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

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