What to say about Stockholm? It was the one place in Sweden where I already had certain preconceived ideas about what to expect; from the islands and the parklands to the particular style of houses of the old town quayside that I had seen on pictures before we left. We stayed at a campsite in the woods and right on the water, but only ten minutes walk from the T-bana metro line into the city, and it was an interesting way to experience a “city break”, returning each evening to our tent beneath the trees and late night walks down to the water’s edge.
The one downside/advantage of camping – depending on how you see it – is the early morning starts, and we arrived into Stockholm’s central metro station on a Sunday morning where it felt like the majority of the population were sleeping off the after-effects of the night before, whilst council-workers hosed down the mess that they had left behind. The walk down the pedestrianised Drottninggatan shopping street towards the Gamla stan (old town) was relaxed, aside from the whirring brushes of the street-cleaning vehicles, as the owners of souvenir shops stood on the steps of their businesses and looked hopefully up and down for custom.
It made sense that it was only the souvenir shops touting for business at that time on a Sunday as it was only the tourists out and about. But still, as we crossed the bridges passed the Parliament building and into the warren-like narrow streets of the Gamla stan, the crowds were manageable and we could make good time with our exploring. As the day went on, the hotels, tour buses and boats moored up on the embankment disgorged their contents into the narrow streets things began to get a little crowded and slow moving. At the lovely little statue tucked away in a courtyard we waited for three separate tour groups to pass through before we could stroke its head for luck, and by which point we had learned that this was Sweden’s smallest sculpture in three different languages, even if the guides could not agree on the date of origin…
In any case, as tourists ourselves we cannot complain about the number of people wandering the lovely old streets on an August Sunday, but it was the overriding impression of the Gamla stan, as is so common in many old towns around Europe. What is always interesting to consider is that it is not all that long ago – perhaps fifty or sixty years – that neighbourhoods such as the Gamla stan were little more than slums, their apartments cramped and without facilities, and it was only the onset of mass tourism that led to the investment and improvements that make them so attractive, and so busy, in the present day.
We spent the afternoon and the following day exploring the many narrow streets, as well as Norrmalm to the north (commercial) and Södermalm the south (residential, somewhat “hip” with nice bookshops and street musicians), and of course did not have anywhere near long enough to form a proper impression of the Swedish capital. We ducked into the Nobel Museum and were extremely glad we did, and ate hot dogs overlooking the ships on the water, and climbed the stairs to the Katarinahissen for incredible views before ducking back into a lovely, leafy square flanked with apartment houses, a theatre, and a coffee kiosk at its heart… one of those moments I get in most European cities when I think, “Ah yes, here is where I would like to live…”
There was time in our couple of days only for snapshots, of liveried guards outside the castle and the wondrous wooden products of a Gamla stan toy shop, the elegance of some of the T-bana metro stations and the grandeur of some of the institutional architecture, and of course the pleasing sense of space that is afforded to all cities built on the water, offering residents and visitors alike a sense of wider perspective beyond the hustle and bustle of the streets.
Words: Paul Scraton
Pictures: Katrin Schönig