The summer was glorious. The sun sparkled on the water between the islands of Stockholm and the outdoor cafes were crowded for two full months. Stockholm, "the city that floats on water" as the Swedish novelist Selma Lagerцf called the capital of Sweden was glimmering like a jewel in the setting sun. This is the way to experience this beautiful city - by bike and by boat, I thought to myself as I pedaled slowly along the shores of Stockholm.
I invite you to join me in the summer of 2000, on a combined bicycle and boat tour in and around Stockholm.
Imagine that you have just arrived in the city of Stockholm. The city sprawls gracefully over 14 islands right between the Baltic Sea and Lake Mдlaren. You'll be introduced to "the Venice of the North" by a walk in the oldest part of the city, Gamla Stan. It is on this island where Stockholm began sometime before the 13th century. You'll stroll between rust colored and yellow buildings that line the narrow lanes that were laid out in the Middle Ages . Today the streets bustle with life from cafes and restaurants. In the center of the Old Town is Stortorget. In this square the famous " Stockholm Bloodbath" was staged by the Danish king, Christian, in 1520, in his effort to intimidate the Swedish nobility and regain control of the country. It is said that on rainy November day you can still see the blood flow in the gutters.
But let's take a break from history and enjoy this summer evening. The lingering light in the sky, that very special illumination of northern latitudes is one of the reasons I return to my old country every summer. This exquisite light lends a sense of timelessness to the evenings, a sense of extended days and endless possibilities.
On our second day we'll board a steamer that brings us to the town of Sigtuna. Settling in on the deck among the other sun- worshipping Swedes, we enjoy the sights of sweeping bays, narrow straits and rocky shores. Lake Mдlaren, to the west of Stockholm, is Sweden's third largest lake. The countryside abounds with historical sites, castles, palaces and Viking remains.
Just as we begin to feel ready for lunch our steamer pulls up at the town dock. We have entered another era. The idyllic town of Sigtuna is like a story book town. In fact one of our most beloved author/ illustrators of children's' books, Elsa Beskow, used this town as a backdrop for her stories. However, this sleepy little town with crooked lanes and quaint wooden houses was once an important commercial center. During the Viking period merchant ships from as far away as Asia dropped anchor here. Monasteries and abbeys competed with one another in building the most glorious churches in town. Today the ruins provide a cultural focus, as do the summer evening concerts at the gazebo on the green.
We get on our bicycles and leave the idyllic town of Sigtuna behind. The road winds through one of Sweden's oldest cultural farming land in a lush landscape of rolling hills and fields. As we approach the baroque palace of Skokloster we are greeted by a pair of medieval clad monks. This is the week of the Skokloster festival, and the fields outside the white castle have been turned into a medieval village, complete with knights, craftsmen, food and games. Skokloster castle is unique. Everything still stands where it always has, as if time stood still for some 300 years.
Before we head south to the town of Strдngnдs we make a brief visit at a remarkable small church. Thanks to an impoverished parish, the vault in the church of Hдrkeberga was never white washed, a common practice during the Reformation. Today we marvel at the unique and intricate medieval paintings that give us a glimpse into the life and mythology of the people in the 1400's.
As the sun moves closer to the horizon we enter the town of Strдngnдs. A magnificent Gothic cathedral overlooks this town on the shores of lake Mдlaren. That evening we relax in Ulvshдlls manor house. In the duskfilled evening we might hear the story of the "ghostlady" of this 1600 great house.
Our bicycle route takes us on wonderful backroads and wooded paths. The province of Sцdermanland is often nicknamed "the smiling landscape" and rightly so. Flowerfilled meadows, rolling hills and hundreds of lakes characterize this landscape so filled with history. Eventually we reach the town of Mariefred. The town is known for its fortress- Gripsholm Castle - majestic in appearance and called by historians " the red fairy tale castle". The impressive castle boasts not only of many stories and mysteries, but a royal portrait collection and a marvelous theater from the late 1700's.
On our return, the city of Stockholm awaits you, and we encourage you to explore by foot. With a map and our suggestions, the afternoon is spent sightseeing this cosmopolitan northern center.
It's a rare city that has thousands of islands on its doorstep, and this is Stockholm's good fortune and yours to enjoy. On our last two days of this Bike and Boat tour we'll introduce you to one of the largest and most dramatic archipelagos in the world, with no fewer than 24,000 islands and vast stretches of nature and wildlife, narrow channels and straits. Travel these islands just once and you can't but wonder why so few people outside of Sweden know about it. On the other hand, it's probably because it has been kept a "secret" that the archipelago has stayed so pristine, peaceful and at times absolutely breathtaking.
On the outer edge of the archipelago is the tiny town of Sandhamn, a mecca for sailors and the home of the Royal Swedish Yacht Club. From this island our local host will navigate through straits and narrows and finally bring us to one of the many hidden coves for a barbecue and a view of the setting sun. And I know you will store away this evening in your memory for a dark and gloomy winter day.
Our boat journey continues the following day. We crisscross between the patchwork of islands and eventually reach the island of Mцja. This island has resisted tourist development, and its residents continue to lead the traditional life of farming and fishing. Mopeds seem to be the favorite mode of transportation here and to my surprise, I see children as well as grandparents zoom by on their small motorbikes. We get back on our muscle powered vehicles to enjoy this afternoon discovering fishing villages, rocky outposts and meadows of wildflowers. Hidden in the midst of these woods you'll find the "world famous Wikstrцm cafe." This establishment has a reputation for serving the best and freshest fish in the whole archipelago. Naturally we couldn't leave the island of Mцja without a taste of their delicacies.
Our journey is coming to an end, but before we say goodbye, we'll meet on the island of Lovцn. Here is where you find Drottningholm Castle. This 17th century palace is now the home of the royal family. Built as a small version of Versailles, it looks out on gardens of fountains, statues and parkland. The island's greatest treasure is the 18th century court theater. It is the oldest theater in the world which still uses its original backdrops and stage machinery. In the castle inn we share a farewell meal. And I think you will agree with me, the joys of a Swedish summer will stay with you just as the beauty of the magical northern light lingers in the sky.