This morning we awoke to somewhat choppy seas, which made it all the better, during a morning lecture, to imagine ourselves aboard a Viking dragon ship, raiding Baltic river towns and pillaging for gold and silver. Anthropologist/historian Olga Stavrakis described the savage history of Sweden, focusing on the Norse—marauding pagans who, from 800-1100 AD, periodically looted their undefended neighbors, particularly the British Isles, which had to pay them tributes in silver and gold to save their hides—48,000 pounds in 1009 alone.
Fierce as the Vikings were, historian David Barnes told us later on in the morning, their helmets did not actually have horns (as do the souvenir versions you find everywhere in Copenhagen). Nor, he explained, were the Vikings merely thugs, but also traders, explorers, seafarers, and farmers. Eventually, tired of attacking and having plundered everything of value anyway, they began to domesticate themselves in the areas they’d been raiding, blending in to the native stock, disappearing from history altogether.
Barnes navigated us through a few channels of Swedish history, from the golden age of Vikings and the Hanseatic League to maniacally warlike Charles XII (who, having taken a bullet in the foot, lost much of his drive against Peter the Great during their long campaigns) to a shift in European power from the Baltic toward the Atlantic in 1492. With Reformation came an end to the salt fish trade in the area (no Catholics to eat fish on Fridays), churches lost their ornamentation in favor of plain Lutheran buildings, and the country became more secular, nationalist, cooperative and communitarian, as it remains. Napolean invaded, and installed the girlfriend he jilted for Josephine, Julie, as Queen of Sweden, and her line continues. Now a prosperous country, neutral throughout the world wars (though profiting from that neutrality), with a history of female equality, Sweden developed the Scandanavian model of capitalism that is influential throughout Europe today, attracting people for its high standard of living and excellent social services in spite of its high rates of taxation.
With all that history under our belts–not to mention a tasty lunch–the seas calmed and we entered the Swedish archipelago. For all its fierce history, the country could not seem more peaceful and lovely. These 25,000 rocky, forested little islands and skerries are filled with little coves where you’d like to stop and do nothing but dream for the afternoon. Tidy red houses with pitched roofs and white trim perch on the sides of the islands with their sailboats ready at the pier. On the boat, many of us came up to the observation deck to watch these islands pass by through a scrim of raindrops on the window.
Fortunately, the rain cleared for the highlight of the day: a Zodiac ride straight into the heart of Stockholm via the Djurgarden Canal, a narrow scenic passage that spills into the busy city harbor with its gorgeous facades and sailboats. In the clean harbor, we saw swans, a grey seal, and blue herons nesting. After crossing under a lovely bridge lined with September’s last red flowers, we were surprised by Hotel Manager (and Swede) Patrick Svardmyr welcoming us to his country with a cocktail. Much more civilized than the Vikings!
In Stockholm, we had a great dinner at a restaurant called Pelikan, a 17th-century, high-ceilinged building, unpretentious with great Swedish food. My friend Casey ordered bacon with onion cream sauce and got just that: a pile of bacon with onion cream sauce. Delicious! I had some chantarelle crepes, and after seeing huge piles of chantarelles in the market, I was glad to taste some.
LOVED Stockholm. We rented bikes the next day, testing out the city bike system. It was not easy: We had to find our way to the central station to get a card to rent the bikes, then find the bikes. Once we did, we found Stockholm to be a fantastic city for bikes, with lots of huge parks and paths along canals. We stopped for lunch in a castle-type building where new moms were having coffee with their strollers, on maternity leave, no doubt. I could spend so much more time in Stockholm, and was so sorry to leave!
Photos by Casey McSpadden