Kanika Chaddha discovers why Sweden’s happy and handsome capital makes for an ideal summer escape
It is a life-size waffle cone with swirls of buttercup yellow ice-cream that stops me in my tracks. The cone is announcing one of the several quaint cafés tucked into the winding cobblestone alleys of Gamla Stan. The cosy lights inside the café, spreading warmth as the summer sun dips behind the Stockholm Cathedral – one of the city’s most prominent – draws me in. Inside, the crowd is boisterous, a seamless mix of locals and tourists. As my fika (coffee and cinnamon roll) arrives, I make friends. Suddenly, above the din, I hear a familiar chant. “Hare Rama… Hare Krishna…”. The chanting merges with cymbals and drums, growing louder by the minute. Half of the café steps out, and so do I, curiosity winning over the last sip of coffee. A motley group of Krishna devotees from across Europe is dancing down the street, their saffron robes and sandalwood tikas in contrast to, yet exotically merging with, Stockholm’s old neighbourhood and shades of golden stones. The group passes by, a few of my newly made friends in tow, disappearing down the next bend.
Gamla Stan, the Swedish capital’s Old Town and one of the largest and most well-preserved medieval city centres in Europe, is where Stockholm was founded in 1252. A day before, I had started my city tour with this pedestrian-friendly neighbourhood, with its cafés, bars and overstuffed antique shops. My guide had revealed that cellar vaults and frescoes from the Middle Ages can still be found behind stone facades and old arches. Today, I have returned alone to loiter, to soak in its spirit and maybe to find secrets still undiscovered. I have been walking aimlessly, down one of the old bridges that flank Norrström river, under the welcoming arches of Gamla Stan, past the jugglers and the buskers, without a map, guided only by the church tower and its tolling bell.
At the heart of Gamla Stan sits the majestic Royal Palace. With over 600 rooms, it is the workplace of the Swedish monarch. The World Heritage Site – the Royal Domain of Drottningholm or Drottningholm Palace, on the outskirts of Stockholm, is the royal family’s private residence. With my customary palace tour done the day before – including a visit to several unique museums like the Royal Armoury, with royal costumes and armour on display – today I stop to catch the popular changing of the guard at the palace gate.
Next stop – the Nobel Museum. The museum is dedicated to both the man, Alfred Nobel, and the famous prize he founded. It is comprehensive – with a section dedicated to the life of Nobel and one narrating the history of the prize, including several interesting objects donated by Nobel laureates. I spend a few extra moments reading a couplet by Rabindranath Tagore and admiring the angle at which a classic black bicycle that Amartya Sen used to ride, is displayed! As you enter the museum, make sure to look up to see the moving conveyor belt displaying banners of Nobel prize winners. Inside the museum café, look on the underside of the chairs… each is autographed by a Nobel laureate! For more on the prize, visit the City Hall, where the famous Nobel banquet is held every year.
Outside, at the centre of one of the several picturesque roundabouts in Gamla Stan, people feed pigeons and bask in the sepia summer dusk that can stretch till 8 pm! The flaming sky frames the image to perfection. Stockholm is a city of perfection, in fact; a city with an aesthetic sensitivity so well-honed that even a piece of litter or a graffiti seems grossly obtrusive. The whitesneakered Swedes, fit and handsome with their glacierblonde mops walk or cycle around!
It is also a city that believes in preserving its history, an example being the unique Vasa museum. This is home to a wooden warship that sank 15 minutes into its maiden voyage in 1628, and was raised almost miraculously intact from the seabed after around 300 years. Several storeys high, some of the ship’s intricate carvings are still intact! As I peep into its gigantic bosom from a porthole, I can’t help but imagine the enthusiasm of the sailors who had set sail on this pride of the nation, not knowing that the vessel wasn’t sea-ready!
Stockholm is also a city of sailors. On clear summer days, the sea, framing the 14 islands of the capital, is dotted with tens of thousands of private boats and yachts, with families and friends enjoying a day of surf and wind. A family of three canoeing up the Norrström under one of the bridges catches my eye as I wait, along with a small crowd, cheering them as they navigate the swift river.
A must-do here is a cruise. From two-hour rides to overnight ones, along with campings on remote islands, the options are many. My favourite is the “Under the Bridges” tour, which, in a couple of hours, sails through downtown Stockholm, past the colourful residential neighbourhoods, Gamla Stan, the islands Södermalm, Lilla and Stora Essingen, the anchored luxury cruise liners that dwarf everything around them, the new area Hammarby Sjöstad and the green Djurgården. It is at this two-mile-long forested island that I end my day, parking my rented bicycle by a tree and rolling out my mat on a grassy knoll by the water. As the last of the cruise boats return to the docks, the city glitters against the darkening sky and people pour into opera houses, theatres and swanky bars, bringing the night to life!