Sweden

The city of Stockholm has many parts and I have only ventured into a few. At Central Station, the express train arrives from Arlanda Airport which is much easier to negotiate than its French counterpart. The streets of the central shopping precinct have only a smattering of buildings from an older, more decorative period. On my way to the Old Town, I wandered down the pedestrian precinct, the Drottninggaten. The old city beckons with its shaded alleyways and pastel-coloured houses, offering the multiple dimensions of history, beauty and culture – far more interesting than a shopping mall. For those fascinated by the Vikings and later periods, the Historiska Museum has a gold hoard and some medieval gems. On the way back to the city centre, the old-style Salu Hall offers great delis, cheese counters and bakeries – all set in a busy, convivial atmosphere.

City Hall Reception:

I was fortunate, as part of my conference in Stockholm, to attend a reception in the City Hall. Situated by the water’s edge, the huge, red brick building has a Great Hall where the Nobel Prize reception is held each year. A marble stairway takes the visitor up a level where the most remarkable sight awaits in the grandest room of all. From floor to ceiling, golden mosaics tell stories from Swedish folklore. I was fortunate indeed to be amongst the large group of delegates, welcomed to the city in such fine style.

Evening Cruise to Birka:

During the dusk of long summer evenings, Stockholm is surrounded by shimmering reflections. Its archipelago is edged by soft green spruce on low, sometimes rocky, ridges. There are many isles – 25,000 – so the guide books tell me. Houses of all shapes and dimensions nestle amidst its foliage and paths lead down to clusters of small vessels moored beside private pontoons and tiny boat houses. Many of the barns and boathouses in Sweden are painted the same – a dark red colour. Historically, this was the cheapest quality of paint available, made from a mixture of cod liver oil, animal blood and iron or ferrous oxide.

Sailing boats glide by and children enjoy the late evening playing out in the green gardens sloping down to the water’s edge. I am on my way to Birka, home of Viking kings. The ferry cuts a noisy, white swathe through still green waters. I imagine galleys prowling these calm byways, stealthily muffled in times of conflict. The warriors might be bare-skinned for rowing or cloaked in furs. The horned helmets of Victorian dramatic taste would, of course, be absent, replaced with round fur hats pulled tight over long fair manes, tied back for ease…

In the distance, clouds bulge, ominous and dark, and a heavy downpour forms a broad, soft-grey curtain beneath. Within small, man-made harbours, white vessels nestle beside each other with sails furled. I cannot hear the chink of metal or the rhythmic slap of the waves but know it to be there all the same. The ferry moves on and the tiny harbour quickly disappears from sight.

I wonder what pulls me to these regions. Given that much of England, Scotland and Ireland was under the sway of Scandinavian warriors, traders and kings, perhaps some inherited cluster of ancient neurons directs my path. During my research into ‘Sisters of The Bruce’, the story began to sway in part towards Sweden…

In Book One, Isabel Bruce marries King Eric of Norway in 1292. She bears him a daughter, Ingebjorg. Eric dies from natural causes and Isabel (Isa) remains in Norway with her child whilst Eric’s brother, Magnus, becomes king. His queen, Euphemia, gives birth to a daughter – also named Ingebjorg, one might presume after the men’s Danish mother. To distinguish between the two, I shortened Isa’s daughter’s name to Inga.

The two girls grow up together and marry, in a joint ceremony, two brothers – Eric and Valdemar, dukes of neighboring Sweden. At that time, Sweden was an undeveloped nation in the sense of today’s nationhood: there was still a clear delineation between Norway, Denmark and Sweden though the boundaries shifted considerably over time and sections of today’s Sweden were under the sovereignty of either Norway or Denmark.

King Birger ruled Sweden. His younger brothers, Erik and Valdemar, were a troublesome pair, trying to wrest power from him. At one stage, they invaded Norway. To bring stability to the region through kinship, King Magnus of Norway betrothed his daughter and her cousin to the princes. The double marriage ceremony took place at the Mariakirken in Oslo, Norway’s new capital of the time. There is scant information available about the early lives of these young women, but their husbands attracted much comment and drama, as did Ingebjorg’s son, Magnus. At the Historiska Museum in Stockholm, there was little about this period apart from a magnificent belt buckle worn by Magnus’s wife, Blanche of Namur, at her wedding – fished out of a river by chance – and an engraved case believed to have held  the king’s crown…

The skies darken and the boat slows its heavy vibrations. We have arrived at Birka, an island shrouded in mystery. It lies protected along the inner waterways. Atop the rounded hills, Viking kings keep watch from their grave mounds.

Birka was once a busy farming community and port, trading in exclusive textiles, glass beakers, jewelry, pottery, wine and armory. From the Baltic came honey, linen, amber and beeswax. The craftsmen at Birka produced many goods for sale or exchange: bronze  jewelry, antler combs, glass beads and woolen materials. The most important Swedish imports were iron from the centre and furs from the northern forests. Many casting moulds for objects and manufactured glass used by craftsmen were found in Birka.

The farms on the island provided everything the community needed: grain for bread; meat, poultry and fish, along with berries and nuts. The museum offered a variety of beads, pottery, delicate green drinking vessels and bronze jewelry, replicas of those found on the island. A clever model depicted the community in its heyday.

A tour of the burial mounds, some surrounded by rocks in the outline of a boat, took us to the top of a hill and the original site of a fort. Below lay clear evidence of  the town ramparts, now grass-covered. I was fortunate to be visiting during a Viking fair where tents were set up selling handcrafts and jewelry, based on the old designs. The most dazzling part of the evening’s entertainment was a spectacular fire show. As dusk fell, huge bolts of molten fire were twirled around the inner circle of the crowd to the sinuous rhythms of medieval music beside the timeless waters of Birka.

Soon, it was time for the return journey to Stockholm. Beside the boat, flocks of gulls settled onto the dark, swaying waters. Along the shore, the lights of the many summer houses flickered amongst the firs. Agnetha – dark-haired beauty of Abba fame – has a mansion along these shores. Soon, the bright lights of Stockholm began to broaden into swathes. Low clouds threatened to shed their loads. Close to midnight, the path back to my hotel was silent and shadowed and I was relieved to have a few boisterous parties of post-prandial tourists join me along Drottninggaten.

A Visit to Skansen:

The open air museum and zoo known as Skansen lies on one of Stockholm’s islands. The conference organizers had arranged a cultural night and a ‘Tastes of Sweden’ dinner which was a wonderful chance to mix with my international social work colleagues.

Skansen has a zoo with Scandinavian animals within its open enclosures. There were wolves, bears, elks and reindeer, but the animals I was especially keen to see – for the very first  time – were the wolverines. In my novel, one of the characters is thrown from his horse-drawn wagon. The body of Erling, the comb maker, is found later in a poor state after being ravaged by a wolverine. Now, I could see the animal in its near-natural state with trees and shrubs, fallen logs and running water. To see the way it moved, its size, the thickness and colour of its unusual pelt helped fix in my mind how such an animal might live in the wild. With its broad foot-pads, it could easily run down a reindeer in the snow as well as scavenge upon dead or wounded animals…
If the road signs are to be believed, there are elks everywhere in rural Sweden. Beside the highways, the forests are fenced to keep deer, wild boar and elks from causing accidents. Here at Skansen, it was a pleasure to see the elks or moose, resting in the peaceful enclosures.

Sigtuna:

As the oldest town in Sweden, Sigtuna held an irresistible drawcard. The trip there took two hours and the journey, though in a different direction to Birka, held a similar landscape. One unique sight was a sea plane as well as a boat moored beside a large house. The town’s museum held some interesting pieces but the head of a Viking engraved on a piece of bone was the most noteworthy. It often features as an iconic piece in books and was surprisingly tiny in real life.

Sigtuna was home to the early medieval kings before Stockholm became the capital of Sweden for strategic and trade purposes. The region’s location made it a significant site for trade with the Baltic nations, though it was often raided by brigands from Russia. In the town, there were rune stones scattered here and there as well as several ruined medieval churches. Surrounded by painted picket fences and immaculate gardens, the picturesque houses were generally from the 17th and 18th centuries.
My visit to Sigtuna was certainly interesting but lacked the magic of the evening in Birka. However, it gave me an opportunity to trace the origins of the brother dukes. By the early 1300s, Stockholm had become the strategic focus of power and a castle was built on a central island. The current massive castle, Tre Kronor or Three Crowns, was constructed much later on the same site.

A day out in Stockholm:

Purely by chance, my son and I found ourselves at the National Museum. The imposing building set beside the water had a fabulous array of old and modern art. There were dramatic videos of faces, eyes and hands and a stunning exhibit of ‘slow’ crafts.

Two pieces stood out – a necklace constructed of egg shell halves and a dress made of tiny pieces of clear glass, drilled and wired together, which glittered as it rotated in the focus of a soft light. Afterwards, we caught a ferry around the inner archipelago out to a fortress, guarding the entrance to Lake Malaren. In the plush bar of the elegant ferry, after a few beers, we agreed our visit to Stockholm had been a huge success.

That night, we took ourselves off to the Ice Bar and had an expensive but fun thirty minutes in the unearthly, blue world of carved ice. Even wearing the leather overgarment and donning gloves, it was still very, very cold. The novelty of drinking from a glass of ice, filled with a vodka cocktail added to the experience. Once outside, we thawed out quickly: the atmosphere was quite balmy despite a light rain shower.

Road Trip around Southern Sweden:

The train trip from Stockholm down the east coast was relaxing. Endless forests of spruce, occasional lakes and small towns lined the route. It was from Kalmar that my son and I would begin our road trip.

Our first outing was to Oland –  a long, narrow island, accessible by bridge from Kalmar. My purpose in visiting this part of the country was to research Inga’s connection as the duchess of Oland. The island proved an excellent choice. We drove across the bridge and turned north…
Now much altered, Borgholm Castle only has a small section from the medieval period still intact, but this research was extremely useful nonetheless – in opening my mind up to the landscape in which my characters lived. I could imagine the duchess spending time here whilst Duke Valdemar was away fighting in wars. In the 1300’s, this area was crucial to Sweden’s security and would have been an important site, politically as well as economically, being on the trade routes with the Baltic states and the Hanseatic League. In 1318, Valdemar and Erik come to a bad end – captured by their brother, King Birger, during a banquet. They starved to death in the dungeons of Nykoping Castle. On our train ride, we passed through Nykoping which was only about an hour out of Stockholm.

Oland was a fabulous place to visit. I hadn’t expected to see so many burial mounds and stones circles along the roads and lanes from the island’s bronze age history. These mounds and stones would have been part of Inga’s experience on Oland and I wondered what she would have made of them.

In the far south of the island, the Iron Age fortress of Eketorp proved interesting, but very expensive being a stone re-creation, showing the actual dimensions from the time. It is difficult to imagine what a building or community might look in its ruined state so I appreciated the effort and passion that had gone into Eketorp’s construction.

Along the smaller roads and lane ways, cottages nestled within immaculate gardens and old white farm houses were dwarfed by huge red barns, necessary to house the animals in winter. It was understandable why so many Swedes might come here to holiday – to swim in the calm waters; to explore the country lanes and walk amongst the wildflowers and birds.

The old town of Kalmar has an interesting connection with Inga. In 1318, after the dukes were captured, the two duchesses signed a treaty at Kalmar Castle with a Danish duke and the archbishop of Lund to garner support for their husbands. It seems the two duchesses were not beyond making international alliances to free their husbands, but it was to no avail.  The women’s complex part in trying to build a power base through young Magnus, will be told in Book Two.

You might wonder how this research fits in with the story of the ‘Sisters of The Bruce’. It does, in part, through Isa. As the Dowager Queen of Norway and Inga’s mother, I felt sure  she would have been riveted by the goings-on in Sweden, especially where her daughter was concerned. She may even have visited her.

Towards the close of the 14th century, Kalmar Castle was also the site of a more well-known treaty – the political and economic union between Sweden, Norway and Denmark. The castle has been rebuilt in the renaissance style and there is little to remind us of its early medieval origins, but it is magnificent all the same.

Our road trip continued south though the stunning countryside around Ystad. For fans of the Swedish detective series, Wallander, the landscape will be familiar – rolling hills of green and amber crops stretched out. Pristine farm houses nestled beside massive red barns. It was  a calm, measured landscape. White sandy beaches graced the flat, southern coastline and it was not hard to imagine Baltic vessels pulling in, to ply their trade in the small communities amidst the low, grass-covered sand hills.

The southern region of Sweden, known as Skania, was Danish territory for a long time. As  a result, its cultural heritage seemed to be more closely allied, historically and linguistically, with Denmark. It was much fought over by both Norway and Sweden, given its strategic location. At one stage, Duchess Ingebjorg even waged war on the region on behalf of her son, Magnus, the hereditary king of Norway…
I had hoped to visit the site of the the biggest market during the medieval period at Skanor, at the south western tip of Sweden but, sadly, time was against us.

We based ourselves in the mellow, old university town of Lund, unusually quiet with many students on their summer break, but fortunately the beer was still flowing in the bars. The imposing 11th century Romanesque cathedral with its astrological clock was a focal point.

Before leaving the area, we made a slight digression to spend the day in Copenhagen, less than an hour by train from Lund over the bridge to Denmark. It seemed incredibly chaotic and busy after the peaceful, scholarly atmosphere of Lund. At the end of the day, I was pleased to return to Sweden.

North to Oslo:

Norway was our destination, but there were two important sites to visit on the way. Two forts – Varberg on the Swedish coast and a little way inland, Bohus near Kunghalv. In the early 1300’s, King Magnus of Norway built the latter at a time when the border of Norway reached just north of Gothenburg. These strategic fortresses or festnings reflected the instability of the medieval period and the changing borders, depending upon the power of Sweden’s neighboring countries.

Varberg Festning was an idyllic setting for picnickers making the most of the fine weather on the day of my visit. The massive fortress, now altered to match its role as a much later prison, was intimidating. It had been the home of the Duchess Ingebjorg, wife of Erik, and it was here that her son, Magnus, spent his early years.

She was close to her cousin and therefore it was reasonable to assume that Inga and her mother, may well have been her guests at some stage, especially as Oslo was only a relatively short journey away by boat.

By comparison, Bohus Castle was built on a outcrop of rock which dominated a bend in the River Gota. In earlier times, it had formed the border between Norway and Sweden. The northern area of Bohusland with its castle was willed to Duchess Ingebjorg on the death of her father, King Magnus of Norway. It was not hard to imagine her sailing up to the fortress in her galley. In the past, these broad river pathways had allowed the Vikings of old to conquer much of Europe from the Baltic to the Mediterranean

From Goteburg, we took the train north and crossed the Norwegian border to Oslo. The police and customs officials were conscientious individuals, bent on preventing any illegals from entering the country via the train journey. In sharp contrast, there were no border inspections at all between Sweden and Denmark, so the cultural difference was quite marked. I learnt later that Norway taxes alcohol and cigarettes so highly that these rules have to be closely enforced.

Visitors beware! Take a bottle of whisky with you into Norway for the cost of alcohol is beyond belief!

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