Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Lost in Gamla Stan

It’s a bright sunny day in Stockholm, and yet I’m grabbing for the warmth hidden in my navy-blue sweater sleeves. I’m standing on one of the four bridges that lead to Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town; on the other side a different world exists.

The Old Town is an endless maze of winding cobblestone paths, with candy-coloured, eighteenth century buildings flanking them on both sides; a few remind me of the gingerbread house, from the tale of Hansel and Gretel. Peeping out from their midst is a church spiral, and hidden around the bend is the Royal Palace. If ever a fairytale needed a setting, this is it.

Gamla Stan is the heart of the Scandinavian capital, and it opens up at Stortorget, the old square. It’s still early, but already a street band fills the morning air with music. On the sidelines delicious cafes are hard at work; little wooden tables, draped in red chequered tablecloth, are serving out hot coffee and pastries. As the crowd swells, waitresses dart in and out with the day’s orders, while their guests enjoy the music and toss a few coins into empty guitar cases. It makes for a pretty picture, a sharp contrast to the history of the square: this is the scene of the infamous ‘Stockholm Bloodbath.’ In November 1520, the Danish King, Christian II, had all his political rivals, comprising a large section of Swedish aristocracy, beheaded in this very square. The act would lead to an uprising and the end of his reign.

A I stroll along, I learn that the city of Stockholm was born here, before spreading out to include the fourteen islands that form the city today. This is the oldest part of the city, and also its biggest attraction. This is the seat of Swedish Royalty. The official palace – Kungliga Slottet – sits on the waterfront, towering over locals and tourists alike. The palace is open to the public, and a visit is recommended. The interiors are lavish and house some very interesting museums: The Royal Armoury holds an intriguing collection of medieval weapons; The Royal Treasury exhibits the crowned jewels; and The Museum of Antiquities stores many priceless treasures from the past.

Everyday, from May to September, the change of guard ceremony takes place outside the palace. I arrive just in time as synchronised marching boots halt in front of me – attention! Stand at ease! The guards perform this ritual with a fantastical sense of duty and patience; ever tolerant of the many cameras flashing in their faces.

A few cobbled feet away stands Stockholm’s oldest cathedral – Storkyrkan, the address for all royal weddings and coronations. Adding to the prestigious company, you’ll also find the House of Knights and the spectacular Knights garden here, as well as the Nobel Museum and Library. The museum was opened in 2001 to mark a hundred year’s of the prize and showcases portraits and citations of the winners.

Of all Gamla Stan’s landmarks, the most magical are perhaps the old alleyways, and walking past them is just as fascinating. Some are impossibly narrow, just slight openings between ancient buildings, it is a mystery how they manage to hold the tourists that flood them all through the day. At either end you’ll find quirky little souvenir stores; miniature trolls and Vikings, dressed up in helmets and swords, stand outside, luring tourists into buying bags worth of souvenirs.

Like the rest of Sweden, the old town too is a showcase of the country’s multi-ethnic atmosphere, which for first time visitors comes as a pleasant surprise. Store windows display little statues of Buddha, Krishna and Mary, all standing side by side. Outside a million tourists, speaking a dozen different languages, jostle past hot-dog kiosks and street performers, singers (they all have a slight bias for Dylan and Alanis numbers), jugglers and artists. It’s easy to envy those who work and live in these quarters; despite the endless crowds it never once loses it charm.

Along with the history and the culture, another attraction here is food. There are a number of chic cafes and restaurants on the menu: while some choose to spill out on the street, enjoying the bright midnight sun, others prefer a more interesting modus operandi – serving out of underground, or cellar cafes. Unless you are claustrophobic, these make for a memorable culinary experience. Keeping in sync with the city’s multi-ethnic attitude, a variety of world cuisine is on offer across Gamla Stan. The real adventure, however, lies in a plate of traditional Swedish food: cloudberry jam, a choice between reindeer, elk and moose, served with mashed potatoes, and rounded off with some traditionally made vanilla ice-cream topped with warm wildberry jam.

I could spend the whole day wandering these alleys, but across the bridges the rest of the city waits. The City Hall, an imposing brick figure spread across the landscape, beckons from the other side, and I succumb. As I walk in a number of elegant statues greet me, following my awestruck progress from their enclaves high in the walls. Ahead, towards the waterfront brick gives way to soft green lawns, each with a fountain, statues and a flowerbed. Along with a spectacular view of the city, you’ll also see young couples with family and friends, some waiting to be wed, others newly wed; there is confetti and flowers, and beautiful wedding gowns.

Stockholm is thirty percent park and thirty percent water – you can tell just by how sweet the air tastes. This makes walking around the city, along the waterfront, across the many bridges, past the squawking gulls and expensive boats anchored in, even more special. A must do here is the archipelago cruise; stopover at the Djurgarden island park, at the Vasa Museum. The Vasa was the Swedish navy’s most sophisticated battleship. She set sail on her maiden voyage in 1628, only to sink a few meters away from the harbour. In 1961 she was raised and restored, becoming one of Sweden’s most visited tourist attraction. Right next to it is the Nordic Museum holding exhibits of cultural, historic and artistic importance, and the Skansen Open Air Museum, one of Europe’s oldest museums; it offers a glimpse to the Swedish way of life.

Royalty, history, sightseeing; It’s been a long day. My feet have taken in every inch of the city, and as the midnight sun calls it a day, casting long shadows into the night, I decide to follow suit. I settle down at a cosy little restaurant by the waterfront; the perfect end to a perfect day in Stockholm.

A version of this appeared in the Hindustan Times on 21/2/08

No comments: