What do a flock of sheep, a king, and an actress have in common?
Stockholm is located in a region that is rich in forests, rolling hills, lakes, and islands. Apart from being a nice place to spend a beautiful summer day, this countryside holds a few special places that are worth checking out. While I was visiting Stockholm recently, I took the opportunity to take a few day trips to these unique sites.
Day 1: Birka & Hovgården
To reach the first destination, I boarded the M/S Victoria for a pleasant journey through the twisting channels of lake Mälaren to the island of Björkö. A guide on board, dressed in a Viking tunic with a Thor’s hammer amulet around his neck, wound back the clock during the journey by pointing out places of historical interest.
When we disembarked on Björkö two hours later, the year was 790 AD. In this year, the city of Birka was founded on Björkö, making it the first city in Sweden and the seat of the king’s power. Quickly, a town developed, and as the first Vikings started returning from their conquests, trade began flowing through Birka. Mercenaries came from all over Europe and the Middle East to trade their goods for local products such as furs.
In addition to traders, Birka also attracted missionaries. The most famous, St. Angsar, is known as the first person to have tried to Christianize Sweden. Although at first successful, his results were not lasting, and the people of Birka largely continued to worship the Norse gods (Oden and company).
Birka developed in a rather organized way, with a network of parallel alleys arranged around a small but defensible port. A walled fortress was built on the hill behind the town, and the king built his residence, Hovgården, on the adjacent island of Adelsö.
Though it was an important hub, Birka did not survive to see the end of the Viking era in the twelfth century. The town was abandoned before the turn of the millennium – possibly due to changes in the water level in lake Mälaren – and the newly founded town of Sigtuna took over its role as the regional trade hub. Sigtuna remains today as the oldest continuously inhabited city in Sweden.
As for Birka, it was slowly reclaimed by nature and disappeared. Reaching the top of the old fortified hill with a broad view over the island, our Viking guide turned to us and exclaimed triumphantly that we were looking at Birka. Then he proceeded to rattle off interesting tidbits to drown out the obvious disappointment of the group.
What we were looking at, in fact, was an empty field with some lounging sheep. Most of what is known about Birka comes from excavations of the layers of dirt in this field and of the burial mounds scattered across the island, as well as from artifacts preserved on the bottom of the lake. The small museum on the island provides helpful interpretations of the archaeological research to give an idea of how the town once looked and how the people lived.
The sheep and the few people who live on Björkö don’t have much effect on the valuable artifacts that are hidden beneath the ground, which means that the entire site is very well preserved, despite being unrecognizable as a city. This is one of the main reasons why Birka is recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site and why it is an important site for research on the Viking age.
Day 2: Drottningholm
The second destination is on Lovön, another island in lake Mälaren but a little closer to the city. There is a boat that makes the half-hour journey to the island, but Drottningholm also falls within the range of the Stockholm public transportation network.
Drottningholm, whose name literally means ”queen’s island”, is a large royal palace compound that has been used by the Swedish royalty for several centuries. Queen Hedwig Eleonora built the current palace in the seventeenth century in order to have a place to live and rule close to the activity in Stockholm.
The main palace is modeled in part on the palace of Versailles, the home of the former French monarchy in the suburbs of Paris. Versailles was the French royalty’s way of maintaining a safe (though eventually futile) distance from the masses of people in the city. The Versailles palace is a huge and elaborately ornate structure that displays clearly the wealth that the French kings had access to.
Like Versailles, Drottningholm palace is a wide, imposing edifice on the outskirts of the city. However, Drottningholm also has a distinctively Scandinavian quality. The building is pastel-yellow, and has a sloping copper roof typical of Scandinavian architecture. The facade lacks the gilding and intricate detail of its French counterpart, giving it a rather spartan and utilitarian appearance in comparison.
The main palace backs up to the lake shore and faces a sprawling series of gardens and parks. A row of manicured baroque gardens along the primary axis gives way to more natural English gardens on the side. Several other buildings, such as a church, a theater, and a Chinese pavilion are spaced around the grounds. As the grounds are open to the public, they are a popular place to escape the city for a walk or a picnic.
Though the official seat of the Swedish monarchy is the Royal Palace in central Stockholm, that palace is filled with museums and surrounded by tourists. So, the palace at Drottningholm serves as the normal residence of King Carl XVI Gustaf and Queen Silvia. The monarch is a member of the Bernadotte royal family, which, like the palace itself, has its origins in French nobility. In order to stay on Napoleon’s good side when he controlled much of Europe in the early nineteenth century, the Swedish monarchy brought in a French general and crowned him king.
Nowadays, the Swedish monarchy is primarily symbolic and has no real power. The attitude toward the monarchy is rather ambivalent, but the Swedes are not after their king’s head as the French were. As a result, Drottningholm is able to maintain its authentic function while also serving as a recreation area for Stockholmers and tourists alike. In addition, as a representative example of eighteenth-century European architecture, the Drottningholm Palace complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Day 3: Skogskyrkogården
The third and final destination does not even need to be a day trip. It can be found in the inner suburbs of Stockholm adjacent to its very own metro stop only ten minutes from the central station. There is even a free mobile app with a great audio-guide walking tour that uses your GPS location to give you relevant information about the site.
This place is called Skogskyrkogården (pronounced ”skoog-shur-ko-gor-den”) – ”the Woodland Cemetery”. You enter the Woodland Cemetery through a long passageway cut into the slope of a hill. As you move further and further in, away from the noise of the city, the walls decrease until finally you emerge onto a meadow bounded on three sides by hills and on the other by a forest of tall pines.
The meadow forms the heart of a cemetery that was commissioned in the first half of the twentieth century in order to relieve the problem of overcrowding in the inner-city cemeteries. The cemetery’s design was created by a pair of prominent Swedish architects, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. Their idea for the cemetery was to incorporate the layout and architecture into the natural landscape in a harmonious way. When you are standing in the peaceful meadow, in fact, you do not even have the impression of being in a cemetery. There are no graves, only a small pond, a monumental cross, and a row of minimalist chapels built into the hillside.
A stairway leads to the top of a small hill opposite the chapels, where a memorial grove provides a quiet place for contemplation. Like many other parts of the cemetery, the stairway is designed with mourners in mind – the stairs gradually decrease in height to prevent you from feeling tired when you reach the top. From the hilltop, a long pathway leads down the other side and cuts through the forest. This is the real entrance to the burial grounds.
Most of the graves in Skogskyrkogården are scattered amid the pine trees. The landscaping is minimal and the gravestones are not ostentatious. A few small chapels and other service buildings are placed in various spots throughout the forest, but always with the intent not to detract from the natural surroundings. The chapels are nondenominational, but include symbolism that can be interpreted in various ways depending on the religious views of the people who pass through.
As one of the largest and most important cemeteries in Sweden, Skogskyrkogården is home to a few prominent Swedes, such as actress Greta Garbo and musician Tim Bergling (Avicii). The naturalist design of Skogskyrkogården was innovative in its time, and it has inspired the design of other cemeteries created in various countries during the twentieth century. For this reason, Skogskyrkogården is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Revenons à nos moutons
The French saying ”revenons à nos moutons” means ”let’s return to our sheep” – which is to say, ”let’s get back to the question at hand”. So, what do a flock of sheep, a king, and an actress have in common? The flock of sheep grazes on the site of the first Swedish city; the king of Sweden lives in the palace of Drottningholm; and, the actress Greta Garbo is buried in Stockholm’s Skogskyrkogården. So, they are the inhabitants of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Stockholm area.
According to UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization), a World Heritage Site is one which has ”exceptional universal value [for] all humanity”. The three recognized sites around Stockholm are completely different from each other and represent widely different time periods. Exploring them is therefore a great way to not only see the beautiful countryside around Stockholm, but also to see the city from a variety of historical viewpoints.