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Jonathan Taylor heads north to the ancient kingdom of Sweden to discover its islands, treasures – and 17th century warships risen from the deep
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Sweden may not be the first place that comes to mind when you’re planning an exotic travel adventure. But if you haven’t yet ventured north east to this old kingdom, I can vouch for the fact that it’s well worth the trip.
A major European power in the seventeenth century, at various times controlling all of Norway, Finland, Estonia and Latvia, as well as parts Denmark, Germany and western Russia, today Sweden is still the third biggest country in Western Europe after France and Spain.
Unfortunately, and surprisingly, there are no direct ferry links between the UK and Sweden, or even between the UK, Norway and Denmark. So the sensible travel option is flying (driving via Holland and Denmark, across Europe’s longest bridge from Copenhagen to Malmo, is a great trip but time-consuming). The flight to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second city, is only 90 minutes and the flight to Stockholm two-and-a-half hours.
Take to the water
Of course, one way to get a taste of Swedish life is on a Baltic cities cruise. There are many cruise ships visiting Stockholm throughout the milder months, and they offer a luxurious and convenient way to take in the culture and magnificent architecture of the connected Hanseatic trading cities. Our favourite good value choices would include Cruise & Maritime Voyages (cruiseandmaritime.com); Fred. Olsen (fredolsencruises.com) and P&O Cruises (pocruises.com).
The other top Baltic cruise sights on your trip will be magnificent St Petersburg in Russia and beautiful medieval Tallin, the capital of Estonia. But if your cruise includes Riga, the Latvian capital, it really is worth going to see this lovely medieval city centre, built on an island, to discover the extensive collection of Art Deco buildings that still grace the city streets. I’m told it’s the best Art Deco collection of buildings outside Paris.
Jet off to see the sights
One great option is to fly into Stockholm to explore the city itself. In my opinion, it’s one of the best of the European capitals as its setting is so beautiful. It is built on seven islands and you’re never far from the water.
Take a walking tour of Gamla Stan – the island that contains the original old city, which is virtually intact (helped by Sweden’s neutrality in the Second World War). You really get a feel for how it might have been when trading between the Hanseatic Baltic Sea capitals was at its height as you walk the narrow streets of classic old buildings. It’s not as over-visited and crowded as some other capitals, which makes it more enjoyable.
While on Gamla Stan island you can also view the Royal Palace, which is no longer the main residence of the Swedish royal family. And the city’s famous ABBA museum is a 10-minute walk from the Vasamuseet. It’s crammed with memorabilia that will delight ABBA fans, but entrance fees are quite steep.
Sample island life
A favourite of mine were the selection of boat trips available from the city centre. We took a two-and-a-half-hour trip out to the lovely Stockholm archipelago, which is the largest in Sweden, comprising of a staggering 30,000 islands, islets and rocks, to the east of the city. It’s a playground for the Swedes who love the outdoors and the chance to enjoy waterside living.
The trip was on a classic early 1900s boat with refreshments and restaurant facilities, along with a good guide speaking Swedish and English. By the way, virtually everyone in Swedish speaks English fluently, so you’ll have no problem getting around or gaining information.
Rising from the deep
While in Stockholm, a visit to the Vasa Museum (Vasamuseet) is an absolute must. Back in 1628 one of the Swedish King’s warship fleet made a bad turn during squally weather in Stockholm harbour and heeled over just far enough for water to enter the lower gun deck portholes. Disaster followed, many lives were lost, and the Vasa sunk to the bottom.
It was successfully raised in 1961, using ground-breaking salvage techniques (which helped pave the way for the later Mary Rose salvage in the Solent). After two decades of careful preservation, followed by more years of restoration, the Vasa now sits virtually intact in a magnificent museum.
Just after the entrance area you walk into the main museum hall at ground floor level and come face to face, as it were, with an early 17th century warship. It is shocking to see the enormous ship, full size and virtually complete as you walk in. The ship can be viewed on many levels and there is plenty of fascinating historical information to help tell the story of the Vasa in context.
See it for yourself and you won’t be disappointed. The Swedes have done a great job of helping the visitor understand every aspect of the ship and, in my opinion, it’s one of the world’s most spectacular historical exhibitions, see www.vasamuseet.se/en
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Plan your Swedish trip at visitsweden.com