Captivating Stockholm: Small, old city packs a wallop

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Text and photos by Kap Maceda Aguila

OUR beeline to Sweden takes us to Dubai in the Middle East, then another six-hour-plus flight to the Nordic country. A cogently woven tapestry of green and glistening swirls of water comes into view as the plane descends and breaks through a cloud bank. Arlanda International Airport goes up to meet us; a gateway into Sweden within the Stockholm County, but still some 40 kilometers south of the city that bears the name.

A light chill welcomes us as we exit the largest airport in Sweden, and board the Lexus RX 450h SUV sent to take us to our hotel. Past low buildings and undulating countryside through well-maintained thoroughfares, we finally reach the urban center.

It takes but a moment to notice a preponderance of bridges across meandering water. There are more than 50 of them spanning the 14 islands comprising the capital — each a unique venue to take in the sights. No surprise then that Stockholmers call their scenic home “beauty on water.” Our driver indulges us with an unscheduled stop at the Pålsundet or Långholmen Canal for some photos and to admire the view. From the bridge, you can see that either bank has a line of canoes or small boats owned by paying members. People can also rent watercraft if they have a penchant for paddling in the placid water.

Lake Mälaren is a constant presence for Stockholmers as its stretches a vast 120 kilometers from east to west — seemingly running through the land like veins. Follow it down any of the three ways it drains — naturally through Norrström and via the manmade Södertälje Canal and Hammarbyleden waterway — and you’ll end up in the Baltic Sea.

But first, a word on our hotel. The Nobis on Norrmalmstorg proves ideally situated, excellently appointed lodgings, but it also earns popularity via a dark — or perhaps, curious — moment in the building’s past. It is an event that spawned the famous phrase “Stockholm Syndrome,” used to describe the situation when hostages sympathize or identify with perpetrators. On the Nobis Stockholm website itself: “One summer day in August 1973, four people… employed at Kreditbanken in Norrmalmstorg, which today is Nobis Hotel (were) taken hostage.” Jan-Erik Olsson, a convict on parole demanded three million kronor in cash as well as the release of Clark Olofsson from Norrköping prison. The duo held the captives for six days in one of the bank’s vaults. After being rescued, the hostages refused to testify in court against them.

While the bank has been repurposed into the Nobis, the hotel’s interiors are distinctly 19th century “bourgeois stone architecture” protected by government fiat.

We are in Sweden to experience the recently launched premium compact crossover from Lexus, the UX.

First presented to the world last March at the Geneva International Motor Show, the UX takes its place as the smallest SUV in the Lexus lineup, offering “the brand’s innovative design, luxury features, and advanced safety in a package that combines charismatic new styling elements and ultra-efficient new powertrains.” It should be in the Philippines before year’s end.

“The reason we selected Stockholm… is because the energy and creativity that this city has is world-class,” begins David Nordstrom, Lexus Asia-Pacific vice-president, during the product presentation held at the Delight Studios in Nacka which we reach after a short walk and boat ride. “It’s often referred to as the world’s biggest small town. It’s lot smaller in size when compared to other European cities like London, Paris, Berlin, and Rome. So it gives you a small-town feel with world-class amenities.”

And, oh, the food. While carnivores (moose steak and reindeer casserole, anyone?) can have their choice in this cosmopolitan city, the smart money should be on the fresh and impressive sea harvest. Try the curiously named yet internationally famous gravlax or dry-cured salmon. Herring and trout dishes also figure prominently on the menu of restaurants around Stureplan and Kungstraädgården. Our dinner at the Wedholm Fisk a few minutes by foot from the Nobis starts with saffron-scented fish soup with shellfish herb aioli and toasted brioche; then seared king scallops with chilled crème onion, king crab aioli, and baby herb leaves. But the star of dinner is the divine fricassee of sole, turbot, lobster, in champagne sauce. “It’s our specialty. I’m glad you liked it,” our affable waitress declares with a smile as she notes we have emptied our bowls.

Next day at lunch, we find ourselves at the historic Den Gyldene Freden (“The Golden Peace”). Located in the Old Town (or Gamla stan), it earns a Guinness Book of Records entry for having its surrounding and environment more or less unchanged since the establishment opened in 1722. Our meal here commences with mushroom soup and an interesting salmon terrine with hazel pesto and beans. For the entrée, I try the meatballs (“It’s not like Ikea’s,” our server quips with a wry smile), served with pickled cucumber, cream sauce, and potato puree. I order a light beer to go with it. Speaking of, in Stockholm, beer is ordered in strengths from lättöl (light) to starköl (strong). Contrasted with delightful lingonberries served on the side, the meatballs are filling and satisfying. We finish off with a salty caramel truffle that skews more to the salty side.

We walk off with heavy guts and roam the storied cobblestone streets of this medieval town. Spying a gathering crowd at one of the side streets, our qualified guide Veronica Melosso points that it’s the Mårten Trotzigs Gränd, the narrowest street in Stockholm. Thirty-six steps down from Prärsgatan, the alley shrinks to a width of 35 inches in its most constricted section.

The Royal Palace (Kungliga Slottet) has been the official abode of the Swedish monarch since the middle of the 13th century. While the actual residence of the present King Carl Gustaf XVI and Queen Silvia is the Drottningholm Palace, the Kungliga Slottet is used for official purposes and functions. Within it are the so-called Royal Apartments — a “collective name for magnificent state rooms used for (royal) receptions.” Presently undergoing deliberate and painstaking renovation/restoration work, the palace boasts some 1,430 rooms (660 with windows). The Guest Apartments were furnished in the 1760s under the direction of Jean Eric Rehn.

Heavy curtains keep the sunlight away to protect the frescoes and tapestries within — mute witnesses to centuries of memories both bitter and sweet. In one section, the deathbed of King Gustav III had been reconstructed for the commemoration of his 200th death anniversary in 1992. The monarch was assassinated — succumbing to a gunshot wound in March 29, 1792.

The palace is a true museum, showcasing the nation’s treasure trove of paintings, frescoes, and sculptures. The Rodin-esque The Wave and the Beach marble creation by Theodor Lunberg, made in 1898, depicts naked lovers locked in a kiss but with their eyes open. Meanwhile, The Goddess Juno with the child Hercules (completed around 1820) by Johan Niclas Byström shows a baby surreptitiously nursing at the teat of a slumbering Juno.

If you have time (and I suggest you allot up to an hour), beat a path to the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet) on Djugården Island. This facility is the most visited museum in all of Scandinavia. Within its air-conditioned interiors is the resurrected 64-gun warship Vasa that tragically foundered on its maiden voyage on Aug. 10, 1628 — a mere 1.3 kilometers after setting off for Älvsnabben naval station. When its four sails were set, a gust of wind caused the ship to heel suddenly to port. The sheets were cast off, allowing the Vasa to right itself. At Tegelviken, a stronger gust pushed the ship to its port so far that the open lower gunports went under the surface, causing the ship to take in water, eventually leading to its sinking.

It was salvaged with a largely intact hull in 1961. It was housed in a temporary museum called Wasavarvet (“The Wasa Shipyard”) until 1988 and then moved permanently to the Vasa Museum. Along with the spectacle of tragedy, the Vasa and the corollary displays gives crucial insight into a bygone era and way of life.

Finally, while still in Djugården, drop by ABBA The Museum, an interactive exhibition devoted to the iconic pop act that was one of the most commercially successful acts in history. Consider that the combined worth of its members — Agnetha Fältskog, Björn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson, and Anni-Frid Lyngstad — is about a billion US dollars.

Fans will invariably freak out over the massive compendium of all things about the Swedish quartet which dominated the airwaves and music charts in the 1970s and ’80s. Everything from their costumes, to trivia, to microphones, studio setup, dolls, wax figures, and more will take you back to the day this winsome foursome held sway. Check out the ABBA souvenirs and sundry you can get at the gift shop. Scented candles, mugs, keychains, buttons and pins, refrigerator magnets, coloring books, music boxes (playing “Dancing Queen” or “Mamma Mia”) and even bottled water will scratch your ABBA itch. Presently attached is a temporary museum, an exhibit entitled Guitars of the Stars featuring signature instruments of legendary guitarists like Jimi Hendrix, BB King, Eric Clapton, and Kirk Hammett. This collection is owned by musician and producer Claes “Clabbe” af Geijerstam, who was ABBA’s on-tour sound technician in the 1970s.

Inevitably, you will leave this charming city enamored by its people’s seemingly easygoing, unhurried way of life that is both rooted in the present yet completely celebratory of a rich and tangible past. Just like many Stockholmers, after a while you attain a sense of peace in knowing everything works and is exactly where it needs to be.