Bright sunlight, clean streets, smiles, the palest of blue eyes - everyone was so unfailingly polite and helpful it almost began to feel like 'The Truman Show'. Even the tray rack in the National Museum thanked us for returning our dishes. But the lady at SAS check-in was a bit uncertain. "Nacka? Why go there?" Because William's friend had an empty flat there, and it's only 20 minutes from Stockholm. Could we swim there? "Oh yes, there's a lake and you can swim from the royal palace steps if you want!"
Stockholm almost deserves the daft label 'Venice of the North': it's part of an archipelago of over 24,000 islands and its historic centre, Gamla Stan, is the boundary between fresh water and the Baltic. Lugging our bags, we wandered across the island at dusk. Four-square 18th century grey and cream public buildings on the waterfronts and narrower streets twisting upwards to the cathedral and royal palace beyond.
Saturday morning and I swam in the Nacka lake. Hot sun, warm water, water-lilies, birch trees and conifers, and great flat rocks to swim from, with just a few mallards for company. Discrete purification equipment kept the water clean. When I came out, even the two small black leeches on my leg were too polite to attach themselves.
HIGH JINKS AT THE PALACE
They were changing the guard (at the palace). Ripples of applause for each new tune from the mounted bandsmen. Mirror-shiny spiked helmets and much marching about. One alarmed looking youth in glasses clung to his mount while he struggled with a tuba that seemed several sizes too large for him. The palace is vast: apparently just one room less than the one in London. Tessin built it and is commemorated in a sculpture in the cathedral. He perches awkwardly half-way up a column, as if he would slide off at any moment.
The royal family have long since shifted to their summer palace on the green island of Drottningholm: but there didn't seem to be anyone at home when we visited. We took a steamship out past Södermalm, Langholm and Stora Essingen, following the Björnholmen into a still reach where the palace basked in the afternoon sun. Its understated classical architecture by Tessin the elder marks the start of the Swedish 'Golden Age'. Gorgeously scented box hedges and water jetting from statues with mythological subjects. A pavilion in faux Chinese style was a present for Queen Louisa Ulrika's birthday. The theatre opened in her honour in 1766 and is the island's masterpiece.
We took a tour of the theatre and were amazed. All the stage machinery is in place and working. Dei ex machina galore fly down on clouds. Candelabra and footlights hardly pierce the atmospheric gloom. Ten men turn a great capstan and the scenery changes, sliding in on tracks in the floor. Copies of the original scenery are still in use. The mouldings may be papier mâché and the marble trompe l'oeuil but the theatre is an incredible survival. As we toured, I imagined members of the court taking part in their own productions, the palace servants filling the benches at the back, the royal family in their own chairs on a blue Persian carpet at the front. I asked if there was any chance of tickets for Così fan tutti that afternoon but was told there was no chance: it was sold out ages ago.
AN AFTERNOON TO REMEMBER
In the museum shop someone has mysteriously heard I'm after tickets: "look out for a man in a pink shirt". The box office opens an hour before and I wait on the grass. Another staff member walks deliberately out across the grass to tell me "there may be a few tickets - make sure you're first in the queue!". So I sit on the step in the sun and wonder. A German in dark suit and waistcoat bought his tickets when booking opened in March. A man in a pink shirt appears. Yes! he has tickets to sell. So I used all my cash to buy one ticket, and hope to get one at the box office when it opens. At last a liveried and periwigged palace servant opens the door. One by one those who are collecting advance tickets are admitted and finally I am called to a little desk inside. Quietly I'm told "we do have the chairs:the people that usually have them aren't coming this evening". Wonder of wonders - these are the royal seats right at the front, and after swapping back the pink-shirted man's ticket I managed to get two of them for William and I!
A great stick thumped down on the stage to bring the crowd to silence and the overture began. The performance was quite matchless. The orchestra and singers were like a musical time machine, taking us back to the golden age and the audience's excitement at the spectacle was almost tangible. To gasps the cast showed off the marvels of the theatre. Their singing was lively and completely involving. The applause at the end brought the performers back again and again.
Where else could you swim in beautiful clear water in front of a royal palace after a performance like the one we had just seen? Slipping into the warm water as the sun's rays lengthened was a wonderful end to the afternoon.
We swam again the next day, after visiting the royal warship 'Vasa'.
Forget the Mary Rose! The 'Vasa' is vast and was recovered in astonishingly good condition almost 350 years after it capsized on its 1628 maiden voyage. There was a rich smell of old timber in the huge, dark and cool museum. The crowd was buzzing enthusiasm, swarming round the great timber hull. Hundreds of twisting carvings in the darkest oak seemed to writhe on its surface. There were monsters and savages and emperors - all to glorify king and country and terrify their enemies. We saw the ship's carpenter's timber chest with its untouched brace & bit, leather hats and shoes and gazed and gazed at all the interpretative exhibits.
The 'Vasa' really was over the top: 69 metres in length, with less than 5m of the hull in the water and more than 15 above. The king was fighting in Poland the day crew men rushed from side to side as the warship was moored before the palace. If he had been there he would have seen its swaying instability. 50 of the crew of 450 lost their lives when a wave hit just out of harbour on its maiden voyage.
What else to do but swim again? We took the Stockholm Metro (the T) to Langholmen. Once a prison island, now green, with paths leading past allotment gardens to a popular beach. Around 7pm we walked right to the very western end of the island. Like mermen, with fleshy Caravaggio faces and long blonde hair streaming out in the water, three people played in the water: diving for rocks and laughing in the sunshine. A latter-day Byron, William breasted the choppy water, crossing the sound and waving at me from the shore. Silent now, the three mermen rested in a willow tree which jutted out low over the water.
On our last day we had time to walk Södermalm, south of Gamla Stan. There are wonderful views of the city, the Katerina Kyrka restored to stunning pristine whiteness after a fire, and picturesque streets with red-painted timber and stone houses.
Three and a half days and we'd hardly begun to discover Stockholm.
I hope to go back and can recommend it.
We also went to:
The Riddarholmskrykanburial place of kings
The Modern Art Museet on Skeppsholmen (impressive new building by Spanish architect, works by Picasso, Mondrian, Chagall, photographic collections and large special exhibition space: wonderful views from restaurant)
The National Museum (Rembrandt, vast murals, print collections)
The Far Eastern Museum (stunning bronze Shiva, Chinese scroll painting, porcelain including beautiful, simple celadon ware)