Money, Money, Money’… ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’… ‘Mamma Mia’… In one of the first rooms at the newly
Money, Money, Money’… ‘Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!’… ‘Mamma Mia’… In one of the first rooms at the newlyinaugurated ABBA museum in Stockholm, I spot an old-fashioned, red telephone. According to the sign, only the four members of ABBA know its number — apparently, they sometimes call and chat with random fans. Amazed at the thought I stop and wait, but nothing happens. In my head the song goes on: ‘Ring Ring’…
It is now over three decades since ABBA disbanded in 1982, after a ten-year, chart-busting career selling 380 million albums worldwide and making pop one of Sweden’s greatest exports ever. I discover that I still, despite my poor memory, remember the lyrics and have no problem singing along with the many interactive displays. Visitors can record with ABBA, act in an ABBA promo video, remix ABBA songs and tweak their sound, and, to top it all, take the stage with ABBA holograms.
I do it all. Shamelessly. How much fun it must have been to be ABBA! Incidentally, all these recordings are uploaded to the museum website and using your ticket number as a password you can download your personal audio and video mementos as evidence that you were once almost part of ABBA.
Although the band was recently offered a billion dollars to do a reunion concert, they declined. So this ABBA museum is our best chance to get up close with them. It offers glimpses into the private and professional lives of Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid, and their manager Stikkan who used his fortune to establish the Polar Prize which is considered the Nobel of music.
There are mock-ups of studios, homes, offices, and the tiny archipelago cottage which barely had room for Benny’s white piano and Björn’s guitar, but where many hits were composed. It is an amazing trip down memory lane and Björn, who actually lives nearby and bankrolled the museum, has said it’ll be nice to bring his grandchildren here and show them what grandpa used to do for a living.
ABBA’s lure lay in the simplicity of their songs. The easy to remember titles put together from extremely common words. A catchy tune. Add on very basic lyrics and you hit the top of the charts. ‘SOS’… ‘Bang-A-Boomerang’… ‘I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do, I Do’… I take a break to visit the restroom and can’t stop myself from singing as I flush: ‘Waterloo, Water-loo, wow-wow-wow-wow Water… Loo… oo-oo-oo.’
Swedish music remains a success and the museum in Djurgården Island houses a Music Hall of Fame where you get to listen to the other bands that came before and after ABBA, including Europe, Roxette and The Cardigans, and newer acts like First Aid Kit.
But the hotter cultural export these days is crime fiction. Stockholm, being a capital city and supposedly full of crooks, is the setting for much of it — starting with the acclaimed 1960s police procedurals by Sjöwall-Wahlöö to recent bestselling writers such as Liza Marklund, Jens Lapidus and, of course, the biggest of them all: Stieg Larsson, who died before his super-bestselling debut novel The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo was even published.
“What kind of picture does this give you of Sweden?” the guide asks, after he has summed up Larsson’s ‘Millennium Trilogy’: sadistic misogynist men with Nazi tendencies mistreat victimised women who suffer at the hands of a brutal secret police. Clearly not the welfare state we used to think Sweden was. The tourists nod gravely as they digest this fact.
They’ve come from Japan and Taiwan, Austria and Australia, and even Brazil, while I’ve travelled from India. We are all on the ‘Millennium Walk’ that explores the cityscape of the thriller series which has, till date, sold over 70 million copies.
The guide explains how Stieg Larsson’s psycho-geography is anchored in the social hierarchies of Stockholm. All the good guys and gals live on the southern island of Södermalm, traditionally a working class area, though nowadays gentrified with bohemian bistros, art galleries and boutiques — especially in the zone known as SoFo, ‘South of Folkkungatan’. The bad guys live on the north side, in the posh, bourgeoisie Östermalm and Kungsholmen.
Our guide points out the many cafés connected with the Trilogy: Mellqvist Kaffebar in Hornsgatan 78, where Stieg Larsson wrote large chunks of his books. In the Swedish movie starring Michael Nyqvist the tiny café was substituted with the larger Café Solo in Skånegatan 71, while Kaffebar in St Paulsgatan 17 was used for the Hollywood movie starring Daniel Craig. Incidentally, the actor Michael Nyqvist’s daughter works, in real life, as a barista at Kaffebar — she’s the one who serves coffee to Craig.
The offices of the Millennium magazine were in Götgatan, the main drag, and one block up, at the corner of Svartensgatan, you find the convenience store Seven-Eleven from where the offbeat heroine Lisbeth Salander gets her groceries, generally amounting to not much more than frozen pizza. So if you want to live the Salander life, step in and buy a Billy’s Pan Pizza slice and have the staff micro it for you.
At nearby Mosebacke Square, a place frequently mentioned in the books, you can drop in for a drink at the theatre garden bar, which features in the Millennium plot and has stunning views of the harbour.
Carrying on to see the rest of the town on one’s own, one just has to cross the bridge over to the old town, Gamla Stan, which is Stockholm’s prettiest area, its narrow alleys lined with old buildings. Some taverns have been around for ages, such as Zum Franziskaner that opened in 1421. Almost every eatery here serves food in prehistoric basement vaults and offers delicacies like ‘pyttipanna’ (a non-veg potato hash) and mooseburgers. The streets are lined with souvenir shops, but pop culture vultures will also find stores for graphic novels and rare music.
The arty trail continues on the north side of the town centre where you find Dance Museum in Drottninggatan 17 and little further up Kulturhuset (‘the Culture House’) with theatres, concerts, art exhibitions (sometimes free entry), a library where you can read international magazines for free, and a café and bar on the top floor with great lunchtime views over town. Kulturhuset hosts regular author talks on its International Writers’ Stage: Mohsin Hamid was a speaker the other week, and, I recall how, many years ago, I heard the then debutant Arundhati Roy in a discussion here and was impressed by her wit.
A short walk away on Skeppsholmen Island, the very avant-garde Moderna Museet hosts temporary cutting-edge shows and a permanent exhibition with the who’s who of modern art — Dalí, Magritte, Matisse, Picasso, Munch, Kandinsky, Kokoschka, Dubuffet, Giacometti, Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Swedish artists such as Nils von Dardel; his Crime of Passion(1921) and The Dying Dandy (1918) hang side by side. The front garden features an amazing sculpture group by Niki de Saint Phalle and her equally famous husband Tinguely.
I was also struck by how Stockholm is a great city for music fans — beyond ABBA — because there are daily concerts. As it happens, Bob Dylan was playing at a smallish new venue, the Waterfront, behind the railway station. I got a seat in the eighth row, very close to the stage and enjoyed watching the geriatric star singing ‘Tangled Up In Blue’. One question rang in my ears after the show: why does Uncle Bob always end with that dull song about a man with a tambourine? I’d have preferred ‘Like A Rolling Stone’.
Concerts in bars with upcoming rock bands, or organ recitals in churches if you’re more into Bach, are often free. One day I stumbled into St Jacob Church (near Kungsträdgården Park) which has an organ dating from 1746 and features classical European music at 5pm on Fridays. There are no religious restrictions about entering churches, though you should remove any headgear, not make too much noise and perhaps make a small donation.
Plenty of record shops make for good bargains and my bags were soon crammed with new or almost-new albums. In the street St Eriksgatan there is a string of second-hand shops as well as shops that sell musical instruments and films. If you’re into art, then turn in the other direction and check out the small but thriving Vanadisplan Square art district — there are over half a dozen galleries here.
Although Stockholm is eminently walkable one shouldn’t miss out on the subway system, a network that traverses the entire city and beyond. Almost every station is a work of art, the designs commissioned from various Swedish artists: some have had their walls painted, others have been turned into installation art. Besides, subway travel is like watching a show; at many major stations there are buskers performing songs, and even the beggars have class, such as the one with torn pants that I overheard on one of my trips: “Sorry to disturb you gentle folks, but I’m a homeless beggar. Would you be able to spare a few coins towards board and lodging for tonight? Well, if not, then I wish you a happy life anyway.”
Qatar Airways has convenient flights from all major cities in India and, after a stopover in Doha, you land in Stockholm on the afternoon of the day of departure. Return tickets cost from about Rs 45,000 and up depending on travel dates.
You’ll need a Schengen visa for Sweden. Apply on se.vfsglobal.co.in. The basic fee is € 60, but service charges will be added by the visa processing centres.
The currency is locally known as ‘kronor’ and SEK 1 is about Rs 9.5. Sweden is on its way to abolish the use of cash, so it is a good idea to come armed with a credit or debit card.
Taxis tend to be pricey. But public transport offers comfortable buses and trains that run late into the night. To avail of all this, invest in an SL Access Travel Card: for example, seven days of unlimited travel on buses, trams, and subways costs SEK 320 (equal to the price of a single taxi trip). See sl.se/en/Visitor/Plan-your-journey. Another option is to get The Stockholm Card sold by tourist offices: a day card costs SEK 495 while a 5-day card is SEK 1,050 and apart from travel by public transport you get free admission to 80 museums and attractions plus sightseeing.
The high-end of luxury is to stay at Grand Hôtel (grandhotel.se) on the quay next to the National Museum and facing the Royal Palace across the water; this is where rock and movie stars end up. If you’re lucky you get rooms for as cheap as SEK 2,500. Bang opposite the railway station you’ll find the charming old Terminus (terminus.se) with rooms from SEK 1700 (doubles). If you’re heavily into ABBA, you should consider Rival(rival.se) owned by one of the members of the pop group and located in Mariatorget, a folksy square on the south side; from SEK 1095. A centrally located budget hotel is August Strindberg Hotel (hotellstrindberg.se) named after the famous novelist who lived nearby; from SEK 1395. If you’re on a tighter budget check out the af Chapman hostel (svenskaturistforeningen.se) on a boat moored at Skeppsholmen; singles from SEK 500 or dorms at SEK 180. For more hostel suggestions, check out hihostels.com.
The traditional Swedish food is husmanskost and many restaurants offer it at an affordable rate at lunchtime (SEK 75-95); typically you get a dish with fish, pork or beef and potatoes in some form of gravy. Posh restaurants do fancier versions, especially at dinnertime, when you can expect to shell out SEK 150-300 for a meal. In the Old Town check out Zum Franziskaner in Skeppsbron 44 or Den Gyldene Freden in Österlånggatan 51, two old classics. Café Opera and the adjacent Operabaren at the back of the Opera House and facing Kungsträdgården Garden are the traditional hangouts of the rich and famous. Teaterbaren and Café Panorama are in the Culture House at Sergels Torg, and offer good views and affordable grub. Around Odenplan Square, slightly north, you will find several old gourmet pubs such as Tennstopet (try their meatballs) and my own favourite, Wasahof in Dalagatan, traditionally known to do the best seafood in town. Sweden’s oldest vegetarian restaurant Örtagården is at Östermalm Square Covered Market. If you crave spicy fare, there’s a curry house on almost every street, but considered to be among the best Asian restaurants is Indian Garden near Medborgarplatsen subway station.
What to see & do
Museums are usually open Tuesdays-Sundays and entry fees range from SEK 60 to 190. Some of them offer free entry at certain times; for example, go to Moderna on Fridays at 6pm or Nobel Museum on Tuesdays at 5pm if you’re on a tight budget. Djurgården Island, where the ABBA Museum is located, is a beautiful large park area where you find many famous sights such as the Vasa Ship, an ancient battleship that was salvaged in the 1960s, the Junibacken Museum devoted to the children’s stories by Astrid Lindgren, Skansen Open Air Museum that also hosts a zoo, the Gröna Lund Amusement Park, and art galleries such as Waldemarsudde (former home of an arty prince who built a sculpture park), Liljevalchs and Thielska. Museum of Architecture (arkitekturmuseet.se) is located on Skeppsholmen Island and it also deals with Swedish design. Bonniers Konsthall (bonnierskonsthall.se) is a small museum for contemporary art in Torsgatan 19, another more happening place is Färgfabriken(fargfabriken.se) in Liljeholmen just outside the centre of town. Museum of Photography (fotografiska.eu) is trendy and located in an old shed in the harbour, Stadsgårdshamnen, and is about to start branches in other parts of the world — such as Shanghai in China. Strindberg Museum (strindbergmuseet.se) in Drottninggatan 85 is a must-see for book lovers, located in the apartment that once belonged to Sweden’s most famous novelist August Strindberg (1849-1912). The ‘Millennium Walk’ (SEK 130) in English starts at 11.30am on most Saturdays, more frequently in summertime; buy your ticket at the City Museum, Slussen. There are also guided walks dedicated to ABBA, Murders, Food, Sex, Ghosts, and other interest areas. For more, see visitstockholm.com.
Västerlånggatan has Science-Fiction Bokhandeln with a huge selection of sci-fi and fantasy; and nearby in Sven Vintappares Gränd, an alley off Västerlånggatan 26-28, there’s Seriebodenwith second-hand comic books. Sound Pollution is a famous shop for heavy metal, and the more old-time Plugged Records is adjacent to the jazz bar Stampen. The stretch down to the bridge on St Eriksgatan street has Atlas CD-börs and Record Hunteron the left, and Skivbörsen and The Beat Goes On on the right. Although vinyl has had a revival, most Swedes stream music from Spotify, so people offload their collections here. In the Vanadisplan Square art district, there are over half a dozen galleries in the backstreets of Gävlegatan and Hudiksvallsgatan. Saturdays 12-4pm is when all galleries stay open.