Sweden lies north, and in August, North is where the cool air is. That alone would have been reason enough for us to go; after all, seven years ago, to cool off was the impetus for Kay and me to journey by train and bus through Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Poland, and the Baltic countries all the way to Finland. This summer, though, we had an additional reason. We had promised ourselves and our former New York neighbor Desiree to visit her in Uppsala. Of course, we were curious, too. We had never been to Sweden.
It is only a short forty-five-minute drive to Uppsala from Arlanda airport where Desi was waiting for us after our three-hour flight from Istanbul. Since we have known her for many years, we were not surprised by Desi’s stylish flat.
Nearly all her life she has studied textiles and practiced the art of weaving. Chez Desi, walls that aren’t stacked with books are hung with artwork, her own and that of others. What’s more, everything else around us, furniture, carpets, and tableware had been chosen for its beauty as well as comfort.
In spite of our long acquaintance, the three of us had a lot to talk about. We might say that in Uppsala Desi has come home. After decades of living abroad, she’s back in the town where she grew up. Uppsala is not Sweden’s largest city, but it is one of its oldest. Its redbrick, gothic cathedral, dating back to the 13th century, is the largest in Scandinavia. Uppsala is also famous for its highly ranked university, the oldest in Sweden.
Dinner that first evening came in the form of a large platter filled with various cheeses, some from the Aland Islands in the Baltic. Desi also served some delicious new potatoes in their jackets slathered with butter. Another platter held two kinds of salmon, one covered with pepper and the other with a blanket of cheddar cheese. There was also a garden salad of frisée that Desi had grown combined with rocket and bitter Belgian endive. Dessert was slices of apple cake and fresh strawberries with vanilla custard. We drank red wine, sparkling water, and finished with short glasses of Remy Martin. We give these details because, as we were to learn, salmon, potatoes, and salad are Swedish staples that we would enjoy again during a week of good eating.
Travel is easy in Sweden. In our experience, Swedish trains are clean, fast, and efficient. When we went to buy round-trip tickets from Stockholm in the east and Gothenburg on the western shore, the young woman that sold them to us couldn’t have been more helpful. She even sold us tourist passes for both cities that gave us unlimited local transportation and free entry to many museums. We found the same kind of courtesy and helpfulness in the two hotels where we stayed that week. These qualities are facilitated by the fact that nearly everyone in Sweden speaks some English, and many speak our language very well.
The remainder of our time in Uppsala was short, one single long day. After touring the cathedral with Desi we entered the Museum Gustarianum that belongs to the University of Uppsala. There, we admired a rarity. The Augsburg Art Cabinet is a large, square, intricately carved piece of sculpture done in some kind of black wood with folding doors on all four sides that reveal a collection of small curiosities and samples of rare marble and other stones containing minerals. The Lutheran Councilors of Augsburg presented it to King Gustave II Adolph in 1632 in thanks for his assistance against their Catholic enemies in the Thirty Years War.
This unusual museum also houses an anatomical theater where in past centuries medical students and even the paying public, standing on steeply banked tiers in the round, learned human anatomy by watching corpses being dissected below them.
That evening Desi drove us and Tune, a long-time friend of hers, a good distance into the countryside to a hundred-year-old cottage known in Swedish as a torp. Once occupied by sharecroppers and their families, it now belongs to Desi who uses it as her atelier.
One room contains a large loom and a wall of shelves filled with brilliantly colored yarns.
While Kay and I sat idly by, Desi and Tune turned a portion of local beef into fat, delicious hamburgers on a Weber grill and served them al fresco with another salad and the usual trimmings. What a day! Our Swedish adventure was off to a roaring start.
It takes about five hours on the train from Uppsala to Gothenburg, and as we relaxed and rode, we had plenty of time to take in the views from our windows. What we saw was certainly pleasant enough but without any dramatic surprises. Those we would find first in Gothenburg and later in Stockholm, two cities we’re glad to have finally seen.
Gothenburg began as a Dutch seaport in 1621. Today, it is Scandinavia’s largest, and to visit the historic town that encompasses it is the reason we came. Quite by accident, we arrived at the start of the town’s annual music festival. While we might have preferred not to have had the over-amplified frenzy of the rock stage so close to our hotel, there’s no doubt that the festival crowds brought the streets to life in a special way.
We were surprised how compact the town seemed. We covered most of it on foot in a single, sunny day. While even in cosmopolitan Istanbul, restaurant choices are mostly limited to Turkish cuisine, Sweden resembles other developed countries in the variety of international restaurants on hand. We ate a very tasty Indian lunch in a quiet place called the Goa Kitchen.
In our wanderings through town we came across the SoulStore. It’s the kind of place immediately attractive to people who like the music of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. As we walked in, Manfred Mann’s 5-4-3-2-1 was playing through the loud speakers. Besides music the shop sells popular bios of rock stars and serves coffee to its customers. It was a fun place to shop and relax for a while.
Besides the wide expanse of water that contains the port, two canals wind through Gothenburg. The closest of these to our hotel runs past a green and pleasant park furnished with benches and some pretty sculpture. Across from the park on the other bank of the canal, we admired a magnificent row of late 19th-century apartment houses related in size and function, but done differently enough from each other not to be boring.
We can say as much about most of street scenes we encountered in our wanderings. The historic buildings sit comfortably next to each other and are of human scale, yet there is enough different in the ways they are decorated and in their building materials to keep them individually interesting.
In Gothenburg we had previously arranged to have dinner with a Swedish couple I had met a few years before while walking the Lycian Way along the Mediterranean Coast. They had been sailing their boat around the coasts of Turkey and the Greek Isles for many months. Now Michael and Carin are back in Sweden, working and dreaming about the future when they can return to their vagabond life on the water. They met us at our hotel, the Flora, and escorted us to a nearby restaurant for a fish dinner.
Kay and I came to Sweden prepared for rain. The weather reports we had read told us as much. On our second morning in Gothenburg that prediction came true. We got soaked walking from our hotel to the city’s art museum about thirty minutes distant. The walk was worth the trouble, though, because the museum is excellent. In addition to some galleries of Old Masters, it has a large collection of Nordic paintings, most done by artists new to us. One painting that struck us in particular is by Finnish painter Albert Edelfelt (1863-1905), and the large square canvas entitled At Sea (1883) has to be his greatest work. It shows a fisherman and his daughter in a small fishing boat on a choppy sea under a grey sky. We are in the boat with the two figures. Their expressions are stoic and unsmiling. Their lives are hard, and they endure them. It’s a very powerful painting, one I think I will never forget.
Before leaving Gothenburg we have to mention a special exhibit of the paintings of Finnish artist Helene Schjerbeck (1862-1946), one of the most popular painters of the Nordic countries. As the exhibit would close a day after our visit, our timing was just right. We had seen some of this artist’s self-portraits when we were in Helsinki a few years ago. She began painting them early in her life and continued until close to death. Their change in style from an early naturalism to a reduced and haunted expressionism marks the progress of the artist from youth to extreme old age.
In addition to the self-portraits there were portraits of her mother, with whom she lived for years, and of a few other people in her life. We like her mature style very much with its neutral backgrounds and the suppression and simplification of some details in order to exaggerate others. This was a major retrospective of her work that included still-lives and early nationalistic paintings she did in the spirit of the times as a young, upcoming artist.
Now, it has to be said: We love Stockholm! This northern city, founded by one Birger Jarl in 1255, has grown to encompass fourteen islands where the fresh water of Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea. Like Venice, Europe’s other great island city, Stockholm is a city of spectacular views. These, along with a many great buildings, museums, parks and squares, make Stockholm one of the most enticing of European cities. Now, we should add that we saw Stockholm under its most favorable aspect. In the rain or during the long winter months when the sun only appears from 8 until 3, our impressions might be different.
Our habitual approach when arriving in a new place is to walk. The street is where we first sense a town’s personality. Swedish cities are courteous. Step into a crosswalk, and the cars stop to let you pass. Ask a stranger for directions, and you receive a polite response. Our hotel, the Rex, was super in this regard. We had been told of a piano-and-choral concert to take place in a museum on one of the city’s islands. Unable on my own to find details about it, I told my problem to the young woman at Reception, she not only happily got me complete information but on her own initiative reserved two tickets for us in the name of the hotel. This is service above and beyond the norm.
With only two-and-a-half days to spend in this city of so many attractions, we had to choose carefully. We choose not to visit some major sites like the Royal Palace because the swarms of tourists were too discouraging. In the end, although we occasionally miscalculated in our timings, we didn’t do too badly. Here are a few highlights:
Gamla Stan, the Old Town, a warren of streets and remarkably narrow alleys, was where Stockholm was born. What is today the extensive Royal Palace was once a donjon and a few rude buildings encircled by a defense wall a couple meters thick. Today, the surrounding medieval streets make up tourist central with the usual collection of restaurants, bars, and souvenir shops.
They are fun to walk through, however, and contain some impressive buildings among which are the Storkyrkan (the cathedral) and Riksdagshuset (the parliament building).
Attached to Gamla Stan by a short bridge is another, smaller island with a particularly interesting medieval church. Riddarholmskyrkan is a necropolis, the burial place of many Swedish kings and queens over the centuries. The most prominent of these have their own side chapels closed by decorative iron gates emblazoned with their coats of arms. I particularly liked one of these with a red slash through it, declaring that the owner was an illegitimate son of the ruler.
We have a friend in Stockholm. Gudrun is a woman we know through our literary society. It was she who told us about Waldemarsudde, a museum and art gallery on the estate of Prince Eugen located in yet another part of Stockholm called Djurgarden. We reached it at the end of a tram line that took us past some interesting neighborhoods to a totally different part of the city, a large park that had once comprised the prince’s estate. Here everything was green and the views across the water from where we had come were inspiring. There was an outdoor café where we relaxed over coffee and some delicious apple and rhubarb pies.
In the art gallery we made the acquaintance of the work of Bruno Liljefors (1860-1939), one of the world’s foremost painters of animals and birds. He lived his life as a hunter and close observer of Sweden’s natural habitats. Liljefors’ art is different from, say, Audubon’s. His intention was to render his subjects alive, often at moments of predation and extremis. One painting shows a hawk on the wing attacking a male grouse while the female flees in terror. Liljefors wanted to record their daily struggle for existence.
These paintings are ineffable. Such is their brilliance that we lack words to describe how seemingly alive are their creatures and even the habitats they dwell in. And it’s no good looking at reproductions; you have to stand before the works themselves.
Passing into Prince Eugen’s residence, we admired the rooms open to us. The prince was himself a painter, and some of his canvases adorn the walls.
At the end of the afternoon we had only a short time to visit a special exhibition of the paintings of Eva Bonnier (1857-1909), another accomplished painter with an independent income. Her paintings of persons suffering from illnesses and convalescing are unusual. A self-portrait and another of her by a fellow artist shows a woman with a very strong, intelligent face. She was an art patron, as well, who left her fortune to the City of Stockholm to decorate civic buildings.
Our final hours that evening were spent with Gudrun and her husband Lars in their elegant apartment near our hotel. Both are cultured, well read, and well-travelled people, elderly now, but still engaged with ideas and life.
On our last full day in Sweden, Kay and I chose to visit Drottningholm, the royal palace that is still home to Sweden’s Royal Family. It is located on the shore of Lake Mälaren about an hour’s travel by boat from Stockholm proper. One can get there by bus; however, we chose to go on one of the steam-driven lake boats that date from the early 20th century.
Drottningholm was begun in 1662 on the site of a former palace. Dowager Queen Hedvig Eleonora was the driving force behind its construction. The 17th century was when Sweden reached its apogee as a European power. Eleonora wanted a palace to impress other European rulers, one that would confirm Sweden’s prestige.
Although not as large as Versailles and other great European palaces, Drottningholm is their equal in the elegance of its architecture and the size and beauty of its enormous park and formal gardens. What’s more, the whole complex of palace, outbuildings, theater, park and gardens is remarkably well maintained.
The palace rooms that we visited first are filled with portraits of European nobility. Among the gilded surfaces and the illustrated ceilings we looked at great murals of battle scenes.
We walked for a long time in the extensive formal gardens and in the allées of the park beyond. The many fountains were all in operation.
At a good distance from the palace we came upon the Chinese Pavilion. Originally erected in 1769, it is one of the world’s most famous Rococo environments. More than a single building, it is flanked by two smaller pavilions in the same style. It recalled the Chinese Pavilion we had seen earlier this year at Potsdam’s Sans Souci.
Weather-wise, we had a lovely day for our visit. We had been very lucky with the weather throughout the week.
We had a final half-day before it was time to head for the airport. We couldn’t have done better than to make a visit to Fotografiska, the ultra-modern photography museum located on the north shore of the island of Södermalm. There, a large exhibit of photographs by the late Helmut Newton knocked us out. Most were in black, and white and many were done for the great European fashion magazines. Newton shook up the world of fashion photography with his startling juxtapositions, his eroticism, and what was probably considered by some to be his bad taste bordering on pornography. He claimed in an interview that he loved vulgarity and bad taste. For him good taste was just the “standardized way of looking at things.” He was out to shake that up. Many of his photos feature nude models and even nude portraits of well-known actresses like Charlotte Rampling. Newton: “Nothing is more revealing than nudity, even when it’s dressed.”
For the cosmopolitan tourist, Sweden is a marvelous destination. There are so many delightful things to see, so many comforts, and so many amenities. Of course, they all come at a price. This country is one of most highly taxed in the world. You feel this each time you order a beer or a ham sandwich. But so what! For a brief moment in Sweden you feel very much alive.