Stockholm, the Venice of the North

Stockholm was established as a city in the 1200s, but it had Stone Age settlements nearly 2000 years before that. Like Venice, Stockholm is a charming place of canals and islands. The Swedish Atoll has 30,000 islands, according to Swedish tourism sites, although some may be little more than uninhabited rocks in the water.

Cruise boats in Stockholm don’t dwarf the neighborhood the way they do in Venice.

The city itself has 14 islands. We visited most of them simply by walking across short and wide bridges. Unlike Venice, Stockholm is filled with cars, bicycles and wide streets. We joined a walking tour of Gamla Stan, the Old Town, on Stadsholmen island, conveniently a 10-minute stroll from our hotel. Stortorget is the main square and one of the most popular spots in the city for visiting tourists. (Look at top Stockholm Instagram hits for proof.)

18-20 Stortorget, a great place for a morning coffee and cinnamon roll

One of the top photo backdrops is the distinctive and pleasing architecture of number 18-20, brightly painted in orange and red. The Nobel Prize Museum is also on the square, celebrating the winners of prestigious prizes endowed by Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and other tools of war. Despite the peaceful appearance, the square was the site of the Stockholm Bloodbath, a three-day execution by decapitation of nearly 100 Swedish royals and aristocrats in 1520 by the Danes. They worked with the Archbishop of Uppsala to justify the killings because of the heresy of the accused: a fine example of religious justification of violent acts. Count the white squares in the red building, said to match the number of people beheaded. According to legend, blood ran into the well in the center of the square and spewed out tainted pink water for weeks. Stortorget’s well from the 1700s was removed after the square rose above the water level, but reinstalled in the original spot in the 1950s. Today the water trickling out is actually sourced via pipes from Stockholm’s pure, fresh, clean city supply. Good to know.

We were encouraged EVERYWHERE to drink the clean and delicious Swedish water; however, we passed on the opportunity to sample this well.

Nearby is a runestone dated to the late 11th century. If you wonder about the inscription, ᚦᚬᚱ [..] ᛅᛁᚾ ᛫ ᛅᚢᚴ ᛫ ᛫ ᚠᚱᛅᚤᚴᚢᚾ ᛫ ᚦᛅᚢ […] ᛫ ᛋᛏᛅᛁᚾ ᛫ ᛁᚠᛏᛁᛦ […] ᛋᚢᚾ ᛋᛁᚾ, it has been translated to “Torsten and Frögunn they (let travel) the stone after …, their son.” Clear, right? Not much else is known.

U 53 runestone, an ancient mystery

Housing in Stockholm’s more posh areas can be very expensive and has been so for generations. Look at the windows at the left-center of this image. See anything unusual? We heard two stories: Either glass was very expensive in olden times or owners changed real windows to fake ones to avoid paying a tax that was imposed based on number of windows rather than based on size or value of the property. Probably both of these underlying causes contributed to the unique “windows” here.

They’re not real windows! So if the tax no longer exists, why not redo real windows?

As we walked from one island to another, we passed the Sager House, the Swedish prime minister’s home, a nondescript pale-yellow building with no visible security. It’s across the water from the Swedish Parliament and Swedish Royal Palace, so it’s a quick bridge crossing for Prime Minister Stefan Löfven or his entourage.

Sager House, home of a very important country leader. Where are the guards with semi-automatics?

Sweden has their changing of the guard, sometimes marching to ABBA songs! However, with cautious conditions during COVID, the pageantry is a bit subdued.

They’re just marching along, but we’re listening to “Dancing Queen” in our heads.

We saw Gustav Adolf II again (after meeting him in Gothenburg). Like St. Erik, he died young (age 37) after assuming the throne at age 16. The statue is very close to the parliament building and the spot where Greta Thunburg began doing Friday for Future protests as a 15-year-old in 2018.

Gustav Adolf II, king of Sweden from 1611 to 1632

Like Venice with its winged lion, Stockholm seems to love lions. The mighty beasts have historically been an important part of the Kingdom of Sweden’s coat of arms, but with forked tails instead of the wings of Venice’s lions. The Kungsträdgården, the King’s Garden, was part of the formal royal garden in earlier centuries. Today four large lions guard a statue of King Karl XIII, who ruled Sweden from 1809 and Norway also from 1814 to 1818. The large park has a beautiful sunken pool with fountains and it’s surrounded by stepped seating, perfect for enjoying the early autumn days when we were there. It’s a skating rink in winter. Ironically the focal point at the end of the pool is…a TGIFridays.

Note the crowns of Sweden and Norway on the globe.

Stockholm’s recent lion additions come in three different sizes (plus small tourist souvenirs). They’re actually concrete barriers installed after a violent attack in 2017 (a 10-minute walk in a different direction from our hotel), during which a terrorist drove a truck into sidewalk crowds, killing five people. These barriers are so much better than the plain block curbstones we normally see in the US. With smiling lion faces, they’re good for kids to play on and offer seniors frequent spots to stop and take a rest.

This is the medium lion barrier. The big ones weigh three tons each.

Stockholm is known for the artwork in 90 or so of its metro stations. We saw about a dozen of the stations in the city, each unique, some more appealing than others. It reminded us a bit of the Palettes of Keuka! This one at the Central Station (our most frequent stop) was one of our favorites.

The 1950s tiling is a bit reminiscent of blue azulejos tiles in Portugal.

We visited one of the smallest statues in the world, “Järnpojke,” “Iron Boy” or “Little Boy Looking at the Moon.” It’s about six inches tall, barely taller than its names are long! The idea behind this artwork by Liss Eriksson is that the boy (perhaps Liss himself) couldn’t sleep, but looking up at the moon calmed him and sent him off to dreamland. Stories suggest good luck or a return to Stockholm for anyone who leaves a gift or rubs his head. That explains the shine. Our tour guide told us if we rubbed the boy’s head we would get pregnant. No news yet on that front…

Tourists from several countries left the little iron boy small-denomination coins.

We returned at night to see the “moon” shining on the boy, still awake apparently. (It’s a small pinpoint of light mounted on a nearby building.)

Hmm…What happened to the other coins?

We don’t hear much about Swedish royalty in the US, but it’s quite fascinating to the locals. Prince Carl Philip’s mother was of German and Brazilian descent and his Danish-Swedish wife was once a model. He was first in line to the throne until a 1980 matrilineal primogeniture ruling gave his older sister Crown Princess Victoria that role, honoring birth order before gender. (You go, girl!) Victoria’s two kids are ahead of Carl Philip now too. Victoria married her former personal trainer. Victoria’s and Carl’s younger sister, Madeleine, married a British-American businessman. The entire Swedish side of the royal family is descended from the House of Bernadotte, who come from France, under the service of Napoleon. If you expected Swedish royalty to be blond-haired and blue-eyed, it just isn’t the case. In any event, the royals get their share of paparazzi treatment.

Prince Carl Philip, the tall, dark, handsome guy at the bottom, can still sell a magazine even though he’s only fourth in line to the throne.

While we were in Scandinavia the big news was the announcement of ABBA’s new Voyage tour, 40 years after their last joint public appearance. If you like ABBA—and honestly, how could you not?—the new songs will bring back fantastic memories. The voices are still as great as when they represented Sweden and won the Eurovision singing competition in 1974 with “Waterloo.” The rest is history. The twist for this tour is Agnetha, Björn, Bennie and Anni-Frid, now in their 70s, will have digital ABBAtars of the dancing rock stars so they will be seen as youthful images on the big screens at concerts. Something to look forward to in 2022. “Thank You for the Music!”

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