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Stockholm: Combining medieval and the modern

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Stockholm’s serene landscape

Stockholm, the Swedish capital, combines the medieval and the modern seamlessly over the many islands it is spread over, writes Ranjita Biswas

 The Nobel Prize; Scandinavia; the land of the Vikings. All these mental images swirled in the mind as I headed to Stockholm, Sweden’s capital, on a wintry day. Not the best time perhaps to arrive in this northern European city but I found it enticing nonetheless.

Stockholm, basically a cluster of fourteen islands, is known to be one of the best preserved mediaeval cities in Europe. Pretty bridges interconnect its six districts. Thus you are always surrounded by water bodies while the proud spires of tall Gothic churches paint the landscape as a background.


The old town beckons

Like most European cities, Stockholm too has its old quarter going back to the Middle Ages. In this case it’s called Gamla Stan. I walked up the steep cobbled paths to explore this old town which is actually an island linking the northern and southern parts of the city. The area is remarkably well-preserved considering that it’s 750 years old. In old times Gamla Stan was a fortified town but even today, you get the impression that the place is not just a showcase for visitors. It’s pretty much a living quarter full of food outlets, boutiques, galleries and restaurants where tourists and locals mingle.

Inside Vasa Museum

As I tried to find my way through the labyrinthine narrow lanes, the sound of bugles and drums wafted from somewhere. Like one following the Pied Piper I veered towards the source and arrived on a vast courtyard. People stood by the sides of the square. Craning my neck, I surmised that it was Stockholm’s own version of the ‘change of guards’. The guards, dressed in smart uniforms, were going through a parade harking back to some century-old ritual in front of the Royal Palace where kings and queens lived once. Today, the royal family has shifted to a modern building, but the custom continues. The palace museum gives a glimpse of the royal heritage. 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.

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Winter days are short and as soon as evening casts its shadows, I found candles flickering cheerfully at the doorsteps of restaurants and boutiques. I was told it’s an old local custom. For an early dinner I opted for the local favourite, salmon. Fresh from the sea and grilled to perfection, it wrapped up my day of introduction to Stockholm on a happy note.

Getting by

For going around I chose the affordable and well-connected subway (the same ticket is valid for buses too). The map, supplied free at any subway station, is a great help. The first subway station in Stockholm was opened in the 1950s. The hub is the Central station from where the different lines spread out.

Outside the Central station you will find huge shopping malls, pedestrian- only lanes skirted by eateries and retail outlets to shop at leisure.

Change of Guards

The area is near some of the best locations in the city: The National Museum, the Opera House, and the pier from where tourists can take off for river cruises. Popular options are Seven-island tour, Archipelago tour, Stockholm by Light tour, etc.

To my regret I couldn’t visit Skansen, the first open-air museum in the world which was opened in 1891 in the Djurgarden Island. It’s open only in summer. I believe it gives a rare glimpse to Swedish life in earlier times and even has Scandinavian animals in the parks.

Museums of many hues

To make up, I was determined to catch up with other museums in the city, never mind it was already snowing- a little unseasonal I was told but I didn’t mind. Coming from a hot country it was an extra bonus to trudge across sometimes my boots sinking in soft snow while the buildings looked as if wrapped in a white quilt.

The National Museum by the waterside is a huge elegant building. Each floor displays beautiful paintings, sculptures from masters and aspects of Swedish culture. Medieval trade routes brought exotic oriental influences to the country and it was great to see a carpet with Mughal designs looking like a Kashmiri carpet. Auguste Rodin’s magnificent sculpture ‘Man’s Awakening’ here stands out with its clean lines. Today, the world is familiar with the Swedish influence on modern design, whether in furniture and household objects with its emphasis on minimalism. The museum’s modern design section has a marvellous collection, including the iconic design of the Absolut Vodka bottle.

Outside on Slussen Park, as I munched on a kebab prepared by a Turkish vendor and sipped hot coffee, I saw that the centre was frozen solid and little children were skating on it merrily while indulgent parents looked on.

Story of a shipwreck

The next destination was the much heard about Vasa Museum located in a wrecked ship actually. This ship, built to show off the might of naval power of the powerful Swedish king Gustav Adolf sadly sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 just after taking off from the shore. It remained under the water for 333 years until a daring salvage attempt brought it up, literally inch by inch. Centuries of silt were cleaned off and there emerged an astounding sample of craftsmanship with 700 carved wooden figures, rich in colour and details. It is today the world’s only preserved 17th century ship. Going around the ‘reality-show’ like museum introduce you to how the sailors lived, what they ate, etc. in the medieval age.

Museum in a frozen landscape

Across is the Nordik Museum dominated by the Great Hall at the entrance.  The magnificent building is Sweden’s largest exhibition of its cultural history. From displays of tables laid in different styles at different times, to costumes to folklore replications, it is an interesting way to find out about Swedish lifestyle down the ages. On the day of my visit a beautiful exhibit ‘Icon Dressed’ was on, with famous women figurines wearing the same floral pattern but cut according to the fashion of the day.

It’s safe to move around too, a blessing for women on their own. To boot they speak English!

Fact File:

How to reach: Major airlines operate direct or connecting flights from India

Where to stay: Plenty of options from the high-end to moderate ones

What to see: Museums, old town Gamla Stan, city view from a river cruise

 Food: Multi cuisine eateries all around. But fish-lovers should have a gourmet time.