Stockholm Syndrome

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I visited Stockholm last week, confirming my suspicions that Sweden is the glacially cool epicenter of Scandinavia.

Small and easy to travel, the city’s medieval architecture unfurls like a fairy-tale town in a children’s pop-up book. The temperature was a brisk subzero, but I couldn’t appreciate the sights or fresh air on my first day. Instead I was plodding along feeling hopelessly lost.

I had set out early that morning for the Royal Palace, blissfully unaware that Stockholm’s museums and shops don’t stir till 10 or that my iPhone (and by extension my Google maps) would go temporarily AWOL.

Freezing and slightly frantic, I suddenly had no idea where I was. I couldn’t see a street name and even if I had found one I can’t read maps. So I walked. I walked down the river past clusters of boats towards a beguiling Renaissance castle. This had to be the Palace I told myself. Surely I was in Gamla Stan? A signpost confirmed just how geographically challenged I was: this was Djurgården, two islands beyond my destination.

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I decided to start at the rustic castle I had followed down the river, pushing my way through a large door into the rectangular hall of the Nordic Museum.

A remarkable building with a collection to match, it featured a temporary exhibition on the role of stripes in Swedish culture. Gimmicky, yes, but very intelligent, it was a lot of fun and a solid introduction to the city’s cultural heritage. Afterwards I braced myself for the cold once more, turning my back on the city’s ABBA Museum in favour of the Vasa ship.

A solemn presence against the Stockholm harbour, the Vasa Museum is a one-of-a-kind structure designed to look like the 400 year-old Vasa ship salvaged from nearby waters. Despite its imposing masts and steel roof, this charming building integrates seamlessly with its harbour surroundings.

Inside, Vasa’s all-encompassing education centre was outstanding: blending six floors of interactive history and culture, it created a rich, faceted view of this remarkable ship and its passengers. The Vasa itself is displayed in the central hall, its high stern and oak timbers glimmering on glass surfaces while several of the ship’s passengers are meticulously recreated using scientific reconstructions.

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The following day – and several cinnamon buns later – I visited The Modern Museum, trudging up-hill through snow in search of some Swedish avant-garde.

A spectacular site met my pilgrimage: four contorted sculptures by Alexander Calder stood in stark relief against the grey Skeppsholmen sky. Beyond these stood the museum whose austere glass shell shielded the city’s preeminent collection of modern art.

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Presented chronologically, the permanent collection drew parallels between Swedish art and the European avant-garde. Moving seamlessly from the turn of the century to the inter-war years, it displayed photographs, prints and painting by neue sachlichkeit artists including George Grosz and Max Beckmann, creating a clear trajectory across the different cultures and countries.

A Futurist and Kraftwerk installation ran alongside the permanent collection, underlining a century-long fascination with industry, mechanics and the potentials of the machine.

Meanwhile, in the basement, Marcel Duchamp’s silly, conceptual artworks were concentrated in a custom-built space, his surrealist contemporaries lining the walls and Luis Buñuel sound bites drifting from nearby video cubicles.

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Of course I visited other sights while in Stockholm: I finally made my way to the Palace and its accompanying museums; had what can only be described as a bucket of hot chocolate; did the Architectural Museum; found Acne Archives, and ate a fancy geometric Semla in bed, slathering whipped cream over my face like a recalcitrant little kid. But it’s The Photography Museum that stands out as my final highlight.

Several exhibitions ran simultaneously at this museum but the Elliot Erwitt show caught my eye. Erwitt’s images were eloquent but juxtaposed and imbued a one-liner quality. I took out my phone to snap this would-be romantic scene of Paris. Definitely the first photo-bomb, I thought.

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