Civilisation begins here

By Philip Norman, Daily Mail

Last updated at 11:25 05 April 2004

Seasoned traveller though I may be in other directions, my knowledge of Sweden has been thinner than crispbread.

As a child, I read a book about a Viking named 'Red Orm', who unforgettably sliced cut off an enemy's head with such force that it flew through the air like a frisbee and splashed into a butt of ale.

As a teenager, I eagerly awaited the moment each summer when hundreds of blonde Swedish girls would descend on the Isle of Wight to attend language schools.

But at our local dances, they always kept to themselves, sometimes breaking into a cappella versions of their national songs.

To many people, Sweden still has that slightly backs-turned and standoffish quality, the more so since its recent decision to stay out of the Euro and stick with its historic currency, the krone.

It is regarded still as a bit of a left-field European holiday destination, its visitors more the passing trade of cruise ships than the focused crowd of airborne package tours.

All preconceptions of Swedish coolness vanish, however, the moment one sets foot in Stockholm, which turns out to be a cross between Venice and St Petersburg, with touches of Dublin and the more upscale parts of Long Island.

The city's inhabitants are enormously charming, usually speak English better than many English people, are unfailingly helpful and courteous and know the secret of having fun without disturbing or offending others.

Its culture is vibrant, offering the world's greatest concentration of museums and art galleries together with resonant echoes of Swedish artistic genius, from playwright August Strindberg to film director Ingmar Bergman.

Above all, Stockholm has an atmosphere for which the only word is civilised - a quality as palpable when one is crossing a street as it is in the smartest hotels and restaurants.

I can think of no better place for a weekend break at this time of year, when Stockholm takes off its woollen hats and puffa jackets and puts away its ice-skates, and the 32,000 islands of its Baltic archipegalo sparkle with promise of a summer as cloudlessly sunny as the winters are dark and cold.

Indeed, after a mere three day break, I was ready to pack up and move there. Itself built on a network of 14 islands, interlinked by 57 bridges, the city deserves its title 'Venice of the North' (though, unlike its Italian namesake, it is gradually rising from the waters rather than sinking.)

And despite being the seat of Sweden's government and monarchy and venue of the Nobel Prize ceremony, it has more the air of a small harbour town than a capital.

In the busiest central areas, swans and Canada geese clamour to be fed, and fish thrive in the unpolluted water beneath lingering ice.

On our first morning, we were lucky enough to have a guide - a bearded young man named Fredrik, with the usual almost intimidating command of English, who has a parallel career as a stand-up comedian. (Who says the Swedes are cold and remote? They avidly watch all our classic TV comedies, untranslated, from Fawlty Towers to The Office.)

With Fredrik as our drily humorous commentator (his idol is Eddie Izzard) we toured the Stadthaus, or City Hall, where the Nobel dinner and ball are held, following the prize ceremony across town, and city council members meet in a chamber designed to resemble an upturned Viking ship.

Despite the recent shocking assassinations of two major political figures, Sweden remains one of the most informal and hysteria free nation in the world.

Even now, Fredrik told us, the only people in the country to employ bodyguards are the King and the Prime Minister.

It's hard to avoid the nautical theme here - though Fredrik was careful to reassure us that Stockholm's Viking ancestors did not attack Britain but concentrated their attention on Russia and the East.

By far the most compelling historical attraction is the Vasa, a two-decked warship which, mortifyingly, sank on her maiden voyage from the city in 1628.

Preserved by the low salt-content in the water, she was painstakingly salvaged and now stands in a covered dry-dock, looking as if Johnny Depp and the Pirates of the Caribbean might commandeer her at any moment.

Eating out costs about the same as in London, which makes it pricier than most other European cities, and alcohol is notably expensive, as it is all over Sweden.

The priciest places, however, all have that same pleasing air of no-nonsense, and children's menus are offered almost everywhere.

My best meal was 'kids-menu' meatballs and mash under the rococo ceiling of the Opera House with Jimi Hendrix music wafting from the nearby bar.

Our hotel, the Berns, proved of the 'boutique' variety, with the inevitable surfeit of design and inattention to basic amenity like clothes-hanging space (though the monasticm looking beds proved dreamily comfortable.)

The hotel, in fact, is a later addition to the Berns Salonga, a huge, high-ceilinged old brasserie where August Strindberg used to take coffee.

Hotel residents eat breakfast in a rather mysterious upstairs chamber, lined with stained glass murals and lit by candles, which is said to have inspired Strindberg's novel The Red Room.

The Salonga itself is now decorated in Wild West brothel-style, with giant pink chandeliers and a night-time DJ and light-show. Beyond it is an even bigger space (think Grand Central Station) which has latterly become a Terence Conran restaurant.

On our final day, we took a 'brunch cruise' out to the archipelago. In contrast with many such excursions in Britain, the boat was beautifully kept, the food as excellent as usual. And, despite some dedicated drinking among the voyagers, perfect good manners prevailed throughout.

At one point, a fellow passenger who looked like a reincarnation of Viking 'Red Orm' was helping himself from the coffee percolator. Spotting us, he came over to our table - not to slice our heads off, but to refill our coffee cups with a friendly smile.

No city is perfect, of course. Near our hotel, rather to our disillusionment, we did see a beggar setting up his pitch. But even his placard was in perfect English.

Travelfacts Three nights at the Berns Hotel cost from £335 on a B&B basis, including SAS return flights from London Heathrow. Brunch cruises of the archipelago cost £30 per adult and can be booked in advance. Call Original Travel on 0207 978 7333 or access

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