Sweden: Entry 1

29 July 2003: Dorset, England

Subject: Sweden

I'm home!

But I have a lot of writing to do now to catch up on what I did in Scandinavia. Sweden first.


I arrived in Stockholm by ferry from the Aland islands. After a while in the open sea most of the crossing is along the Swedish coast, surrounded by islands. It's not quite as impressive as the crossing from Victoria to Vancouver in British Columbia or between New Zealand's North and South islands, but it is quite scenic. Stockholm itself is a very picturesque city on a group of islands. Originally it defended the route from the sea to the large inland lakes. Now the islands are joined by bridges. It has few modern skyscrapers to get in the way and so there are lots of views of the old buildings across the water. One of the islands is occupied by Gamla Stan, the Old Town, which has lots of narrow streets and a big royal palace. Another island, Djurgarden, was formerly a royal park and is now mostly taken up with museums and open spaces. There are lots of good museums and you could easily spend four or five days visiting them.

The Vasa

Stockholm's most popular museum is the Vasa Museum, and rightly so. The Vasa is a boat that sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage; it has been raised from the seabed and preserved and is now on display. It really is in remarkably good condition, unlike the Mary Rose in Portsmouth - the water in Stockholm is too cold and non-salty for ship worms to thrive. The Vasa was the first boat that the Swedes built with two gun decks, and it didn't have enough space for enough balast in the bottom to balance the extra weight at the top. So it capsized on its maiden voyage just a few hundred metres from where it was built. It has been preserved using polyurethane glycol which gives it rather a plasticy appearance, but still the sheer size and detail of the thing makes it really impressive to look at. I think it's a real wonder of the world and encourage everyone to see it.

Here is a closeup of the back of the boat. It was supposed to be high enough that they could reverse into their enemies and throw things down at them!


Skansen is a huge open-air museum, full of old buildings brought from around the country - much like England's Weald and Downland museum. They have a town quarter with working bakers, glassworks and other trades, old farmsteads, windmills, a church and some more modern buildings like a village hall. Many of them have people in authentic costumes to tell you about them, often busy spinning or baking bread. There's also a zoo with Scandinavian native animals. I had a good day walking around.

The Nobel Museum

This museum tells the story of Alfred Nobel and the prizes that he instigated in his will, and of the people who have won them (over 700 so far). Saying something about that many people with very varied stories is difficult and their main medium is film, with 2-minute shorts about many of the prizewinners. I spotted a couple from Cambridge - they had Crick and Watson drinking pints in the Eagle, and some archive film from the Computer Lab talking about the discovery of the structure of haemoglobin. They also have posters that hang from a track in the ceiling with a few words about each prizewinner, and I laughed to see that the inventor of DDT got the chemistry prize for it!

Drottingsholm Slott

This royal palace is where the Swedish royal family live today, in one wing. Much of the rest of the place is open to the public. It is very much a palace not a castle and you can see elements of Versailles, especially in the gardens. There are some lovely interiors with lots of silk on the walls. The most interesting piece of furniture was a gift from a man who wanted to establish a silk industry in Sweden; it was a wooden chest with marquetry illustrations showing all the stages in silk production. Many of the walls were plaster painted to look like marble. This was apparently very popular and looks quite convincing. I saw the same idea in some of the buildings at Skansen where the paint was on to wooden boards with obvious grain and gaps, and was definitely not as believable. Next to the palace is a theatre. This was built in the 1700s and then forgotten about as the next monarchs didn't have as much interest in drama (they may have been distracted by a war or two). It was rediscovered in 1930 and found to be the only unaltered theatre from that time. Apparently it still has all of the original scenery-shifting equipment - ropes and windlasses that were opperated by off-duty sailors - but for some reason they don't show you this bit on the guided tour.

So after a few days seeing these and other attractions in Stockholm I got on the sleeper train North and over the border to Trondheim in Norway.

Time for a Rant

The afternoon I arrived in Sweden was rather wet and not a very good introduction to the country. First, unlike every other frontier that I've crossed during the trip, at the boat terminal there is no cash machine or currency exchange office! I thought that I was going to have to walk a kilometer with all my luggage to the nearest bank, but luckily the bus driver takes euros. So I made my way to the central station where finding the right place to buy a local train ticket was so difficult that I ended up getting on the train without one. (It turns out that the place to buy local tickets - the mysteriously-named "SL Centre" - is down in the basement.) Then when I got to the suburban station near where my friends Mike and Cia live I had to phone them, and as the payphones don't take coins I had to spend 50 Kr (about £4) on a phonecard that I would only use once. In my mind I had been expecting Europe - and especially Scandinavia - to be efficient and easy to visit, but the reality didn't come up to my expectations.

There were other shocks too. When I arrived in Korea I noticed that there were more overweight people and smokers than in the other Asian countries that I had visited - not suprising as Korea is more afluent and these habits tend to get worse as people have more cash to spend on them. But Korea was nothing compared to Finland and Sweden! In Finland, for the first time in the whole trip, I was asked if I wanted a smoking or non-smoking room in the youth hostel. Can you imagine being allowed to smoke in a hostel room? The finns can. And in Sweden they have invented some weird "wet snuff", a kind of tobacco paste that users stick under their tongues to give themselves cancer of just about everything from the mouth downwards. For the first time on the whole trip I saw people smoking over their childrens' prams - quite a shock. And then there were people so overweight that they wouldn't look out of place in the U.S. Maybe they feel that they have such a good national health service that they don't need to worry - if they get cancer they'll be cured.

Anyway, that's enough complaining - now for some more good news.