Stockholm part 1

Tuesday 5th August 2008, Stockholm, Sweden
As the motorway reached Stockholm last night Ian guided us off and through the centre in the rush hour and teeming rain to a campsite listed in his book, right near the ferry terminal for Finland. Typically the site had completely disappeared having closed earlier this summer! As it seemed to be the only campsite within the capital, there was no option but to drive back through the drenched city, with every vehicle spewing up clouds of water, out along the motorway for twelve kilometres before eventually finding this site at Bredängs. It claimed to be full but once again Modestine's diminutive stature swayed the balance and we are now tucked into a wet corner on a soaking campsite, as far from the facilities as it's possible to be. But at least we have electricity and with weather like this we are so grateful we have Modestine rather than a tent, like others on this site.

It poured continuously all night along with very strong winds blowing directly against our back door, Modestine's Achilles heel. This morning the well inside the door was exactly that, being several inches deep in water. Poor Ian got soaked just opening the door to throw the sodden mats outside and start baling! As it would be impossible to do anything in such weather we lounged in bed and read until driven out to face the storms by the torments of the bladder. All morning it has rained continuously and we became so cold and damp we were reduced to using our fan heater to warm up! Can it really be just a week since I jumped in the lake in Oslo to cool off? It's not been a particularly good introduction to the city, particularly as the site is expensive, not where we want to be and we have no idea yet how we can get into Stockholm by public transport if the weather does eventually improve. As we have said before, there are downs as well as ups with this kind of travel. It's still better than the heat however. This is just unpleasant, the heat makes us feel quite ill at times.

Wednesday 6th August 2008, Stockholm, Sweden
The storm finally wore itself out overnight. It's the longest we've ever been confined to Modestine as, except for a few dashes through the rain to the loo, we spent a good thirty nine hours inside waiting for the rain to ease! Actually it was very relaxing enabling us to read up about Stockholm, catch up with photos and watch a couple of DVDs. According to headlines in the Swedish newspapers this morning three people were killed during the storm, so it must have been pretty bad.

This morning we discovered we are only a few minutes walk from the T-Bahn (suburban underground train). Twenty minutes later we found ourselves walking out from Stockholm's central station, right into the heart of the city.

Stockholm is built on an archipelago of some 24,000 islands, rocks and reefs with the Royal Palace, Parliament, the main churches and old mediaeval houses concentrated on and around the island of Staden in the district known as Gamla Stan. Water can be seen from most points as Stockholm lies on a deep water fjord, allowing international ships to come right into the heart of the city.

Royal Palace, Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Royal Palace from across Norrström, Stockholm

Parliament Buildings, Gamla Stan,Stockholm

Today we have simply walked the streets, crossed the bridges, explored some of the islands and tried to generally get the feel of it all. First impressions are favourable. It is clean, spacious, colourful with many beautiful and impressive buildings set amidst parks or open green areas and with panoramas along the waterfronts that Canaletto would have loved to paint.

Bridge to Gamla Stan,Stockholm

Smelt fishing below the Parliament Buildings, Stockholm

After the grand open spaces around the Parliament building and the Royal Palace, the streets of Gamla Stan are dark narrow canyons lined with 17th and 18th century buildings, often with elaborate doorways surmounted with coats of arms.

Narrow street in Gamla Stan,Stockholm

The main open space on the island is Stor Torget, crowded with tourists and lined with colourful facades. The main building is the Swedish Academy which awards most of the Nobel Prizes and there is a Nobel Museum in the building. We sank thankfully onto one of the many seats in the square to consume egg rolls with caviar bought at a very reasonable price from a bakery on the square.

Swedish Academy, Stor Torget, Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Stor Torget, Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Passing the Storkyrkan or Great Church just to the north of the square, we found ourselves in Slottsbacken, the large open space in front of the Royal Palace, which is the work of the royal architect Tessin the Younger, a handsome Renaissance building dating from the mid-eighteenth century. There seemed to be an unusual number of people in the square and we discovered that by chance we had found ourselves at the Palace in time for the changing of the guard, so we joined the crowds to watch them as they paraded through the streets on horseback, looking highly impressive in their bright blue uniforms, spiked helmets and raised ceremonial swords. They really did the whole thing very well, managing to control their steeds with one hand while playing their instruments with the other and going through complex routines.

Changing the guard, Stockholm

Changing the guard, Stockholm

We eventually left with the guard still unchanged and crossed to the little island of Riddarholmen, passing the fine Renaissance building of the Riddarshuset, or House of the Nobles, whose interior is adorned with some 2,500 of their coats of arms.

Ridderhuset, Gamla Stan, Stockholm

Riddersholm Church, Stockholm

Then back across a series of bridges to the mainland where we passed in front of the Opera House, on the site of the earlier opera where Gustav III was assassinated in 1792, an event commemorated by Verdi's Un ballo in maschera.

Opera House, Stockholm

Beyond the Opera we passed in front of the National Museum to cross the bridge to the island of Skeppsholmen where there were several art museums which, according to our guide, had free admittance. Once again the guidebook disappointed us. All museums now charged for admission, admittedly not huge sums, but taken in combination making quite a dent in the purse. So we contented ourselves with viewing some of the contemporary sculptures scattered about the lawns and made our way to the diminutive Kastellholmen, topped by a little nineteenth century red brick fortress. There we rested on the rocks, listening to the screams from across the water, wondering at the people who choose to have their stomachs churned on the rides in the Tivoli funfair on the opposite shore.

Tivoli funfair from Kastellholmen, Stockholm

We made our way back across Skeppsholmen, once occupied by the Navy, and with an interesting collection of old buildings, including the bright red gothic Admiralty, and also a sailing ship moored alongside which is now used as a youth hostel.

Admiralty Building, Skeepsholmen, Stockholm

Back on the mainland we wandered ever more wearily through the commercial area of Norrmalm. We noticed the 19th-century synagogue and discovered a holocaust memorial to one side of it with a list of some 8,000 names, many of them from Hungary. We recalled the name of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest who used his position to spirit many thousands of Jews away, many of them to Sweden. After the war he was arrested by the Russians as a spy and died somewhere in the Gulags. The city of Budapest presented Stockholm with cobblestones from the Jewish ghetto there, which are now laid as a path leading to the memorial.

Synagogue, Stockholm

Holocaust Memorial, Stockholm

Cobblestones presented to the holocaust memorial by Budapest, Stockholm

Memorial to Raoul Wallenburg, Stockholm

The commercial area was very crowded, but there were several open spaces, including Hörtorget, which had a colourful fruit market in front of the modern Concert Hall, one of the places where the Nobel Prizes are awarded. Eventually we found our way back to the Central Station and so to home to Bredängs.

Fruit market in front of Concert Hall, Hörtorget, Stockholm

During the evening we strolled down to the nearby lake where people were fishing in the soft evening light at the little landing stage. It is possible to take a boat from here during the day to Drottningholm, a Unesco World Heritage site. To do so it is necessary to hail the ship as it passes by raising a large semaphore arm. The lake was very calm and peaceful in the dusk and on our way back to the campsite we saw a family of deer in the woodland.

Thursday 7th August 2008, Stockholm, Sweden
The rain was back this morning though nothing like as bad as the other day. We took the underground into the centre, exiting at Slussen into a dismal drizzle. Slussen, we discovered, is a sluice, cutting off the brackish waters surrounding Stockholm's many islands from the salt water fjord beyond which links to the open sea.

The area, even in the rain before any of the shops have opened for the day, is very attractive, the cobbled roads lined by 17th century stone rendered buildings while up behind, one of the rare hills within the city leads to the pretty streets surrounding the massive, 18th century Katerina Church set in its wide green cemetery. Here lies buried Anna Lindh. Her death shocked the nation when, as Foreign Minister, she was stabbed while shopping in the city's famous NK department store in 2003, just days before Sweden voted whether to join the European Union, for which she had been lobbying.

Katerina Church, Stockholm

From here we made our way along a suspended walkway high above the streets to find ourselves at the top of the Katerina lift, originally constructed during the 19th century, when it was steam driven, to facilitate access for local residents to the rest of the city. The inconvenience of their hilltop location was more than compensated for by the magnificent views out over the city, the islands and deep waters of the fjord with its innumerable ships, fishing vessels and tourist boats.

Slussen and Gamla Stan from the Katerina Lift, Stockholm

By the time we finally returned down to Slussen the Stockholm Town Museum had opened for the day. This is an excellent free museum about all aspects of the city from its architecture to its social conditions, customs, commerce and morals. It is housed in the old town hall for the southern part of Stockholm, built by Tessin in 1685. We are very fortunate as the signing in museums is invariably in both Swedish and English, the latter being used as the lingua franca for all other nationalities. That said though, despite the quality of the exhibits, the layout was not always very clear. But hey, it had to be the best value place in Stockholm as, despite what our misleading guidebook says, all other museums charge around £5 each to visit. So what we saved on the entrance price we spent in the delightful restaurant at lunchtime when we stopped for a sandwich and coffee. Before leaving we visited the museum documentation centre and library where we discovered by chance a publication about Stockholm panoramas. The archivist was most helpful providing us with additional information that may be of interest to Ralph who recently sent us on a panorama foray around Innsbruck.

Outside it was still raining as we slowly made our way back into the heart of the old town, impeded by crowds of other tourists. Lovely as it is in summer, walking across the bridges and open spaces in the depths of winter, in the snow and howling winds would not be nice. To judge from many of the photos and paintings we have seen today, the city spends a great deal of the year contending with snow and ice flows.

We stopped at the only travel agent we have found since we arrived. Yesterday they gave us details of ferry crossings to Finland so we now needed to buy tickets. Of course, the day we wanted turned out to be fully booked and the next available crossing, on Sunday, was twice the price we'd expected to pay. Can't be helped though and at least we will be travelling overnight which saves on campsite fees. It also gives us an extra day to explore Stockholm.

Back in the 1620s King Gustav II Adolf ordered a new battle ship to be constructed. The Vasa was to be the pride of the Scandinavian fleet, massive in size, armed with many huge cannons, guaranteed to scare the daylights out of the Poles with whom Scandinavia seems to have long been at war. In a situation that paralleled that of England's Henry VIII when he commissioned the Mary Rose a hundred years earlier, the ship promptly sank within sight of the shore on its maiden voyage in 1628. Boat construction in those days was not a precise science and the Vasa was far too narrow to sustain even a mild squall, armed as it was with so many cannon. If it had carried sufficient ballast to stabilise it, it would have sat lower in the water which would have flooded in through the flaps on the lower gun deck. So with insufficient drag below the waterline it simply keeled over, water poured in and it sank in 30 metres of water with all hands, guns and furnishings. There it lay for over three hundred years until rediscovered in the 1950s and raised to the surface, pretty well intact! Because it had not even reached the open sea, the timbers were not damaged by lying in salt water and today the ship stands on one of the islands, 95% intact, complete with fittings and furnishings! Even many of the sails, masts and ropes are preserved.

So our afternoon was spent gazing in wonder at this massive, intact warship. It is possible to get right up close to the vessel and to see the intricacy of its carved decorations. These would originally have been brightly painted and replicas of some of the sections are displayed, painted in their proper colours. There are walkways at five different levels around the vessel though it is not possible to board it. At each level there are displays showing items discovered on board, from cutlery and crockery, to wooden barrels and chests, some filled with clothes and personal belongings – hats, gloves, shoes and tools. It was quite awesome. There was even a gallery devoted to the lives of those serving on the ship as sailors, carpenters, cooks and deck hands. The bones of over half the crew were recovered with the Vasa and forensic evidence shows much about their age, habits, diet and illnesses. It has even been possible to recreate what they looked like as individuals and the heads that have been reconstructed are completely lifelike.

Vasa, Stockholm

Stern of the Vasa, Stockholm

Reconstruction of original colouring, Vasa, Stockholm

Leather gloves and shoes from the Vasa, Stockholm

Scale model of the Vasa, Stockholm

Diving bell used to salvage Vasa's cannon in 1670s, Stockholm

Vasa Museum, Stockholm

We were in the museum until it closed and there was still so much more to see. We were rather weary as we walked back from the island towards the main part of the city, this time taking a different route to take in the highly decorated theatre and several impressive Art Nouveau buildings overlooking the water. As we walked up towards the Central Station we discovered some of the major shopping stores, including the smart and expensive NK store, Stockholm's answer to London's Harrods - a palace of commerce with caryatids and decorated stonework on the outside and marble floors, chandeliers, bevelled glass and gleaming brass within. There was also smart, chic fashion wear displayed rather thinly and expensively throughout the store.

Royal Theatre, Stockholm

Royal Theatre, Stockholm

Art nouveau buildings, Strandvägen, Stockholm

NK store, Stockholm

This evening we are both exhausted. Fortunately temperatures have only been around 15 degrees all day so walking is less tiring, but even for us today has been exceptionally full. Ian has now discovered that the largest spherical building in the world is somewhere in the city but we cannot find where it is. How can you not find something that size?