Swim the city

A duck’s-eye tour of Stockholm’s bathing spots

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Afloat - ANNA STOTHARD

A VOICE from the rocks be­hind me com­mands me to jump. Bare­foot on sun-baked cliffs, I launch my­self into the icy clear wa­ter.

I gasp in­stinc­tively but for­get the cold on sur­fac­ing. Tread­ing wa­ter in this quiet stretch of Lake Malaren, not far from the cen­tre of Stockholm, ducks pad­dle past me and a tiny wag­tail, the size of a baby’s fist, plays tag with waves I’ve made against the rocks. The lake is so clear you can see the criss­cross­ing roots of the wa­ter lilies. Yet a high­way hums nearby.

The smooth, slop­ing cliffs of Fred­halls­badet are tucked away on the south­west­ern tip of Kung­shol­men, one of the 14 is­lands that make up Stockholm. ‘‘The most ro­man­tic bath in the city,’’ pro­nounces Hen­rik, the bossy sun­bather who en­cour­aged my first city dip.

Haul­ing my­self from the wa­ter, I find him near the top of the cliffs, ash­ing cig­a­rettes tidily into their packet and work­ing on his sun­tan. Ona scorch­ing week­end this area bus­tles with young lo­cals shar­ing beers and di­ve­bomb­ing, but Hen­rik likes it best on warm, mag­i­cal sum­mer week­days like to­day.

‘‘Walk the coast and swim when you get hot, it’s the best way to see the city,’’ he says, point­ing a lan­guid arm east­ward to­wards a pop­u­lar beach un­der­neath Vaster­bron, the stylishly arched Western Bridge.

Be­gin­ning my­walk I jump from the rocks sur­round­ing a wooden jetty and later slide down a steep in­cline to pad­dle and swim in a lit­tle bay shel­tered by trees. Wind­ing stone stair­cases ap­pear from nowhere, over­grown with vines and wild pink roses and, fur­ther east, a board­walk ma­te­ri­alises as the drone of Essin­gele­den mo­tor­way mud­dles with bird­song.

The road juts right out of the rocks above my head, but some­how this only adds to the magic.

Thanks to strin­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal laws, the wa­ters of Lake Malaren have been clean enough to fish and swim in since 1971. The is­lands of Stockholm are scat­tered where the lake meets the Baltic, but the lake is cleaner than the sea, so ur­ban swimmers are best to stick to the western edges of the city.

Just as I have dried off from my last rocky dip and am start­ing to feel hot again, a sandy cove called Smed­sud­ds­badet ap­pears around the cor­ner, as Hen­rik promised, on the Kung­shol­men side of the Western Bridge. This fam­ily-friendly beach has been open to the pub­lic since 1973 and be­comes packed on sunny days. It doesn’t have the wild majesty of Fred­hall, but it’s cute. It’s set in a bay with buoys mark­ing it off from deeper wa­ter; chil­dren make sand­cas­tles and chase ducks while teenagers lounge on a wooden dock. There are chang­ing rooms and just be­yond the sand, on the other side of a stubby fin­ger of land, you can stop in the Kafe Ka­jak to dry off and buy an ice cream or fika (cof­fee with some­thing sweet, usu­ally a cin­na­mon bun). The cafe pa­tio looks out at the Western Bridge — its swoop­ing steel arches con­nect­ing the is­land of Kung­shol­men to So­der­malm via the smaller is­land of Langhol­men.

The bridge was built in 1935 and stretches 602m, 340 of which pounce over the wa­ter like a gi­ant bird skip­ping from is­land to is­land. Through its steel arches you can see the bell tower of City Hall, where the No­bel Prize banquet is held, and be­yond on to the ter­ra­cotta fa­cades of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town.

In the 13th cen­tury, these wa­ters were crowded with pi­rates, trad­ing boats and war­ships squeez­ing through the nar­row pas­sage where the fresh­wa­ter of Lake Malaren merges with the Baltic Sea. The city grew from a fortress built on the is­land by a Swedish states­man named Birger Jarl. Swe­den con­trolled a key trade route and the sur­round­ing area soon ex­panded into a city. Now ca­noes slide among sail­ing boats, seag­ulls and the lol­lop­ing heads of swimmers.

Most of the year Stockholm is en­closed by blue ice and moody skies, so when the sun comes out this city ex­hales, un­curl­ing from hi­ber­na­tion and head­ing for the wa­ter. The edges of the is­lands look like tem­ples to sun­shine dur­ing the sum­mer months, scat­tered with lo­cals, faces tilt­ing to­wards the sky.

Langhol­men is­land housed the largest prison in Swe­den un­til 1975 and per­formed the coun­try’s last ex­e­cu­tion, in 1910. It’s 1.4km long and 400m wide at the fat­test point and it of­fers swim­ming op­tions all around its perime­ter. Much of the prison has been de­mol­ished, but the rem­nants have been trans­formed into a ho­tel and hos­tel where guests sleep in ‘‘cells’’ and eat at colour­fully check­ered tables laid out in the ves­tiges of the ex­er­cise yards. In a city that’s no­to­ri­ously pricey, Langhol­men hos­tel is in­ex­pen­sive. The prison mu­seum is worth a look, as is the fox­glove and poppy-strewn gar­den of Stora Hen­riksvik, a cafe serv­ing home­made pas­tries and or­ganic sal­ads.

Eriks­dals­badet, the big­gest swim­ming cen­tre in Stockholm, is a shock to the sys­tem. My towel is sod­den with lake wa­ter and my clothes are stick­ing to my body (in ret­ro­spect, a change of clothes would have been a good idea), but I get a rush of adrenalin at the smell of chlo­rine ris­ing off the lu­mi­nous aqua­ma­rine wa­ter. The vast out­door pool looks alien with its con­crete rims and straight lines, yet also strangely com­fort­ing. You don’t have to avoid stray rocks or pre-plan your exit from the wa­ter. There are rules. And lad­ders.

Af­ter a few laps, I col­lapse ex­hausted on the lawns cov­ered in sun­bathers and pic­nic tables.

It’s easy to lose track of time over Stockholm’s long sum­mer days, which can stretch to 18 hours of sun­light. It turns out I’ve been walk­ing and swim­ming for five hours and my mind is be­gin­ning to turn from thoughts of wa­ter to thoughts of al­co­hol. This is a city walk, af­ter all, and all

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