Swe­den’s swag­ger­ing icon of naval am­bi­tion

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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the coast to­wards Den­mark, there is an­other mar­itime mu­seum with a glo­ri­ous, tow­er­ing wall where dozens of out-of-date out­board mo­tors are nailed up in majesty.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

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