Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Day in Stockholm

The beautiful city of Stockholm.

Our ship, the M/V Royal Princess was in for the day. The weather was sunny, the sky almost cloudless.  Considering how gloomy and rainy this part of the world can be, this was a day not to be wasted in the confines of the ship.

When I got off the gangway and into the terminal, I had no idea where to begin. I knew I could take the local bus, but the walk to the bus stop outside the pier area took too long. There were taxis, but I knew they were going to be expensive. Then I saw the red hop-on hop-off bus parked outside. It advertised unlimited rides throughout the day. The ticket was thirty euros. It was a deal, relatively speaking. Scandinavia is not cheap, absolutely speaking. One just has to get used to it. I hopped on. 

Stockholm is a very beautiful city, the home of Ingmar Bergman and the Nobel Prize.  However, there is only so much you can see in the limited amount of time a cruise ship docks in the city. The only thing a tourist can do was to prioritize and hit only the most important sights. Sure, I would have loved to spend half the day in the Nobel Museum or a boat cruise around the canals and islands of Stockholm, but there was hardly time to dawdle, so I just hit the spots I needed to see  and reserved the rest for later visits.

The red bus stopped first at the Stockholm amusement fairgrounds. I resisted getting off there, although the idea of a Swedish ice-cream on this warm sunny day truly tempted me. I got off at the next stop, the Vasa museum. This was a purpose-built museum built to house the 16th century warship Vasa . The Vasa is a splendidly restored wreck viewable through a  multilevel showing gallery. The ship was built of black oak and adorned with baroque, wooden carvings. It was magnificent and huge and fully intact after lying for four hundred years at the bottom of Stockholm harbor. There were no teredo (ship) worms in these cold northern waters, so the Vasa was miraculously well-preserved for later generations to marvel at. Incidentally, it sank on its inaugural cruise, right before the eyes of the king at the time.  His loss, our gain. If the ship had sailed and gone on to engage in one of the interminable wars that Sweden conducted with its neighbors, Russia being foremost among them, it wouldn't be here at all.  How often can you see a perfectly preserved 16th century warship with its original timber? Answer: seldom, if at all.

From reading the notes on the display, I learned that in those days, talking against the captain was punishable by a process called hauling the keel. The errant sailor was secured with a rope then thrown overboard below the keel of the ship. He could drown before being hauled up, since the keel kept him down. Not a good time to be a sailor. 

I took the hop-on/hop-off bus to the Royal Palace, an impressive, Italianate building. The king, Gustavus XVI still lives in this palace.  Many of the rooms inside were converted into individual museums. For each of these museums,  you had to buy a separate ticket. I elected to expend one hundred krona (about $14) to visit the Royal Treasury. The dimly-lit chambers of this treasury displayed the jewelry of Swedish royalty.  I was quite bedazzled by the number of tiaras and crowns here. They spoke of a bygone era where a king or queen  stood for somebody truly rich and powerful, as opposed to current ones who are mere figureheads.

After being suitably impressed by this display of diamonds and gem-encrusted furs, I went out to the great courtyard and saw a crowd gathered, waiting expectantly behind a roped off area. They were waiting for the highlight of any visit to Stockholm: the changing of the guard.  I took my place beside a middle-aged lady  who had a bandaged hand. She turned out to be from Chicago. She said she was visiting her relatives somewhere in the middle of Sweden.  She was a teacher who traveled quite frequently, oftentimes chaperoning  students.

The ensuing changing of the guard was a magnificent ceremony. The young officers were all smartly dressed in blue uniforms and flashing bronze helmets. The band was very good and treated the crowd essentially to a mini-concert. If there is one thing you need to see in Stockholm, the changing of the guard at noon is it. Besides, it's free.

After the changing of the guard, I walked down to the seaside promenade where the statue of Gustavus III stood on its pedestal. From this vantage point, the view of a masted ship docked beside a wooded park  as well as the other grand buildings of Stockholm took one's breath away. This was a very romantic view, as good as any in Paris or New York.

 I espied a gaunt-looking young man with a thin moustache and unkempt hair. His hand was gently caressing the face of a sad-looking woman. Behind them rose the towers and battlements of the  Gamla Stan -- old Stockholm. To me, they looked like characters in a scene from an Ingmar Bergman film, full of silence, sadness and repressed emotions.

I imagined the film direction of this scene going like this:

              He touches and caresses her cheek.

                   She looks back at him with a sad expression on her face.

                 He: “ I’m sorry I sold your Manolo Blahniks for a couple of toots. I couldn't help it.”

                  She continues to regard him with a tragic expression on her face.


 Wrenching myself away from this enigmatic scene, I caught the hop-on/off bus (yes, you can do this all day) to the Town Hall, the same one where the Nobel Prize banquet is held. It was not possible to go around on your own in this building. You had to be on a guided tour. The next one was at 3:00 PM. It was too late for me because I had to be back on the M/V Royal Princess at 4 PM. I went out to the back garden overlooking the bay and asked a pretty, dark-haired  woman to take my photograph. She kindly obliged. I thanked her and asked  where she was from. "Iran," she said.

I went out of the Town Hall and re-boarded the hop-on bus back to the theater district in front of the Swedish National Theater. From there I hailed a taxi back to the cruise ship terminal. No use counting one's krona. It was either get the fastest way possible back to the cruise ship or get left behind.

The taxi driver's features told me he wasn't Nordic at all, let alone Swedish. He had dark hair,  swarthy skin and a middle-eastern nose.  He told me that  he was originally from Iraq. He was an Assyrian Catholic. This meant that he was a refugee not just from his country but from other Iraqis who didn't like Assyrians. He said he missed Iraq. He said he was going back one day when all the Arab Muslims had killed each other. He was quite hopeful about this. I wished him well. 

 At the cafe in the cruise ship terminal, I ordered a sandwich and a Stella Artois beer. There was time for a little snack before getting back onboard.

You never know who you meet, even within the space of a few hours in Stockholm.

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