greek crisis on tourist islands in the country. People no longer travel to Turkey, Egypt or Tunisia – instead they come to Greece or Spain. We have had a fair share of family and friends visiting us – always enjoyable. All of them say that their visit has been too short and that they will stay longer next summer! Some of them even call this place Paradise…

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I consider September the best month of the year on the island. Cooler temperatures, not so many tourists any longer, the water in the sea still warm. I never get tired of walking bare foot into the grass in the early morning, carrying the first cup of morning coffee, watching the sun rise over Skopelos Island, the sun rays slowly moving over the sea giving us a new day of hope and pleasures…6c (2)
Yesterday, we went to the uninhabited island of Arkos, not far away from Skiathos, for a swim and lunch in the summer taverna on the beach. As we arrived to the beach, a fisherman was cleaning his catch of fish and calamares, selling it direct to the taverna for people like us to enjoy the fresh catch in the taverna a while later. You cannot get fresher sea food than this! As we had our lunch, with our feet on the sand under the table, a small group of dolphins passed the island.

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But our summer is soon over. In a few weeks’ time, we will start our drive back to Sweden, staying a short while there before returning home to Malaysia for the winter. Well, in Malaysia there is no winter, summer surrounds us…

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Another summer has passed by. We are one year older but we are richer with more memories, more ideas and more hope for the future. We are already looking forward to the summer of 2018….

After the storm, dinner at the top of Skopelos Island

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The weather can change quickly at the Agean Sea. Most of the summer, it is hot and the sun shines from a clear blue sky. But when severe storms approach, the Greek Meteorological Service will send out warnings. These are times when we see the clouds building up, when we take down garden furniture and umbrellas and put aside flower pots that may come crashing down in strong winds.

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A few days ago, we had such a storm. Dark skies, heavy winds, heavy rain, lightening. For hours. For a day and a night. A fall of six degrees in the temperature. These are storms when the poor tourists are forced to stay in their hotel rooms or in the bars. The local people on the islands do not mind the weather. The rain is good for the gardens.
And then, a day later, heavy clouds are fighting a losing battle to clear skies. Finally, the sun is chasing away the clouds and Greek summer is back again, the type of summer that every tourist expects to have here.

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Today, the weather is great again. Neighbours have invited us to their boat and in the late afternoon, we are heading for Skopelos Island. The boat is big, the two strong boat motors take us to the small little harbour of Loutraki in fifteen minutes. We are heading for Glossa, the little town on the top of the mountain. We have prebooked a taxi to the harbour. The taxi driver is not there. As could be expected. We call the taxi driver. Yes, he knows that we are coming. He will pick us up in less than ten minutes. One telephone call and twenty five minutes later, the taxi arrives. The driver skillfully takes us up on the small, curvy road. Finally, he stops and we have to walk another ten minutes to reach Agnanti, the restaurant where we are having our dinner. The view from Agnanti is stunning.

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The food is great. We share everything. Fried calamares. Fried cheese with honey. Vegetables. A few other starters. A Greek lamb dish. A pork dish. Chicken. Bread. White wine. A well tasting dinner!7

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After dinner, we walk down through the small town, not bigger than a village. The path down is more straight than the road we came up on. It is an old stone path, a path for pedestrians and donkeys. It is a beautiful walk, a good exercise. Finally, we get down to the water, resting for a while on a bench before we walk back to the harbour for the return trip to Skiathos Island.

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As we arrive to Sklithri beach, the sun is setting. We anchor the boat and get ashore. We are sitting down for a while at “our” Sklithri Taverna, sipping a glass of wine before we walk up to our houses.

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This was one of those days when the world beyond the horizon does not exist. A day when the world consists of the sea, green islands, friends, good food and wine. A day of total relaxation…

A lazy day on Arkos Island

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Our friend picks us up at the harbour in Skiathos. It is the right day to go out to sea, the temperature has reached 33 degrees. The boat moves swiftly and the wind feels refreshing in our faces. It takes us only ten minutes to reach Arkos Island, one of the small islands outside Skiathos.

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Arkos is an island of rock and stone, covered by green trees, an island with with a great sandy beach. No people live on this island but in the summer, a Skiathos family is running a taverna on the beach. High above on a rock, a Greek flag has been placed to remind us of where we are.

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This day, there are only a few people at Arkos. We find shade under some big rocks, place our bags, umbrella and beach towels there and move out into the water. The water is warm, clear, feels like silk. Finally, we get up again, letting the warm air dry our bodies in the shadow of the rock and then we move over to the taverna.

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This is one of those days when time means nothing. You stick your feet into the sand, sip your frappe, the cold Greek ice coffe, lazy talk with friends, looking out over the sea, and a few hours of your life can easily disappear without you noticing it. Eventually, hunger reminds us that we are sitting at a Greek taverna and we ask for the menu.
It is a family taverna, the mother is cooking. We order fried calamares, very fresh. Gavros, which is small, boneless, skinned Greek anchovy. Horiatiki, Greek salad. And the speciality of the place, fried, spicy hot feta cheese. Many Skiathians have goats up in the mountains and so does this family. The feta cheese is homemade and melts in your mouth. And of course we get bread, you always get bread with your meals in Greece. Everything washed down with beer and water.

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It takes an effort to get up from the taverna chairs and move back to our place at the rocks. The sun has moved and there is no more shade where we were sitting. Instead, we get into the water, the warm crystal clear water, and spend a long time there, maybe twenty minutes, maybe thirty, we don’t really know.

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Late in the afternoon, we reluctantly get into the boat for the ten minute return trip to Skiathos harbour.

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This has been another lazy day in Greece….

A short holiday on Alonissos Island

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With a car and two friends, we take the ferry from Skiathos to Alonissos Island for a three day holiday. The ferry trip takes just over two hours including a stop on Skopelos Island.
Alonissos is the third largest of the main Northern Sporades islands, after Skopelos and Skiathos, and the one that is least frequented by tourists. The name Alonissos is a fairly new name. To the ancient Greeks, the island was known as Ikos.

We approach the island and enter the picturesque harbour of Patitini, the capital village of Alonissos. Sailing boats and fishing boats are anchored in the harbour, the water is crystal clear. Tavernas and coffee shops line the harbour drive with a backdrop of white houses climbing the hills of the island.

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Distances are short on Alonissos and you can cover most of the island within half an hour’s drive from Patitini. It takes us five minutes to find our hotel in the next little bay away from this village.

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We are lucky with the hotel. It is small, simple and clean and located next to a beach with a few tavernas within a minute’s walk. This beach like most beaches on Alonissos consists of a combination of sand and pebbles. The first thing we do is to go for a long stay in the warm water. The water feels soft like silk. You swim, you float, you want to stay forever…

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In the evening, we drive up to Chora, the town on the top of the mountain, also called The Old Village. The views are stunning. Cars cannot go all the way up. We have to walk. Donkeys carry goods to the upper parts. Many artists have moved into the village, creating an artist enclave, sometimes with the paintings for sale hanging outside on the house walls. We find a taverna with a great view of the island, enjoying fresh seafood. Because this is what you should eat on Alonissos, seafood is fresh, straight from the sea off the island, and very reasonably priced.

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The next day, we take a drive around the island. The views of the rugged mountains, covered by pine forests and olive groves, are spectacular. Everything is quiet. It is an island of peace and serenity. We find a beach for a swim. There are only a few people on the beaches. We enjoy the warm, crystal clear water.

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Then we drive to the small bay of Steni Valla. Some sailing boats have anchored in front of the tavernas. We have yet another seafood meal. Back to the hotel, we cannot resist going down to the beach for yet another swim.

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Alonissos is a beautiful island. Sun and sea. Mountains and beaches. For us, it has been a time of viewing, eating, drinking, swimming, sleeping, all in good company. You cannot have a better three day holiday…

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Another day in our life on a Greek island

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The boat is making good speed. It is warmer now, feels like real summer is finally here. On the top of the hills, we see Glossa, the second largest town on the island of Skopelos.
But Glossa is not where we are going today. Instead, the boat slowly moves in to the small harbour of Loutraki, the sleepy little beach village below Glossa. It has taken us twenty minutes since we left Sklithri beach on Skiathos, crossing the straight over to Skopelos.

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The sun is getting hotter, shining from a clear blue sky. A few cars are parked in the harbour of Loutraki but we see very few people. A taxi driver is sitting on a chair in the shade of a tree, hoping for us to take the ride up to Glossa where there are also some very nice tavernas. But not today. Today we are heading for Flisvos Taverna, a walk of 200 meters. “Welcome back!” Kostas is greeting us as we enter the taverna. We have not been here since last summer. We take a table next to the sea. Only one other table is taken in Flisvos this afternoon.

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We order, sharing everything. Saganaki, fried chees with honey. Filled peppers. Batatas. Bread of course, there is no Greek meal without bread. Fresh fried calamari. Very fresh mussels, just being picked up from the sea. Seafood pasta with large prawns and more mussels. And, of course, white house wine.

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We take our time. We are in no hurry. Time is unimportant on a Greek island. If you had asked me which weekday it is, I wouldn’t know. We eat and drink slowly, chatting, enjoying the food and the sea and the company. But finally, we ask for the bill. Kostas is bringing complimentary dessert, ice cream. And complimentary coffees.

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We are going back to Skiathos. The sea is calm. We see a few sailing boats. A ferry heading for Skopelos town. We see no dolphins today.  We take a detour, going into the harbour of Skiathos. We proceed to Sklithri. Emilio is serving his late lunch guests at the taverna on the beach. We sit down at a table, relaxing for a while before we walk up to our houses. The sun has started to go down over the hills in the west, casting long shadows.

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Another day in our life on a Greek island has gone by….

Back on the island

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Early morning. Sunrise over Skopelos. The sea is calm. It is quiet. We are back on the island. Back after six weeks of travel. Back in our own little paradise.

The first cup of coffee in the morning tastes like heaven. I walk barefoot in the grass, inspecting the garden. It has fared reasonably well during our absence. We have been lucky. Roaming goats have passed the area. They have eaten a lot in our neighbour’s garden. All geraniums are gone there, down to the root. But our garden has been untouched by the goats. Thank you, goats.

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The rest of our car ride through Europe went smoothly. We stayed a few days in Prague. We stayed in the old, cute little village of Hall-in-Tirol outside Innsbruck in Austria. We drove down to Ancona in Italy where we caught the ferry to Igoumenitsa on the Greek mainland, just south of the Albanian border. After crossing Greece, we took the final ferry from Volos to Skiathos.

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Back again. Travelling is enjoyable. Not travelling is also enjoyable. Now we will stay here for the next few months. Staying in our little paradise. Living a small scale life. Eating, drinking, sleeping. Gardening, swimming, reading, socializing with friends. Enjoying sunrises and coffee. Simply enjoying life. Enjoying the simple life.

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It is great to be back again.

Meeting a depressed President

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In the evening, we enjoy a Black Light theater performance. This is a theater genre that has been created and developed in Prague. It is unique, fascinating and funny. If you visit Prague, this is a must.
The evening is warm as we walk back to our apartment. Lots of people are out in the streets. Walking on the street stones of Dlouha Street, small street stones typical for Prague, another memory comes to my mind. A memory from the Jas Gripen activities back in the late 1990’s. We were to meet the President of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel.
We, all the twenty of us, gathered in a rather empty room adjoining the President’s office. No furniture in the room, just a microphone on a stand in a corner. We were served drinks. As we were standing there, sipping our drinks, Vaclav Havel entered the room. A rather small and thin man. Previously a heavy smoker. Only one lung left after lung cancer surgery. The hero of the Silk Revolution. The hero of the people. The first President of the free Czechoslovakia. He walked slowly straight up to the microphone. Someone introduced him.
He did not smile. He did not really look at us. A very serious man, I thought. Or was he shy? He took out a paper from his pocket and started to give a speech in English. I don’t really remember what he talked about. It was probably one of those polite speeches that was given to every foreign group of visitors to the President’s office.
Still no smile. Still no eye contact. No face movements. A soft low voice. The speech was monotonous. President Vaclav Havel seemed to be bored. No, bored is the wrong word. Depressed is a better word. A depressed President? No chance to ask questions after the presentation. After the speech, Peter Wallenberg and his companion Erik Belfrage went over to Vaclav Havel. Even though we were in the same room, I could not hear their discussion. But I watched Havel. Still no smile, no happiness in his face.
Then Vaclav Havel left. Someone announced that the President had left for the day. But we were free to visit his office in the next room. A rather dark room with dim lighting. Thick curtains in the windows. A big desk, rather empty except for some documents and books. Some photos in frames. Several telephones on the desk. On the side, a big Czech flag. Behind the desk there was a book case with books. On the walls, framed photos, some of them in black and white. I recognized a younger Vaclav Havel in many of them. Pictures from the Silk Revolution. Pictures from happier days.
I still wonder today… Vaclav Havel, Mr. President, why were you so depressed? Was it the fact that your health was giving way? Did you have personal problems? A lonely soul in the presidential palace? Or did you just have a lousy day like all of us have sometimes?
I shall never know the answer….

The day Peter Wallenberg shocked me

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Back in Prague, the city I used to live in for six years. We are having dinner…..Walking back to our apartment from the restaurant, memories come back.
Sweden tried to sell Saab’s military fighter airplane Jas Gripen to the Czech Republic. A delegation of almost ten people, headed by Peter Wallenberg, head of the powerful Swedish industrial Wallenberg family, Saab and their partner British Aerospace came on a sales mission to Prague.
But the size of this delegation was not big enough. The Jas Gripen group had to impress their Czech hosts. So the head of every Swedish company with Wallenberg connections in the Czech Republic had to take part. We were the backdrop to the big boys in the Jas Gripen delegation, posing in the background at every meeting with our well combed hair, dark suits and conservative ties. We were to be seen but not to be heard. Quantity but not quality.
In between meetings, Peter Wallenberg, now in his 70’s, asked me how the merger between Astra and Zeneca came along. This was a pharmaceutical megamerger between the bigger Swedish Astra and the smaller British Zeneca. I had been lucky. Soon after the top positions in the new AstraZeneca group had been filled, I was told that I would keep my job as the regional head of the companies in Central and Eastern Europe. I took part in meetings in London, in Manchester, in Philadelphia and in Södertälje. Astra’s chairman Percy Barnevik stressed the importance of speed. The new organizations had to be up and running as soon as possible.
In every country, there were now two company presidents, two finance managers and so on. One of the two had to go. A lot of good people had to be fired. The consequences of a merger. A continued career or unemployment? Life or death? It was my job in my region to decide who was staying and who was going. It was tough. I could see the pain in people’s eyes as I had to inform them that their employment was over. But the job had to be done. That’s why I was there. And with time, we again had good functioning organizations.
I gave a fairly positive answer to Peter Wallenberg’s question about the merger. Then he dropped a bomb shell.
“I don’t believe in this merger”, he said. I don’t think he saw how shocked I was. He, the head of the powerful Wallenberg Family and the biggest Swedish owner of Astra, did not believe in the merger? Supposedly, Peter Wallenberg was a key player in the merger. Or wasn’t he? I wanted to ask questions. Why then the merger? Why then the firing of so many good people? But I couldn’t get a word out. Peter Wallenberg continued talking. He told me that he had been living and working in England. “I know the British”, he said. “You can’t trust them”.
An old tycoon’s view…..
Who were the winners and the losers in this merger? On the winning side, you had the shareholders of course. Always the shareholders. Great Britain was a winner, the head office moved to London. And those of us who kept our jobs, like me, were winners. Higher salaries and bigger bonuses. All those who lost their jobs were of course the losers. As was the country of Sweden. With time, the British took over. Sweden had lost one if its big industrial flag ships. Maybe Peter Wallenberg had been right.
Early summer in Prague is beautiful. We are walking back to the hotel. A horse and carriage, filled with tourists, pass us in the street. The echoes of the hooves of the horses are bouncing on the walls as I try to shake off the memories of the merger. Not all of them were good.
Tomorrow, we shall continue to explore Prague, one of my favourite cities in Europe……

In the center of Europe; Prague, the enchanting city

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We have arrived in Prague. Beautiful Prague. Prague, the city that is located north of Paris and west of Stockholm. The city in the center of Europe.

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The atmosphere in Prague is enchanting. The city is full of history and culture. Full of beauty. Full of tourists and stars. Beautiful buildings and old statues. Street artists and musicians. The city that has it all. The city that is full of the expected and full of surprises
Summer has come to Prague. We walk more than ten kilometers this first day, from our apartment near the Old Town Square to the square. We watch the Astronomical Clock, from 1865, sharp on the hour, where the wooden statues of the 12 apostles parade in the clock windows every hour. We cross the Vltava River on Charles Bridge, the bridge built in 1357 by Charles IV. On the bridge, a star of some kind is being photographed. A local celebrity?

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Prague is full of street cafes and bars and we take a break for half an hour, having both tiramisu and a beer. Prague is the capital of beers. Our walk continues up to Prague castle, the biggest castle complex in the world. We stop for a concert at Wallenstein garden to listen to beautiful music and to rest our legs. Slowly, we cross Manesuv Bridge, stopping occasionally to watch the beauty that Prague constantly offers. Back in our apartment, we rest our tired legs, watch TV news and we are reminded that there is a world outside fairytale Prague.

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When the sun sets, we leave the apartment again. The street restaurants are full of people. We have Czech food, Czech beer. We have a full Czech satisfaction….

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