The first time I went to Stockholm, it was so cold I could barely force myself to leave the warm comfort of my hotel and walk in the streets. My most vivid memory is entering a café in Gamla Stan and being served hot chocolate and apple cake by a smiling lady who made me sit by the fire to help defrost. Rule number one: if you really want to see Stockholm during the winter, take your warmest cloths with you. I was not prepared to the icy wind. And yet I didn’t give up the trip to Uppsala, north of Stockholm, which was actually covered in snow. I wondered where the city was. Sweden did not fail to bewitch me though, and I decided I was still in love with the North despite of the weather and the seemingly endless darkness.
STOCKHOLM IN WINTERTIME
Needless to say, I had decided to spend the Christmas holidays in Sweden because I wanted to feel closer to Santa Claus. I grew up feeding on stories set in the North, with elves and fairies living in the woods, red houses and witches dancing around the fire. How could I not want to fly up to Sweden during the winter? When I found out that a friend of mine was also prone to facing the hostile weather for the sake of Christmas spirit and Nordic atmosphere, it was done.
And so we took a plane to Copenhagen, almost froze in Kronborg Castle, and then flew to Stockholm, which was under a blanket of snow. A friend of a friend used to live there with her blond Swedish fiancée, who served as a special tour guide. He drove us through the streets of modern Stockholm, but the hours of light were so few that I only remember the city by night. Then we went to Skansen, the open air museum. But the traditional houses were closed and we spent most of the day into a bakery, trying to warm up our frozen bodies with hot chocolate and warm apple pie. I remember taking the bus and watching the Christmas lights, having dinner in a cool place in the city center and walking back to our hotel in the empty streets on New Year’s Eve.
STOCKHOLM IN SUMMERTIME
A few years later, I decided it was time to go back to Sweden and see the country under a different sky. A blue sky, possibly. A family friend had told me about the bridge over the sea, the Swedish lakes, the beautiful green forests. On a travel magazine I saw pictures of villages and islands. In the summer, I persuaded my parents to embark on a journey from Milan to Stockholm, a long on-the road trip to Koblenz in Germany, then Copenhagen in Denmark and, once crossed the bridge to Sweden, Jönköping. But I won’t write about that part of the journey now.
I will jump right to the moment when, after a heavy rain, the clouds disappeared and Stockholm loomed in the distance, under a clear blue sky. We spend four days in the city, which didn’t look like the frozen land I remembered. In August everything seemed lively, coloured, and warm. Incredibly warm. Squares, cafés and streets were teaming with people, and the sun didn’t go down till late in the evening.
A CITY OF WATER
Being there in the summer taught me that Stockholm is a city of water. Its many islands, some of which are inhabited while others are wild, are reachable by boat. One sunny day I insisted on going to the island of Drottingholm, where the Royal Palace stands. And it was a great idea. After visiting the beautiful Town Hall, a ferry took us to this lovely spot, passing by little coves and other islands, and I suddenly saw Stockholm’s full beauty. The landscape was blue and green. I couldn’t help but being jealous of the people who owned those amazing houses with private wharfs. Drottingholm was quiet, elegant yet sober, the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon, hearing stories about the kings and queens of Sweden.
VIKINGS & OLD HOUSES
Another day, another island. The Skansen looked very different from the gloomy place I remembered. Oh, sure. Today I’m not freezing, I kept telling myself. The old houses of the open-air museum were open to tourists. Watching the typical Swedish furniture, I got an idea of how people used to live in the Nordic countries before the advent of technologies and all amenities. We stopped at the bakery for a sweet, delicious cinnamon bun and then strolled in the park, peering at the bored animals. On the island also stands the renowned Vasa Museum, where you can admire a huge Viking ship which was recovered from the bottom of the sea.
Gamla Stan and Swedish cuisine
In the evening, we would return to our hotel for a shower and then go out again in search for a place to eat. We would head to Gamla Stan, the old town, a maze of little streets and pastel coloured houses. We would walk among little shops, restaurants and cafés. There was a cozy, lively atmosphere at sunset. We tried three different restaurants, the names of which I didn’t memorize. Sorry for that. But I could never forget what we ate: halibut, salmon, rice, potato salad, herring and cheese, followed by a generous cup of coffee.
That’s when I fell in love with the Nordic cuisine. I didn’t know herrings could be prepared in so many different ways, or that salmon or halibut could be cooked so perfectly. Few, local ingredients combined in a clever way, with an healthy twist. That’s the secret of the new Nordic cuisine. If you are vegetarian and I cannot convince you to eat fish at least in Scandinavia, in the old town there’s Hermitage, a vegetarian buffet restaurant with plants and baskets of aromatic herbs everywhere. Or Sthlm Raw, a raw food café in modern Stockholm. And for all of you, there’s Swedish apple pie for dessert. Locals like Johan & Nyström, and Fabrique, a bakery selling bread and baked goods. And I can understand why. In Gamla Stan, Chokladkoppen is the perfect place for a slice of cake and a cappuccino.
I have to admit this: modern Stockholm did not impress me. I am pretty sure I should live there for a while, to appreciate all the aspects of the city. The Italian girl we met in Stockholm told me she loved living in Sweden despite of the long winters.
After all, Sweden is one of the almost perfect Nordic countries. But she was there with her boyfriend and spoke the language, so she had never felt the loneliness that some other Italians were experiencing in the city.
Back to modern Stockholm: a couple of museums are definitely worth a visit. Fotografiska is for photography lovers. The Moderna Museet houses a collection of modern and contemporary art. I didn’t take the underground, but I was told some stations are decorated with graffiti, murals and coloured tiles. Finally, Södermalm is a neighbourhood with hipster vibes, vintage and design shops, indie music clubs, vegan restaurants. I would like to write more about it, but I should visit Stockholm again and see what’s new in town. And that would be another story.