A Viking ‘thing’, a centre of learning, and a royal palace

“Västerås is supposed to be the second most ugly city in Sweden”, says the First Mate. ”Apparently they had a competition a year or so ago, where people had to vote on how beautiful they thought various cities were. Västerås came second from the bottom. Only Borlänge was worse.”

“I have to say that from my first impression I can see why”, I respond. “All I can see is great characterless high-rise apartments everywhere.”

Approaching Västerås from Lake Mälaren.

We are approaching the city of Västerås on the northern shore of Lake Mälaren. We had left Strängnäs in the morning, and had had a pleasant sail northwards driven by a south west wind.

“What do you think that little hut on the water over there is?”, says the First Mate pointing over to our starboard.

“Ah, that must be Västerås’s underwater hotel”, I say. “I was reading about it in the guide book. Let’s go and have a look at it.”

The Utter Inn, Västerås.

The Utter Inn, or Otter Inn in English, is an art project by artist Mikael Genberg. It has two storeys – the entrance and balcony above water and the bedroom below water. A boat is provided to row yourself out, and you can supposedly wake up to fish swimming past your window.

“Cool”, says the First Mate. “A hotel with a difference!”

We push on to the marina. There is supposed to be a gästhamn here, but we can’t see it. We turn right and motor gingerly up the fairway, but the depth drops alarmingly to 10 cm.

“It’s getting a bit shallow”, I say. “I don’t want to run aground. I’ll reverse, and perhaps we can ask that chap working on his boat over there where we should go.”

“You were on the right track”, the man says. “Just keep going. It is about two meters depth, but you will make it. The gästhamn is right at the end. These are all private berths here.”

We eventually find it, but the berths are too small for our length and beam. The only spare place is on the end of the pontoon. There is no one to help us catch our lines, so I allow the wind to blow us down into place. The depth shows zero on the display. The keel must be almost resting in the mud.

In the morning we unload the bikes and cycle into town. It’s the day of the Swedish elections, and there are election posters everywhere. People are queuing outside the town hall and other places to vote.

Voters queue outside the Västerås town hall in the national elections.

For several days, the freemen from the surrounding areas had been arriving at the sacred mounds of their forefathers to attend the Thing, tying up their boats in the small bay in front of the mounds or leaving their horses in the hands of their slaves to find grazing for. Normally they would come to the Thing to settle disputes, trade and socialise, but this one was different. A new king had been elected by the Swedes in Uppland, and they were there to discuss whether this man was worthy to be their king in Västra Aros. For two days now, they had been listening to the fine speeches and arguments as different views were put forward, and had been drinking and eating in small groups gathered around fires as they deliberated throughout the night.

Anundshög Viking burial mound.

Now on the third day, the king-elect will present himself and make his case for them to accept him as their king. In reality, they don’t have a choice, as the Westrogothic law states that the Swedes of Uppland have the right to elect kings, and the other tribes have to accept it.

There is an air of expectancy as the men take their places in the Thing building marked out in the shape of a Viking long-ship by large standing stone, the richest and most powerful in the front, the less well off towards the back. At noon, there is a clatter of hooves as a large group of richly-dressed men on horseback canter their way along the dusty road from where they had been staying nearby and make their way towards the mounds. They slow to a trot as they splash their way over the ford across the small brook to the east of the mound area. A shout goes up from the assembled crowd. It is the newly elected king and his heavily-armed retinue. They dismount in front of the rune-stone, and proceed up the path to the Thing building and take their places in front of the assembled gathering.

Remains of the ship-shaped Thing building.

The law-speaker stands and faces the assembly, lifting his arms into the air. The assembly falls silent.

“Men of Västra Aros”, he says in a loud voice. “As you know, the death of our beloved King Inge, poisoned by the treacherous Östergötlanders, has meant that we need a new king. After much deliberation, the men of Uppland have chosen one Ragnvald Knaphövde who is now on his Ericsgata to the provinces. May I present the king-elect.”

There is a fanfare of trumpets. Ragnvald Knaphövde stands.

“I am Ragnvald Knaphövde, son of Olof Näskonung”, he says, establishing his credentials. “I have been elected king by the nobles of Uppland at our sacred Stones of Mora for my prowess in battle. I will also now be your king. I promise to protect you from your enemies and make you prosper. In return I expect your loyalty. Will you have me as your king? Yea or nay?”

There is a silence for a few seconds, then an almighty roar.

“Yes, Ragnvald for our king”, shouts the crowd of assembled warriors, clashing their swords against their shields. “We swear allegiance to Ragnvald. Ragnvald! Ragnvald for king!”

I am at the Anundshög Viking burial mound site to the north-east of Västerås, the mounds supposedly the largest in Sweden. In addition to the mounds themselves, there are five ship structures traced out in standing stones. In front of the mounds and stone ships is a line of standing stones, supposedly marking out the edge of the Ericsgata road passing the site. A runestone in this line of stones tells us that ‘Folkvid raised all of these stones after his son Heden, Anund’s brother, and that Vred carved the runes’.

Rune stone at the edge of the Ericsgata.

I have been imagining the Ericsgata of one Ragnvald Knaphövde, who was elected King of Sweden around 1130. Unfortunately Ragnvald probably would have qualified for a Darwin Award if they had been around at the time. It was customary in those febrile times for the king-elect to travel with hostages from the noble families of each province to guarantee his own safety, but Ragnvald decided to dispense with his. Regrettably, when he got to the province of Västergötland, he was killed as the people there preferred their own king.

“It just shows that you shouldn’t take things for granted”, says the First Mate when I meet her later over a coffee in town. “King Charles the Third needs to be careful when he goes to Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. There’s a lot of discussion about whether we need a monarch in this day and age.”

“At least the Vikings elected theirs”, I say. “Perhaps we should try that. It’s only later it became a hereditary affair. But how did you get on?”

“Well, I had a good look around the town”, she says. “It’s not as bad as I thought from the votes it got. The old town and the river is quite pretty. The castle is not as picturesque as some we have seen, but it is intact at least. Oh, and the museum and art gallery were interesting. It’s only when you get to the outskirts it looks a bit suburban.”

River Svartån, Västerås.
Västerås Castle.
‘Horse in six parts’, bronze, Västerås.
Office block, Västerås.

On the way back to the boat for dinner, we pass the water-sports facility and watch the wake-boarders doing their tricks.

Wake-boarding, Water-Sports Centre, Västerås.

The next morning, we slip the lines and edge our way out of the marina, heading for the small island of Gröneborg on the north shore of Lake Mälaren, 20 NM away, where we have decided to anchor for a day or two. The wind is variable, sometimes blowing 20 knots, other times just a light breeze.

Heading for Gröneborg.

We eventually reach the island and circle it looking for a good spot to stay. The wind is blowing from the north-west, so we find a smooth patch of water on the leeward side and drop the anchor.

“It’s lovely”, says the First Mate. “Good choice!”

Anchored off the island of Gröneborg.

There is hill fort on the southern tip of the small island, so I drop the dinghy from the stern and row over to a small sandy beach. A rather indistinct path leads from the beach up the side of the hill. From time to time I lose it and have to retrace my footsteps, but eventually make it to the top. Sure enough, there are the remains of some kind of fortification smothered in grass and bracken. No-one really knows much about who built it but it is strategically placed, guarding the entrance to Enköping. But the view is superb.

Hill fort remains, Gröneborg.
View from the hill fort, Gröneborg.

In the evening, we sit in the cockpit and sip our wine.

“Look at all the geese over there”, I say. “This must be one of their favourite spots. There are so many of them.”


“Isn’t that a sea-eagle coming towards us?”, exclaims the First Mate excitedly, pointing to the sky.

Sure enough it is. I reach for the camera and manage to squeeze off a couple of random shots. The giant bird flaps its way languidly over us and disappears behind the trees on the island.

“It reminds me of the time we saw that one off Soay Island on the west coast of Scotland”, I say.

White-tailed sea-eagle, Gröneborg.

We weigh anchor the next morning, and head eastwards towards Kungsängen.

“There are a whole lot of boats just coming down on the other side of the island”, shouts the First Mate from the bow. “I think it is some kind of race. We’ll need to watch out for them.”

Yacht race, Gröneborg.

Sure enough, clear of the island, we find ourselves with boats all around us. One looks as if it is going to ram us from behind, but at the last minute veers off to starboard with a cheery wave. We follow them for a while, but eventually we reach an island where we take the port side and they take the starboard side. We don’t see them again.

Eventually we reach the inlet leading to Kungsängen, and turn into it.

“There’s a big squall coming up behind us”, shouts the First Mate. “I think that we are going to get wet.”

Five minutes later the squall hits us. Water pours off the cockpit tent and bimini in torrents. In minutes everything in the cockpit, including myself, is drenched. Visibility drops to almost zero.

“I’ll try and get into the lee of this island”, I shout. “Then we can chuck the anchor out and wait for it to go off. I am hoping it is only a shower.”

Waiting out the rain squall.

It is, but it lasts half-an-hour. Eventually, it eases off, the sun comes out, and we continue into Kungsängen. The marina looks deserted. Luckily a couple appear from somewhere and help us tie up.

“You’re lucky to have caught us”, they say. “We are just off for a couple of weeks, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone else here at the marina. Here’s the code for the toilets and showers. Enjoy Kungsängen!”

They disappear. It starts to rain again, this time setting in for the evening. There’s nothing for us to do except read and watch videos while the rain pelts down outside. At least we are dry and cosy.

Tied up in Kungsängen marina.

“I would quite like to see Uppsala”, says the First Mate in the morning. “I know that our mast is too high to get under the bridge at Stäket, so why don’t we go by train up there for a day? I looked it up last night – we can get one into Stockholm, then another out to Uppsala.”

“Sounds like a good idea”, I say.

We arrive in Uppsala at lunchtime. We find a place on the main street that does a mean mushroom soup and freshly-baked bread rolls. While we eat, the First Mate reads the tourist guide that she picked up at the station.

Looking for somewhere for lunch in Uppsala.

“Uppsala is the fourth largest city in Sweden”, she tells me. “Since the 1100s, it has been the ecclesiastical centre of Sweden, and has a cathedral, castle and university. The university is the oldest centre of higher learning in Scandinavia. The city is also a thriving biotechnology centre.”

“Mmmm, that was good”, I say, finally catching the last mushroom slice as it slithers around the bowl. “Now let’s go and explore.”

Towards the end of the main street, several people are entering and leaving a gate in a wall.

“It’s Linnaeus’s house and garden”, I read on the notice outside. “We have to have a look. Linnaeus was a famous Swedish botanist and best known for coming up with the way to name living things. It’s called the binomial system of nomenclature, to be technical. Everything has a genus name and a species name. You know, like us humans are called Homo sapiens or some of the dinosaurs were called Tyrannosaurus rex.”

Linnaeus’s garden, Uppsala.

We reach the end of the main street, and take the road leading up to the cathedral. It was built in the 1200s and is supposed to be the tallest church in Scandinavia. The Archbishop of the Church of Sweden has his seat there, and for a long time it was where the kings and queens of Sweden were crowned.

Church of Sweden, Uppsala.

We continue on to the main university building.

“Look you can see the names of some of the famous people who worked at he University”, I say, pointing to high up on the façade. ”Linnaeus we have already seen, but there’s also Celsius who developed the temperature scale, and Arrhenius, who was one of the fathers of climate science and worked out the relationship between CO2 and temperature.”

Main university building, Uppsala.

High on a hill overlooking the city is the castle. It was built in the 16th century by none other than our old friend Gustav Vasa. Since then, it has been burnt down a couple of times, reconstructed and added to, to give the structure that we see today.

Uppsala Castle.

These days it is used as the official residence of the County Governor of Uppsala County, the regional archives, and the Art Museum.

The First Mate enjoying the Art Gallery, Uppsala.

“Well, that was an interesting day”, says the First Mate on the way back. “I am glad we did that.”

“I agree”, I say. “It’s just a pity that we couldn’t have sailed up the river to there. That would have been pretty cool.”

We slip the lines the next morning and sail southwards, heading back to Slagsta where Ruby Tuesday will stay for the winter.

“We’ll pass close to Drottningholm Palace on the way”, I say. “Shall we anchor in front of it and have a cup of tea?”

“Sounds a good idea”, says the First Mate.

Drottningholm Palace is the official residence of the Swedish Royal family. It was built in 1580, replacing an earlier royal residence. In the 1660s it was destroyed by fire, but was rebuilt in the present form.

We turn off the main fairway and wend our way between several small islands to the Palace, approaching it from the south. Before long, it appears from behind one of the islands. We furl the sails and motor into the small bay in front of it and drop the anchor in five metres of water. Just at that moment, the sun comes out.

Anchored in front of Drottningholm Palace.

“It’s beautiful”, says the First Mate. “I wouldn’t mind living here.”

“Yes, but think of the cleaning”, I say. “Keeping something the size of Ruby Tuesday clean is bad enough – that would be hundreds of times worse!”

“Hmm, you have a point there”, she says. “OK, take a few pictures while I put the kettle on, then we had better get going. We need to get Slagsta before it gets too late.”

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