Once upon a time in a land far away…………….. an opening line recognised by all and fondly remembered by me from the fairy tales of my childhood. As soon as I could read independently I immersed myself in a magical world of make believe: fantastical characters, mysterious places and incredible adventures. I can still remember the illustrations of castles, creatures and supernatural objects that helped bring those stories to life. Of course, I had no awareness at the time of the origins of those stories and their etymologies and rich folk traditions. I was aware though, that the buildings I saw in my books were not only from other times but also from other places, unlike any old buildings I had seen in England. I decided that one day I wanted to visit somewhere like the places in my childhood books.
In recent years I have been gripped by another kind of Scandinavian story. Like millions of others in the UK and around the world I have become an avid fan of that modern genre of film and book known as Nordic Noir. The Bridge, Wallander, Borgen and, of course, The Killing, (to name a few) have hooked me (despite the need to become a very fast reader of subtitles) in a way that no British TV offerings have come close to. This interest in all things ‘Scandi’ has been another factor in my decision to visit Sweden.
The city is an archipelago in the Baltic Sea made up of 14 islands connected by bridges. Some of the islands are actually very small and it has to be said that I didn’t often have a sense of island-hopping as I made my way around the Stockholm. This came as a surprise (and was ever so slightly disappointing) as I had imagined mini versions of the Oresund Bridge carrying me over wider expanses of water with each island distinct from the next; although some of the main islands are quite unique. This beautiful Baltic Sea harbour with its promenade of tall, grand, brightly coloured houses offers tantalising views beyond, and the promise of distant cold northern lands where the Aurora Borealis lights up the night sky. In other words – a fairy tale picture realised.
Langholmen was formerly a prison island, but is now a gorgeous lush island of trees, including some exotic species which have been planted as part of an ecological preservation initiative. Stockholm’s residents flock here at weekends and during the warmer months to enjoy the greenery and picnics on the beaches. Passing by on a Baltic boat cruise, I would have liked to disembark and spend some time there myself, but the tight schedule didn’t permit.
Djurgården is known as the eco-island, home to the theme park, Grunlund, the city zoo and a number of museums including the Biological Science Museum, the Nordik Museum and the Abba Museum, which is popular with tourists. I spent a couple of hours walking through the parks and around the lake, taking in the glorious effects of autumn on the leaves. This region, the centre of fun and leisure activities during the summer months, looked slightly eerie on an October day when people were sparse and the fairground rides stood at a standstill waiting for the spring.
Stockholm is serious about museums; it seems like there is one dedicated to the celebration of most things. On the island of Skeppsholmen at the entrance to the Baltic Sea can be found museums of architecture and modern art and one of the port’s best known features, the sailing ship Af Chapman, now in use as a youth hostel.
Kungsholmen (King’s Island) is in the middle of Lake Malaren and was once home to a mediaeval monastery whose property and lands were confiscated by the crown in the 1500s. It is now one of the most desirable residential areas of the city.
One of the best known and interesting parts of Stockholm is Gamla Stan, The Old Town. It is here that visitors will see some marvellous examples of quaint mediaeval buildings, cobbled streets and crooked houses in an array of colours. Dark winding passage ways lead to who knows where. Some of the shops were in darkness and others looked as if they could be portals to a magical world. The melodic chime of the church bells and old-fashioned lamps casting an ethereal glow over the cobble stones perfectly complete the scene .
The city boasts an impressive array of restaurants, cafes and coffee shops. On its main shopping street, Drottninggatan, about one establishment out of every four offers food and drink. The standard is excellent, though restaurant prices are very high: two courses and one soft drink or beer cost on average between 300 and 450 Swedish Krona per person (approximately £30 to £45). Cafes and brasseries are not as expensive. Some of the best food of my trip was enjoyed at two vegetarian self-serve buffets. Prices were very reasonable (approx. £12 and £13 per person respectively) and the food was tasty, fresh, adventurous and wholesome. The Hermitage can be found in the mediaeval Gamla Stan (old town) and the excellent Hermann’s is on the island of Sodermalm. Largely residential, Sodermalm has an arty alternative feel and is the main location in Stieg Larson’s ‘Girl….’ trilogy of novels. Tours around the island are available, taking in the fictional hangouts of Lisbeth Salander. I did consider joining the tour but was too-sloth like after feasting at Hermann’s.
Halloween is a big thing in Sweden and preparations for the festivities were apparent everywhere. Pumpkin lanterns and spooky window dressings were everywhere, a welcome contrast to the late afternoon greyness. In the UK we are all familiar with Ikea and the interest in Swedish design. It has been suggested that the use of colour, originality and quirky features are an aspect of expression sparked by the vibrant heart at the centre of the bleak, grey landscape which dominates northern Europe for many months of the year. Swedes have style! Walk along any residential street in the city and take a sneaky peek through the window – not easy to avoid when few homes have curtains or blinds of any kind.
The Swedish informal greeting, ‘Hey’, is as much about intonation and pitch – and not to mention facial expression – as the word itself……..and this requires some practice. I think I’d cracked it by the last day when it was time to say goodbye. Needless to say, everybody speaks English anyway………………