Stockholm: Venice of the North
My first day in Stockholm was one I will never forget. It was my 21st birthday and I had caught an inhumanely early flight from Brussels (4am: the perils of falling for the sheer cheapness of Ryanair tickets..). I knew little about the city. To my everlasting shame, it was only upon arrival that the glorious reality of Stockholm – an archipelago connected by beautiful bridges – was revealed to me.
Ryanair always flies into airports that are at least an hour from the city that you actually intend to visit. This spins out the time the journey takes but, in the case of Stockholm, having to catch a coach into the city worked to my advantage. The city outskirts are comprised of younger buildings very reminiscent of sleek Ikea designs. As you drive further in , the buildings become increasingly aged, although no less colourful! By the time you reach the central island of Gamla Stan – located between the inland Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea – you’ve reached an area that dates to medieval times. The streets are still paved with cobble stones and the windows are encased in ornate frames. It’s akin to travelling back through time (if you’re willing to blatantly ignore all signs of modern life such as cars, phones trains etc that are pretty constant throughout the city!)
When I arrived at the Central Bus Station, it was still early in the day and I was very excited to see more of the beautiful city I had glimpsed from the coach windows. My friend wasn’t flying in until much later that afternoon (just in time for a birthday dinner!) so I set off to find the hostel. I’d spent the night before plotting the way from the station to the hotel. It was only a three kilometre walk and getting to the street in question seemed straightforward.
And so it was. I found the waterfront street – Söder Mälarstrand Kajplats – with little problem. A rather bracing wind whipped off the water, bringing with it the scent of the sea and erasing the normal odours that come with city life. I was enjoying myself immensely. But for one slightly disconcerting detail. The hostel was not immediately obvious. Nevertheless, buoyed by my lovely surrounds, I imagined that I would find the hostel relatively easily by walking the length of the street.
My first effort did not bear fruit.
I walked back along the street, paying even closer attention to the buildings. Still no joy. I was starting to imagine scenarios in which I explained to my friend that I had been tricked into parting with our hard-won pennies for a hotel that didn’t actually exist.
I looked out over the waterfront in despair. No green light (à la Gatsby) gave me comfort.
There was, however, a white sign with big blue lettering. It cleared up my dilemma somewhat. You see, the hostel website had failed to mention one fairly crucial detail. A detail that was absolutely necessary to actually locating the place.
The hostel was actually a boat.
Or, to be more precise, a tugboat. One that had seen service in World War One. Chatting to the receptionist, I would discover that it had actually been sunk in World War One and then salvaged. Whoever had salvaged it knew what they were doing because the inside of the boat was beautiful. All of the furniture was cleverly designed to fit the contours of the boat & despite the negative temperatures outside and the chilled wind coming off the water, all the rooms were toasty!
I am rather a fan of boat related activities – to quote a favourite childhood character, namely the Water Rat from Wind in the Willows: ‘Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.’ So staying in a hostel that was not only a boat but boasted a rather cool collection of boat related paraphernalia (think telescopes, sextants and compasses ahoy!) was right up my alley.
Those of you who know Stockholm will know that the boat related joy does not end there (nor, for that matter, does the motif of salvaged boats..) As an archipelago, boats are one of the main forms of transportation & there are a plethora of sightseeing tours you can do by water. More importantly though, Stockholm is the the home of the Vasa Museum or Vasa Museet. This may be one of the coolest museums I have ever been to in my life (my sample size is large: museums, like bookstores & botanical gardens are my travelling touchstones).
For those who haven’t heard of it, the Vasa was a state of the art warship commissioned by King Gustavus Adolphus in the 17th century. Adolphus also loved messing about in boats and was determined that the Vasa would be a fitting symbol of his power and wealth. Unfortunately this meant that he insisted on loading up the front of the hull with heavy bronze cannons. The ship engineers were too frightened to criticize the King or to suggest that a front heavy boat may not have been the savviest of ideas. Tragically, as a result of the aforementioned cannons, the Vasa sank on its maiden voyage out of Stockholm in 1628. At least thirty people drowned when the ship went down but no one was ever held responsible (the King, unsurprisingly, was above the law..)
The Vasa remained at the bottom of the harbour, its location lost in the mists of time, until naval enthusiast Anders Franzén pinpointed its exact location in 1956. In a process that was the first of its kind and which took five years to complete, the Swedish National Heritage Board, the National Maritime Museum and a private salvage company, the Neptune Company, collaborated to salvage the Vasa and bring it to the surface. It finally saw the light of day in 1961 and, after twenty years of restoration, it was put on display in a purpose built museum. You can now wander around the outside of the ship and watch the videos of the restoration process.
No prizes for guessing how I spent my second day of being 21..