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Gamla Stan: The Cultural Heart of Stockholm

... island in the middle of Stockholm and no doubt the city's cultural core.


Royal weddings and the phenomenon of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, along with warm summer weather of recent years, set the stage for Stockholm as one of the most popular destinations for travelers to Europe. Last summer, the organized Stieg Larsson walks in the south of the city were even more popular than the royal walks, but you'll definitely not want to miss the area of the Royal Palace and Storkyrkan, Gamla Stan - where the wedding took place, and which is the very heart of the capital.

Gamla Stan (the Old Town) is an island in the middle of Stockholm, closely linked with three smaller islands - Riddarholmen, Helgelandsholmen, and tiny Strömsborg. It is the city’s cultural core, crammed with beautifully preserved old buildings, and saturated with the evocative air of centuries past. At first a thriving medieval town, dominated by German merchants, Stockholm became the country’s capital in 1521, and ever since, Gamla Stan has been center stage for all Sweden. Its attractiveness has been exalted by the nation’s most prominent poets and artists, some of whom were born right there. August Strindberg, one of them, paid glowing tribute to its dynamic energy in the opening of his first novel, “The Red Room,” and another celebrated Swedish author, Selma Lagerlöf, spun a tale of a mermaid who lost her life and in the process created the magical light for which the city is famous. A walk in Gamla Stan is a regression in time, an adventure in which Stockholm’s 800-year history is constantly unfolding

A Turbulent Past
One of the first points of interest to anyone visiting will be the Royal Palace. The present structure, which replaced the old castle “Three Crowns,” was built in the 18th century by a father and son team, both named Nicodemus Tessin. Although no longer the residence of the Royal Family, the Palace is one of Stockholm’s great tourist attractions with 608 rooms, which as the guides are eager to point out, is one more than over Buckingham Palace’s 607.
From the large number of rooms open to the public, I visited a select few, beginning with the Pillared Hall, where Gustav III - the king who personified the elegant French style of the 18th century - once played cards and took his late suppers. The hall is lined with Ionic columns and on the ceiling hover the Four Seasons in a painting by Allesandro Feretti. Gazing into one of the many mirrors stands a marble Venus. She was commissioned by Gustav II, carved by Sergel, and is said to bear a striking resemblance to one of the king’s favorite Court ladies. In the next I met with a totally different style and spirit: the Victorian Drawing Room, a paean to mid-19th century taste with bombastic red plush furniture, immense chandeliers, and an air of pomposity. The same spirit could be savored in Oscar II’s Writing Room, an exuberantly overloaded study from the 1860s. But all this high living must have had its drawbacks since, also on display, I found the clothes worn by three kings who met with bloody deaths, as well as the pistol that shot the fun-loving Gustav III during a masked ball some two hundred years ago.
Walking south from the Palace, I soon found myself at Stortorget, the
central square. Cobble-stoned and intimate, with some pretty 17th century buildings on one side, it seemed utterly tranquil. The impression
was enhanced by people sitting around on benches, listening to the soft
renderings of a street musician singing songs by Ewert Taube (more about him later). Recalling the history of Stortorget, tranquil is the last thing that springs to mind. If anything, this has always been a place for intense action. In 1521, just before Gustav Wasa liberated Sweden from temporary Danish rule, it became the scene of the Stockholm Blood Bath. On that occasion some 90 people were beheaded or hanged, including some innocent bystanders, one of who was the local barber whose only crime was to have wept as he watched the atrocities. The muddy square ran with blood and the smell was sickening. For several days the bodies were left where they lay until finally they were dragged away and burned in a bonfire. The man behind this ghastliness was Christian II or, as he was known in Sweden, Christian the Tyrant.
In 1400, Stockholm had a population of 6000. At that time Stortorget was already surrounded by stone buildings. Originally invited by Stockholm’s founder, Birger Jarl, merchants from Lübeck, Germany, long exerted a strong influence in Gamla Stan, and many of them settled right here. Stortorget was also the site of the Guild Hall from which political meetings were staged, and laws and ordinances were read to the public. Facing the Guild Hall lay the pillory. Here, for public edification, offenders were punished in the fashion of the day, which could mean having them sit ignominiously with their ankles in an iron halter, getting trashed, or having one or two ears snipped off.

Fashionable Streets Today
For all its old-time flavor, Gamla Stan is very much a living part of today’s Stockholm. Businesses thrive, there are several hotels, and quite a number of good restaurants. Many professional people, notably architects, pride themselves on having an office in Gamla Stan. Here chic outweighs cramped space. As can be expected, apartments are hard to come by, and highly desirable. Egalitarian as this country may be, a list of occupants is likely to read like a section of “Who's Who in Sweden.”
It’s easy to find one’s way in Gamla Stan. Not only is everything within comfortable walking distance, every corner has its own street sign, which includes the name of the block. The block names are all taken from Greek or Roman mythology: Pegasus, Achilles, Luna, etc. Castor and Pollux live side by side. On the other hand, to confuse those familiar with the classics, Orpheus and Euridice are six or seven streets apart.
The busiest street is Västerlånggatan. Here, fashion boutiques, art galleries, second-hand book stores, and a variety of shops with exotic folklore dominate the scene. It’s usually packed with people. Parallel to Västerlånggatan runs Prästgatan. Dark and narrow - following in the path of the earliest city wall - it offers much more peace and quiet. Bicycles lean against the old walls, many of which glow in the rich hues of golden ocher and deep salmon. As with Stortorget, Prästgatan was once a much livelier place. In fact, it was a street of “ill repute,” to quote from the memoirs of the artist, Carl Larsson, who was born there in 1853.
In the 13th century, Österlånggatan, the eastern counterpoint to Västerlånggatan, was still the Baltic shoreline. As time progressed and the shoreline was pushed farther outward, “the long street east of the wall” went through several metamorphoses to end up a quiet, rather dignified business street with, arguably, the country’s oldest and most famous restaurant, Den Gyldene Freden. In 1721 the wars between Sweden and Russia were finally put to an end. After a rosy beginning, with the 18-year old King Charles XII beating the Russians in early battles, the situation had taken a bad turn, and ended in disaster as the king was hauled into exile and later assassinated. This meant the end of Swedish supremacy in northern Europe, but peace was then so longed for that, when a new tavern opened on Österlånggatan, the most beautiful name that could be imagined was Den Gyldene Freden - the Golden Peace.

The Restoration Effort
Den Gyldene Freden now has a reputation for good traditional food as well as literary connections. In a room upstairs, members of the Swedish Academy meet once every month. Best known for picking Nobel Prize winners, the Academy was originally founded to promote the purity, vigor and nobility of the Swedish language. The founder, Gustav III, thought the word “aderton” (eighteen) had a nice ring to it, hence the size of the Academy. Because the dinner dates always fall on a Thursday, one would expect the members to get their fill of pea soup with diced ham, followed by pancakes, the traditional Thursday fare. Den Gyldene Freden was purchased in 1919 by the artist Anders Zorn, who in his will left it to the Swedish Academy, which now leases it.
Zorn’s interest in this old landmark reminds one of the 19th century scheme to pull down Gamla Stan for redevelopment, as it had then degenerated into an overcrowded slum, permeated by the filth of six or seven centuries. Artists and writers were among those most adamantly opposed to the idea and who worked for its preservation and careful renewal. Topping the list were August Strindberg and Carl Larsson.
After the mermaid had imbued it with magic, it seems only reasonable that a strong poetic tradition developed in Gamla Stan. In the 17th century there was Lasse Lucidor. Rather wild and unruly between spurts of creativity, he often got himself into scraps. One ended his life. It happened in a tavern after one too many laced shandies. The record reveals that one of his drinking brethren, Lieutenant Arvid Christian Storm, became so offended when Lucidor didn’t reply to a toast that he drew his sword and killed the poet. If nothing else, this certainly shows how seriously the Swedes take the toasting ritual.
The next century produced Carl Michael Bellman, who is considered one of the all-time greats in Swedish literature. Borrowing from the French opera comique and other sources, he wrote lyrics of great originality. The songs, mostly enthusiastic hymns to Baccus and Freja, the Nordic Venus, often describe riotous doings among a recurring set of friends in and around Gamla Stan. In his wanderings Bellman would sometimes stop by Den Gyldene Freden, which ever after has been a favorite with literary figures. Academy members apart, this is where Ewert Taube, a latter-day Bellman, used to be a steady patron.
To get a bird’s eye view of Stockholm, I took the outdoor *Katarina elevator to Mosebacke (Mose’s height) just south of Gamla Stan and the beginning of Söder, ‘the south’ neighborhood. It was here Strindberg’s hero, Arvid Falk, stood on an early May evening around 1880, marveling at the life and bustle that lay before him. Some of what then roused the young hero’s energy is forever gone, such as the uproar in the fish market, the shrill sound of the lock-keeper’s whistle, and the rumble of omnibuses over uneven paving stones. The sails and flags on the water outside are now somewhat dwarfed by the presence of huge ferry boats and, instead of workmen with clattering wooden shoes, one is more likely to see tourists with backpacks and flipflops. Still, most of what I saw was old even in Strindberg’s day. Gazing across this medieval jumble of rooftops and church spires, I sensed the energy and vitality that make these little islands still the heart of Stockholm, and of Sweden itself.

By Bo Zaunders

* Note: Katarinahissen (the Katarina Elevator) is presently closed for renovation. It is unclear when the popular elevator will reopen, possibly not until 2016-17. The elevator, originally constructed in 1881, has carried thousands of people the 38 meters (124 feet) up to the bridge over to Stadsgården and Mosebacke torg. The view from the elevator is stunning, as anyone knows who has ever taken the ride.


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