Springtime in Stockholm

Springtime in Stockholm
January 2020

On a relaxed journey though Scandinavia in late Spring, A&K’s Anthony O’Shea finds pared back beauty and more than a touch of whimsy in Sweden’s capital.

Sweden

No need to stop the presses: Nordic cool is perennially hot. The Norwegian fjords, Northern Lights, Lofoten Islands, Swedish Lappland, ‘hygge’ and the Baltic Sea are current and/or recurrent fixtures on all the travel and lifestyle hot lists – with good reason. But if you haven’t travelled in this part of the world before, or you’re in the region to see someplace else, be sure to invest a little of your idle time in the stately Scandinavian capital cities – you’ll be handsomely rewarded.

Three Sisters

Getting to know the Scandinavian capitals is like spending long afternoons with three elegant sisters. Each of the cities has its own distinct beauty and character. Yet they also share an unmistakable sisterly resemblance, a sense of both sibling rivalry and historical sorority, and their similarities and differences become more apparent as the three are seen together. It’s not an easy task to pick a favourite.

STOCKHOLM feels like the graceful elder sister. The local archipelago and surrounds have been settled since the Stone Age, and the city, officially founded in the 13th century, is today the largest in all the Nordic countries, in terms of both population and conurbation. Size notwithstanding, in a country ranked first in the world for work/life balance (according to a recent HSBC report), with flexible working arrangements the norm, and almost two years of parental leave for every child born, Stockholm is perhaps not best described as ‘bustling’. Instead, the city projects an unrushed, austere beauty, ageless, a little aloof, buttoned down around the ceremonial precincts and the palaces, but otherwise relaxed and at peace with itself.


The Venice of the North?

The travel journalese for Stockholm is ‘Venice of the North’, which doesn’t really do justice to either. Stockholm is, like Venice, genuinely maritime, built across 14 islands connected by 57 bridges, at a point on the map where the vast, freshwater Lake Mälaren flows into the Baltic Sea. But while Venice is ebullient and extrovert, wearing its briny waterways, ornate facades and Catholic heart on its High Renaissance sleeve, Stockholm is more reserved, an understated Lutheran beauty, pared back, comfortable in her own clear skin, ready to face the world without makeup or pretention. Her harbours and ferry wharves have a workaday commuter matter-of-factness about them, no crowds of tourists or touts; her people go about their vocations, avocations and family lives without fuss; her waterfront parks and city squares are oases of even greater calm in already-serene surrounds.

All of which makes Stockholm a potential poster child for the nascent slow travel movement, a more-considered-travel equivalent of the various backlashes against fast food, fast fashion, fake news and over-tourism. Not just seeing a place, but really being there. Tasting not just what’s on the plate in front of you, but what’s on the slow burner, where the vital ingredients of a dish or a culture come from, how they came to be here, or how we did, and what’s in store for tomorrow. Stockholm is a city to savour.

The Grand Hotel

I spend my first unhurried hours in the city – on a sunny Spring Saturday morning – eating a fine late breakfast of gravlax, salmon roe and flawless scrambled eggs on toasted sweet light rye (limpa bröd), sitting at a window table on the veranda of the Grand Hotel (true-to-label). The hotel looks out across a small inlet of the Baltic Sea, which ends in a low bridge and is fringed by dozens of white motor yachts, all but one or two at rest. On the opposite shore, the 1,400 room Royal Palace, an imperious 18th century Scandinavian baroque, dwarfs the chocolate-box buildings of the Old Town (the Gamla Stan) beyond.

I enjoy much the same view from my bright and airy room upstairs, where, at various intervals over the coming hours and days, I throw open the windows to let in the distant sounds and a light Baltic breeze, and pleasantly nap myself in and out of the local circadian rhythm, pinching myself each time I wake to see the imposing palace across the water.



Djurgården

In the early afternoon on Day 1, which already feels like three long days, such a lovely feeling, I stroll with a local tour guide along the promenades and boulevards – the 80 metre-wide Strandvägen, Stockholm’s best address, with whispers of putative apartment owners, past and present, “Bjorn Borg,” “Elin Nordegren,” “Benny Andersson,” “Alfred Nobel(!)” – to beloved Djurgården, a leafy recreational island only a few hundred metres from the city centre.

Djurgården is the former royal game reserve, once replete with reindeer, elk and a baiting arena, and home now to cafés, museums, a sports stadium and a 19th century amusement park, the Gröna Lund (Green Grove). Thankfully, the three-kilometre-long island still has its quiet spaces. There are tranquil harbours, sandy coves, and a petite marina on the seaward side; a charming residential area (an assortment of sprawling, slightly creaky-looking wooden mansions, most with little summer houses at the bottom of unfenced gardens); and extensive hiking, cycling and riding trails along the water’s edge and through the forested slopes and meadows of the island’s little hinterland. It’s a wonderful place to while away an afternoon.

The Vasamuseet

If you need a diversion, among the major drawcards of Djurgården’s many and varied attractions are the Abba and Vasa Museums. The centrepiece of the latter (the Vasamuseet) is the inglorious Vasa, a top-heavy 64-gun wooden warship that listed and capsized in Stockholm Harbour in 1628, only a few hundred metres into her maiden voyage. The ship’s design, build and launch plan were fatally compromised by the King of Sweden at the time – Gustavus Adolphus (“The Great”) – who allegedly demanded the late installation of an additional deck of cannons, along with more flattering and/or awe-inspiring carvings of his person, power and domain, all with no delay. The doomed ship was only rediscovered, still largely intact, on the harbour floor in the 1950s, ingeniously raised in the early 1960s, and sensitively restored in the decades since.

The museum today is a triumph of information design and display. The ship itself reads like a four-storey infographic, with polished dark-blonde timber infills contrasting with the rough, now near-black oak of the original hull, clearly delineating where the ship has been repaired and rebuilt through the stages of conservation. Together with thousands of artefacts recovered along with the ship and displayed on four levels of balconies and ante-rooms, the museum paints a vivid picture of the lives of 17th century Swedes and seafarers.

The Vasamuseet is said to be the most visited museum in Scandinavia, but if you know someone who knows someone, there are A&K ways to work around the crowds and enjoy some quiet time with the not-so-distant past.


ABBA: The Museum

After the rarefied, middle-historical air of the Vasamuseet (literally climate controlled at 18-20°C and 51-59% relative humidity, to slow the deterioration of the wooden hull), ‘ABBA: The Museum’ is a blast of naïve 1970s sunshine. The songs may still be a little saccharine for some tastes, and the outfits more gauche now than even then, but in the spirit of the moment and the place, it’s possible to overcome the pop cultural cringe – along with unaddressed envy of an older sister who attended the first Sydney concert in 1977 without her younger brother – and embrace the blessed memories.

The Australian connection

There is a persistent Australian dimension to the story of ABBA’s success, as it’s related in museum-speak in Sweden today, which surprises and delights me and somewhat confuses my American travelling companions. We are told, not solely for my benefit, that Australians were late-comers to colour television (1975) but early adopters of ABBA (suggesting the two were not unrelated); that more Australians watched an ABBA special in 1976 than viewed the moon landing seven years before; and that an Australian TV presenter named Molly Meldrum had an outsized influence on their string of Number 1 hits Down-Under and all over (which gives me some Aus-plaining to do: “Molly Meldrum? Who is she?”).


In fact, I meet with a general and genuine fondness for Australia throughout Sweden, and sense a particular camaraderie with Australians of my own vintage – born mid-60s, aged mid-50s – among similarly middle-aged Swedes. These are bonds formed through memorable Davis Cup ties and Australian Open finals –

Mikael Pernfors, Patrick Cash, Mats Wilander – and a nostalgia for the sunburned, beer-fuelled, backpacking East Coast pilgrimage many undertook as teenagers and young adults in the mid ‘80s – Kooyong, Manly, Byron, North Queensland – a feeling we grew up together although for most of our lives a world apart.

It is one of the joys of real travel anywhere to be reminded of the ways in which we are both so alike and yet so different from our many fellow travellers on the planet.

My Life as a Dog

What has aged especially well from ABBA’s heyday are those disarmingly sweet ‘music videos’ the great Lasse Hallström made for almost every ABBA hit. Back in the hotel that evening, I re-watch Hallström’s Mitt Liv Som Hund (My Life as a Dog), the bittersweet, rite of passage of young Ingemar, his dying mother, and his endearing, irreverent uncle, made in the mid-1980s but set in the more provincial Sweden of the late 1950s and early 60s. I confess I then see Stockholm and Sweden for days afterwards through Hallström’s child’s-eye lens – generous, affectionate, unsparing, unsentimental.

I see the same sense of whimsy, not unalloyed with longing and loss, in the movie and in my own experience, everywhere I go, in everyone I meet, and in everything I learn about Stockholm’s past, present and future, from local experts we meet each day of the journey. Light and shade. Innocence and experience. Love and laughter. Sex and death. Centuries of human stories in a still very human city. Not everything is on the surface in Stockholm in the way it might seem to be in say, Venice or Venice Beach. But it isn’t far beneath the surface either. I sense the depth in every conversation I have with my dear tour guide Helena, caring for her aging parents while juggling a long distance relationship, and in every amused, bemused, confused encounter I have with strangers in shops and restaurants who hear out my comical attempts at ordering in Svenglish "En kaffe och kanelbulle snälla", patiently biting their lips and creasing their brows, before rescuing me with their good-natured English (and a cinnamon bun).

Days later, on a train journey like Ingemar’s through Småland south of Stockholm, I look out across the rolling countryside to small towns I can now imagine house or once housed their own cast of lovable, irascible, everyday eccentrics – the cranky roof repairer, the ice swimmer, the glass blower, the nude model – where a lonely boy might have gazed into the night sky and felt the anguish of the doomed little dog in Sputnik 2, orbiting endlessly in space.


Ingmar Bergman

In Stockholm’s city centre, I take a selfie under the street sign for ‘Ingmar Bergmans Gata’ – this city of beautiful bone structure, angled light and unspoken meaning honours its auteurs – and I end up in a conversation with the proprietor of a nearby bookstore – a friend of our guide’s – about the greatest of Bergman’s films. My favourite, I say, is Fanny and Alexander, his is Cries and Whispers, a tale of three emotionally distant sisters I’ve not yet seen. I tell the bookstore owner I find it hard to reconcile Bergman’s dark genius, his weighty take on Sweden and the human condition, with all the beauty and good humour I see around me. He and Helena explain I’ll better understand some of the more gothic* influences on pre-modern Sweden and the Swedish sensibility after the next day’s trip to Uppsala, a university and cathedral city north of Stockholm, and Sweden’s ecclesiastical capital since the Middle Ages. (*The Goths, according to their own legend, originated in southern Sweden in the millennia before last, in the area still known today as Götaland.)

Uppsala Cathedral

The cathedral at Uppsala was built in the 13th century in the French Gothic style, and stands on the site where Eric IV, patron saint of Stockholm, was murdered and/or martyred the century before (in the year 1160), itself less than a century after the end of the Viking Age and at the beginning of the long, slow Christianisation of Sweden. Eric’s decapitated remains are kept in a stone casket in the Cathedral, and were disentombed and scientifically verified as recently as 2014. The cathedral is also the resting place of other Swedes of renown who exemplified different facets of the national character, including the great botanist Carl Linnaeus, father of taxonomy, inspiration to Joseph Banks, inventor of the sometimes redundant binomial system of scientific names (Homo sapiens, Tyrannosaurus rex, Rattus rattus, Gorilla gorilla), who tried to bring order and organisation to unwieldy nature (a legacy inherited by kikki-K?); and Emanuel Swedenborg, 18th century theologian and mystic who believed and/or convinced others to believe God had granted him the power to visit heaven and hell at will and to converse there with angels and demons.

A renovation of the cathedral in the 1970s revealed and restored elaborate Italianate frescoes that had been covered by whitewash since the Reformation, and a visit to the cathedral today recalls a time when Uppsala was, in important ways, an outpost of Rome on the very edges of western civilisation. Within sight of the headless statue of a canonised king, you can stand at the crossing of the nave and transept, beneath the ceiling’s highest point, and imagine you too can hear the silence of heaven like at the opening of The Seventh Seal (Det Sjunde Inseglet).

Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde

At Helena’s suggestion, I spend my last afternoon in Stockholm back in Djurgården, exploring Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, an art museum in the former home of a revered Swedish prince, painter and patron of the arts. Prince Eugene trained in the academic style in Paris in the 1880s before dabbling in Post-Impressionism and later movements, and hosted a Parisian-style salon in this splendid home through the 1920s and 30s. His museum – part gallery, part restored private apartment – is like a jewel box, the embodiment of everything I have come to learn and love about Stockholm in the preceding days – personal, regal, historical, understated, artfully curated and superbly situated – with the views from the mansion’s upper level windows of the water and the surrounding parklands as bewitching as the Prince’s collection of minor treasures from the 19th and early 20th century.


My final and lasting impression from this visit to Stockholm is of sitting under a leafy tree in the garden of a nearby Djurgården café (Café Ektorpet), enjoying a fine late lunch and a view through the park to the water. I have nowhere else to be and nothing particular to do – I’m on holiday in a great European city. Here and there in the park, beyond the low fence around the café, people stroll, or picnic, or push a pram, or a stroller or an elderly relative in a chair. I see two cyclists meet and dismount, walking alongside their wheeled bikes at talking pace. Beyond the pathways and the narrow beach, stippled points of afternoon sunlight sparkle on the dark waters of the Baltic Sea like stars in a night sky. And in the foreground, a plate of pickled beets, glossy slices of cured fish and a bowl of leafy green salad are arranged on the stone tabletop beside a heavy stemmed glass of sparkling ale, like a still life painting almost too good to eat. Almost.