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Bjorn Borg's green awning, Alfred Nobel's yellow stone home

Photograph: Preeti Verma Lal

I was pottering in the oldest town of Sweden. I thought I would bump into a drop-dead gorgeous Swede. Instead, I slam into a Viking. Not a Viking, the door, actually. The door to the 400-year old Viking house was so low that even someone as petite as me had to duck. Ah! The bruise. I had heard innumerable tales of the Viking valour and was sure some audacious Viking would kiss my scab away. But there were no Vikings. All I saw was teapots and coffee mills staring blankly at me from the wall. It was a tea-house, redolent with the aroma of tea and biscottis. There were old wooden chairs and dainty crochet laces and pretty maids whipping cream for the tea. I looked around hoping a Viking would peep out of the cracks. None did. Disappointed I stepped out, this time remembering to duck. I certainly did not want any scab!

I then saw a Swede. In Sigtuna, a quaint village on the fringes of Stockholm. He in the red convertible swishing past thin lanes dotted with boutiques and runic stones. I looked at his mile-long convertible parked by the Town Hall, the smallest in Europe. In Sigtuna, the red car surely looked more tempting than the gaunt Swede. Even the town’s history seemed more mesmerizing. It dates back to 980 when King Erik Segersäll founded Sigtuna as a religious town and it was here that Sweden’s first coin was minted. There were churches made of granite, stunning castles and palaces, where the peasants were meek, the kings munificent and the Vikings gallant.  

The kings are dead and the churches in ruins, but even today Signtuna is quaint. Walk around the cobbled path and you find moss sticks shaped liked bells, museums and even an agricultural area that looks exactly the way it did in 1800. That day in Sigtuna there were votive lamps on the wiry streets, a shop minute as a postcard had opened and most of the 6,500 residents seemed partaking in the festivities – glasses clanking with wine and skewers laden with grilled meat.  The village is so small that you can walk the entire stretch to whip an appetite for the absolutely scrumptious dinner at Restaurang & Bar that has the best cheese and crabs. At night, Sigtuna sleeps peacefully, for it knows nobody can snitch off its reputation as the country’s oldest town, not even a scrawny Swede in his mile-long convertible.

The next day I stepped into Stockholm. Thankfully, I was no longer thinking of handsome Swedes. But as I drove past the immense sea, I heard my heart’s murmur. I looked at the pristine blue of the Baltic and thought perhaps it was the beauty of one of the 14 islands. As I drove past Bjorn Borg’s home with a green awning and Alfred Nobel’s yellow brick home, I felt that quiver again. Perhaps it is the men, the famous ones, I thought. As the landscape changed and cars screeched, Stockholm – not just its famous smorgasbord - seemed to be getting under my skin. And how!

Standing in the City Hall that is made of eight million deep red bricks I felt like a dimwit. How else do you feel when you stand in the Blue Room where the Nobel Prize is handed over by the King? I looked around and all I saw was apparitions of litterateurs, scientists, inventors, physicists, men in their grey hair and immaculate tuxedos, women in plaid skirts and moussed hair… Tradition has it that nobody can leave the banquet hall after the King has entered, not even to answer an unwarranted ‘nature’s call’. “You hold it. You sit there till it all gets over,” the tubby guide was teaching me Nobel etiquettes. I know I would never be in the Blue Room on any December 10 when the prizes are handed over, so I ignored all etiquette lessons. My only tryst with Nobel laureates could be Stadhuis Kallaren restaurant. Naah! Not with the laureates but with the food they had at the banquet. You can order a Nobel dinner menu there – they have everything served at the banquet since 1901. But before I could order salmon and scallops at the restaurant I ran up to see the Gold Hall where 19 million gold mosaic tiles narrate fascinating stories. The entire Hall shimmers with all the gold; melt them all and you would probably pile gold the size of the Himalayas. I looked at the price list. I knew if I ordered the Nobel dinner I  would go broke in Stockholm, I looked for other options – surstomming (fermented herring; eat if you can survive the putrid smell); crayfish (use your hands; traditionally, a lady should eat at least 12, a gentleman at least 20) and julskinka (large lump of salted and boiled ham). The thought of smelly, boiled meat frightened me. I settled for hunger till I found the oh!so Swedish smorgasbord.

There certainly was none at the Grand Hotel – all Nobel laureates live here but as I fed on the dainty scones and toasted sandwiches in the verandah overlooking the harbour, I wished I could be Princess Lillian, who lends her name to a suite so large that one could squeeze a squat town in it. From the window there is a breathtaking view of the harbour and boy! the luxury inside would have your head reel - the sound and aroma sauna, the kitchenette, the humungous beds, brocade cushions, velvet curtains, mahogany desk, the library….. that sprawl over 330 sq.metres come with an unaffordable tag – almost Rs 4 lakh a night! That evening, as the rain lashed the pricey window panes and I had my elbow on the sill, I thought I could sneak in as a dainty lily that looked resplendent in a glass vase. Perhaps that was the only way I could spend a night in Europe’s most expensive suite. Poor me!

I left behind all thoughts of being a princess as I walked into the winding lanes of Gamla Stan, the old town. Known for its boutiques, cafes and the classy Glenfiddich Warehouse No. 68, a beer bar, Gamla Stan is the best place to pick your souvenirs. And when your knees get tired of all the walking, try bottled or tap beer at Glenfiddich – it is the best in town. And if you feel home sick, take a peep into Indiska, a retail chain that was established in Stockholm in 1901 by Mathilda Hamilton, an enterprising Swedish woman, who had lived in the Himalayas between 1894 -1901. She was married to a pastor, had a nose for Indian spices. That is how Indiska started, by selling Indian spices as early as 1901.

But that was not the last time I was reminded of home. Anna Khan did too. Anna Khan, the restaurant. Anna was a Swede married to a Pakistani Khan and together they set up Anna Khan that completely revolutionised what the Swedes had on their weekend dinner plate. You could pick from the garlic naans to the lacha parathas to kashmiri chooza, palak paneer and dal makhni. Nowhere in the world has the Indian food tasted so Indian. I would die for the green chutney at Anna Khan – if only I could find space to curl up and die, that is. On Friday and Saturday nights, all of Stockholm seems to turn Indian, queuing outside Anna Khan and the nearly 20 Indian-Pakistani restaurants that dot this beautiful city.

I had not seen enough of Stockholm yet. There was Sweden’s smallest theatre – it can seat only 18. Just 18! And Skansen, the oldest open-air museum in the world. And the Vasa Museum, the ship-shaped museum that houses, what else, a ship. “This ship was supposed to rescue the sink. And it sank in the harbour. Poor king!” At the Vasa Museum, the guide was indignant; he was incensed at the oak and birch ship that sank on its maiden journey. For 333 years, the ship lay at the bottom of the sea until it was fished out. Surprisingly, intact. Not a chip nibbled by the shipworms. Painted fresh and standing arrogantly, it is now Stockholm’s most prized artifact, generating millions in tickets. That jingling coffers fails to mollify the guide; you see his heart bleeds for the king that waited to be rescued!

As I left Stockholm, I felt the paltry quiver again. This time I knew the reasons. All the reasons. Perhaps I need to go there a hundred times to be all that my heart quivered for. I would begin with someone handsome – I would wait under the green awning outside Borg’s home; one look and I know my quiver would turn into a thud. But I don’t mind, if I am in Stockholm and there’s Borg…. An Alfred Nobel is not a bad idea either!  

Published in India Today Travel Plus, 2008


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