Friday 8th August 2008, Stockholm, Sweden
Guess what? It was raining when we woke this morning. We revised our plans to take a boat trip on the lake, instead travelling down to the city on the underground. This time we crossed the centre to the charming residential suburb of Östermalm. It was quiet and peaceful with an open, tree-lined square and a flower market. Right nearby we found Stockholm's rather smart indoor market specialising in top quality fresh produce, much of it imported from abroad - cheeses, wines, spirits, olives, caviar, foie gras and Mediterranean sea food. There were quails eggs, fresh salmon, prawns and North Sea fish as well as a huge choice of fresh quality meat and vegetables. There were several restaurants in the purpose-built brick hall with its iron frame and elaborate wooden stalls. Tables were beautifully laid for a full lunch with wines - no stand-up snack bar here! There was an intriguing Lebanese stall selling various salads and couscous dishes. It all made us feel hungry so we bought a couple of hot Lebanese empanadas with spiced meat and spinach before continuing our exploration of the neighbourhood.
Eventually we arrived, across a park, at the impressive entrance to the Royal Library which is also the Swedish National Library. It was all very casual and we were free to wander the reading rooms and exhibition galleries with no more formality than handing in our bags. So relaxed was it that the electronic notice board in the entrance had nothing more major to report than the day's menu in the library restaurant!
We spent a really pleasant morning escaping the rain and browsing the catalogues and shelves of the library where so many familiar titles in the reference section gazed cheerfully back at us. It is a handsome building and well used. We particularly warmed to it when we discovered three copies of Ian's publication on the 18th century London book trades as well as several works by our Caen friend Alain Girard.
Amongst the national holdings are the manuscripts of Astrid Lindgren, the children's author, best known for her stories about Pippy Longstocking. Of course there are also the writings of August Strindberg and those of Selma Lagerlöf. She is held in particularly high esteem here and we browsed an exhibition of her publications, her life and her personal letters and manuscripts. She is well known for her children's books but we must confess to never having read them.
All this culture had made us hungry and the notice board was flashing enticing messages in Swedish at us. We discovered the restaurant for staff and readers in the basement where we were served chicken in a spicy dressing with cracked Bulgar wheat served with mixed salad that included water melon and oranges. Coffee was provided free and our bill was less than £9 for both of us.
Most public libraries in Stockholm are closed for the holidays at the moment so we've been unable to access the internet. The staff directed us to the main public library for the city which is open throughout August. It occupies an impressively large circular building in the Vasastaden district. According to a poster we saw displayed in IKEA a few days ago it has over 750,000 books. Here we did manage to access the internet but were restricted to thirty minutes which is nowhere near long enough for sorting out emails, bank accounts, answering queries about printing history and manholes, as well as setting up and transmitting a blog – particularly when on screen instructions are all in Swedish. So it was a bit frustrating but better than nothing.
It was still drizzling as we made our way towards the city centre and the main shopping area. Ian was convinced he'd read that there were "happenings" going on all day as it's the 08/08/08. Well if they were, we missed them all - even the opportunity to take part in the karaoke competition in the World's largest spherical building which we still haven't found! The only excitement we encountered was a huge overhead screen where the opening ceremony for the Olympics was being received live by satellite from Bejing. We watched the Georgian competitors parade past, unaware that their country was at that moment being invaded by the Russian military. We only discovered this ourselves when we visited the huge Kulturhuset which is rather like the Pompidou Centre in Paris. It acts as a venue for theatrical and social activities, art and photographic exhibitions and a museum for the medieval history of Stockholm. It provides cafes, restaurants, children's activities, a library, internet access, online newspapers and a CNN television monitor giving World news as it breaks. There were also printed newspapers from around the world, though disappointingly, only the Financial Times from the UK.
By now we were exhausted so took the train "home" where we cooked up a casserole of Swedish meat balls and finished off our box of wine.
Saturday 9th August 2008, Stockholm, Sweden
As today was our last full day in Sweden and the sun was finally shining again we determined to take the boat along Lake Mälaren to the Royal Palace on the island of Drottningholm. The boat leaves for the hour long journey from the centre of the city, but on its way it passes along the forested shores near to where we have been camping. So we walked down through the damp woods to the lakeside and the landing jetty. Here we found a notice asking us to raise the semaphore if we wanted to board the boat – simple but effective. While waiting we watched a couple of speed boats skimming up the lake looking like something from a James Bond film, their wake slapping against the bank and washing up over the landing jetty.
The boat ride took us past many green islands, most so small there was room for little more than a single birch tree, others with just enough space for a wooden summer house or two perched on the granite rocks, rounded, polished and smoothed by the action of ice.
Drottningholm Palace has been the home of the Swedish Royal Family since 1981 though all official engagements still take place in the main palace in Stockholm. It was commissioned by Queen Hedvig Eleonora in 1662 and the architect was Tessin the Elder, who together with his son designed many of the major royal buildings in Stockholm. In its grounds is the baroque theatre built in 1766 and still regularly staging ballet and opera performances during the summer. There is also a small palace built in 1753 by King Adolf Frederik as a present for his wife Lovisa Ulrika and decorated in the Chinese style. Taken together, in 1991 they became the first Swedish site to be on the Unesco World Heritage List.
Drottningholm Palace stands within formal gardens that sweep down to the lakeside where the boat docks. It has been compared to Versailles, a beautiful royal residence away from the bustle of the Capital. Delightful as it is though, it lacks the grandeur of the French palace. The rooms are quite small and the interiors are wood, painted to resemble marble. Trompe l'oeil painting has also been used to excellent effect on the main staircase to give the impression of carvings and bas-relief sculptures, and again within the rooms to create the impression of spaciousness by painting false doors on the walls! There are allegorical paintings, too complicated to understand, tracing the history of the 18th century Swedish rulers. Of particular note is the rococo library room, built by Queen Lovisa Ulrika in the mid 18th century. We have no photos, cameras being forbidden inside the buildings.
We did not see inside the theatre, available only as a guided tour. There was though, an intriguing museum attached explaining how 18th century theatres worked, how the scenery was moved and how special effects were achieved. There was a wave machine, a waterfall, a device for creating the sound of thunder, another for rain and a third for wind.
A walk through the gardens in the warm sunshine brought us the Chinese Pavilion. Externally it was symmetrically balanced with curving wings and was decorated with gold painted Chinese figures and dragons. Inside, the walls were lined with hand painted Chinese silk wallpapers, each room in a different colour, reflecting different moods. The furnishings obviously came from China, almost certainly produced for the enthusiastic European market at that time. There were huge Chinese vases, bamboo shelving, oriental style chairs lining the walls and cabinets of Chinese ceramic figures.
Also in the grounds is a building designed to look like a Turkish army tent. It was built in 1781 to house the dragoons of Gustav III. Something of a curiosity it is now used for a small exhibition on the history of the royal guards.
We walked back around the lake in the palace grounds, (a lake within a lake!) As we waited for the last ferry of the afternoon to whisk us back across to our isolated landing stage in the woods, the rain, which had left us in peace all day, began again. By the time we were dropped off at the jetty it was falling in earnest once more. We watched as the boat pulled away and gradually disappeared into the haze, continuing its journey to deliver the rest of the passengers back to the city centre. We turned and made our way up through the dripping forest, back to our campsite. Back in the warmth of Modestine we prepared supper, listening to the hammering of the rain on the roof, before settling to watch a DVD. It's surprising how civilised we can be sometimes.
Sunday 10th August 2008, Somewhere between Sweden and Finland
This evening we are on board the Galaxy, the overnight ferry sailing from Stockholm to Turku (Abo in Swedish). This ship is seriously BIG! Having already travelled on ferries across the English Channel, the North Sea, and the length of the Adriatic this year, we consider ourselves connoisseurs of passenger ships, but this trip on the Baltic is in a league of its own! We are on deck nine, while Modestine is tucked up with a Finnish horse for company on deck number four. The horse is in its transporter box, about the same size as Modestine, and it keeps neighing at her through the side window.
Despite opting for the cheapest cabin available, it is sheer luxury after the confines of Modestine, with a comfortable table for using the computers, an ensuite bathroom, a couple of large beds and even a television so we can watch the BBC World News. On the lower decks there are numerous bars and smart restaurants with waiter service offering very inviting menus, a casino, dance floor, disco and an entire shopping mall of duty free goodies. There is even a Russian restaurant which looks exciting if expensive but with the menu only in Russian, Finnish and Swedish we have no idea what it's actually serving! As we have spent all our Swedish kronor and haven't yet stocked up with euros for Finland we have no money to spend anyway so have dined in our cabin on our own food as we watched the TV.
We explored the entire ship earlier but we've met no other English travellers on board.
Up on the top deck we watched Stockholm slowly recede into the distance as the ship threaded its way through the network of islands stretching along the fjord and out into the sea, apparently half way to Finland. As the Finnish guidebook says its archipelago stretches half way to Sweden it doesn't look as if we will ever be far from land on this twelve hour journey.
Through the falling rain and the evening half-light we bid farewell to Sweden. It has been a pleasant, rather strange experience. Never have we been to a country where English is spoken so perfectly by absolutely everybody – and that includes the UK! Indeed, sometimes it's the only way to be sure people are not British – their pronunciation is so good it's not quite natural. We are lead to wonder whether the Scandinavian languages will survive many more generations as even amongst each other people frequently communicate in English or subconsciously drift back and forth between languages. Easy as it makes it for us, it takes away the challenge and actually acts as a barrier to discovering anything much about the real character of a nation. Strange that each of the Nordic countries is so proud of its cultural heritage and highly patriotic, waving the flag at every opportunity, yet seemingly without noticing, they are losing one of the main things that makes them unique, gradually abandoning their own language in favour of English.
Suddenly, on the Stockholm skyline, Ian finally discovered a huge white dome. At last he'd found the largest spherical building in the world! How could we have wandered the streets for days without seeing it! Gone for ever now was his chance to participate in Swedish karaoke and maybe end up representing the country in the next Eurovision Song Contest! It's high time someone rose to the challenge of ousting Abba as Sweden's top pop icons. How many years have they been going? Did you know there is actually an Abba museum in Stockholm with tickets sold out for months to come!
During the day we parked Modestine near the ferry terminal and walked into the city centre, exploring some of the capital's very agreeable suburbs on the way. Away from the tourist razzmatazz of Gamla Stan the city was quiet on a Sunday afternoon and we wandered some of the pleasant parks, open squares and streets of art nouveau flats with their decorated doorways and attractive façades. In the centre we took a last stroll around the main sites and along beside the water to the Nordic Museum. In the charming, if crowded, Stor Torget near the Royal Palace we stopped for coffee before using the last of our bargain block of underground tickets to cross the city back to collect Modestine and head for the port.
It's a pity really we had to wait until tonight for a place on the ferry. We really have exhausted most of what Stockholm had to offer the casual tourist. There are dozens more museums we could have visited but we were suffering culture fatigue and a shortage of kronor. Towards the end of the afternoon we were almost having to make the choice between a cup of coffee or a trip to the loo as we didn't have enough money for both and didn't want to draw out more at this late stage.