I'm revisiting Stockholm, the so called Venice of the North, because I don't have any surviving photos of my first trip, which was a very long time ago, and because what I do remember is that it was an exceptionally nice city. That time I took a car ferry from Elsinore (Helsingore) in Denmark to Helsingborg. No bridges in those days - and not so many Scandi thrillers either. This time I'm flying from Oslo.
Stockholm was founded on a small island, now called Gamla Stan (Old Town), which is where my hotel is situated. It faces out over Lake Malaren and its many inlets and bridges, that link the islands and give Stockholm its soubriquet. Today, the capital has engulfed 14 islands, which require more than 50 bridges to join them. Ferries and water taxis shuttle you to the different sights (all the signs are in English) on special tourist day passes. Well they do in the summer. In March, much of the lake is still frozen and the streets are covered in ice, snow and too much gravel. It's impossible to wheel a trolley case along them. Or avoid slipping over on the patches that have been missed by the gravel. Some attractions don't even open until mid June.
A boat trip round the archipelago is an excellent way to orientate. And the three hour hour excursion to Vaxholm, to the north east and back is running, though it's a little like being on an ice breaker at times. And happily, I'm accompanied by friend Alison, who is in Stockholm at the same time.
First of all, the boat navigates through the islands of Stockholm, with a grand stand view of Gamla Stan. We stop to admire the bridge to up and coming Sodermalm, (to the south of course), described as the most vibrant area of the city. Then we are chugging past forested islands that vary from long-ish to minuscule, most of which carry splendid snow dusted timber homes of red or yellow ,with ornate boathouses. Many began as simple cottages and have been expanded over the years into magnificent affairs. It seems to be de rigeur to buy a house out here when you're rich and famous. Most of the Swedish people I’ve heard of have owned one, including Bjorn Borg and ABBA. There's also the odd castle peering through the tree tops. And a very tall chimney stack signifying a waste water treatment plant.
It's a sunny day and warm enough, just, to sit out on deck dressed in my ski gear and wrapped in a blanket. We're fortified by hot drinks from the bar. You can even order lunch , for the return journey, from the pretty restaurant. there's a commentary delivered from here, though I can’t decipher most of it outside.
As we approach Vaxholm there's a stiff. chilly breeze, which accounts for all the ice in the water, a churning mass behind us. Vaxholm is a summer town, described as charming by all the brochures. Most of the buildings are made of wood. I always thought that this was because it was the most easily available construction material and intrigued to see how many cities have been destroyed by fire at some time in their history, as a result. But apparently, houses are built of wood so they can be easily demolished in the event of war.
Vaxholm is presided over by a fortress. This has been a strategic point in Sweden, needing to be reinforced to keep both he Danes and the Russians out, over the years. It was built in the mid nineteenth century but fairly quickly became superfluous. It’s now a museum and guest house combined.
Food in Sweden is delicious and mostly nutritious. There's a lot of fish, with several different varieties of my favourite pickled herring and assorted castle like edifices, created with bread and cream cheese and prettily decorated with smoked salmon and plenty of prawns. (Absolutely delicious). Venison and pork cheeks with lingonberries, (actually, everything seems to be served up with lingon berries), beef tartare, Jerusalem artichoke soup with bacon and mushrooms. Breakfast buffets are beautifully presented with seed sprinkled breads, yogurts and fruit.
Less healthy are the tempting cakes buns pastries and ice cream (misleadingly called glass in Swedish). The speciality seems to be a bread bun filled with almond paste and lashings of whipped cream. The windows are full of these semlor, which are Lenten buns. They appear every year after Christmas and are treats to be eaten up to Easter. Just like Cadbury creme eggs. Though how they equate with Lent I'm not quite sure. It's also known as a kingslayer. Even more mysterious, and no link to Game of Thrones at all that I can see. Coffee and cake (usually a cinnamon bun) combined are known as Fika and advertised at most cafes.
Dinner at three different restaurants: all excellent. Nytorget 6 in the edgy Sodermalm district is a very popular bar and restaurant with modern decor. Glashuset (Glasshouse) on the waterfront and Stockholms Gastabud in the old town a shabbily chic ( in daylight) and traditional place that doesn't take bookings. I queued for 15 minutes. But it was worth it.
You can walk to much of this compact city over the bridges. The warren of cobblestone streets and gabled timbers of the Old Town (Gamla Stan) with the thirteenth-century Storkyrkan Cathedral (it's covered in scaffolding but there's an abundance of other green spires too) and tall, colourful houses are especially enticing. There are architectural surprises in all directions, a lot of baroque, the odd touch of nouveau and, down one of the many alleys, Brantingtorget, a statue in a fountain at the centre of a circular courtyard. Also, of course, all the modern Scandi chic in the many ultra-stylish shops and cafes.
West of Gamla Stan, Riddarholmskyrkan Island, reached via the Riddarhuset, the highly decorated House of the Nobility. Riddarholmskyrkan has views across the harbour to Sodersmalm and north to the City Hall, other government buildings, the National Theatre and shopping areas.
North of Gamla Stan, on a tiny island all of its own, with a manicured garden is another grand edifice, the Riksdagshuset (Parliament Building).
To the north east, quaysides packed with sightseeing boats, palatial hotels and Östermalm. This is the most expensive and leegant area of Stockholm, where where the locals do their upmarket shopping. Smart bars and restaurants line Stureplan Square,. Designer boutiques dot the area near Östermalms Saluhall, a fancy food market with stalls selling traditional specialties like gravlax and smoked shrimp. Cultural venues, include more churches, the Swedish History Museum and the imposing National Library of Sweden.
Gamla Stan is home to the Royal Palace (or Slotten), still the official residence of the King and used for state visits and ceremonies. There's the bed the queen slept in when she stayed. And lots of gilt and red plush.
When the first defences were erected on this island in the eleventh century there were no other buildings. As the medieval castle grew, so did the number of surrounding dwellings. The castle was extended and refurbished till it reached its resplendent best on 1697, when most of it was destroyed by fire. The current mammoth baroque building rose from the ashes.
There are various offshoots included on the ticket. The Three Crowns Museum (the symbol on Sweden’s coat of arms). tells the story of the palace history and the treasury contains the crown jewels. It’s not quite the Tower of London, but the various coronets are suitable sparkly. And tiny. Did they perch on top of their heads?
The Queen's Palace is some distance away, at Drottningholm (literally Queen's Home). It’s a very pleasant location, an island on a tranquil lake inlet. The original stone castle was built by John III of in 1580 for his queen, Catherine Jagiellon. But that one burnt down in 1662. The replacement served as a regular summer residence of the Swedish royal court for most of the eighteenth century. Enormous formal gardens stretch into the distance. More plush. Some chinoiserie and a series of busts of Roman emperors. In the summer there are boat trips, but the water is frozen here and we have to use Uber (or a bus and train).
There are well over 50 museums in Stockholm, including the galleries and royal palaces. Something to suit all interests: post museum, army museum, medieval Stockholm. Some are free. And if you want to see them all you'd better book for several weeks.
Most of the museums are grouped around Gamla Stan. The most prominent and famous is probably the Nobel Prize Museum, the twin to Oslo's Peace Museum. It's relatively new, (and closed at the moment) but located in the former Stock Exchange Building (Börshuset), on the north side of the Stortorget. As stipulated in Alfted Nobel's will (he invented dynamite), the peace prize is presented in Oslo and the chemistry, medicine, literature (and since 1968 economics) prizes in Stockholm. (Norway and Sweden were united as one kingdom in his lifetime.)
There's a whole series of browsing opportunities at Skeppsholmen, a tiny island alongside Gamla Stan, reached by a bridge from the 'mainland '. Most prominent. the modern art museum and a toy museum. Circumnavigation is pleasurable. There are plenty of interesting buildings, the red brick Admirals’ Chapel, arsenals and various boats, all along the quay.
Further south, I extend my walk across a bridge to walk round the even smaller Kastellholmen. As the name suggests, there's a diminutive red castlet ,with a round turret sitting atop the island. And right at the tip a sailing brig- The Three Crowns. Most of the boats are covered in winter suits - strong white coverings to protect them from the snow and ice.
Back on the mainland, and a little further east, towards Ostermalm, another bridge runs to larger Djurgarden Island. Here there's a more eclectic mix of museums and attractions. Skansen was the first open air museum in the world and is also thought to be the largest. Vernacular buildings, and a few more modern offerings, are scattered over the hillside. Costumed attendants mill around offering advice and a sort of authenticity.
One of the most visited attractions is the Vasa - a sixteenth century warship, named after King Gustav Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage and was preserved in the saline waters of the Baltic. It's Sweden’s answer to the Mary Rose. Alongside, an amusement park, Gruna Lund, offers, apparently, ‘27 adrenalin inducing rides.’
Possibly the most fun is the ABBA Museum, where you can dress up as your favourite band member and perform on stage. If you're so inclined.
There’s a good, fast railway line from Stockholm to Arlanda Airport and beyond to Uppsala and it’s a short walk through shopping streets to the old town, on the east side of the Fyris River. The rushing water, pools and bridges provide a pretty backdrop for pavement cafes and restaurants.
Uppsala is the long-time ecclesiastical centre of Sweden (since 1164), the seat of the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden. Naturally, it’s home to Scandinavia's largest cathedral – Uppsala Cathedral, where the Swedish monarchs were crowned until the late nineteenth century. (They elected not to be formally crowned after that). The cathedral is crammed with important tombs and chapels, most notably the tomb of King Gustav Vasa and the remains of Saint Erik, in a gold casket. He’s a sort of Swedish Thomas a Becket, but he was murdered by the Danes in the mid twelfth century. Miracles began to happen shortly after his death….There’s also a very good café.
Almost alongside is the pretty red brick Holy Trinity parish church, This one was inaugurated in 1302, but was restored after it was badly damaged in a fire in 1702
Uppsala Castle, is on a high mound .with some great views over formal gardens and the city. It was built on the site of the former residence of the archbishop by aforesaid King Gustav Vasa. This time the parallels are more Henry VIII and Wolsey. Gustav Vasa confiscated the Archbishop’s castle, demolished it and built his own Renaissance style castle from the ruins. The royal family got their comeuppance. The new castle burned down in 1704, and its remains were used to provide materials for the new palace in Stockholm (the last one was also destroyed in a fire). Since then the replacement has been one of the several royal residences of the Swedish monarchs, expanded several times over its history. It's not the most exciting palace I've ever seen. For some reason, it reminds me of a Premier Inn.
Today, Uppsala is probably best known for the university which occupies most of the buildings in the old town, around the cathedral and below the castle. Founded in 1477, Uppsala University is the oldest centre of higher education in Scandinavia. The original university building, the green domed Gustavianum, is now a museum of curiosities. Nearby, the equally ornate Carolina Rediviva Library displays a sixth century Silver Bible. Parks, monuments, squares, runic stones and and an old throne or two separate the many other university departments, which are equally architecturally diverse.
Among the many Uppsala alumni are Anders Celsius, and Carl Linnaeus. There’s a Linnaeus Museum and Garden, on the other side of the river, but it’s closed. Well-known Uppsala residents today include filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. But todays' students are not studying. There's a peace protest wending its way through the steep streets of the old town, chanting and banners waving.
Sigtuna is your stereotypical tourist must see, said by some to be the oldest town in Sweden. And according to Norse mythology the part time home of Odin. There’s a medieval-style town centre with restaurants, cafes and small shops and a church (usually, but not always in ruins) every few yards, Runic stones are scattered around. The old main street (Stora Gatan) has low built wooden houses. This is Sweden's first pedestrian street. Erik Segersäll stood here in 970, forged the new Sweden and proclaimed himself king. Steps and even narrower streets lead to several handicrafts shops and the cutest old tiny town hall. Down below, the frozen waters of Lake Malaren provide an idyllic backdrop. There’s a langlauf track across the ice and a natural skating rink
There are restaurants and cafes aplenty of course, though none of them are open at ten in the morning. The owner of one takes pity on us, through he’s astonished to see anyone out so early at the weekend.
Last time I left on another overnight, ferry from Stockholm, across the Baltic Sea, to Turku in Finland. There was a very good smorgasbord buffet on board. This time I'm also going onto Finland. But I'm flying direct to Helsinki. You can read more about Sweden here.
Oslo is my last European capital to visit. It's not exactly charming, like Bergen, but it's a small and sweet. A pleasant and easy place. It's spacious, with plenty of green areas. And the city is shown to good effect under cloudless skies.
Norway’s ancient capital wasn’t always called Oslo. Founded in 1040, its name was originally spelt Ânslo or Áslo. In 1624, a great fire destroyed large parts of the city, and it was decided to rebuild it closer to the Akershus Fortress. At the same time its name was changed to Christiania, in honour of the ruling monarch, King Christian IV. Between 1814 and 1905, Norway and Sweden were united in one kingdom and Oslo was the co-official capital, with Stockholm. In 1925, the city was renamed Oslo.
I've been wandering for about ten miles. Partly because the weather is good, partly because I get to see a lot more, and partly because I can't work out how to buy a tram ticket without downloading an app or opening a credit account. You can't pay on board. And also because I didn't pick the most logical route. I'm blaming Google.
Oslo Cathedral isn't the grandest building I've ever seen, but it's the building used to host all the main ceremonies required of the Church of Norway, like royal weddings. It dates from the late1600s, but was partially rebuilt in the nineteenth century.
South of the cathedral is Eidsvollsplass, running into Wesellsplass, a magnificent square and park lined with grand buildings, theatres and hotels. The park was preserved not so much for aesthetic reasons; it was more a case of NIMBY. The owners of the stately mansions didn't want tall buildings opposite them. To the north is the parliament building, the Stortinget, with its half rotunda. The parliament has only one voting house - a system known as unicameralism.
In the centre of the grassed area, statues and monuments and an outdoor skating rink, only open at the weekend. To the south, the National Theatre (Ibsen is often performed here) and the Royal Palace (Slottet) and Park. The Slottet is reached by steep steps and you're greeted by a statue of King Karl Johan in Palace Square. The palace was built for him (and he gave his name to the long street I've just walked along), but he died before it was finished in the 1840s. It's a smaller version of Buckingham Palace, though you can get much closer here. You're allowed to tour at weekends.
Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel (1833 - 1896), the inventor of dynamite, bequeathed the funds to found the Nobel Prizes. He stipulated that the annual presentation of the peace prize should take place in Oslo. (The other four- now five- prizes are given in Stockholm.) No-one is quite sure why he made this choice, but the kingdoms of Norway and Sweden were united, during his lifetime. The Peace Centre, a converted railway station, mounts exhibitions, offers tours and hosts peace related debates. It is right on the harbour, on the Aker Brygge, looking over the Oslo Fjord, along with a scattering of fish restaurants.
The Nobel Peace Prizes are actually presented annually, in December, in the imposing Oslo City Hall (Radhuset), just over the road. It is striking rather than attractive, built of large medieval style red bricks and has two colossal towers. The eastern tower has a carillon set of 49 bells.
It's a peaceful walk along the quayside, past moored schooners and brigs and some colourful warehouses. further round, the Akershus Fortress and old town, around which the new Christiana was constructed. The old town was always known as Oslo, though most of the sights, mainly churches, are now in ruins. The original medieval castle was built in the thirteenth century, but since then it has been transformed first into a fortress and then into a renaissance palace and residence of the royal family. It's open to the public, but only at weekends at the moment.
The National Opera and Ballet building dominates the next section of dockside. It's-cunningly designed to mirror the plates of ice on the finger of fjord on which it stands. Steep paths and walkways lead up to viewing platforms, on the top decks.
Next to the Opera House is the Munch Museum, Oslo's very recent version of Tate Modern. There was a competition for the design and the project was put on hold at least once, due to budget wrangling. There is a great of plate glass and long escalators, leading you to the various exhibitions and views across the harbour and the city. Not everyone loves the winning design. According to Wikipedia, it has been branded the unofficial world's largest collection of guard rails.
As you would expect, most of the paintings on display were executed by Edvard Munch. He was extremely prolific; the museum owns 26.000 of his works. The Scream, his iconic piece, takes pride of place. Most of us can identify with the anguished subject. But fewer folk would know that there were actually four copies of the Scream made - two paintings and two pastels. The museum owns three of them and rotates these on the display. One copy of the Scream was famously stolen in 2004, but the police managed to get it back. The museum is busy, even though the streets are quiet and you have to crane your neck to get a view.
Other modern and impressionist painters also feature - Dali, Picasso, Magritte.
Back past the palace and park, through the city centre, down the lengthy Karl Johans Gate mainly pedestrianized street (1200 metres long), lined with small shops. and by the cathedral again, into the suburbs of Uranienborg. Large affluent wooden structures and peaceful streets. It's a two mile stroll to the Vigeland Sculpture Park, set within the largest green space in Oslo, the Frogner Park.
Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland has assembled 200 sculptures to represent the cycle of human life. It's the largest sculpture park by a single artist in the world and it's entertaining, rather than enchanting. Surrounding the park are various enormous sports halls, skating and swimming, and further south, on a little peninsula is The Viking Ship Museum. But it's closed. (very) long term for renovation.
The Hotel Bristol isn't quite Claridge's, but the wintergarden restaurant is posh and expensive. Mind you, everywhere in Oslo is expensive. It's the second most expensive city in the world (according to one list- they're all different). The country has the fourth-highest per-capita income in the world.
There are chandeliers, arches and panelled gilded ceilings. And plenty of well heeled ladies eating cakes from silver tiered stands. Afternoon tea is 490 krone (over 40 pounds) so I reckon it will have to serve for dinner as well. Teeny cakes, a macaron, finger sandwiches and freshly baked scones with clotted cream and lemon curd. I wonder if that would be allowed in Devon?
The place where I'm staying, a sister hotel to the Bristol, on the same block, isn't Claridge's either. But the rooms are Scandi and elegant, with a squeezing of lime. The staff are exceptionally friendly and helpful. And it boasts it has the best breakfast in Oslo. They may be right. It's a glorious buffet selection. Like most places in Oslo they all speak good English. (Most of the signage is in English too). I've also noticed in some restaurants, that the common language amongst the multi lingual staff is English.
A taxi from Gardermoen Airport to the city centre is 100 euros and it takes an hour. The airport train takes 20 minutes and is about 20 euros. It's a no brainer. Though Google not having its finest hour in Oslo and tells me that my hotel is 3. 5 kilometres from the station, so I take a taxi. That's another 20 euros. Even when I discover that its actually only half a mile and the streets are reasonably flat. Which is why I'm wheeling my trolley case through a dark and chilly Oslo at 5 in the morning to get the train and then the plane to Stockholm.
The train is super efficient. You can even scan your boarding pass and print out your bag tag. And you only have to be at the airport an hour before take off. I hope.
Read more tales from Norway here.
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