Sweden lies in the Scandinavian Peninsula in northern Europe, with Norway to the west and Finland to the northeast. Stockholm, its permanent capital since 1523, is located at the junction of Lake Mälar (Mälaren) and Salt Bay (Saltsjön), an arm of the Baltic Sea, opposite the Gulf of Finland. Due to its location, built as it is upon numerous islands, Stockholm is regarded as one of the most beautiful capital cities in the world.
The Swedish capital, Stockholm, has puzzled people for ages. Its folks once thought of it as Europe’s largest small town. But over the past 15 years, it has grown to be the continent’s smallest large city, with a population of about 1.6 million people.
Stockholm is built at the point where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea. Its 14 islands are connected by 53 bridges.
The best way to see the city is on a tourist boat. As the boat speeds over the sun-spotted waters, we notice that boats of every imaginable shape and size bob in waters in front of the gabled buildings that sit comfortably along the island edges.
The city tour takes you to the spot where former Swedish Premier Olof Palme was gunned down and a glimpse of the royal family’s summer residence. You can glimpse the long queues of people waiting to go into the Riksdag or the Swedish Parliament. Though Sweden has been ruled by King Carl Gustav XVI since 1973, its democracy functions well. Today, Sweden’s elected government has more women than men, and equal numbers of men and women hold seats in its Riksdag.
Stockholm, in many ways, is typical of Sweden. When we think of Sweden, so many images float into our minds – the image of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who also instituted the annual Nobel Prizes in various fields; or the pop group ABBA, which topped the pop charts for months in the 1970s; or the Pippi Longstocking books by Astrid Lindgren, about a nine-year-old girl who has wild adventures with a horse and a monkey for company; or Bjorn Borg, the great tennis star of the modern era, who won five straight Wimbledon titles.
Most Swedes have a wonderful sense of humour. They laugh when foreigners confuse their country with Switzerland. Or when people lump all of Scandinavia – Denmark, Norway and Sweden – into a single country.
Of course, Sweden does share many traditions with Denmark and Norway. Take Christmas in Stockholm. Christmas in the Nordic countries (as the Scandinavian countries are called) includes a rice pudding called julgrot, which has an almond in it. Whoever gets the almond is said to have good luck all year long. The Christmas meal normally includes other typical Swedish dishes such as meatballs and pickled herring.
In Sweden, Christmas begins on St. Lucia’s day or December 13, when the oldest daughter of the family – dressed in white with a wreath on her head, bearing seven lighted candles – serves each person coffee and buns in bed. Swedish children believe that a bright elf named jultomten brings them gifts from Santa on Christmas Eve.
Though Sweden is one of the largest countries in Europe, pine forests amidst beautiful lakes and snow-capped mountains cover 90 percent of its land. Only 10 percent is populated and farmed. Visitors can picnic on pretty stretches of land, as long as they don’t disturb those living there or litter the place.
In Stockholm, it’s easy to see that Swedes are among the richest people in Europe. They have more cars, cell phones and TV sets per head than other Europeans. Education in Sweden is free. Old people, widows and orphans are looked after by the government, and most medical services are free. When a baby is born in Sweden, the State pays its parents a large portion of their salaries so that they are able to stay at home for the first 15 months of its life.
But to return to Stockholm, which became the capital in 1523. It was probably founded in the early 1250s by a Swedish leader named Birger Jarl. He built a castle in the area that is now Gamla Stan or the old town, the heart of the city.
The Gamla Stan, with its cobbled streets, is beautiful by the light of ancient lamps at night. We found tall, blonde-haired Swedes walking and joking along the waterfront by moonlight, or chatting on the wrought iron benches in its squares. All around them are drinking houses or pubs, where Swedes shout ‘Skol!’ as they raise their wine glasses.
Though Bangladeshis today sell postcards with Trolls and Pakistanis hawk T-shirts with Vikings on them in the heart of Stockholm’s broad avenues, the essence of the city remains Swedish. Swedes still stride past the old buildings and new skyscrapers daily, greeting friends in the streets with “Hei!”
That’s the word to watch for as a visitor in Stockholm. It’s the easiest way to make friends in the Swedish capital.