Bewitched by a City: Beautiful Stockholm
I almost didn’t find the place again. My guide and I passed it on my first day in the city and I doubted I could locate it a second time by myself. Still, it seemed like such a magical shop, I knew I had to try.
Stockholm is made up of 14 main islands connected by bridges. It’s a welcoming place, beautiful and clean, with tree-lined streets and squares and well-manicured parks. Although the best way to get around Stockholm is by walking, it has a well-developed underground railway system, frequent commuter trains, trams, modern buses and ferries in addition to easy access via taxi.
Upon my arrival, Aviva, my guide, met me at the comfortable, stunningly modern Scandic Anglais Hotel, and we set out through the adjacent park, which fronts the imposing 19th Century Royal Library. It was a short walk from there to the Stureplan, the entertainment district, in the center of which is a large, mushroom-shaped information kiosk that was to become a landmark for me to find my way “home” over the next three days.
Farther on, the sound of rock music emanated from an outdoor theatre and a crowd had begun to gather. Inquiring of three pre-teens, who were dressed in up-to-the-minute style, we were informed that the occasion was a free concert to be performed that evening by the popular Swedish entertainer, Carola.
Leaving them, we walked along promenades flanked with cafes, boutiques and street stalls, became part of the crowd watching a parody of Linda Rosing, a local celebrity running for parliament, ate fresh raspberries from the Saluhall, a warehouse-cum-market, and strode along broad avenues that stretched past elegant 19th-Century mansions facing park-lined waterways and stately buildings, some dating from before the 17th Century.
Unlike its European neighbors, Stockholm was never bombed during World War II, and thus maintained an unbroken line of architecture; city planners simply developed new alongside the old.
We crossed over a bridge into Gamla Stan, the old city, and I was immediately transported 800 years back in time. Founded around 1255, the city was surrounded originally by walls, which, over several centuries, were fortified with towers. Two dating from the 15th Century still stand. We wandered through a narrow, winding street that led to a hillock and the Great Church (St. Nicholas), where the statue of St. George slaying a dragon loomed over onlookers, a Gothic mood-setter if ever there was one.
Crisscrossing down cobblestone pathways, past the final resting place of the Swedish kings that are interred in the cemetery adjacent to the 13th Century Franciscan church, we arrived in time to witness the impressive changing of the guard inside the quadrangle of the severe and fortress-like Royal Palace. The palace was rebuilt in the mid-18th Century after it had burned to the ground half a century earlier.
Still standing and seemingly unaltered are the stone and brick two- three- and four-story houses, many of which have retained their original walls and wrought iron fixtures. Cozy cafés, restaurants and quaint shops pepper the street level of this old-world urban setting. Our respite and snack took place in a café that looked like an historic storage cellar; its dark and gloomy atmosphere belied the friendliness of the proprietor.
Energized by rich, aromatic coffee and delectable pastry, we strolled by antique shops, bookstalls, haute couture boutiques and souvenir stores. It was getting late and, even though much of Scandinavia at summer’s end remains light well into the evening -- a boon for sightseers -- shops were closing. Walking by one in particular, I was sorry I’d missed its opening hours. The larger than life sized crone effigy that sat crumpled in the window, smiling perhaps at the cat sleeping peacefully next to her, captivated me. To the left of the wood and brass door, colorful, elfin-like figures adorned the window. I stood there for a moment, enthralled by their charm before moving on.
We crossed over a bridge, which appeared trafficked perpetually with pedestrians, to Sodermalm, and climbed a steep incline where the views of the city made the area called Katrinavagen a wonderful place for visitors to stop, photograph and take their bearings. Probably nowhere else in Stockholm is the architecture so diverse as here. You can walk down cobblestone streets and view charming Victorian homes, while imagining that the inhabitants are being captured on canvases by 19th Century artists, turn onto a broad avenue and find an apartment complex that’s 20th Century Bauhaus in design and then walk to the old industrial district, which is becoming the art and fashion center, and find a new trendy gallery.
A taxi ride back to my hotel was a welcome sit-down after our long outing. I’d had an overview of the city and hoped to be able to explore it further. For the following day, however, I’d booked an excursion to Grinda, one of the 24,000 islands that comprise the Stockholm Archipelago.
Located about an hour's boat ride from central Stockholm, Grinda, now a nature reserve owned by The Archipelago Foundation, was purchased from the city of Stockholm in 1905 by Hanrik Santesson, the first director of the Nobel Foundation. It took two years to build a summer residence for his family, which, after his death in 1912, became the property of his wife, Alfhild. The mansion, created in the Art Nouveau style by the noted architect Ernst Stenhammar, was donated to the city of Stockholm upon the death of Alfhild in 1944, as a recreation camp for girls. Having fallen in disrepair from various uses since that time, the mansion was leased in 1995 to Jan Pfister, creator, owner and administrator of the Grinda Wardshus Company, who restored it and the adjacent grounds to their original states. Four additional modern buildings were constructed near the mansion to accommodate guests.
Many visitors coming to Grinda on holiday experience haute cuisine served in the gracious wood-paneled dining room beside a roaring fire during winter, or on the patio overlooking the tranquil Baltic Sea during summer. The restaurant has been awarded innumerable international prizes, and it was easy to understand why: light, aromatic condiments accompanied dishes that were prepared with the best of the season’s ingredients, which come mostly from the archipelago. I toured the rest of the house feeling pleasantly sated, thanked Jan and his family for their kind hospitality and wandered along the paths around the nature reserve before taking the ferry back to Stockholm.
Undaunted by the following day’s rainfall, I set out for the morning tour of what may well be considered the last romantic structure in Europe, the exquisitely gilded, carved and frescoed rooms of the Town Hall. From there, I rode trams, sloshed through streets and zigzagged over bridges to visit as many museums as time permitted, starting with the oldest, the restored 17th Century Vasa, a warship that was so opulent in design that she sank on her maiden voyage. The National Museum houses masters of Western art, including Scandinavian artists who had been unknown to me previously, and I finished my afternoon viewing a marvelous collection of contemporary works at the Moderna Museet. Sadly, my visits to these great museums were merely walk-throughs; they deserve days in each.
There was no direct route back to Gamla Stan, but the distance wasn't great. I crossed over two bridges and was back in the old city, threading my way through the narrow streets, in search of the shop I’d seen two days before. I’d almost given up hope of finding it when I rounded a corner onto Osterlanggatan Street. There it was, and in the window were the tiny figures I’d seen on my first day. I entered and enquired. They were tomtar, and there were trolls and witches as well, mythical creatures, which have appeared in Scandinavian folklore for centuries.
Their handlers and makers, Maija Tahko and Kicki Floden, created the enchanting shop, appropriately called Tomtar & Troll, a dozen years ago. Showing me several of their creations and of other artists as well, Maija explained that tomtars were often depicted as small, elderly men with full beards and dressed in the everyday clothing of a farmer. They were believed to take care of the farmer’s home and barn and protect them from misfortune, particularly at night, when the occupants were asleep. Since a tomtar was thought to be able to make himself invisible, one was unlikely to get more than a brief glimpse of him.
The witch-like crone I’d seen in the window two days earlier was seated next to an antique sewing machine. She and the smaller versions in the shop are said to keep hearth and home safe. Nearby, Kicki sat at a large round table piled high with elves of various sizes, white cotton wool, scissors, brushes and bits of fabric. While Kicki threaded her needle, Maija continued relating the folklore. “But,” she said, “lest you think they’re benign, be forewarned: the tomtar can be offended and, like many mythical creatures, one should please him with gifts.” Traditionally farmers left a bowl of porridge for him during Santa Lucia, the festival of light, or on Christmas night. If the bowl was empty the next day, a year of bounty was guaranteed.
Today, the tomtar resemble the American Santa Claus. Maija and Kicki dress many of their tomtars in grey or black felt tunics with bright red scarves and hats pushed down over wisps of white hair. Great bulbous noses protrude out of long white beards. The effect gives them a delightfully comical look. Dressed in red aprons, lady tomtars add more color to the scene and equality to an otherwise male-dominated legend. But whatever the form or adornment, the tomtar is rooted in local culture, and many in Sweden still put out a bowl of porridge for their sprite on Christmas Eve.
Trolls on the other hand are always depicted as fearsome-looking, hairy and ugly creatures, with long noses and long tails. I was told that although their origin is uncertain, folklore attributes them with supernatural or magical powers, which are almost always used for evil purposes -- generally to keep mortals in tow. Their equivalent is the boogeyman in America and the ogre in Europe. I appreciated the workmanship of the trolls, yet preferred the tomtar, and I bought several to bring home as gifts. I walked back to the hotel delighted to have found this unique shop.
It wasn’t easy leaving Stockholm. In just three short days I’d been captivated by its natural beauty, art and architecture, and had been taken in by its openness and gracious lifestyle as well. It’s entirely possible that upon entering that charming shop I fell under the spell of the tomtar for, now that I’m home, I’m certain that the little elf in my apartment is watching me, and, like a grand seducer, is urging me to return to his bewitching city.
For more information visit Visit-Sweden.com A city guide can be arranged through the Stockholm Visitors Bureau.
Denise Mattia is a freelance photojournalist living in New York City. She is the recipient of two degrees in Theatre and Art and a grant for her work in reef conservation. Her worldwide travel features and photographs (topside and underwater) appear in national and international publications. She is an active member of NATJA.
All photos by Denise Mattia