The Ship That Sank and other Stories from Stockholm

Some people simply love to live for travel and adventure, careers and budgets perhaps their only restraints. Sometimes people are lucky enough to combine the two. For more than two decades, Traci Ayris travelled around South Australia as Producer of Channel 7’s tourism/lifestyle shows
Discover and SALife. When she wasn’t on the road in SA she would pick an adventure overseas and throw herself at it, often as a solo traveller and mostly on a whim. Her quick decisions to jump on a plane at the drop of a hat gave rise to her travel blog yesnojustgo.com, where some of her stories and travel photography can be found.

Flying in low over bare forests, frozen lakes and snow-dusted fields, you could be forgiven for thinking that Stockholm airport is out in the boondocks, because it most certainly is. On my ride into the city (apparently between forty to ninety minutes travel time depending on traffic) I mentioned to my driver that I thought it was a shame that the snow wasn’t falling as, coming from Australia I rarely witness that particular gift of nature. In the rearview mirror, a slightly-raised eyebrow spoke volumes about his views on snowfall-versus blue sky but Swedes rarely buy into emotion or superfluous conversation, and this particular silver-fox was no exception. It was true though; my limited experience with cold fluffy white stuff was making my way to the bar by stumbling through drifts on a college trip to Thredbo and, two decades later,  a disastrous ski trip to Canada that saw crutches come into play,  Snow Bunny I am NOT but, here I was, trading a perfectly good Australian Summer for an impulsive Scandinavian sojourn. 

Even in the grip of winter, Stockholm is a lovely city to visit. I had two days up my sleeve before joining up with South Australian Photographer David Evans and a group of photography enthusiasts for a trip that promised to hone our shooting skills while we went in search of the Northern Lights, but that’s another story. I chose to stay in the Mariatorget (marry-ah tory-et) area, touted to be Stockholm’s artsy bohemian hub. As neighbourhoods go, it was love at first sight. I could have spent days and days roaming the streets, exploring art galleries, craft jewellery studios, clothing boutiques, and those stylish-yet-quirky Scandinavian design shops. Two days just wasn’t long enough.
In Mariatorget, it seemed I could find every type of healthy organic anything under the sun for sale, along with enough pubs and bars to balance the scales. Second-hand fashion stores seemed to be de-rigeur, with bustling crowds testament to the fact that Swedes certainly celebrate retail recycling. My hotel of choice was the Hotel Rival.
Owned by ABBA’s Benny Andersson, “the Rival’ is a boutique beauty with an elegant entrance lobby that harks back to its former life as a cinema.

Ticket offices and concession stands have been repurposed as club bars, sweeping art deco staircases lead to three levels of lounge areas, with velvet and silk accents adding just the right amount of plush.

The original (now restored) cinema space is even available for private functions and events. Perched on a bar stool with Chablis in hand I reflected that this colourful and stylish hotel was absolutely a perfect fit for the Mariatorget scene.

It has to be said, the rooms are small. With the exception of a shower head perfectly positioned to blast between my shoulder blades (curious because most Swedes seem to be tall), they do manage to hit the boutique hotel marque.
Bars at the Rival are not places where uber-riche Swedes buy French Champagne to tip down sinks or where sullen bar-flies quietly ignore each other. Each velvet-curtained space is a retro-cool and casual hangout for Stockholm’s understated and unpretentious. I quietly sipped my Chablis and applauded Benny’s vision in the early 2000’s to transform the run-down Aston Hotel and Rival Cinema into Sweden’s first Luxury boutique hotel
Interestingly, the only nod to the Swedish supergroup was “Abba Gold” found among the eclectic collection of CD’s in my room, other choices included The Hives, Cher, Sarah Brightman and even Motley Crue. I confess, The Hives and Abba both got a thrashing.
It’s always good to pick the brains of a local so I took up fellow-sailor Mikael’s kind offer to show me around his city. When you love food as much as I do, hanging out with a chef is an even bigger bonus so this was certainly a win-win for me. Mikael wanted to introduce me to some authentic Swedish Cuisine at Pelekan Restaurant. I can’t sum it up any better than their own website claim: “Under the ceiling painting in the big beer hall 110 years of food memories are hovering. Meatballs, big as golf balls, Baltic herring, herring and cheesecake from Småland, calf’s liver, rhubarb pie and boiled knuckle of pork w. mashed swedes & three kinds of mustard. Here cream sauce, brown butter and egg-anchovy salad rule.”

In Pelekan’s bustling and cosy (yet not overcrowded) space I devoured their signature Cod dish and, wiping the last smidge of buttery mash from my well-fed face, I happily declared that I’d never eaten a meal quite like it. Little gems like Pelekan are why Food and Travel go hand in hand. Can you really say you’ve been to a country if you haven’t explored its traditional food?.

The next day we visited Stockholm’s famous VASA museum. Only the Swedes would build an interpretative centre to recognise one of the most monumental stuff-ups in the history of their country, and I for one, am very glad that they did. The story goes that in the early 1600s Sweden’s King Gustav was having a bit of a barney with his neighbours so he decided to commission a monster ship that would (literally) blow his enemies out of the water.

The day arrived for VASA’s maiden voyage. With gun ports open and gilded carvings sparkling in the sunshine, she was rolled off the stocks into Stockholm harbour. It must be said that this section of waterway is not a massive space, more like a wide river really, with a channel to the Baltic Sea. The people of Stockholm duly turned up to see their King’s pride and joy finally afloat, but not their King. Inexplicably, he wasn’t aboard for the big splash because he wasn’t even in the city. Less than two kilometres away from the crowd lining the harbour, the enormous vessel was cautiously making progress down the channel when she was hit by an enormous gust of wind, quickly followed by another. Leaving her gun ports open in order to display the cannons turned out to be a poor decision as, only metres above the waterline, they provided perfect access for water to rush in as the ship began to heel over. In astonishment, city folk watched the magnificent ship sink before their eyes. After the disaster, finger pointing began. Was it the shipwright? (who had never built a ship so large). Was it the crew? (failing in their sail-handling) or were the double gun deck cannons not properly secured? The true cause of the ill-fated ship’s demise remains to this day part of VASA’s enigmatic story. She rested 33m down in brackish water at the bottom of the harbour shipping lane for more than three centuries before a massive restoration effort began in 1961. Today she rests majestically inside her purpose-built hall and is well worth a visit.
Putting aside the fact that the shipwright had never built a ship of such proportions, this was an extremely ambitious project for its time. It also has to be said that King Gustav also demanded that his new toy be entirely adorned with ornamental wood carvings, carvings which called for the highest level of craftsmanship and a time scale that was impossible to fast-track. Likewise, the casting of VASA’s bronze cannons; more than 70 were ordered but production line limitations saw only 60 or so delivered to the shipyard. Understandably, the delivery date for the King’s flagship kept getting pushed back and he wasn’t amused. For all the delays and unreasonable demands though, it mattered little in the end.
Next day, I left Mariatorget to meet with some of my fellow Aussie tourists. First item on the agenda was a Free Tour of Stockholm. Our guide, Ben, hailed from London and described himself as a “love refugee” after falling for a local lass. Our group comprised Mexican, Belgian, French, Polish, American, Malaysian and a handful of Aussies. Within a few short minutes of meeting Ben, we were hanging on his every word. I have no doubt he was completely unaware that his clever patter and instinctive comedic timing would be the envy of any aspiring stand-up artist.

Some fabulous insights about Stockholm’s history gleaned “a-la-Ben” as he led us all on his pied piper journey through the city include:

  1. The tale of a gym instructor who became Sweden’s Crown Prince after he took Crown Princess Victoria’s personal training regime to a whole new level.
  2. How Queen Christina’s dubious sexuality and bizarre upbringing created one of the most colourful monarchs any country could wish for.
  3. How Sweden’s powerbrokers decided one day that they would replace the country’s long-standing monarchy with a French Marshall from the Napoleonic wars: Jean Baptiste Bernadotte. They asked him if he wouldn’t mind being King, but what they failed to tell him was that once the crown was on his head he was expected to use his considerable fortune to bail the country out of debt. Being a good sport, Bernadotte did just that and his descendants have actually done a pretty good job as Sweden’s royal family ever since.
  4. The contentious speculation that Sweden’s current Crown Prince (the former gym employee) might perhaps boast a closer claim to being authentically “Swedish” than his house of Bernadotte bride, so really, what was all the fuss about her marrying a “commoner”?
  5. An insight into the famous bank hostage drama which gave rise to the term “Stockholm Syndrome.” We stood in the square where the drama unfolded back in 1973 to hear stories of psychological alliance and how being trapped in a vault with one’s abductor could actually lead to a lifelong friendship.

 

Our group then spent the next two days capturing Stockholm through the lens of our cameras. David Evans (our teacher and guide) thought that we might also find great inspiration at Fotografiska; Sweden’s world-class Photography exhibition space. As well as some damn fine galleries, the building houses a great cafe on the top floor where you can enjoy healthy (of course!) food while taking in sweeping views or the city. Exhibitions at Fotografiska change year-round but when we visited, we were treated to “We Have A Dream,” a tribute to 114 people who inspire the rest of us mere mortals to dream about the best for our planet and humanity.

STOCKHOLM: THINGS DISCOVERED AND POINTS PONDERED

The 5 Nobel Prizes were created because Alfred Nobel (the father of Dynamite) read his own obituary and non-posthumously decided that he really didn’t wish to be remembered throughout history as “The Merchant of Death”. When a French newspaper mistakenly reported his demise (it was, in fact, his brother who died in that fatal explosion in Cannes, but why let the truth get in the way of a good story?) Alfred figured that he’d much prefer to be remembered throughout history as a champion of eminent endeavours than the man who ‘grew rich by finding ways to kill people faster than ever before’. It worked.

That Queen Christina’s mother thought it was a good idea to suspend her dead husband’s heart over the crib of the infant princess. Not to mention the curious story of why, three hundred years after her death, the good burghers of Sweden exhumed their former Queen’s body to prove once and for all that she was, indeed, a female.

Whether Stockholm’s name (literally ‘Log Island’) was derived from the legend of a log filled with gold being sent downstream to escape raiders. or simply because an island happened to some good trees on it.

That Crown Princess Victoria and her husband Crown Prince Daniel (ex-gym instructor, but now a fully qualified Prince after studying three years to become one) actually look similar.

In fact, they look a LOT alike! (or is it just me?)

And.

Why people in Sweden buy white cars at all.

this is one of the cleaner ones

Sweden is of course home to IKEA but it’s also home to H&M, Skype, Spotify and many, MANY, meatball cafes. I always thought that meatballs were meatballs. I was wrong.

Alcohol is VERY expensive, and you can only takeaway liquor at a limited number of outlets.

Toilets are guarded very closely. You either have to pay, or you’ll need the code for the door (usually found on your purchase receipt). Plan accordingly, you have been warned!

You may be aware that IKEA names many of its product lines after Swedish locations BUT I heard from a local that IKEA floor coverings are often given the names of Danish towns. In a conspiratorial whisper, I was told “Effectively, everything else ends up on top of the Danes and the people of the world can walk all over them, Ha Ha Ha!” I’m still puzzling over that one. Could it really be the ultimate expression of tongue-in-cheek national rivalry? Swedish humour, much like our dry Australian wit, is often difficult to fathom.

Sometimes when we travel, we simply “see” but we often don’t give too much thought to the back-stories. I have been as guilty of that as anyone but, in Stockholm, I had the luxury of time and the freedom of being a solo traveller. Travelling solo can be liberating, especially when you don’t tie yourself to strict schedules. With no distractions, expectations or obligations it’s easy to make a real effort to discover food, history and enjoy the simple pleasure of watching the locals and their everyday lives.

Stockholm was meant to be a stopover on my itinerary, a place to wait out a few days before tackling a bucket-list adventure up in the Arctic Circle, but it turned out to be so much more. It’s a city that truly rewards the curious traveller at every turn in a country that is perhaps best summed by its own proverb: ”Allvar och gamman trives gärna Samman.” Seriousness and Pleasure should thrive together.

 

For more great adventures join Traci at her website www.yesnojustgo.com

Traci Ayris ©2017

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