Island cities

Gamla Stan, Stockholm
Gamla Stan

In the climactic scene of The Goonies, the kids stumble into the grotto where One-Eyed Willy’s treasure-laden pirate ship is stranded.

They gaze at their discovery in wonder.

I felt the same amazement when I came face to prow with Vasa, a nearly four-hundred-year-old, four-story warship in near-perfect condition on display inside Stockholm’s Vasa Museum.

Ninety-eight percent of her wood is original! The multi-level museum spirals around the ship, allowing her to be viewed from every angle.

Vasa was built and launched in 1628. In her day, the 226-foot ship was one of the most powerfully armed vessels in the world with two decks of cannons. However, upon launching, Vasa proved top-heavy. The ship foundered and sank just forty minutes after leaving the dock.

Vasa Museum, Stockholm

Vasa’s valuable bronze cannons were salvaged. Then the ship, over one hundred feet below the surface, was largely forgotten. The shipwreck was rediscovered in the late 1950s and recovered from the water in 1961. Film footage of her resurrection is dramatic, as the nearly intact ship rises like a ghost from the sea.

During recovery, thousands of artifacts were found aboard Vasa, including clothing, weapons, tools, coins, cutlery, and some of the sails. Many of the recovered items, including the skeletons of some of the crew, are on display.

Vasa is the best-preserved ship of her age in the world.

Blood on the cobbles

Some thirty thousand islands and skerries make up the Stockholm archipelago in the Baltic Sea. Those near the inlet to Lake Mälaren were first inhabited by Stone Age tribes. The Vikings established a port around 1000 CE.

Prästgatan, Gamla Stan
Priests’ Lane, Gamla Stan

The settlement, called Stockholm, became prominent in the Middle Ages due to the influence of the German Hanseatic League, which monopolized Baltic trade.

(For my posts on two other Hanseatic towns, Tallinn, Estonia, and Bergen, Norway, please see “Survivor: Estonia” and “Fjord country.”)

In 1634, Stockholm became the capital of the Swedish empire.

Today, the city’s population is over 2.2 million and growing, mainly through immigration.

Stockholm is a sprawling city—busy, upscale, and clean. Its major attractions are scattered widely. Fifty-seven bridges connect its fourteen islands. A third of Stockholm is water, a third parkland, and a third city.

When I was there, many of the streets were torn up while the city is replacing and expanding its subway system. Additionally, many of the tourist sites are under wraps while being renovated. A massive rebuilding effort.

Baked goods, Stockholm

One of Stockholm’s islands contains the medieval village of Gamla Stan (Old Town), the original Stockholm. Gamla Stan, a tangle of cobbled streets lined with colorful buildings, dates to the late 1200s.

Starting in 1397, Sweden (including what is now Finland), Norway, and Denmark were involved in a toxic three-way, taking turns breaking up and getting back together in different combinations. The ménage à trois was called the Kalmar Union.

In 1520 Danish King Christian II beheaded Sweden’s aristocrats, merchants, and priests in Gamla Stan’s town square, Stortorget. Reportedly, the streets ran with blood. The Stockholm Bloodbath understandably led to the breakup of the union. Sweden seceded. Denmark and Norway stayed together until 1814.

Nobel Museum, Stortorget
Nobel Museum

Cinnamon rolls and dynamite

Today, Stortorget extracts money, not blood, as tourists admire the elaborate gables on the merchants’ houses and sample kanelbulle, a cinnamon roll made with cardamom and sugar.

I bought mine at Grillska Huset Brödbod, a bakery that raises money to help the poor. Inside is a fancifully decorated wooden ceiling from its medieval days.

Facing the square in the former stock exchange is the Nobel Museum. Stockholm-born Alfred Nobel (1833–1896) was a successful inventor, most famously of dynamite. Its manufacturing made him wealthy.

He used his fortune to fund the Nobel Prize. Every year since 1901, laureates have been honored in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peacemaking.

Stockholm Cathedral
Stockholm Cathedral

Currently there are nine hundred laureates. Their images hang on banners, which are conveyed around the museum on a ceiling track like clothing at a dry cleaner. While there, I spotted the banners of Nelson Mandela, Menachem Begin, Desmond Tutu, Yasser Arafat, and Werner Heisenberg (of Breaking Bad fame). Anyone can be nominated—Hitler once was.

I toured Stockholm Cathedral with its silver and ebony altar. The foundations date to the 1200s. The royal family has its own pews. King Carl XVI Gustaf was married in the cathedral in 1976, as was his daughter, Crown Princess Victoria, in 2010. (She married her fitness trainer.)

A statue of King Gustav III stands along the waterfront near the Royal Palace. Gustav, who founded Sweden’s Royal Dramatic Theater and Royal Opera, was mortally wounded in a coup attempt during a masquerade ball in 1792. Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Un Ballo in Maschera (A Masked Ball), is based on the assassination.

Changing of the Guard, Stockholm
Changing of the Guard

Stockholm Palace is where King Carl XVI Gustaf keeps an office. It was built in the 1700s after the previous palace burned down. Nearby is the Finnish Church, built around the same time upon the former royal tennis court.

I visited the Royal Armoury, displaying many artifacts from Swedish military history.

The museum is the oldest in Sweden, established in 1628 by King Gustavus Adolphus when he decided everyone should see his bloody clothes from the Thirty Years’ War. In the lower level is a collection of lavish royal coaches.

My timing was such that I could watch the Changing of the Guards. The Royal Guards have been stationed at the palace since 1523. The ceremony is a long-drawn-out affair, involving lines of soldiers and a brass marching band mounted on horses. Each rider plays an instrument with one hand and reins with the other.

Seglora Church, Skansen
Seglora Church, Skansen

Animal Garden

One of Stockholm’s islands is Djurgården (Animal Garden). Four-hundred years ago, it was the king’s hunting park. Just over the bridge is the beautiful blue and gold royal entrance gate. Today, Djurgården’s parkland is home to several museums.

I explored Skansen, a seventy-five-acre open-air folk park. Founded in 1891 to preserve Sweden’s pre-industrial era, Skansen contains more than 150 historic homes, barns, churches, schoolhouses, and shops transplanted from all corners of Sweden.

The buildings portray the full range of Swedish lifestyles from manors to farmhouses. (For me, the concept of folk museum was somewhat marred by the kiddie rides, petting zoo, and fast-food restaurants. It is nowhere near as authentic as the Ulster Folk Museum near Belfast, which presents itself as an actual historic community.)

Dalecarlian horse, Skansen
Dalecarlian horse

I doubled back to the Nordic Museum, housed in a Danish Renaissance palace. The museum presents the cultural history of Sweden from the 1500s until now. (And by cultural history, I don’t mean ABBA. The pop group has its own museum on Djurgården.)

In particular, I enjoyed learning about the indigenous Sami people, a group we called Lapps and Laplanders in seventh-grade geography class. The Sami have lived in the Arctic regions of northern Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia for centuries before political boundaries were drawn. Today, there are eighty-three thousand Sami spread across the borders of the four countries.

Traditionally, the Sami have fished, trapped, and herded sheep and reindeer. Reindeer provide the Sami with meat, fur, and transportation. The Sami have had to fight laws threatening their cultural beliefs, language, and livelihood. Now, their lifestyles are also threatened by oil exploration, mining, logging, tourism, and climate change.

Stockholm City Hall
Stockholm City Hall

Safe cars and pop music

On the island of Kungsholmen, I toured Stockholm City Hall, where a fancy banquet is held each year after the Nobel Prize Award Ceremony.

The legislative chamber has a high-beamed painted ceiling that looks like an upside-down Viking ship. Beneath it, the 101 members of the city council legislate during evenings, as they all hold down day jobs!

The Golden Hall features eighteen million gold mosaic tiles portraying Swedish history and mythology. A giant Queen of Lake Mälaren presides over the room. In style, it is similar to Monreale Cathedral on the island of Sicily. (For my post on Monreale Cathedral, please see “Sicily: the crucible of continents.”)

City Hall, Stockholm
Stockholm City Hall

Back on the mainland, I walked through Sergelstorg, a huge square also under reconstruction, to Kulturhuset, Stockholm’s culture center. There, I shopped in DesignTorget, a store where independent Swedish designers sell their products.

Crowds of people congregate in Kungsträdgården, a park near the harbor lined with cafés. Cherry trees showered pink petals. The City Sky Liner ride lifted tourists upward for a 360-degree view of the city and harbor. The latest Volvo models gleamed in showroom windows. (Volvo was founded in Sweden in 1927.)

Workers were erecting a stage for a concert affiliated with the Eurovision Song Contest. (ABBA won with “Waterloo” in 1974.) Hosted this year in Stockholm, the contest received  entries from forty-two countries. Over 204 million viewers watched it worldwide. The Voice on steroids.

Windmill, Skansen

At the end of the day, I enjoyed a rustic dinner at Kajsas Fisk, a seafood diner connected to a fish market. Steamed cod filet, shredded horseradish, riced potatoes, a hard-boiled egg, a tomato, and crusty bread. Outside in Hötorget (Hay Market), vendors sold fresh asparagus, strawberries, and flowers, and people-watchers lounged on the steps of Stockholm’s Concert Hall.

Finally, meatballs

The kingdom of Sweden is a little larger than California, the third-largest country in the EU, with a population of nearly ten million. Sweden was a major European power until the early 1700s, when it began losing its territories, including Finland to Russia in 1809. In 1905 its union with Norway was dissolved.

Sweden was neutral during both world wars. Today, the country ranks high in quality of life, per-capita income, health, education, and civil liberty.

Frimurare Hotellet, Kalmar
Frimurare Hotellet, Kalmar

While I was there, the United States was debating the portrayal of abolitionist Harriet Tubman on the twenty-dollar bill. Among my Swedish kronor were bills featuring children’s author Astrid Lindgren, best known for her creation of Pippi Longstocking. Also Ingmar Berman, the director.

I traveled across the country’s agricultural south by train. (The northern eighty percent of the country is forested.) To me, Sweden looks like Ontario. Swedes adhere to an ancient law called allemans rätt, which provides them access to wilderness areas without permission from the property owners, as long as they behave.

The train rolled past wheat fields, nurseries, and lumber yards. The woods and farms were spring-green. Birch, pine, and spruce surrounded blue lakes. New lambs played in the fields.

Kalmar Castle
Kalmar Castle

Cabins and huts are painted red or yellow and trimmed in white. I saw a huge herd of deer, a preserve maybe. And four-foot tall cranes, the bird variety, Eurasian or Common. A hard rain pelted the train.

I arrived in Kalmar, a city on the Baltic Sea with a population of over sixty-five thousand. The Frimurare Hotellet was handy near the station, a grand old hotel, built in 1878, and renovated. Daffodils and tulips bloomed everywhere.

After checking in, I explored Kalmar Castle, the quaint Old Town next to the castle, and the newer town center of Kvarnholmen.

Kalmar Castle, on its own little island, was once one of Sweden’s most important fortresses. Built in the late 1100s, the castle was expanded and fortified a couple of times by various kings. The Kalmar Union (Sweden, Norway, and Denmark), which ended with the Stockholm Bloodbath in 1520, was formed at Kalmar Castle in 1397.

Kalmar Cathedral
Kalmar Cathedral

The town of Kalmar was originally next to the castle but burned down in 1647.

The townspeople relocated to the adjacent, more defensible island, Kvarnholmen. I walked along the top of Kvarnholmen’s surviving earthworks and bastions, built in the 1600s.

Next morning, the Frimurare Hotellet served a hot breakfast, including a cultural favorite, meatballs. Svenska köttbullar (Swedish meatballs) are made from beef and pork and served in a cream sauce with lingonberry jam.

I visited the Kalmar County Museum. Its primary exhibit is another shipwreck, the Swedish warship Kronan. In the 1670s Kronan was the largest and most heavily armed ship in the Swedish navy and one of the largest ships in the world. In 1676, during the Battle of Öland, the ship capsized when the magazine ignited.

Old Town, Kalmar
Old Town, Kalmar

Kronan sank quickly, taking about eight hundred men and one hundred cannons to the bottom. The loss of the ship was a setback to Sweden during the war with the Danes and the Dutch.

The wreck was discovered in 1980. Yearly salvage operations have since recovered more than thirty thousand artifacts, including a hoard of gold and silver coins.

At O’Reilly’s Irish Pub, I got into a lively conversation with Liverpudlian bartender Eoin and Swedes Nils and Davey. Topics ranged from America’s politics, Sweden’s health care, Sweden’s taxes, the NHL, and traveling. Eoin, Nils, and Davey all use snuff—Copenhagen brand.

Most of the patrons were engaged in watching a soccer match. Next to the biggest screen, a seated couple was breaking up, making it impossible not to watch their drama instead. Angry words, stony silence, crocodile tears.

Another Kalmar union ended in a bloodbath.

1 thought on “Island cities

  1. So now I know where you are (or were) and what you’ve seen. We didn’t have all that much time in Stockholm and environs but the few days there were rewarding enough. The museum of ancient ship is a trip. I suppose they still let you walk around her topside as they did a number of years ago. See what 350 years or so sleeping on your side in a mud bath will do for you? And have you now found how much hiking it required for you to work off a day’s worth of Swedish meatballs? (For you, I’ll warrant, for less time and far more hiking than it took me!) Stay well!

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