The Weasel

The glacial snap of Stockholm in November is offset by jugs of fiery acquavit and contemplating the city's bizarre maritime past
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DON'T ASK why, but I found myself in Stockholm for a couple of days last week. Though a surpassingly beautiful city, lodged on a cluster of Baltic islands, I'd hesitate before recommending an out-of-season break - not so much because the temperature was a bracing -6C, but because the eye-wateringly extortionate British Airways fare was the wrong side of five hundred quid. Still, with someone else footing the bill, I commenced explorations with a light heart.

Stockholm must be one of the few capitals to have dangerous-looking rapids hurtling through its heart. Near the parliament building, half a dozen anglers dangled lines in the black torrent. Even for a nation as fish- obsessed as the Swedes, this appeared absurdly optimistic - but then, at the feet of one fisherman, I saw a calligraphic smear of blood in the powdery snow leading to a two-and-a-half-foot salmon.

Though I missed the department store where Greta Garbo once sold hats, I was reminded of another distinctive contribution of Swedish cinema in Stockholm's Medieval Museum. Built around the sole surviving fragment of city wall (rarely can grouting have been so celebrated), this institution contains several replica medieval houses (apparently, dried cod played a big part in interior decor back then) and an ancient wooden boat extracted from the mud of the Baltic (as we shall see, such items are by no means rare in Stockholm's museums). In a cabinet, a couple of 14th-century skulls grinned horribly. One was punctured by a bullet-hole in the middle of the forehead, the other had a neat square hole clipped by a crossbow bolt. Underlining the transience of life, a medieval mural featured the figure of Death playing chess with a peasant. So that's where Ingmar Bergman (and in due course Monty Python, Woody Allen, French & Saunders etc) got it from.

I was so cheered at finding the original of the great Swedish joke that, despite the slush, I walked off with a spring in my stride.

MY NEXT stop was the National Museum, the Swedish equivalent of the V&A, where the annual Excellent Swedish Design exhibition drew an appreciative crowd of spectators. Judging by the Sixties-style cabinets and chairs which predominated among the 40-odd winners, anyone who has clung on to their G-plan furniture will soon be back at the cutting edge of fashion. Amid the long-stemmed aquavit glasses, hefty frying pans and grained wooden spoons, there were just two items from Sweden's most popular export after Abba. Sadly for Ikea fans, they won't be able to get their hands on one of these prize-winners, though it was judged "absolutely the right design for conserving Ikea's culture". It was a manual for the firm's Swedish employees, modelled on a child's exercise book. But perhaps the other item will have pride of place in many British homes soon. It was a cardboard box commended for "admirable information graphics and pedagogical colour scheme".

ASIDE FROM the belief that all Swedish women are blonde goddesses (they look pretty much like the British version), the most commonly held misapprehension about Sweden is that pubs are impossibly expensive. We tend to forget that pubs are now impossibly expensive in Britain too. In fact, if you choose the right place, Swedish drink is somewhat cheaper. In the Pelikan, a pleasantly old-fashioned beer-hall recommended in the Rough Guide, an ice-cooled flask containing four measures of aquavit was a touch over pounds 3.

Like many other patrons, I accompanied this combustible beverage with a local speciality called pytt i panna - a sort of corned-beef hash topped with a fried egg and accompanied by beetroot. As a result of this calorific re-fuelling, the glacial night felt positively Caribbean when I emerged.

SAUNTERING THROUGH the cobbled streets (mercifully traffic-free) of Stockholm's old town on the following afternoon, I popped into the cathedral. This was a model of Swedish restraint, aside from a flamboyant baroque statue of a camp-looking dragon being given a seeing-to by the notorious vermifuge St George. Nearby, trumpet-tootling angels raised giant-sized crowns over a pair of royal pews which resembled padded cells.

It's very handy for Sweden's bicycling royalty since the palace is just round the corner. No railings surround this fairly modest structure so I ambled into a central courtyard where, in the murk, there seemed to be just one other tourist staring into mid-air. Suddenly, he stomped towards me and thrust an automatic rifle in my face, then turned and clattered back to his original post.

A 10-MINUTE ferry journey to yet another island takes you to a specially built museum containing the Vasa. This preposterously vast warship sank in 1628 after a maiden voyage lasting just twice as long as my ferry journey. Raised from the mud in 1961, it is hard to beat as an example of hubris carved in wood. Because shipworms cannot survive in the brackish Baltic, the detail of the vessel is in far better nick than the Mary Rose, which an undiscriminating eye might mistake for a lumberheap. But even non-mariners can instantly see there is something radically wonky about the Vasa. With every inch covered in coats of arms and grotesque carvings, the stern resembles a nightmarish wooden skyscraper. It goes up and up and up. The main culprit for this botch seems to have been Gustavus Adolphus, who demanded an additional gun-deck. Then, as now, a prince could not be naysayed for ridiculous architectural notions. The first time a puff of wind filled the sails, the vessel went down "sails, flags and all", with its skeleton crew of 50. No one was ever blamed.

Possessions recovered from this juggernaut reveal that the Swedish obsession with design is nothing new. The beautifully turned wooden mortar, the fashionably ethnic terracotta cooking pots, the miniature backgammon set, the pewter plates, even the two pewter chamber pots, all look as if they could have been sold yesterday. This is literally true since copies are available at the museum shop. Cooking pots will set you back pounds 25; pewter plates pounds 125. No chamber pots, sadly. But the souvenir which took my eye was a half-size version of one of the Vasa's cannons for pounds 8,000. "Yes, certainly it fires," the shop manager assured me. "You can buy cannon balls for 130 kroner [pounds 10]."

I was tempted to bring one of these back to Weasel Villas, but I suppose British Airways would have kicked up a fuss about bringing weapons on board. Instead, as part of my long-running campaign to induce a love of fish in the carnivorous Mrs Weasel, I took back three sides of gravadlax. Inexplicably, she was a bit sniffy about this romantic souvenir of Scandinavia.

No taste, some people.

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