If you want a short and focused introduction to the history and culture of Sweden I can’t think of a better way of doing it than by staying for a long weekend on Skeppsholmen. If possible, a very long weekend on Skeppsholmen. In fact, thinking about it, if you want a comfortable and leisurely introduction to the history and culture of Sweden, I really can’t think of a more pleasant and civilised way of doing it than staying for as long as it takes at the hotel on Skeppsholmen.
Hotel Skeppsholmen is independent but is a member of the Design Hotel group. The rooms are large and pleasant, the size in part being controlled by the historic fabric of the buildings dating back to 1699. There are two very long ranges in line and each with a central corridor and rooms on either side on the two main floors and in the roof.
Work started on the new hotel in 2005. The architects were Peter Erseus & Gunhild Skoog Jögebeck and the interiors are by the designers Claesson Koivisto Rune.
For its overall number of rooms this must be one of the longest hotels in the World with the entrance and restaurant towards the east end. On my first stay I was given a room at the west end and when I booked in I asked for the wifi password. I could not set up the link in my room (my fault - not the the fault of the hotel) so I walked back to the lobby for advice wondering if the problem was that I was just too far from the server. When I explained the problem, the receptionist wanted to know which room I was in. Glibbly I said the last room before you get to Norway but immediately realised, from the slightly perplexed look, that English irony can be misplaced.
It is worth asking for a room on the south side looking over the harbour because the light in the early morning can be fantastic. I was there last summer just before the longest day, this time in an attic room at the east end, and the fantastic light display of sunrise started about 4am although that could be a distraction for anyone who needs their full 8 hours sleep.
The hotel has a restaurant with a long garden terrace looking south and for me there is nothing better or more pleasant or more civilised in Stockholm than sitting there for a long lazy breakfast in the summer occasionally sauntering in for more muesli or bread or coffee. I’m sure many would disagree, wanting more expensive or more cultured or more exciting entertainment but great coffee, sunshine, peace and a beautiful view bathed in warm sunlight does it for me.
To say that the basic topography of Stockholm and the area around is a lot of islands and a lot of water is bit of an understatement … like saying that lace is bits of linen surrounded by holes.
The development of Stockholm and the position of Skeppsholmen in its history can be seen fairly clearly by looking back to the map of Stockholm in 1642. There, towards the centre of the map, you can see the tear-drop shaped island that is a substantial outcrop where the first settlement here was established, probably in the middle of the 12th century. That is the old town or Gamla Stan that survives at the centre of modern Stockholm.
The island of Gamla Stan almost blocks the channel with wide areas of water inland to the west and a series of channels and islands to the east and towards the open sea of the Baltic some 20 or 30 kilometres away. Open sea here is a relative term and hence the slightly vague sense of distance. Just look at a map … particularly a map that shows the route that ferries and cruise ships take to reach open sea from Stockholm.
Already in the 17th century, a bridge linked Gamla Stan to the much larger island of Sødermalm, to the south, by the 17th century with streets and housing spreading out from the bridge, and to the north there were bridges to a flat ridge of high ground where first the suburbs and then later the modern commercial centre of Stockholm in Norrmalm grew. The map also shows clearly that Stockholm developed in a strategic position with a north/south land route but with complicated access to the sea that could be easily defended.
Gamla Stan is shown on the map with ships pulled in on all sides reflecting the importance of the city as a trading port. Skeppsholmen is the island to the east that is roughly an inverted triangle with apparently, at that time, a single building at the south west tip and ships depicted along the north-east shore where there was shipbuilding. Skeppsholmen is linked by bridges to a smaller island to the south and a larger island to the north, Blasieholmen, now a peninsula and now the site of the National Museum.
Through the 17th century Skeppsholmen was used primarily by the navy and for defence forces and the major buildings for the navy are still obvious on 19th-century maps.
Tyghuset (the Armoury or Arsenal) built in the 1660s, runs north south down the island and was a very long range of building for it included a ropewalk - long because ropes were made by laying out fibres that were then twisted to form the rope. Rope, of course, was crucial for the navy. Ropes for a large sailing ship could be 300 metres long and a large fighting ship would need about 32 kilometres (or 20 miles) of rope. Hence the scale of the rope works on Skeppsholmen.
The Swedish navy was moved to Karlskrona in 1680, to a new and more strategically-located harbour that was established to dominate the Baltic, but Skeppsholmen retained important naval functions including the Department of Naval Charts and the House of the Admiralty Board.
There continued to be ship building on the east side of the island and there was also a very large warehouse including a granary store for tax paid to the king in kind. The building survives if not the payment of tax in grain.
After a fire in 1697 the Arsenal was converted to various uses including, for a short time, housing the king’s collection of lions and tigers and then in the 18th century it was the stables for the horses of the the royal guard.
Långa raden (or Long Row) by the architect Nicodemus Tessin was begun in 1699 and completed in 1702 as barracks for the bodyguard of Karl XII but it was then converted into a hospital to house the sick and poor and then adapted again into accommodation for officers and officials. These two long buildings, running in line east west across Skeppsholmen, are now the Hotel Skeppsholmen.
Other major buildings include Carl Johans Kyrkan on the highest part of the island and rebuilt in the 1820s.
In 1963 the Arsenal buildings were remodelled to house the Östasiatiska museet (Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities) and in 1991 work started on the Moderna Museet (Museum of Modern Art) retaining historic buildings to the south of the Arsenal to form the west range of the new museum.
At the south end of the Moderna Museet is the Arkitekturmuseet - from May 2013 the National Centre for Architecture and Design, Stockholm. They have a programme of exhibitions, a permanent collection of architectural models, a research library and an active teaching programme and appear to have a new remit to focus more broadly on the architectural environment and specifically sustainable and green design. The next major exhibition - from 19th June until the 5th October 2014 - is on the bike.
All these museums are within easy strolling distance of the hotel but there is also the National Museet, just on the north end of the bridge linking Skeppshomen to the city. The major collection of paintings and decorative art was moved here from Gamla Stan, from a wing in the royal palace, in 1860. The building is being extensively restored and rearranged … work that will continue until 2017. It had a good restaurant in the north courtyard (that had at some stage been glazed over) and opened late on some evenings so it was a useful place to get an early supper but I am not sure what the plans are in the remodelled museum.
Skeppsholmen is linked to the smaller island of Kastell Holmen to the south by a narrow bridge. Here, at the Kastell Holmen end of the bridge, is the royal skating pavilion, built in the late 19th century but now part of the hotel and used for banquets and conferences. At the centre of Kastell Holmen is the Kastellet, the present building dating from the middle of the 19th century. Its castle-like appearance, appearing to guard the entrance to the inner harbour and city, is now purely symbolic … the lower squat tower does form a base for a cannon but now that fires nothing more threatening than a ceremonial welcome.
From the west side of Skeppsholmen there are incredible views across to Gamla Stan and the royal palace and moored here, on the west side of the island, is the Af Chapman, a full-rigged steel ship that was launched in 1888 from shipyards in Whitehaven in England. Initially it was called the Dunboyne and sailed between Australia and Portland on the west coast of America, but it was brought over to Sweden in 1915 and was purchased by the Swedish Navy in 1923 when it was given a new name … named after the 18th-century Swedish Admiral Frederik Henrik af Chapman. It now serves as accommodation for a youth hostel and in fact, on my first visit to Stockholm in the early 70s, backpacking through Norway, Sweden and Finland as a student, this was where I stayed.
On the east side of Skeppsholmen, immediately to the east of the hotel, is a ferry station and it is possible to cross from there to the large island of Djurgården.
There, to continue the naval theme, you can see the Vasa sunk on her maiden voyage on 10 August 1628 having sailed just 1,300 metres or much less than a mile from the shipyard at Skeppsgåarden - on the east side of the peninsular on a site behind the present National Museum - where she was built. She was rediscovered and salvaged in 1961 conserved in a complicated and extended process of slowly drying out the timbers and is now the centrepiece of a large museum.
On Djurgården, visible from Skeppsholmen, and audible on a quiet summer evening, there is a very popular fair or pleasure ground … Stockholm’s version of the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. That is not a snide criticism … the lights of the fairground rides look fantastic across the water and the odd scream of terror that drift across is curiously reassuring … not in a weird way … its just the sound of people having fun and enjoying themselves.
Close to the Vasa are more museums including the Spirit Museum, rather appropriate for a naval area, and the important Nordiska Museet with its collections of furniture, costumes and applied arts. The museum opened in 1907 and is huge with galleries around a great central hall and it is actually quite daunting to know that in the original plans it was intended that the museum would have been considerably larger … this range would have been just a third of the whole museum to culture that was planned.
Last summer I visited the museum on a Saturday afternoon. The well-meaning woman on the entrance desk kindly suggested I might like to go back later if I wanted to look at the displays in the quiet hush often found in these huge museums because they were actually in the middle of the weekly tea dance. In fact I went in anyway and thoroughly enjoyed the music of a live jazz band drifting up to the galleries from the cafe area at the end of the central hall and I was fascinated to watch the worthy matrons of Östermalm dancing, in the words of the English song, bust to bust. There also seemed, I must add, to be a lot of children there with parents and grandparents having a whale of a time.
On the hill above the museum is Skansen … the open air museum and zoo with an amazing collection of historic buildings from all over Sweden that have been saved, dismantled and re-erected here. Many of the houses have furniture and fittings of an appropriate date and there are displays to help explain the history of interiors, the development of furniture and crafts over the centuries and the history of farming.
From back on Skeppsholmen it is also possible to take the ferry to Slussen at the south end of Gamla Stan from where it is possible to explore both Gamla Stan itself and the streets and squares of Södermalm with its craft galleries and rapidly developing fashion and design quarter.
The Stadsmuseet or City Museum is a fine building dating from the 1670s but not served well by late 20th-century changes in road level for the busy traffic interchange between Gamla Stan and Södermalm: the building now appears to be sinking into a crater although major work is in hand to alter the rail interchange and traffic circulation. The museum collection includes artefacts, models and historic photographs that show how the city developed.
To the east of Slussen, further along the quay, is Fotografiska, the Stockholm gallery of photography - or really international photography - with a very active programme of temporary exhibitions. The cafe at the upper level has panoramic views over the harbour, looking towards Skeppsholmen and Gamla Stan. And the food was pretty good as well.
The ferries (Waxholmsbolaget) are supposed to sail every fifteen minutes and the service, according to the timetable, runs throughout the year but this time last year I arrived on a ferry from Helsinki that docked at the terminal on the east end of Södermalm, beyond Fotografiska, and I thought it would be simple to walk along to Slussen and get the ferry over to the hotel. I was sold a ticket at the kiosk but then the girl down on the quay had to plead and argue with the captains to stop at Skeppsholmen. I had to stand back and wait while four boats in turn loaded up with passengers and headed for the fair ground at Djurgården before one agreed to drop me off at Skeppsholmen. The poor girl was embarrassed and kept telling me it was the start of the new summer timetable so no one quite knew what was happening but it might be best to double-check with online timetables before just turning up with a heavy bag to carry like I did.
Equally, if you head over to Slussen in the evening to eat in one of the many restaurants in Gamla Stan and Södermalm, then check carefully on the time of the last ferry back to Skeppshomen because it is quite a long walk, though a beautiful and interesting walk, back around the harbour … though that is one way to get a good night’s sleep … nicely full and exhausted.
This post has not been sponsored in any way so the views and opinions are very much my own.
I would be grateful if this post is not copied and reproduced without permission or acknowledgement.
John Heward, May 2014