Stockholm: I love the ABBA Museum – I do, I do, I do, I do, I do

The illuminated sign outside the ABBA Museum in Stockholm invites visitors to WALK IN, DANCE OUT. It fails to mention you might have to be dragged out, because it’s such a fun-filled experience that nobody wants to leave. With the group’s universally-loved hits playing non-stop, a visit to the interactive ABBA Museum means you can dance, you can jive, and you’ll definitely be having the time of your life.

Waiting for Agnetha to give me a call in the ABBA Museum, below

There’s a 1970s-style red plastic telephone in the ABBA Museum that will sometimes Ring, Ring. If you’re nearest to it when the bell trills and pick it up, you’ll find yourself speaking with Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson or Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad.

They’re the only people in the world who know the number, and now and then one of them will call and chat with whoever answers. Knowing my luck, if I had answered it would have been a fraudster looking for some Money, Money, Money. Then again, it might have been a member of one of the world’s most successful pop groups of all time – calling to complain about my singing.

The thing is, there are three booths in the museum where visitors can warble along, karaoke-style, to an ABBA song of their choice. By swiping the bar code on their entrance ticket, would-be chart stars are recorded and the result can be downloaded online. I couldn’t resist, and launched into what I thought was a rousing rendition of Dancing Queen. My friends, who can be very cruel, thought otherwise. When they heard the recording later, they said: “Thank You (but No Thank You) for the Music.”

An electronic scoreboard awards points while you sing. The better you sound, the more points you accumulate. Anyone with half-a-note in their head can expect to score around 2,500. A good singer will get between 5,000 and 8,000. A really good singer is in the 10,000-plus club. I got 744. They’ll have to get a technician in.

As if by magic, Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Anni-Frid appeared beside me on stage

Undeterred, I jumped at the chance to “become the fifth member of ABBA”. This is where visitors, one at a time, can get up on a stage and sing along with animated holograms of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Frida.

There’s a choice of songs, and not wishing to fall victim to another computer glitch I chose Super Trouper. The lights came up, the ghostly band appeared either side of me, the music began – and so did the abuse.

It’s not easy trying to dance, read lyrics from a monitor and sing at the same time when, on the other side of the glass that separates performer from audience, people you thought were your pals are laughing their heads off.

They were sticking their thumbs in their ears and wiggling their fingers, poking their tongues out, pulling grotesque faces and making rude gestures. Gimme, Gimme, Gimme a break, I thought.

Mind you, when I downloaded the video later (swipe your ticket before going on stage for another unique souvenir) I could see their point. It was comedy gold.

A look inside the studio in which ABBA recorded most of their hit singles and albums

Every one of the thousands of exhibits in the museum is the real thing – there are no replicas. The band recorded most of their singles and albums in the Polar Studios in Stockholm, and the ABBA studio has been installed in the museum.

It contains the original mixing console, instruments and other gear, but best of all, there’s a piano that occasionally springs into life. It’s hooked up to another one in Benny’s studio on nearby Skeppsholmen – one of Stockholm’s 14 islands – and when he plays there, the piano in the museum plays too.

Turn a corner and there’s the helicopter from the cover of the 1976 Arrival album. Hop in, grab the joystick and have your picture taken. Close by is the green park bench from the Greatest Hits album (also 1976), with a backdrop of Benny and Frida eating the faces off each other.

Next to them, Agnetha sits looking miserable and Bjorn reads a pharmaceuticals brochure promoting antibiotics (the photographer was supposed to bring a copy of Time magazine but forgot, and the brochure was all he had in his bag).

A quick kiss for Agnetha while Bjorn is occupied. Below, the helicopter from the Arrival album

Continue wandering and you’ll see the white upright piano from Benny and Bjorn’s songwriting hut on the island of Viggso, band manager Stig Anderson’s office and ABBA’s on-tour dressing room.

The most photographed exhibits, though, are the costumes ABBA wore and the star-shaped guitar Bjorn played when they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, with Waterloo (the Wombles were the interval act, God love us). There are many more costumes from the band’s world tours displayed in glass cases, each vying for the gold medal for gaudiness.

White piano from Bjorn and Benny’s island hut where they wrote most of the ABBA songs
Costumes ABBA wore when they won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1974. Below, Bjorn’s guitar

Album covers in umpteen languages cover every inch of wall space, along with concert posters, programmes and tickets. There are gold discs, platinum discs and the real danger of slipped discs if you overdo the dancing in the museum’s disco.

If you have more than a passing interest in the band, there are several touchscreens on your journey through the museum on which you can test your ABBA knowledge with quiz questions ranging from easy-peasy to nerdishly knowledgeable.

The big ABBA light bulbs sign

Just inside the museum entrance is the giant sign with ‘ABBA’ picked out in light bulbs that was used as a stage prop on the group’s 1979 tour of Europe and America. Four years later, they went their separate ways and ABBA was no more. Or rather, ABBA the band and ABBA the two married couples – Bjorn/Agnetha and Benny/Frida – were no more. ABBA the brand, however, lives on.

Since 1974, fans have bought 380 million albums and singles, which still sell by the truckload. Mamma Mia!, the ABBA stage musical which debuted in London in April 1999, has been seen by 50 million people worldwide and grossed more than $2 billion. Mamma Mia! the movie, starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, which cost $52 million to make, has grossed $602 million since its release in July 2008. The sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), was made for $75 million and has so far taken $395 million at the worldwide box office.

Here’s how I’d look in Benny’s stage costume

My taxi driver home from Dublin airport was convinced that if ABBA were to re-form tomorrow and announce a world tour, the tickets would sell out in minutes. It’s a nice thought, but sadly – or maybe fortunately, given the members are now all in their 70s – it won’t happen. However, we can still be grateful for their songs.

So, ABBA, thank you for the music – and thank you for the museum. For two laughter-filled hours I made an absolute fool of myself and enjoyed every second. It was Funny, Funny, Funny.

Throwing shapes, and caution to the wind, in the disco

The ABBA Museum (Djurgardsvagen 68, Djurgarden) is part of the Swedish Music Hall of Fame and is open from 10am to 6pm from Saturday to Tuesday and 10am to 8pm from Wednesday to Friday. Tickets (buy online) are for pre-selected time slots to avoid overcrowding and so visitors can avoid queues.

A fascinating audio guide narrated in English by the members of ABBA (it was written by Catherine Johnson, who scripted the Mamma Mia! movie) is available to rent.

Here’s a clue to an ABBA song, on sale in the museum’s souvenir shop

Gothenburg: No wonder it starts with ‘Go’

I’ve had a long-standing love affair with seductive Stockholm, but after a fling with flirtatious Gothenburg and a little treasure of an island in its archipelago, there are now three in this relationship. While my passion for Sweden’s capital is as hot as ever, its as-cool-as-they-come second city will be seeing a lot more of me.

Skansen Kronan fortress, and the Gothenburg brand, painted in 20-foot-high letters on a floating dock in the harbour

Like Nancy Sinatra’s boots, the streets of Gothenburg are made for walkin’. That said, you wouldn’t want to dilly-dally while crossing the main avenue, Kungsportsavenyen, on Saturday afternoons. That’s when the fancy-car fraternity and the even noisier show-offs on two wheels use it as a race track when the cops have their backs turned.

I’m soaking up the sun on the street-front terrace of one of the avenue’s posh bar-restaurants and thinking dark thoughts about the idiots roaring past. Looking around to share my chagrin with someone, it strikes me that nobody is paying them a blind bit of notice. It apparently takes more than a pimped-up Porsche or a growling Guzi to impress the laid-back locals.

My admiration for the easy-going Gothenburgers soars when I overhear a waitress reprimanding an English guy for lighting a cigarette.

“But I’m outside. It’s a terrace – innit?” he says in a tone that makes me bristle.

“Yes, but it’s a non-smoking terrace,” says the waitress. “People are eating – and that lady there is pregnant. So please, put your cigarette out now.”

I’ve been in Gothenburg for only a few hours, and I’ve already fallen for a feisty waitress who speaks in italics. I know I’m going to like it here.

The Poseidon statue at the top of Kungsportsavenyen. Below, Gothenburg Museum of Art’s Furstenburg Gallery

At the top of the avenue, behind the Poseidon fountain, stands the yellow-brick Gothenburg Museum of Art, where the exhibits include works by Rembrandt, Monet, Munch and Picasso – and a four-metre-tall, upside-down revolving pole dancer.

In the Furstenburg Gallery on the sixth floor, I innocently rest a hand on a waist-high pink marble table on which sits a life-sized fibreglass baby in a green romper suit with flower-tipped antlers sprouting from his head. It’s a good spot from which to view the huge oil painting on the wall.

The table must be wired with sensors, because a couple of seconds later I feel a presence at my shoulder. I turn, and there’s a security guard, arms folded across her chest. She arches an eyebrow and nods at my hand, which I immediately shove in my pocket before she can get the cuffs out.

“Touching the exhibits is not allowed,” she says.

“Sorry,” I reply. “I just rested my hand while I was looking at that painting of the naked women.”

The words are out before I can stop them. Two minutes later, I’m on the ground floor, hot-footing it through the Hasselblad Centre. I’m told the photographic exhibition is well worth seeing, but you’ll have to read about it elsewhere, because in my embarrassment I’m out the front door in a flash.

Matts Johansson opened his first Da Matteo coffee shop in Victoriapassagen

Businessman Matts Johansson is instantly likeable, but there’s nothing instant about the brews the young baristas serve in his four Da Matteo coffee shops. I can’t vouch for his knowledge of onions, but award-winning master blender Matts knows his beans and has trenchant views on how coffee should be best enjoyed.

“Only bad coffee needs milk,” he says, which is awkward as I have the jug in my hand, ready to pour. I immediately pass it to the puzzled teenager behind me with a cheery “Here you are”.

The first Da Matteo opened in Gothenburg’s Victoriapassagen, but I’ve fled after my run-in with the security guard to Matts’ flagship cafe, coffee roasting shop and sour dough bakery in Magasinsgatan, named Sweden’s Cafe of the Year 2015 by the country’s authoritative White Guide.

Matts knows his buns as well as his beans, and although he says the cinnamon and cardamom varieties that sell like, well, hotcakes will kill the subtle flavours of the coffee, they’re too good to ignore. As for the goat cheese and fig marmalade sandwiches, I can’t resist buying one to take with me on my afternoon stroll.

Coffee with cinnamon and cardamom buns in Da Matteo in Magasinsgatan

Gothenburg isn’t especially big, but when it comes to serving up delightful distractions it goes large. Quaint cobbled alleyways are home to hipster hangouts, coffee shops galore, micro-breweries, the occasional biker bar, vinyl stores and loads of vintage clothes shops and big-name designer boutiques.

In Drottninggatan, I halt at the Nudie Jeans Co sales outlet and repair shop, where a guy is busy at a sewing machine in the window. Young people in Gothenburg get their jeans repaired? They don’t in Dublin, where girls walk around with theirs full of holes and guys wear them halfway down the back of their legs and think they’re the height of fashion.

Nudie Jeans Co was founded in Gothenburg in 2001 and is fast becoming a global brand. Its repair shops will wash and patch your frayed or torn Nudies at no cost, or you can trade them in for a discount on a new pair.

They’re also into recycling at the Myrorna second-hand emporium (Jarntorgsgatan 10), where a rummage among the retro rails on the ground floor suggests the Bay City Rollers were once popular in Gothenburg, as tartan-trimmed short-sleeved shirts and high-waistband, shin-length flares abound.

I was a child of the mid-Seventies when Rollermania was at its peak, and that was how my classmates and I dressed for school, so I take back what I said about the young fellas with their jeans flying at half-mast. We looked even more ridiculous and we had mullets as well.

Charcuterie expert Mario in the Scandic Europa Hotel’s HAK restaurant

I decide to have dinner in my hotel, the four-star Scandic Europa. This is mainly because I’m all walked-out, but I’ve noticed the in-house HAK restaurant has a Spanish charcuterie station offering a big selection of chorizos, cured hams and strings of sausages, plus some of my favourite cheeses. There’s also a big potato tortilla that has just been made, so I pull up a high stool where I can inhale the steam and get chatting with man-behind-the-counter Mario, who sports a splendid Salvador Dali waxed and pointy moustache.

“I can pick up Sky Sports on this,” he says, twiddling the ends.

Everybody I’ve asked so far to recommend the must-visit pub in Gothenburg has, without hesitation, cited the same place, so I run the question past Mario.

“That’s easy,” he says. “Olhallen 7:an. It’s crazy, and full of crazy people.”

There will be one more crazy person in it before I head back to Dublin, because that’s the pub everyone has named, so I add it to my itinerary.

Paddan boat tour of the canals and harbour. Below, don’t forget to duck going under the Cheese Grater bridge

I’m late for breakfast next morning, having forgotten Sweden is an hour ahead of Ireland, so I grab a couple of croissants and a banana from the buffet and head out to do some more exploring.

Swedes are the foremost consumers of bananas in Europe, getting through, on average, 20kg each per year, a fact I learn from commentator Annika Nilsson during a 50-minute flat-bottomed boat tour of the city’s 17th century canals and moat.

Gothenburg is just as winsome from the water, where the much-photographed four-masted tall ship Viking is moored in the harbour. With a 55-metre foremast, this magnificent vessel is a permanent fixture – its passage to the sea is barred by a 45-metre-tall bridge that wasn’t there when it arrived in 1950. Viking is now a hotel that gets glowing online reviews.

Psychology student Annika, who works part-time for sightseeing boat operator Paddan, could enjoy a glittering career as a stand-up comedian specialising in painful puns (“We Swedes are bananas for bananas”) if it weren’t for Gothenburg’s Cheese Grater bridge. With only six inches of sitting-down headroom as the boat passes underneath, she would be decapitated if she even tried to stand up. When the wise-cracking Annika says “duck”, she’s not referring to the ones that go “quack”.

Slipping effortlessly from commentary in Swedish to faultless English and back again, Annika and her fellow guides are a big hit with passengers. It’s a hugely enjoyable way to see and learn about the city, with laughs galore thrown in. The boats leave three times an hour from Kungsportsplatsen, where Gothenburg was founded in 1621.

The four-masted sailing ship Viking is now a hotel
The Feskekorka fish market as seen from a Paddan canal tour boat
Restaurant owner, chef and champion oyster-opener Johan Malm

One of the more unusual sights during the Paddan tour is the Feskekorka, or Fish Church, at Roselundsgatan by the canal. It certainly looks like a church, but it’s Gothenburg’s indoor fish market, “built in 1874 and dedicated to the glory and worship of the Lord our cod”, says Annika, to a chorus of groans.

Back on dry land, I head straight to the Feskekorka, where the first person I get chatting with is student Hanna Mahaffey, from Chicago. Between chopping the heads off fish, she tells me she’s half-American, half-Swedish, and is studying to be a sea captain.

I ask her if working in the fish market is part of her course. As stupid questions go, it’s up there with the best. “No, it pays my rent,” she says, and I leave it at that as she’s brandishing a cleaver.

The Feskekorka is home to one of Gothenburg’s best seafood restaurants, Restaurang Gabriel, which is owned and run by chef Johan Malm, a former gold medal winner in the Oyster Opening World Cup, the Nordic and Swedish Championships and the Galway International Oyster Festival. He must be good, because despite opening around 500 oysters a week in Restaurang Gabriel, he has a full complement of fingers and thumbs.

A tip from maestro Malm: a squeeze of lemon is all an oyster needs, and you should chew it properly to “get the flavour of the sea”. An oyster takes up to seven years to grow to maturity, so it seems a shame to just chuck it down your neck.

Half-a-dozen oysters as served in Johan Malm’s restaurant
Frequent fast ferries serve the archipelago, but you can take a pleasure cruise too
Chilling out on Vrango island in the archipelago

A 25-minute ride on the number 11 tram from Brunnsparken in the city centre takes me to Saltholmen, where I board one of the frequent ferries that serve the islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago.

One of those islands is Styrso, which occupies a mere 1.58 square kilometres and has a resident population of 1,300. I wish I was one of them. If Robinson Crusoe had been washed up here, he would have put out the fire, hidden in a hole and told Man Friday to stop leaping about like a lunatic if the sails of a rescue ship had appeared on the horizon. This is an island to escape to, not from.

Life on Styrso is car, care and crime-free. The islanders and their envious visitors get around on foot, bikes, mopeds and what appear to be converted lawnmowers. If you call a cab, a golf buggy arrives. I’ve no idea how the two resident police officers occupy their time, but it’s reassuring to know they’re there.

On car-free Styrso, the islanders get around on homemade transport. Below, Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse

The Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse, which is owned and run by Ola Tulldahl and his wife Ylva Sjoberg, is a mere five-minute stroll from where the ferry pulls in.

Ola tells me he loves Fawlty Towers, which is a wee bit worrying as I’ll be dining later in his restaurant, so I make a mental note not to order the Waldorf salad in case he has run out of Waldorfs.

Ola and Ylva started off working here for the previous owner, then bought the place and toiled day and night to turn it into the best guesthouse I’ve ever set foot in.

“We want our guests to feel like they’re visiting grandma’s house,” says Ola, which evokes best-forgotten childhood memories of Granny Sweeney’s bloomers steaming on the drying line above the kitchen range.

I know what he means, though. This is a flat-pack-free zone: every piece of furniture in the common areas and 13-bedrooms, which have sea or garden views, is handmade from teak, mahogany or oak by craftsmen now long-dead.

Sitting room in Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse. Below, owners Ylva Sjoberg and Ola Tulldahl are the perfect hosts

Ola lends me a bike – a girly one – so I can cycle around the island and see the sights. The last bike I owned was a Raleigh Chopper that I rode on my paper round and had conventional brakes, unlike Ola’s, which he says I have to pedal backwards to slow down and stop.

I can’t get the hang of it. I’ve only just had my best brogues resoled, yet within 10 minutes of setting off from the guesthouse I feel I’ve been walking on red-hot coals. Picture the moment an aeroplane lands and its tyres throw up a pall of smoke. That’s the bottoms of my shoes every time I plank them down on the road to avoid overshooting a junction, crashing through a fence into someone’s garden or taking an unplanned dip in the sea.

As I approach the lovely old whitewashed Lutheran church in the village of Byn, the lady pastor, Agneta Olsson, steps into the narrow road ahead and gives me a cheery wave. Little does she realise that any second now she could be waving the world goodbye.

My soles hit the tarmac, and the quick-thinking pastor performs a manoeuvre not unlike the one in bullfighting that’s known as a veronica. This is where the torero stands rooted to the spot and swings sideways as the bull charges past, its horns – or in my case, handlebars – a mere inch or two short of doing appalling damage. In the bullring, a successful veronica is accompanied by a deafening “Ole!” from the crowd. In Byn, it’s accompanied by a pathetic “Ting-ting!” from my bicycle bell.

Whitewashed church, built in 1752, in Byn

I step inside the church, which was completed in 1752. Near the pulpit, a local teenager is practising on the piano, and very talented he is too. Smart as well, because as soon as he realises he has company, he segues seamlessly from Taylor Swift to something a bit more suitable for the surroundings. His playing is accompanied by the tick-tock of what I presume to be a metronome, until I realise it’s coming from the grandfather clock behind him that’s nearly as old as the building.

Continuing my two-wheeled tour, I pass a couple of eye-poppingly plush properties that are probably owned by Swedish billionaires Viktor and Vilda Volvo and their good friends Erik and Elsa Electrolux. There are plenty of no-less-impressive cottages too, with picket fences, rose gardens, apple trees and, invariably, a kayak or small boat from which many a line is no doubt cast to reel in something tasty for tea.

The girly bike with devilish brakes that I borrowed from Ola

Ola and Ylva’s restaurant, which specialises in superlative seafood caught each morning within a couple of hundred metres of their front door, is open to non-residents and is always busy, so reservations are a must.

Ylva steers me to a table by a window, with wonderful late afternoon views of the channel that separates Styrso from the neighbouring island of Donso. She comes back a couple of minutes later with the menu, which changes every day according to the catch.

“I hear you bumped into the pastor,” says Ylva, with terrible timing, as I nearly drown on the mouthful of lager that’s halfway down my throat. “Ola was buying some things in the store opposite the church and saw you chatting. Did you take photos of the church. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”

It certainly is, and so is my early dinner of wild mushroom soup, langoustines, fish and shellfish with vegetables and herbs from Ola’s garden, plus freshly-baked bread, each dish accompanied by a craft beer recommended by Ylva. I’m as happy as Larry. Or, seeing as I’m in Sweden, as happy as Lars.

Before setting off for the ferry to return to the city, I ask Ola if he has heard of a pub named Olhallen 7:an.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It’s like Fawlty Towers. You should go there.”

Preparing for lunch in Pensionat Styrso Skaret’s restaurant

Gothenburgers go out of their way to look after visitors – stand in the street for two seconds consulting a map and someone will be over to ask if they can help with directions.

As a second city, it’s not always a first-choice destination for anyone planning a visit to Sweden, so those who go there will find they’re extra welcome, and visitors from Ireland are extra-extra welcome, as I learn when I squeeze through the early-afternoon crowd in Olhallen 7:an (Kungstorget 7).

Like the vast majority of Swedes, bushy-bearded barman Christoffer Johansson speaks flawless English, although in his case with a broad Northern Ireland accent – the last thing I expect, because Swedes invariably sound as if they’ve learned the lingo from either Captain Mainwaring or Captain Kirk.

I ask him if he’s from Belfast. “Nah, Ah’m from here, so Ah am,” he says, with a big grin. “Wee pint?”

It turns out Christoffer’s best buddies are Belfast expats living and working in Gothenburg, “so they are”, and he can’t wait for the autumn, “so I can’t”, when he’s going to Ireland for a wedding. It will be his first visit, and he’s super-excited, so he is.

Bushy-bearded barman Christoffer Johansson in Olhallen 7:an

I take my drink outside to the busy terrace, where everyone else is drinking “wee pints” – from Smithwick’s Irish ale glasses. There isn’t a wine to be seen, or a gin-and-this or a vodka-and-that. That’s why it’s called Olhallen, which translates as ale hall – it sells only beer.

Olhallen 7:an has been in business since 1900, which makes it Gothenburg’s oldest watering hole. It has umpteen reasons to blow its own trumpet, but chooses inexplicably to big up the fact that it still has its original floor. That’s like a tour guide in Egypt telling visitors to ignore the pyramids and admire the sand.

It’s OK as floors go, but it’s hardly a Roman mosaic, and the only way you’ll see more than a square foot of it at a time is if you’re first in the door when it opens, because the place fills up quickly.

Olhallen 7:an doesn’t sell food. Rather, customers help themselves to as many free salami sandwiches, sausages and chunks of cheese as they want from regularly replenished platters on the counter. It means you can soak up the beer as well as the atmosphere.

Enjoying pints in the sunshine outside Olhallen 7:an

Ireland’s ambassador to Sweden, Austin Gormley, took up his role only a few months ago, which would explain why he hasn’t yet had a chance to appoint an honorary consul-general in Gothenburg (where there’s a pub called The Irish Embassy). I can save him a lot of time and bother, so I can, because I know the very man, so I do, and he’d do a grand job, so he would.

As a barman working in a pub where hairy bikers rub shoulders with bankers, hipsters and less-of-your-lipsters, Christoffer deals with diplomatic incidents every day, so he’s a shoo-in – and an Irishman at heart. He epitomises all that’s great about the grounded and good-natured Gothenburgers and their city, as do Ola and Ylva on Styrso and tour guide Annika.

People make a place, and salt-of-the-earth people make it special. That’s especially true of Gothenburg, which doesn’t start with “Go” for nothing.

Take a stroll or cycle through Gothenburg’s cobbled streets

GET THERE: Ryanair flies (seasonally) direct from Dublin to Gothenburg. SAS flies daily from Dublin to Gothenburg via either Stockholm or Copenhagen.

STAY: The 456-room Scandic Europa Hotel (Nilsericsonsgatan 21) is slap bang in the centre of the city and has rooms from €115 to €240 with free access to the pool, sauna and gym. The hotel’s HAK restaurant and bar are hugely popular and hopping most nights, with live music at the weekend. The central train station is directly opposite, and Nordstan, Sweden’s biggest shopping centre, is right next door. Pensionat Styrso Skaret (Skaretvagen 53) is a warm and welcoming base from which to explore Styrso island. Rooms from €170 to €195 and a restaurant to rave about.

Stockholm: Vasa is Sweden’s Titanic

Visitors to Stockholm’s Vasa Museum can’t help but gaze in awe at the massive wooden warship known as Sweden’s Titanic. Like the ‘unsinkable’ White Star liner, Vasa went to a watery grave, but was raised after 333 years under the Baltic Sea. It now sits, in showroom condition, in a museum that was built around it and is, unsurprisingly, Sweden’s top tourist attraction.

The massive and magnificent warship Vasa in its custom-built museum in Stockholm

The great Swedish warship Vasa, which was launched in Stockholm Harbour on August 10, 1628, had the briefest of maiden voyages. It had gone only 1,300 metres when a gust filled its sails and caused the top-heavy vessel to tip to port. As citizens and dignitaries on shore looked on in disbelief, water gushed in through the gun ports, which had been left open, and flooded the lower decks. Within an hour, Vasa was on the seabed and 50 of the 100-strong crew were dead.

Thanks to the absence of the voracious teredo worm, which can’t survive in brackish water but turns up frequently in crosswords, Vasa’s timbers remained undevoured as it sat upright and intact in the mud. But what would happen when, more than three centuries after it sank, the ship was brought up and exposed to the air? Would it collapse like a souffle? Would it disintegrate to the touch?

These were two of the many nightmare scenarios that haunted 38-year-old marine technician and amateur naval archaeologist Anders Franzen (1918-1993), who located Vasa off the island of Beckholmen on August 25, 1956 after several years of trawling the archives and dragging and sounding the harbour from a little rowing boat.

Anders Franzen, who located the wreck

“My booty had consisted mainly of rusty iron cookers, ladies’ bicycles, Christmas trees and dead cats,” Franzen said, recounting his frustrating search which, unusually, failed to turn up any supermarket trolleys. Then, on that fateful summer afternoon, he struck gold – well, oak.

A couple of days later, Franzen’s friend and fellow Vasa enthusiast, the diver Per Edvin Falting (1911-1995), donned his cumbersome canvas suit, big brass helmet and lead-soled boots and went down to investigate. Reporting back to Franzen on the surface via a crackling intercom, he said: “I can’t see anything, it’s pitch black here.”

Franzen, a man of infinite patience, stood by. A few minutes passed before Falting was back on the blower. “I can feel something big – the side of a ship,” he said. “Here’s one gun port – and here’s another. There are two rows. It must be the Vasa.”

Diver Per Edvin Falting

The discovery was reported in a snippet in the evening paper, Expressen, which read: “An old ship has been found off Beckholmen in the middle of Stockholm. It is probably the warship Vasa, which sank on her maiden voyage in 1628. For five years a private person has been engaged in a search for the ship.”

Franzen was no ordinary private person – he was Sweden’s foremost expert on 16th and 17th century naval warfare; and Vasa was no ordinary warship – it was King Gustavus II’s pride and joy. It was meant to impress and intimidate his enemies, especially Poland, with which Sweden was at war over control of the Baltic, but it never got the chance.

On April 24, 1961, Vasa broke the surface without breaking apart. In the six decades since then, it has impressed more than 30 million visitors, at first in a temporary museum at Wasavarvet and since 1990 in the custom-built Vasa Museum at Galarvarvet on the island of Djurgarden.

The three masts poking through the roof are steel replicas. The top of the main one is 52.5 metres above floor level, the ship’s original height as measured from the keel. When Vasa sank in 30 metres of water, the two and three-section masts stuck out above the surface, presenting a hazard to navigation. It’s believed they were removed not long after the disaster.

Moment when Vasa broke the surface

Vasa is Sweden’s Titanic. Like the Belfast-built liner, it was the greatest vessel of its time, was lost in disastrous circumstances and became a national embarrassment. Vasa was seldom mentioned in Swedish histories until that snippet appeared in Expressen, and Belfast people for decades shrugged off the loss of Titanic by saying “it was perfectly all right when it left here”.

Now, thanks to the Vasa Museum, Gustavus’s dreamboat is the centrepiece of a world-class tourist attraction that welcomes 1.5 million visitors a year, while the Titanic Belfast centre, which opened in 2012, welcomes close to a million.

What’s left of the great ocean liner that sank in April 1912 lies rotting away at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but 95 per cent of Vasa was recovered. Standing in the museum and viewing it from all angles, you’d think that if it were relaunched it could resume the voyage that was so surprisingly cut short, but you’d be wrong. From the moment Vasa cast off, it was a catastrophe waiting to happen – and it would be a catastrophe again.

Vasa went against every rule of seaworthiness and physics, and that was no one’s fault but the king’s, for it was he who insisted an extra gun deck be added. It was an act of supreme folly, but who was going to argue with the monarch?

As Vasa neared completion, Admiral Klas Fleming oversaw a stability test at the quayside. Thirty men ran back and forward across the main deck three times and had to stop or the ship, which was rolling dangerously, would have capsized; yet Fleming allowed construction to proceed, with appalling consequences.

The open gun ports, into which the water rushed, sending Vasa to the seabed

At the official opening of the Vasa Museum on June 15, 1990, Franzen stood beside King Carl XVI Gustaf and admired the magnificent vessel that sank 362 years before and was recovered thanks to his dogged determination. The inauguration was, much to his relief, a ribbon-cutting ceremony – he said later he had feared the king would smash a bottle of bubbly against the ship’s bow and undo years of painstaking preservation.

Various crackpot ideas had been put forward as to how Vasa could be raised from the seabed, but the craziest suggested filling the wreck with ping pong balls that would make it float to the surface, much like holding a rubber duck under the water in a bath and then letting go.

Witnessing the ship shooting out of the Baltic like a missile from a submarine would have been almost as spectacular as watching it sink, but I’ll content myself with seeing it just sitting there in the Vasa Museum, my all-time favourite visitor attraction in the world.

Vasas ornate stern

VISIT: When it reopens, admission to the Vasa Museum will cost 170 kronor (€16.70) for adults (free for visitors aged 18 and under). Guided tours are included in the entrance fee. The museum is easily accessible by ferry, tram and bus and has a great restaurant that prepares fresh dishes from scratch.

GET THERE: SAS Scandinavian Airlines flies daily from Dublin to Stockholm Arlanda. Frequent Arlanda Express trains connect the airport with Stockholm Central Station. Express buses go from Arlanda to Cityterminalen, next to Central Station. A taxi to the city centre costs around 500 kronor/€48. See arlandaexpress.com and flygbussarna.se

MORE INFORMATION: See visitstockholm.com

Vasa Museum from the water, with the three masts protruding from the roof