Friday 12 July 2024

(Just Like) Starting Over

It's incredibly irritating to have something you looked forward to enormously get derailed almost immediately.  My plan for my first day in Stockholm was simple: the two southern branches of the Red Line, routes 13 and 14, and I headed for T-Centralen (Central Station) with a jolly smile ready to begin.  

Unfortunately, engineering works are not solely a British problem.  The Red Line was closed between T-Centralen and Slussen for refurbishment.  The solution was everyone who wanted to head south had to board a Green Line train, then change to a shuttle that would take you to Mariatorget, where you could finally board a train to your destination.  It's a small inconvenience of course, nothing really major, but it threw me.  I was shuffled from one overcrowded train to the next with a lot of other bored, half-asleep commuters, our eyes drifting above one another's heads so we didn't make contact, our ears blocked with headphones.

(If you're sitting there thinking, "having only a single tunnel connection between the two halves of the network seems like it's putting all the eggs in one basket" then stay tuned, because they do have a solution for it).

It meant that, while I didn't actually have a fixed timetable for collecting all these stations, I reached Norsborg already feeling like I was late.  There was hardly anyone else getting off alongside me - as you'd expect at eight in the morning, most of the passenger traffic was heading into the city, rather than out.  Alongside us, a depot tunnel plunged into the rock face, looking like a secret back entrance to a missile complex.

I walked down the platform, through the ticket gates, and took in The Art.

This is the point where I need to explain about The Art.  The Stockholm Metro has a reputation for being "the world's longest art gallery," or at least it does in the guidebooks.  When a phrase repeatedly turns up in articles about a city you start to suspect it was coined by someone once thirty years ago and now it's been passed on over and over as fact.  I've lived in Liverpool for nearly 30 years now and I've never heard anyone call the Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ The King anything other than the Catholic Cathedral, but every other article about the city repeats the claim that the locals call it "Paddy's Wigwam".  

The point is that Stockholm decided, early on in its construction of the Tunnelbana, that each station should have its own distinctive artwork to inspire and delight its passengers.  It's not quite reached all one hundred stations - the scheme missed a couple, and others have had theirs removed because of vandalism or refurbishment - but in the main, every stop on the Metro has something about it that's there purely to make your day better.

I tried to find these artworks wherever I could but I'm going to put this out here right now: I definitely didn't get them all.  In some cases, I was running for a train and whizzed right by them; sometimes I came out of the wrong exit and I didn't want to trek all the way back to get them; sometimes I forgot.  Sometimes I took a picture but it was so dreadful or blurry I wouldn't dream of inflicting it on you.  I'll mention it when I can but don't get annoyed if I don't.  I'm only one man and collecting the stations was my main aim; everything else was gravy.

The Art at Norsberg is called Min vän, is by Eva and Peter Moritz, and looks like a Slinkie that's been turned into a loop and dangled from the ceiling.  It's nice but a bit tucked out of the way - if you didn't know it was there it would be easy to miss it.

Out the doors, stand in the bus lane, get some odd looks from new arrivals, bang!  One station down.  Ninety nine to go.

An underpass took me into the pedestrianised shopping precinct at the centre of Norsberg, still very much closed, and then I was walking on a path between high apartment blocks.

It was obvious that this was an area with problems.  There was a prickle on the back of my neck, a feeling that I needed to stay aware, even though there was hardly anyone about.  When I did see a group of people, it was five men all wearing high-vis and painting a balustrade while giggling together.  It smacked of community service.  I overtook a man strolling in a little universe of his own, humming to himself.

I reached another shopping centre, Hallunda Centrum, so quickly it took me by surprise.  While Norsberg had an open air precinct, this was covered, and I had to walk round to the side to find the escalator to reach the station.  As I crossed the footbridge, a woman wandered towards me, mumbling mildly in Swedish, and looking like she wanted to engage me in some no doubt fascinating and probably quite insane conversation; I swerved to the side and looked at the floor.

I missed The Art at Hallunda, a lot of coloured poles in the foyer, because I was rushing in case the talkative lady decided I was just so interesting she'd have to double back to chat to me.

Instead I rode the escalator up to the platforms.  The Tunnelbana covers so many gradients and changes in landscape you're never quite sure what type of station you're going to get next.  It could be underground, it could be on a viaduct - you won't know until the train pulls up at the station.

This how we went from the elevated Hallunda to the underground Alby without ever seeming to go downhill.  One minute there was bright July sunshine, next we were plunged into a chilly cave beneath a mountain.

The Art at Alby is called Hemligheternas Grotta - The Cave of Secrets - and is by Olle Ängkvist.  With the blank canvas of an entirely new, enclosed space, Olle painted the walls of the station green, then covered it with rune-like symbols to make you think you were in another world.

It works.  It's not like any other underground station you'll have seen before.

I took an extremely long escalator up to the surface.  Alby has two exits, and this one went up the mountainside to emerge in a residential area, rather than the district centre. 

It's worth noting that the signage for the stations is wildly inconsistent.  The Tunnelbana seems to be in a state of flux for its corporate image, bringing in a new font for all its signage, and it's slow to trickle across the network.  There were at least three different types of station signs, with the only consistent part being the T in a circle.  It's alright, that sort of thing definitely doesn't annoy me.  It's FINE.

The area around the ticket hall had been redeveloped recently with new apartment blocks in bright colours.  I passed across a small pedestrianised square then disappeared into the older, less prestigious estate of apartments, though they were still neat and surrounded by greenery and playgrounds.  A woman idly walked her dog on a lead; a man dropped his rubbish into the communal recycling bins.  Early morning activities.

The path took me away from the houses and plunged me into a deep woodland.  Suddenly everywhere was green.  It was a recognised route, with a paved path and handrails and steps, but it somehow felt isolated and remote.  The sun vanished beyond the canopy and my chilled arms fluttered with goose pimples.  The only sound was the occasional bird.

The path curled round on itself, taking the steep slope at a gentle gradient, but desire paths had been sliced through the undergrowth as short cuts to avoid the lazy bends.  I considered ducking down them myself, then remembered I'm forty seven, fat, and out of shape.  I didn't want to skid all the way down to the bottom and spend the rest of my Swedish week in a hospital having to shamefacedly explain exactly how I snapped my femur to amused blonde nurses.

I finally emerged onto a plane of flat green grass with the metro viaduct stretching ahead of me, pulling me into its orbit and guiding my way.  The path shadowed it as it took me past a school and a flat church and up to the station entrance.

There we go; a third sign format.  IT'S FINE.

The Art at Fittja is probably familiar to you.  It's a small reproduction of the sculpture Non Violence by Carl Fredrik Reuterswäld, originally made as a tribute to the artist's friend John Lennon, and the original of which now stands outside the United Nations.  There are copies of the original all over the world, many of them in Sweden, what with Carl Fredrik being a hometown hero, though I'm not entirely sure why they picked Fittja for this one.  Is it an area particularly plagued by violence?  (The UK copy of the artwork is in Belfast, for understandable reasons).  Is it simply intended to inspire?  I'm not really sure.  Still, it's interesting to walk onto the platform and immediately be presented with something iconic.

The train went underground again as it took us under the - I keep wanting to say river, because that's how my brain works, but it's not true.  Stockholm is spread across dozens of islands and so the waterways and inlets are considerably more mighty than a piddly little river.  Here the line went under the Fittjaviken, a deep inlet, and ended up beneath a mountain at Masmo.

It's another station carved out of the rock, but here the stone's been left uncoloured.  The reason for this is deep anxiety on the part of Stockholm's authorities.  The solid rock the city is built on meant that they had to literally dynamite their way through the stone, leaving caverns where the stations should be.  The obvious solution would be to leave them as they were, but dumping people deep underground in a cave made the designers nervous.  Was it a little too, well, hellish?  Masmo was out of the way and quiet so they decided to discreetly trial the cave look here; if people hated it, they could safely make it a one-off.  The bare stone was covered with concrete and everything was dialled down to try and make it safe.

Obviously, people loved it.  The cave stations didn't make people think they were in the depths of Hades after all, and when later stations were constructed, they not only embraced the aesthetic, but made it a feature.  It does mean that Masmo, and in particular The Art at Masmo, comes off as too tasteful for its own good.  It's trying hard not to offend.  The Art, Ta nee solen i tunnelbanen (Take the Sun into the Metro) by Lasse Andreasson and Staffan Hallström, carries on that theme of "hey, it's not all dark and awful down here!".  For myself, the more underground it feels the better.  I probably shouldn't probe that, psychologically.

Masmo's real treat is its entrance, a stark concrete box built into the side of the mountain, and looking like it was designed by Sir Ken Adam as the home of a sadistic Bond villain.  I sometimes wonder if Blofeld and Stromberg and Dr No's fondness for angled concrete interiors is part of the reason Brutalism has never really been popular in the UK.  Are we, even if only subconsciously, suspecting that the Barbican's lake is filled with piranha?  Do we look at the National Theatre and wonder where it'll split apart to reveal a nuclear missile?  Are we afraid of tower block lifts because we think the floor will disappear and drop us into a shark tank?

Obviously I love it, but any time I can pretend I'm in a Bond film, I'm delighted.

Finding my way out of Masmo and onto the next station was a bit of a problem.  I went the wrong way, twice, and when I finally got the right direction, I still walked on the wrong side of the apartment blocks.  Instead of a nice landscaped path I got car parks, storage bins and bike racks.  It dumped me out on a main road between a Lidl and a Max Burgers drive in, and I had to follow it round.  

A tiny moment of anxiety crept in as my path seemed to be heading straight for the motorway, but then it veered off to one side, and I found myself descending to a small park.

I breathed it in.  The trees, the grass, the water.  There was a distant hum of a lawnmower, and the only other person around was a worker for the still-shut cafe, picking up the litter around her building.  The swimming area, a walkway placed literally in the water of the bay, was deserted at this early hour.  I looked at the lido, a charming little spot where you could swim for free, and wondered why we didn't have similar facilities in Britain; then I remembered the stuff the water companies are chucking into our rivers and lakes and realised why you might not want to drop your six year old in for a doggy paddle.

I walked under open blue skies through the park, feeling the warmth of the sun, smiling to myself.  I felt so relaxed and content.  I was in a foreign city, doing something I loved - a strange little hobby, but I love it - and walking through a scenic landscape.  It was a shame when it came to an end and I had to cross the road and head towards town again, though a crocodile of excitable toddlers being lead in the opposite direction by their nursery teacher continued the cheery mood a little longer.

Vårby Gård wasn't much of a looker anyway, but after the charming coastal walk it felt even more of a dump.  It didn't help that I entered it alongside various service roads and access to car parks.  On the pedestrian plaza outside the station, an enterprising shopkeeper had set up one of those Barbie boxes you could pose in to pretend you were a doll.  Those were set up to promote the Barbie movie which, you may recall, came out last summer; why it was still hanging on I had no idea.  Worse, when you got close, you realised this was very much home-made - a pink box with a Barbie logos printed off the internet and stuck on the outside.  It was still the brightest moment in the plaza.

SL were aware of Vårby Gård's less than stellar surroundings and so when the station was refurbished in the nineties they tried to introduce some beauty into the building.

The Art they came up with, by Rolf Bergström, consisted of flowers on bright coloured tiles, covering the previously bare concrete that depressed the riders.  It's nice and all, but the phrase "lipstick on a pig" is hovering at the back of my brain.  

Six stations done, and I'd already gone overground, underground, up viaducts and into tunnels, through woods and alongside expansive bays.  Stockholm was offering everything a transit obsessed boy could want.

Tuesday 9 July 2024

Swedish Meathead

Readers with long memories might recall that last year the BF went on holiday with his best mate and not with me.  I went to Amsterdam instead.  A few people have queried if this is a healthy way to run a relationship, to which I say, if you can't bear to go a week without your nearest and dearest you may have some kind of dependency issues and should perhaps consult with a trained professional.  Obviously I love going on holiday with my partner of several decades, but at the same time, it's also nice to do something that's for you and you alone.

I had a tremendous time in Amsterdam last year, visiting every Metro station.  It's genuinely one of the most fun things I have done in my life.  When I returned to the UK, to overcome the disappointment at being back on TERF Island, I secretly checked out the metro maps of other European cities.  Because you never know, right?

So when the BF came to me and said that his mate had suggested they go to Barcelona this year, and would I mind, I pretended to think about it for a while before I said "yesyesyesthat's fine".  I cast my eyes round the continent in search of a suitable underground railway I could conquer.

Paris, Berlin, Madrid - these were too large and complex for me to do in a few days.  Rotterdam was too much like Amsterdam in its style.  Copenhagen and Bilbao had great networks, but they were all built at roughly the same time so there wasn't much architectural variety; the same was true of the Eastern European networks, where Soviet engineers applied similar techniques and styles across the whole system.  Lisbon was a possibility, but it turns out Lisbon's underground is in the middle of a pretty comprehensive rebuild that will see stations change their assigned lines and entirely new service patterns introduced so obviously I'd want to wait for that.

Looking around, though, I discovered one city with a large and interesting network, one that had a long and fascinating history, and which was world renowned for its station architecture.  


The Swedish capital has a three-line network, the Blue, Red and Green, which were built over the course of sixty years.  There are extension works underway on a couple of the routes but they won't be open for a few years yet so I wouldn't feel I'd missed out on anything too major.  And - and if I'm honest, this was the clincher - the system has exactly one hundred stations.  Every station I visited would be a single percentage point off the total.  The part of my brain that loves a pattern and a tick-list was thrilled.

I packed my rucksack, I got an SAS flight from Manchester, and soon enough I was in the home of fika, Abba, and more blonde people than I was really comfortable with.  It was a five day trip, and it was exhausting.  And I loved every second of it.  

If you're not into loving descriptions of Northern European suburbia, this might not be your thing.  Because I've got a lot to write about this trip, so it's going to be all Sweden, all the time round here, like under the counter at a 1970s newsagent.  I hope you'll enjoy it.  If not, give it until mid-August or so, and I'm sure I'll be on a canal towpath in the Midlands somewhere by then.