Travel: Travel back in time on a Swedish Lake Steamer
The crew of the M/S Juno were in high spirits. It was dinner time and they were singing a jovial Swedish toasting song while waving glasses of akvavit. My fork was poised over a glistening pile of silvery pickled herring and I felt distinctly sick. The song reached a climax and grabbing my glass of akvavit I downed it in one gulp.
A searing fire shot down my throat and, filled with Dutch courage, I stabbed at a chunk of herring and placed it in my mouth. I expected to throw up on the spot but mercifully my mouth was so numb I couldn't taste a thing. Delighted that my aversion to raw seafood was finally conquered, I quickly gobbled down the rest. Sushi, ceviche, mahi mahi... the world was now my proverbial oyster and for anyone who feels similarly squeamish about slimy seafood, I'd recommend a shot of schnapps every time.
The pocket-sized Juno is the world's oldest registered cruise ship and since 1874 has been puffing along the rivers, lakes and canals of Southern Sweden. In the 1920s the Gothenburg to Stockholm cruise became synonymous with stylish travel and posters from the era show suave socialites in cloche hats reclining on the sun decks. A trip on the Juno – a listed historic vessel in Sweden – transports you back to a bygone era of sheer elegance.
With its jaunty prow and funnel resembling a liquorice allsort, The Juno is one of those ships you instantly fall in love with. Shortly after departure on a sparkling June morning, it soon became clear that everybody on shore shared the sentiment. On board, it's easy to forget just what a magical sight the Juno is as she glides along Sweden's waterways. Everywhere we passed, cyclists on tow paths screeched to a halt, video cams came out and toddlers started jumping up and down in excitement. It gave all of us the odd sensation we were travelling on a floating museum.
The Juno oozes a similar nostalgic charm. The 29 railway sleeper-style cabins hark back to the days of The Orient Express and are furnished with gleaming hardwood and brass fittings, delightful lift-up porcelain sinks and creamy flock wallpaper. The wood-panelled library on the second deck is straight out of an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
In the dining room it's still customary to dress up in a jacket. Meals are strictly regimented and announced by the head waiter, who roams the decks beating a brass gong.
Swedish food is enjoying a flurry of popularity in the UK following the recent Jamie Does Stockholm TV show and from tangy vsterbotten cheese pie to sweet cloudberry mousse, meals on board offer a wonderful introduction to the bursting flavours.
Preparing for bed in a cubby hole-sized cabin is no easy task. On the first evening, as we crossed the mournfully beautiful Lake Vnern, I could hear a procession of yelps as passengers stubbed toes and knocked funny bones while climbing up into their bunkbeds. By midnight the ship was pitching in choppy waters and crashes of falling washbags began emanating from the cabins. After one particularly loud bang I got up and walked out sleepily onto the deck. We were passing through the Vnern Archipelago and in the opalescent twilight a lonely lighthouse was shining on a rocky skerry. Next to it, a solitary orange light flickered in a rickety wooden light keeper's cottage. It was a quintessentially Nordic scene and would have made the perfect backdrop for a moody Ingmar Bergman film.
The next morning I woke up to a more bucolic landscape of shimmering lupin meadows and twittering skylarks. We'd entered the Gta Canal which links Sjtorp on Lake Vnern to Mem on the Baltic and crosses five of Sweden's loveliest lakes on its 190km journey.
En route, the canal traverses 58 locks and as we approached Forsvik, a quaint lakeside town, we were greeted by the cheerful sound of accordions. Since the 1930s, the Kindbom family, a group of Protestant evangelicals, have gathered by the lock to sing hymns to travellers on the vintage ships. It was Sweden's national day and as we sank down in the emptying lock the congregation handed us bouquets of forget-me-nots and buttercups matching the blue and yellow national colours. As the lock gates opened they launched into How Great Thou Art and, waving us goodbye, we sailed out into the sparkling Lake Vtern, Sweden's second-largest lake.
Before crossing the lake we stopped at nearby Karlsborg Fortress, built as a bolthole for the Royal Family during the Napoleonic Wars. It was a beautiful afternoon so I decided to take a dip in the lake's famously clear waters. On a beach by the castle walls I tentatively tiptoed into the water. The cold was so intense it felt like ice picks hammering into my ankles and with a gasp I leapt out of the water.
As I was walked back to The Juno I passed soldiers from the fortress jogging along the promenade. Reaching a jetty they kicked off their trainers and dived into the water. I was aghast at their hardiness. I'd always fancied I had Viking blood in my veins but was now sure I was descended from meek Saxon farmers, not hardened Norse warriors.
On our last evening we were disappointed to arrive late at the pretty medieval town of Sderkoping.
We'd been promised the most delicious ice cream in Sweden but unfortunately every ice cream parlour had closed up for the night. Our spirits lifted, however, when we stumbled across the Rabbit Crossing, an enchanting sculpture by Eva Forn of a group of rabbits leaping into the canal on one side and helping each other out of the water on the other. And late at night as we passed through thick woods, the air was filled with the whoops and warbles of nightingales echoing along the canal. It was a hauntingly beautiful sound and seemed to conjure up all the magic of the ephemeral Swedish summer.
The final stretch of the cruise took us across Lake Mlaren past idyllic wooden summer houses perched on tiny pink granite islands. The approach into Stockholm by boat is magnificent as the city's fairytale skyline of green copper spires slowly comes into view across the sparkling lake. We berthed on the island of Gamla Stan close to the Royal Palace. Sadly, it was student graduation week and deafening techno was blasting out of a nearby marquee. Nevertheless, the crew unrolled a red carpet on the quayside and lined up to bid us farewell. Walking along the red carpet to the booming techno beat, I turned around for one last look at The Juno and felt privileged to have experienced this living relic from an era when travel was a far more sedate affair.
With regular departures from Gothenburg and Stockholm from April-September, the four-day From Coast to Coast cruise costs from 9,775 SEKpp (845), based on two sharing a double cabin. Includes three nights' full board and six excursions. To book call The Gta Canal Steamship Company on +46 (0) 31 80 63 15 (www.gotacanal.se). SAS flies from Edinburgh to Gothenburg and Stockholm Edinburgh-Gothenburg: one way 146, return 266 Edinburgh-Stockholm: one way 69, return 136 See www.flysas.co.uk for details.
• This article was first published in The Scotsman on September 25, 2010
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