Beautifully set on its own island, just south of Stadsparken, is the castle, Kalmar Slott. Its foundations were probably laid in the twelfth century; a century later, it became the best-defended castle in Sweden under King Magnus Ladulås. Today, if the castle doesn’t appear to be defending anything in particular, that’s because a devastating fire in the 1640s laid waste to Gamla Stan, after which Kalmar was moved to its present site on Kvarnholmen.
The most significant event to take place within the castle’s walls was when the Danish Queen Margareta instigated the Union of Kalmar in 1397, which made her ruler over all Scandinavia, but given the level of hatred between the Swedes and Danes, the union didn’t stand much chance of long-term success. The castle was subject to eleven sieges as the two rival nations took power in turn; surprisingly, it remained almost unscathed. By the time Gustav Vasa became king of Sweden in 1523, Kalmar Slott was beginning to show signs of wear and tear, and so the king set about rebuilding it, while his sons, who later became Eric XIV and Johan III, took care of decorating the interior. The result, a fine Renaissance palace, is still preserved in fantastic detail today.
Unlike many other southern Swedish castles, this one is straight out of a storybook, boasting turrets, ramparts, a moat and drawbridge and a dungeon. The fully furnished interior – reached by crossing an authentically reconstructed wooden drawbridge and going through a stone-arched tunnel beyond the grassy ramparts – is great fun for a wander. Among the many highlights are the King’s Chamber with its coffered ceiling, the Queen’s Suite and the Golden Room. The tour guides will tell you that the castle is rattling with ghosts, but for more tangible evidence of life during the Vasa period, the kitchen fireplace is good enough; it was built to accommodate the simultaneous roasting of three cows. There’s a splendidly minimalist café just inside the walls, dominated by a wonderfully evocative oil painting of a moody chamber interior.
The King’s Chamber
The King’s Chamber (King Eric’s bedroom) is the most visually exciting – the wall frieze is a riot of vividly painted animals and shows a wild boar attacking Eric and another man saving him. Eric apparently suffered from paranoia, believing his younger brother Johan wanted to kill him. To this end, he had a secret door, which you can see cut into the extravagantly inlaid wall panels, with escape routes to the roof in the event of fraternal attack. Eric’s suspicions may have been justified – Johan is widely believed to have poisoned him with arsenic in 1569.
The Queen’s Suite
Though originally in the King’s Chamber, his oak bed now resides in the Queen’s Suite, which is otherwise surprisingly void of furniture. It is the only surviving piece of furniture from the castle and was originally stolen from Denmark. It is curiously decorated with carved faces on the posts, but all their noses have been chopped off – the king believed that the nose contained the soul and didn’t want the avenging souls of the rightful owners coming to haunt him.
The Golden Room
Adjoining the Queen’s Suite, the Golden Room, with its magnificent ceiling, should have been Johan’s bedroom but sibling hatred meant he didn’t sleep here while Eric lived. There are a couple of huge and intriguing portraits: though Gustav Vasa was already of an advanced age when his was painted, he appears young-looking, with unseemly muscular legs. The royal artist had been ordered to seek out the soldier with the best legs and paint those, before attempting a sympathetic portrayal of Vasa’s face. The portrait next to his is of Queen Margareta, her ghostly white countenance achieved in real life through the daily application of lead and arsenic. Isolated on another wall is King Eric’s portrait, hung much higher up than the others: his family believed that the mental illness from which he supposedly suffered could be caught by looking into his eyes – even images of them.