Who would have thought it possible to sail across Sweden by boat!
I had heard about the Göta Canal boat cruise from friends, and thought that it sounded like a most interesting and pleasant way in which to see the country. And so it proved to be – with Sweden in all her beautiful summer glory.The Canal, which is 190 km long and includes 58 locks, was one of the most ambitious construction projects ever undertaken in Sweden. 87 km were dug by hand by 58,000 Swedish soldiers between 1810 and 1832.
The significant part of the Canal stretches from Mem to Lake Vänern to Sjötorp. German-born Baltzar von Platen (1766 – 1829) was the man behind this extraordinary project, which cost in today’s terms about 15 billion Swedish Crowns. He worked in close consultation with the Scottish engineer, architect and stonemason, and expert road, bridge and canal-builder, Thomas Telford (1757-1834).
The Canal was inaugurated on 26th September 1832, with much pomp and ceremony, in the presence of King Karl XIV Johan and his family. Sadly von Platen was never to see the realisation of his dream, as he died three years before its completion.
The Canal trip can be taken over 2, 4 or 6 days, from Stockholm to Gothenburg or vice versa, and is in fact a series of canals linking the various lakes in central Sweden to the Baltic in the east and the Kattegat to the west.
We took the “Classic” Canal Cruise – 4 days and 3 nights – which was just perfect, aboard the oldest registered boat in Sweden. M/S Juno was launched from her Motala shipyard in 1874, 5 years after the Göta Canal Company was founded in 1869. The boat has 29 cabins altogether, located on the lower, middle (“shelter”) and upper (bridge) decks, a small dining room (full board included), and a library with quite good Wi-Fi, and a few books in English, German and Swedish, about Sweden and the Göta Canal.
The entire boat is furnished in period style, to maintain historical authenticity and a delightful old-world charm. Although we were grateful for hot sunny weather, this did mean that the dining room and cabins became rather close at night. This, and the noisy chugging of the engine, made sleep somewhat difficult – the price for taking a journey back in time, before the days of air-conditioning.
There is a covered seating area on the bridge deck, which affords beautiful views of the passing landscape. After all, as the brochure states: The journey is more important than the destination! There is also a counter on the bridge deck for all-day self-service tea and coffee, and an “honesty bar” for a small selection of soft and alcoholic beverages.
The journey includes several stops for walks and to visit historical places along the way, mostly with our well-informed young guide. Caroline is fluent in Swedish, English and German, and a student of Culture at Gothenburg University, and this was her long summer vacation job. There were also several opportunities to walk along the tow-paths – a welcome relief from an otherwise rather cramped environment. The staff of 13 young Swedes were all fluent in English, extremely competent, and friendly towards the guests. Most of our fellow passengers were also pleasant, and included Swedes and Germans, a Dutch couple celebrating their joint 70th birthday, and with whom dined at meal times, a Swiss couple, and a pair of Iranian-Swedish sisters.
We departed from Skeppsborkajen in Gamla Stan (Stockholm’s Old Town) at 9am sharp on a chilly overcast morning.Soon we came to Hammarby lock, our first lock, which separates Saltsjön from Lake Mälaren (0.3 m above sea level) – the massive fresh water lake in which the Stockholm archipelago is situated – and Sweden’s third largest lake. During the Viking era this lake was part of the Baltic Sea, and their original settlement can still be seen on Birka Island, to which daily excursions are available during the summer months.
Apart from Birka, the other UNESCO World Heritage Site by Lake Mälaren is Drottningholm Palace, which has been the home of the Swedish Royal Family since 1981.
Situated on Lovön Island, Ekerö, Drottningholm was begun during the 16th century, and became the regular summer residence of the Swedish court during the 18th century. It is also a popular tourist destination, especially by boat from the Stockholm City Hall, for walks in the beautiful French-styled gardens, and for performances of authentic Baroque opera in the Palace Theatre.
The next lock is at Södertälje, and is the largest lock in Scandinavia, measuring 135 m in length:
At this point we began to leave behind Lake Mälaren waters, and make our way down a narrow channel towards the Baltic Sea. The clouds drifted away, and the welcome sun came out to warm us on board. After passing the St. Anna and Södermanland archipelago, we reached the picturesque little seaside town of Trosa. Here we could disembark for several hours and wander in the bright sunshine along the town’s canals and alleys, and do some much-needed fruit-shopping at the local market. (Only a small selection of fruit is served at breakfast on the boat.)
This small touristy town was crowded with summer holiday-makers enjoying relaxing on their moored yachts and enjoying ice-creams near the quay. Trosa boasts many well-preserved historical buildings, some of which date from the 14th century. It was initially a fishing village, until regular steamer ship traffic from Stockholm and Nyköping began in 1860, bringing crowds of summer visitors, who, like us on previous occasions, were eager for a seaside escape not too far from the capital.
My favourite shop in Trosa (which actually translates as “brookies”, for reasons unknown) is Marsipangården – a marzipan-chocolatier and coffee shop with the most delicious and beautifully packaged hand-made confectionery. Lured by the delicious scent of chocolate-making which drifted into the street outside, we went in to stock up on a few sweet treats to enjoy on board, which was otherwise bereft of any source of “tuck”. Fortunately there are also branches of this excellent store in Stockholm.
Once back on board, we passed many granite islands, among which people were sailing their boats or enjoying a picnic supper.
As the sun began to set we passed a small rocky island redolent with the stench of gannet guano. Here hundreds of noisy birds were settling for the night.
After a 3-course dinner carefully prepared (but sadly lacking in fresh green vegetables) by our chef and his young Tobagan assistant Kalle, we went up onto the bridge deck to watch the sun set and savour the beauty of the surrounding landscape.It doesn’t become completely dark in southern Sweden during the summer months. A soft gloaming settles on the land for a few hours around midnight – les heures bleus – as they say in France. (Further north of course it is light all day and all night at this time.)
At some point during the night we passed the ruins of the old Stegeborg Castle-fortress which is situated on a small island overlooking the bay of Slätbaken, a long narrow channel which reaches from near Söderköping to the Baltic Sea. The fortress, which dates from the 13th century, and which was added to by successive Swedish kings, was designed to protect Söderköping when it became an important trading centre.
I became aware, during the early hours, of our boat being stationary. We were penned inside a deep lock which was slowly filling with water. I realized that we had reached Mem, and the first of the 58 narrow locks on the Göta Canal stretch of our journey. As the cabin was hot and airless, I reached for a wrap and went up on deck to see what was going on.
A near-full moon drifted out from behind the trees, and mesmerized by the beauty and silence of the scene, I lingered a while to enjoy the cool summer night freshness before returning to my cozy bunk and drifting back to sleep.
As the sun sets rises very early at this time of year, by the time we passed through Söderköping, described in our itinerary as “an idyllic town with a long and interesting history as a spa”, the sun was already shining brightly. This town was founded during the early 13th century, and was significant during the days of the Hanseatic League.
Soon after this point, at around 5.30, it was time to get up, quickly dress, and avail ourselves of the opportunity to stretch our legs before breakfast in the bracing early morning air. We watched, fascinated, as our sturdy little vessel heaved her way up nearly 2 km through the 8 locks of Duvkullen-Mariehov-Carlsborg.
All along the way, there was someone to operate the locks for Juno. Sometimes it was the same chap, following us in his car along the track parallel to the Canal.
During breakfast we slipped into Lake Asplången, now at 27 m above sea level.
Along the way we passed fields of golden-ripe wheat and red-roofed farm houses,
and crops that resembled vines but looked more like fruit trees, supported on trellises.
At around mid-morning we reached Norsholm lock, where the canal crosses the main railway line between Stockholm and Malmö,
and where we entered the very large Lake Roxen.
The many bridges at which we arrived, crossing over the Canal, and for which we usually had to wait, opened in various ways: slipping sideways onto one or other bank, usually the right hand side of the Canal,
swinging around in our direction,
lifting as a pair of drawbridges,
or lifting as a single drawbridge:
Most of our second morning was spent drifting across Lake Roxen, now at 33 m above sea level.
At midday we reached the far western end of the lake, and the resort town of Berg in Östergötland. Here there is the most spectacular “lock staircase” of all, known as the Carl-Johan Staircase. It is the longest staircase in the Canal, with 7 inter-connected locks.
Whenever we reached a series of locks, the people turned out to wave at us and call greetings. The atmosphere was especially exciting that hot sunny Saturday morning, when they assembled near the Canal to watch the extraordinary spectacle of a boat literally climbing a watery staircase! This impressive lock system is cause for much wonderment on the part of both the passengers and the summer holiday-makers, who were swimming and sunning themselves on the shore of the lake.
While Juno ploughed her way up the “staircase”, and several more locks, Caroline took us on a guided tour of Vreta Convent in Berg. This ancient complex, which dates from around 1100, was the first convent to be established in Sweden. Its importance was later superseded by the convent founded by Saint Birgitta, the Patron Saint of Sweden, at Vadstena.
The old convent church at Vreta is most interesting, and many medieval treasures are housed in a small museum located above the north transept. Today it is used as a parish church, and is not always open to visitors. The church is in good condition, but all that remains of the convent are a few ruins.
By mid-afternoon Juno had passed through all 15 locks in the Berg lock system, and it was time to embark once more after our delightful excursion on terra firma in the warm summer sun. As we drew away from Berg, Vreta church became visible across a field of wheat and between the trees in the distance.
Next on the agenda was an extraordinary experience: no less than two aqueducts upon which the Canal seemed to become airborne, and along which we cruised over the highway. The Ljungsbro aqueduct was built in 1970, and the Kungs Norrby aqueduct in 1993, as part of the national route 36.
It was the most bizarre experience, “sailing” over land and road!
We saw many fine villas on the shores of the Canal, and, anticipating our arrival, the locals could be seen out on their balconies and verandas, waiting to wave in greeting. One old gentleman regularly salutes the Göta Canal boats from his balcony with a fanfare on his trumpet!
As evening fell once more, a peaceful quiet settled upon the land.
Around the next corner we came across a quaint little “folly”, perched above the Canal. We speculated that this was a tryst for romantic assignations in days gone by, or perhaps just a quiet place to read and watch the water. Our blurb informed us that it is known as “Helmsman’s Horror”, possibly because of the difficult bend in the Canal upon which it is situated.
Around another bend in the Canal, at Borenberg, stands the attractive Göta Värdshus (Inn), which was built in 1908. As it was a Saturday evening, the guests were out on the balcony enjoying their sun-downers.
It became very hot in the small dining room, so we all mounted the narrow staircase up onto the bridge deck where we savoured Kalle’s delicious cloudberry pannecotta; here the breeze was cool, and the sunset magnificent.
At Borensberg there is a hand-operated lock, which was ably manned by one of our young lady crew members. Equality knows no bounds here in Sweden! Apparently she enjoys working the manual locks, and running up and down with her counterpart, skilfully swinging and catching the ropes along the way.
After this lock we entered another lake, Lake Boren, 73 m above sea level.
The next lock system, consisting of a staircase of 5 locks, is at Borenshult. This is where the boat leaves the lake and enters the next stage of the Canal, the Motala ström. This was also where we were told we might hear the nightingale sing. No such luck that evening, unfortunately, but we could again disembark and stroll about, and watch Juno slowly mount the “staircase” in the gloaming.
Once back on board, Caroline sang traditional Swedish songs for us accompanied by Lars, one of the kitchen hands, on his auto harp – a traditional American instrument he had heard on his travels to that country, and ordered from eBay.
We arrived at Motala at around 10 pm.
Known as “the capital of the Göta Canal”, this was where Baltzar von Platen drew up his plans for the Canal, and from which Juno was launched in 1874. In 1822 the Motala Werkstad (engineering works) was established here to serve the Göta Canal. Today it is regarded as the cradle of Swedish industry – one of the sites of the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Scandinavia.
This rather noisy spot was where we docked for the night; the Swedes were partying in their boats and on the banks of the Canal well into the early hours, taking advantage of the balmy but short summer months.
Early the next morning we left our Motala berth and sailed into Lake Vättern, Sweden’s second biggest lake, and 89 m above sea level.
After an early breakfast we reached Karlsborg, situated on the Vannäs peninsular on the western banks of Lake Vättern, and the site of the Karlsborg Fortress. This impressive complex was also initiated by Baltzar von Platen, as part of the Swedish “central defense idea”, and added to over a period of nearly a century between 1819 and 1909. Still blessed with fine sunny weather, it was time once again to disembark, and enjoy a guided tour with an erudite Swedish historian.
He began with a brief lecture on the history of Sweden, facilitated with good maps, and the position of the Karlsborg Fortress in the scheme of things. The purpose of the central defense idea was that the King, the Council and the Riksdag (Parliament) and central command, would be able to ensconce themselves in the Fortress in the middle of the country in the event of attack. Special vaults were constructed to hold the country’s gold reserves in times of trouble. As Sweden remained neutral during the First (and Second) World War, the Fortress turned out not to be much use for anything but storage, and was decommissioned in December 1927.
The Garrison Church within the Fortress complex was designed in the Neo-Gothic style in 1869, and can accommodate 700 people. It was intended as a meeting place for the Swedish government in the event of attack. Today it is no longer a parish church, but is sometimes used for weddings and other Christian festivals.
Most remarkable are the magnificent chandelier inside, constructed of rifle bayonets,
and the glass crucifix on the altar, created by the artist Erik Höglund at the Boda Glassworks:
From Karlsborg we slipped along a narrow canal, and into the small Lake Bottensjön.
At the end of this lake is the Forsvik Lock, the oldest lock in the Canal, which was constructed in 1813.
Whilst waiting in the lock for it to fill with water from upstream, we were met by a crowd of Christian well-wishers who greeted us in Swedish, German and English, accompanied by a hymn in each language and in which the passengers participated. They were led by the Kindbom family who have preserved the tradition of singing for the boat passengers for generations.
Posies of flowers were given to our pretty young representative, Caroline, who in exchange presented them with a basket of home-made cookies.
Again the shores were lined with spectators who had turned out to watch the proceedings, or who had camped with their children beside the Canal to have a picnic lunch and wait for the boat and the singing.
After carefully navigating, and getting stuck in one place, we steered through two narrow forest-lined passages, Billströmmen and the Spetsnäs Canal, and after several small lakes filled with water lilies, we chugged across the horseshoe-shaped Lake Viken. This beautiful lake, at 91.8 m above sea level, serves as a water reservoir for the western section of the Göta Canal.
Tåtorp, where Caroline hopped overboard and manfully turned the hand-operated lock, marks the point at which the canal starts descending. The mathematics and planning that must have gone into the calculation of water sources to fill each lock, with the principal of gravity, on both the eastern and western stretches of the Canal, are quite astonishing. Fortunately there is no shortage of water in this country for this process to continue functioning successfully each summer, once the winter ice has melted. Parts of the Canal are drained and dredged during the colder months, with much maintenance carried out, before the ice sets in. It must cost a fortune to sustain.
The next long section of the Canal, which reaches from Tåtorp to Sjötorp, is called the Berg Canal. There was once a sharp bend in the Canal at this point, but it was straightened from 1930 to 1933.
Here a just-visible obelisk marks the highest point of the Göta Canal: 91.5 m above sea level.
On either side of the Canal we saw many farms, with mile up mile of near-ripe crops, flocks of sheep and herds of cows, all seeking out the shade on that hot summer day.
The railway line between Stockholm and Gothenburg crosses the Canal at Töreboda. Here we had to wait a while for the scheduled train. At last a great silver leviathan went thundering by, the railway bridge opened sideways, and we could pass through and continue on our way.
Now and then on our journey, we passed a unique little sculpture beside the Canal:
During the late afternoon we arrived at Hajstorp, a small settlement with a system of 4 locks. This is where the western section of the Göta Canal was inaugurated in 1822. Again we disembarked to stretch our legs, enjoying the balmy early evening air, whilst Juno slowly made her way down the lock system.
Further along lies another small settlement, Norrkvarn (kvarn means mill), featuring a mini canal system with miniature buildings and a church, designed for children.
We walked as far as Godhögen, where there is a beautiful farm house with an attractive glasshouse in the garden, watched over by the family’s collie dog.
The landowner and his wife were seated at a table in the garden eating their supper, also enjoying the fine evening weather. We waited in the shade for our boat to arrive so that we could board and continue on our way westwards.
Soon she appeared around the corner, in all her picturesque glory.
Soon after our evening stroll we passed our sister ship, the Wilhelm Tham; excited greetings and waves ensued.
That evening we enjoyed another excellent dinner, showcasing fine Swedish cuisine.
We were honoured to have Captain Göran join us at our table, with our new Dutch companions Walter and Attie Hilarius (seriously!) Göran had captained a freight ship for 25 years, and had been with the Göta Canal Company for several years. It was interesting to hear his stories, such as the time a terrible thunder storm suddenly struck, while the boat was in the middle of Lake Vänern. He was forced to find a safe harbour, disembark his gravely seasick elderly passengers, and have them taken by bus to a hotel for the night.
We arrived at Sjötorp soon after dinner, where there is a set of eight locks, and the remains of several old shipyards. We disembarked once again, and Caroline led us to an old warehouse which now houses the Sjötorp Canal Museum. Here learned more about the building of the Canal, with photographs of Sjötorp in days gone by, and the interiors of various antique ships. There is also a map of all the ships that sank in Lake Vänern. Downstairs is a café and a shop selling clothes and home décor. We spent several hours on land, enjoying the evening and a magnificent sunset over Lake Vänern.Shortly before midnight we left the Göta Canal and sailed into this massive reservoir of water. Lying at 44 metres above sea level, Vänern is the largest lake in Sweden (5,655 km2), and the third largest in Europe – after the Ladoga and Onega lakes in Russia.
After breakfast on our last morning we arrived at the western shore of Lake Vänern, and the town of Trollhättan. This was the point at which we began our last leg towards Gothenburg along another canal, the Trollhättan Canal.
But before this we disembarked, and walked a short distance to the Trollhättan Canal Museum which is located in an old storehouse which dates from 1893. Here we were shown a film about the history and construction of the Canal, followed by a wander through the small but interesting exhibition. I also discovered how the Canal was built, sometimes with blasting through the granite, before Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1867:
There was still time to walk through the beautiful surrounding area, and to see the old,
long abandoned lock system, built between 1795 and 1800, and opened in 1800.
The impressive Trollhättan lock staircase consists of 4 locks, and has a total drop of 32 metres. Of the three parallel lock systems here, only the largest, dating from 1916, is still in use.
Finally, just before lunch, we arrived at our very last lock, Lilla Edet Ströms Lock, which was built in 1916. Amazingly, the original lock was opened in 1607, and was the first lock to be constructed in Sweden.
Sadly this was where our journey had to end, and not at Packhuskajen 10 in Gothenburg as originally planned. There was a power failure in the town, and the lock gates could not be opened. After waiting for several hours for the power to be restored, it was decided that our group of 24 passengers should be ferried to the city by bus. I was disappointed not to approach Gothenburg harbour from the water, but was consoled by our plan to explore the city’s Archipelago by boat the following day.
It was a sad time indeed, to bid farewell to our new friends, and our kind and trusty crew. Perhaps we shall see some of them again one day.
One thing is certain, that the cross-Sweden excursion proved to be all that was promised: magnificent scenery, tasty meals, the peace and silence of the countryside, laced with birdsong and lowing cows, interesting historical sights and places to explore – castles, manors and fortresses, and the cool breezes upon the many beautiful lakes. It was a an extraordinary experience – a feast for all the senses.
Price: from SEK 12.795 per person in a double cabin including full board and excursions.
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