Stockholm sleeps in its shallow lagoon. Thousands of tiny, verdant islands guard its entrance. It would be a hard job sneaking up on the canny Swedes. On the other hand, over the centuries they have ambushed a few themselves, being something of a warlike tribe that carved empires out of the ice, the oceans and the steppe. East and west, Protestant and Orthodox, can put a tick beside Swedish influence on their cv.
They’re a more sober bunch now, good Europeans though not Eurozoners. Still, we found that the citizens of the capital maintain a certain hostility towards the foreigner. Sverige might be almost an anagram of service, but the concept is not enthusiastically embraced in Stockholm. At our first coffee stop in Djurgarden, a large island designated as the city’s park, I pay at the counter and, after an uncomfortable silent interlude, ask for the goods. The girl serving jerks a thumb over her shoulder: get it yourself, she snaps. Charming.
Early on a balmy Saturday morning, the streets are yet deserted and a wonderful sense of peace envelops the massive stone palaces and well scrubbed streets of this floating world. The city is built on fourteen islands so you’re never far from the waterfront. Elegant architecture proclaims centuries of success, the hint of empire with a pervasive sense of royal power.
These days, of course,the Swedes are the epitome of democracy. Its system is often envied, or at least name checked in relation to public service, generous welfare and all round good and healthy living. Grumpy denigrators point to dullness and expense. Certainly Stockholm doesn’t exhibit much in the way of drunken mayhem. The citizens are well to do, but perhaps not so well to do as to splurge on a few litres of expensive brew. There is something of an inbuilt reserve too. Garish modernism, noise pollution, general rowdiness are alien to this environment.
The Old Town, Gamla Stan, retains an ancient feel, its cobbled streets winding between huddled buildings. An outer ring of Parliament buildings, Royal palaces and museums is impressive, the soft centre of ancient lanes and tottering buildings beguiling. Vasterlanggatan is the main drag, lined with shops, atmospheric bars and eateries.
There’s even the odd Irish bar, one promising the joys of League of Ireland soccer.
Crowds seep in from noon and quickly the area is thronged with tourists, street performers and three card trick men. In Jarntorget, a crowded pedestrian square, a woman sings Irish songs playing an instrument that could be described as a cross between a harp and a wok. I relax over a black coffee. Having already paid, the staff refuse to give me milk and I’m a bit dubious about asking the other customers.
Gamla Stan is where the city began almost eight hundred years ago. Birger Jarl established his base here, fortifying the harbour against invasion with wooden piles. The clearing of the woodland for this purpose is what gives the city its name. It translates as island of logs, which is unfairly prosaic. Meanwhile, Stockholm would grow from humble beginnings to become northern Europe’s dominant city in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Since then it has continued to expand. To the west Kungsholmen island is the main centre for administration and law. Most notable is the City Hall, one of Stockholm’s best known landmarks. Completed in1927, this massive stack of redbrick, plain and modern, resounds with Nordic Gothic power. Its interior is more ornate, proving the Swedes have a certain exotic, well cached. Every year, the Nobel Prize ceremonies are hosted here.
The north central area is simply known as City, the commercial hub of Stockholm.
Kungsgatan is a long street, specifically designed as a modernist main street in the nineteen twenties. It is guarded by two massive neoclassical towers, amongst the few high buildings in the capital. The King’s Towers also resemble a fortress, connected by a bridge which carries another busy street across Kungsgatan. This is an area of impressive stores and bustling shoppers. At Hotorget (Haymarket) Square we ask directions of a hostess outside a restaurant, but she is indignant and stalks off swearing, telling us to, more or less, get lost. Fortunately we don’t, and return to the waterfront through the bustling shops and markets along Drottninggatan, leading across a bridge that takes us back to Gamla Stan.
We wave goodbye to Stockholm, wending our way south through its archipelago. You wouldn’t sneak up on these folk in the dead of night, hell, even in the glare of midday they don’t like it too much. But that’s okay, gaze on the natural and architectural beauty, and enjoy. In a couple of days we will get to Malmo in Sweden’s exotic south. It may not be so impressive as the capital, but it turns out to be a bit warmer in more ways than one. Perhaps the good folk of Stockholm might shed their icy reputation, if only they chilled out some.