Tracing history on Djurgården
Margo Nilbrink takes us on an urban hike tracing Swedish history around the lush island of Djurgården.
We step off the spårvagnen (Swedish for ¨tram¨) at its end station. The tram runs from Sergels Torg in the center city to the island of Djurgården, one of 14 islands which make up the city of Stockholm. The tram cars had all but emptied when we stopped at Gröna Lund.
For a few moments we experienced a bit of calm after the throbbing excitement of kids headed to Stockholm’s famous amusement park, Gröna Lund.
Founded in 1883 on park land that bore the same name, it was built among old residential and commercial structures which gives it a much different feel than typical modern amusement parks. The location limits its growth but it continues to draw young and old fun seekers.
Just ahead is Waldemarsudde, former residence of Prince Eugens. The prince, born in 1865, was the youngest son of Sweden’s King Oscar II. He displayed artistic talent as a youngster and was trained by prominent artists of his era. Eventually his parents agreed to let him study in Paris. They considered it a dubious career for a member of the royal family but he persevered.
He also became an avid collector and built this home between 1903- 1905 to house his work and his collection. The mansion remains as though the Prince has just stepped out for a breath of fresh sea air.
But today we will only enjoy a trip through his gardens as we start our walk around Djurgården. Once the domain of Sweden’s kings, we are now free to wander this beautiful park. The waterside trails offer us views of Södermalm and the busy boat traffic coming in and out of Stockholm’s central harbor.
As we passed the mansion, we take a small detour to see Prins Eugens’ Ek. The oak is believe to be the oldest in Stockholm, estimated to be between 300-400 years old. I placed my hand on the rough bark wishing to know the history that transpired beneath these branches.
In the past, oak trees were protected. They were the property of the king and their timber was used for warships. A visit to the nearby Vasa museum, home to Sweden’s famous warship that capsized and sank moments after its launch in 1628, is proof of that. In the 1600s cutting down an oak would earn you the death penalty. Now you can see many majestic oaks in the area.
We leave this famous oak and walk eastward along the trail bordering Saltsjön (the salt sea).
On our way we are tempted to stop for a coffee at Café Ekorren which translates to ¨The Squirrel Café¨, a perfect name when you realise the bounty of acorns produced by the numerous oak trees nearby. We carry on, holding out for the opportunity to visit another delightful cafe at the most eastern tip of the island. Like all swedes, we love the chance to enjoy our coffee in the fresh air with water views.
Soon we are passing other historic vistas including Freedom Gate. This tall grey granite monument with a narrow opening in the middle commemorates the asylum given to Estonian refugees who crossed the Baltic Sea escaping terror and dictatorship from both the Russians and Germans during their occupations of Estonia in the mid 1940s.
The imposing yellow building on its left is the Manilla School. From 1809 until 2013 it was a special school for deaf and blind children. The school has now relocated to Kungsholmen, and today the campus is home to an innovative elementary school.
Also a part of the landscape, several beautiful private residences attract our envy. One of the most splendid homes, Villa Täcka Udden, was once the summer home of the Wallenbergs, a prominent Swedish family.
It is now owned by Swedish bank SEB.
Of course there are still royal residences nearby. Villa Solbacken, originally owned by Prince Bertil, is now under renovation, soon to be home to Prince Carl Philip, Princess Sofia and their family.
In the meantime, they have settled in Rosendal Palace, another royal slott (palace) on Djurgården.
Soon we are approaching Blockhusudden at the far eastern tip of the island. This was originally the site of a blockhouse used for defense of the entry to Stockholm. It is now the charming Café Blockhusporten.
We sit at one of the outdoor tables sipping a drink as we watch the ferries and boats on their way to the outer archipelago. You can see almost every mode of marine transportation from this vantage point: mega cruise ships, steam-powered ferries, motor and sail boats and even kayaks.
Maybe we’ll try one tomorrow? In Stockholm, the water beckons us every day.