Exploring the cathedral, the royal burial church, and the palace in Gamla Stan leaves one with a much-enriched understanding and appreciation of Sweden, its royal history and people
Sweden is one of the five Scandinavian countries. Known for its high standards of living, excellent public welfare, and these days, for its different approach to the coronavirus pandemic by not enforcing a lockdown, Sweden is the largest country in northern Europe with a population of over ten million.
Thus, one cold October I decided to finally visit Scandinavia by making my maiden trip to the region with a weekend trip to Stockholm, the capital of the Kingdom of Sweden. I took a budget airline to Stockholm, which meant that the ‘Stockholm’ airport it arrived at was about an hour or so from the city itself. But there was a rather efficient bus which took me to the city centre and then I simply walked to my centrally located hotel.
Being next to the main shopping street in Stockholm, Drottninggatan, I was immediately attracted by its bustle. Even though it was early October, yet Christmas lights were already well-stocked. Of course, Sweden is reputed for the high quality of its lighting material, and so I immediately seized the opportunity to buy! Since it was October, a giant ghost also adorned the busy street, signifying that Halloween was also something big in Sweden. Soon I found two stores which only sold Halloween things. But the highlight of this short (well, three hour) shopping spree, was a visit to the ‘Happy Socks’ store to buy several pairs of amazing socks, including their exclusive Pink Panther edition.
With my consumer self satisfied, next day was dedicated to only sightseeing. I started my exploration with the old part of the city called Gamla Stan. Dating back to the 13th century, this part of the city is on the island of Stadsholmen. In fact, Stockholm mainly consists of several islands, which are now so perfectly connected with one another that often one misses this important detail. The centre of the old town is the spacious Stortorget square, where several beautifully coloured and well-preserved old buildings still stand. The square also leads off into several small cobbled streets, giving a real medieval feel. It was in this square in 1520 that the Danish King Christian II massacred Swedish noblemen, leading to an end of the Kalmar Union which united the kingdoms of Denmark, Sweden and Norway.
At one end of the square is the Storkyrkan, The Great Church, which is the cathedral of the Lutheran Diocese of Stockholm. As with all other Scandinavian countries Sweden adopted Lutheranism during the Protestant Reformation. Once a dominant force in the country, the Church of Sweden was dis-established as the official religion of the country in 2000, but still counts nearly 60 percent of its population as its members. The cathedral itself, called St Nicholas’s Cathedral, is a beautiful brick gothic church and dates back to the 13th century. It was for centuries the only church in the old town, becoming Lutheran from Catholic in 1527. Its greatest treasure is the 15th-century wooden statue of St George and the Dragon, attributed to sculptor Bernt Botke. The statue itself is over twelve feet tall, and together with the plinth it rests on, it rises to an imposing twenty feet. The scale, vivid colours, and the grandness of the statue make it a remarkable piece of art.
The Cathedral also boasts a big French baroque pulpit, preaching stand, made by Burchard Precht in 1702 which then became a model for pulpits around the country. But what attracts the eye immediately as one approaches the middle aisle are the two imposing royal pews. Built during the early part of the 18th century, these baroque pews for the Swedish king and queen signified both their royal status as well as the headship of the Church of Sweden. Both pews have a crown which forms a canopy at the top, and are lavishly gilded and decorated. Finally, the High Altar, is a wooden triptych with in-lay of solid silver, making it one of the most ornate high altars in Sweden. The scale of the church and its splendid furnishings make one forget almost that Stockholm did not even become a diocese till 1952, and that this church was just a parish church for centuries.
A few minutes’ walk from the cathedral, in yet another small island, that of Riddarholmen, lies the former abbey church of Riddarholm. Swedish monarchs from Gustavus Adolphus (d 1632) to Gustav V (d 1950) are buried here. No longer a functioning church since 1807, this church is now only used for commemorative purposes, and mainly functions as a type of museum, with an entry charge levied. But the small charge is certainly worth paying to be able to see several huge and richly adorned sarcophagi of Swedish monarchs through the centuries, as well as several dozen banners, of monarchs, different nobles, and of the Royal Order of Seraphim. What is fascinating about this church is that several monarchs and nobles built special side chapels for their burial, giving this 13th-century church a very mixed architecture and feeling. There is even a crypt with several small caskets of younger royals who have died over the years.
The crowning glory of Stockholm is indeed its sprawling Palace which is the official residence of the Royal family (although they actually live elsewhere) and where several government functions take place regularly. Presently at 1,460 rooms the palace really exudes a regal air and exhibits the grandness of Sweden. A royal residence has stood at the spot since the 13th century, and it was in 1697 that the medieval Tre Kronor Castle was destroyed by fire, prompting the construction of a new palace. The present palace then started being constructed, though from 1709-27, work was halted due to war. It was only in 1754 that the palace was fit for use, and even then work was still carried out till the 1770s.
Stockholm mainly consists of several islands, which are now so perfectly connected with one another that often one misses important details.
One enters the palace through the outer courtyard, where a changing of the guard ceremony takes place almost every day. When I arrived, it was nearing its end, though I still got to see the new guards take their position. I then walked up the grand staircase to the second floor where the main tourist tour began. Upon entering the royal apartments, almost immediately one sees huge portraits of the crowning of Swedish monarchs. While no Swedish monarch has been crowned since Oscar II in 1873, these regal symbols do have their impact on the onlooker. The simple fact that nearly a million people flock to see the palace every year, that stories about the royal family abound in the press, and that people have very favourable views of their royal family, shows that no matter how democratic or modern a country becomes, the charm and, dare I say, magic, of royalty, remains. The point where the crown is placed on the monarch’s head by the Archbishop signifies not only the royal lineage of the monarch (though in Sweden’s case there were several outsiders who became monarchs) but, most importantly, the imprint of God on the person on the monarch, since it is through the anointing that one really becomes a monarch.
One simply keeps walking through lavishly decorated rooms – bedrooms, drawing rooms, dining rooms, parlours, salons, etc, of the various kings, queens, princes and princesses who have occupied this place since the early 18th century, almost wondering who would have ever used all these rooms. The rooms not only depict the taste – especially that of the period in which they were decorated, but also the power and opulence of the Swedish court in days gone by when it was a formidable naval power. It also shows the global reach of the Swedes with several rooms containing things from across the world.
Of special note are the State Apartments which contain the splendid Charles XI’s Gallery which is used for state dinners, including those after the grant of a Nobel Prize. One is simply lost in the ornateness of this long gallery, the tapestries which adorn its walls, and the grand paintings on the ceiling. It must really be a once in a lifetime experience to dine in this special hall! Also noteworthy is the White Sea Ballroom, where official receptions take place. The spaciousness of the room, the décor, and the simple yet impressive setting of the room gives it a grand yet intimate setting. The placement of sofas in groups, I was told, enable the royalty to be able to mingle in small groups with their guests both pre and post-dinner. Since the palace is also a workplace, the Council Chamber is where the prime minister and his cabinet brief the King of the workings of government three to four times a year. The Hall of State is the official Throne Room of the palace, where the silver throne of the Swedish monarchs is placed. Sadly, it was closed when I visited and so missed it!
Round the corner from the main palace, in the cellars, is the Tre Kronor Museum, which showcases the impressive royal jewels, including the crown, sceptre, robes, etc, used by the present and previous monarchs. Of course one immediately compares them to the British crown jewels, and certainly, they do not pale in front of their more renowned cousins. Exhibiting the excavated foundations of the older Tre Kronor palace which burnt down in 1697, the museum also showcases the history of the older palace, enabling one to understand the development of not only Stockholm as a city but Sweden as a country, kingdom and nation.
Covering the cathedral, the royal burial church, and the palace was certainly a lot in one day, but given the compact size of Gamla Stan, it was easily doable, and I left with a much-enriched understanding and appreciation of Sweden, its history and people. Immersive learning, as we call it!