Stockholm is unique among all the capitals of the world. Beauty is obviously a subjective thing, but a city built on islands close to 1000 years ago and then growing to the north and south but still having for many centuries as much water as land surface, must be considered pretty much exceptional. On a sunny day Stockholm is a jewel of water and glowing façades, the sun gleaming on the beautiful old buildings and the ripples on the water.
The street called Strandvägen is one of my favorite strolling places in Stockholm. On one side you see the most patrician old apartment buildings in all of Sweden and on the other side is the water with the mooring bollards for fishing boats and now also an ever increasing number of tourist boats.
In between is the heavily tree-lined walking alley. This street takes you down to a bridge, Djurgårdsbron, leading to Djurgården, an island that has its very own history and beauty. And it also has many unforgettable places to wander around in.
I lived in or close to this beautiful city for four years around 1960, but I have rarely appreciated the city as much as with John. Who was the guide, he or I?
During the summer of 1971, the first timeJohn and I visited Sweden, we of course visited Stockholm, and John also got to know this beautiful city and even more friends. Stockholm sits on several islands on Lake Mälaren. Gamla stan, the Old Town, with the Royal Palace, is the main one of all these islands but there are several other islands that are part of the city. Of course the major parts of the city have long been on the mainland north and south of the lake.
There are some places in our capital that are exceptional and I remember Mother showing my sister Gun and me around Stockholm when we were still in high school. Gun was confirmed in 1946 (Don’t ask me why – we did those things because our friends did, I think.) by an old childhood friend of Mother’s who was now a vicar in a town called Eskilstuna close to Stockholm. Gun spent the summer with his family and I and Mother picked mushrooms off the asphalt sidewalks in Malmö. At the end of the summer we all went to Eskilstuna to see Gun get confirmed and afterwards we continued up to Stockholm to make our first acquaintance with our capital.
It’s amazing to realize how enterprising and healthy Mother was at that time. There was of course no metro in those days, but Mother took us around by streetcar and bus. And we walked a lot of course, the way you still have to do if you want to really get to know a big city, be it London, Berlin, Prague or Istanbul.
Arne wasn’t even with us but Mother showed us around all the most see-worthy places in Stockholm. There was the City Hall with ‘den gyllene salen‘, the Golden Hall with its fabulous mosaics, It was so huge I felt awed as I was looking up into the far-away ceiling.
There was the Old Town (Gamla Stan) and Storkyrkan, the Stockholm Cathedral, with the famous statue of Saint George and the Dragon, in wood and from the 15th century. Storkyrkan dates from the 13th century and, according to tradition, was originally built by Birger Jarl, the Jarl (earl) of Sweden in the 13th century and the founder of the city itself.standing at the foot of this impressive statue with Mother and looking up in awe. We were learning about history first-hand. 1
We went on a tour of the huge rooms inside the Royal Palace which is right next to Storkyrkan and we marveled at the splendid interiors. We watched the change of the Guard (Vaktparaden) at Slottsgården behind the main buildings.
We were standing facing the Royal Palace, Mother, Gun and I, by the bridgehead of Norrbro (the northern bridge). Gustav Adolf’s Torg, the big plaza, was behind us. Norrbro is the bridge that connects the Old Town, Gamla Stan with Norrmalm, the northern mainland. I was looking down at the strange-looking huge nets attached to several fishing boats moored on the side of the bridge. All fascinated, I looked into the eternally swirling eddies of the water at this place, which is called Strömmen, or more exactly Norrström, the North Stream. It seemed as if witches were stirring the water with enormous ladles, as in a witch’s brew.
The eddies, the Royal Palace and Gustav II Adolf on his horse in the center of the plaza have not changed, and on the little island, Strömparterren, partly under the bridge, there was already in those days a statue that adds to the beauty of this little island. The world famous sculptor Carl Milles created this graceful bronze statue, Solsångaren, the Sun Singer, which has replicas in several places of the world.
From here you can look far out over Strömmen to Blasieholmskajen, the water front off Grand Hotel, the National Gallery. Skeppsholmen (the ships’ island) can vaguely be seen on the right.
There was Kungsgatan and Stureplan (amazing how all is changed today!), NK (Nordiska Kompaniet), the big department store on Hamngatan, the central commercial areas of Stockholm with an endless number of luxury stores all around Norrmalmstorg. That plaza is where you changed streetcars very often and it was very close to the Royal Dramatic Theater, usually called Dramaten, and Nybroviken, the water where all sorts of boats are moored in a bay of Lake Mälaren and that is the beginning of my beloved Strandvägen. All these plazas and streets together were the ‘downtown’ of Stockholm in my days. It has now more or less been replaced by Sergels Torg which is right over the central metro station, T-Centralen (T for tunnelbana).
And of course there was Djurgården with the amusement park, Gröna Lund and, most of all, Skansen, the fabulous open-air museum that is a must to see if you are in Stockholm. Gun and I enjoyed both immensely. I now know that Djurgården is also still covered by woods where you can take long peaceful walks without any interference from the noise of modern electronic bang-bang and polluting vehicles.
There was Slussen (the lock) where we traveled up in the elevator, Katarinahissen, that joins Gamla stan, the Old town, and Södermalm (the South) that has since then become so much in vogue, especially for artists and bohemains.
Katarinahissen is the elevator in which Paul Newman in a thriller, The Prize, rides up to the upper level and very nearly gets killed. He is an author who has come to Stockholm to receive the Nobel prize but he is thrown off the top level of the very high building by his pursuers and is only miraculously saved by falling into the water.
The elevator takes you off the level of the water up to the part of the city where Söder really begins. The view from the top of the elevator with the restaurant, Gondolen, is breathtaking – water, more water, and yet more water, and a myriad of islands, ferries that take you to Åland 2, islands in the Baltic that are part of Finland, and innumerable sail boats.
Skansen is the open-air cultural museum on Djurgården (= Animals Garden), so called because it became a royal hunting ground after Gustav Vasa confiscated the island from the Catholic church. Gustav Vasa objected to the Pope having any power whatsoever over Sweden and introduced Protestantism into the country. He certainly also wanted access to the wealth of the Catholic church, and he got it. Djurgården was opened to the public in the 18th century.
This wonderful huge area on Djurgården is the oldest open-air museum in the world and it also has a zoo, which Mother, the supreme animal lover, delighted in showing us. Skansen is a historic Sweden in miniature, where you can learn about arts and crafts and about how people lived and worked in past centuries in our country.
Mother was a miracle of youth, energy and charm when she showed us around all these wonderful sites during our few days in Stockholm. We got a wonderful first introduction to this big city with its most outstanding monuments, the fabulous beauty of the city on Lake Mälaren with its hundreds of islands
In 1971 John and I, on our very first visit to Sweden together, went to the wonderful Millesgården on Lidingön, another Stockholm island – a gorgeous outdoor museum that is devoted exclusively to the famous sculptor, Carl Milles (1875-1955).
We did not see this museum with Mother since it was not at that time the outstanding attraction that it has since become. Ever since its opening to the public in 1936 it has kept changing and growing. Today you will find most of Milles’ most important sculptures in this park, and replicas all over the world, The Metropolitan Museum in New York City among other places has, for instance, the Fountain of the Muses and you can admire it while you have lunch in the beautiful restaurant.
However, for the past few decades the main source of attraction for tourists has been the Vasa ship and its museum on Djurgården. John and I saw it when it was still being watered day and night, and the hall where it was while undergoing restoration work was all steamy and clammy. It’s the only ship in the world that still remains today from the 17th century.
It was then called Vasavarvet, the Vasa shipyard, and shortly afterwards the museum was built around it so it would become a place where people from all over the corld come to see this marvel. The museum opened in 1990, and people can now see from three levels this gorgeous piece of amazing history, the Vasa ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 after sailing less than a nautical mile. We finally got to see this fabulous museum in May 2016, on our latest visit to Stockholm, when our nephew
Måns came up from Linköping and spent a wonderful sunny Sunday with us. In fact he invited us to everything.
It also so happened that it was ‘Spårvägens dag‘, the Day of the Streetcar, and both Måns and I just love old streetcars. We were sitting in Norrmalmstorg (the Plaza of the northern mainland – Stockholm is not all built on islands), the very center of Stockholm where I have changed streetcars innumerable times. I got a good laugh when we saw a streetcar from the years I used to live in or close to Stockholm, in the early sixties. I realized that this streetcar was now history, but there were of course older ones yet.
It seems like an engineering and archeological miracle having managed first to lift the 300-year-old wreck from the bottom of the sea and then to restore this product of the megalomania of King Gustav II Adolf, the grandson of Gustav Vasa. He was all set on making Sweden into a great power, a goal which he realized through the 30 years’ war. He insisted on using the new ship Vasa in the naval war against Poland. He was told by his counselors that it was not seaworthy, but he steadfastly insisted on taking it to the war arena. The rest is well-known history by now. Gustav II Adolf himself was killed in the bloody battle of Lützen in 1632 3
The great power did not last long though. Sweden actually once took over important parts of northern Germany and Poland along the coast of the Baltic. However, Karl XII who, like Napoleon, tried to invade and conquer Russia under Peter the Great but overdid everything he tried to accomplish. The poor Swedish soldiers, all from the lowest peasant families, suffered and died in masses. Of course he lost that war. But that wasn’t enough for Karl. He opened a new front on Denmark-Norway (at that time one country) and in 1718 he was killed by a very much debated bullet in Halden outside Oslo. The big question was which side the bullet came from. And was it actually a button from a uniform, as has been theorized? It has, however, pretty well been established that the bullet came from the Swedish side, so it was a form of mutiny. The Swedish Empire crumbled. 4
I can never get enough of Stockholm. I love it. But, as I said when talking about Copenhagen, there is one important thing missing in Stockholm. There is none of the wonderful Gemüt in our capital that Copenhagen is so well-known and well loved for.
Continued: Chapter 15 — Paris is worth a mass
- Contrary to what one reads about ‘the first king’ of Sweden, Birger Jarl and other following statesmen were not kings. The first Swedish king was Gustav Vasa who declared himself king and was crowned in 1523, two years after becoming the earl of Sweden. (riksföreståndare) ↩
- Long gone are the days when Finland was a Grand Duchy under Sweden (till 1809), ruled by a Swedish duke, and after that was part of Russia until it declared independence in 1917. ↩
- When I was in high school, every 6 November, the day of Gustav Adolf’s death, was celebrated in an assembly with the school chorus singing the hymn to Gustav Adolf, the Swedish warrior hero “Heroes that pray, fight and bleed … their strength as always coming from God”, etc. I hope such patriotic nonsense was given up long ago. Fake hero worship is among the worst propaganda means that can undermine the lucidity of a people. ↩
- Charles XII ascended the throne at the age of 15 in 1697. The several states surrounding the Baltic allied to keep this sea, extremely important for trade, from becoming totally dominated by Sweden. Charles, after having beaten the Danes and several states in the east of Germany and Poland, realized that the Russians were now the one enemy left to defeat. And so began the disastrous Russian war 1707 – 1709. ↩