“The Northern Star.”
– Time (July 4, 2011)
The Swedish writer Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1909), spoke of Stockholm as “a city that floats on water.” Indeed, Stockholm, the capital of Sweden, a country about the size of California, stretches across fourteen islands, draped in greenery and red brick buildings. In June the water surrounding these islands glitters, the light above gives off a brightness that makes one cry out for shade. Flowers, birdsong, and mosquitoes abound, while salmon-stocking programs make the inner-city waterways a fisherman’s dream.
Gamla Stan (Old Town) rests on one of the small island mentioned above.
Stockholm’s history began here, around 1250, as an encampment for fishermen and hunters. This early settlement soon grew into a trading post and fort whose purpose was to cordon off the inland waterways from Baltic Sea interlopers. By the 17th Century Sweden had mushroomed into one of Europe’s leading naval powers, with territories throughout the Baltic Sea. For a time Sweden even had a colony in the New World—on the mouth of the Delaware River, where Wilmington stands today—but that was short-lived, soon falling into Dutch hands.
To many visitors Gamla Stan is a maze of cobblestone lanes; yellow, orange, and red buildings; and old fortified walls sometimes etched with ancient Viking Runestones, written in Old Norse, listing Swedes who had participated in Viking expeditions.
While its history reaches far into the past, Stockholm also struck me as a place on the cutting edge of innovation. The city powers its buses with bio-gas and uses rainwater for irrigation. In 2010 it was named Europe’s first green capital. Stockholm aspires to be a fossil-fuel-free city by 2050. In the interim, it hopes to export this “outside the box” way of thinking to the world, thus also “turning green into gold” as my Swedish friend Maj once said about her country’s ambitions.
Konserthuset provides the venue each December 10 for the Nobel Prize presentations in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, economics, and literature. (The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo’s City Hall on the same date.) This celebration is followed by a banquet in the Blue Hall of Stockholm’s Stadshuset (City Hall), today considered the symbol of the city.
The Vasa, the ill-fated, top-heavy oak vessel that capsized and sank unexpectedly just 1400 yards into its maiden voyage, on August 10, 1628, killing 50 people. The pride of the Swedish fleet then languished for more than 300 years on the bottom of Stockholm Harbor in 110 feet of cold, brackish Baltic Sea waters.
In 1956, a Swedish marine archaeologist’s persistent search led to the discovery of the nearly forgotten warship. It was painstakingly raised, towed to a dry dock, and restored to 95% of its original form.
Today the reconstructed Vasa, inaugurated in 1990, is Stockholm’s most cherished historical relic and most popular tourist destination. Historians today value the Vasa (originally designed as a propaganda tool with 64 bronze cannons and 450 men) not only for her status as the planet’s oldest preserved and identified vessel, but also for what it reveals about everyday 17th Century life.