Thursday, July 17, 2008

Two Swedens

JoeWell, we're all moved in to our new place, but meanwhile summer is flying by, and it's high time for us to start using some of Jennifer's copious vacation time. With that in mind, Tuesday we took a trip to Skokloster Castle on Lake Mälaren.

View Skokloster Castle in a larger map

To get there, we went downriver on the m/s Kung Carl Gustaf, a tourist boat which departs downtown Uppsala for Skokloster daily during the summer (this is the yellow line on the map above). The trip takes about 2 hours one way, and costs 150 SEK per person, more if you want to eat the optional lunch on board (we took the more economical "pack a lunch" route). Boarding started at 10:30, but by the time we got there at 10:35 all the best seats were taken; nevertheless we managed to squeeze onto a bench along one side of the observation deck, wedged in between a loud British family and a quieter pair of German women. It was very strange to be back in tourist mode, even as we sailed past places we see all the time, like the football stadium where our local women's side loses (er, plays) games.

After a few minutes we were in new territory, moving through the farmland south of the city. It's all very bucolic, cows having a drink and a rest alongside the river, red barns across open fields, cars stopped at bridges that have been swung out of our way as we pass.

Past the farms we encountered a large marsh, which is kept as a nature preserve. It was full of ducks, and some sort of diving gulls, and quite a few herons. Oddly, though, no turtles, as it turns out that Scandinavia has no native turtles. Go figure.

After an hour we made Lake Mälaren, a large lake that runs all the way to Stockholm, but in dozens of little fingers. Here we picked up speed, which, combined with the stiff breeze off the lake, meant it was suddenly a bit parky on the deck, so we were able to claim better seats as the bulk of the foreign tourists (and all but a handful of the hearty, Viking-descended locals) headed for more sheltered climes. The lake was choppy, but not so much as to make the ride uncomfortable. Plenty of breeze for the sailboats and windsurfers we passed along the way, though.

After a while we left the open water to wind through a few smaller passages, affording us close-ups of the residences of the poor souls who, unable apparently to afford stugas in the woods, have been forced to settle for comfortable lake houses with gorgeous views. Oh, and seaplanes. Musn't forget the seaplanes.

Skokloster appeared about twenty minutes before we arrived, exacty as it is supposed to do. The castle was built in the latter half of the 17th century by Field Marshall Carl Gustaf Wrangel, although he died before it was completed. Interestingly, when he died work stopped on the castle, and the large banqueting hall on the third floor remains just as the workers left it, the interior work hardly even started, a scaffolding standing in one corner. The middle of the 17th century was Sweden's Great Power era, the fifty years or so in all of European history when Sweden was counted as one of the great players in world events. This was also the time when Sweden was at its largest, including not only Finland but most of the Baltic coast, all of that taken by force, and those victories in the field translated to a lot of wealth coming back to the homeland. In turn, much of that wealth was funneled into the building of stately homes around Lake Mälaren, which was essentially Stockholm's 17th century highway system. So all of these homes are built overlooking the lake, and designed to be seen from the water.

When we arrived, most of the passengers were whisked away by the awaiting tour guides (admission is by guided tour only). The boat arrives at 12:45 and departs at 14:30, so there really isn't much time to spare if you want to squeeze an hour-long tour in there. With this in mind, we had decided to skip the return trip, spend the afternoon at the castle, and then make our way back by bus in the evening. So we bid farewell to our fellow passengers, and instead set off to find a pleasant picnic spot. We chose a nice flat rock up on a hill, with good views of the lake and the castle (and a reasonably manageable amount of ants), and proceeded to picnic: chicken sandwiches, carrot sticks, clementines, and a couple of cookies, with juice boxes to wash it all down. Well, they looked like juice boxes, anyway. They turned out to be 2 dl tetra pack boxes of juice concentrate (just add a liter of water!). We played a little shell game with one of the water bottles we'd brought along and managed to make a bit of drinkable juice, but not before Jennifer had taken a big swig of the straight stuff. Ugh.

We just made the 14:15 English language tour. Unfortunately there are no pictures, as there is no photography allowed in the castle, but we had a nice one hour walk through three floors of the castle, led by Andreas, who seemed to be pretty knowledgeable. The castle has belonged to a few different families over the centuries, and didn't pass into state hands until the 1960s, but for all that there are a lot of original features remaining. My favorite was the painted plaster relief dragon on the ceiling of the formal dining room, which was breathing out the chandelier like a plume of flame. Jennifer's favorite part was in the armory on the top floor, a three room collection put together by Wrangel 350 years ago and still together. It included a few unusual items, like a hammock from Southeast Asia, a handful of rare animal specimens (specifically a blowfish, an armadillo, and a rattlesnake, all unusual for 16th century Europe, and I assume selected for their offensive/defensive traits), and best of all, a 17th century sealskin kayak from Greenland.

Another interesting feature of the castle is the writing on the walls. Wrangel probably started it by putting a few quotes from significant Roman emperors over the first floor doors, but his grandson took things a step further, adding a couple of hundred quotations to wall panels all over the castle. Half are in Latin, with the remainder a mix a of German, Swedish, French, and English. It was strange to turn a corner in Sweden and suddenly see:
But one misfortune alone is true, that of being by misfortune subdued.
At least that one makes sense, unlike:
Let him ask and speak who knowing is and would thus be called.

One other item that bears mentioning: Skokloster castle is the home of Arcimboldo's painting of Rudolf II's head as Vertumnus (you know, the one where his head is made of a bunch of vegetables). Why does an Italian painter's portrait of a Holy Roman Emperor who ruled from Prague reside in a castle in Sweden? It goes back to Sweden's Great Power period again. In 1648 the Swedish army sacked Prague on its way home from the Thirty Years War, mainly because Queen Christina was an avid collector just like Rudolf II had been, and she wanted his stuff. So the army came away with a lot of Rudolf' collection as booty, including the Vertumnus.

Well, that's one Sweden. Our journey into the other Sweden started with the bus stop outside the castle, scenically located in between the parking lot and the gas station. We've obviously been taking the city buses a lot since we got here, but this was our first ride on a regional bus, the intermediate step between the city buses and the long distance bus companies like Swebuss and Ybuss. Today we were on an Upplands Lokaltraffik Regional bus, #894 specifically (the blue line), which runs from Skokloster south to the town of Bålsta for just 50 SEK per person (even though Skokloster is south of Uppsala, we had to leave it by going further south still, as it is on a peninsula). This took us through sparsely inhabited forest land until we started to reach the outskirts of Bålsta.

We got off at Yttergrans Kyrka to await the #895 to Uppsala (the red line). We could have changed in Bålsta, but the way the buses are scheduled we would have arrived 5 minutes after the #895 departed, and had to wait another 30 minutes to catch the next one. So instead, Yttergrans Kyrka, better known as the back end of nowhere. It's a slightly disconcerting experience, getting off a bus in a foreign country at a stop which consists of nothing more than a post on the side of the road, with no idea what exactly you'll do if you've judged it wrong and there is no other bus coming to take you home. Well, I find it disconcerting anyway. After 15 minutes or so, the #895 rolled around the bend, and after shelling out another 75 SEK apiece we were on our way to Uppsala.

So why do I call it another Sweden? Historically, communications in Sweden have always been by water, leaving the farmland of the interior isolated. I want to call it a backwater, although that isn't quite right as the point is that it doesn't have water. Obviously water routes have been replaced by freeways now, but there still seems to be a lingering cultural distance between the land-locked areas and the rest of Sweden. It's Scandinavian design versus broken furniture on porches; slim black coats versus overalls and baseball caps; shiny Volvos versus rusted out Citroens. This is the Sweden of which the Germans love to make fun. Everything's a little run down, a little seedy, and more than a little muddy.

All that, and home by 19:00. As Calvin once said, "I consider this day seized and throttled."

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