13 August 2008

Stockholm


Here’s a sign of the times: arriving at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport I was slightly disappointed to find no border controls to speak of, because it meant I couldn’t get a Swedish stamp in my passport. That’s the Schengen agreement for you: it may be convenient and quashes travel hassles in Europe, but it’s hard cheese for passport-fillers.

Soon after withdrawing some Swedish kroner I was on the bus to the city, 40 minutes away along tidy, uncrowded motorways. No, I didn’t notice any Ikea stores on the way, but there were plenty of Volvos and Saabs.

The bus dropped me at the central station and I walked the short distance to the hostel I’d chosen. The City Backpackers Hostel is ideally situated in the city centre, and while the small dorms were a bit crowded the place was well equipped, with free internet access. It also had a mildly tiresome ‘no shoes’ policy inside, which reminded me that I definitely needed to replace my cheap and holey socks from Primark.

At the check-in desk I had my first encounter with the legendary beauty of Swedish womenfolk. I had been dubious of the stereotype before I arrived, but the hostel had very sensibly put its best foot forward in choosing this young Hostel Venus. Like many of her countryfolk she spoke perfect English, as long as you include speaking with an American accent within the definition of perfection. She was playing a jazz CD and we chatted briefly but enthusiastically about quality Swedish singers like Lisa Ekdahl, Stina Nordenstam and Rebecka Tornqvist, who all feature in my CD collection. (I’ll write a post about them one day soon)

Women such as Hostel Venus are seldom long out of the spotlight, so it was amusing to watch an American student trying to chat her up a short while later whilst trying to appear super-suave. He even did the famous ‘wink and finger-pistol farewell’! I thought people only did that in rubbish movies.

Soon it was time to call it a day, and as a summer lightning storm lit up the pale dusk with impressive flashing and crashing, I drifted off to sleep.

==

It was an early start the next morning due to the short night and the early sunrise – I was awake at 5.30am. The storm the night before had given way to a clear warm day with charming blue skies and the thermometer was rising quickly.

Taking advantage of the early hour I set out to reconnoitre and get my bearings. Stockholm is a harbour city arrayed on the mainland and a series of islands linked by graceful bridges. The centre of the old town is the famous island of Gamla Stan, but I detoured to the neighbouring islet of Riddarholmen, the knights’ island. The islet is dominated by the perforated wrought-iron spire of the Riddarholmskyrkan, and nearby the Riddarhuset (the House of Nobility) exudes a restrained regal air.





Gamla Stan is close by, and wandering down its curving streets visitors can get an impression of town life in Stockholm centuries ago. If the contemporary Gamla Stan is anything to go by, there were plenty of tourist trinket shops, boutiques and cafes in medieval Stockholm. Up the slight slope from these streets, the entire crest of the island was occupied by the truly massive Kungliga Slottet, the Swedish royal palace: the largest in the world with 608 rooms.





Having read my Lonely Planet before arriving in Sweden I had been pleased to note that museums in Stockholm were mostly listed as free of charge. Of course as the disclaimer goes, ‘prices change’, and in this case they’d changed rather drastically, given that all of them had entry fees of at least five quid. Perhaps they only charge entry fees during the summer tourist season. So instead of going on a massive free museum binge, I targeted a select few and spent the time I saved roaming through Stockholm's boulevards, esplanades and bridges, admiring the fine and graceful architecture and the happy faces of the locals and visitors enjoying the summer heat and the sparkling harbour.

It was at this juncture that I purchased a pocket spirit level in the Architecture Museum shop, for reasons that are not entirely plausible or justifiable. But I will now be able to leave the house secure in the knowledge that my pockets are exactly perpendicular to the footpath.


In the impressive plaza next to the palace I noticed that the Royal Mint Museum had a sign outside saying ‘free entry’. I rushed inside to take advantage of this rare munificence, only to realise that the Royal Mint Museum wasn’t exactly the most fascinating museum on the planet. Still, it did have the perfectly mad exhibit of the largest struck coin in the world: the huge lumpen ingot struck in 1644 looked like a massive copper doormat. (There’s a lot of rather tedious debate about the actual holder of the title of the world’s largest coin is, but this Canadian one is probably the current holder of the largely pointless title). There was also a nice selection of Viking hack-silver to covet behind the security glass.



Wandering up the hill I chanced upon the afternoon changing of the guard at palace, which is quite a tourist attraction as it is in London. The thing that distinguishes the Swedish version is the polished and lacquered helmets of the Swedish guardsmen, which closely resemble the faintly silly spiked helmets worn in WW1 by the German Army.

Having my lunch under a tree in one of Stockholm’s many parks I noticed a steady stream of tidily-dressed but relatively down at heel passers-by sifting the park’s rubbish bins for plastic bottles. Each bottle returned earns the holder 1 kroner, so a determined search at a busy lunchtime can earn the city’s poor some handy spare change.

By this time I had also formed a more advanced theory regarding the aforementioned pulchritude of Swedish females, which is famously enhanced by their glorious icy blonde Scandinavian tresses. Professional geneticists would perhaps be in a better position to explain the curious prevalence of what I dubbed ‘Scandinavian Follicular Variegation Syndrome’, in which women’s hair darkened dramatically as it neared their scalp. Someone should alert the media in case it's contagious.

I also noticed a selection of children’s books in a second-hand shop window, including an impressive collection of Biggles books in Swedish. But I admit this one caught my eye: and before you say anything, the title translated is ‘Lotta hits the spot’. Perfectly innocent.

After a massive day of pounding the footpaths of Stockholm in the sunshine, I was feeling the effects of the early start. But an Aussie chap from Canberra in my dorm was keen to explore the city at night, so we headed out for a stroll in the mild evening air, admiring the city lights, looking wistfully at the expensive bars, and discussing previous backpacking exploits. It had turned out to be a long day after all.

==

The next day proved to be a carbon copy of the day before: another hot day with lots of walking. After purchasing some breakfast and lunch from a department store I walked along the pretty waterfront boulevards and over the bridge to Djurgärden island, which hosts the huge warehouse-like structure housing the world-famous Vasa Museum, which was the main reason I’d been longing to visit Stockholm.

The Museum holds just one major exhibit, but it’s truly one of the most awe-inspiring and unfathomably spectacular sights you’ll ever see in any museum. As you enter the site through a series of three air-tight doors, you emerge into a cavernous shrine to maritime history. Before you, resting on its keel and supported by massive beams, looms a real 17th century warship, the finest of its day. The Vasa confronts first-time viewers with the grandeur and sheer improbability of its existence, and yet this huge vessel is real – it is no modern replica. This really is a warship built in 1628, and it's right before your eyes, as if it had sailed straight out of a history book.

Some of you might have seen the vestiges of the Mary Rose in Portsmouth (I wrote about it last year), and that is an impressive sight – older than the Vasa but far less complete. It's a mere fragment of a hulk in comparison to the Vasa, which is approximately 90 to 95 percent intact. When it was launched the Vasa was a revolutionary design: the first double-decked warship to have heavy guns on both the lower and upper gun decks. Yet it sank to the bottom of Stockholm’s harbour only an hour or so after its launch on Sunday, 10 August 1628, killing about fifty of its passengers. But while the ship was lost, the low salt levels of the Baltic waters meant that the vessel survived intact on the seabed, because shipworms cannot live in such an environment. Rediscovered in 1956 and raised in 1961, the Vasa was so well preserved that it was even able to float unaided after 333 years submerged.






While the Vasa was the star attraction at the museum, out the back there was a small wharf with some decommissioned ships tethered up. I was impressed to note that for the first 43 years of its duties the icebreaker Sankt Erik (1915) had an open bridge. You’ve got to hand it to the Swedes, they’re a (fool-?) hardy lot.

After a spot of lunch I walked back into town to enjoy a few hours at the History Museum, which had a strong collection of Swedish artefacts. I particularly enjoyed the Viking gold hordes in the basement: it’s fortunate that the lights were dim because the glare from all that looted precious metal would’ve damaged my eyes otherwise. (No pics allowed in that bit, drat)

There was also a 12th century reliquary for some small bit of St Elizabeth’s person, which must’ve been important because it hadn’t been melted down. It was a round goblet, and a bit of later reading revealed that it supposedly contained the saint's cranium when it was brought to Sweden as part of a hoard looted in the Thirty Years War.

And there’s always something interesting being dragged out of a peat bog these days: there was a superb glass case exhibit displaying a mannequin wearing an old cloak, which seemed completely intact apart from a few scratches here and there, and the pattern in its fibres was still strong. On reading the caption, I discovered that this cloak had probably been made sometime between 360 and 100 BC. It was at least 2100 years old!

I also got a cheap laugh from a placard in an empty exhibition hall, proclaiming that the space was, in effect, an art installation called Work In Progress, and that ‘This gap contains hundreds of different choices and decisions, compromises and prioritisations and ideas that never happened. It is a process that we live with every day’.

To round out the day I walked to the southern suburb of Södermalm and took the lift up to view the city from on high (well, not very high, but it was still pretty). When I returned to the hostel later on I found I had fallen prey to one of the traditional perils of dormitory dwellers: I had hung my microfibre towel up to dry and someone had pinched it, thinking I had checked out and left it behind. The fiends! Fear not, for I have another.

==

There was a little time in the morning for one last walk around downtown Stockholm before I departed to catch my lunchtime flight. I paused a moment to admire the freakishly expensive Kosta Boda glass vases in a shop, and then packed my gear and made my way onwards. Stockholm, I had a great time and I hope to visit you again some day! Next stop: Helsinki…

Webcam: Sergelstorg, Stockholm
Monarch: King Carl XVI Gustaf
Tourism: Visit Stockholm
More photos: Facebook
Music: Lisa Ekdahl
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