Taking stock of Stockholm

Time travel

Taking stock of Stockholm

Stockholm, the Swedish capital, is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. It is an island-and-bridge kind of city. Spread over a cluster of 14 islands and a landscape with spires of tall Gothic churches piercing to the sky makes it a specially charming place.

Stockholm is a modern city, but my first stop for exploration was Gamla Stan, the old town about which I had heard a lot. The steep cobbled paths, remarkably well-preserved, creates the impression of a fortified town, as indeed it was 750 years ago. Gamla Stan, however, is not a dead, ancient quarter; it is very much a living town, full of boutiques, galleries and restaurants. Though a tourist hotspot, it does not look kitschy.

Winter wonderland

It was winter when I visited Stockholm. By four in the afternoon, it was already getting dark. Candles at the doorsteps flickered, apparently an old local custom, while restaurants with varied cuisines on offer readied for business. People eat early here. I indulged myself with the famous Scandinavian salmon, baked to perfection, accompanied by hot wine. It was an introduction of sorts — the red and warm wine spiced with herbs, which immediately perked up the cold bones.

As I tried not to get lost in the labyrinthine lanes, the sound of bugles and drums wafted in from somewhere. Following the strains, I landed on a vast courtyard. I joined the crowd and found that Stockholm’s own version of ‘change of guards’, as in London, was taking place in front of the Royal Palace. The guards in smart uniforms were going through a centuries-old ritual once reserved for the kings.

Just across is the Storkyrkan, the Great Church, going back to the 13th century, the city’s oldest. The Nobel Museum, a fascinating archive of Nobel laureates and their works, is around too.

Getting around Sweden by subway (the same ticket will do for buses too) is an excellent option. It is well-connected to all the four directions. The first subway station was opened in the 1950s. The map, supplied free at any subway station, is a great help to hop across the town and change lines. The hub is the Central station from where the different lines fork out like veins. The stations themselves often display paintings, making them interesting backdrops, and people actually stand and stare unlike in more frenetic paced cities.

Outside the Central station are huge shopping malls, lanes lined with eateries and boutiques. It was here, on the bowl in front of the station, that I saw a huge political rally. Pink and white balloons floated in the air as speakers made their passionate speeches, incomprehensible to me, but I realised that the sound of protest is the same everywhere, whether in this rich country or back home.

Museum musings

From here it is just a short walk to some of the best locations of the city: the National Museum, the Opera House, or across to the pier from where tourists can take off for cruises. The boat cruises are popular and there are many options.

Skansen in the Djurgarden island is the first open-air museum in the world which opened in 1891. It gives a rare glimpse into Swedish life in earlier times. Alas, it being winter, I could not enjoy its charms. In summer, it is one of the most popular outings.

One morning, as I peeped through the window, I saw a world out there like a white fairyland. The Swedes said it was too early to snow, but never mind, as the snowflakes floated down to settle down on the roads and buildings, wrapping them up like a white quilt, and the parked buses in the hotel compound down below looked like slabs of vanilla ice cream. Wrapped up to the teeth, I ventured out, my boots sinking into flaky ice, to visit the National Museum, a beautiful building overlooking the waters. Each of its floors displays outstanding paintings, sculptures from masters and representations of Swedish culture.

Medieval trade routes brought exotic oriental influences to the crafts. For me, Auguste Rodin’s magnificent sculpture ‘Man’s Awakening’ stands out in memory as also the modern design section. Swedish minimalist design, whether in furniture or household objects, and the innovative use of colour, are a delight to the senses.

Outside the museum, as I munched on a kebab prepared by a Turkish vendor, I saw that the centre of the Slussen park was frozen solid and children were skating on it merrily while indulgent parents encouraged them when they fell down.

From there I took a bus to explore another must-see in Stockholm, the Vasa Museum located in a shipwrecked ship. Famous Swedish king Gustav Adolf, who wanted to show off his navy power to the neighbouring kingdoms, built this massive ship but it sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. It remained at the bottom of the sea for 333 years until a daring salvage operation brought it up.

Cleaned of the silt of centuries, the richness of the colours of 700 carved wooden figures astounded one and all. It is today the world’s only well-preserved 17th century ship. Going around a ‘living’ museum to be precise, because you see how the sailors lived, what they ate etc., is a fascinating journey down the ages.

Across is the Nordik Museum dominated by the Great Hall at the entrance. The magnificent building is Sweden’s largest display of cultural history. From the display of tables laid in different styles at different times, to costumes to folklore replications, it is like a lifestyle book on Swedish culture.

The people in Stockholm are helpful to a fault; they go out of their way to give directions when you are lost, and it’s safe to move around. The country has long been a destination of asylum seekers persecuted in conflict regions due to its liberal policies. I remember a vendor from whom I bought a coat. “You from India or Pakistan? Shukriya,” he said and sang some lines from an old Hindi movie. He even gave me a discount because I was from India. He was from Afghanistan.

Fact file

Getting there

Stockholm is connected to all major Indian cities by air and has a good network of public transport.

must visits

A tranquil oasis in the heart of the city, Djurgården is a perfect place for a stroll.
Nestled at the water’s edge and topped by three golden crowns, the City Hall is one of Stockholm’s most iconic buildings.

To experience Stockholm from the water is surely a must-do for any visitor. Take a trip under the bridges of Stockholm or while away an hour or two on the Royal Canal Tour.

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