Sweden has a long history of wars with its neighbours. In the late 17th century, Sweden was one of the most powerful countries in Europe, under the leadership of a series of energetic Kings. However, it over-stretched itself as it had neither the manpower nor the natural resources to maintain a major empire.
From its heyday of ruling over present day Finland, Norway and much of Northern Germany (including what is considered the Baltics), the country is now a wealthy Nordic country enjoying some of highest living standards in the world.
Here we were, 20+ years ago on a coach journey that winded its way through Belgium, Germany and crossing into Denmark. From Copenhagen, it was a drive to the coastal ferry point of Helsingor where we got shipped across to Sweden.
Along the way we stopped at Jonkopin, a town beside Sweden’s 2nd largest lake Vattern. Like its other Nordic neighbors the country is long, stretching all the way beyond the arctic circle. Our journey would only take us to the southern third before heading into Norway. After a lunch and some photo-taking practice, we continued on and got into the city of Stockholm in the evening.
A city called log
As its largest city, it contributes more than ⅓ of the GDP of the country. It would also be the place we spent the most time when in the country. And as a group, we were brought around what the itinerary designers thought to be the most interesting.
The city is also known as the “Venice of the North”, for it is a city built on a network of islands connected to each other by way of bridges. This would be the first thing any visitor notices. And it probably made good sense. Since it is far easier to defend with bodies of water as a barrier to deter would be aggressors. And we got into the city on a relatively beautiful summer day too giving us a wonderful preview of what we would be exploring in-depth over the next few days.
We started with a visit to the city hall of the city. This one’s relatively new, completed in 1923. The main draw for the visit was its architecture. Get into the Golden hall for a feast for the eyes that comes from said to be 18 million tiles. Make sure you get a closer view because they are telling a story of Swedish history. While the Nobel prizes are not awarded here, the banquet following the presentations are held here in the Blue hall. Said to accommodate around 1200 guests, it probably is the most prestigious dinner invite one can get. Did you receive yours in the mail yet?
The old town – Gamla Stan comprises of small group of islets plus stadsholmen. Actually this WAS the city of Stockholm, also known as log island. Why was it called as such? Well, one would have to believe a folklore story about how a hallowed out floating log of gold landed. You see, the folks who did that was searching for a safe place to restart a city; their being prone to attack by brigands. We on the other hand think it was probably due the fact that the island used to be pristine forests. Full of logs that is… thus deriving its name. But that’s just our own speculation. Perhaps you have an idea too?
One must truly spend time here, for it is indeed the main attraction from our point of view. The only thing though is the streets are stone cobbled… making it quite a chore to walk on if not wearing comfortable shoes. And it was also narrow in some places too. Plus it did not make things better that many of these sidewalks are full of tourist souvenir shops or boutiques.
Get to do some real touring
Not far in the north of this old town is the palace. As you will recall the city was on this island log town, thus it should not be surprising that the folks who were ruling the place built a fortification too. For centuries it remained a fort before being enlarged into a castle. But in the 16th century the city was eventually selected as capital and this warranted a nice building to be constructed. Thus the royal palace was born… with its first parts converted in 1692 and subsequently rebuilt in 1697 because of a fire. Did you notice that in many instances the palaces in Europe usually get subsumed by fire? Today though the palace is only a ceremonial ground and not part of royal ownership. Can you believe that? Yep, the same as in the UK where the royal family actually do not own any of the palaces.
If there is one other thing that must be done, it should be a visit to the Vasa museum on Djurgården island. A stone’s throw and easily walkable distance from Gamla Stan, this is the site of an excavated 17th century Swedish warship of the same name as the then ruling dynasty. The Vasa was a large 64-gun vessel that was constructed as part of the Swedish quest to turn the Baltic into a ‘Swedish lake’. But then the design had a flaw. In the effort to put a lot of armaments on the ship, it sort of became “top heavy”. Think of it as an inverted pyramid…
So it should not surprise anyone that it sank the moment it got into the waters just outside the harbor of the city. Now what they then did was to retrieve the cannons from the sunken ship, since that was the most valuable asset and reusable for the war that was raging. In 1961 they probably had to excavate the wreck because it was in the way of busy shipping traffic, so lucky us get to see the well preserved ship in the museum.
You know flash photography wasn’t allowed and our pictures all turned out lousy (ie too dark). So today be privileged, go visit the museum and take better pictures!
What else can one do outside Stockholm?
For one thing we don’t really know. The only thing we can comment on was the stop we made in a town called Orebro, while we were on the way to Norway (here). If you look up Wiki they will tell you Orebro means ‘penny bridge’, maybe if one dissects the word into two.
Like all other larger cities in Sweden, it grew because of trade – as the settlement attracted more folks to come. And it is near a lake too, so plenty of water resources. Good Feng Shui the Chinese would say. Anyway the main attraction here would be the castle in our opinion. That’s because the locals have a story about it being haunted. Was it a publicity stunt? Who knows. But as a castle that was initially lavished by the Vasa dynasty, and the castle sure looks cool with the model posing for it.
Did you know that Sweden’s second largest city Gothenburg was founded to attract Dutch immigrants? The founding King of the Vasa dynasty had wanted to inject vitality into the Swedish economy. And he granted these immigrants exemptions in taxes, such that their influence grew to the point that Dutch town laws were apparently in force.
Even till this day there is a lot of similarities in the written language of the Swedes and Dutch. Mel could read the newspapers in Sweden though speech is a little more challenging. No matter, the connections between countries in the north had been strong in the past. It seems remain so today. We only made a stop here, because we were on the way to catch a ferry across to Jutland.
Well, that is all we have on Sweden. Yeah, we know that’s not a lot.
Like Norway and Finland, if we get to return to Sweden it would be a road trip. And in summer too, although we wouldn’t mind being here in winter for the aurora borealis.
We were in Sweden during the high summer of June of 2001
Mel actually got to visit yet another city called Malmo regularly because of work. But since those were trips of business, he usually naps on the train from Copenhagen to Malmo. That crossing is in itself quite an experience. Perhaps someday we can re-live it and share.