Stockholm: A Nordic Beauty

Tales of sunken ships, dads with buggies, expensive meatballs and the Austrian influence on Swedish design

Yachts anchored along the Strandvägen promenade | Photo: Vera Mair

“Welcome to my hometown” a blonde lady in her late 50s friendly greets me from a large billboard in white letters, in the arriving hall of Arlanda Airport. Her face somehow seems familiar to me. Only when I carry my child-sized backpack to the exit, cursing every surplus T-shirt I had packed, I remember her; it’s Agnetha Fältskog, a singer of Abba.

During the 40 minute bus ride to the center of Stockholm I can’t stop humming “Dancing Queen, young and sweet only 17”, even the over-priced fare of 8 Euros can’t spoil my mood. Compared to a ride with the high-speed train Arlanda Express (13 Euros including a 50% student discount!), I had still made a bargain.

On the map, the distance from the central train station to my hostel seems doable by walking. When I cross a bridge to the island Gamla Stan (old town), I leave the modern city center behind me.

I walk past several souvenir shops selling plastic helmets à la Viking and shot glasses with elk imprints. But the spirit of the past is still present when I amble through the winding cobbled alleys, sided by narrow medieval houses that are predominantly painted in orange, red or yellow.

At the Best Hostel Skeppsbron I meet with my old high-school friend Anna, who joins me from Britain for this weekend trip. Our two-bed room is tiny but tidy. That a hostel features a plant on our window shelf and clean, shared washrooms is a first for both of us. The 32 Euro per night (the average price for this category in Stockholm) were well invested, we agree.

We start our tour by visiting Stockholm’s number one sight – the Vasamuseet. “You must go to the Vasa museum, the one with the sunken ship” I recall the recommendation of my Swedish friend Susanna. Stockholm’s public transport system leaves us with an ample choice how to get there; we could take buses, trams, the subway or a ferry. It is sunny, so we hop on a boat and enjoy the brisk breeze on our way to Djurgarden, one of Stockholm’s 14 islands.

When I enter the hall where the Vasa is exhibited, my eyes need a few seconds to adjust to the dim light. Then I see it, ahead of me is a massive wooden ship that looks a bit like the Black Pearl from the movie the Pirates of the Caribbean – only without Johnny Depp!

The atmosphere is solemn; visitors remain silent, possibly because of the low lighting, while they inspect the many wooden figurines that cover the Vasa from stem to stern. Standing in front of the 17th century battleship I feel intimidated by its sheer mass: 52,2 m in height, 61 meters in length and 11.7 meters in width. How did potential enemies feel when they caught sight of this overpowering vessel? But the casus belli never happened for the Vasa, which like the Titanic sank on her maiden voyage. It turned out she was poorly balanced and when a slight wind came up a few meters after she had left the harbor, the Vasa turned to one side and water poured through the gunports into her belly. Centuries passed before the wreck was rediscovered in the 1950s and retrieved from the floor of the ocean.

The entrance to the design shop Svenskt Tenn | Photo: Vera Mair

After the tour we head back to Gamla Stan, a hotspot for cafes, Irish Pubs and restaurants. Squeezed in between the lake Mälaren in the east and by the Baltic Sea in the west, it is always just a few steps until you reach water in Stockholm, which adds to its flair.

Our way leads us along the street Strandvägen on the waterside, where we marvel at white yachts and bourgeois town houses of the 19th and 20th century, similar to those along the Ring. With one huge difference: In Vienna it is usually the women who are pushing buggies; in Stockholm we have already counted two fathers with baby carriages since we left the museum. Later that day, I stumble across the section about Swedish Family Life in my guidebook and read that since 1974 either father or mother is legally entitled to a generous one-year leave after a child’s birth. So, there are many proud dads.

When we pass a design shop with an armchair upholstered with an ornate fabric, I abruptly halt and forget my grumbling stomach. “Wait a minute,” I tell Anna, “That’s Svenskt Tenn, where Josef Frank worked as a designer!” She looks puzzled. “Austrian architect…, early 20th century…, Vienna Moderne…, became a figurehead of Swedish design after he immigrated to Sweden in the early 1930s.”

The shop was another insider’s tip. “If you are interested in Swedish design, that’s the place to go to,” my friend had told me. When we enter, the shop is crowded – which speaks for its clear-cut modern and yet eccentric design. Right at the entrance I fall in love with a silver candleholder with three arms that grow out of a knot in its middle. Also an extraordinary long-legged quadratic cabinet with 19 drawers in different sizes and metal handles draws my attention.

I spot a young blond shop assistant, who looks as if he has just stepped down from an H&M ad. “That guy could also bear the label ‘Made in Sweden’,” I whisper to Anna. She smiles and nods.

The fabrics of Frank’s furniture are very colorful. Mostly inspired by flowers and plants, one of his designs also features the map of Manhattan. To my dismay the yellow tablemats with a white elephant imprint that I like the look of costs 35 Euros a piece. Knowing that I will still have to finance dinner (I’m set on Swedish Köttbullar meatballs with potato mash and cowberries), I leave the shop empty handed.

Back in Gamla Stan we scan the menus of six restaurants (with main courses ranging from 20-40 Euros, very expensive by Vienna standards) until we find a small place called Slingerbulten. Here they serve the world-famous Swedish dish for only 10 Euros. The blond waitress apologizes twice that the only table available is squeezed in a small corner by the door to the kitchen. But we have no reason to complain; our orders arrive within less than half an hour, the meatballs are juicy, and the texture of the potato mash is how it should be. Happy, full and a bit exhausted we stroll back to our hostel through the Gamla Stan under lantern light. What a wonderful day – Abba was right: we were “having the time of our lives.”

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