.. walk in the city of my youth: Leif Rosqvist goes for a walk through his old neighborhoods in the heart of Stockholm.
Stockholm, Stockholm, the city of cities, the Venice of the north, the city of my youth.
I first became familiar with the text to Evert Taube’s “Stockholms Melodi” (Stockholm’s melody) when my grandfather sang from a small song book when I was very young. The text has been etched into my mind since then. Thus, this story, written by my young self, with a bright view on life, my future and my Swedish heritage.
Se hur hela Uppland står i lågor.
Kvällssol brinner bortom Solna skog.
Grön som ärg mot violetta vågor,
Brunnsviksvassen står där gäddan slog.
Långt i syd mot bleknad himmel blänker
fönstrens rad som guld på Södermalm,
och på slottet vakten flaggan sänker
Stockholm svalkas efter dagens kvalm.
See how the whole of Uppland is in flames.
Evening sun burning beyond the Solna forest.
Green verdigris against the violet waves,
Brunnsviksreed stands where the pike splashed.
Far in the South against the faded sky shining
windows shine with gold at Södermalm,
and the palace guard lowers the flag
Stockholm is cooled after today’s suffocation.
(Only the first verse is cited here, per copyright)
Stockholm was built mainly because of the waterways. The land was high in those days, making it impossible to travel by boat or ship between Lake Mälaren and the Baltic Sea. Instead, everything on the vessels, brought for the purpose of trade, had to be reloaded in Stockholm. The goods transported included iron, copper, tar and fur. Its strategic location made it important to fortify the islands of the inner city with a wall. Old Stockholm was located on Helgeandsholmen, established during the 13th century. It was not long, however, until the city expanded between the bridges, and today we know this part of the city as Gamla Stan (Old Town).
Trade within Sweden, as well as between nearby countries in the Baltic Sea, grew immensely in only a short period of time, and the old settlements in Lake Mälaren, such as Birka, Helgö and Sigtuna, were soon abandoned and the settlers moved into Gamla Stan (Old Town).
The name Stockholm was first recorded in the Chronicle of Eric (Erikskrönikan), probably written between 1322 and 1332. According to this, Stockholm was founded by Birger Jarl in 1252. It was named Stockholm, referring to the town between the bridges.
The city houses were all rather simple, manufactured of wood, while the Storkyrkan (Stockholm Cathedral) and the tower named Three Crowns were majestic. It was an overcrowded city and fires were common, making life rather hazardous. The buildings surviving from these days are mostly churches, along with fragmentary pieces of the houses. However, the burned houses were soon replaced by houses built in a similar fashion, so the narrow streets and high buildings still give a medieval impression.
The 14th and 15th centuries meant rearrangements as well as enlargements to the city, and Norrmalm and Södermalm grew up rather quickly. As most of the inhabitants were of German descent, the northern German architecture is clearly shown in the Old Town. When Gustav Vasa entered the scene (in the 1500s), drastic changes were at hand. He made Sweden an independent monarchy and Stockholm the capital of Sweden. Officially, however, it was not until 1634 that Stockholm gained this status.
By the end of the 17th century, Stockholm had changed once more. Knights, royal emissaries, and merchants who were rich enough, had palaces and large castles constructed, such as the House of the Knights and the Royal Palace. Stockholm now consisted of several neighborhoods, and immigration into the city increased.
During the 19th century, the city was rebuilt and old neighborhoods were updated. A number of public buildings were erected: hospitals, railway stations and post offices.
Trams became the main transportation system, and the working class moved out into the suburbs—Sundbyberg was the first, others followed rapidly. The elite, however, began moving out to Djursholm, where villas were erected.
During the 18th century, Stockholm was known as a cultural center and an important trade center. As the steamships and the railway had their centers here, it also became a hub of international trading.
During the 20th century, the city was transformed into a large cosmopolitan city with several additional areas, all of them identified as Greater Stockholm. The following Stockholm Walkabout covers part of the inner city of Stockholm.
The sun is barely more than a squint over Klara Church to the east and life is swarming out of the old houses, when I start my slow walk from Tegelhögen (the Brick Pile) at Fridhemsplan, where my grandmother lived, in the direction of Stockholm’s Old Town. I walk along Karlberg’s Canal toward the City Town Hall. The sunlight is now glittering sharply, and I can hear the thrushes singing in the bushes. A slight scent of jasmine and roses is in the air.
As I pass the City Town Hall I see a golden tomb on the east side of the building. The myth says this is the tomb of Birger Jarl, the founder of Stockholm, the knight who brought the Swedes together in the 13th century.
To my left is Klara Sjö (Lake Klara), a canal in central Stockholm. Separating the island Kungsholmen (the King’s Island) from the northern city district Norrmalm, the canal connects Barnhusviken to Riddarfjärden.
Together with Barnhusviken, Karlbergssjön and Karlbergskanalen form part of the nameless body of water which separates Kungsholmen from the mainland districts north and east of it, Norrmalm and Vasastaden. Four bridges stretch over the canal: Stadshusbron, Klarabergsviadukten, Kungsbron and Blekholmsbron, the first of which limit the maximum height in the canal to 3.3 meters (just under 11 feet).
Several prominent buildings are located near the canal. Most notably, the Stockholm City Town Hall south of it, but also the Serafimerlasarettet (Seraphim Hospital) on the western shore, in operation 1752-1990. The canal’s name is derived from the vicinity to the Klara district, in turn, named after a former monastery dedicated to St. Clare. The canal is called a lake simply because it was a lake until continuous land fillings transformed it into a narrow strait in the 18th century. Several local streets and other structures are still named after the small island Blekholmen (Pitch Isle) once located here and is today part of the eastern shore.
From the top of the City Town Hall tower I am able to see Riddarfjärden and Old Town. Riddarfjärden, literally the Knight Firth, is a bay of Lake Mälaren in central Stockholm, where Lake Mälaren (from the west) drains into the Baltic Sea (to the east). The island I see is today called Stadsholmen and constitutes Stockholm’s Old Town. It is surrounded by land to the north (Norrmalm), and south (Södermalm), and by water to the west (Riddarfjärden) and east (Stockholms ström).
Riddarholmskyrkan (the Knight Church) was inaugurated in 1300 and is one of Stockholm’s oldest buildings, with the oldest brick walls. The church is the burial site of the Swedish monarchs. It is located on the island of Riddarholmen (Knight Island), close to the Royal Palace in Stockholm. Many archipelago steamships (Waxholms båtar) pass by in the bay at Riddarholmen.
The Old Town
Now I approach Gamla Stan (Old Town) and stroll along the cobbled street of Stora Nygatan (the Grand New Street) toward Kornhamns Torg (Grain square). The street was created as part of a new town plan following the great fire of 1625, and probably dates back to about 1630. An official attempt to name the street Konungsgatan (The Kings Street), a name known from 1637, obviously failed. The southern part of the street dates back from before the fire.
The house at 2 Stora Nygatan is the Bergstrahl House, originally built in the 1640s by Erik Ryning, a member of the regency of Queen Christina, and designed by Simon de la Vallée. In the 18th century it was owned by secretary Gottfried Sack who ran a tavern and a brothel there, frequently visited by the troubadour Carl Michael Bellman, and the authors and poets Karl Israel Hallman and Olof Kexél. When Sack died in 1774, Hallman delivered an oration to his memory which became the starting point for the order Par Bricole, a society still devoted to cultivating and preserving the Swedish cultural heritage, especially of the 18th century. The building was thereafter the location for newspapers and social clubs associated with the dawning Swedish democracy. Lately the address is used by state-level institutions such as the Supreme Court.
From Stora Nygatan I’m able to see across Västerlångatan toward the Royal Castle and Storkyrkan—a majestic scene in the morning sun. Now I walk toward Kornhamns Torg, passing many interesting shops and restaurants.
The square is named after the harbor Kornhamn where grain was delivered to the city by ships from the Lake Mälaren area in the Middle Ages. The grain was stored in an open space called Korntorget (Grain Square). At the time, however, the city looked entirely different, and this square was actually located in the square known today as Järntorget (Iron Square). The latter was renamed after the iron trade started to grow in importance, and also for a while gave Kornhamnstorg the name Järnbron (Iron Bridge). The square
was probably the result of the city plan created for the western part of the old town in the 1620s, though the space was referred to as Åkaretorget (Carter Square) during that century, arguably because of the horse-drawn vehicles stationed there. Both historically and in modern times, the names Kornhamn and Kornhamnstorg have been used for the square, the harbor and the present quay.
In the early 1740s, the harbor and its quays were restored along the canal separating Riddarholmen from the rest of the old town. Here I am able to see a lot of interesting 19th century houses.
A soft perfume of new mown hay, from some island in the Stockholm archipelago, touches my face as I slowly walk across the Grain Square deeper into Old Town. Perhaps it could be a piece of our history softly speaking to me about long gone glory times.
Close by, I enter Järntorget (Iron Square) where I immediately find the statue of our friend, the “national troubadour” Evert Taube. Nothing could be more Swedish or “Stockholmish” than Evert Taube.
I face north toward one of the most remarkable streets, Mårten Trotzigs Gränd (Alley of Mårten Trotzig), an alley leading from Västerlånggatan and Järntorget up to Prästgatan and Tyska Stallplan.
The width of its 36 steps tapers down to a mere 90 centimeters (about 3 feet), making the alley the narrowest street in Stockholm.
The alley is named after the German merchant and burgher Mårten Trotzig (1559-1617), who, born in Wittenberg, immigrated to Stockholm in 1581, and bought properties in the alley in 1597 and 1599, where he opened a shop. According to sources from the late 16th century, he traded with iron and copper, and by 1595 had sworn his burgher oath. He later became one of the richest merchants in Stockholm. He was beaten to death during a trip to Kopparberg in the Bergslagen area in 1617.
As I walk across the square I meet an old friend I haven’t seen in many years and we stop to catch up on our lives. As I stand there I get a gleam from high in the south hills through the narrow streets, which is a fascinating view. The sun is now delivering a wonderful backlight for a potential photograph.
I continue my walk on Västerlångatan toward the Royal Castle. Västerlånggatan (Western Long Street) is a street stretching between the squares Mynttorget (Coin Square) and Järntorget—it follows the course of the city’s now demolished 13th century defensive wall.
The blocks along the street are elongated but only a few meters in width; those on the eastern side are oriented lengthwise, and those on the western crosswise. Only four blocks form the eastern side of the street while some 20 are lined up along the western side. Most of the front doors of the buildings are located either on the quiet Prästgatan, the parallel street passing along the eastern side, or in one of the numerous alleys on the street’s western side. The intact façades of the northernmost blocks are hiding the semi-detached offices of the Parliament. To the south are the remaining numerous and very narrow blocks and alleys which before the great fire of 1625 occupied the entire western side of the street.
Since the Middle Ages, the street, Storkyrkobrinken, and various sections of it appears under different names referring to various activities and prominent buildings. In medieval times, Storkyrkobrinken was the main route leading up to the village church at the top of Stadsholmen. The crossing street Västerlånggatan was the street passing outside the city wall on the city’s western side, and there was a city gate which permitted Storkyrkobrinken to enter the city. In 1422 Storkyrkobrinken is referred to as Sancte Nicolauese Port (Gate of St. Nicholas) while the section outside the city wall (west of Västerlångatan) appears as St. Laurentii Gränd (Alley of St. Lawrence) in 1436, a name it retained throughout the second half of that century.
From Storkyrkobrinken I turn onto Prästgatan (Priest’s Street) a street stretching from a cul-de-sac west of the Royal Palace to Österlånggatan in the southern corner of the old town. Prästgatan forms a parallel street to Västerlångatan.
What a joy! Remembering my grandfather happily singing the song “Serenad i Prästgatan” by Evert Taube, I’m suddenly full of joy and aware of the deep, deep soul of Stockholm streaming through me.
Serenaden i Prästgatan
Ah, ah, haha! mina bröder!
Ett fönster står öppet åt söder!
Undan gardin! Fram min blondin!
Skynda, mitt hjärta förblöder!
Stjärnan på himlen den höga
sig speglar förtjust i ditt öga!
Är hon blondin? Ja, hon är fin!
Dock solosång båtar oss föga.
Men stuprännan ger
en chans, kavaljer!
Jag klättrar opp och sedan ner!
Blondin med de rosende kinder
och gyllne böljande hår!
Med barm lätt beslöjad och trinder
du i ditt fönster står.
Prästinna i prästgatans vimmel
låt upp din port och sal,
ty längs stuprännan upp till din himmel
är vägen allt för hal.
Due to Copyright only the first part of the song is recited here.
Ah, ah, haha! my brothers!
A window is open to the south!
Put aside the curtain! Until my blonde!
Hurry, my heart bleeds to death!
The star high in the sky
reflects keenly in your eye!
Is she blonde? Yes, she is fine!
However, solo singing affects us little.
But the drain-pipe gives
a chance, cavalier!
I climb up and then down!
The blonde with the rosy cheeks
and golden flowing hair!
With thinly veiled bosom and voluptuous
you stand in your window.
Priestess of the priest street crowd
open up your door and hall,
because along the drainpipe up to your heaven
the path is too slippery.
Torsten, Frögunn and the German Church
In the corner of Prästgatan and Kåkbrinken is a rune stone in the wall, carrying the inscription, “Torsten and Frögunn had this stone erected in memory of their son.” The stone was probably brought to Stockholm to be used as building material, from where is not known. As the female name Frögunn is known as a pagan name, the stone is believed to be from around 1000, thus being about 200 years older than the city itself.
I continue my walk along the narrow cobblestone street toward Tyska kyrkan (the German Church), sometimes called St. Gertrude’s Church, considered one of the most beautiful churches in Stockholm. I cross a couple streets and continue my walk on Österlånggatan toward the Royal Castle.
Österlånggatan is a street stretching northward from Järntorget to Slottsbacken by the Royal Castle. Major sights include the statue of St. George and the Dragon on Köpmanbrinken and the restaurant Den Gyldene Freden at number 51, established in 1722, and mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records as one of the oldest restaurants with an unaltered interior.
I immediately recognize that the street tempo is much slower in this part of Old Town, giving me more space and more time in shops and cafés.
Now I can see the statue of St. George and the Dragon. The hagiography of St. George is Eastern in origin, brought back with the Crusaders and retold with the courtly appurtenances belonging to the genre of Romance. The earliest known depictions of the motif are from 10th or 11th century Cappadocia and 11th century Georgia and Armenia. In the iconography of Eastern Orthodoxy, George had been depicted as a soldier since at least the 7th century. The earliest known surviving narrative of the dragon episode is an 11th century Georgian text. Whether or not I’m a believer in the old text I must express my admiration for the artistry involved in making such a beautiful statue.
After walking along I arrive at the Royal Castle from the east at Slottsbacken, and I stroll through Norrbro to Kungsträdgården (the Royal Garden) where I sit down at one of the cafés to have a soft drink. It is early afternoon and the sky is blue, warm and nice. There, in front of me is another famous statue, the one of Karl XII with his arm raised pointing east. He had some unfinished business with the Russians at the time, that I think did him in at the Poltava battle during his Russian campaigns 1707-1709.
Nothing has really been the same since, I suppose.
Oh, it is so nice to see Stockholm when it is dressed in its beautiful summer attire, the birds are singing and I’m able to sense the best of the best and then slowly start walking again.
I could remain in the area enjoying the afternoon sun or I could hop on a tram and go to Djurgården and Skansen, but that is an entirely different story.
Written by Leif Rosqvist
(‘This story is based on information from my own experience in Stockholm as a young man.’)
References and more reading and information: