A few metres from Stockholm’s City Hall – where every year the Nobel laureates receive their hard-earned prizes –hundreds of tourists line up every day to board the ferries sailing towards the Stockholm archipelago.
A brochure at one ferry operator’s sales office promotes its tours to a natural attraction made of a staggering 30,000 islands of varying sizes. One advertisement boasts of Stockholm as a Beauty on Water, while another labels it the Capital of Scandinavia.
The journey starts at a slow pace as the boat zigzags through Lake Mälaren. The water, the scenery and the typical Swedish villas with their red roof tops are all breathtaking. So far so good.
Victoria, a young Swedish archaeologist working for Strömma – the tour operator ferrying tourist to the Stockholm archipelago – tells the stories behind the islands.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are now passing the King’s Hat island,” she says, while pointing towards a hat balanced on a pole on a high cliff.
“Legend has it that a king was being chased by a group of bandits and had to choose to either jump off the cliff or get caught by the bandits. He eventually jumped off the cliff with his brave horse into Lake Mälaren and made it safe to the other island. However his hat flew off his head and sat on a rock,” Victoria explains.
The scenery as we make our way out to the island of Birka is so spectacular that time manages to slip by unnoticed.
“We’re already there! That hour and 45 minutes just flew by,” says a tourist couple visiting Sweden from Canada for the first time.
The island of Birka, founded in the 750s AD, is usually referred to as Sweden’s first real town. It was also an important hub for traders from all over the world.
Li Kolkar, another Swedish archaeologist, explains the significance the town once had. Dressed in a traditional Viking gown and leather sandals, she takes visitors on an hour long tour of the island.
“There isn’t much left of the old Birka anymore,” Li informs tourists curious to locate the remains of the Vikings for which Sweden is famous.
“The inhabitants of Birka used wood to build houses and wood does not last long,” she explains.
The only remains of the Vikings can be found in mounds which house the Viking dead. Right at the entrance to the island a small museum displays many of the artefacts found at Birka. There is also a miniature replica of the town, which gives visitors a good idea of how the Vikings inhabited the island.
Outside the museum I exchange a few words with Prajeet and Prachi Padassery, an Indian couple who have come to the island to see its history.
“For us it is important to see how the people lived. In my country the history is all of the kings and queens, but here I can see that it is of the people and therefore I liked it,” Prajeet tells The Local.
Holly, 14, and April, 16, two American teenagers travelling with their grandparents to Sweden, aren’t all that impressed though.
“I thought Birka would be something like Jamestown or Williamsburg, but there is nothing here,” says April.
“But it is educational and sophisticated,” says her younger sister Holly.
In a statement on its website, tour operator Strömma explains that it will reconstruct the houses and workshops of old Birka this summer.
“Five houses will be completed during 2008 using the same techniques and tools as the Vikings. We will tell you about our work and how the houses are built. We will also give you an understanding about how the people once lived in Birka,” the company promises.
As April and Holy put it, Birka is sophisticated. And if you’re looking for a day out with the kids, you might be better advised to look for other alternatives.
But if sophistication, education and folk history are your thing, then Birka is definitely well worth a visit.
See also: Birka photo gallery