Stockholm: In search of... a Nobel suite

When Chirac came to Stockholm, Valerie James had to move. To a literary shrine
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The Independent Travel

Prize-winners have to sleep somewhere, and in the Swedish capital they stay at the Grand Hotel. The Nobel Prize was created by Alfred Nobel (1833-1896), the Swedish chemist who invented dynamite, and who, in his will, set up the fund to award prizes in the fields of physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace. Then, in 1968, the Swedish National Bank added a prize for economic science.

The inventor of dynamite set up a prize for peace?

Nobel was engaged in the family business of making and selling explosives, and made his fortune from inventing dynamite, but he was never happy about its uses in war. Hence the peace prize.

So every year someone gets to be a Nobel Laureate?

Not every year, and not just individuals. Some years no prize has been awarded, most notably the peace prizes from 1914-1916, and 1939-1943. In 1917 and 1944 it was awarded to the International Red Cross. So prizes can go to organisations and be shared, too – Crick and Watson, de Klerk and Mandela. The literature prize has always been a singleton.

A big occasion for Stockholm then?

The biggest international occasion it has. The prizes for the sciences, literature and economics are awarded by Swedish academies and Stockholm hosts the prize-giving. The ceremonies are held each year on 10 December, the anniversary of Nobel's death. The first prizes were awarded in 1901 so this is an even bigger occasion – the centenary year.

What's it worth?

A citation, a gold medal and a cash amount, which is variable, but in the region of £660,000, and, of course, the acclaim of being a Nobel Laureate. The peace prize winner gets to meet the King of Norway, because that prize is awarded by a committee elected by the Norwegian parliament, and so is presented in Oslo. The other prizes are presented by the King of Sweden and the winners are guests of the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm.

So that's why they need the bed for the night?

Yes, and that is where it gets personal. I was in Stockholm interviewing some of the young Swedish chefs – among the best in the world; winners of most of the big culinary prizes, including the Bocuse d'Or, much to the chagrin of the French – and talking to people about the modern Swedish take on food, trying some of the restaurants, such as Fredsgatan 12, Bon Lloc, and Operkalleran, and seeing the sights.

The sights include City Hall?

Oh, yes, and much else besides. City Hall is quite something, and to foreign eyes, curiously unSwedish. Built in 1923, its exterior is all mediaeval simplicity, from the Swedish Romantic school of architecture, while the Blue Hall where the Nobel Dinner takes place is not blue, but red brick, and in the style of an Italian piazza.

Other sights include the Vasa Museum, containing a magnificent warship built in 1628, with too much grandiosity and top weight of canons, which sank in Stockholm harbour on its maiden voyage and was salvaged after 333 years. Because of their expertise, the Swedish restorers of the Vasa were consultants to the Mary Rose team, and, certainly, here in Stockholm, they make this piece of maritime history live.

And the Museum of Modern Art, and the royal palaces, and Skansen, the world's oldest open-air museum, with old houses, farm buildings, etc, representing all regions of Sweden. And Stockholm itself, the old town, and the newer districts, where you will always find some parks and trees, and because the city is built on 14 islands, water, with views across Lake Malaren and the Baltic.

And the bed for the night?

That was in the Grand Hotel, an old European-style grand hotel, with marble columns, chandeliers, and Directoire furniture. I was staying there, in fairly humble circumstances on the third floor, when Jacques Chirac forced me to become a Nobel prize winner (you have no idea how much pleasure it gives to write that).

In the morning I was at a cheese-tasting in the Ostermalmshallen, a covered market whose quality produce could give Harrods a run for its money, when the guest relations manager at the Grand tracked me down. "We have M Chirac and his entourage arriving here," he said, "and his security people insist on having exclusive use of the third floor. May we move you, to a better room, a suite?" "Fine," I said. "What key do I ask for when I get back to the hotel?" "The Nobel suite," he said.

I returned to the hotel some hours later, after lunching at a paper-clothed table in the fish market section of the hall, took the private lift up to the rooftop suite, and let it go to my head. Moving from the octagonal hall with its beautiful marquetry floor, I found the sitting room, with double doors leading off to the bedroom – both classically and exquisitely furnished. The bathroom is also octagonal, the bath placed centre stage, under a roof light.

This is the suite soon to be occupied by VS Naipaul, for it is where the literary laureates always stay, and on every wall are photographs of his predecessors; Mann, Galsworthy, O'Neill, Pirandello, TS Eliot, Bertrand Russell, Churchill, Hemingway, Camus, Steinbeck, Sartre, Marquez, Walcott, Heaney, etc, etc. I leaned against the walls a lot, and sat at the desk, pen poised, hoping for some genius to rub off, although also aware that some of those once stellar names are read little nowadays.

What's the view like?

From the circular dormer windows in the bedroom and sitting room, a view of the lake and the Royal Palace, but from the bath, straight up to the stars. For a hack, sharing a bath with history and genius, it's top of the world, ma, top of the world.

How do I get there?

SAS flies to Stockholm from seven British airports. From Heathrow there are eight flights a day, with a return costing from £94.70, including tax (0845 60 727 727). The Grand Hotel has rooms from £130 per night. The Nobel suite costs £718, per night, including breakfast (00 468 611 8686).

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