Stockholm is spread across 14 islands connected by at least 57 bridges, but it’s surprisingly walkable. The city is compact, with distinctive neighbourhoods and the old town, called Gamla Stan, is its beating heart. The streets of the historic centre are razor thin in places, paved with ancient cobblestones and lined with shops of every description.
If it’s modern your after, the modern Stockholm is only a short bridge away. The latest fashions, in clothing, accessories and automobiles, can be enjoyed by curious window-shoppers or serious jet setters; cheek by jowl. If it’s the latest thing you’re after, Stockholm is the place to come.
The city’s charter dates to 1250 when a trade treaty was signed between the local citizens and the Hanseatic port of Lübeck. The royal castle, Tre Kronor (Three Crowns), was commissioned by the official founder, Birger Jarl, in 1252. The name Stockholm means ‘tree-truck isle’ and is thought to refer to the wooden stumps that were driven into the seabed to build the locks near the port.
Difficult times followed with the arrival of the Black Death and the armies of Denmark’s Queen Margrethe. In 1520, the Danish King Christian II lured the burghers of Stockholm into a political trap, and had them beheaded in a picturesque square in Gamla Stan. The son of one of the victims became the first king of Sweden on June 6, 1523. The day is now recognized as Sweden’s National Day.
By the end of the 16th century and on into the 17th, Stockholm flourished and became a thriving city, an architectural beauty with artistic and cultural flair. However, a devastating famine followed by attacks from Russian armies shrunk the Swedish empire once again, even before another plague struck the population.
In spite of this, famous people seemed to be able to emerge from all the troubles. The late 18th century saw great advancements in science, the arts and in architecture. Anders Celsius invented the centigrade temperature scale and botanist Carl von Linné developed a system for the classification of animals. King Gustav II was assassinated at a masked ball in the Opera House, and thus inspired Giuseppe Verdi to craft the opera ‘The Masked Ball’.
Almost a century later, the rail lines running north and south were connected at Stockholm triggering a great industrial boom, swelling the population by over 70,000 in just 10 years. The world was watching when the city hosted the 1812 summer Olympics, but was shocked when the country refused to participate in a blockade against Germany during WWI. Britain took the drastic step of cutting off the supply ships to Sweden, causing widespread starvation in the capital.
During WWII, Sweden continued to maintain its neutrality, and as a result saw a massive influx of immigrants from the Baltic and Scandinavian states, especially those of Jewish extraction. The economy boomed following the end of the war, and the population expanded out into the suburbs, though the architecture was more Soviet-era bland, than the older districts near the centre.
Technology blossomed following the hardship years during the early 1990s, and today Stockholm is a major centre promoting fashion, cuisine and biodiversity.
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
We count ourselves as very lucky to have a good friend who lives in Stockholm. It’s not often that we are able to visit someone we know as we travel around the world. Donghee is a dear friend of my Korean sister-in-law Jeong Ae. They met each other in nursing school in Seoul and have maintained their friendship even after Jeong Ae emigrated to Canada and Donghee to Sweden.
Donghee has been to Canada twice and she brought her daughter along on one of her visits. Her daughter Songhee came on her own after she had graduated from high school, so we know her as an adult as well. For this reason, we were vey keen to see them both again, but this time on their home ‘turf’.
We travelled by train from Copenhagen to Stockholm a journey lasting only five hours. We expected to see some spectacular scenery, but after crossing a massive bridge over the Baltic just outside of Stockholm, we changed trains at the Malmo station and plunged into a veritable sea of green. The train line cuts diagonally across the southern part of Sweden and we saw nothing but forests, and more forests, with a tiny village here and there.
In some ways this makes sense when you think about it. The interior of Sweden is very sparsely inhabited because the land wasn’t particularly arable and most people settled along the coast where they had access to the sea for both sustenance and transportation. We were still happy that we had chosen to take the train and not fly to Stockholm because we love the chance to move around on trains and they bring you into the center of the city, not the far-distant suburbs.
We changed from the train and took the metro as instructed by Songhee. She met us at the station with a huge smile and an even bigger hug. It was a terrific reunion, and we caught up on the intervening years over glasses of wine and a tasty Korean meal. We’re so lucky that Donghee speaks fairly good English, because our Korean and Swedish in almost completely non-existent.
Donghee had told us that she had planned a trip to visit her family in Korea around the end of September, but that we were welcome to stay in her apartment while she was gone. We made sure to arrive a few days before her departure so that we could spend some time together, but she had one more day at the office after we arrived. She told us about a nearby former palace where the grounds provided a lovely place to stroll in the afternoon. We decided this was a perfect introduction to Sweden considering that it was overcast and threatening to rain a little. We could go for a walk, but retreat to the apartment if it started to rain heavily.
Later that evening, Donghee introduced us to the antics of a crazy Korean who dances ‘Gangnam Style’, and we found his music infectious and fun. After a few glasses of wine, we were all dancing Gangnam-style and laughing our heads off. I took some video footage, but you couldn’t pay me to share them with you here. (Not that you would!)
Saturday morning Donghee took us up on our claim that we liked to walk, and that we were able to walk for hours on end. We set off from her northern suburb to the city itself; she told us it would take a couple of hours. The weather was still overcast and threatening to rain, so Anil wore his rain jacket and I carried an umbrella. The walk was amazing.
There is a great deal of parkland outside of Stockholm and our route took us through several parks and alongside a fresh water lake. Donghee set a very fast pace, explaining that she often takes this route home from work in order to clear her mind after a stressful day at the bank. It started to rain about two hours into our walk, but I was unconcerned thinking that we were almost at our destination. However, we just kept walking and walking through forests and it didn’t feel like we were any closer to the buzz of the city.
Finally, Donghee confessed that she had taken a wrong turn at one point, and in fact we had made a huge loop that had added almost an hour to our hike. She usually walks home from the city, and everything looks a little different when you’re walking in the opposite direction. We didn’t mind really, but there was a little bit of time pressure because we wanted to make it to the government liquor store before 3:00pm, when it closes for the weekend.
Stockholm has surprisingly strict rules about selling alcohol. Here’s a note I found on a Stockholmtourist blogspot site: “If you have thoughts of stopping at the grocery store to pick up a bottle of wine... you will be sorely disappointed. There are strong laws in Sweden regarding the sale of alcohol. In Sweden all wine, strong beer, alcohol and liquors can only be purchased at state-run liquor stores called Systembolaget. The only thing that can be sold in regular grocery stores is a weaker beer (3.5% or less alcohol by volume).”
Suffice it to say that we did make it to the Systembolaget before it closed, after passing by the beautiful Olympic Stadium where the games were held exactly 100 years ago, and then walking through the diplomatic district and the charmingly named Bumblebee Park. It was a fabulous introduction to the capital city; one we will long remember. Poor Anil, for the balance of the afternoon, he had to carry our stockpile of wine in his backpack.
The next two days are a complete blur for me, and it’s not because I overindulged in wine or Gangnam dancing. Unfortunately, on Friday morning I sampled some of the lovely Serrano ham that Donghee lovingly offered us, forgetting that it has triggered migraines for me in the past. There was a little to finish off on Sunday morning, and I ate a couple of pieces at breakfast before my headache started later in the day.
I spent all day Sunday and Monday in a dark room, wishing I had a better memory for things that I should avoid completely. My biggest regret was that I couldn’t spend more time chatting with Donghee before she left, but Anil loved the peace and quiet, and the fact that I wasn’t dragging him all over the city, and it meant that Donghee could finish her packing and attend to last minute details before her two-week trip.
I was back to normal on Tuesday morning, and we even managed to help Donghee by walking with her to the airport shuttle bus. She would have had to take a taxi to the bus stand if we weren’t there to help with the luggage. It was the least we could do, considering we were planning to stay in her apartment for another week. The unfortunate thing was that my sister Donna was arriving from Edmonton to join us for a month, and she wasn’t coming until after Donghee left for Korea. They would have enjoyed seeing each other again as well.
We used our transit passes to travel to the airport the next day to meet Donna, instead of taking the more expensive airport shuttle bus the 50km to the airport. Donna arrived in great shape after her long flight via Seattle and Reykjavik. We gave her a day to get her ‘legs’ and then we all headed into the city to see all the must-see tourist sights.
We have travelled with Donna before; she joined us for three weeks in Spain in 2009 and we had a great time together. We very quickly fell into our old roles: I’m the navigator, Anil is the chief financial officer and Donna is the social coordinator. We got along famously in Spain, and once again, there were plenty of laughs and loads of good cheer. Donna seems to energize us, getting us out in the evenings doing things we wouldn’t normally do if we were on our own.
The fact that she is eleven years younger than me only goes part of the way to explaining why. I know that we all seem to be interested in the same things, and that we operate on a similar bio-rhythm. We like to take it easy in the mornings, rarely setting out much before noon, really give it in the afternoons, and staying up fairly late into the evenings.
There is so much to see and do in a large city like Stockholm, and at times I feel like we only scratched the surface. However, we did see most of the major sites, took two long walking tours and spent a rainy afternoon at the Vasa Museum admiring the only preserved 17th century sailing ship. She sank on her maiden voyage and lay on the bottom of the harbour for 333 years before being raised and reconstructed.
We would have liked to linger in this remarkable city, but we knew we had to make our way to Helsinki while the fall weather was still mild. Our plan was to spend a few days in Finland and then take a ferry to Estonia and visit the Baltic States before it got too cold. When we invited Donna to join us, I sketched out a rough itinerary and she was stunned when she realized that she would be visiting seven countries during her four weeks with us.
We booked her ticket into Stockholm and out of Copenhagen, thinking she would travel with us as far as Warsaw. It was an ambitious plan; but one we felt would work. We knew that we were rushing through the capital cities of all the countries, and that there was so much more to see, everywhere, but we viewed this trip as a scouting expedition of sorts, helping us to decide which places we would like to return to one day.
Sweden, and especially Stockholm is definitely a city to revisit, and the fact that Donghee would like us to return in the summer one day, makes it even more inviting.