So what springs to mind when Stockholm is mentioned? Abba? Socialist utopia? Large tax bills? Neutrality? Nobel Prizes? Herring? I suppose all of these.
The first impression however is of water. It is everywhere. And how visual the city is. Lots of quirky views, a mixture of buildings and styles. What Stockholm has managed well is to redevelop itself gradually, keeping a lot of the old and interspersing it with bits of new. Sure, you’ll never please everyone but it opens to a visitor without an excess of anything. Of course if you don’t get bombed you don’t have to rebuild in a generation. So far as ensuring a nicely balanced set of municipal architecture is concerned, remaining neutral during a major world war has a lot to recommend it.
In summer 2009, we stayed in the heart of the old city on Gamla Stan – an island that houses the Royal Palace – in a quirky hotel carved out of an old warehouse. The First Hotel promised a view of the water from every room, only in our case that was via one of those mirrors you use at the end of your drive to see round a blind corner. I didn’t take to it, in all honesty. Which perhaps explains this rather bitter commentary in my journal on the behaviour of another guest:
There’s something universal about certain actions. Namely, you do not steal another man’s toast. You’re in a hotel, at the buffet and the toaster pops up. Do you (a) assume another guest planted said toast and will return; or (b) the hotel mysteriously knew you were coming and set the toast to cook, just in time for your arrival? So when my toast has been half-inched (I know who you are you Scandinavian Medusa) I am rightly pissed off.
As you’ll see this sort of incident rather coloured my view of Stockholm.
It is easy to walk Stockholm though we orientated, as the guide book recommends, via a boat trip. I’ve done this in cities the world over: Paris, Berlin, even New York, you name it and, increasingly, I find them boring. I tend to sleep. Which I did here so I don’t really know if this one was any good. All part of my antipathy to being on water I suppose.
We did end up at the Town Hall, which I described thus:
– a huge, turn of the 20th Century red brick edifice – a cross between a Gilbert George Scott Power Station and a Venetian Palace which was more impressive inside.
We were most taken with the Gold Room – where the Nobel Prizes were formerly dolled out – utterly O.T.T. And a mosaic frieze that was done in 10 months, the rush leading to a few errors, as I recorded here:
Mind you, the artist made some mistakes – a rider loses his head in the ceiling. Possibly St Eric, patron saint of Stockholm – not a recognised saint, but revered by the Swedes. Recent research suggests he was killed in a drunken brawl – the first binge saint perhaps.
We had to visit The Nobel Museum, a homage to conscience. Alfred Nobel invents dynamite, realises he’s done more for safe-breaking and general mayhem than any man before or, until the A bomb, since and leaves his money for a load of prizes esp the Peace Prize. Now the Peace Prize is fascinating, reflecting the studious care with which the Swedish panel asserts its world view. It is, necessarily, highly political and is a very good test of one’s prejudices – if you think the prize worthily given, chances are you think the recipient is potentially a freedom fighter; if not then they are a terrorist. But it has done good and for that it is to be applauded. I could have spent a lot longer here.
We stopped for an unpronounceable Swedish cake – I thought it smelt of Chanel perfume, the guide book said cardamom. It tasted rank. But then Eccles cakes probably represent something repellent if you don’t know them.
I liked the Cathedral though in a rather half hearted way apparently
The Cathedral is, externally, unimpressive and inside its plaster walls having been removed reveal original preserved brickwork – it looks recent not 350 years old. It’s plain, in a Lutheran way, with some fabulous adornments. George and the Dragon feature highly – the dragon being Denmark – also a neat little painting of a freak light effect in the April Sky on 1530 being much more accessible than the enormous ‘Last Judgement’ opposite.
The best though we saved for our first full day – the Vasa Exhibition. This extraordinary piece of nautical ego set sail as the Leader of the Fleet in the 1630s and sank within a mile of its maiden voyage – something about not taking account of the weight of cannon when designing the lower port holes so in rushed the water. This fine vessel was lost in 30 metres of water, presumed rotted away but in the 1950s, with diving techniques much improved the sea bed was checked and some of it was found just beneath the surface. A major operation was undertaken to expose what was left and, amazingly a huge amount was revealed. It took 7 years and the Swedes had to invent many new techniques, but they brought it to the surface.
That though was where the real difficulties started because, freed of its preservative silt and water it began to fall apart. Since the early sixties a waxy water had been run over the remains and gradually it has stabilised and is increasingly on display. What an amazing labour of love. Stockholm is worth a visit just for that.
We took in some other sites (and here’s what I wrote)
Skansen: An open air museum with buildings from all over Sweden …. housing areas where brown bears, wolves and elks live and breed. There are European bison breeding as well – they look well. The lynx, however, pace to and fro in that familiar, if tragic, damaged way animals have when upset by captivity.
Norsike Musseet: …houses a range of displays across interior design, folk art, the Sami people, tableware and how Swedes celebrates various festivals. A liquorish all-sorts
Modern Art Museum: A shame this, with a random mix of works with little if any coherence and an audio guide utterly convinced of everything’s sexual context. His explanation of one surrealist work – two high heeled shoes trussed together like a chicken being roasted – was extraordinary as well as gynaecologically impossible and, after a time dull.
Stockholm has many beautiful places to sit, drink coffee and think or people watch or read. You aren’t hassled or hurried and you can be at your ease. You can eat well too if expensively.
The Oestermarket is now a rather posh Harrods food hall of a place but for both a glutton and a gourmand (such as me) heaven. But for all that, I wasn’t really in love with the place.
We caught the ferry, overnight, to Helsinki. I should have expected to feel rather flat, facing a trip on water. That’s why I described the terminal as
… a tacky, sticky place which doesn’t aim to compete with the airport – the pound shop mentality at work…. Too much neon, too many own brand, no deli pretensions. Heavens I am a snob [ha, some self awareness].
There’s a lot to like in Stockholm. But for me Copenhagen and Helsinki outscored it on so may levels. This rather moribund feeling is reflected in this poem, written n the ferry
Stockholm wears its neutrality
Like a heavy top coat.
Many kings tried
To join in, and
Be a part of mad manic Europe.
Across several centuries.
They made Vikings heroes
So they’d have someone.
It just knows,
And it can’t be bothered.
It’s settled for the life of a watcher,
A looker on;
While the rest of us
Smash each other to bits;
They smile on us
Bless, you have to let them go, don’t you?
And when we try and patch things up;
They present us
With peace prizes and their socialist altruism
To admire, envy even,
Knowing it’s as unavailable
As all those adult pastimes.
There’s this calm acceptance; a rising above.
I bet it’s cold on their moral high ground,
Looking down the map at the rest of Europe.