In August the summer season reaches a heady dénouement in the northern hemisphere. Temperatures in the Mediterranean lands soar, and tourists flock to Scandinavia to escape the heat and crowds.
Drottningholm Palace from the water
Their colourful temperament brings a new vibrancy to this comparatively secluded Nordic city, and Gamla Stan (the Old Town) rings with their lively enthusiasm. Gaggles of petite Oriental ladies trip along the cobblestones in impossibly high heels chattering animatedly, and take endless pictures of one other, parasols aloft.
Drottninggatan, the main pedestrianised shopping avenue, is crowded with throngs of sightseers and back-packers. Buskers stake out their spots, strumming on guitar and accordion, harp and even water glasses, eliciting fares to the next destination.
At the top of the hill stands a picturesque Irish Pub, and the Strindberg Museum, former home of the eccentric author-artist, and at the other end lies the Old Town. Fractious infants in ankle-skinning push-chairs make known their boredom with it all, while their exhausted parents try to pack thirteen centuries of history and sights into a few days.
But I enjoy the buzz, and have found several relatively undiscovered cultural and confectionery gems away from the madding crowd: Sundbergs konditori in Gamla Stan, frequented mainly by savvy locals, offers succulent pastries and rich hot chocolate, and there are secluded galleries and second-hand bookshops not mentioned in Lonely Planet, Eyewitness or The Rough Guides. Other quiet places are the Music and Theatre Library, and the Music Library of Sweden, which houses – apart from books and scores – manuscripts, periodicals and letters written by Swedish composers.
Many Swedes and expats leave Stockholm during the summer months; most of my friends go home to their own countries to maintain their properties – if they have retained them – and to see their families. Some travel abroad, and we take the opportunity to explore other parts of Sweden. It is the best time to take cruises in the surrounding seas, while they remain ice-free: the Norwegian coastline, the Bothnian Gulf and the Baltic Sea – Tallinn, Riga, Helsinki and St. Petersburg – indulging in magnificent buffets with local sea foods and diet-defying desserts.
There are numerous cultural offerings in Stockholm during the summer recess: concerts and plays in the parks, such as Shakespeare in the Hallwylska Palace courtyard, and opera in the old Drottningholm Palace Theatre.
The Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra performs light classics outdoors near the Maritime Museum on Djurgården, and crowds bring their rugs and picnics to enjoy the free concerts.
The Baltic Sea Festival, which takes place annually at the Berwaldhallen (a concert hall which is home to the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra), offers a wonderfully varied programme. One evening we attended a performance of Persian music and dance, which piqued my curiosity to learn more about the history and culture of ancient Iran. But I am still busy with Europe. There is also a Mozart Festival, performed under the auspices of the Friends of Chamber Music Society at the old wooden Allhelgonakyrkan (All Saints Church) on Södermalm.
The annual “Pride Parade” festival is a colourful event, with the participants dressed in all sorts of weird and wonderful outfits, makeup and wigs, parading on floats and on foot through the city centre.
One weekend we took a day trip out into the magnificent Stockholm archipelago with the Strömma ferry, passing Nacka, Hasseludde, Vaxholm with its circular walled fortress, and Resarö, to the island of Grinda. There were many other ferries and boats on the water, all enjoying the glorious summer weather. On Grinda we found an outdoor café and order hot battered herrings with new potatoes and dill cream. Local and foreign tourists lay tanning on the rocks and small beaches, or wandered along tree-lined paths savouring their ice-creams.
Here families settle in shady glades with their picnics, and we saw a pair of little girls paddling a small inflatable dingy in a sheltered cove; they start them young in Sweden!
There are meadows on Grinda island, with curly-horned sheep, and apple trees with ripening fruit, holiday cottages and a quaint hotel.
On another weekend we drove south to Trosa, a picturesque coastal town in the Sörmlands archipelago. This collection of about 2 800 islands is not as touristy as others along the Swedish coastline, as some of the islands are nature reserves. They can be explored by kayak or with a tour boat, especially to Kråmö or Askö. (Ö in Swedish means island).
Trosa’s narrow alleys and old-fashioned charm make it a popular tourist destination all the year round. In summer there is sailing and outdoor dining, and in winter the snow and candlelight transform it into a magical Christmas fantasy. A map of the area shows the location of numerous ancient rune stones, indicating an ancient past. The town was founded by King Karl IX in 1610. Just over a century later, in 1719, it was burned to the ground by the Russians. Only the church, which had been consecrated in 1711, escaped unscathed, and was then used as a stable. Today it is one of the oldest preserved buildings in the town. It is sparsely decorated inside, and outside is a neat flower-filled churchyard with leaning gravestones, and, as is typical of many old churches in Sweden, a separate wooden bell tower.
There are several quaint old buildings along the main street, most of which are painted “Falun” (brownish) red, as well as shops, cafés and restaurants. One of these, Antons Krog (pub), used to be a police station, and sports a large black turret with a weather cock. Some shops sell touristy items such as home-made decorations for cosy interiors, and clothes. My favourite is Marsipangården, a chocolate shop-cafe specialising in delicious homemade marzipan and chocolates, beautifully arranged in decorative packets tied with gold ribbon. Rich chocolatey aromas float seductively out into the street, beckoning passers-by to enter and indulge. Visit www.marsipangorden.se.
The town is bisected by a canal wide enough for boats, and in the Green Square – a small park filled with huge trees – is an interesting sculpture of a stringless harp played by a pair of elegant forearms and hands. On either side of the stream are attractive, pastel-coloured, turn-of-the-century villas, some with glassed-in verandas.
There are other buildings of historic interest in Trosa, including the Town Hall (1872) which stands in Skolparken (The School Park), and has a short clock tower and onion dome topped with a golden weather cock. There are the old School House, dating from the 18th century, the Tannery and Town Museum, Årgårdens Gästhem (Guest House) and Åbladstugan (Åblad Cottage), the only surviving fisherman’s cottage in Trosa, which dates from 1719.
There are a number of attractive bridges over the stream: Bryggarerbon (Brewery) Villa Bridge, beside which stands a magnificent cream-coloured villa with ornate carved decorations, and the Suckarnas Bro (Bridge of Sighs), beside which runs Kärlekstigen (Lovers’ Lane). The bridge is said to have derived its name from the sighs of parting lovers when the young men re-boarded their ships at the end of the summer.
The harbour ends at a stone pier with the curious names of Smörbyttan (Butter Bucket), and “World’s End”. When you reach that point, you have reached “the end of the world”. The name “Trosa” (literally translated as “knickers”), arises from the town’s location at the end of a long peninsular!
In summer the guest harbour, which used to serve a flourishing fishing industry, is filled with the moored boats and yachts of holiday-makers. Tullhuset (the Customs House) Restaurant, where traders coming in from the archipelago formerly paid their taxes, stands on the eastern quay. On the west bank there is a hostel for year-round visitors, and nearby, in a field, we saw an outdoor market offering local handcrafts, homemade cotton clothes, and other decorative items. Apart from boating, we also saw people fishing, hiking, and cycling, and taking their children in the miniature Blue Train.
Restaurants range from haute-cuisine dining in the hotels to a pizza or seafood and a glass of wine at a terrace bistro.
Back in Stockholm, the summer sales which began in July come to an end, and towards the end of August the autumn collections already begin appearing in the shop windows.
The Swedish schools return in mid-August, nearly a month ahead of the rest of Europe, and Skolstart signs appear in windows, advertising stationery, sensible clothes and footwear. (School uniforms are seldom worn in Sweden.)
In the farmlands surrounding Jakobsberg we see the crops ripen to a crispy blond. Some fields are already harvested, laying bare the dark furrowed soil which is picked clean of unwanted pests by flocks of crows. Large white plastic bales of hay lie ready for collection and storage. These will feed the stock kept warm in barns during the long winter months. In the locals’ gardens the apple and pear trees hang low with their sweet abundance. The rosy sweet apples are used to make appelmust (apple sauce), or are taken to the local press to be bottled or boxed as juice.
The last of the summer social activities reaches a climax at the end of August with the Crayfish Festival – an evening gathering of friends and family. This age-old traditional Swedish feast usually begins with Västerbotten paj (Västerbotten cheese quiche) and salad, as the tiny crayfish, now imported due to diminishing local stocks, do not yield very much.
Desserts range from chocolate cake to strawberry cake with elder-flower cream, or a bowl of fresh berries.
But the most important part of the party is the numerous toasts of snaps, each accompanied with a traditional (drinking) song based on the principals of togetherness and goodwill. We joined our friends out on Ingarö, sitting on benches alongside two long tables, each set with colourful red-and-white table-cloths and paper napkins, the ceiling decorated with festoons of red paper crayfish and large smiling moon-faces, everyone wearing party hats. It was a very merry gathering, with mein host Frederik leading the drinking songs – and became merrier still with each successive song.
Watching the changing of the seasons in the courtyard garden below never ceases to be a source of wonder. Nature’s rhythm continues, imperturbable and uninterrupted by the dramas of humanity.
I contemplate a homily from Anne Wilson Schaef’s delightful little book, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much:
They seemed to come suddenly upon happiness as if they had surprised a butterfly in the winter woods. – Edith Wharton.
Ms Wilson Schaef goes on to qualify this quote by stating that happiness cannot be planned, and that achieving all our personal and material goals may still not bring feelings of fulfillment and happiness. “It takes us a long time to stop and question the system that taught us that accumulation and control are the vehicles to happiness. It is a gift. It comes like a butterfly in the winter woods. Let it sit with us a while.”