We were due to catch a train to Stockholm from Gothenburg and had about an hour before it was due, so we hoped to squeeze in more of the delicious food offerings at Feskekörka. Sadly we discovered that it closes early on a Saturday so we found another restaurant a few minutes walk away. It was a decent and suitably quick meal, where I opted for Swedish meatballs which seemed homemade and were very tasty. The train journey itself was a pleasant and smooth trip. We admired the countryside as we travelled and couldn’t help but note that there was lots and lots of forest; a much higher percentage (compared with grassland or urban landscape) than I’ve ever experienced on a journey in the UK. Though we did admire one man-made sight that we passed – a busy skateboard park, which looked both well designed and well used.
Some hours later we were in Stockholm and checking into our hotel. The Miss Clara Hotel is a converted girls boarding school and certainly seemed to have plenty of character. The rooms were all in stripped wood with furniture evoking boarding school (but really comfortable!), including bent wood chairs; like school ones but a kind of icon in the hotel. We were given a room on the first floor initially which we were assured was quiet, but being woken up by builders outside very early in the morning soon proved that wrong so we got ourselves moved to a lovely room on the 6th floor, which was a nice size and where the furniture included a comfortable chaise longue!
After a tasty breakfast spread, our first stop was the Vasa museum; a museum built around the Vasa, a 16th century Swedish warship (literally built around it – the ship was restored in dry dock and the museum built over it, creating an educational resource surrounding the vessel itself). In this respect the museum reminded us of the Fram museum in Oslo, but the provenance of the boat was more intriguing. Rather than preserving a successful vessel, the Vasa was uniquely preserved due to it’s lack of success; it sank a few minutes into it’s maiden voyage, while still in Stockholm harbour! The cold brakish water of the harbour preserved the ship for hundreds of years, until it was found and carefully recovered in the 1960s and is now a major tourist attraction. We spent a good couple of hours here, where we enjoyed a short tour by a local guide and then a longer audio tour, using an app on our iPhones. The boat tells a somewhat sad story, as many hands went down with the ship and were drowned. It also allows a unique glimpse into the past due to these same circumstances, which wouldn’t otherwise have been possible. Before moving onto the next location we took advantage of the cafe to have some lunch, where I enjoyed a different style of Swedish meatball and Greg had a fine mushroom stroganoff, both served in traditional lunch style with a salad buffet and huge loaves of lovely fresh bread that you could cut as much as you wanted from.
Our second stop of the day was to a sculpture garden called Millesgården, an art museum and sculpture garden located on the island of Lidingö. It is located on the grounds of the home of sculptor Carl Milles and his wife artist Olga Milles, and contains work they created and collected. It’s an impressive setting for an impressive range of sculpture which is displayed throughout the extensive garden, as well as inside their old house and studio. Carl Milles had commissions from all over the world, mostly to make monumental designs for public buildings, squares and fountains. Copies of many of these now grace the garden, and the house includes some of his smaller works together with collections of antique sculpture. I especially enjoyed some of the larger garden pieces – such as Pegasus, which looked spectacular against the blue sky.
From the sculpture garden we headed to the old Royal church – The Riddarholmen Church – which is the final resting place of the Swedish kings and Stockholm’s only preserved medieval monastery church. The congregation was dissolved in 1807 and today the church is used only for burial and commemorative purposes. All Swedish monarchs from Gustavus Adolphus (d. 1632) to Gustaf V (d. 1950) are entombed here with the exception of Queen Christina (who is buried within St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), as well some earlier monarchs. It has fairly recently been discontinued as a royal burial place in favor of the Royal Cemetery in Haga Park. It was quite a small church, not as visually striking as many that we visited, but it had quite a considered atmosphere and we were impressed by the many heraldic shields on display which represent the members of the Order of the Seraphim, including the Swedish Royal family (including all of those buried in the church and the heads of state from other nations). The shields on display represent only dead members of the order. The living members shields are on display in the Royal Palace.
We walked from the church through the old town, and stopped at a bath house that we hoped to visit. Greg had read that it opened “after summer”, without any indication of when summer was! We now know that summer is a very specific period in Sweden – from mid June to end August. As we were visiting at the very end of August, we found that the baths weren’t open until the start of September; opening the day we had to leave for our next city. 😦 So instead we wandered around the old town for a while and consoled ourselves with an ice-cream, which we purchased from a shop which hand-made sugar cones on a special machine they had placed by the window so that you could watch the process.
We returned to our hotel to change and headed out for dinner at a restaurant called Nybrogatan 38, named after it’s street address. This turned out to be a splendid meal, which we both thoroughly enjoyed. It was clearly very busy, but the service was good and the menu offered a lot to tempt us. I ordered some Arctic Char, which was excellent. Greg ordered a pasta dish and then spotted a very fine looking steak salad served to the table next to us. After clearly drooling over this I caught our waitress and managed to have Greg’s order changed… and he was delighted to discover that the salad tasted even better than it looked; proving to be the best steak salad Greg had ever had, and possibly his favourite salad ever!
The next day was an early start as we had a very important first stop… the ABBA Museum! This is one of Stockholms most popular museums, and we spent a good few hours there. It proved to be very comprehensive and we really enjoyed the experience. The information and exhibits were very well presented, with plenty of written material in complement to the good audio guide (narrated by ABBA themselves, of course). We were also impressed by the number of interactive exhibits, where you could do such things as remix an ABBA track (and attempt to emulate the original audio engineer), sing karaoke to a selection of tracks, star in your own ABBA video and even perform on stage alongside (virtual) ABBA, watched by other museum visitors! One of the major take-aways for me was to discover that Sweden has a very rich musical heritage and music seems much more important to the country and its history than I had appreciated. All the members of ABBA had been successful in the own right locally within the Swedish folk music circuit before eventually getting together to form ABBA, and shooting to international fame and fortune on the back of winning the Eurovision Song contest with Waterloo (in Brighton no less).
After our visit to the world of ABBA we stepped away from musical Sweden and into older Sweden, visiting a park called Skansen where many old Swedish buildings have been collected together. We started with some lunch (meatballs, of course, with the standard lunch accompaniments of salad and bread) in an authentic tavern, followed by cake from the historic bakery whilst we planned our visit. From our assessment of the map it became quickly apparent that the place was huge! It was also a slightly odd mix of.. a park for old buildings… craft centre… and zoo! The old buildings were like other similar locations that we’d visited, with very fine old houses including an interesting old school house, a hardware store, grocer, windmill, bell tower and church. The craft buildings were also interesting, with modern day craftsmen practicing old crafts such as glass blowing, wooden furniture making and metal working. The zoo element was also interesting, with a pure focus on a selection of animals native to Sweden including some wolves and bears in imaginative large enclosures.
Dinner that evening was back in the old town, at a Viking tavern (called Aifur)! We enjoyed this unusual experience, which was strongly themed in terms of both menu and decor. We certainly felt as if we’d entered a Viking feasting hall as we were sat at our long shared table, and gazed up at the animal hides and weapons which adorned the walls. For our starter we shared an excellent seafood soup, then for mains we ordered a selection of feast meats, which turned out to be some fantastic poussin, flank steak and lamb; all cooked very well with a smokey bbq flavour and served with some great sauces. I tried some of the house mead to drink, which although not really my thing did seemed to go well with the food. After dinner we ambled back to the hotel and our evening was finished on an unexpected note (pretty literally!) when we passed by a busker in the street playing the cello; and he was really very good indeed. We stayed and listened for a good 10 enchanting minutes, along with a small crowd doing the same. Definitely a higher quality of busker than we normally hear on the streets of Bristol or Bath!
The next day saw us visit the Swedish Royal palace. We started with the Treasury, which was small and although it contained some impressive pieces it didn’t really do it for us before making a brief visit to the almost cathedral sized Royal Chapel. We found the next section much more engaging; a tour of the royal apartments. We particularly enjoyed the tour guide, who had perfect English with a cut-glass accent and reminded us slightly of Penelope Keith! She also rigorously enforced the no-photos policy, loudly berating a transgresor (and after very pointedly instructing them not to do it again added that the royal palace was protected by the army!). She proved to be a very knowledgable guide and we enjoyed our tour of – as she emphasised – a working palace, not a museum.
The first building in the palace location was a small castle in the 13th century which over time was updated and enlarged before beginning a slow evolution into a palace. The great austere Roman baroque northern row was built in 1692. In 1696 an New Royal Chapel was inaugurated which created an architectural quirk in the palace design. The new chapel was the same size as the previous one, but it was too large to fit the austere baroque lines of the exterior design (baroque style requires all windows in a row to be the same size – no matter what the layout of the rooms is). To get round this the architect added an additional mezzanine floor with much smaller windows just above the lower windows. The chapel has since been moved into the southern row (all its decor and furnishings moved with it), but in keeping with Baroque the mezzanine row of windows continues around the entire building, a remnant of the previous location of the Royal Chapel.
All of the original castle burned down in 1698 leaving only the newly built northern row which just needed repair. The palace as we saw it was built from that point, culminating in around 1770. Since then only minor alterations and redecoration have changed the palace. After our rather wonderful tour of the palace we stepped out to the sound of a band and paused to enjoy the pomp and incredible flamboyance of the changing of the guard; they go for a full-on show lasting around 45 minutes with a marching band – partially on horseback – which stops for a solo show in the middle, playing popular tunes before going back to more military music. Our final stop in the Palace was Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities, which was rather disappointing. It is a collection of antique sculpture but there were a lot of broken parts and some had had body parts rearranged to suit more recent (the period of Gustav II) social mores with scant regard for historical accuracy! It has been preserved as laid out when opened, mostly as talking point for guests of the royal family during the period when prestige was more important than how authentic something was.
After the Royal Palace we had a short time before our onward journey, so we found a fast food restaurant specialising in burgers and mussels (possibly unsurprisingly called Bon Moules & Burgers); Greg had a burger and I had mussels! We had a quick run to Alewards Outdoor & Sports so I could try out Fallraven walking trousers, followed by an equally quick dash to StikkiNikki for huge cones of delicious gelato before heading back to the hotel and grabbing our bags. We then took a short tram ride to the ferry port, and boarded our transport to city number 37 – an overnight ferry to… Tallin.