Freshwater Lake Mälaren dominates the countryside west of Stockholm, and provides the backdrop to some of the capital region’s most appealing day-trip destinations. Boats sail frequently to Drottingholm, home to the Swedish royal family, as well as pretty Mariefred, an enchanting little town on the lake’s southern shore with a magnificent castle. Sweden’s main settlement during the ninth and tenth centuries, Birka, an island in Mälaren accessed by boat from Stockholm, is great for anyone interested in Sweden’s stirring Viking past. The main city on the lake is Västerås, a modern and thoroughly enjoyable place with good sandy beaches and some impressive Viking remains, too.
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Even if your time in Stockholm is limited, try to see the architecturally harmonious royal palace of Drottningholm. Beautifully located on the shores of leafy Lovön, an island 11km west of the centre and less than an hour away, Drottningholm is perhaps the greatest achievement of the two architects Tessin, father and son. Work began in 1662 on the orders of King Karl X’s widow, Eleonora, with Tessin the Elder modelling the new palace in a thoroughly French style – giving rise to the stock comparisons with Versailles. Apart from anything else, it’s considerably smaller than its French contemporary, utilizing false perspective and trompe l’oeil to bolster the elegant, though rather narrow, interior. On Tessin the Elder’s death in 1681, the palace was completed by his son, then already at work on Stockholm’s Kungliga Slottet.
Inside, good English notes are available to help you sort out the riot of Rococo decoration in the rooms, which largely dates from the time when Drottningholm was bestowed as a wedding gift on Princess Louisa Ulrika (a sister of Frederick the Great of Prussia). No hints, however, are needed to spot the influences in the Baroque “French” and the later “English” gardens that back onto the palace.
Since 1981, the Swedish royal family has lived out at Drottningholm, instead of in the city centre, using it as a permanent home. This move has accelerated efforts to restore parts of the palace to their original appearance, and the monumental grand staircase is now once again exactly as envisaged by Tessin the Elder.
Also within the extensive palace grounds is the Kina slott (Chinese Pavilion), a sort of eighteenth-century royal summerhouse. Originally built by King Adolf Fredrik as a birthday gift to Queen Louisa Ulrika in 1753, the structure is Rococo in design and, though it includes some Chinese flourishes which were the height of fashion at the time of construction, it is predominantly European in appearance.
Within the palace grounds, the Slottsteater dates from 1766, but its heyday was a decade later, when Gustav III imported French plays and theatrical companies, making Drottningholm the centre of Swedish artistic life. Take the guided tour and you’ll get a florid but accurate account of the theatre’s decoration: money to complete the building ran out in the eighteenth century, meaning that things are not what they seem – painted papier-mâché frontages are krona-pinching substitutes for the real thing. The original backdrops and stage machinery are still in place though, and the tour comes complete with a display of eighteenth-century special effects including wind and thunder machines, trapdoors and simulated lighting.
The island of Björkö (the name means “island of birches”), in Lake Mälaren, is the site of Sweden’s oldest town, BIRKA, which was founded around 750AD and is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. For over two centuries, Birka was the most important Viking trading centre in the northern countries, benefiting from its strategic location near the mouth of Lake Mälaren on the portage route to Russia and the Byzantine Empire. Today, a visit here is not only an opportunity to get to grips with Sweden’s stirring Viking heritage, thanks to the site’s excellent museum, but it’s also a chance to explore the tranquil waters of Lake Mälaren – should you choose to take the boat here, which is by far the best means of getting to Birka.
After Birka was founded in the mid-eighth century, tradesmen and merchants were quick to take advantage of the prosperous and rapidly expanding village, and the population soon grew to around one thousand. The future patron saint of Scandinavia, Ansgar, came here in 830 as a missionary at the instruction of the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis I, and established a church in an attempt to Christianize the heathen Swedes. They showed little interest and the Frankish monk preached on the island for just over a year before being recalled. Birka reached its height during the tenth century before sliding into decline: falling water levels in Lake Mälaren, the superior location of the Baltic island of Gotland for handling Russian-Byzantine trade and the emergence of nearby rival Sigtuna all led to its gradual disappearance after 975.
Major excavations began on the island in 1990 and the Birka museum (open in connection with boat arrivals and departures) now recounts the village’s history in superb detail. Exhibitions explain how, during Viking times, Björkö was actually two separate islands, with the main settlement located in the northwest corner of the northernmost island. As the land rose after the last Ice Age, the narrow channel between the two islands vanished, resulting in today’s single kidney-shaped island; remains of jetties have been found where the channel would have been, as well as a rampart which acted as an outer wall for the settlement. Displays of historical artefacts as well as scale models of the harbour and craftsmen’s quarters are also available for persual – the developed nature of Viking society is evident from the finds: scissors, pottery and even keys have all been excavated.
Among the remains of Viking-age life, the most striking is Birka’s graveyard, which is the largest Viking-age burial ground in Scandinavia with around four hundred burial mounds, some accompanied by standing stones. Totally surrounding the site of the former village, the graveyard can be found outside the rampart by turning right from where the boat arrives.
Located on the graceful southern shores of Lake Mälaren, MARIEFRED is a tiny, quintessentially Swedish village about an hour west of the city, whose peaceful attractions are bolstered by one of Sweden’s finest castles, Gripsholm, which you might recognize if you owned any ABBA albums back in the 1970s and 1980s, and just a short walk from the centre. A couple of minutes up from the quayside and you’re strolling through narrow streets where the well-kept wooden houses and little squares have scarcely changed in decades. Other than the castle, the only real sight is the railway museum, which offers a rare chance in Sweden to see working steam engines.
Steam-train fans will love the Railway Museum at the railway station in Läggesta (alight here for Mariefred), an adjoining small village five minutes’ bus ride south of Mariefred – you’ll probably have noticed the narrow-gauge tracks running all the way to the quayside. There’s an exhibition of old rolling stock and workshops, given added interest by the fact that narrow-gauge steam trains still run between Mariefred and Läggesta, a twenty-minute ride away on the Östra Sörmlands Järnväg railway. From Läggesta, it’s possible to pick up the regular SJ train back to Stockholm; check for connections at the Mariefred tourist office. Of course, you could always come to Mariefred from Stockholm by this route too.
Lovely though Mariefred is, it’s really only a preface to seeing Gripsholms slott, the imposing red-brick castle built on a round island just to the south (walk up the quayside, and you’ll see the path to the castle running across the grass by the water’s edge). In the late fourteenth century, Bo Johnsson Grip, the Swedish high chancellor, began to build a fortified castle at Mariefred, although the present building owes more to two Gustavs – Gustav Vasa, who started rebuilding in the sixteenth century, and Gustav III, who was responsible for major restructuring a couple of centuries later. Rather than the hybrid that might be expected, the result is rather pleasing – an engaging textbook castle with turrets, great halls, corridors and battlements. There are optional English-language guided tours, on which the key elements of the castle’s construction and history are pointed out: there’s a vast portrait collection that includes recently commissioned works depicting political and cultural figures as well as assorted royalty and nobility; some fine decorative and architectural work; and, as at Drottningholm, a private theatre, built for Gustav III. It’s too delicate to be used for performances these days, but in summer, plays and other events are staged out in the castle grounds; more information can be obtained from Mariefred’s tourist office. Even ABBA have put in an appearance here – in February 1974 Gripsholm was used as the cover shot for their Waterloo album.
Capital of the county of Västmanland and Sweden’s sixth biggest city, VÄSTERÅS is an immediately likeable mix of old and new. Today, this lakeside conurbation, 100km west of Stockholm, carefully balances its dependence on ABB, the industrial technology giant, with a rich history dating back to Viking times. If you’re looking for a place that’s lively and cosmopolitan, yet retains cobbled squares, picturesque wooden houses and even a sixth-century royal burial mound, you won’t go far wrong here. Västerås also boasts some of Lake Mälaren’s best beaches, all a short ferry ride from the city centre.
From the train station, it’s a short stroll up Köpmangatan to the twin cobbled squares of Bondtorget and Storatorget. The slender lane from the southwestern corner of Bondtorget leads to the narrow Svartån river, which runs right through the centre of the city; the bridge over the river here (known as Apotekarbron) has great views of the old wooden cottages which nestle eave-to-eave along the riverside. Although it may not appear significant (the Svartån is actually much wider further upstream), the river was a decisive factor in making Västerås the headquarters of one of the world’s largest engineering companies, Asea-Brown-Boveri (ABB), which needed a ready source of water for production; if you arrived by train from Stockholm you’ll have passed its metallurgy and distribution centres on approaching the station.
In Storatorget look out for the striking sculpture of a string of cyclists, the Asea Stream, which is supposed to portray the original workers of ABB as they made their way to work; today the sculpture is also a reminder of the impressive fact that Västerås has over 300km of bicycle tracks and is a veritable haven for cyclists.
North of the two main squares, the brick Domkyrkan dates from the thirteenth century, although its two outer aisles are formed from a number of chapels built around the existing church during the following two centuries. The original tower was destroyed by fire, leaving Nicodemus Tessin the Younger (who also built the Kungliga Slottet in Stockholm) to design the current structure in 1693. The highly ornate gilded oak triptych above the altar was made in Antwerp, and depicts the suffering and resurrection of Christ. To the right of the altar lies the tomb of Erik XIV, who died an unceremonious death imprisoned in Örbyhus castle in 1577 after eating his favourite pea soup – little did he realize it was laced with arsenic. Local rumour has it that the king’s feet had to be cut off in order for his body to fit the coffin, which was built too small. Today though, his elegant, black-marble sarcophagus rests on a plinth of reddish sandstone from Öland.
Beyond the cathedral is the most charming district of Västerås, Kyrkbacken, a hilly area that stretches just a few hundred metres. Here, steep cobblestone alleys wind between well-preserved old wooden houses where artisans and the petit bourgeoisie lived in the eighteenth century. Thankfully, the area was saved from the great fire of 1714 – which destroyed much of Västerås – and the wholesale restructuring of the 1960s. At the top end of Djäknegatan, the main street of the district, look for a narrow alley called Brunnsgränd, along which is a house bearing the sign “Mästermansgården”: it was once the abode of the most hated and ostracized man in the district – the town executioner.
A quick walk past the restaurants and shops of Vasagatan in the city centre will bring you to Storagatan, and eventually to the eye-catching modern Stadshuset in Fiskatorget – the building is a far cry from the Dominican monastery which once stood on this spot. Although home to the city’s administration, the Stadshuset is best known for its 47 bells, the largest of which is known as “the Monk” and can be heard across the city at lunchtimes.
Västerås Konstmuseum and Länsmuseum
In new premises at Karlsgatan 2, the town’s compact art museum, the Västerås Konstmuseum, is rather disappointing. It’s worth a quick look for its contemporary collections of Swedish and other Nordic art – but don’t expect too much. Sharing the same building, the Länsmuseum unfortunately also lacks direction, containing a rag-tag collection of obscure items such as children’s dolls and old typewriters, plonked in glass cabinets; you’ll glean little about the province’s history from this load of junk.
The Anundshög burial mound
Whilst in Västerås, try not to miss nearby Anundshög, the largest royal burial mound in Sweden, just 6km northeast of the city. Dating from the sixth century, the mound – at 60m in diameter and 14m high – is said to be the resting place of King Bröt-Anund and his stash of gold. Although unexcavated, the mound is widely thought to contain the remains of a cremation burial and a stone cist. Anundshög was also used for sessions of the local ting, or Viking parliament, and several other smaller burial mounds nearby suggest that the site was an important Viking meeting place over several centuries. Beside the main mound lie a large number of standing stones arranged end-to-end in the shape of two ships measuring 53m and 50m in diameter. The nearby rune stone dates from around 1000 AD though it’s not thought to be connected to the burial mound. The stone’s inscription, when translated, reads “Folkvid erected all these stones for his son, Hedin, brother of Anund. Vred carved the runes.”