Sweden’s swaggering icon of naval ambition
Looking up at the stern of Vasa, then up a bit more, you find yourself gazing at a backside carved with armoured men towering six or seven times higher than the part of the ship that sits under water. It’s a preposterous show-off structure, nearly as impractical as a modern cruise ship and just as unstable, without jets to keep her upright. You can see why this 17th-century Swedish warship simply fell over and sank soon after launching.
It was discovered 400 years later, sitting upright at the bottom of the fjord. Resurrected and embalmed, it now stands, pale and ghostly in its own museum, just across the water from the Royal Palace in Stockholm. I recommend going. Just taking the ferry out there gives you a new take on Swedish flamboyance.
Once in the Vasa museum, its walkways will enable you to peer down, or up, at it from almost any angle – like a crow’s nest marksman, or perhaps a drowning sailor. It stands as a reminder of Swedish naval pomp and ambition. There is actually rather more of that than you might imagine, especially if your idea of Swedes is burbly chefs, nude tennis and Abba. The capital is full of ostentatious heritage architecture.
In Karlskrona, way down the coast towards Denmark, there is another maritime museum with a glorious, towering wall where dozens of out-of-date outboard motors are nailed up in majesty. I bought some cushions made out of old signal flags, too. There was also a photographic exhibition of an encounter with a Russian nuclear submarine in the Sixties. The sub had stranded and was investigated (or rather “helped”) by a coastguard vessel which came alongside and identified its nuclear payload, thanks to a geiger counter in its hold. The Russians had denied such weapons existed in the Baltic.
This was a reminder that the whole area had been extra hot in the Cold War. Sweden didn’t join Nato for fear of being compromised by such an alliance, and preferred to mount its own defences. The navy was central to independent Swedish national security. It has a long history of supporting the crown through periods of great expansion.
The navy remains powerful. Exploring down below the Stockholm archipelago once, looking for our escape route from the rapidly greying northern waters of September’s Baltic, we sailed past the forbidding entrances to a naval base, squirrelled away behind secret islands. “Entry forbidden”: “Do not pass”, signs warned furiously, at either side of intriguing canyon-like fissures in the cliffs. Somehow, though, and quite unintentionally, each tack of the boat we were sailing took us right into their mouths. Nothing happened.
And then, as we passed further south, we found ourselves yachting right through the middle of an important naval exercise. There were helicopters rattling overhead and fast boats manoeuvring into position along craggy passages. A large frigate flanked our path ahead. We could do little more but sail jauntily past, close enough to observe the flat-capped officers peering at us through binoculars from the bridge. We gave
Well preserved: the Vasa in Stockholm