Walk in, dance out
29.10.2014 - 05.11.2014 8 °C
I've come to Stockholm because of a lifelong love affair. I'm here to visit ABBA the Museum, an extensive memorial to the group that opened in 2013. I would be here regardless of ABBA's somewhat maligned reputation in the mainstream media, but a bonus is that I'll get to wash away the bad taste of Pierce Brosnan roaring his way tunelessly through When All is Said and Done in the film Mammia Mia! Though the cast of that film looked as though they were enjoying themselves hugely, and it can't be denied that the film (and stage show) have rekindled interest in the group in recent years, I don't view ABBA as kitsch or cheesy. I'll grant that some (but not all) of their lyrics are on the banal side, but to me pop music has always been about music, not lyrics. If I want my brain to be stimulated by words, I'll read a book.
I was just a bit too young to catch ABBA live, with them splitting up before I had reached my teen years. Though my sister and I had all of their albums, I don't recall ever seeing the group even on TV, other than in music videos. It didn't help that I was living in Saudi Arabia, a country not known for its promotion of Western music, for half of their career. So, a bit like with the Beatles, another massively popular group that was before my time, my experience of ABBA was based almost entirely on listening to their music on a cassette. Unlike the Beatles, though, I loved ABBA's music then and still do now. Even as an adult, I've not been big on going to concerts, but of the four concerts I've been to in my life, two of them were by Bjorn Again, the ABBA tribute band.
I'm also here in order to continue my long-term project of visiting different European capitals. I actually have been to Stockholm once before, a stopover of several hours at the airport when flying between New York and London back in 2005 (the cheapness of the ticket made the detour worthwhile), but that doesn't really count. All I remember from those scant hours is marvelling at the exorbitant cost of a Diet Coke (that hasn't changed), and watching the staff move around the terminal on foot scooters.
The first company I worked for out of university had a Swedish branch, and it was the fervent wish of all my fellow new joiners to be seconded to that branch, convinced as we all were that the place was knee deep in statuesque blondes. Freshly arrived in the country, as I walk through the centre of Stockholm en route from the railway station to my hotel, the percentage of blondes does not appear to be appreciably higher than in Yorkshire, which I can't deny is a minor disappointment. But even taking into account that this is a capital city rather than the provincial English town in which I live, people are dressed smartly and with an eye on the conditions - there's none of the T-shirt bravado that pervades the Northeast of England in winter. There's also more of a cosmopolitan feel than I was expecting, with non-European faces in a minority but not a minuscule one.
With Stockholm (and Scandinavia in general) notorious for high prices, I'm lucky to have found a decent hotel room for only about £90 a night. It's an Art Nouveau construction in a prime location on Strandvägen, one of the city's most prestigious streets, neighbouring a number of other impressive buildings overlooking a small bay. On the way, I pass the old bank where, in 1973, a hostage situation led to the phenomenon called Stockholm Syndrome being named. Close to the hotel is a theatre outside of which stands a bronze statue of the late Swedish actress Margaretha Krook - for those with cold hands, the statue contains internal heating coils in order to keep its temperature at 37 °C.
My hotel room has some pleasant period furnishings, but I can't help mentally comparing it with the massive Premier Inn room I'd enjoyed at Manchester Airport prior to flying here - that was twice the space at half the price. One thing both rooms have in common though is a thick duvet, which is much too warm for me for this time of year. I have to sleep with limbs hanging outside of the bed so that I don't overheat. The door to my room opens the "wrong" way - into the corridor rather than into the room - though I will see this elsewhere throughout my stay, so it must be a Swedish design principle. The hotel supposedly is popular with people working in the film industry but, despite me sitting in the lounge most evenings drinking a beer, I don't see anyone familiar - the star-spotting will have to wait until Copenhagen (see next blog).
The receptionist tells me that I've picked the worst month in which to visit Stockholm and I soon see her point. It's a good temperature for walking around rather than taking public transport, but sunny days are few and far between. Even when the sun does put in an appearance, Stockholm is sufficiently far north that sunrise is late and sunset early, plus the sun doesn't rise particularly high in the sky so you can find yourself blinded if walking in certain directions. It's a challenging environment for taking photos.
More unsettling is the plight of pedestrians here. Along with the predictable movements of motor traffic and trams are more unpredictable dangers: jogging and cycling are both very popular, and joggers and cyclists can - and do - appear from any direction. These people aren't messing about either, with many cyclists going full pelt. Of course the residents of Stockholm are well used to such things and know how to avoid getting run over, but I'm not at all accustomed to it and, after a couple of close calls, I find myself checking nervously in every direction for two-wheeled terrors. It's slightly stressful to not be able to always assume that the pavement belongs to pedestrians only. Jaywalking is not illegal here but, with all these different road users to get used to, it becomes easier to just obey the signals. The amount of exercise going on around me in the shape of jogging and cycling no doubt also contributes to the general fitness of the average Stockholmare - I see very few fatties.
The city is spread over fourteen islands but they are so interconnected that you might not even notice some of the individual islands, though you are rarely far from water. Many of the ferry services seem to shut down over winter, but for getting around in the centre of the city you probably wouldn't want to take to the water anyway. There's plenty of public transport available but the city is generally walkable. The underground is worth a few trips simply because the different stations all have their own character and design.
I visit ABBA the Museum early in my stay. Just the thought of it, even though I have very little idea what it will be like, brings a smile of anticipation to my lips. And when I enter the place, that smile only broadens, with Waterloo thundering out of the PA system and setting my heart pounding. The museum itself is extremely comprehensive - not only does it give a chronological history of the group, with audiovisual exhibits every step of the way, but you can also see detailed backgrounds of each of the four members, tour costumes, numerous platinum/gold/silver discs, ABBA merchandise (including the clogs shown below), the helicopter from the Arrival album cover (see earlier in the blog), the original mixing desk from Polar Studios, and much else besides. I'm pleased to hear that Michael Tretow, ABBA's studio engineer, is a big fan of Two for the Price of One, one of my favourite tracks. With the group's music playing constantly, it's heaven to be immersed in those great tunes, even if it's half-term and the place is soon crawling with kids who have been dragged here by their parents. I'm sure I'm not the only visitor who leaves on a high, but the museum shop doesn't take full advantage of that by having only a modest range of gifts (I find literally just one pen, and even that is plain).
However no museum can ever explain why certain songs resonate with a particular listener, so while my visit has been excellent and I would certainly recommend the place to any ABBA fan, it's still a mystery to me why ABBA's music makes me feel emotions that just never arise when I listen to the Beatles or Bob Dylan or Led Zeppelin or Elvis Presley or the Beach Boys or any of the other groups/solo artists commonly mentioned among the greats. Perhaps some things are destined to be ineffable and perhaps that's no bad thing. I'm just grateful that we have their music.
The rest of my stay in Stockholm involves much walking around outside and in. Near ABBA the Museum is the Vasa Museum, dedicated to the Vasa, a large warship that sunk in the harbour on its maiden voyage in 1628. The main reason for its sinking was a design flaw that put its centre of gravity too high - its sister ship was built just one metre wider and went on to be one of the most successful ships in the Swedish navy. The Vasa was salvaged in the early 1960s and is a sight to behold. The ship is covered in ornate carvings and, though its immersion removed all the paint, there is a scale model that shows just how brightly coloured it would have been in its day - not my image of a warship at all.
Not far from the Vasa Museum is Skansen, an open-air museum and zoo that reminds me of the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. It contains buildings from different eras from around the country, including a couple of excellent belfries and some Sami structures. I'm not really a zoo person, but I won't be venturing anywhere in the near future where I can see indigenous Swedish fauna so I take the opportunity to catch a glimpse of some moose, brown bears, lynx, and reindeer. From here I can see the nearby Gröna Lund amusement park, closed at this time of year and its rides motionless.
The central island Stadsholmen contains a concentration of sights. With much of Stockholm's architecture bearing more than a passing resemblance to that of other European capitals, I figure that the contents of its various palaces will also seem familiar and thus limit myself to just the Royal Palace. It doesn't disappoint, with ornately decorated rooms replete with paintings, tapestries, thrones, and OTT sculptures aplenty. Unfortunately the interior is dependent on natural light, and with little sunshine around it's rather gloomy inside, making it difficult to make out much detail. However I'm taken by the White Sea Hall, with its excellent trompe l'oeil ceiling suggesting a celestial horde in the sky above; Karl XI's Gallery, based on the Versailles Hall of Mirrors and where the Swedish Royal Family hosts a dinner for Nobel laureates; the Hall of State, an enormous affair with a ridiculous silver throne; and several rooms devoted to the various royal Orders, in one of which I see a medal for the "conscientious care of reindeers", only given to Sami people and only rarely at that.
In connection with the Royal Palace, I also visit the Treasury, containing crowns and maces and the like (though a guided tour taking place at the same time makes moving around rather difficult), and the Armoury, full of armour, weapons, and royal carriages. The Armoury also contains an exhibition comparing the palace intrigues of Elizabeth I of England, Erik XIV of Sweden, and - bizarrely - some character from Game of Thrones, a series that I've never seen (or read). Outside of the Armoury, I see an Estonian tour bus, improbably dotted with pictures of elephants, chameleons, and lemurs.
South of the Royal Palace is Gamla Stan, the Old Town, characterised by cramped streets and colourful, narrow buildings. It's also by far the most touristy place in Stockholm though not in an oppressive way. Inside the cathedral is an impressive sculpture of St George and the Dragon, partly made from moose horns.
To the west of the city centre lies the City Hall. a stylistically odd building that combines stars, balconies, gold naked statues, and a gold tomb among its various ornaments. Topped by three gold crowns, one of the national symbols of Sweden, the City Hall is best known internationally as the venue for the Nobel banquet, which follows the prize-giving. The place is awash with Russian tour groups when I visit.
Not far north from my hotel is the Historical Museum, where I spend a couple of hours catching up on Swedish history. One exhibit concludes that any collective notion of Swedishness has only existed for about a century, making it a rather younger country than you might think. The Gold Room lives up to its name in spades. I'm both worried and intrigued by the cloakroom, which appears to have no security whatsoever, but my coat is still hanging there when I finish my visit.
I don't spend much time in Södermalm, a trendy district on an island of the same name, just to the south of Gamla Stan. However some of the best cityscapes of central Stockholm can be seen from Fjällgatan, an elevated street on its northern edge. I go there twice, once during the day and once by night, but the night-time view is less interesting than I would have hoped.
I take one trip outside of central Stockholm, to the Woodland Cemetery (Skogskyrkogården) south of the city. There are no ostentatious tombs here, with small, plain gravestones the order of the day. Even that of its most famous resident, Greta Garbo, is only remarkable because of the number of votive candles in front of it. What makes the place is its very tranquil setting amongst hundreds of trees, producing a serenity that was no doubt part of the reason why it was given a UNESCO World Heritage listing.
Swedish cuisine may not be universally lauded but I go to town on one of its mainstays - meatballs. Known as köttbullar in Swedish (which is confusingly pronounced with a sh sound rather than a k at the beginning), they are usually served in gravy with pureed mash, lingonberries, and pickled cucumber. I try them at a number of restaurants around Stockholm, including the atmospheric Pelikan, and conclude that there are definitely worse things to have for a de facto national dish. I'm assuming that it's in one of these dark restaurants where one or more mosquitoes gives me a dozen or so bites on my leg - after being nibbled in Salzburg in October last year, I'm no longer surprised that I attract mosquitoes out of season and in countries where you wouldn't expect them. I also try a cinnamon bun (kanelbulle), which is a favourite Swedish snack, but all it does is remind me that I'm not mad keen on cinnamon. With no Japanese restaurants in the town where I live, I also take the opportunity to visit a ramen restaurant, where the ramen contains the most, and largest, slices of pork I've ever seen in a ramen.
One factor that makes Stockholm such an easy place to travel around is that almost everyone speaks English - not just young people or educated people, but pretty much everyone. I only have language trouble twice in my stay, once with a server in a cake shop in Gamla Stan (of all places, given how touristy it is) and once with a member of staff at the station, but on each occasion they immediately dig out an English-speaking colleague. I try not to assume that everyone will speak English, and initially preface my interactions with the Swedish phrase for "Do you speak English?", but this seems to cause confusion more often than not and eventually I stop using it. I hear English spoken everywhere, even amongst people who seem to be local, and sometimes I hear Swedish conversations into which bits of English are slipped. Signs and adverts make use of English. It's strange that a country whose native language seems much further away from English than, say, French does, should be one where nearly everyone speaks English. And of course my schoolboy sense of humour is intrigued by the preponderance of farts, slags, and sluts in the local language.
There are various Swedish stereotypes that I read about, though not all of them are backed up by the empirical evidence of my stay. Apparently Swedes have an extreme liking for preserving their personal space but, being non-confrontational, won't make you aware of the fact. So it's a no-no to sit next to someone on the bus if spare double-seats are available, nor should you stand close to someone at a bus-stop. I don't notice this myself but perhaps this is due to such unwritten rules being suspended in Stockholm, which has a high population density by Swedish standards. A more obvious difference to the UK is that there is a great deal of tolerance for children - when I visit the Armoury at the Royal Palace, the number of strollers clogging up the place would have Brits tutting and shaking their heads in exasperation, but here there is only patience.
From a tourist point of view, most sights don't open before 10AM or even 11AM in some cases, which means that it's impossible to make an early start. Visiting at this time of year, which is essentially the beginning of the off-season, also means that some sights have reduced opening hours or may not be open at all. Stockholm seems to be further than the UK along the route to a cashless society, as I see several places (such as the shop at ABBA the Museum) that only accept cards.
From a personal point of view, Stockholm is the first city in which I decide to rely on Google Maps for navigation. I have a Moto G phone which can cache Google Maps for all of Stockholm - I do the caching via the Wifi in my hotel, after which I don't need a phone signal. I can't describe how much easier it is to whip the phone out of my pocket to check on my whereabouts, rather than have to pull out a map. I don't need to rely on finding street signs to tell me what street I'm on, I don't have to fight with a folded piece of paper in the wind and the rain, and looking at a phone is such a natural thing to do in a capital city that I don't look like an obvious tourist. The main downside is that using Google Maps will erode my already poor sense of direction, but its ease of use is so seductive. On top of that, I also find that unless the light conditions are poor then my phone can also take passable photos, which means I don't have to dig my camera out of my bag. This is a major change in how I travel.
Stockholm nightlife has a good reputation but these days I feel as though I'm too old and losing too much hair to want to go out to bars and clubs on my own. The centre doesn't feel dangerous at night so I spend my evenings wandering its streets in the dark, finishing up with a beer back at the hotel.
In total I spend a week in Stockholm, and though it's pleasant and safe and civilised and generally easy to get by in, it doesn't particularly grab me and that's nothing to do with how expensive everything is. One thing I'm increasingly finding with European cities is that there are many similarities between them, courtesy of historical continent-wide cultural movements as well as events through the ages that have affected Europe in its entirety. As such, the cities that I've visited most recently all contain echoes of ones I've seen previously, which can perhaps make them seem less novel and hence less interesting. I would no doubt find more variety if I visited smaller cities and towns that had not been in the front line of historical change, but there are various reasons why I'm not doing that. ABBA the Museum, in particular, and also the Vasa Museum have been highlights but I don't think I needed an entire week here.
So, channelling the spirit of ABBA, it's now time for Another Town, Another Train hence I will say So Long to Stockholm and begin to look forward to my Arrival in Copenhagen.
[I have some logistical information about visiting Stockholm that is too dull to put in here - I'll add a link to my other blog when I have detailed it there.]
[I also took a lot more photos than just those shown here - you can see them at my Flickr account here.]