Monday, July 23, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Historical Sites in Sweden

One of the things that you have to do in Europe, as an American, is redefine precisely what you mean by “old.” 

I used to run a house museum here in Wisconsin.  Our main building is a National Historic Landmark, in the same legal category as Independence Hall and the Gettysburg battlefield, so it is, in the eyes of the National Park Service, a big deal.  It is 168 years old, and in Wisconsin that qualifies as historic.

In Europe, this barely qualifies as used.

There’s a lot new in Europe, don’t get me wrong.  Much of the place had to be rebuilt after 1945, for example, and they have a thriving construction industry just like everywhere else.  But there are so many things there that just ooze history that you seriously have to re-zero your antiquity-meter, otherwise it gets pegged into the red for the duration.

We like historical things.  Museums, castles, old stuff of any kind – we all enjoy that sort of thing tremendously.  I just love how my children love stuff like this.  And so our hosts made sure we got a full dose of historical sites, both in Sweden and in England. 

Our first historical site was Bohus Fastning (Bohus Fortress – there’s an umlaut over the “a” in Fastning), which is in western Sweden and was built in 1308.  It survived fourteen different sieges over the next four centuries, and was finally abandoned sometime in the late 18th century.

It was a grey and rainy day when we were there, so we largely had the place to ourselves.  We took advantage of this by exploring pretty much every inch of the place.  It had all sorts of room to run around in, and a number of walls to climb so you could look out over the river to the town nearby, and we had a great time there.

As with pretty much everywhere we went in Sweden, the people working there were very friendly – this woman finished up her shift at the gift shop, got into costume and then tracked us down with costumes for the kids, which I thought was rather above and beyond the call but was happy to see anyway.

The next day we stopped near Granna (umlaut over the first “a”) to eat lunch on the way back to Mats and Sara’s house (Stockholm being on the east side of Sweden) and there was another castle ruin there – Brahehus Slottsruin – so we walked up as close as we could to see it. 

This one is on Lake Vattern (again, an umlaut over the “a” in Vattern), one of the largest lakes in Sweden.  Sweden is a gorgeous country, and eventually I’ll get to a post on natural beauty just in itself, but this is what it looked like from the ruin.

Perhaps the most immersive historical site we visited in Sweden was Birka, which to my knowledge does not have an umlaut in it anywhere, although the nearby Hovgarden does have a circle over its “a”.  Birka is one of the oldest and best preserved Viking settlements in the world – its heyday was between 700 and 900 CE – and it was here that we learned that “Viking” was a job description, not an ethnicity.

Also, the helmets didn’t have horns.  Who knew?

We took the ferry from Varby (more umlauts), a ride that lasted the better part of an hour and was actually somewhat chilly because of the wind. 

The ferry dropped us off at one end of the island, and we spent the first bit of time there visiting the little beach, going through the neatly-kept museum that filled us in on the backstory of the place, and – a running theme with us – eating lunch.  As a group, we traveled through both Sweden and England on our stomachs, and it was good.  I highly recommend this tactic.

After lunch we found the English-language tour, given by Andreas – a man who clearly loves his job.

He took us around the ancient settlement of Birka, showed us the burial mounds (which are pretty much everywhere, to the point where the archeologists don’t bother excavating more than a handful of them – they like to leave them for future archeologists who may develop better techniques and will certainly have different questions.  Basically anywhere there is a low hillock near a Viking-era settlement, you can be fairly confident that someone is buried under it) and the outlines of the old town, and led us a merry chase through the hills and fields until declaring the tour finished at the highest point on the island, right next to the nineteenth-century stone cross dedicated to St. Ansgar, who was the first Christian missionary to the Vikings.

We were then left to find our way back down to the main part of the island on our own, which turned out to be fairly simple if somewhat vertically-enhanced.

When we got down we found a reconstructed Viking-era town as well as some period-style boats for us to examine before we left to go back to the ferry.

It’s important not to miss the ferry, because that’s the only chance you have to get off the island until the next morning.  This may or may not trouble you, depending on how you feel about Viking burial mounds.

Our final historical site in Sweden was Grippsholm Slott, which was an experience.

We went to it on our own, since Mats and Sara and their family had already seen it enough.  Fortunately Kim can drive a stick shift (don’t ask about my attempts to do that – all you need to know is that not even Kim thinks it is worthwhile trying to teach me how to do that again) and can speak Swedish and understand the road signs, so off we went.

You approach Gripsholm along a pleasant little walk, where you will find rune stones that go back hundreds of years, and eventually you get to the castle itself – a massive brick pile that unfolds in a series of courtyards until you get to the entrance.

The thing about Grippsholm that is obvious from looking at it but which actually has some serious and – to us – unforeseen consequences is that it is not actually a ruin.  It has never been destroyed or abandoned, and apparently there are times when the Swedish royals still live there now and then.  So it got repurposed, and it is now the Swedish National Portrait Gallery.

The Swedes have a lot of portraits.

There isn’t a square inch of that building that isn’t covered with some painting, artwork or stencil.  Not the floors, not the ceilings, and certainly not the walls.  It's actually a bit overwhelming.  Some of these works of art are quite attractive.

And some are not.

Sometime in the eighteenth century the Swedish royal family was clearly beaten senseless with an Ugly Stick, at least if their portraits are anything to go by.  They’ve since recovered nicely, it must be said, but there are some serious rebuttals in that museum to the notion that power and beauty coincide.

You’re not allowed to take photographs of anything inside Grippsholm, but sometimes you are confronted with something so patently absurd that rules must go by the wayside.  We dutifully put our cameras away until we got to this:

This is the only photo we took.  Can you blame us?  Whatever it was that the artist was smoking, I want some.


Rufus Dogg said...

I like Scandinavia and how they preserve "old." But you don't have to look very far to see everyone has a Tom Tom in his car, a smart phone in his packet and hi-speed Internet that is 20X faster than anything I can find in these United States.

How old is Scandinavia, I get asked by my American friends? "Even the dirt is old," I say. Right?

Phiala said...

"Also, the helmets didn’t have horns. Who knew?"


And I am insanely insanely jealous that you went to Birka.

David said...

Phiala, when Andreas said that about the horns I thought, "Right, I knew that from somewhere," but it was still something of a surprise to hear again. Birka is a wonderful spot, though there isn't a whole lot to see there - just grass and hillocks and a few stone walls here and there. Having a good guide made a tremendous difference. The reconstructions were cool.

Rufus, you're absolutely right about the high-tech next to the historic in Sweden - it's a fascinating mixture. And the dirt is, indeed, old. :)

John the Scientist said...

You traveled through Sweden on your stomachs? My condolences. A search for better food is the real reason the Vikings invaded the rest of Europe. Pity the poor buggers who landed in England, though.

I subsisted largely on Chinese and Malay food the last time I was in Sweden, though I did manage to catch a few cans of surstromming in the grocery store. I think Scands are one of the few ethnic groups that have lower standards than Americans and Brits. And much American substandard food (and beer!) hails from the Midwest where Scands predominate...

Look at all the crap they eat outta tubes. The only thing that ought to go in your mouth out of a tube is toothpaste, not processed fish guts. And this comes from someone who has eaten both surstomming and Chou dofu.

As Jim once said, the Swedes do some absolutely disgusting things to fish (of course he did preface that with the statement that he was disturbed that it was *me* in Sweden and not another member of the UCF).

David said...

Two words, John: Swedish meatballs.

Actually, the food was wonderful throughout our trip - we didn't have a bad meal the entire time. Of course, we ate at home most of the time we were in Sweden, but even out the food was good. I avoided the fish - I generally don't like seafood - and I don't like beer either. But what I ate I enjoyed thoroughly.

Speaking of surstromming, watch your mail... ;)

Beatrice Desper said...

Does Sweden have "priority to the right?" If you're driving down a street and a street next to you doesn't have a stop sign, it has priority over you. Even if you are on a big street and the other street is tiny. I think the system is used to avoid building stop lights.

David said...

Bea - I don't know if they do or not. I will say that they are very orderly drivers, for the most part, but their highway driving is about as capricious as it is in the US. People are people; they do what they do. :)