Early this summer I landed in prison, only it is now a hotel, housed within what used to be a state penitentiary in Langholmen, not far from the Swedish capital Stockholm.
Once you get over the size of your room — it was a prison cell after all — you’ll love the atmospheric building, complete with its own prison museum as well as the green, quiet island on which it is located.
Just saying its name, Langholmen, puts you in a languid mood. It is the sort of place where you see allotment gardens, boats tied to a quiet jetty, joggers, dog-walkers and children dipping in a tiny cove while parents sit on deckchairs in a café.
After an evening walk, I sat in the hallway listening to what the walls could tell me, before I went to sleep to the calls of seagulls.
I woke up to a lush breakfast with scrambled eggs and caviar cream.
Venice of the North
The island I “escaped” to following my sojourn in jail was Skeppsholmen. All of Stockholm is distributed over 14 islands, which means you see water and bridges everywhere.
Not surprisingly, it is sometimes called “Venice of the North”, except that its roads are wider, its summer sky a more pastel blue, and the people taller, leggier, blonder, all looking as if they had stepped out of a fashion catalogue.
The interface of water, land and sky has resulted in an appealing pale light and openness, and I couldn’t really imagine how this city has inspired so many dark crime novels, including the ultra-successful Stieg Larsson trilogy.
Hostel on a ship
Skeppsholmen used to be a base for the Swedish navy, but many of the buildings and installations have been converted into museums and theatres interspersed by green spaces.
My base here was a 19th-century English sailing ship called the Chapman once owned by the Swedish navy.
It is now a youth hostel that is so cool that even the locals visit it in the evening when its bar and kitchen are open for dinner.
Guests and locals can relax on the decks and enjoy bayside views, live music drifting from the nearby Grand Hotel and people-watching.
Nobel Prize route
Across from “my” boat, I could see the lights of Gamla Stan, the Old Town, which is actually a warren of narrow, cobbled streets originating from the Middle Ages.
The oldest square here is the Stortorget, where the Nobel Museum is located.
There are many cafés, restaurants and touristy stores, and I was happy to chance upon the English Book Shop at Lilla Nygaten 11, and Comics Heaven at Stora Nygatan 23 with its
excellent selection, including English comics.
The northern edge of Gamla Stan backs onto the Royal Palace, which has more than 600 rooms. A changing-of the-guards ceremony takes place in the outer courtyard at midday.
I also visited the Town Hall to see its famous Blue Room and Gold Room. The Blue Room is where the annual dinner for Nobel Prize winners is served; the Gold Room is where they dance.
World’s first open-air museum
Stockholm claims to have about 100 museums, a high density even for a capital.
Families should allocate at least half a day for Skansen, the world’s first open-air museum featuring authentic old houses, farmsteads and workshops moved from their original sites all over Sweden to cluster on the island of Djurgarden.
Realizing that history needed to be more than antiquated artefacts, Skansen is filled with people in costumes who can explain the old ways of life.
I met Bosse, a woodcutter; Stig and Eva, a house-proud printer and his wife; and another Bosse, an affable baker who still baked in a woodfired oven.
Skansen also has a zoo featuring Nordic animals such as the reindeer, lynx and wolverine.
Down the road from Skansen is the VASA museum, which houses a 17th- century ship that sank on its maiden voyage.
After lying in watery depths for 333 years, the ship was salvaged and is now displayed, adorned with numerous sculptures, contents, and even the skeletal remains of its crew and passengers. A must if you are into maritime things.
Almost next door is the ABBA Museum, which opened last year and is dedicated to the most successful Swedish pop group ever.
There is plenty of stuff to do besides seeing their recording studio and following the story of how the group of four got together, won the Eurovision Song Contest and enjoyed a decade of glorious success.
You can audition with an ABBA song, try on their costumes and dance with hologram images of ABBA. I left humming ABBA melodies on the ferry.
After a few days of glorious sunshine, it rained just as I was leaving. I left, wishing I could go to “jail” again.
Written by guest contributor