12:18 EST, 30 August 2013
12:26 EST, 30 August 2013
After returning from my first trip to Stockholm, I was still marvelling at the beauty, grandeur and serenity of that splendid city – only to learn it wasn’t serene at all. In May, youths had taken to the streets, burning cars, breaking shop windows and attacking the police. It is a strange paradox that prosperous Sweden, which sees itself as a haven of social equality and state generosity, should turn out to be growing faster in inequality than any other developed country.
Northern beauty: The pretty district of Gamla Stan in Stockholm
There is high youth unemployment, too, especially among its rapidly growing immigrant population from Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Eastern Europe and Afghanistan. But do not worry. If you visit Stockholm as a tourist, you are most unlikely to encounter any unpleasantness. I certainly didn’t during my five- day visit, but then I was being shepherded about in privileged luxury by Lord Charles FitzRoy, whose charm, erudition and ducal connections give him access to all the most beautiful private houses and art galleries in Europe.
FitzRoy has a company called Fine Art Travel that arranges several trips a year to European art cities. They are expensive, but you get to see things no one else can see. Our guide was FitzRoy himself, and he led us on several sallies out from Stockholm to visit some of the more lavishly appointed aristocratic country houses in the region.
These 17th and 18th-century mansions tend to be plain and classical on the outside, but wildly flamboyant within, with barely a ceiling not lavishly frescoed and dangling a magnificent chandelier. They make most British aristocratic homes seem restrained. And being surrounded by woods full of bears, fallow deer and wild boar, these houses are rich in paintings of bloodthirsty hunting scenes as well as antlers and stuffed animal heads.
Scandinavian royalty: Princess Madeleine¿s wedding day
At Tista Slott, one of the most beautiful, we were shown round by its chatelaine, the Countess Wachtmeister, a handsome woman in red trousers, who had curious things to say about Swedish superstitions. Asked by one of us why the beds were so short, she said this was because Swedes liked to sleep upright for fear that, if they lay flat, their bodily fluids would get dangerously mixed up.
Channel your inner Benny: ABBA The Museum opened to much fanfare earlier this year
At Margretelund Gard, a fine 17th-century house looking out onto the Baltic, its aged proprietor, Gregor Aminoff, a nobleman from an old military family who was once Master of the King’s Shoot, pointed to a portrait of an 18th century officer sporting what looked like an absurdly thin moustache. In that regiment, he explained, the reward for an act of great gallantry was to have your upper lip branded with a thin line painted some unusual colour. Apparently, this was a much-prized honour.
Our base in Stockholm was the Radisson Blu Strand Hotel, a comfortable establishment magnificently situated on a waterfront in the heart of the city. I walked about Stockholm a lot and have never felt safer. The most frightening thing I saw was a fisherman, standing in deep water beside the royal palace, a strong wind at his back, at risk of being swept away by a fast current. And behind this rough-and-ready fellow stood a royal residence far older, larger and more magnificent than Buckingham Palace – where Princess Madeleine was married in June – while to his left was a royal opera house world famous for its lavish gold-encrusted interior.
Sweden, a country lost in the frozen north, was a latecomer to the ‘civilised world’, but joined it with such gusto that by the end of the 17th century it was as imposing a capital city as any in Europe. This was thanks to another paradox. A country, later to become identified in most people’s minds with peace, neutrality, social democracy and political correctness, rose to glory on a sea of blood.
Despite its poverty and tiny population, a series of warrior kings with mercenary armies built a European empire that once sacked Prague. Hastily they equipped Stockholm with buildings worthy of an imperial power. Beyond the three islands of Gamla Stan (meaning Old City in the impenetrable Swedish language), where the palace, cathedral and parliament buildings stand and a network of cobbled streets bear witness to its medieval origins, Stockholm has spread out over their neighbouring islands with fine 18th and 19th-century buildings.
Untouched by war, they bear comparison in style with streets of the same era in Paris or London. There are lots of good restaurants, too, especially if you like fish, and in one of them I found myself sitting at the next table to Anni-Frid Lyngstad, the darker-haired of the two women of Abba. I left Stockholm just too soon to visit the Abba Museum, which was about to open.
Foodie’s delight: The plentiful fruit and vegetables on offer at Saluhall food market hall
There you will find mementos of the Abba era, including their clothes and gold discs, but above all you can go on stage ‘to experience the feeling of being the fifth member of Abba’, though how you are supposed to get that feeling is not explained.
The great gastronomic glory of Stockholm is the Saluhall, an enormous covered food market on a central square called Ostermalmstorg, which outclasses the food halls of Harrods and Fortnum Mason. A quick and easy way of sightseeing is to take a hop on, hop off boat trip round the central islands, with stopping points along the way.
But if you hop off only once, it should be at the Vasa Museum, which houses the world’s only surviving 17th-century warship, the jewel of the Swedish Navy that sank 20 minutes into its maiden voyage in August 1628, and was found three centuries later almost intact on the seabed in Stockholm harbour.
The other unmissable attraction is the Swedish royal family’s country retreat, the great palace of D rottningholm, now a Unesco World Heritage Site. It was built in the 17th century when Sweden was at the height of its power. It is situated in breathtaking splendour on the island of Lovon, a delightful hour-long boat ride from the centre of Stockholm.
The king and queen live there all the time, but it’s so large they enjoy complete privacy even when tourists are swarming all over the place. This came as a surprise, but then Stockholm turned out to be something of a revelation and I can’t think why it had taken me so long to get there.
Fine Art Travel (020 7437 8553, finearttravel.co.uk) offers bespoke tours to Stockholm from £1,500 pp. Other tours are planned for Flanders, Istanbul and eastern Sicily.
Meet greet parking at Gatwick, Heathrow, Stansted, Manchester or Birmingham with Meteor. Quote MAIL2013 for a 25 per cent discount (meteormeetandgreet.com, 08447254445).