Saved by the snow.
I arrive in Stockholm just before 6am having experienced a restless night. Passengers needn’t leave their cabins until 7am, but since everyone else has left, I feel obliged to do the same. I wearily make my way through Stockholm Central station, unsure how to spend the next 9 hours before I can check in. Leaving the station, the first thing I notice is the gravel underfoot and what will soon become the familiar sound of cars travelling along heavily gritted roads. It’s feeling a lot more like winter now.
It’s still dark, and it’ll be a while until the city comes fully alive. At 7am, I find myself on Drottninggatan, a long pedestrianised street in Norrmalm in the main commercial district of Stockholm. An outlet of Espresso Shop (the Nordic equivalent of Costa Coffee) has just opened, so I aim to be their first customer of the day.
With the arrival of daylight, I head south in the direction of the neighbouring island of Gamla Stan, the oldest part of the city. The contrast with Norrmalm couldn’t be any starker. Here an irregular and uneven series of medieval cobbled streets can be found weaving their way behind the Baroque formality of the Royal Palace, the nearby parliament buildings and an unimposing cathedral.
Norrmalm, on the other hand, is dominated by more recent interventions. The large Åhléns department store, opened in 1964, occupies an entire block close to Sergels Torg, a sunken plaza with the brutalist Kulturhuset to one side, currently in the process of being gutted. But its the modernist Hötorget buildings that dominate this district. Five tall office buildings, each sharing the same footprint but differing slightly in their design, look as if they’ve been lifted straight out of Brasília.
While intrigued by this glut of modernist architecture, I’m finding it difficult to stay awake, so I head to the hotel to see if I can check in early. The hotel is quite easy to locate: find Tegnérlunden and look for the ugliest building overlooking the park. Thankfully, inside I find friendly staff and a cozy room that’s ready for me to promptly doze off in.
I awake as the daylight is fading, and worried that I may have wasted the entire day. Fortunately, the ABBA Museum is open until 8pm and only 15 minutes away should I catch the number 7 tram from T-Centralen to Gröna Lund.
ABBA arose to fame with their Eurovision performance in Brighton’s Dome in 1974, so I feel a degree of ownership of this group and their subsequent success. While I appreciate their music — ABBA Gold was the first CD I purchased, embarrassingly — this is an experience that very much caters to the super-fan, which I soon realise I’m not. A host of interactive exhibits form an integral part of the museum, but there’s no way in hell I’m performing karaoke with four holographic members of the band, even if the building is practically empty at this time of day.
I learn that Björn, Benny, Agnetha and Anni-Frid were already well known singers and muscians in Scandinavia before they joined together as a foursome, and that their unabashed commercialism — as evidenced by this museum, its shop, adjacent restaurant and hotel — is a factor of their formation in the early 70s. At this time, the left in Sweden was on a crusade against popular music, and ABBA’s Eurovision win meant a reluctant Swedish broadcaster had to host an expensive popular music contest the next year. No surprise then that ABBA weren’t invited to perform.
After getting breakfast in Kaferang, I head to my next destination, passing through Kungsträdgården. I’m familiar with this park as I remember reading about Apple wanting to build a store at its northern end. I’m sympathetic to the idea that Apple shouldn’t be privatising civic spaces and passing them off as public, but when I arrive, I find there’s already a TGI Friday’s here, and in many respects, the park has already been spoilt.
Continued poor weather means this is another day to be spent indoors. The National Museum has recently reopened after an extensive renovation and with its polished wooden floors and freshly painted walls, it smells amazing! On the nearby island of Skeppsholmen is Moderna Museet, the museum of modern art. Its permanent collection is free to view and has a wide variety of work on display, but I find nothing of interest. It shares its building with ArkDes, Sweden’s national centre for architecture and design. Their current exhibition, Flying Panels: How Concrete Panels Changed the World, is far more absorbing. Set around a suspended 1:5-scale exploded model of a concrete panel system, the exhibition takes a deep dive into the history, development and politics stemming from this modular means of building, illustrated with films, paintings and associated propaganda.
I’m feeling tired and experiencing a mid-trip slump. I can only imagine that Stockholm is a beautiful city in the summer, but I’ve endured a week of consistently bad weather, and I’m getting quite fed up by it all. To cap it all off, today is the day Britain leaves the European Union. Brexit. It’s real, it’s happening and it’s just hours away.
I’ve decided to hide away in a trendy coffee shop, and Gast fits the bill perfectly. This place is straight out of the pages of Wallpaper or Monocle, with its industrial interior offset by pink tiling, modern furnishings and a neon version of their ghost logo hanging on a wall.
One idea behind this trip was to be in Europe as Britain left it, but I’m at a lost and need an activity to distract me. Walking into a pretty courtyard just off Drottninggatan, I see a building with a bright neon sign above its entrance: BAD. Appropriate description of the current situation, I think. I then have a thought — I could go swimming! I search online for the nearest pool… of course! My germanic subconscious is playing with me; I’m stood right outside Centralbadet, which I soon discover is a beautiful Art Nouveau spa complex with hydrotherapy pools and several saunas. I can’t come to Sweden without having a sauna! I literally and figuratively take the plunge.
Having embraced one Swedish stereotype, I decide to go all in. At Nomad, I order the meatballs (washed down with the very delightful A Ship Full of IPA). The day has been saved! Now all I need to do is fall asleep before the clock strikes midnight.
Blue skies! There’s probably a Brexit metaphor in this somewhere, but I prefer not to dwell on it. I’ve returned to Gast, but have no intention of hanging around this time. I need to reserve my seat on the later train to Gothenburg (where I’ll get the connecting train to Oslo) and a walk to the train station – before returning later in the afternoon – is just the excuse I need to quickly get some half-decent photos of a city.
Stockholm’s true complexion is finally revealed. I’ve not seen this city in its best light, and suspect it may be a long time before I do.
Finding plenty of colour amidst the grey.
Like all great railway journeys, this one starts with a cancellation.