Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands – Stockholm

It was the rain that pushed us indoors. We had heard great things about the place, but struggled to get too excited. I was on a sugar crash, and in dire need of sustenance, fast; I felt that their gift shop might be a decent bet. I was right. We had a look around for a quick lunch and, seeing the rain still pelting the sheer concrete structure outside, we made our way in to the darkness of the museum.

It is rare that I am shocked to the extent that my breath is taken from me, and my jaw forced in to my chest. The warship Vasa did just that. It claims to be the only preserved seventeenth century ship in the world, but that idea is underwhelming to say the least. I am six foot 2 (1.85m), and this ship makes me feel like an ant. That it was at the state of its art, and then that it found itself wrecked in the waters it currently surveys is a tragedy beyond words; that it stands now as a mountain of wood, ancient and complete, is an absolute marvel. Get yourself there, regardless of weather, fair or foul.

The Vasa Museum is towards the entrance of a whole island of museums, parks and entertainment, Durgården, itself just a stone’s throw and a blue gate from Stockholm’s most prestigious addresses, Strandvågen. This is Stockholm’s most beautiful face, easily accessible, and most delightfully strolled.

Alcohol in Sweden exists in a strange hinterland: it’s like the government want to sell you it, but they do not want you to have it. As a consequence, they tend to tax it to oblivion, in order to make excess consumption prohibitive. And yet it is freely available. As with most of the Nordic countries, wines and harder drinks are available in state-run shops – System Bolaget in Sweden – and ordinary beer and cider is available in local supermarkets and neighbourhood convenience stores. What is odd is that at the System Bolaget stores, the prices are far closer to those of, say, the UK. Alcohol is very highly taxed, unless you buy it from the government: that strikes me as quite the contradiction.

We love food, but mostly we love food halls – saluhallen. We found ourselves in a saluhall off a square on Söder, Medbogarplatsen, and took a wrong turn. Without knowing quite how, we were now in an English pub. Two beers were £11 ($14), and we were three deep when we realised that the saluhall had closed, and that we were only dimly aware of how to get back to our hotel. More beer was likely to be the answer, as we watched Norwegian TV shows on the TV screens above the bar. Outside, the smell of the gyros called our names, and soaked up the excesses of the booze.

We got lost in the area of Slussen; that was fine. Chances are that I could have found my way out there with just the screen of my phone. The problem was that my mother insisted on enlisting the help of two small boys. I must congratulate the Swedish education system that they had produced ten year old boys who were conversant enough in English that they understood the word for “lift” – “Hiss” in Swedish – and were willing to help us find it. The huge bearded crazy in the background (me) was enough to scare them away in an underpass. Wise lads. We found the lift the next day.

“OK, so here’s the deal: you buy lunch and I’ll buy dinner. “ Lunch came in the form of a particularly beautiful, tiny, plate of Danish Smørbrød and a bottle of Danish beer. Yes, we were in Sweden’s rich, beautiful capital, but we were entranced by Danish food that day. The previous day we had dined at the same food hall – Östermalms Saluhall – on Moroccan mezze. All tastes were catered for here, if you can afford it. Lunch was in the region of £70 ($90), so that put me in to a tricky financial position for our evening meal. I still have the receipt: two steak dinners, two beers, £160 ($206). That was a chain restaurant. Yes, the crisis of travelling in Sweden is the cost, and that cannot be underplayed.

Katarinahissen offers sublime views of Stockholm, from the point of view of Slussen. At the point at which I was last there it was no longer functional, and so had to be accessed via a series of rooftop walkways and obscure paths, which took almost half a day to find. They were all worth it when we eventually got there, but it would have been much easier if the lift had been in operation. Intended to transport people from the level of the sluice up to the inhabited parts of the island, the lift was a tremendous, simple idea. It even houses a shopping centre, just to capture that elusive footfall.

A city in the dark can be a threatening place, but Stockholm was never that; not to us at least. We walked through street after street, at all times of the day and night, never feeling anything other than completely safe and welcome. Only Nordicaa can offer this degree of safety right in the heart of the empire. Swedish streets are a joy to find yourself upon: well signposted, well tended, well spaced, they connect the dots of city life with nary a chance of falling flat one one’s arse. Much in contrast to the street I live on, where even the lightest shower turns pavement to skating rink. I have walked through Stockholm in torrential rains, water flowing past my feet, and never once feared my footing.

The saluhall was bustling with life on three levels. We were wet, we were tired and we were hungry. We headed upstairs in the hope of something to lift the spirit. Menu read, we ordered and waited. A few minutes, and part way down enormous glasses of ice cold beer, our food arrived: bento boxes crammed elegantly with some of the most exquisite Japanese cuisine we had put before us in a long time. Delicate sushi rubbed shoulders with robust tempura, a fragrant dipping sauce and perfectly seasoned rice. Promises made of swift returns and we stepped back in to the darkness. Replete.

An open air museum can distort space like no other place on Earth: Skansen is no different. The map showed endless pathways through time zones, farms and zooland. We longed to explore, to see the bears, the old town, the botanical gardens. Each area was built from buildings gathered from across the Swedish Empire at least a century ago. What we didn’t expect was that we could walk from the tower to the train line, to the terrace within quarter of an hour. No area of the museum, from Sami homestead, to stunning views of Strandvågen was off limits to us. In the space of a few hours we’d traversed the whole of Swedish history, and wallowed in deep Swedish countryside, all in Stockholm.

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