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 had to go back in a different season.
On Lake Vättern
This time I’ll do differently, I tell myself some years later. So I organize a road trip from Milan to Stockholm, planning to stop in several places to enjoy the beauty of the countryside. Along the way, I discover that Sweden is a land of water. Showers can happen anytime, turning the road into a river and preventing you from even getting out of the car to visit that lovely village you had read about in a travel guide. But lakes and islands give the landscape a special charm.
Jonköping, on lake Vättern, is a modern, inconspicuous city which, at sunset, turns into a fascinating place. People walk on the wharf, passing by fish mongers and restaurants. The air smells of smoked herring and sea salt, and the sky is painted lilac and orange. Everything speaks of ancient times and traditional festivals celebrating summer, and tales told around the fire.
Vadstena, a monastery and a fortress
Even more fascinating is Vadstena, a Medieval town where we stop almost by chance. An article in a travel magazine mentioned a monastery and a fortress, but we didn’t expect such a fairy tale place. Perhaps it’s just the special light after the storm, or the placid lake, or the story of Saint Bridget and the mysterious atmosphere of the castle, but this place makes me want to stay for a while, meditating. The village is very small, with a main street packed with shops and cafés and old houses, and the oldest Town Hall in Sweden.
A bakery sells kanelbullar, a type of buttery cinnamon bun which is very popular in the country. It’s pretty easy to become addicted to it, especially when served with a good cup of coffee. The monastery has been turned into a luxury hotel, and we regret not planning to spend one night here. I believes fairies come out at twilight, fluttering among the ruins.
We get back on the road, stopping in the modern city of Norrköping for a cup of coffee. Our plan is to visit a historical village nearby, but the heavy rain forces us to change our mind. Finally Stockholm looms in the distance, under an incredibly blue sky. We spend four days in the city, which looks completely different from the icy land I remembered. In August everything seems lively, coloured and warm. Squares, cafés and streets are teaming with people, and the sun doesn’t go down till late in the evening.
One sunny day is dedicated to the island of Drottingholm, where the Royal Palace stands. After visiting the beautiful Town Hall, a ferry takes us to this lovely spot, passing by little coves and other islands, and I suddenly see Stockholm’s full beauty. The landscape is blue and green. I can’t help being jealous of the people who own those amazing houses with private wharfs. Drottingholm is quiet, elegant yet sober, the perfect place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon, hearing stories about the kings and queens of Sweden.
Skansen & Vasa Museum
Another day, another island. The Skansen looks very different from the gloomy place I remembered. Oh, sure. Today I’m not freezing. The old houses of the open-air museum are open to tourists. Watching the typical Swedish furniture, I get an idea of how people used to live in the Nordic countries before the advent of technologies and all amenities. We stop at the bakery for a bun and then stroll 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. Don’t even dream of going to Stockholm and not seeing the Museum. I didn’t take pictures because I’m convinced that some things are there to be seen – and not photographed.
Gamla Stan and Swedish cuisine
In the evening, we return to our hotel for a shower and then go out again in search for a place to eat. We head to Gamla Stan, the old town. It’s a pleasure to walk in the narrow streets among little shops, restaurants and cafés. There’s a cozy, lively atmosphere at sunset. I take a photo of an old telephone box in a quiet street. My father has found a small restaurant he likes, and we follow him inside. We order halibut, rice, potato salad, herring and cheese, followed by a generous cup of coffee.
Talking about coffee shops, the Scandinavian countries are full of little surprises. Locals go to Johan & Nyström, a Scandinavian-style café offering also a good selection of teas and pastries. While wandering about, it’s easy to bump into Fabrique, the ideal place for bread and bun lovers. If I lived in Stockholm, I would certainly spend some afternoons at Sthlm Raw, on the benches with soft green and white cushions and a slice of raw cheesecake.
In the old town, Hermitage is a vegetarian buffet restaurant which will appeal to those who love eating among plants and baskets of aromatic herbs. In the main square, Chokladkoppen is the perfect place for a sweet break. I suggest trying their apple pie or cinnamon roll, and a cappuccino. Here we relax after a long walk, before continuing our journey through Sweden.