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Aland Islands & Stockholm, Sweden

June 10

We were awake and on deck at 4:30 am when the ship docked at Mariehamn in the Aland Islands. In twenty minutes we were gone again. Ships dock here to meet conditions needed to sell duty free goods on board. It was already dawn. Only four hours before, the sun was at the crest of the western horizon and now it was about to burst over the eastern horizon.

We sailed through a labyrinth of islands ... in fact Stockholm’s archipelago is made up of thousands of islands ... and arrived in port around 10:00 in the morning.

We made our way to Hotel Bema. It was too early to check in but they were kind enough to offer the use of a bathroom in a used room to change and then they stored our luggage as we headed out to see Stockholm.

Back in the mid 1200s this future city was only a fishing village. In 1634 Stockholm became the official capital of Sweden. Today Stockholm residents count 1.8 million living on the 14 islands which make up the city, connected by 54 bridges. We experienced the underside of 15 of those bridges as we took a boat tour through some of Stockholm’s waterways including going through the locks (twice) which join Lake Malaren to the Baltic Sea.


Along the way we saw Swedes enjoying sunny weekend activities around, in and on the water. They sunbath on waterside rocks, picnic, power boat and sail, canoe, kayak, swim and fish. Each year anglers catch thousands of salmon and sea trout and Stockholm invites its visitors to fish for free. (Near the palace we watched as a hoop net fisherman and assistant rowed their boat into the desired position and dropped their net.) On our water tour we also passed Stockholm’s City Hall where each year many of the Nobel winners are honoured.


On land again we made our way to Old Town. We heard music and followed the cobblestone streets to a square near the palace where an orchestra was performing an open air concert. We had a Swedish open faced sandwich, like the kind you can buy in Ikea stores, in a square-side restaurant. After resting Terry, with the help of a Rick Steves’ self-guided tour, led us through the back streets of Old Town pointing out the old coal deliver doors and the drains which used to flush waste into the streets, then into a cathedral where ... surprise, surprise ... we found yet another statue of St. George slaying a dragon. This one, from 1489, was indeed a dragon but uniquely made of oak and elk antlers.


Out on the street again we noticed hand railings where the cobble lanes slanted and were reminded that we are in a place where winters can be cold and slippery. As we walked along a curving street a block and a half from the water’s edge Rick’s book explained that this street was once at the water’s edge and the streets from it were once docks. We glanced down one of the old dock streets and saw our ship of last night leaving port for it’s return voyage to Helsinki.


We walked over to the locks we had come through earlier on the tour boat and in the cool sea breeze enjoyed watching as sixteen power boats each found their place in the lock and held on to side ropes as the water level increased. It had turned into a very hot day ... unseasonably hot the locals told us ... our sandals left temporary footprints in the blacktop patching on the concrete bridge. We hoped our room would be cool for sleeping.


June 11

We walked into town and caught a tram which would take us to the Vasa Museum.

The Vasa is a 1628 war ship ... 95% original ... with a story to tell.

Sweden was at war with Poland and the king ordered a new war ship. He wanted her big, bold and fast. Two years later he was presented with the "Vasa".


She was a grand ship (47.5 metres from stern to prow and then extended beyond that was her sprit), made of sturdy oak; perhaps the mightiest ship ever built to that time with 64 guns on two gun decks. And she was beautiful with wood carved figures, symbols and crests, most of them painted in bright colours. This was a ship the world would take note of and the king wanted to make sure people knew that it was he who was rich and powerful enough to build such a vessel.

A Sunday in August, 1628, was chosen for her maiden voyage; a bright, clear day. The sun was shining and the air was still. The harbour was deep with people wanting to catch a glimpse of boastful history. The Vasa slipped into the water.


The gun ports were opened and the cannons fired a salute. People on the shore cheered. People on the ship cheered. There were 150 people on board for this auspicious occasion ... not too many because once the crew’s families disembarked after the maiden cruise, 300 soldiers, their gear and food rations were going to be picked up.

The captain, proud of his magnificent charge, wanted to show her under full sail ... she had ten. The sails were unfurled though no wind was present to fill them. After only a few minutes of sailing a slight breeze came up and she leaned to her port side and righted again. Another gust, only slight, made her lean again; a little farther this time; far enough that sea water gushed into the open gun ports which had not been closed after the salute. To screams of horror the Vasa suddenly sank. Thirty to fifty lives were lost; many of them stayed with the ship to the bottom of the harbour.


The King (who was out fighting at the time of the disaster) wanted two things: the first, to punish the culprit responsible; and the second, to have the ship raised. He didn’t get either. Eventually no one person could be found accountable and to complicate things, the designer had died a year before the maiden voyage. The raising was equally unsuccessful and attempts only further damaged the submerged vessel. With great effort, they did manage to remove all but three of the cannon.

For years she slept at the bottom of the outer harbour; her masts cut off at a level which made navigation over the Vasa safe. Salt water saturated the oak but this salt water was different than most ... because of it’s location, there is less salt in the water ... so much so that the sea worm, which chews up most sunken wood ships, caused her no damage.   This saved the Vasa. She was found again in 1956, deep in the mud. Holes were drilled through the mud below her through which cables were passed. The cables became a sling and the Vasa once more made a debut to thousands of cheering people waiting upon the shores of Stockholm.

The Vasa is now under another threat caused by all the pollutants, including sulphur, dumped or spilled into the harbour over the years. Now exposure to the air is turning the sulphur into sulphuric acid and the Vasa is slowly disintegrating. Lowered light levels and lowered temperatures within the museum have slowed the destruction down. But in a hundred and fifty years, there may not be a Vasa for tourists to admire. Our recommendation is not to wait a hundred years to see her.


As if seeing the Vasa weren’t enough of a highlight for one day ... we went on to another of Stockholm’s tourist favourites .... Skansen. This 30 hectare (74 acre) open air museum is like old countryside Sweden in miniature. Over a hundred and fifty old farmsteads and village houses have been brought to Skansen since 1891 from all over the country. They have been placed in settings which are typical of the late 1800s. As part of the setting the homes have been furnished with everyday articles, the farm buildings and paddocks hold livestock while the kitchen gardens and fields grow plants from all parts of Sweden.

All of this is attended by staff in period costume who know the history of "their homes and businesses" ... one lady attendant even got Terry to help hang the laundry. Wild species of animals may also be viewed at Skansen – bear, a moose with two calves and wolverine, among others. The wild bird life comes and goes on its own accord. We wandered around getting lost, in a place that is impossible to really get lost in, and enjoyed new encounters with costumed "locals" who, like most Scandinavians, are fluent in English. We felt comfortable here and could easily be persuaded to become a "local" ourselves.


It was a most memorable day ... a grand day.


June 12

We had some time before our train left for Oslo, so we stored our backpacks at the train station and took off on foot to the palace. People were gathered to see the changing of the guards. We found a perch and watched and listened (military band) to them march in. Once they started doing their changing to the clicks of digital cameras and we knew where most of the tourists were, we took the opportunity to scoot around the edges and head for the now uncrowded Royal Armoury Museum which hold a selection of royal costumes, objects, armour and arms, saddlery and carriages associated with the Swedish monarchy from the 16th century to present day.


We were followed by four of His Majesty’s guards ... perhaps they don’t like tourists leaving in the middle of the show. We stepped aside and they passed only to go to one of the posts near the armoury entrance.  We got to watch a mini version of the changing of the guards.


The displays within the museum are well signed, and although we didn’t have a lot of time to spend, we did enjoy what we had. One of the displays featured king’s clothing including a masquerade mask and a vest with a hole in the back and stained with blood. The outfit belonged to Gustav III. He was a complicated man. In the heat of battle he showed an ability to make good, fast decisions. Off the battlefield he was rather inept with a nervous nature and revelled in flattery. He was a romantic and liked theatrics. He enjoyed being king, with a king’s absolute power. But the war with Russia was in a mess with failed plans and Swedish casualties high. The people of Sweden were dissatisfied with the king’s extravagances and costs of war were being borne by the people. Antiroyalist feelings grew. On March 16, 1792 the king attended a masquerade ball. A man named Jacob Johan Anckarstrom dressed exactly like the king but carrying two pistols and a knife shot the king in the back. Gustav died from the wounds on the 29th of the same month. Though Jacob was convicted of the crime and executed, his co-conspirators were tried, convicted but freed after the new king took the throne in 1800.


Perhaps to keep inattentive children busy, the museum has placed little royal mice among the displays, like the one we photographed between armoured feet ... their version of the game "Where’s Waldo".


The carriages were decadent; and that was the point. Richly decorated carriages and horses were an awe-inspiring component of solemn processions watched by citizens. Brilliant gilding, costly fabrics and beautiful horses created an impression of luxury and power, therefore a remoteness and majesty.


Returning to our common folk contemporaries back on the street, we made our way to the train station and rode the rails to Oslo.



click here to continue June 12 and trip to Norway   ...

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