I began my sightseeing in Stockholm with a walking tour in the Gamla Stan or Old Town. The tour guide started with a succinct history of Sweden which went something like this: After the Iron Age came the Vikings. They disappeared during the Dark Ages. For 500 years, there were petty kings and lots of battles with Denmark. In 1523, a noble named Gustav consolidated power, made himself king and Sweden as we know it today was born. Gustav’s progeny ruled for a few hundred years, with their most notable legacy being making the Lutheran Church the national religion. This was more a land grab from the existing Catholic Church than a theological metamorphosis, but it stuck. In the early 19th century, the last of the Gustav line died without heir so the Swedes asked Napoleon what to do. Why Napoleon was never explained, but he proposed a wealthy Frenchman who had no royal blood and didn’t speak Swedish. The Swedes accepted and, to this day, his heirs are the Swedish royal family. They have since learned Swedish but their taste in marriage partners still runs toward the common- an American businessman and a reality TV star.
The tour walked us through some of the significant buildings where these events occurred – the Church where the Gustavs are buried, the Royal Palace, the main square which was the sight of a bloodbath of Swedish nobles by the Danes and the narrowest alleyway imaginable, constructed only 35 inches wide to discourage people from using it as a toilet. The streets were all cobblestone, everything was pretty and the entire tour with the historical commentary took a grand total of an hour and a half.
I cycled to the Vasa Museum, a wonderful monument to total stupidity. There is even a syndrome called the Vasa Syndrome, which refers to a pigheaded ruler who doesn’t listen to anyone and fails to see disaster looming. The Vasa was a ship built quickly under orders from one of the King Gustavs to battle the Poles who were at war with Sweden at the time. King Gustav wanted to impress the Poles, so he ordered that there be two gun or cannon decks, rather than the usual one, but failed to make allowances for the extra weight the second gun deck added. Not surprisingly, on the day of its launch in August, 1628, it gloriously sailed 1300 meters (1400 yards) and sank.
The Vasa was raised in 1961 and carefully reconstructed (98% is original). It is now housed in a purpose built museum with ramps allowing visitors to view it from different levels, along with exhibits showing aspects of life in the city based on artifacts found on the ship. Raising and restoring the Vasa was a mammoth undertaking and it is a fabulous relic, but even I, with a limited knowledge of seaworthiness principles, could tell it was top heavy.
So I turned to a more seaworthy topic- the Vikings – at Vikingaliv, a museum devoted to Vikings. There I learned that the Viking image as fierce sailors and warriors was not accurate; the museum portrayed them as simple farmers forced into occasional forays of plunder and murder along the coasts of England and Ireland. There were models of Viking ships and references to their extensive trading as far as Constantinople and China, but the focus was on their farm houses, their family life and their burial rites, with special attention paid to a 10th century Arab traveler who wrote of the Vikings practice of weekly baths and daily hair combing. Very enlightening.
Desirous to learn a little more about Swedish history, I went to the aptly named Swedish Museum of History. It told the same story as the tour guide and the Viking museum, with more artifacts but no more detail. I was beginning to understand why all my European history courses had failed to mention Sweden- after the Vikings it was not involved in much except local wars with the Danes, Russians and Poles.
Sweden did produce one noteworthy individual – Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel prize fame and the subject of the Nobel Museum. Occupying a prominent place in the Main Square of the Old City, the Nobel Museum traces the life of Mr. Nobel – born in Sweden, invented dynamite and became stinking rich, lived in various places throughout Europe, died without heirs so bequeathed his entire fortune to the founding and funding of the 5 prizes (chemistry, physics, medicine, peace and literature) with the 6th prize in economics added in 1969. Each is awarded annually with great fanfare in Stockholm.
However wonderful the concept of the Nobel prize or the achievements of its recipients, it does not make for a particularly fascinating museum. A tribute to the Literature Prize winners showcased each person’s name, country, famous works and the reason why he or she was chosen: “So and so was born in …..and raised ….He/she was greatly influenced by ……..The Academy chose so and so because……” Other than giving me ideas of some books to read, the whole thing was boring.
Seeking something more engaging, it was off to the Nobel theatre, which ran short films of 24 Nobel recipients, letting them speak of matters dear to their hearts. The Dahai Lama contributed a film as did Barbara McClintock for her work on corn genetics. Each short film provided appropriate tributes to the awardee, but the entertainment value of the films was fairly limited.
Hoping to see something more interesting, I turned to the artifacts exhibits, but seeing letters written by Einstein or a model of DNA did not excite me. I left shortly afterwards to visit the museum devoted to Sweden’s most famous citizens: ABBA.
ABBA was the iconic music group of the 1970’s. The two ladies (Agnetha and Anni-Frid) and two gents (Bjorn and Benny) were well known singers and song writers in Sweden in their own right, but shot to international stardom after winning the 1974 Eurovision song competition with Waterloo. Hit followed hit followed by movies, a Broadway show (Chess), marriages to each other ,then divorces and the gradual break up of the group.
All is lovingly retold in the ABBA museum, complete with videos, an infectious soundtrack that follows you around, a frightening number of shiny bell bottom pants and the most interactive exhibits one could want. While I limited myself to having my picture taken in the cutouts, other tourists partook in photo sessions, karaoke and the ultimate dance- on stage with holograph ABBA singing and performing the moves to one’s choice of Dancing Queen or Mama Mia. I didn’t have enough hutzpah to get on stage and try, but others did.
It was a fitting end to my time in Stockholm- a pleasant but not too serious museum. The price, as usual in Sweden, was outrageous to my Canadian sense of cost, but I left with positive vibes of Sweden and humming Supertrouper as a left.