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Most visit the charming Swedish capital looking for the snowy north. For Kate Adie, however, it's a taste of the sunny south
I used to dream of going to Stockholm to get away from snow. That’s because, as a student, I taught English for a year 700 miles to the north, on the edge of the Arctic Circle.
I’d peer out into the almost permanent night of a December day in Lapland and realise that several feet of fresh snow had buried my skis. The thermometer read -37 degrees and a weird sound wafted from the surrounding pine forest – a reindeer coughing. The sea froze solid: it was rumoured you could drive direct to Finland on ice. Living on the edge of a wilderness wasn’t entirely romantic. Down south, though, Stockholm would be awaiting the merest dusting of sugary snow. The sea would still be swirling around the hundreds of islands in the archipelago, reflecting candlelit windows.
I liked the far north with its wolves and a sky streaked with a dancing aurora borealis. But I was a teenager and Stockholm seemed an elegant ultramodern metropolis, the sort of place where you could get to school without a six-foot elk blocking your path.
I only managed to visit a couple of times during that year – Sweden in the 1960s might have been the most progressive country in Europe, but it was also pip-squeakingly expensive. Even so, one of the great joys then, and now, was window-shopping.
The Swedes have raised window-dressing to an art form. Exquisite displays of the most mundane articles are on show as if they were Meissen china. A single gold ring will sit on a black cushion with just an orchid for company in a crystal vase. There’s none of the ‘cram it in and pile it high’ behaviour seen from London to Dubai. The Stockholm window should be a visual treat: a picture on the wall and lit in just the right warm colour. I have a lurking suspicion that Swedes faint at the sight of raw neon tubes.
Lighting obsesses the Swedes. The delights of the Old Town, which sits on its own island, are enhanced by ancient lanterns hanging from the walls. The hotels and restaurants have discreet and inviting pools of yellow lamplight, and no Swedish householder would ever furnish a room until lamps and candleholders had first been arranged with meticulous consideration.
This is one of the reasons why Stockholm invites you to walk its streets – even the modern areas with their clean-lined, rather stark apartment blocks. Windows rarely have curtains drawn – the rooms are confidently on parade, for design and furnishing are in the Swedish blood. (They realise that the rest of us don’t have this confidence, so they gave us Ikea.)
And all around is a city of charm and affluence. When I lived on a micro student grant, several ordinary activities were out of reach in this part of Scandinavia. Buying a drink for example. Should I have committed half a term’s grant towards purchasing a beer, I would have had to negotiate the puritan Systembolaget consisting of off-licences that looked like clinics, where an ID was required to buy alcohol. The alcohol was then concealed in a brown paper bag, which marked you as a sinful drinker; other shops used brilliant coloured wrapping paper.
Today, it’s possible to enjoy Swedish beer without mortgaging your house and there’s a distinctive cuisine which goes much beyond mere smorgasbord, those elks tasting particularly delicious.
And there’s plenty to feast the eye upon, for it’s a city afloat on water – 14 islands to be precise, out of the 24,000 which make up the archipelago. And not many busy capital cities can boast of waterways clean enough to swim in, catch salmon, and even drink.
If you take a boat trip, you’ll glide past waterside homes, which would make a British estate agent salivate: traditional wooden houses in a palette of colours and adventurous steel and glass confections glinting in the woods.
The grand public buildings don’t disappoint either, my favourite being the City Hall; Stadshuset is a dignified yet romantic building with an Italianate bell tower and a stylish interior. The Swedes had surpassed themselves in the national passion, which rivals window-dressing: laying a table. Flowers, porcelain, the best Swedish crystal glasses, tiny decorated red wooden horses, blue and yellow flags, all were assembled to dramatic effect: the presentation was faultless, even though the visiting delegation wasn’t too sure about the many varieties of herring on offer.
In the summer it’s a city of surprisingly strong sun and endless days, which fool you into missing bedtime. Strolling around at twilight and discovering that the shops are still open is an extra treat.
Towards the end of the year, the Old Town decides it is part of a fairy tale with lantern-lit narrow streets, St Lucia celebrations and candles. No wonder I used to dream about the city, in the Arctic wilderness while listening to a wolf howling in the forest.
Kate Adie’s Into Danger is out now (£20, Hodder & Stoughton).