Make a leisurely exploration of this Scandanavian country and you’ll discover that it is a great place in which to slow things down a notch
Words: KRUTTIKA NADIG
Photographs: HIMANSHU PANDYA
Rosendals Trädgård reminds me of the gardens I read about in storybooks as a child.
A bright blue tram has brought me out of Stockholm to the island of Djurgården this afternoon. The city passed by politely and, before I knew it, we were dropped off at the edge of the woods with a few helpful signposts for company. And now here I am, sitting in this idyllic garden filled with picnicking families, with a rainbow of flowers in the nursery and the scent of oven-fresh baked goods hanging seductively over the cafeteria. My first impulse is to fetch myself a cup of tea from the cafeteria. But that would be sacrilege in Sweden, a country of coffee fanatics. So instead I have a fika, or a coffee break with pastries on the side, which is a social institution every visitor to Sweden should know and partake in. I have a fika while shopping on trendy Drottninggatan, while heading into the Stockholm archipelago on a scenic ferry, in a seaside cabana in the sunny southern town of Ystad, and even when I’m above the Arctic Circle in the land of reindeer.
That’s the thing about travelling in Sweden: it offers many possibilities for fun and adventure, but encourages you to savour the interludes as well. From relishing cinnamon buns in Rosendals Trädgård to rafting on the icy rapids of the Torne River, I’m about to discover different ways to get the most out of this friendly, green and super-spacious country.
Wedged between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea, whose calm and yacht-speckled waters brought in Viking ships a thousand years ago, Stockholm city sprawls across 14 islands, each with its own personality. Kungsholmen is the thriving city centre; home to big hotels, trendy boutiques and the elegant waterfront City Hall where the Nobel Prize Banquet is held each year. Södermalm is the youthful island full of hipster cafés, vintage stores and students who come from nearby Uppsala University to party on the weekends; and Gamla Stan is the nautically strategic ‘old town’ of palaces, churches and cobblestones.
You’d think Gamla Stan’s smooth, warm cobblestones are relics of time, but time actually reposes below in layers of older cobbles that date back to the Middle Ages. I’m cycling through an enticing maze of streets packed with gift shops and crowned with ancient spires on this sunny day, as part of my Stockholm at a glance Bike Tour.
Stortorget, or ‘big square’, is at the centre of this touristy but romantic neighbourhood. Formerly a scruffy hub for medieval merchants and the site of a 16th-century event called the Stockholm Bloodbath, in which Danish forces under the command of King Christian II invaded the city, it now houses the Nobel Museum and a pretty fountain around which street musicians play soulful tunes.
Many of the structures here – like the Royal Palace – were built in the 1700s and can be viewed in the way they deserve from the old town’s roofs. I take the elevator up to the attic of the old Parliament building for a Stockholm Rooftop Tour, and emerge, with some fellow acrophiles, to find a spectacular panorama of the blue-ringed city, with a drop of 43 metres beside our feet and harnesses securing us to the track. There’s water, water everywhere, and, while pointing out the 14th-century Storkyrkan (great church) and other grand edifices from this vantage point, our guide Eve explains how the city has grown and transformed its character over the ages.
But pockets here and there are still charmingly trapped in a bygone time. Like Den Gyldene Freden, a tavern built in 1722 with underground dining vaults that bring languid lamp-lit evenings to mind. I call for some wine to honour the mood and it comes with a stack of knäckebröd (crisp bread) so addictive that there’s barely any room left for the perfectly-plated meatballs with lingonberries that follow.
Swedes love their meat of course, but they’re equally fond of the creatures of the sea. This happens to be the season for ‘crayfish parties’, where bucketsful of these salty crustaceans are devoured by people wearing silly paper hats and chorusing traditional songs in their backyards or at restaurants. While the festival originated to celebrate the late-summer crayfish harvest, it’s now just a merry excuse to let down your hair and consume liberal quantities of snaps.
The gastronomic legacies don’t end there. At Östermalms Saluhall, a gourmet market inside an antique brick building, there are rows of giant fish for sale alongside fresh cheeses, veggies and locally-produced condiments. I weigh a tomato in one hand and an orange in another. Both are super-sized. One needs a hearty appetite to compete with the locals at the table, that’s for sure.
Allow Kruttika and Himanshu to take you through the rest of Sweden – the modern side of Stockholm, the wild North, the mild South… all in the February 2016 issue of Lonely Planet Magazine India. Pick up a copy from your newsstand or click to subscribe via Zinio or Magzter.