June 01, 2004

Vaxholm and the Archipelago

Today was our last day in Stockholm before going to my conference in southern Sweden, so we decided to get a better feel for what the area was like from the water. Stockholm is the biggest city in an archipelago of more than 24,000 islands, many of which are sparsely populated, while others have villages and summer cottages. We had thought about taking one of the tourist boats that offers a guided tour from the water, but we wanted to have a particular destination we could visit as well. So after a late breakfast we walked to Stockholm’s Stromkajen ferry terminal and jumped on a ferry destined for Vaxholm.

The town of Vaxholm is one of the major gateways to the archipelago’s outer islands. About 45 kilometers from Stockholm, Vaxholm would give us a small taste of archipelago life, which comes alive particularly during the summer, to which the crowds on the ferry attested. Susanne and I found seats near the back of the ferry, in a large, air conditioned gallery. There was a small aft deck a few rows behind it, but it was already jammed with people, so we’d have to spend the trip inside. Susanne past the time by napping, while I watched the forested scenery through my window, glancing at my map trying to pinpoint where we were, give or take a few islands.

About 45 minutes in to the trip I assumed we’d soon reach Vaxholm, since our book said it was a 50-minute trip. But when we pulled into the dock on an island that appeared to be the half-way point of the journey, I realized my Lonely Planet guide was mistaken. I went to the ticket agent and asked what time we’d arrive in Vaxholm; he said the scheduled time was 11:15, but that we were running a little late. I’d have to factor in that extra travel time when we would head back to Stockholm, given the fact we were meeting friends of a colleague of mine for dinner at 6pm, in a western suburb of the capital.

The boat finally arrived in Vaxholm prior to 11:30, about 35 minutes later than I’d expected. The Vaxholm waterfront immediately gave away that it was a summer resort town: harborside cafes, charming hotels, ice cream stands, even a gas station on the harbor so day trippers could refuel their boats.

Disembarking the boat, we walked several blocks to the radhus (town hall), which also served as the tourist information center. The radhus was located on a small, leafy square, where several people sat on benches having an early lunch. Inside, we found two maps of Vaxholm and the surrounding section of the archipelago. While we didn’t plan to island-hop, we certainly needed to know our way around town.

The map showed that there was an old church several blocks down the street. We walked along the main street, passing its many boutique shops, until we reached kapellgatan (Chapel Street). The church itself was rather modest in style, but the adjacent farm house and cemetery were quite pretty, so we walked around to the far end of the cemetery and walked through it. Most of the gravestones were from the last 50 years, though some dated back to the mid-19th century.

Leaving the church, we backtracked and continued to the upper waterfront, an area known as Norrhamn (North Harbor). The harbor had been a primary port in the 1800s, but now the local fishermen houses have been converted into quaint summer cottages, each boasting their own garden of tulips and lilacs, both in full bloom. As we strolled down the country lanes towards the harbor, we spotted an old fisherman’s house that had apparently been converted into a harborside café called the Hembydsgard. A group of elderly women had just exited the café, plastic containers of salad in hand, and were heading to the dock for a picnic. A dozen or so tables were set out front of the café, while there appeared to be more seating around the back.

I walked around the far side of the café and was treated to a marvelous view of the archipelago, with several islands not far across the water. To the right, you could see the island that serves as home to Vaxholm’s 16th century fort, now a military museum. Continuing to the right was Norrhamn itself, with a variety of pleasure craft docked in front of quaint cottages, painted either red or an orange-yellow.

“We have to have lunch here,” I said to Susanne, turning in circles to appreciate the view.

There were plenty of tables available, so we didn’t have to worry about saving seats for ourselves. Susanne and I went into the café, which appeared to specialize in pastries, along with a modest selection of sandwiches and waffles. We both ordered a brie and chorizo sandwich, Susanne removing the chorizo so she could support her vegetarian aspirations. The sandwiches were somewhat stale but the view provided more than enough satisfaction to make up for it. We then returned inside to select some snacks from their large platter of pastries and tea cakes, each of us picking two to brink back to our waterfront table.

After lunch, we hiked around the perimeter of the harbor until we reached a small park just opposite the café. The park, on a hillside above the harbor, presented us with a broad vista of the local islands and sailboats. A family of Iraqi immigrants enjoyed a sumptuous picnic in the park, along with a pair of English friends; on the next hillside sat an American family, apparently visiting Swedish relatives.

We continued our hike clockwise around the harbor until we returned to the ferry dock, about an hour prior to our scheduled departure. As we talked about what we’d do in the meantime, a beautiful old steamship, the Storkska, pulled up to the dock. According to my ferry schedule, this was the boat that would take us back to Stockholm, but it was an hour early.

“Is this the ferry to Stockholm?” I asked the harbormaster.

“Yes, but it is going to make several stops around the archipelago before returning here in an hour,” he replied. “Then it will go to Stockholm.”

Susanne and I looked at each other and nodded our heads in agreement.

“Would it be alright if we boarded the ship now?” I asked.

“Hmm, I don’t know…”

“Would it cost extra?” I continued?

The harbormaster turned to one of the Storkska’s crew, who was getting ready to pull in the plank and depart, and said something in Swedish. The crewman turned to me and said in broken English, “How many are you?”

“Just two of us,” I replied.

The crewman nodded his head and waved us on board. We’d get to an enjoy a private cruise for an hour.

Susanne and I settled onto the forward deck just as the captain left off the ship’s steam horn. The Storkska, which has been in service on the archipelago since 1908, was one of the last remaining steamships, a floating time warp harkening back to a golden era of sea travel. The ship could seat at least 100 people, but there were only about 10 of us on board, not counting the captain and crew. The ship left the harbor and began making a loop past several local islands. Most of the people getting on and off appeared to be locals: kids who’d gone to Vaxholm to ride their bikes, adults returning from grocery shopping. With each stop, one of the crewman would lasso a mooring with a large rope, then fasten the other end of the rope to the boat. Sometimes during stops he and a fellow crewmate would throw logs off the side of the boat, each one attached to ropes, so the logs would serve as a buffer between the boat and the dock.

For the next hour, we steamed around the archipelago, stopped in six or eight different locations. I ventured inside the boat for awhile, exploring the ornate upstairs restaurant before heading below deck to the cafeteria to buy a bottle of beer. I then sat on the forward deck, bottle in hand, peacefully soaking up the sun rays as we hopped from island to island. We were also treated with front row seats for a tour of some of the finest summer cottages in Sweden. While some islands boasted smaller, middle class cottages, others were clearly reserved for wealthy Swedes: gorgeous multi-story houses with spectacular views of the archipelago.

“If these are their summer houses, I wonder what their homes for the rest of the year look like,” I said to Susanne.

Just before 2:15pm, the steamer returned to Vaxholm harbor, where we picked up several dozen passengers, a much smaller group than the one we’d joined on the boat from Stockholm. We managed to keep our seats on deck, though Susanne retreated indoors for a while in fear of getting a sunburn. Given the high latitude, though, I wasn’t terribly concerned; besides, I was having the time of my life sitting at the front of this antique steamer cruising along the Stockholm Archipelago. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever have the chance to do this again, so I wanted to relish every moment of it.

The 75-minute ride back to Stockholm went by very quickly. The next thing I knew, I could see the old church steeple at Skansen on Djurgarden island, along with the much taller steepls in Gamla Stan not far behind it. The Storkska shut off its engines as we made the final approach into Stockholm’s harbor. The boat went quiet, and all we could here was water rushing by us and the rumble of the city before us. I stepped off the boat, at first a little unsure of myself on dry land for the first time in nearly three hours. We turned and looked one last time at the Storkska as it got ready for the return voyage to the archipelago.

Leaving the steamer behind us, we walked to Gamla Stan for one last coffee at a Stortoget café. This time we tried the Chokladkoppen, the café adjacent to the Koffikoppen. We soon regretted the decision: their café lattes were smaller, covered in chocolate and minus the cardamom we’d grown to love at the Koffikoppen. I was tempted to move next door but we were short on time; soon we’d have to return to the hotel to get ready for dinner in Bromma.

After buying some postcards and a bottle of wine to bring to dinner, we got to the Pensionat Oden. I then realized I needed to go to an ATM, just in case we needed to take a taxi rather than public transportation. Susanne went up to the hotel room while I hiked in a wide circle, going from block to block in search of a cash machine. Amazingly, despite the fact we were in the heart of Stockholm’s shopping district, I couldn’t find one. I remembered seeing an ATM with a long line several blocks south of the hotel, so I went there as a last resort. The machine was out of mine. Exasperated, I returned to the hotel and ended up exchanging $40 in cash at the front desk, receiving a much less favorable rate than I would have at the ATM.

It was now 5:05, and I had about 10 minutes to get ready for dinner. Tomas and Eva were expecting us at 6pm, and we weren’t sure how long public transportation would take to get there. Fortunately for us it was fairly straightforward: We walked four blocks to the local subway station, then traveled half a dozen stops north before transferring to what was locally called a “tram” but to us looked more like a light rail commuter train. Several stops later we arrived in Hoglandstorget, a square in suburban Bromma. From here, my directions said we were to cross the train tracks, go straight, “towards the sea,” until we found a street called Gronviksvagen. Susanne and I walked across the tracks and straight ahead, but couldn’t find a street by that name; there was also so much foliage that there was no sign of “the sea” in any direction. After a few minutes we asked a women walking to her car, and she pointed us down another street, in the same direction, that she said would eventually lead towards Gronviksvagen. We then walked downhill, switching streets several times in the hope of eventually finding the street in question. In a couple of minutes, Gronviksvagen magically appeared, and we soon arrived at Tomas and Eva’s house.

We spent the next several hours visiting with Tomas and Eva in their home, enjoying a delicious salmon dinner with a beautiful view of Malaren Lake. Tomas was a pioneer in electronic privacy in Sweden, and was now working on e-democracy projects, while his wife was an official in the Swedish equivalent of the National Science Foundation.

After dinner, Eva drove us back to the closest subway station so we wouldn’t have to transfer by way of the tram. It saved us about 20 minutes of the trip back to the hotel, and we arrived back at our room just after 10:30pm, full of good food and wine, ready to for a good night’s sleep.

Posted by acarvin at June 1, 2004 08:14 PM | TrackBack

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