Susanne and I had a very busy day ahead of us; we hoped to have a full day of intensive Stockholm sightseeing. Breakfast at the Pensionat Oden consisted of muesli, fruit yogurts, coffee, juices and packaged sandwiches – none of which were labeled in English, so I was lucky when I managed to open a cheese sandwich rather than a herring one.
Just after 9am, we started to walk south along Vasagatan in the direction of Gamla Stan. We’d decided to leave our jackets and umbrella behind today, and it seemed to be a wise decision; it was sunny and already in the low 60s, truly a recipe for a gorgeous day. Crossing the bridge leading to parliament, we walked under the arches, constructed out of rusty stone blocks that were left unpolished, almost jagged. It gave the arches and passageway a naturalistic feeling, as if the corridor had been carved out of a canyon.
Exiting the island, we crossed another bridge reaching Gamla Stan, hiking through Mynttorget (Treasury Square) and up towards the outer courtyard of the royal palace, Kungliga Slottet. The palace wouldn’t open for another 30 or 40 minutes, so we first paid a visit to city cathedral, Storkyrkan. Because it was a holiday weekend, the cathedral was open for free; otherwise we would have had to pay a SEK 20 entrance fee.
Inside, the cathedral was already teaming with tour groups, two of them being guided by English-speaking docents. One of the groups was crowded around Berndt Notke’s 15th century statue of St. George slaying the dragon, while the other stood in front of the royal pews, identified by the Tre Kronor (three crowns), the symbol of Swedish royalty, suspended above the seats. The cathedral, which was consecrated in the early 14th century, is the oldest building in Stockholm. While the exterior was later decorated in the baroque style, the interior felt almost Byzantine: mosaics and frescoes of saints soared across the ceiling, while wood-colored seams along the vaults created an illusion that the entire structure was laced together by coarsely-twined ropes. Along the main corridor, thin red-brick columns rose up to the vaults, while the altar was decorated with a seven-branch candelabra, placed below a stained glass window of Jesus encircled by his 12 disciples.
We wandered the cathedral quietly, occasionally catching a word or two from the two English-speaking docents. One of the tour groups, apparently American, murmured during the presentation, while the second group, made of Koreans, chatted at cocktail-party volume.
As the clock neared 10am, we left the cathedral and backtracked several blocks to the entrance of the royal palace. The ticket office hadn’t opened yet, so this gave us the opportunity to catch the 10 o’clock changing of the guard. I’d been under the impression that the ceremony was only in the afternoon, so it was a pleasant surprise to see it take place. Meanwhile, the large group of Koreans we’d encountered in the cathedral had assembled in the plaza, and I overheard their tour guide say that they’d all have to buy tickets after the changing of the guard. Knowing that it would take them a long time for all of them to buy their tickets, I left the ceremony a couple minutes early so I could get in line and avoid the rush.
With our tickets in hand, Susanne and I entered the palace and explored the first exhibit, a collection of coronation robes and medals awarded to the kings over the centuries. Several rooms down we then found the royal audience hall, a giant, grandiose room still used to open parliament each year. Because the palace is shaped like a horseshoe, we were now at a dead end, so we needed to backtrack to the entrance hall in order to explore the left side of the palace, home to the royal apartments. The apartments were decorated with red furniture, beautiful inlaid wood, paintings by Northern European masters, even furniture crafted by several kings who were quite talented cabinetmakers. What was particularly interesting was that the palace was still in use; rather than being an enormous museum, various parlors were still used by the king for official functions such as the greeting of new foreign ambassadors or periodic cabinet meetings.
On the upper floor of the palace we discovered the grand dining hall, which seats 150 guests on a long table during state dinners, decorated in a fashion quite similar to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Meanwhile, at the other end of the palace, we saw two beautiful bedrooms that were reserved for foreign heads of state. The main bedroom was quite ornate, with a double bed set to the back of the room. The second room was much more subdued, with a single bed and small office, made available to world leaders who felt more comfortable spending the night in this more intimate setting.
Exiting the palace, we walked left and around the corner to the entrance of the Royal Treasury. Located in a basement in the side of the palace, it reminded me of the entrance to the Pirates of the Caribbean at Disney World – a winding, grotto like passageway with stone walls and rope lines set up in case of long tourist queues. “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me,” I sang quietly as we made our way to the lower levels of the basement.
The treasury itself was quite small, only three rooms with a couple dozen display cases. But the cases were filled with Sweden’s most important royal possessions: coronation crowns that have been used since the founding of the Bernadotte dynasty; the sword of Gustav Vasa; orbs, scepters and royal keys. Despite the imposing rope lines outside, which would suggest that there are times during which the treasury is quite crowded, we were able to explore the collection largely to ourselves, with only three or four other visitors inside at any given time.
By now it was late morning, and our plan was to spend the rest of the day exploring the royal island park of Djurgarden. We’d visited the island briefly yesterday, but since it was late in the afternoon, most of the museums were closing or closed. Today, we’d have the entire afternoon dedicated to exploring the island, a combination of Central Park and the Smithsonian Museums, surrounded by shimmering water and incredible views of the rest of Stockholm.
After taking the ferry to the island, we hiked past the entrance to Grona Lund Tivoli and arrived at the southern entrance to Skansen. The world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen opened its doors to the world in the late 1800s, well before similar parks like Colonial Williamsburg had been conceived. With over 150 historic buildings imported from all over Sweden, including dozens from rural farms, Skansen was an idyllic time capsule for tourists, giving visitors the chance to see what life was like in Sweden’s past.
We paid the entrance fee and took a long escalator to the top of the hill, where most of the complex is located. To our left we entered Skansen’s “Old Town,” a reconstructed village with cobblestone streets leading to numerous craft shops and houses. The craft shops were all active workshops, with master craftsmen and women plying their trade. In one building, two glassblowers mesmerized a small crowd as the turned plasma-like blobs into a delicate vase. Across the street, a man and a woman sat at potter’s wheels, spinning the wheels with foot pedals as they pressed their wet hands into blocks of clay, out of which soup bowls and coffee mugs soon emerged. Perhaps the busiest shop was the bakery, its small room packed with tourists eager to get their hands on fresh pastries smelling of cinnamon and coriander.
At the far end of the village, Susanne and I found the Skansen Rose Garden, though this time of year the garden was teeming with tulips – more than a dozen varieties in all. The perimeter of the garden was lined with lilacs, their blooms reaching their peak. Lilacs, in fact, were blooming everywhere in Stockholm – it was quite extraordinary how every street, every park seemed to have purple clouds of lilacs on display.
Susanne and I then began to walk uphill towards the “town center” – a section of Skansen dedicated to small shops and cafes, with a generous plot of grassland for picnicking. Past the picnic area we could hear what sounded like Gaelic music; we walked over and found a group of young girls in traditional costumes dancing on a stage, backed by a group of fiddlers, fifers and other musicians. I had no idea that traditional Swedish music was so similar to Irish music, I thought to myself as I took some pictures of the dancers. A moment or two later, as the dance ended, an emcee picked up the microphone and began to talk. Her accent was English, from Manchester.
“The next song comes from across the Channel, from Brittany, where we have had the opportunity to perform on occasion,” she said. “I hope the girls will have the chance to learn some Swedish dances during our visit here as well…” So much for traditional Swedish music.
We watched the girls dance for a few more minutes before going to the café area, where we bought a couple of pastries and drinks and sat on benches while a group of aggressive seagulls battled each other for a morsel of bread that someone had unwisely dropped behind another table. After our snack, we continued walking east, in a part of the park dedicated to rural Sweden. We arrived at a beautiful old church, several centuries old, set back on the side of a hill. The exterior of the church was made of dark red wood planks, while the interior had exquisite, fading paintings on the ceiling. A docent in traditional Swedish costume greeted us and offered to answer any questions if we had any.
Down on the other side of the hill we reached the Oktorp Farmstead, a 19th-century farm from southern Sweden. The entire farm had been reconstructed at the site: living quarters, granary, courtyards, stables. Inside the living quarters, a docent was sitting by a fireplace, knitting a pair of socks. She explained the history of the farm, and how it had been moved to Skansen at the turn of the last century. Next to the fireplace, two beds were built into coves along the wall, while the children’s quarters were located in an adjacent room. A third room housed a large spinning wheel, household tools and a work table.
“I wonder if she’s a volunteer, or if she gets paid to sit by a fireplace and knit,” I said to Susanne. “Seems like a relaxing way to spend the day.”
We spent a while exploring a variety of rural houses and farms on the eastern side of the park, including several with sod grass roofs. Two black and white geese stood guard over one farmhouse, while their furry little gosling trailed behind them. Several families picnicked by a pond, where more geese lounged in the warm sun. Further along, a stable featured a pair of horses with two young colts, both fast asleep on the ground, while several large cows stood just beyond the far side of the stable.
Passing an enormous red steeple and several windmills, we reached the southern edge of the park, home to a sit—down restaurant and an outdoor music pavilion. Two choruses, one young students and the other adults, rehearsed in the pavilion, apparently for a concert later that afternoon. The group performed several songs again and again, reaching a crescendo just before the conductor would jump in, saying “Nei, nei, nei,” and explaining what they were doing wrong.
By now it was just after 3pm, and we still wanted to visit one other museum today, the Vasa Museum. We exited Skansen from the northwest gate, just beyond the Nordic Museum. From there we walked clockwise around Djurgarden’s harbor, stopping briefly at a an outdoor café to get some ice cream and coffee before continuing to the Vasa.
Located along the western edge of Djurgarden, the Vasa Museum was built around a single exhibit: the Vasa, the 17th century flagship of the royal Swedish navy. One of the most technologically advanced navy vessels of the early 1600s, the Vasa was one of several ships built for Sweden’s ongoing war against Poland. But on its maiden voyage, the Vasa sunk in Stockholm’s harbor, blown over by a wind gust due to insufficient ballast below deck.
For nearly 350 years, the Vasa sat in the depths of the harbor, until a team of industrious scientists and navy divers came up with an ingenious plan to raise the ship. Work began in the late 1950s, dredging tunnels below the ship and remove silt from inside it. Eventually, they were able to plug its holes, pump out the water, and slowly raise it to the surface; the Vasa was so intact, it actually managed to float into dry dock on its own accord. The next decade was spent collecting artifacts from the silt and preserving the ship, drenching it in a shower of polyethelene glycol to fill the porous wood in place of the seawater that it had absorbed like a sponge over the centuries. Finally, by the early 1990s, the Vasa was preserved to the point that it could be placed on display for the public, installed in a museum shaped like a giant galleon, masts and all.
I had been told by several people that the Vasa Museum was one of the highlights of Stockholm, but I wasn’t prepared by how astounding the sight of the flagship would be. Entering the museum, you go into an enormous room, like an airplane hanger but hundreds of feet tall, and in the dim light are greeted by the most spectacular vessel you’ve ever seen. The Vasa is indescribably large, almost the size of a modern warship. Its most incredible feature is its height – the deck rises at least six stories above the water line, with its tall masts soaring much higher.
The museum is set up so you can access the Vasa from many different viewpoints. While you can’t go onto the ship, you can get very close, from the keel below all the way up to perches above the deck. Exhibits fill the extra space on each floor, describing the politics and culture of the era, the sinking itself, the investigation that followed, the raising of the ship and its meticulous restoration. Much of the exhibit was hands on; you could climb into a 17th-century diving bell to see how claustophobic it was to go on salvage dives, for example.
One of the biggest surprises was the amount of decorations on the ship. The entire façade above the waterline was covered in statues and bas reliefs. Near the front of the ship stood effigies of the Roman emperors; all but the statue of Nero were salvaged and reconstructed. Nearby was a bas relief of a Roman soldier in full military regalia. And amongst all this martial grandeur, you could just make out a carving of a Polish soldier, crouching in fear below a wooden beam. Propaganda is truly timeless.
Meanwhile, the aft of the ship was decorated with a marvelous bas relief, several stories high. Among the images in the scene was the crowning of the Swedish king. Even the king was much older at the time of the Vasa’s construction, he chose to depict himself as a 10-year-old boy, receiving the crown for the first time. This was a not-so-subtle jab at the Polish king, who was trying to lay claim to the Swedish crown, that the Swedish king had ruled since before his rival was even born. Adjacent to the aft of the ship was a display case with replicas of some of the carvings, painted in fantastic colors. Apparently all of the carvings and sculpture on the ship were once painted brightly and layered with gold leaf. Researchers have been able to find trace samples of paint on many carvings, so they’re in the process of piecing together the range of color schemes that once decorated the ship. Far from the uniformly dark wood we see in today’s ship, the original Vasa was an explosion of color.
We spent an hour or so at the museum, marveling at the ship and exploring the exhibits. You could easily spend an entire day here, particularly with so many exhibits hidden around each corner, but it was getting late in the afternoon and we’d soon have to return to the hotel to get ready for dinner and the opera. We walked south along the Djurgarden waterfront, as families docked their boats after an afternoon of sailing. Back at the ferry terminal, we returned to the southeast corner of Gamla Stan and walked through the medieval streets until reaching Stortorget, the main square.
We returned to the Kaffi Kuppen for a couple of large bowls of café lattes, sitting outside with a view of the Nobel Museum. The square was so charming I’d almost forgotten this was the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath. In 1520, after years of warfare with the Danish king, the noblemen of Stockholm agreed to meet with the king for a banquet, during which they would try to settle their differences. But the banquet was an ambush: the Swedes were arrested, put on trial and executed. Over 80 of them were beheaded on one day in this very square. It’s hard to believe such a ghastly act could take place here.
After coffee, we had just enough time to return to the hotel and get dressed for a night at the opera. Susanne and I stopped at a local Thai restaurant, Sabai Sabai, for a quick dinner of pad thai and gai kha prao. The pad thai was okay, but not great, while the chicken and basil had an extraordinary amount of chilis in it, creating a small fire in our mouths with each bite.
Susanne and I walked down the main shopping Street, Drottninggatan, where thousands of Stockholmers were out and about visiting department stores, boutique shops and cafes. Turning east just before reaching the water, we crossed Gustav Adolf Square and arrived at the opera house, where we picked out our tickets at will-call before going inside. We had some free time before the performance started, so we explored the second balcony, marveling at the ornate decorations and art nouveau ceiling. Most people entered the opera house just prior to the performance. We were in the second row of the second balcony, and the two women sitting in front of us were leaning forward over the balcony’s edge, making it difficult for us to see the stage. I wanted to tap them on their shoulders but Susanne discouraged me; a couple minutes later, though, the women sitting to their right tapped them and complained anyway, so she took care of the situation for us.
We spent the rest of the evening enjoying La Boheme. It’s one of Susanne’s favorite operas, though neither of us had seen it in person. I’d heard some of it before, but knew little about the plot except that it had to do with bohemian roommates in Paris, a café and star-crossed love. Much of the story seemed to be inspiration to the TV show Friends, though in this story Rachel dies of consumption rather than getting back together with Ross. The singers were very good, particularly the woman performing as Musette, who stole the show. The set design was modern, with hints of 1940s architecture; all the characters wore modern clothes as well. This only added to the parallels with Friends, which I tried not to dwell on too much. The second act, which takes place at a busy café during the height of the Christmas season, was quite well done, with a cast of 40 or 50 extras creating a realistic backdrop of big city holiday shopping.
The playbill for the performance had a brief English synopsis of the story, which was helpful since the lyrics were sung in Italian and the supertitles displayed above the stage were written in Swedish. Surprisingly, between the two languages, neither of which I speak, I was able to pick out just enough recognizable phrases to keep track of what was generally going on. Since Swedish and English both have Germanic roots, every now and then some of the words seemed to make sense, and when I’d refer back to the playbill it usually confirmed my suspicions.
The performance ended just before 10pm. It was just prior to sunset, with the sun hidden behind a bank of clouds low on the horizon. For a moment I thought we’d just finished seeing a matinee performance until I saw the time on a clock tower somewhere in the distance.
As we walked back towards the hotel, we contemplated getting a drink before calling it a night. Surprisingly, almost every bar was already closed, probably because Swedish law requires bars to be connected with restaurants, and the restaurants had already shut their doors for the evening. A few places were still open, but they all seemed to be either casinos or nightclubs, neither of which seemed to fit the mood. So we strolled back to the hotel, taking about the opera, and eventually went to bed, in need of a long rest after such a busy day.