Djurgården (© Henryk Trygg / mediabank.visitstockholm)

Smitten with Stockholm

18th October 2019

Deborah Mulhearn explores the Swedish capital…

This trip with my daughter was long-planned, but we left it late to book accommodation… so we are staying further out from the centre than originally intended – at a suburban hotel that turns out to be Stockholm’s first inn, on the edge of Haga Park, a small part of the Royal National City Park that covers a huge area of the city and beyond into neighbouring municipalities. The hotel is a delight: a complex of traditional yellow-painted wooden buildings and a tiny domed summerhouse that can be booked for private dining, all dating from the mid-17th century and set on a peaceful lakeside.

The first morning we take a stroll around the lake edge. At least we think it’s a lake. Stockholm has so much water and coastline that it’s hard to tell without recourse to a map whether the body of water you’re looking at is lake, inlet or sea. On a rocky mound we find the Carl Eldh Studio Museum. Eldh was a sculptor who was drawn to this bucolic spot beyond the city a hundred years ago to build his light-filled studio, now a museum housing his works. The views stretching out in all directions take in what turns out to be the Brunnsviken Lake and bay, the park, and the tree-filled landscapes beyond.

There are pros and cons to staying further out, of course: you get to see parts of a city you wouldn’t otherwise see, but you have to travel into the centre. Luckily, I love trying public transport systems. We buy a city pass, which gives us unlimited travel on Stockholm’s metro, buses, ferries, trams and trains for the duration of our stay, and enjoy the passing scenery, buildings and people.

We take a bus to the old town, called Gamla Stan, but skirt the cramped lanes, jumbled houses and jostling crowds and even the Royal Palace (no time and, frankly, too sunny to visit its 600 rooms on this trip). Instead we walk around the harbour edge and across the bridge to Södermalm, a large island to the south of the centre, where the hip district of SoFo (South of Folkungagatan) has grown up in recent years.

Of course, every self-respecting city has a hipster quarter nowadays. But we want to see more of contemporary Stockholm, and while we suspect that it has long been a haunt for antique hunters and alternative types, we enjoy its stylish boutiques, ateliers, interior stores and restaurants. We scour the shops and replenish ourselves at an organic cafe opposite a small park. Tiny sparrows flit between the tables and perch on the back of the wrought iron benches and chairs, dive-bombing our ‘fika’ cake crumbs.

There are also many lovely shady city squares and parks to explore. Close by is a rocky park ringed by traditional wooden houses painted rusty red. It’s a glimpse into how life was for Stockholmers a few centuries ago. Further on there are more architecturally eclectic houses and apartment blocks, with a colour palette of every conceivable yellow – from clotted cream to ochre and mustard, then rusty pinks, and on to biscuity browns via salmons and apricots.

When it comes to food, I waive my ‘no meat’ rule so that my daughter can try some typical Swedish fare. And what’s more Swedish than meatballs? We’re lucky to get a Friday evening table at popular Meatballs for the People in Södermalm, where options on this particular night include moose, boar and beef; I baulk at the exotic meats, but my classic choice is delicious.

Afterwards we decide to walk off the meatballs on the nearby island of Kungsholmen. For strangers in this city of seemingly endless islands, bridges and lakeside paths it’s often challenging to tell which island you’re on and which you’re looking at. But in another way they all have their distinct character; it’s unlikely to be a problem once they become familiar.

It’s a sunny June evening and everyone is outside enjoying the balmy weather. There are so many city parks and waterfront walks that it seems that wherever you live in Stockholm you have access to fresh air and greenery, not to mention water. It’s this setting that makes it such a special place; somewhere that renders a simple evening walk so magical.

The distinctive red brick City Hall at the far south-eastern corner of Kungsholm is recognisable by its square tower topped by a weather vane of three golden crowns, once the national symbol for Sweden. It was built nearly a hundred years ago, and while it must have stood high above the skyline for many years, Stockholm is still a relatively low-rise city, and it remains one of the tallest buildings around.

Next day is warmer still, and we head to Skansen, on the island of Djurgården. This is even closer to nature because it is the world’s first open air museum and displays traditional, pre-Industrial Swedish life. Skansen is big and takes up a large portion of the day, although it covers only a small section of the island. Some of the traditional buildings were already on the island when its founder, educator and folklorist Arthur Hazelius, decided to create the museum, including the house where he was born in 1833. Others have been imported from different parts of Sweden to show how people lived in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the country was mainly rural and agricultural. There are farmsteads and cottages, manor houses, churches and chapels, and recreated shops including bookbinders and shoemakers. Some have guides dressed in traditional costume, doing age-old tasks like sorting spices and knitting Nordic sweaters and we also talk to some Finnish migrants making birch shoes. These only lasted three kilometres, they tell us, before they needed repairing or replacing.

In the animal enclosures there are also roaming wolves, brown bears, moose and European bison, slippery seals and otters, and domestic goats and hogs. It’s hard to decide whether it’s a zoo with artefacts, or a museum with animals.

What drew me mainly to Stockholm, however, is the Vasa – a four-storey wooden galleon that sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage and is now on display in a purpose-built museum on the island of Djurgården. We save the breathtaking sight of this towering, teetering warship for our last day.

The Vasa is certainly vast. It had sailed less than a nautical mile out of Stockholm harbour when its top-heavy design caused it to keel over and sink in minutes. Around thirty people died, including women and children who had been allowed on board for the early stages of the journey. Some of their skeletons are on display, and tests have shown that two of the women were related.

When the ship was raised in 1961, it was found to be 98% intact because the relatively shallow water of the harbour was not salty enough to allow destructive species of woodworm to breed. The museum does a lot with a little, keeping the ship as pristine as possible and allowing people to take in its height, its robust wooden construction and fantastical German carvings from all angles. She must have seemed as extraordinary to contemporary Stockholmers as the enormous cruise ships lining the harbour look to us today. While you can’t board the ship, viewing galleries have been built close at every level, and the museum displays bring the 17th century Stockholmers and the different aspects of shipboard existence vividly alive.

Of necessity it’s dark in the museum, and we emerge into the sunlight slightly dazed and wondering what to do next. We wander across to the Nordic Museum, also founded by Hazelius. Here he set out to collect the folklore of Sweden that was disappearing in the face of 19th and early 20th century industrialisation.

Swedish culture is often filtered and simplified through ‘Scandi’ design, literature and lifestyle here in the UK, and our experiences in Stockholm have shown us how little we really know of its true culture. We quickly discover, for example, that Scandinavia is not a term that Swedish people generally use, preferring to say Nordic lands when referring to Sweden, Norway and Denmark. Moreover, I’ve never been so delighted to part with my cash than I am in Stockholm. I was organised enough to buy my Kronor, in advance, feeling smug that I had remembered the country didn’t use the Euro… only to find that Sweden’s beautiful capital has been a pioneer of cashless transactions for years (indeed, Sweden is expected to become the world’s first cashless society by March 2023). Time and again we come up against ‘no cash’ and ‘cards only’. We survive.

We know we’ve been lucky with the weather, and we realise on our last morning that we could have spent the whole time exploring the Haga Park, its leafy lanes, its woodlands full of ancient oaks, its summer palaces and pavilions and historic castles. We have only peeked into the edge of it, and of Stockholm itself, and we are sad to leave.
Somehow we discovered that Swedes don’t cross their fingers; they hold their thumbs. So, holding our thumbs, we make a wish for the seductive Northern light to lure us back soon to these islands and their luminous waters.

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