“What do you want to do while you’re here in Stockholm?” Martin asks me.
We’ve already been to the Photography museum which had been item one on my list. I try to remember what else I’d written down as options. “I’d like to see the castle maybe.”
“It’s the most boring castle in the world,” Martin says.
“Why?” I ask. I’m American I didn’t know castles came in boring or not boring options.
“It’s shaped like an old cigar box. There are no towers or anything.”
“Oh,” I say.
“But I’ve never seen the inside,” he goes on. “We could take the tour.”
We’ve just met with Pontus and his coworker Pierre for lunch at Bliss Café, a raw food restaurant and now we’re wandering around Stockholm. Martin and I are easy in each other’s company. He doesn’t mind that I stop every so often to take a photo, and he’s doing his best to show me the main sights and give me the history and stories that he knows. He’s a storehouse of interesting facts and I’m jealous that he remembers things so well. I have vague ideas—like blurry blue-tinted memories—of stories I’ve heard, of anecdotes, of history, even jokes, but they slip from my mind and fade into abstracts and when I want to retell them it’s always like, “I heard about something once where there was this thing. And a person who did something really great. I think it was funny. Nevermind.”
Eventually, we find our way to the steps near the water that separates us from the castle. We sit. Martin points at the flag flying from the roof. “When that flag is flying it means the king is there.”
“You’re pretty famous if the king knows your name and where you stay,” Martin says.
The king (and Martin) is ahead of me on this one; I have no clue who JoJo is. I write the story in my notebook so I don’t forget, scratch down Martin’s words, and the king’s, and think I’ll have to look JoJo up online later on.
I wonder what I’d say to the King if I met him in the castle courtyard. “Hey.”
“What’s up?” I don’t know that I’d even recognize him. To be completely honest, I didn’t even know he existed until I got to Sweden and asked Pontus about their government. He’d told me the monarchs of Sweden no longer have any real political power, that’s all left up to the Prime Minister and the parliament. His Majesty Carl XVI Gustaf, King of Sweden, is (according to Wikipedia, Pontus and Martin) an amiable monarch who tends to be thought of as more of an endearing mascot than anything else. He’s the face of Sweden and responsible for things ceremonial and representative. He’s the one who hands out the awards for the Nobel Prize winners. The one who makes State Visits abroad and receives those who come for State Visits to Sweden. And Carl Gustaf, king since 1973, has been seen as a relatively calm “ruler” until recently when his penchant for parties and drinking leaked out and stirred up the Swedes with disbelieving shock. “But even with that,” Martin says, “people like him.” He’s eccentric, he’s dyslexic, he’s against seal clubbing. What’s not to love?
I cross my arms and stare at the castle. One part of me thinks it’d be cool to be able to say that I’d met the King of Sweden while on my brief stay in Stockholm; the other part of me thinks it’s silly how we ascribe power to people based on birth, looks, notoriety or monetary value. People are just people.
Castles are just castles.
The next day, after another lazy, cozy morning, Martin and I ride bikes into town and he buys us tickets for the full castle guided English tour. We’re in time to take the tour for the old part of the castle and can come back the next day for the treasury and royal apartments tours.
We make our way around and are in time to see the changing of the guard before we head down to the dungeony darkness of the old part of the castle. The guards all look like twelve year olds, dressed up pretty in blue, white and gold, playing make believe.
“I just added another job to the list of jobs I’d never like to have,” I tell Martin in a half whisper so that the guard standing duty nearby can’t hear me. “Guarding.”
“It’s got to be really boring,” Martin agrees.
We head inside and go down a set of stairs. Our guide’s name is Kristina. She knows her history and is enthusiastic about it. She takes us through the door and we’re in the past. It’s dark and musty and old. We brush up against walls, breathe the dust, pass under arches of stones laid in the 1200s.
This might be the oldest place I’ve ever been inside.
Kristina shows us a model of the castle as it had been in the 13th century. The palace started as a defensive fortress and grew, over time, into a real live castle with towers and everything. It even had an impressive spire with three crowns, giving it the name Tre Kronor, which stood for Denmark, Finland, and the South of Sweden (if I remember correctly). However, bad news, in 1697 the castle burned. It was an accidental fire, but most of the place was destroyed. Sweden lost over one-third of its records, the Royal Library was sadly and badly damaged. Quick thinking guards removed the body of King Charles XI who had died a month previously and hadn’t been buried yet (Royal burials were a To Do, not any kind of slapdash affair). They saved some of the important artifacts such as the crown, scepter, orb, jewels and the key of state. And in desperation they managed to toss out many of the massive tomes into the snow where they acquired water damage. Out of the fire into the sno….
But it was disaster.
Kristina tells us how the three men blamed for the fire and its destruction were punished. Two of the men were given the death penalty in fact, but it was later commuted to running the gauntlet and something like six years of what they considered community service (aka forced labor at the Carlsten Fortress). The third man just had to run the gauntlet. Sounds great, easy sentence, but no, not so nice, one of the men actually died on the gauntlet run. Which just goes to show another reason why I wouldn’t want to be a guard. Not only is it boring, but if I got distracted from duty and the palace burned down there’d be hell to pay.
“And then the witch hunts came,” Kristina says. I’ve missed the segue because of my guard thoughts (oh lord, what else don’t I want to be, a witch?) and I scramble mentally to catch up. I’m listening now. “You need to blame the bad luck on someone,” she says. Sweden wanted to return to its former glory, to those days when it seemed like it ruled so much of Scandinavia. But they’d lost Norway. Denmark got away. And they probably only just managed to keep Skåne in the south of Sweden by the skin of their teeth. So they chased after anyone who seemed witchy enough.
It’s crazy how history just ends up being the stories of all the ways we’ve managed to kill each other off.
The next day Martin and I visit the Royal Treasury. It’s a glittering, gaudy, intricate display of clothing, armor, weapons, scepters, orbs, keys, jewelry and crowns. So many crowns. There are crowns for all occasions, coronations, weddings, funerals, random events. One of the kings had crowns made for all his brothers and sisters. He didn’t want his royal siblings left out of the whole crown experience.
Our guide is an older gentlemen who has a British accent and wears a thin mustache that makes him seemed dignified and peer-like. He talks in clipped and fragmented sentences. Half the time he seems to be answering questions in his head, having whole conversations that we only hear one side to. “Karl. Cousin of Katarina, the Sovereign of Sweden,” he says. “He went to the countryside.” He pauses. One beat. Two. Three. “Hunting.”
I hold my breath for every piece of information. It’s like a surprise each time. I don’t know what tidbit or fact we’ll get.
He tells us about Erik XIV who married a commoner much to the chagrin of the royal house. “Her father was a soldier,” he says. “A private soldier.” I wait for the next part with eagerness. “A nobody.” I think she got her own special crown. Or not. I gaze at all the paraphernalia and think, What a weight to carry around.
Hours and centuries of history later, we emerge back out into the open air. I breathe deep, clearing my lungs of ancient dust. We head back to the bikes we chained up across the street. I look over my shoulder.
Looks can be deceiving. Underneath the boxlike boring quality of Stockholm Palace’s exterior there is a whole lot of Interesting. The moral of the story is: Don’t judge a castle by its cigar box like shape.