In Search of Pippi Longstocking
For anyone who grew up reading Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books, summer days in Stockholm feel like a walk through the pages, with wide blue skies reflected in the sparkling waters of Lake Mälaren, it’s calm surface broken by the wake of boats and the crashing of children falling from ropes and trees and slides. Painted houses like Villa Villekulla, the house where Pippi lives, dot the many islands, and family groups gather for feasts in their bankside gardens around large pine dining tables covered in brightly coloured table cloths and laden with food.
With promises of finding Pippi, we had lured the six-year-old into exploring the city and it’s sprawling archipelago over a couple of sunny August days, but not before she had bribed us (as though a bribe were needed) on our first night into having a hearty meal at Stockholm’s Matvarufabrik Restaurant, where we thankfully devoured enough food to last us a week; a mountain of chili and garlic prawns, chicken skewers, a rack of lamb to satiate any Viking appetite and meatballs the size of babies heads.
We washed it down with beer that tasted of vanilla coated bananas, recommended to us by the warm and accommodating staff, but understood we would be living off bread and jam for the rest of the trip.
An army marches on its stomach, so they say, and so we did, using up our stored energy to conquer the colourful streets of Gamla Stan, the old town, spread out over the three islands of Stadsholmen, Riddarholmen and Helgeandsholmen.
We began at the Stockholm Royal Palace in all its dominant imperiousness; though many of the buildings are imposing, the palace and its grounds swallow up nearly a quarter of Stadsholmen. The narrow, cobbled streets and stairways were surprisingly quiet that morning, our footsteps echoing off the tall yellow and orange walls around us, with no other bodies to absorb the sound, before emerging into medieval squares with discordant Art Nouveau and Renaissance facades, fighting for our attention.
We played spot the statue, with Birger Jarl, the man considered to be the founder of Stockholm in the mid 1200s, standing masterfully high on his column, and St George slaying the recumbent dragon before his grateful princess, itself a bronze replica of the 15th Century oak statue inside Storkyrkan cathedral, commissioned to depict the Swedish defeat of the Danes and to thank St George for all his help in the matter.
More modern and convivial statues can also be found in addition to the monumental kind, including the Family Group; the troubadour Evert Taube adjusting his glasses to better see the sights around him while considering what song to sing next; and, the smallest of them all, the Boy Looking at the Moon, a fifteen centimetre iron figure, crunched up, holding his knees, and gazing up into the vast space around him and at all those who invade it, his shiny head and the scattered coins testament to the fondness that those who find him have for him.
We crossed the bridge to wait for the ferry on City Hall Quay, eating our sandwiches and sniggering over a shared bar of chocolate Plopp, whilst looking across the water back towards where we had just been. Canoeists paddled before us, craning their necks as they circled the island, peering up at the tall buildings, the dark red steeples behind, the black cast-iron and copper-clad green spires spiking the sky like antique daggers.
We enjoyed the relaxing cruise in the bright sunshine down to Drottningholm Palace, the home of the Swedish Royal Family, and spent the afternoon wandering around the pavilions and parks, manicured gardens and canals of the estate, before the six-year-old surmised that Pippi wouldn’t be found there and had more likely escaped from the guards and sailed off on one of the boats to find her father. So, following her lead, we caught the ferry back to the city.
The next day, we went in search of Pippi on the island of Djurgården, a former royal deer park that now houses many of the city’s diverse museums, stopping first at the Vasa museum and exploring the decks of the 17th Century warship that had been rescued in the 1950s from its watery grave in the harbour. The ship dominates the entire dimly lit room like a ghostly pirate ship in some long lost cave, with unfired cannon balls and strangely eroded carved features of ancient Greeks and Romans, of lions, mermaids and sea monsters, materialising from the pitted timber and providing a glimpse into the gaudy and colourful world of King Gustav II’s propaganda, before dissolving again into their faded, subaqueous slumber. The story of the rise, fall, reclamation and restoration of the ship is well documented and interesting even to landlubbers like me, as well as museum-phobes like the fella and six-year-old I had in tow.
From there, we headed to the open-air folk museum of Skansen and took a trip through towns, villages and farms from all over Sweden across the centuries.
There were chores to carry out on the farm, grains to grind, chicken, geese and goats to feed and milk to churn; the mechanics in the industrial workshops and glassblowers, potters and bakers in town told us about their jobs; we rode the carousel, before heading north to see the reindeer at the Sami camp, spot wolves, wolverine and shy lynx and watch the brown bears fighting in their lagoon.
The six-year-old contemplated where Pippi could still be hiding, ice-cream dribbling down the cone onto her hands, having not found her among the transplanted churches, belfries or windmills, so we finally headed to the children’s museum of Junibacken where she would have more success finding the headstrong heroine. We searched through the Lindgren memorabilia, in Storybook Square amongst the other Swedish stories, and along the tracks of the fantastical, darkly Nordic, Story Train, until finally reaching Villa Villekula at the end of the line. The six-year-old ran around the playhouse, climbing and hanging out of the windows, sliding and sitting on Old Man, Pippi’s giant spotted horse. We also saw The Moomins, who were paying a visit to the museum, probably on their summer holidays too.
We stretched out over the gunnel of a boat carrying us down Lake Mälaren, one last trip to explore some of the other islands, trying to skim the cool surface with our fingertips, small wavelets splashing onto our faces and cooling us in the late afternoon.
Swedes came and went as the boat pulled in here and there, some appeared to have just come along for the ride like us, families feasted and waved to us from the shore. It was a day of endless blue, where sky met water, the horizon interrupted only as rocky islands rose like the undulating serpentine mounds of a sea monster, a distant cousin of the Storsjöodjuret monster from Lake Storsjön in the middle of Sweden, or even Nessie herself, perhaps; the depths of the water hiding more stories to imagine, more stories to tell.