May 31, 2010

Stockholm Sojourn

The beautiful city of Stockholm is built on an archipelago of 14 islands connected by bridges, railway and watercraft, on the edge of the Baltic Sea. It is the capital of Scandinavia, has a very high standard of living, and a considerable reputation for producing items of great design and its famous culinary feast, the smörgåsbord!

I had never been to Sweden. Heck, I'd never been farther North than London, so I was very excited when the possibility of a trip to Stockholm was raised. Despite the combined threats of another eruption of the Icelandic volcano and/or a strike by the British Airways cabin crews, we arrived in Arlanda International Airport last Thursday under sunny blue skies and mild, for Sweden, temperatures.

This is the "Summer of Love" in Stockholm, and before you start to fantasize about gorgeous Nordic goddess', I'll tell you that this is a nation-wide celebration of the nuptials of Sweden's Crown Princess Victoria with Mr. Daniel Westling on June 19th. Their pictures are everywhere and the shops are full of royal wedding souvenirs from china to chocolates. Every public place in the area of the Royal Palace, or Kungliga Slottet, is a construction zone as tents, viewing stands and dance floors are being installed for this much anticipated event. In the egalitarian spirit of the country, everyone will be able to participate in celebrating this joyous occasion and the enthusiasm was contagious.

As Stockholm is surrounded by water, the sea has always played a vital role in the city's history. I began my sightseeing tour with a visit to a very special maritime museum on the island of Djurgården, the Vasa Museet. Regular blog readers know that I visit a lot of museums, but this has got to be the most unusual one yet! Housed in a totally crazy barn-like structure, with 3 masts sticking out of the roof, is the restored wreck of the Vasa, a warship that sank to the bottom of Stockholm Harbour a mere 15 minutes into her maiden voyage on August 10, 1628. There she lay, at the bottom of the sea, covered with mud and cold, not too salty water, until 1961 when she was raised, gently floated to a special dock and lovingly reconstructed and preserved to her 17th Century glory. In a remarkable salvage and restoration project, the Vasa has overcome her ignominious sinking to become a major tourist attraction as well as an on-going project in history, conservation and forensics.

Then it was time for a totally different kind of museum - The National Museum on Blasieholmen. Dedicated to the fine and decorative arts, this museum focus', naturally, on Swedish and Nordic art, but has a lovely collection of French and Flemish paintings as well. Of course, I loved the works by native sons Carl Laarson and Anders Zorn but my favorite part of the museum was their superb group of miniature portrait paintings. 230 examples, culled from their holdings of over 5,200 works, are currently on display under glass in several galleries. Varying in size from a pencil eraser to small painting, executed on materials from ivory to vellum to porcelain, and often framed in precious metals, jewels or enamel, these exquisite works were intended as very personal symbols of love and devotion that could be kept close to the heart of a lover or a parent. It is this intimacy that makes the faces so poignant and interesting whether or not the person was famous or totally unknown.

Enough of being indoors on this beautiful Spring day! It was time to walk around another harbour and cross the Strombron bridge to get to Gamla Stan. This island is dominated by the Royal Palace, and is also home to the Nobel Prize Museum, Stockholm Cathedral, and the medieval section of the city. Walking among the narrow twisted streets with colorful old buildings of Old Town was charming, despite the multitude of touristy shops and restaurants. I finally succumbed to temptation though and enjoyed an absolutely delicious lingonberry tart with a cup of coffee! A perfect pick-me-up before the clouds came in and a squall started up sending me scurrying for the protection of my hotel!

I began the next day with a walk up Nybrogatan to visit the Saluhall Food Market. It's a good thing the hotel provided an ample breakfast or I would have gone wild in that paradise of cheese, fish, meat, chocolates and bread! Catering to both tourists and locals with fine, fresh food products, the market was a feast for all the senses and a showcase of Sweden's outstanding cuisine.

Not being able to stay away from museums for long, I headed over to Skeppshomen, an island that is home to several museums but most notably the Moderna Museet. This modern art museum was built in 1958 and houses a very distinguished collection of works by modern and contemporary masters such as Miro, Picasso, Dali, Rauschenberg, Brancusi and Andy Warhol. In fact, Moderna Museet was one of the first institutions to make an exhibition of Pop Art while it was still in its infancy. So it is no surprise that their current special exhibition is an outstanding 50 year retrospective of the American artist Ed Ruscha. Born in Nebraska in 1937, Ed Ruscha traveled West to California in 1955 and has without doubt achieved the status of icon among living artists today. From Pop Art to Conceptualism to Post Modernism - Ed Ruscha was a pioneer and is now a living legend.

Such a show can only be followed up by something totally different so I ventured back over to Gamla Stan and avoided a rain shower by ducking into the historic and impressive Storkyrkan, Stockholm Cathedral. Built as a simple village church in the 13th century it was enlarged and adorned during the 15th century to accommodate its role as Royal Cathedral - a position it still holds. The interior is dominated by an ebony and silver altar and a pair of ornately gilded Royal pews, used only during official ceremonies, but imposing at all times. The other amazing work inside the church is a magnificent sculptural altar monument of St George and the Dragon. This 15th Century work is made of oak and elk horn and depicts the legend of St George slaying the terrible dragon that had demanded human sacrifices in exchange for not destroying the town of Selene. It is a not-so-discreet allusion to its commissioner, Sten Sture the Elder, who fought the armies of Denmark to save Stockholm from its Danish Dragon, and remains a monument to the forces of good versus evil.

After a full day of sightseeing it is time for a culinary reward in the form of a delicious seafood dinner! White asparagus are in season and the always delicious Swedish salmon make for an excellent meal, especially with a little taste of Aquavit as a "digestif"!

Unfortunately I've come to the end of my visit to Stockholm. It has been a wonderful few days and my biggest regret is that I did not have time to take a boat ride to visit some of the other islands. This means only one thing - I'll have to come back and it will be an enormous pleasure to revisit the land of the Vikings and the midnight sun. Adjö and see you soon!

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