Land Of The Civilized Vikings

30th April
Rating: (6 votes)

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No sign of Hagar The Horrible in the tranquil capital of Sweden.

When I announced my intention to visit Sweden, some of my work colleagues, who had only ever met Swedish people at football matches, gave me the benefit of their experience. They were all tall and blond, their country was massively expensive and they had among the highest standards of living, and suicide rates, in the world. Even in defeat, their supporters were praised by my colleagues as “very civilized.” “What were you expecting,” I asked, “Hagar the Horrible?”

Stockholm isn’t a name regularly featured in travellers’ tales of the world’s most beautiful cities, but I have rarely been so impressed by anywhere. Arriving on an overnight train from Norway, I was surprised to find early morning fishermen at the waterside near the main station on one of the fourteen islands on which it is built. The almost total absence of heavy industry makes it one of the world’s cleanest capitals and, even in the centre, fish were abundant. Across one of many bridges, the Parliament House occupies a little island of its own, but is easily accessible to the public in this famously open society. In the old town, Gamla Stan, medieval buildings and alleyways recalled the ancientness of Prague, but combined with the affluence of Zurich. Inevitably, the watery location has earned it the nickname the Venice of the North, although it actually sits among the freshwater of Lake Malaren rather than polluted canals. Film director Ingmar Bergman said it wasn’t a city at all, but “a rather large village, set in the middle of some forest and some lakes.” Whatever, it was one of the most attractive cities I had ever seen and I thought it a great pity that so very few people knew it. That, of course, was largely because only a few people could afford to get to know it, and I wasn’t one of them.


The spectacular capital of Sweden was matched by the spectacular cost of almost everything. Despite being on holiday, I was reduced to dining in fast food restaurants and drinking two beers per evening. One night I splashed out on more traditional fare in a proper restaurant. It advertised a “Swedish Delicacy - Roast Reindeer.” After eliciting an assurance from the staff that it wasn’t Rudolph, I ordered some. It tasted, not surprisingly, like a milder version of venison. I’d found budget accommodation in a highly unusual floating youth hostel, a converted sailing ship moored at another island. I was fortunate to get a dorm with a view, of the old town, through the portholes.

Sweden has been criticised as being the most regimented society in the democratic world. The continuous 40 year rule of the Social Democratic Party imposed 44% income tax as the norm, but this paid for hugely generous social welfare policies. It was unusual to walk around a capital and not see anyone begging or sleeping rough and Stockholm has also topped a travellers’ poll as Europe’s Most Honest City. After a Sunday afternoon amble around the Djurgarden park, which occupies most of yet another island, I came to a pedestrian crossing on the way back to my boat. Although there was no traffic approaching in either direction, a family of Swedes was dutifully awaiting permission to proceed from the green crossing signal (you don’t call it a green man in politically correct Scandinavia). Some people find this laughable, or even sinister, but maybe they were just teaching their children how not to get knocked down. When in Stockholm, as the Romans might say, do as the Stockholmers do, so I waited with them.

A reminder that one of the world’s safest and most well ordered nations wasn’t entirely perfect came in the shape of a typically understated memorial to the late Prime Minister, Olof Palme, at the place where he was shot dead after leaving a cinema with his wife in 1986. The man initially blamed had his conviction overturned on appeal and is now himself dead, so no one is currently held responsible for the murder. Like John F. Kennedy, suspects range from the CIA to the KGB, but the mad gunman theory remains the officially preferred explanation.

I bought a t-shirt displaying a storm tossed longboat and the words “Sweden - Land of the Vikings.” Given the Vikings’ reputation for behaviour which was, shall we say, not always admirable, it seemed odd that they should be referenced to promote the country in this way. I can’t imagine t-shirts in Poland saying “Land of the Vandals,” or in Japan saying “Land of the Kamikaze pilots.” I’m sure there are other examples.


But that was then and this is now. By common international consent, Sweden is one of the richest, safest, most peaceful and most egalitarian countries in which to live. It is all the more tragically inexplicable, then, that it really is known for having one of the planet’s highest suicide rates. Maybe it’s just that, in such a successful society, it is all the more difficult to come to terms with relative failure. Or, in an inversion of the old Frank Sinatra song. If I can’t make it there, I can’t make it anywhere.

And, indeed, it looked like a eugenicist’s dream. Almost everyone was tall without being too tall, slim without being too slim and appeared happy, healthy and wealthy. Bjorn Borg and Agnetha Faltskog look-alikes filled the busy, but not too busy, streets. It just shows how far a people can progress in a thousand years. Hagar the Horrible and his Viking hordes were nowhere to be seen.

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  • 30th April by ElliFry

    Excellent David! Made me want to get on a plane and visit now. Sadly I have exams to revise for...

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  • 30th April by hmoat 01

    I totally agree with you, David. It's over 20 years since I visited Stockholm - but I always said it was one of the most beautiful cities in Europe.

    I stayed with my friend in her Aunt's (empty) flat, so Stockholm was quite affordable then. I do remember though, the fresh produce was really manky. I expect it's much better now.

    An informative read as always with the hallmark David Ross dry wit!

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  • 1st May by Liz Cleere

    Stockholm is one of those places sailors always want to visit for the very reasons you describe. But the high cost of everything would put me off, unless we came into some kind of windfall (which will also pay for an on-board heating system).

    Never been, but spent quite a lot of time in Norway when I was younger and loved it. I'd like to go.

    Poor tortured Agnetha seems to have suffered from the Garbo 'I vant to be left alone' syndrome. Maybe there really is a lugubrious and very private side to the nature of many Swedes?

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  • 1st May by Rhoda1

    I've been desperately trying to get the word 'borborygmus' into an Experience ...  Any advice welcomed.  ;-D

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  • 1st May by Rhoda1

    (Sorry David, this was meant to go on Alan's Experience!)

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  • 1st May by Rhoda1

    Great insights as ever, David - serious but with humour

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  • 1st May by JayR

    And you didn't mention Abba once.  Or IKEA, described to me by a Swede as the New Vikings.  I think Stockholm is a wonderful city and your writing makes it come alive.

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  • 3rd May by DavidRoss

    Thanks for all the comments. I did sort of mention Abba, as Agnetha Faltskog was the blonde woman singer. Actually, Liz, you'd have a big advantage living on a boat as you could park it right in the city centre. If you went in midsummer, you might not even need the onboard heating system.

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  • 5th May by DrG

    Rings so true David. I like the analogy to Prague crossed with Zurich, and the 'X' but without being too 'X'...

    My only visit was a 10h pitstop between flights from Abisko (where it had been hovering around zero degrees Celsius) to Hamburg. I arrived in Stockholm to an early spring heatwave (30C) and sweltered my way into Gamla Stan in my Arctic gear. I only had a certain number of krona with me and I spent all of them on a pair of (rather dodgy) shorts! It was a trade-off scenario... keep the arctic gear on and have to replenish my bodily fluids every twenty minutes, or shed the layers but not drink! As all the happy, healthy and wealthy Swedes were in shorts, I felt I had to follow suit!

    Cheers, DrG

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  • 6th May by steve48

    Thanks for this, David. Places like Stockholm really interest me. When did you go there? I've been to Sweden but not to Stockholm. It's interesting that it's built on 14 islands – does the city 'front' the water or turn it's back on it?

    I think you might find some significant differences if you were to go back now. We went to Sweden three years ago and were out in the provinces, rather than the capital city, but we found prices to be much the same as here (in the north of England). It was also quite a multi-cultural place – not as much as Britain, but getting there. It's still a very neat, tidy, well-ordered sort of place, as you described, but apparently it has slipped way down the rankings for suicide rate – now 30th instead of 1st (although I suppose that could be because other countries have risen rather than Sweden declined) – statistics!!

    Anyway, thanks for an interesting write-up.


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  • 7th May by DavidRoss


    I was surprised myself to find that it was as long ago as 1993 when I was there, so, yes, some of what I say is out of date now. The city mostly fronts the water, although this varies at different locations.


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