abstract: More than one city in Europe fancies itself being Venice of the North. About two decades ago, I was in Belgium’s Bruges, a famous contender. It was charming, but in the fog of November, not exactly Venice. Stockholm, under the magical Northern light of the sun in the summer of 2008, gave pleasure comparable to Venice. Perhaps even more, because the waters that surround the 14 islands which make up Stockholm were immaculately clean. There was also music in the air, and magnificent architecture to tell an intriguing history. You took ferries for public transportation. The rest of the time, you floated in the languor of the place.[photos]
The Approach from the Country
We drove toward Stockholm through Varmland. This wooded vacation region in the south of Sweden has long been a favorite of the country’s classical music composers. As our guide played a CD of their music, I read on the jacket what they aimed to evoke: “melancholy, magical summer nights with their unique flavour of Nordic music.” The melancholy was due to the acute knowledge that the summer season would be short and followed by the dark and cold winter. These composers are not well-known outside of Sweden, our guide said as she told us their names: Tor Aublin, Albert Lofgrens, Per Grundstrom. I noted that there was a common strain of marching band music in the sample of their works. The guide said, “Yes, we have had a lot of wars!”
Sweden’s last war was the 1814 military enforcement of its union with Norway. Less than a hundred years later the two countries signed an agreement to dissolve the union in Karlstad, the town we were now entering. To sustain a credible policy of neutrality, Sweden has since continued to produce military goods and weapons, and to require compulsory military training of all its men. It has used its forces, however, only to help in international peacekeeping efforts. The Swedish diplomat, Count Folke Bernadotte, was the United Nation’s first mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict. He lost his life in 1948 while performing that duty. I was reminded of that as we exited from the bus to have lunch in Karlstad: across the parking lot we saw a huge military surplus store, curiously with an old Israeli MIG in front of it.
“The Swedes, unlike their neighbors the Danes and Norwegians, take their lunch seriously; they are not content with a sandwich,” our guide said as she led us into a restaurant to have the traditional dish: kottbullar (Swedish meatballs), served with mashed potatoes and lingonberry sauce. The restaurant was at the edge of the Vänern, Sweden’s largest lake. On the terrace guests were enjoying the sun. Karlstad claims to be the sunniest town in the country. This is not just for its sunshine. A local waitress also takes credit. She is known in Sweden as "Sola i Karlstad" (Sun in Karlstad) for her sunny disposition. A statue of her stands in the proud town as an acknowledgment of her contributions. Affixed at the door that opened to the terrace of the restaurant I noticed a bar with several colored yardsticks. I asked our waitress what it was. She said “this is here so that when we have a robber, we would know how tall he is.” Karlstad’s concerns are modest; strict gun control measures have effectively restricted criminals’ lethal weapons to knives.
Swedes in the World
Swedish meatballs are among the best selling products of IKEA, our guide said, as we drove by the largest IKEA store in the world, some 25 Kilometers west of Stockholm. IKEA is, of course, famous for its other products, mostly easy to assemble low-cost furniture. As our guide expounded on the lure, IKEA’s founder, Ingi Karafa, began his career at the age of 8 by selling farmers individual matches from a box which he bought from stores. At 16 he began transporting furniture to those farmers. This led to purchasing a furniture warehouse. Soon he asked the carpenters not to assemble the furniture so as to make transporting them easier. Instead, he asked that assembling them be made so simple that the buyers could do it themselves. Karafa has been mindful of aesthetics. IKEA’s designers have virtually trademarked “Spartan” and “clean-lines” for Swedish furniture the world over. Karafa has become the richest man in Sweden. He still works, however, and he is famously frugal. Our guide said. “He uses public transportation. He has dedicated all his fortune to philanthropy.”
The name of another exceptionally wealthy Swede who left his fortune for good causes is far more well-known abroad. As our guide told his story, Alfred Nobel, who accidentally invented dynamite, was still living in Paris when a French newspaper prematurely announced that “the merchant of death has died.” This so shocked Nobel -who in fact had made more money out of his investment in the oil fields of Batum, Azerbaijan- that he decided to give his estate as an endowment for prizes in “practical fields of human endeavor.” Not trusting lawyers, Nobel wrote his own Will which not surprisingly contained ambiguities. While it is clear enough about the four areas of physical sciences, chemistry, medicine and peace, the Will’s intentions about one more prize, literature, “has been controversial.”
The Peace Prize is given in Oslo because Nobel thought that Norway (still in a Union with Sweden) was more peace-loving. The others are granted on the same day, December 10, at a dinner ceremony in the Blue Room of Stockholm’s Town Hall. I noticed that the color of the Blue Room was in fact not blue; the architect had changed his mind. The lectern for speeches by the laureates was there, covered by a cloth. Smaller in size but more worldly in appearance was the Gold Room of the Town Hall where dancing takes place on the evening that the Prizes are granted. This room is decorated with Byzantine style mosaics and murals depicting the Statue of Liberty, elephants from the East, and other symbols from distant lands.
Stockholm’s nod to the rest of the world was on display also on its streets. Going north on the main shopping street Drottninggatan, I noted that many of the shopkeepers were not blonde. There was a Middle Eastern Kebob café. Several souvenir stores were run by Indians. In one of them, an Indian man circled around anxiously watching out for shoplifters. On the window of several shops there was a picture of a person with cards spread in front of him on the ground. The caption was a warning: “Gambling is Illegal!” Presently, I saw such a con-man with a small crowd of recently arrived tourists from the East. They still had their luggage with them. Soon, the man was gone and one of the women tourists was screaming that he had cheated her.
At the end of the block young women and men with punk hairdos were idly lounging on the steps of a large concave open space. Near a restaurant, a woman in a red dress and high heels was sitting on a chair as she sang Fado. She had to stop when a young man playing an accordion and singing French songs strolled by. Going south, I saw a grey haired man playing an accordion, accompanied by a woman singer. I asked where they were from. “White Russians,” the woman said.
Sweden has increasingly grown out of its homogenous past. More than 20% of its population is now foreign-born or have at least one non-Swedish parent. Internationalization has touched the very symbols of Sweden. Painted wooden horses from Dalarna have long been a favorite souvenir from Sweden. They enjoy a measure of authenticity as originally they were hand carved and hand painted by the hungry children of farmers who offered them in exchange for food. In Stockholm’s main tourist office they had run out of the small size which I wanted. “We are sold out. We have put the order in but the workers have been on vacation and we will not get them for another 2 weeks,” I was told. Many stores carried replicas of the horses at a cheaper price. I was advised, however, that they were made in China.
The Shaping of a City
Stockholm began as a trading post in Birka, a town the Vikings established on an island in Lake Malaren. In the 13th century the German merchants of the Hanseatic League expanded it at its present site of the Old Town (Gama Stan). The Danes challenged the League and seized control of the place, but their tax policies caused the peasants and miners to revolt, our guide said. Christian II of Denmark invaded and crowned himself the king of Sweden in 1520. In the process he executed about one hundred prominent local citizens whom he had invited as his guests. The Stockholm blood bath took place at Stortorget Square in the Old Town, which is still considered the heart of the city. In a konditori (bakery café) on one corner of the Square, we sat for a sandwich (smorgas), contemplating Stortorget’s colorful history. Gustav Vasa, a noble man escaped from Christian’s clutch, and fled on skis with some followers. They soon came back and expelled the Danes with the help of peasants and miners. Gustav established the Swedish state and crowned himself as King Gustav I in 1523.
I could see the Palace of Sweden’s Kings (Kungliga Slottet) just beyond the Square. With 608 rooms it is the largest royal palace in the world. The incumbent, however, is not Gustav’s descendant. The power of that dynasty was later curtailed by the parliament and its last king was assassinated by the nobility in 1792. The Parliament Building was just one block away, as was the Knights’ House where the Swedish noble families used to meet.
The German influence was prominent in the elegant 17th and 18th century buildings that lined Stortorget. The German Church was nearby. The building dominating the square, however, was the Stock Exchange. Commercial transactions take place on the ground floor. The Swedish Royal Academy that selects the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature meets on the second floor, completing this remarkably compact arrangement of the nerve centers of Stockholm.
There was, however, more than enough space for tourists here. The Old Town is a favorite not only of the cruise ship travelers but such luminaries as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose picture was on display at the window of a small shop with his arms around the owners’ shoulders.
In fact, the Swedes themselves were to be found more on the other islands of Stockholm. The King only accommodates his guests in Kungliga Slottet; his own residence is elsewhere, in Drottningholm Palace. From the late 19th century, the richest families of Stockholm began to build mansions in Strandvagen Street on the East Island. For the common folks, the favorite place to gather is a garden (Kungstradgarden) on the North Island which is affectionately dubbed Stockholm’s living room.
On the other corner of this same island we saw the more physically active residents jogging. “Many of these are members of the ‘fresh and sweaty’ clubs which are promoted as the best way to make people fit,” our guide said. On this warm day, there were also some swimmers in Lake Malaren.. At one time, this lake was so polluted and marshy that the word Malaria is said to have come from it, we were told. Now it looked pristine. We saw sunbathers on the cliff of another island, Langholmen, pretty with its leafy willow trees and coves.
I took the ferry to the old royal hunting grounds (Djurgarden) which houses both the Vasa Museum and the Grona Lund Funfair, a venue for open-air concerts. The ferry attendant was in a good mood. He declined to take my payment for the fair. “This is a fine sunny day,” he beamed as the explanation. The Vasa was the largest ship ever built in Sweden, meant to show the power of King Gustav Vasa in the Baltic. Unfortunately it sank about 30 minutes after it was launched in 1620, on a day, reportedly, as fine as today which made all citizens of Stockholm come and celebrate the occasion. The Vasa was discovered and retrieved 333 years later and showcased again in the museum. This has redeemed its original purpose in a sense, since the Vasa is now one of the most popular tourist attractions in Stockholm.
I followed the sound to the concert grounds in Djurgarden. The sole vendor selling lamb hotdogs with garlic sauce and lukewarm Gold Bohemian beer from the Czech Republic was doing a brisk business. I sat with the crowd on the grassy slope of a gentle mound with our backs to the stage as the front slope had already been taken full. Two women near me were eating chips from a bag that was labeled “Exotic Junk.” Another woman was absorbed in a book she was reading. The music sounded familiarly melancholic. I walked over and saw a vocalist and a guitar player enjoy the rapt attention of those who could see them.
This was a free concert. The followers of ABBA might have preferred the livelier annual Stockholm Jazz Festival. There was a long line for tickets at 500 Kroners ($80) at one venue on the island of Skeppsholm. I headed for a more established venue, Mosebacke Etablissement. As the posters indicated “Robyn” had played there in June; and the head liners for August were a group called the “True Dollar Plus Moon Suck.”
Of Elements and Legends
Mosebacke is located on Sodermalm which is Stockholm’s largest island, but which retains the ambiance of a small town. The ferry that I took to Sodermalm plowed through blue waters which sparkled under the sun, presenting the best view yet of the city’s waterfront buildings. When clouds suddenly appeared, the scenery changed dramatically; the clouds became my focus. They were various hues of grey. They moved swiftly but did not fill the sky. They shaded some coasts, leaving others exposed. This was the closest I came to seeing Stockholm’s Northern light that has delighted generations of painters.
Disembarking at the Slussen dock in the Old Town which was congested with lunch hour local pedestrians, I pushed my way to the old elevator Katarinahissen. It took me to the Heights of Sodermalm. Here at the Mosebacketorg Square two art students were making drawings of the sculptures. Walking through the restaurant on the corner, I went to the Mosebacke terrace where I saw ships that were sailing toward Helsinki and an old yacht which was now used as a hostel anchored on the shore below facing me. The restaurant was serving dagens ratt, a fixed price lunch. I took mine from the cook at the counter and joined the guests on the terrace.
The clouds from the south now grew dark. It started to drizzle. Some of us braved the light rain as the umbrellas protected us. The increasingly darkened terrace was now a romantic tableau, more like Paris in the fall. I would have stayed longer if it were not for the fact that I was now soaked by the downpour. On the way inside I saw the cook grinning at the changed vista. I nodded to him. “Stockholm’s summer,” he shook his head.
Inside, the walls of Mosebacke Etablissement were covered with pictures of contemporary actors who had performed in many plays here. Ingmar Bergman’s turf was across the lake in the National Theater. The posters there showed a chuckling face performing the leading role in the current production of Hamlet -true to the form of Bergman himself the tragedy was presented more as a psychological conundrum. Greta Garbo, however, was a child of Sodermalm. A small square is named after her, hidden just a few blocks away. In between was the Hacklefjall district, with neat 19th century houses and lampposts and a beautiful yellow 17th century Katarina church with its baroque dome. A local resident was eager to tell me that this area was both the last Station of Cross of the religious processions in the Middle Ages, and where centuries later it was thought that witches met. Alleged witches were tried around this church in the 1670s and imprisoned in what is now the Museum of the City of Stockholm down below on the island.
A more recent Stockholm legend was that of Desire, the sister of Josephine, Napoleon’s wife. As our guide said, she was the great man’s first love but ended up marrying instead Napoleon’s general, Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. The General was asked by the Swedes in 1814 to take over the throne when their dying king left no heir. He accepted and it is his dynasty that has reigned since. Bernadotte changed his name to Karl Johan, but he never learned Swedish. The language of his court was French. Desire did not even like to live in Sweden, considering it far too provincial compared to Paris, our guide explained. “When she was finally persuaded to come to her husband’s adopted realm, she developed a life style that consisted of sleeping all day and riding around in Stockholm’s snowy streets at night, lit at her order by thousands of candles.”
We could not match that. We had heard, however, of Stockholm’s Ice Bars which replicated the scenes found at the Ice Hotels of northern Sweden, greatly popular with a population that apparently could not live too long without ice and snow. We waited a long time to get into the Ice Bar which was in the lobby of a hotel. Only a group of about 20 were allowed in at a time for a period of half an hour. We were given “Sami ski suits” to wear, which were heavy parkas with fur lining and hoods and gloves. The walls of the small bar room were made of ice, as were the tables and the drinking glasses. Absolut Vodka mixed with a variety of juices was served at some $30 a glass. The lingonberry juice was our choice. I asked what was the most popular with the Swedish customers. The bartender said Vodka with tropical pineapple juice.[photos]
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