FolkestoneJack's Tracks

Stockholm in 36 hours

Posted in Stockholm, Sweden by folkestonejack on June 6, 2017

Our schedule gave us around 36 hours to see Stockholm before we had to make our way to Stadsgården to board the ferry to Helsinki. It might not seem like much time to do justice to such a great city, but it is surprising how much you can pack in with the assistance of the Vasa Museum’s early morning summer opening (8.30am between 1st June and 31st August).

A view of Stockholm from the gangway to the out-of-use Katarina Hissen

As our time was relatively limited we focused on three top sights – tackling the Skansen Open-Air Museum and Drottningholm Palace on the first day and the Vasa Museum the following morning. However, as our last half day happened to be the National Day of Sweden we were also able to take advantage of a special ‘Open Palace’ event to visit the Royal Chapel, Royal Apartments, Armoury and Gustav III’s Museum of Antiquities free of charge in our last few hours.

Other delights of Stockholm included the intriguing art in the underground stations, the wonderful views from the Katarina Hissen and the simple pleasure of the hop on-hop off Djurgården ferry.

1. The Vasa Museum

The story of the Vasa is nothing short of astonishing. A magnificent but top-heavy warship that sank 1,300 metres into her maiden voyage on 10th August 1628. An epic fail in her time, but our good fortune today because the black sludge at the bottom of Stockholm Harbour preserved her beautifully (it was also a great help that the Baltic sea is not salty enough for the shipworm that eats away at shipwrecks in other parts of the world).

The position of the Vasa was re-established in 1956 and the ship was raised five years later. The conservation phase that followed would see the ship housed in a temporary building at the Vasa shipyard (Wasavarvet) whilst she was sprayed with a chemical solution (1962–1979) and then allowed to dry (1979-1988).

The Vasa Museum

My first visit to the Vasa fell in the drying phase and looking back on my pictures it’s clear that it was hard work to appreciate the ship, even if the footbridges just above the upper deck made it possible to feel as though you were walking across the hull. I much prefer the presentation in the ‘new’ building of 1990 which delivers maximum visual impact from the moment you step inside and allows you to admire the ship from every angle.

The artistic decoration of the ship is quite unbelievable. I had no idea just how incredible until we stepped into the hall and soaked up that first ‘wow’ moment, standing underneath the three metre long sculpture of a lion which appears to be leaping from the prow. More ‘wow’ moments follow as you work your way round to the incredibly intricate stern and up onto the balconies to get a closer look at the many other sculptures, such as the 20 Roman Emperors sculpted as decorations for the beak-head.

It is quite impossible to explain how exquisite the carving and decoration is on this ship – has it ever had a rival on the seas? I’m just glad that the design was so flawed, after all if she had been fit for service she would never have survived to the present day. The museum itself stresses that she won’t last forever – who knows how long we will be lucky enough to be able to admire her.

The decorative stern of the ill-fated Vasa (1628)

It has to be said that the brilliance of this museum is not just down to a star exhibit. The presentation of the entire story is among the best I have seen anywhere – feeding lots of information to you in small chunks and in a variety of formats (including scale models, a recreation of the gun deck that you can walk across, cross-sections, a terrific scene-setting film, replica elements painted in their original colours, a great model of the shipyard and a splendid sequence of models showing how she was lifted). The innovative presentation, perfectly executed, kept us fully engaged and enthused throughout our visit.

The reconstruction and extension of the museum a few years back gives it a capacity of 2,000 visitors at a time and you can see exactly why that is necessary. In 2016 the museum received 1,341,676 visitors, roughly 40% higher than the visitor numbers seen a decade earlier. All of this makes it a must to get there at 8.30am, when the doors open, to have the space to enjoy the Vasa and the exhibits that surround it. The crowds were enormous by the time we left after two and a half hours of wonderment and moving around the museum was already quite tricky by this point.

2. Skansen

The delightful Skansen at Djurgården, established 1891, holds the title of the world’s oldest open air museum and is the most visited museum in the country. It’s not hard to see the appeal as you take a wander round the grounds to seek out a selection of the 150 buildings re-located here from all over Sweden. It offers that wonderful combination of space to relax, fascinating interiors and unexpected pleasures (such as the delicious freshly baked treats in the town quarter). On top of all that it contains a modest zoo.

A charming model of the Skansen stands at the main entrance

The highlights of our visit included a very active young brown bear, some wonderfully decorated wall paintings in the Delsbo farmstead and the Hällestad Belfry (one of the tallest belfries in Sweden). We were also fortunate to stumble across the Royal Swedish Army Band rehearsing on the Solliden Stage ahead of Sweden’s national day (the founder of Skansen, Artur Hazelius, came up with the idea of the national day and it has been celebrated here since 1893). Tomorrow the royal family will join a procession to the Skansen for a concert in the early evening.

3. Drottingholm Palace

A little way out of the city, by an easy combination of T-Bana and bus, you can find the royal palace of Drottingholm. I had heard some say that it was not worth visiting as it can’t compete with Versailles and the palaces of the Russian Tsars, but if that is the benchmark then your sightseeing list will be very short indeed. Personally, I thought Drottingholm was rather marvelous and offered up plenty of delights.

Drottingholm Palace

We soon began to appreciate just how much detail there was to take in, from the depiction of perpetual enemy Denmark as a medusa in one painting to the unusually angry Buddha atop a rather confused faux Chinese stove which mixed up Chinese and Japanese elements horribly. We would have been blissfully unaware of so much history without a guide to point the details and bring the place to life with a story or two.

My personal highlight was Queen Hedwig Eleonora’s State Bedroom, one of the rare survivals from the lavish baroque period, most of which was lost during later phases of redecoration. The room itself is splendid enough but look up and you can see a rather striking ceiling painting which depicts the all-seeing eye of god being held up on a gold rod.

Drottingholm is another of those sights where it pays to arrive early. We turned up for the opening time of 10am and were surprised to find that we were the only visitors on the english tour that started in the near empty rooms shortly afterwards. On our return to the starting point the crowds had really built up and it was quite a bit more difficult to revisit the rooms when we sought out details we wanted to get another look at.

Art on the T-Bana

I will undoubtedly need to come back to Stockholm to see the many sights we missed in the city and in the neighbouring territory. Prins Eugens Waldemarsudde, Hallwylska Museet, Rosendal Palace, Vaxholm fortress and Millesgården are just a few of the sights on the wishlist for my next visit. Maybe next year!?


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