It struck me that there’s been little talk of European destinations on this blog since my post about Madrid way back in June last year! So, I’m remedying that now with this update about a quick city break to Stockholm which I made at the beginning of October 2015.
Stockholm is in some ways a city of two halves (and many islands). There’s the modern city which looks very much as you would expect with its tall, modern office blocks and shops with shiny glass exteriors. In contrast to this is the old town, or ‘Gamla stan’ which nestles on an island to the south and consists of old buildings, churches, cobbled streets, hidden passages and isolated courtyards. An excellent (and free!) walking tour with a local guide introduced us to the history of Stockholm – by turns spooky, violent, and amusing – and also to some of the quirks of Swedish life. One such quirk is the government-owned network of shops known as System Bolaget, which sell alcohol over a certain strength and, as our guide impressed upon us, have very strict closing times! Apparently introduced to promote temperance amongst the population, nowadays, you can of course buy alcohol at the numerous bars and restaurants as well. One such restaurant, located inside a market hall, served up the most delicious fish soup I’ve ever tasted. Unsurprisingly fish (or fisk in Swedish) is not hard to come by, but you can also sample reindeer and elk at many of the local eateries.
Being made up of several islands, one of the best ways of getting around Stockholm is by boat, and you can spend a pleasant afternoon island-hopping on the regular services which run throughout the day. It was particularly good fun to pop over to Djurgården, the old royal hunting ground, for a stroll around the tranquil park lands. If, like me, you’re a fan of trams, you can take a ride on Stockholm’s one and only tramline to get there as well. It also conveniently passes by the Abba Museum (which we didn’t have time to visit) and you can listen to the pop prowess of the 70s quartet as you wait on the platform.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the trip was a visit to the Vasa Museet, a museum dedicated to the ‘wreck’ of the ship Vasa which sank in Stockholm harbour in 1628. In actual fact the ship is almost completely intact, which is what makes the museum so fascinating. The main hull of the ship and a lot of her contents were preserved thanks to a combination of factors, not least the fact that the tiny micro-organisms which would normally have destroyed the wood were unable to survive in the waters of Stockholm harbour. It wasn’t until 1961, however, that the ship was finally able to be raised completely and the real preservation work began. If you’re familiar with the English ship Mary Rose, you’ll know that until very recently the timbers of that ship were kept wet to prevent them drying out and becoming damaged in the process. With the Vasa, however, the drying process was started straight away but in controlled conditions so that now the ship stands inside a huge hall, almost as if she’d been built there. The ship is beautifully ornamented with carvings all around the hull, and there is a re-creation of how the elaborately-painted stern would have looked the day she set sail. There are even the remains of clothing, spare rigging and sails, wooden chests, games and other ordinary items which were found inside, as well as some of the unfortunate crew who were unable to escape when she sank.
Another highlight for this museophile was the Swedish History Museum. This is an interesting, varied and wide-ranging museum with hundreds of exhibits, including a vaulted ‘gold room’ of treasures, and of course an exhibition all about vikings! Having a slightly morbid interest in ancient battles, my particular favourite of the museum exhibits was a section devoted to a famous medieval massacre, the Battle of Visby (sometimes known as the Battle of Gotland). The exhibit featuring the skulls of victims still inside rusted chainmail is an arresting sight and really brings home the brutality of the fighting.
This was my first time in Sweden, so it was a new bit of Europe for me and it was interesting to learn about the history of a country about which I knew very little. I will definitely be planning a return at some point, if only to sample that delicious fish soup again!