Magnetic North

Arriving in Stockholm, I start off by walking around the Vasastan area a bit, starting with the Gustav Vasa Kyrke and then to the Stadsbibliotheket. This is perhaps one of the most striking buildings in the city; a cylindrical drum painted in bright orange, where books ring the interior. Heading down to the waterfront, I walk across a bridge to Gamla Stan, noting that someone seems to have waders on and is fishing the waters of Lake Mälaren below. Stockholm is often compared to Venice for reasons that are obvious enough but it lacks the dense crowded aspect to that city; everything here is spaced out with entire islands in the lake given up to woodland. The crossing point from Norrmalm to Gamla Stan is an odd one, representing a division between a mostly modern city and a medieval old town. The old town looks similar to Germany or the Netherlands, give or take the occasional Runestone embedded in the walls. I start here by looking at the Riddarholmenskyrkan, which effectively serves the same purpose as Roskilde Cathedral in its Royal entombments. The walls are lined with heraldic emblems of the Order of the Seraphim, which is only offered to foreign recipients (hence odd contortions to represent Mexico and Korea in terms of traditional European emblems).

The dominating feature of Gamla Stan is the Royal Palace. An exhibition inside shows models of the previous Three Crowns Palace, which burned down. It’s hard not to regret this, given that its turrets would have fitted in with the rest of the island’s spires rather better than the current dull box resting atop it. The interior is rather more impressive though; I especially like King Gustav’s Antiquities Museum with its collection of Roman statues, with a statue of Endymion standing out. Inside the Palace the most striking things are the Hall of Mirrors with its mimetic replication of Versailles and the silver throne. As I leave the Palace, it’s time for the changing of the guard; which I can now claim to have seen in Sweden but never in Britain. On the rest of the island, I visit the Cathedral, a rather lovely brick gothic affair with a large statue of St George and the Dragon at its centre.

If Gamla Stan rather reminds me of a Swedish Île de la Cité, then neighbouring Sodermalm actually reminds me of Lisbon. It’s the only Island in central Stockholm to rise sharply above the others with large jutting cliffs with viewing platforms sticking out of them. The views from it across the rest of the city rather remind me of Lisbon’s miradors. I visit a church near the summit of this cliff-face. There’s a rather pleasant small park where the fountains rather look like plesiosaurs. The small islands of Skeppsholmen and Kastellholmen are former navalyards and still feature watchtowers and wooden cranes for offloading equipment. The main thing there now is the Modern Museet. The main exhibit therein is Rauschenberg’s Monogram, along with works by Pollock, Matisse, Gauguin and Klein. I find myself especially drawn to the photography exhibits, like Nadar’s aerial photos of Paris along with works by Bresson and Arbus. The only Swedish artist I recognise are some works by Hilma Af Klint. Walking back to the mainland, I rather like the Dramatic Theatre, with its statue of Margaretha Krook standing outside.

The island of Kungsholmen contains the striking brick Town Hall, a rather more impressive building with its tower than either the Parliament or the Royal Palace. The exterior has a large open courtyard, which leads out to a colonnaded terrace looking out over the lake to Gamla Stan. I go on a tour of the interior, from where Nobel banquets are held to the debating chamber. The most striking aspect is the Golden Hall, which is rather like walking into a modernist version of a Byzantine church.

With the weather expected to take a turn for the worst later in the week, I decide to visit Drottningholm earlier than I had originally planned. Much of the design of the palace here is deliberately intended to recall a French chateau but the lakeside setting is rather more beautiful than Versailles. Geese wonder around with goslings in tow. The grounds are less extensive but have some interesting follies; a brick gothic tower on a hill, a Chinese folly (whose interior features a set of opium pipes) and a faked guard tent that is actually made out of wood. There’s also a village originally built for silk production. The interior of the palace has some interesting features; a marble grand staircase and a pair of halls frescoed with images of Swedish wars against Poland. The most extraordinary feature is the court theatre, a wooden building that has been preserved with its original set designs intact.

The next day I visit the open air Skansen museum on Djurgarden. Much of this is given up to traditional architecture transplanted to the island from across Sweden; farmer’s houses, windmills, churches and belfries. Some of the architecture comes from the period when Sweden and Norway were one state; the Finnish huts are filled with a great deal of smoke in the absence of a chimney and are filled with examples of household items made out of bark. There are also examples of Saami architecture, which remind me of Tepees as well as a house built on inverted tree trunks that puts me in mind of Baba Yaga’s hut. A lot of these buildings come with traditional breeds of farmyard animals; pigs, chickens, cows, ponies and sheep (albeit these are a British breed). There’s also a zoo with wild Scandinavian animals; wolves, owls, bison, boar, elk, reindeer, otters, seals and bears. A lot of them are asleep in the heat, although the otters seem especially occupied with fighting with each other so that little is visible other than a sea of froth. There are quite a lot of young animals and some wolf cubs are doing much the same thing. I do find myself a little disturbed by one of the bears, which is walking up and down its enclosure and seems to be deliberately trying to keep out of the way of the crowds. Oddly enough, the thing that most astounds me is the number of red squirrels on the island, which seem pretty indifferent to all the visitors. Leaving the museum, I sit down for a bit at the waterfront, where I discover a statue of Jenny Lind.

The day after, I take a train up to Uppsala. On arrival, I start by visiting the cathedral. The redbrick exterior belies a medieval interior, with rose windows and decorated gothic vaults. The Vasa tomb inside is perhaps the most impressive thing, with an alabaster monument surrounded by frescoed walls. The surrounding grounds have various runestones dotted around them. The small Holy Trinity church nearby is in some ways more striking; a brick gothic affair, whose plastered walls are covered in medieval frescoes of angels. From, there I walk to the Linnaeus garden and house. The house is a rather small affair, with the oddity of wallpaper that could be removed. The gardens are divided into different sections according to either habitat (river or marsh, for example) or type (perennial or annual). The main oddities are a set of boxes on posts where Linnaeus apparently kept his chained monkeys. He also had a pet raccoon with a habit of biting the servant’s legs. Lastly, I visit the University, where you can visit the original Augsburg wunderkammer that formed the basis of its collection (I like the taxidermied albino squirrel), the old anatomical theatre, an exhibition of scientists like Celsius and Berzelius that worked there and an Egyptology section with a series of sarcophagi.

Back in Stockholm and I return to Djurgarden. It’s a rainy day and I spend the morning in the Vasa Museum. I rather expect something similar to the Mary Rose and am astonished by what I find; a ship that is essentially intact and rather larger. It was also raised from the seabed much earlier than the Mary Rose and the exhibition covers a lot of details on how this was done. The afternoon is spent in the neighbouring Nordiska Museet. This is a wonderfully impressive building but the exhibitions are perhaps rather more anodyne. The main hall is dominated by a massive painted statue of Gustav Vasa, which rather has the effect of looking like a shrine to a deity. The upper floors contain exhibitions of Swedish folk art, Strindberg’s rather impressionist paintings and the history of the Saami people, but exhibitions on the lower floors of traditional dress and dollshouses are perhaps of less interest. Lastly, I visit Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, the house of a Prince and the art he painted. I rather like a lot of his landscapes although he seems to have been better at photography than painting. An exhibition covers the work of Swedish painters at the Grez-sur-Loing colony, including works by Carl Larsson. The gardens and grounds are also rather pleasant; the reeds by the lake have notices on them warning of nesting swans and there’s an old windmill used for grinding lindseed. Back in central Stockholm later, I’m sat down beside an old church waiting for the time of my restaurant reservation where a hare runs out of the shrubbery, pauses in front of me, runs off and then comes back for a repeat performance ten minutes later.

The day after also has rather poor weather, so I visit the Historiska Museet. The entrance has a rather good collection of runestones but the Viking section is unfortunately shut. I start by visiting the prehistoric section and then the medieval, which has an extensive collection of items like gilded church sculptures and gold reliquaries. Some of the more unexpected exhibits include the crown of Elizabeth of Hungary and both Buddhist and Islamic finds from Viking settlements. Nearby is the huge National Museum, with its huge entrance hall filled with replicas of famous sculptures like the Laocoon and the Discobulus. A lot of the collection isn’t all that famous but it’s still rather enjoyable. Some of the artists that are quite well known are Rembrandt, Cranach, Arcimboldo, Hilliard, El Greco, Bellini, Cezanne, Delacroix, Fuseli, de la Tour, Bronzino and Hals. Some of the paintings by Swedish artists like Zorn, Osslund and Liljefors are also rather striking.

The following day I visit the island of Vaxholm in the archipelago. It’s a rather attractive place, where a local history society keeps a traditional cottage open as a local museum with exhibitions on herring fishing and shoe making on the island. I take a cable ferry from the main island out to its accompanying castle, which once defended Stockholm from Russian invasion after the rest of the archipelago had fallen. One of the more interesting exhibits is a small submarine. The weather is rather grey when I arrive but by the time I’ve left the museum in the castle everything has changed and the sky is blue.

On my final day in Stockholm, I go for a walk to the Rosendal Palace and Botanical Garden on Djurgarden, before visiting the Museum of Mediterranean History. Sweden did a lot of archaeological work on Cyprus and Egtptian consuls helped it build a large collection. The things that most strike me are a the huge stone sarcophagus of Taperet, Fayum paintings, fake doored mausoleum sculptures, an Anubis sculpture and some Greek gold diadems in the shape of a wreath of leaves. The very last thing I do is visit the Strindberg museum. In one of the upper floors in an attractive art nouveau set of apartments, it was where he lived for the last years of his life and from where he appeared on the balcony as crowds protested at him not winning the Nobel prize.

Some final observations on the country – a lot of what I saw conformed to the set of Swedish stereotypes I had in my mind; rather pretty buildings with good transport, for example. But homelessness did seem more of a problem than I had expected, if nowhere near as bad as in the UK. The presence of lots of stalls selling falafel in some places testified to the reception of Syrian refugees some years ago.

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