A Beautiful Swedish Summer

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Europe » Sweden » Uppsala County
August 16th 2009
Published: March 10th 2016
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The date was August 10, 1628. It was a beautiful Sunday morning and Stockholm’s many shorelines were crowded. After three years of hard work and the felling of over one thousand oaks, Sweden’s newest warship and the crown jewel of their powerful fleet sat at the quay below the royal castle ready to sail. At 69 meters in length and 1210 tons of displacement, the Vasa, named after Sweden’s royal family, was one of the most imposing warships in the world. Its 64 large guns ensured that it would be a formidable power on the seas. Its ornately carved hull was a work of art meant to intimidate anybody that would come against it. The ship was loaded and its guns were all tied fast as it was kedged to a point near modern-day Slussen. All of Stockholm watched with proud excitement as the crew set the majestic ship’s sails and the Vasa began its maiden voyage. After the ship had sailed thirteen hundred meters, joy turned to sorrow as a ‘small gust of wind’ revealed a fatal flaw in the mighty ship’s design – The top-heavy ship capsized and sank just off of the shore.

The loss of the Vasa was a major blow to Sweden’s navy, so it wasn’t taken lightly. The ensuing inquisition into the Vasa’s sinking wasn’t able to place blame on anyone – The ship was unlike anything that had ever been built and the design was flawed. Attempts to salvage the ship failed, though by 1683 a hardy team of salvers had managed to recover most of the Vasa’s valuable guns using a diving bell.

When the salvage operations ended in 1683 the Vasa’s exact location was lost to history until a man named Anders Franzén took up the search in 1953. After spending three years pouring through the archives and doing soundings in Stockholm Harbor, Anders had success when he pulled a tiny fragment of blackened oak out of his sounding device. He located the Vasa off of the island of Bekholmen at a depth of 32 meters. In the ensuing years a new salvage operation began. Divers wearing large copper diving helmets dug tunnels under the ship and ran large cables around the hull. On April 24, 1961, after 333 years at the bottom of the sea, the Vasa emerged from the inky depths and was taken to a temporary dry dock called Wasavarvet. Despite having been submerged for more than three centuries, the Vasa’s hull was in such good shape that once the water and mud had been pumped out the ship was able to float on its own.

The Vasa’s remarkable state of preservation was due to the brackish nature of the Baltic Sea. The Baltic’s low salinity means that the shipworm, which is a tiny clam that devours wooden ships, can’t live. Because of that, the Baltic is considered a treasure-trove of wooden ships and scientists know of several other well-preserved wrecks on the seafloor. Despite the Vasa’s excellent preservation, any wooden artifact, from driftwood to a massive sailing ship, that spends time submerged in the sea begins to deteriorate when it comes back to the surface and the Vasa was no exception. A wooden ship the size of the Vasa had never been raised from the bottom of the sea, so there was no standard regarding how to preserve it. Smaller artifacts spend years submerged in different solutions to remove the seawater and preserve the wood. Due to the size of the Vasa, submerging the hull was impossible. Instead, the preserving solution of polyethylene glycol was sprayed onto the hull almost continuously between 1962 and 1979 – The museum building stayed misty and humid in those years. While the spraying took place, researchers worked to reassemble the ship from thousands of pieces that had been brought up from the bottom of the sea. The iron nails that had been used were all gone, so the workers matched the nail holes with the ones in the missing pieces to determine if the piece went there. Eventually the Vasa was reconstructed all the way to the lower standing rigging and 95% of the original wood was found and used.

Now the Vasa is located in a nice museum on Stockholm’s lovely waterfront. It is one of Sweden’s biggest and most famous attractions. I had wanted to visit the Vasa for more than twenty years, so when we all planned a day in Stockholm I made sure that the Vasamuseet was on the itinerary. I was excited as we waited in the short line to buy our tickets. When we entered the museum the massive bow of the ship rose up above me and welcomed me to the completion of yet another longstanding dream of mine. I spent a little over an hour wandering the different levels of the museum with Maria and her oldest niece. The museum’s centerpiece was the massive ship sitting on an equally massive support structure. Around it there were several different floors, each containing a large selection of artifacts recovered from the ship and learning exhibits that explained the Vasa’s story. Each level allowed a close-up view of a different section of the ship, from the keel all the way up to the deck and the standing rigging. We meandered through the exhibits, which were great, and we spent a long time looking over the hull and its beautiful sculptures from each level. I loved the gun doors with their lion heads and the dark, waxy look of the ancient wood, but the star of the show was the ship’s massive stern. The ornamentation and sculpture work on the stern was impressive. It had the Swedish national coat of arms carved in giant proportions with two huge lions. There were angles, sea monsters, soldiers, and several lions and, at the top of the stern, there were two huge griffins holding a crown above a bust of Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus with his initials, G.A.R.S. We spent a while taking in the beautiful artwork adorning the stern and then we continued on. By the time we reached the deck viewing area we were exhausted. We took in the last parts of the ship and then we moved towards the exit. My visit to the Vasa was a dream come true and it didn’t disappoint.

We said farewell to the amazing Vasamuseet and we headed to a sunny patch of grass in an adjacent park for a picnic lunch. We spread blankets beneath the large trees and sat in the grass as we ate sandwiches and enjoyed the sunshine. It was a fine Scandinavian summer day and Stockholm’s residents were out in force. We sat and watched people go by as we finished up our meal and prepared for our next adventure. We loaded everything back into the cars and then we set off on foot towards the large hill opposite the Vasamuseet. The hill is home to Skansen, one of Sweden’s largest collections of historic buildings. It is an open-air museum that spans Sweden’s architectural spectrum with wonderful historic buildings from all over the country. Most of the buildings were purchased, carefully dismantled and moved to the park where they were restored. The park serves as a living museum of sorts with workers dressed in period costumes and performing tasks, such as lace making, and sewing. We spent a few hours slowing walking around the different areas taking in the wonderful buildings. Though Skansen was built as a museum, it had the feeling of an old country town, with winding streets and narrow paths and open pastures surrounded by trees. In addition to the historic buildings and exhibits, there was a small zoo with a large cross section of Sweden’s native fauna. We saw moose and bears and wolves – All animals that are difficult to find in the wild. There was also a petting zoo that was a huge hit with Maria’s nieces. It was late in the afternoon when we had seen all that we wanted to see, so we headed back towards the cars, stopping along the way to get ice cream.

The following day we woke up and mounted an expedition into the mysterious forests near Lillkirka. The forest was a wonderful place to be, filled with mysterious burial mounds and stone circles from Sweden’s ancient past, and it was another fine day to be in the great outdoors. Our main goal for our outing was to gather enough blueberries and raspberries to make a cobbler and we fulfilled that goal in grand fashion. We found several areas that were filled with ripe berries and, despite loosing a large amount of the harvest to our bellies, we gathered a small bucket full of the lovely blue and red berries. By the time we emerged from the forest we were all stained from the berry juice and we had a purple-spotted dog, but we had an amazing time! We spent the remainder of the afternoon making the cobbler and playing games. After dinner we enjoyed the fruits of our labor and it was delicious!

Our last several days in Sweden were busy and tranquil at the same time. We were living in the old, red and white summerhouse on the lake and the weather was amazing. Each morning we woke up and went swimming in the lake, which was always cold, but invigorating, and then we made breakfast, often with chanterelle mushrooms that we found in the forest. We sat on the small porch under the ancient oak and ate as the quiet of the morning engulfed us and the pleasantly warm sunshine cut the chill in the air. We had nowhere to be and no obligations to fulfill, but to sit and enjoy the Scandinavian summer – I was frequently overcome with the feeling of summertime that I knew so well from my childhood; a feeling that has been elusive for most of my adult life. The leisurely mornings led to busy afternoons and we filled our final days with several grand adventures.

One morning we decided to swim all the way out to Skarpan, a small island about a kilometer across the water from the summerhouse. We weren’t sure if we could make the swim, so we decided to pull a small inflatable boat with us, just in case we couldn’t make it. We ended up paddling most of the way across to the island, but, with only one paddle and two adults in the tiny boat, the going was slow and our course circuitous. We walked around the island for about half an hour and then we swam back, taking turns towing the boat behind us. When we were almost back we ran into Maria’s uncle in his small boat and, thinking we were a little crazy, he decided to tow us back to the shore. We finished our epic swim in style as the tiny, inflatable boat bounced in the wake of his fantail – It was a lot of fun!

One afternoon, we took Maria’s oldest niece and we went to the island of Birka, out in the middle of Lake Mälaren. Birka was the location of Sweden’s first town, though little remains of it today. The island was a fortress and trading center for the Vikings, established in the mid-eighth century. The town was abandoned late in the tenth century. Modern Birka has a re-creation of a Viking village, including a few period boats and several craft displays. We walked through the village, pausing to try on the amazingly heavy Viking helmets, and we took in all of the exhibits we could find. At lunchtime we walked through the green meadows, passing several ancient burials and stone circles, and up to the summit of a rocky outcrop that served as the town’s fortress in the old days. We sat on the rocks in the sun and had an amazing picnic as we looked out over the island and the lake surrounding it – It was a beautiful day!

Another day we took the train into Stockholm to see some of the city. We arrived after lunch and it was raining. We bought some expensive umbrellas from a street vender and then we walked through Gamla Stan, or old town, exploring the wonderful cobblestone streets and old buildings. When the rain came down hard we would duck into a small café, or shop and we ended up making a game of it, since the rain was intermittent, but heavy for most of the day. Later in the day the rain stopped and we were able to stay out longer. We walked through several lovely squares and alleys, including the narrowest street in Stockholm, which was less than a meter wide. We found several shops that specialized in maritime antiques, though they were all closed, and several lovely sculptures. Eventually we found our way to the waterfront and walked along looking out over the city’s beautiful maritime history. We finished the day off at one of Maria’s favorite places in the city, Maria’s Torret, on the bluffs overlooking the city. Night was setting in and the lights accented Stockholm’s best features. Stockholm, with its numerous waterways, truly is one of the most beautiful cities I have seen. We made our scheduled train home with seconds to spare, bringing our last big adventure to a close.

The rest of our time was spent in Enköping and Lillkirka exploring the town and spending more quality time with Maria’s family. We played in the park and had a large family picnic, we went on a tour down memory lane led by Maria’s grandfather as he showed us where he grew up one town over in Lundby, and we had one last game night with Maria’s sister’s family. On our last night in Sweden we made a wonderful dinner at the summerhouse and we ate out at the end of the dock in a cold drizzle – The lovely Swedish summer was drawing to a close for the year as was our time together in the land of the midnight sun. Early the following morning Maria and her mom dropped me off at the train station in Enköping. Maria walked me to the train and we said farewell there – She was heading back home to Atlanta and I was heading to the land of my forefathers for some grand adventures in Norway. I watched as Maria waved on the platform; the train lurched and then picked up speed as I headed west out of town toward a fabled land that had occupied my dreams for most of my life…

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