Örebro and Lake Vättern

From Stockholm it was an easy couple of hours’ drive to Örebro, Sweden’s seventh largest city.

Örebro prides itself on being cycle-friendly, which it certainly was; we parked up for two nights about 4km outside the city centre and followed a cycle path along the river that took us right to the Castle:

Örebro Castle started out as a simple castle in the 1300s but underwent a lot of extension and modification over time, most notably during the reign of Charles IX (son of Gustav Vasa of the Reformation / father of Gustav II Adolf of the Vasa) when it was remodelled in the French Renaissance style, which was all the fashion at the time. Charles was, by all accounts, a rather unpleasant chap. Two torture chambers were added during the remodelling, and we’re told that they were well used, including by Charles himself. The work took 50 years to complete and wasn’t finished during Charles’ lifetime as he made the workers’ lives hell, refusing to accept work that had been done and insisting it be redone.

We took a “tour” of the castle, but it turned out that you only got to see two or three rooms, used today for conferences and the like (hence the modern furniture). The guide did a good job of telling the story of the castle using the paintings to introduce the various characters and entertaining the visitors without actually being able to show them very much.

The city centre is quite compact and is home to a (we think possibly biannual) modern art exhibition. Here’s our favourite exhibit:

Here’s the largest / most confusing bit of modern art we saw:

Yes, on closer inspection, many of the chairs in the pile did come from Ikea…. We had no idea at all what it was supposed to represent. We thought it could come in handy, though, if you lived in a flat nearby and had a chair or two to dispose of under cover of darkness 😉

Not far to the South of Örebro is Lake Vättern, a long lake running North-South. We drove down the Eastern side of the lake, where there was plenty to see en route.

Our first stop was Vadstena, to see the abbey and the castle. The abbey was the home of the Birgittine (Bridgettine) Order.

The future Saint Birgitta (Bridget) started life quite conventionally. She married Ulf Gudmarsson in 1316 and with him had eight children. Birgitta had visions from childhood (always a good sign of future sainthood), and following the death of her husband in 1343, the idea of founding an abbey at Vadstena was born.  Birgitta happened to be a lady in waiting at the court of King Magnus Eriksson, so she had contacts, and in 1346 the royal estate at Vadstena was donated to the new abbey project.

In 1349, Birgitta travelled to Rome with her daughter Catherine (who also later became a saint) to gain the approval of the Pope for the new abbey. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church was busy with other matters, so she had to hang around until 1370 to get the go-ahead. Birgitta died in Rome in 1373, leaving her daughter Catherine to take over the establishment of the abbey at Vadstena.

The abbey church was consecrated in 1430, and the abbey had both a convent and a monastery.

The abbey was wealthy as a result of its royal patronage. The brothers and sisters renounced excess wealth but were allowed as many books as they wanted. Sounds good to me! It’s no wonder then that Vadstena Abbey housed the largest library in Sweden by the time of the Reformation. We had a look around the abbey church:

The memorial to King Magnus was on quite a high pedestal. I’m not sure that the visitors’ initial view of him is quite as the sculptor would have intended:

Thankfully we got a slightly better look at him from the side:

Here’s the casket containing the remains of… er… um… who knows?

There seems to have been a right carry-on over the centuries….. Birgitta’s remains (well some of them, as we’ll see) were brought back to Vadstena from Rome and put in a casket. In 1412 the casket was replaced with a 90kg silver casket, but then in 1572, John III (the son of Gustav Vasa whose tomb we saw in Uppsala Cathedral) had the casket melted down for the silver. In 1598, Sigismund of Poland (son of John III) had the casket pinched and taken to Poland, only for it to be recaptured in 1599 and taken back to Vadstena. Over time, other bones have been added to the mix, possibly belonging to St Catherine (St Birgitta’s daughter), St Ingrid (whoever she was) and others….
An investigation in the early 2000s revealed that the casket contained 2 skulls and 23 other bones. A thigh bone is considered to be definitely Birgitta’s, on the grounds that the matching bone from the other leg was found in her house in Rome (eh??? how did that happen? no explanation was given…). As for the skulls, which had been assumed to be those of Birgitta and Catherine, unfortunately they were dated to 200 years apart. The younger one is definitely too late to be Catherine, and the older one is too old to be Birgitta “unless she had eaten a great deal of fish, and in this case, the profile may in fact look older than it really is”. We have no idea how that works – any scientific insights into the impact of excessive fish-eating on apparent skull age would be most welcome!

Following the Swedish Reformation, the last brothers left Vadstena in 1595, and the last sisters in 1596.

That’s not the end of the story, though. In 1935, nuns from the Birgittine order returned to Vadstena, and ran a guest house until 1951 when the ban on convents in Sweden was finally lifted.

(as a quick aside, whilst checking some details online, I stumbled across the fact that the Birgittine Order nowadays runs a B&B in Holywell, Flintshire, of all places. Perhaps they should rename themselves the “Order of the Full English”?)

Today there are 8 nuns from 5 different countries at Vadstena with a very nice website that explains, amongst other things, what modern nuns get up to….

Whilst in Vadstena, we had a wander round the town centre and a look at Vadstena Castle. We didn’t bother with the “tour” as it seemed pretty clear that it was a similar set-up to Örebro and that we wouldn’t actually have got to see very much.

A bit further down the road we visited the ruins of Alvastra Abbey. Cistercian monks from Clairvaux were invited to come over and set up shop at Adstena by the then King, and the abbey was duly founded in 1143.

Adstena was one of the richest monasteries in Sweden, owning 224 farms by the time it was closed in 1527 during the Swedish Reformation.

On one side of the abbey is Ulf Gudmarsson’s chapel. Ulf was the husband of (Saint) Birgitta.

The next thing to look at was the Rök Stone, about 7km from Adstena. This stone has the longest continuous known runic inscription (around 800 runes) and dates back to the 9th century.

The newly built church and the local parish were both named Rök after the Rök Stone in the 12th century (Rök meaning a large slab of stone in the local dialect). The stone was placed next to the Eriksgata, the route around the provinces taken by newly elected kings to gain the approval of their new subjects (we came across this previously at the Anundshög burial mound), and the church then built next to the stone.
The text is, to the modern reader, complete gibberish:

The interpretation boards managed to tell us that the horse of Gunn is a wolf, and that the twenty kings are four kings: Valke, Reidulf, Haise and Gunnmund, each having sons with those same four names. That’s a bit different to what the direct translation of the text (above) seems to say, but what the heck…. Either way, working out the family tree must have been a bit of a nightmare…. (“yes, but which Gunnmund did xyz?”).

We arrived this afternoon in a touristy but nice little town called Gränna, famous for sweets and a balloon. There’s even a balloon in the middle of the roundabout as you approach the town:

The sweets are of the type we know as rock, and can be bought in sticks, walking canes, or sweets in jars:

The balloon story is all down to local lad S.A. Andrée, who was born in 1854 in the house just across the road from the modern museum that documents his exploits.

Andrée trained as an engineer and was deputy leader of the Swedish expedition at the first international polar year on Svalbard in 1882-3. He bought his first hot air balloon in 1893, the first Swede to own one, and published the results of scientific experiments and observations taken from his balloon.

So far so good. This was, though, the age of polar exploration, and Andrée was not to be left out. In 1895 he announced a plan to fly over the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon and hence produce, using aerial photography, an accurate map of the region.

Raising funds for the expedition wasn’t a problem (the King of Sweden and Alfred Nobel were notable contributors). They didn’t manage to set off in 1896 due to weather conditions, but 1897 was more favourable….

The plan was for Andrée and his two companions to fly 4000km in a week, dropping a Swedish flag on the North Pole as they went, then landing in Canada or Russia (to which end they set off armed with dollars and roubles….).

Obviously, things didn’t go well, UIballoons not being known for going where you want them to….

The expedition nearly came to a watery end shortly after take-off from Svalbard when the balloon went up – and then swiftly came down again. Disaster was averted by jettissoning ballast, but the drag ropes which were supposed to help keep the balloon at the right altitude and also give some (very limited) ability to steer, were lost.

After three days, the balloon came down on the ice (conditions in the Arctic being very cold, even in summer, the balloon was not as buoyant as had been thought) and the three men had no alternative but to start trudging back South.

Luckily they had three sleds and a boat, all in kit form.

No bits were missing, the gear was soon assembled, and off they went. Winter was fast approaching, though, and they didn’t have proper winter clothing with them (they had woollens but not serious leather / fur gear). Here’s Mark inspecting their clothing:

To make matters worse, the ice floe they’d decided to overwinter on broke up just after they’d managed to finish building themselves a shelter. They eventually reached an island off the East coast of Svalbard, where their remains were finally found in 1930…..

That sorry tale brings us to the end of our adventures / investigations since we left Stockholm. Here’s the updated map showing our recent route and current location.

The plan from here is to head South-East towards Kalmar, which promises another Swedish disaster story……  Before we go though, CONGRATULATIONS 🍾 🍾 🍾 to Guv (one of our most reliable readers 😁); a brilliant result, well done! We’re really impressed!

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