Off the beaten track in Sweden
I might just as well start out by saying that for very, very many people Sweden is per definition off the beaten track—an insignificant place far to the north with like 10 million inhabitants in a country consisting of 55% forests. Of course, for us Swedes the place is not insignificant: after all, WE live here.
Now Sweden is a very elongated country in which approximately 80% live in Stockholm or south of the capital. This does not mean that the southern part of Sweden is particularly densely populated, but compared to the north, we are positively crowded together, like 25 people or so per square kilometre (I’m being ironic, OK?) Obviously, with all that space, there are plenty of byroads.
This excursion into the (relatively) unknown Sweden starts in Gränna. Once again, everyone in Sweden knows where Gränna is, albeit that not everyone in Sweden has visited this rather cute little town, situated on the shores of Vättern, Sweden’s second largest lake, Vättern. With a protective hillside to the east, the waters of the lake to the west, and a relatively flat space in between. Gränna enjoys a rather nice autumnal climate in which pears thrive. It therefore follows that Gränna pears are a big thing—well, in Sweden.
Gränna town was founded in 1652 and has the distinction of being Sweden’s only feudal town, in that it was founded by Count Per Brahe, not by the king. Per Brahe was the richest man in Sweden and I suppose such a man felt he needed his very own town to round off his image. He chose Gränna—at the time a rather obscure village—because of its harbour. You see, until then Gränna was an insignificant little village, no more than a quick stop on the road for all those determined to cross the choppy waters of the lake to Visingsö, an elongated island in the middle of Vättern which in early medieval times was a preferred residence for the Swedish kings.
Why live on an island, one might ask—especially an island so far away from Stockholm. Well, at the time (we’re talking 11-12th century or so), Stockholm did not exist. Plus, being king of Sweden came with the risk of being murdered so that someone else could be elected king, and so retiring to an island seemed the prudent thing to do. Not that it helped Karl Sverkersson, the Swedish king who was brutally murdered in 1167 by his successor, Knut Eriksson. The intrepid Knut had no need to visit Gränna to get to Visingsö – he waited until winter and crossed the lake when it was frozen. He also avoided death by assassin’s blade by the simple expedient of murdering all of Karl Sverkersson’s male relatives he could lay hands on. One little male relative managed to flee: Karl’s three-year-old son, Sverker Karlsson, was smuggled out of Sweden by his mother and would, in the fullness of time, return to wrest the crown from Knut’s sons, but as this has nothing whatsoever to do with Visingsö or Gränna, we won’t go there.
Other than pears and the proximity to Visingsö, Gränna is famous for its “polka pigs”. No, we’re not talking four-legged creatures that go oink in the dark, we’re talking the world-famous Gränna Polkagrisar (polka pigs), which is Swedish for striped stick candy. This contribution to the world’s sweets was invented in 1852 by Amalia Erickson, a young widow who had to do something to support herself and her children. As one does in such tricky situations, she developed a special type of sugar paste which was kneaded on a marble table top and pulled and twisted as it was shaped into a classic red and white swirl. These days, Amalia is honoured all over the place in Gränna, including a life-size statue
Having explored Gränna to the full, we drove off towards Rök, home to 185 souls, give or take. Not that we were going to see the inhabitants. Nor were we all that interested in the church, built in the mid 19th century atop the demolished ruins of a 12th century church. IMO, I’d have preferred to see the old church, but the people living in Rök a century or so ago desired a new place of worship, airy and filled with light, and so they happily destroyed the old to give room for the new, a process called progress for which we must have some respect as otherwise we would all still be living in wattle and daub cottages without running water or central heating.
Now, outside the old medieval church there used to be a tithing booth, and fortunately for all of us, those men so determined to rebuild the church in the 19th century were wise enough to salvage the truly impressive runestone that our medieval ancestors had walled into the tithing booth as a nice, robust foundation. This, dear peeps was what we had come to see: Rökstenen, one of the most well-preserved and impressive runestones still around.
The inscription on Rökstenen is the longest known rune inscription and dates from the early 9th century. It is thought it was originally placed close to where it now stands, right by the side of the processional road which all newly elected kings would travel as part of their inauguration process. By placing the stone there, the grieving Varin, father of the dead Vämod in whose honour the stone was erected, ensured his son’s name would never be forgotten. Given that we still know his son’s name, more than 1200 years after his death, I guess Varin succeeded.
When the Christian church began establishing itself in the region the stone was toppled – you know, out with the old heathen stuff, in with the new Christian things – which is how it ended up as building material. Fortunately, the stone was never defaced, and so we can still read (but not necessarily understand) the convoluted inscription in which Varin laments the loss of Vämod
From the runestone it was but a short drive to Alvastra. Once one of the more important monastic houses in Sweden, today Alvastra is a peaceful collection of ruins, the original layout clearly visible. The monks who founded Alvastra were invited here by King Sverker (dad to Karl Sverkersson who was murdered on Visingsö), which is why in 1143 a group of monks left Clairvaux In France and made the long and perilous journey to this distant backwater. One can only imagine just how unpopular these poor monks must have been to be sent off into the wilderness, to a place where Christianity was still a novelty. Forty years after arriving, the proud monks consecrated their abbey church, built in local limestone. Some 400 years after the monks’ arrival, Alvastra disappeared as a religious community , the impressive library, the silver and relics carted off to Stockholm and the new, Protestant king’s treasury.
After some time imbibing the serenity of Alvastra, off we went to Vadstena, one of the holier places in Sweden – well, at least according to St Birgitta, who founded the Brigittine order here. To be quite correct, St Birgitta was only present as a bag of bones when the convent was opened, seeing as she’d died in Rome after having nagged the pope into allowing her to start a religious order in which both men and women were welcome (albeit living in separate dormitories) In general, St Birgitta was a very determined lady who managed to browbeat almost everyone into doing what she wanted, which was how she harassed the pope into leaving Avignon behind and moving back to Rome. Yes, she was also very devout and had been afflicted by religious visions since the tender age of six, and yes, she believed in helping the poor and needy – especially the women. More about St Birgitta can be found here – and I hasten to add that just because she was canonised, this does not mean St Birgitta was all that soft and cuddly. Rather the reverse, in fact.
In the abbey church of Vadstena lie the mortal remains of another medieval lady, Philippa of England, Queen of Norway, Denmark & Sweden. While St Birgitta inspires reluctant admiration, little Philippa mostly inspires compassion. She was sent off at the tender age of twelve by her father, Henry IV of England, as a bride to the (at the time) very distant north. From little Philippa’s perspective, her father was more or less sending her to the “here be dragons” part of the map. Not so from her daddy’s perspective, seeing as Henry IV (prior to usurping his cousin’s throne, i.e. when he was still plain old Henry of Bolingbroke) had spent a lot of time fighting for the Teutonic Order in the Baltics.
Philippa was married to Erik of Pomerania, heir to the combined thrones of Sweden, Norway and Denmark, By all accounts, Philippa did a great job managing Sweden for her husband, so much so that while the Swedish nobles heartily disliked Erik, they always respected their little queen. Unfortunately, Philippa died young and childless, and soon enough the Swedish nobles threw Erik out, leaving the ex-king no other option but to become a pirate (!) with the Baltic Sea as his hunting ground. Maybe a story for another day.
Vadstena is not only famous for its religious history. Long before St Birgitta decided to house her convent here, Vadstena was a favourite residential town for the Swedish medieval kings, home to one of their most luxurious palaces. Seeing as Birgitta strong-armed the then king, Magnus, to grant her the palace for her future religious establishment, there is little left of the palatial interiors – and truth be told, they’d only be palatial from a medieval Swedish perspective. Magnus’ wife, Blanche of Namur, was probably less than impressed by the comforts offered by her Swedish residences, comparing them unfavourably with the palaces of her childhood in present-day Flanders.
As to why Magnus chose to give Birgitta his royal residence, I suspect he did that to stop her from insinuating he was more into men than women and that his son, Prince Håkan, was the consequence of the fair Blanche of Namur finding pleasure in other arms. See? I told you being a saint doesn’t necessarily mean being nice.
Finally, we could not leave Vadstena without at least mentioning Princess Cecilia, the party princess who in the late 16th century was discovered entertaining a scantily clad young man in her bedroom. Most unseemly, and the scandal so angered dear papa the young man spent a long, long time cowering under the shadow of the gallows before papa relented and decided to have his wayward daughter wed the intrepid lover. Cecilia’s life would end up being one very long adventure, including such highlights as fleeing England due to unpaid debts and dabbling in piracy to balance the books.
After all this sightseeing, a longish human break was in order before setting off due north, towards the not-so-well-known town of Sigtuna. More about this little gem in my next post!
P.S. A quick note: Sweden in the early medieval period was substantially smaller than it is today. The southern part belonged to Denmark, the north was unchartered terrain, and to the west large chunks of present day Sweden belonged to Norway.