The heat wave continues in Stockholm, making our many walks around the city enjoyable indeed for us sun seekers. It’s immediately evident that the population is greater than any city so far on our Scandinavian journey, tallying nearly a million. The lengthy pedestrian street is a shopping mecca thick with people. The Old Town’s labyrinthine streets open to another delight at every turn. As always, I zero in on the buskers; my intent is to pick out which I find most entertaining, and with so many it is no mean feat, but choose this lively group as the winner. When we hear shouts of “Hey, Hey!” we finally are not stopping abruptly to see who might be trying to get our attention, as it is just friends calling “Hej, Hej” to one another in Swedish, which is the informal greeting “Hi”.
Three gold crowns, the national symbol of Sweden, adorn the top of Stockholm City Hall. A tour is a must to see the Blue Room where every year on December 10th the Nobel Prize banquet takes place and the prestigious awards are presented for 5 of the 6 categories; namely Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Economic Sciences (the Nobel Prize for Peace is awarded in Oslo Norway on the same day). The posthumous benefactor Albert Nobel (1833-1896) was the inventor of dynamite, for which he was hailed for its importance in road and bridge construction, then condemned when its subsequent use was smokeless military explosives. Nobel, the Swedish born chemical engineer, wanting to be remembered in a positive way willed most of his fortune for prizes in the best interest for humanity.
The gathering of Nobel Prize recipients and guests move onto the Gyllene Salen (Golden Hall) to dance the night away. This magnificent hall boasts 18 million gold mosaics tiles. Matilda, our guide, tells us how this room was the focus of much controversy when completed. A major complaint was of the female figure on the back wall representing Sweden, which locals spouted, “she is not beautiful enough – her eyes, hands and feet are too big – her hair is like medusa”. The artist’s answer – the eyes indicated Sweden’s seeing all parts of the world, the feet were her solid foundation, her large hands for hard work, and her hair was like the waves on the waterways of Sweden’s all important ports.
Wedding bells? Outside another room Matilda says, “If this was Saturday between 2 and 6 o’clock there would be about 38 couples (with up to 10 guests in each wedding party) anxiously waiting to move in revolving-door-fashion into the small adjoining room draped in tapestries.” The couples to be wed can choose from two ceremony versions – short (30 to 40 seconds) or long (3 min, which is more expensive) – then quickly move along out the exit to begin their life of married bliss.
An Abba Museum jogs my memory of some of Sweden’s own. I remember well in the 80’s dancing to the popular songs that sold more than 380 million albums/singles. As well, more than 50 million have seen their musical “Mama Mia”, which Rick and I tapped our toes to on Broadway in New York (which is still playing on Broadway today).
And then there is Ingvar Kamprad (1926 – ) who founded his company at age 17. Choosing the first initials of his first and last name, plus the first initials of Elmtaryd (the farm where he was raised) in the village of Agunnaryd – and IKEA was born…the rest is history. Considered one of the richest men in the world, Kamprad (after years of living in Switzerland) announced in 2013 that he was moving back to a small town in Sweden.
Upon entering the museum I knew the Vasa sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage, and was rescued from its watery grave 333 years later… but nothing factual could have prepared me for the impact of seeing this great hulk before me, its masts towering, its old wood beckoning and eerily raising the hairs on the back of my neck, charging me with an overwhelming desire to know more.
Too huge to capture its essence from any one spot, Rick and I walk back and forth and up and down the four levels needed to fully view this 4-storey war ship. Her over 700 carved wood statues of imagery were fashioned to instill fear in the enemy – grinning demons, gothic warriors, horrid faces from Greek mythology, a leaping leopard – balanced with angels and mermaids (so enemies would know these entities also were on the side of Vasa to win the battle).
But she never got to show her might….the story goes…. when Gustav II Adolf from the Vasa Dynasty was throned in 1611, he inherited ongoing battles with infringing powers – Russia, Denmark and Poland. He envisioned the needed clout to ward off his enemies, and commissioned four ships to be built – Vasa being the first. And what a ship it was – it took two years to build, was equipped with 64 canons, each weighing 1.2 tons, as well as a good stock of hand-to-hand combat weapons.
It left the port of Stockholm with more than its full crew, as the wives and children of officers were given permission to go along for the first part of the passage through the archipelago. It made it 1300 metres before it listed and water spilled in through the canon openings on one side, and sank in Stockholm harbour within twenty minutes. The reasons slated – too narrow for its height, and not enough stone ballast in her belly.
Attempts in the 1600s to raise her failed, although most of her canons were retrieved. In 1956 Anders Franzén found her in 30m of water, and this engineer and wreck researcher led the way to the Vasa rising to the surface again in 1961. A treasure trove of wood pieces was also brought to the surface, as well as every manner of item needed for the crew while sailing, and sadly the bones of 15 people who did not survive the disaster.
Archeologists were called in to assist in fitting the wayward pieces back into place, like a giant puzzle; the cold brackish water and silt preserving an astounding 98% of the original wood in the vessel! Then, a 17-year-long process of spraying the wood with propylene glycol (used in lotions and lipstick) to replace the water in the wood as it dried out. In 1988 the Vasa took its last voyage into its newly constructed museum home, which opened its doors to the public in 1990.
It is beyond belief that the original rope and canvas sails could have survived, not intact enough to affix to the Vasa, but seen behind glass. Other sections of the museum provide a close encounter with the everyday lives of the crew – cooking pots, dishes, clothing and even backgammon games to alleviate boredom. It is rare that Rick does not hassle me for time spent in a museum, but in this case we both outdid ourselves….not wanting to leave. It is an odd realization that if the Vasa had sailed well, we would not be having this experience.
From the Vasa Museum we walk further to Skansen, a sizeable open-air museum that boasts over 150 traditional buildings and farmsteads spread over 75 acres. In the main community centre we are zapped back to the 1930’s. Guides wear costumes of the day. Ann, in the dry goods store, tips a wooden bin of coffee beans and describes what other items might have tempted customers of yesteryear. The hardware store is fully stocked with tools of the day; the store owners living quarters are handily in the back. Skansen has a zoo and aquarium, making it a good family place to spend a full day while visiting Stockholm.
Our taste of traditional Swedish fare at Drottninghofs in Stockholm
The first dish is said to be as Swedish as it gets, with the unpronounceable name “skrägårdstallrik” -which is a mixed cold plate with three types of pickled herring; plain, in mustard sauce, and in tomato sauce. A heap of shrimp, egg anchovy salad, smoked salmon on a crisp, and “vasterbotten” cheese (a special cheese from the country’s north) round off this yummy dish. And then there is our hot entrée, “Fishplanka” – Rainbow trout served on a wooden plank with aux gratin mashed potatoes, and hollandaise sauce.…and glasses of Falcon Export beer. Each mouthful was a taste sensation!
A super way to end our scintillating and never to be forgotten Stockholm visit!
Our next venture will be Finland, and after narrowing down ways to get there, a 19-hour ferry ride or a 1-hour flight, we opt for the latter.