We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.

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We Liked The Cut Of The Vasa Museum’s Jib

The Vasa Museum in Stockholm houses the Vasa, a sunken 17th century ship.  Finished in 1628, the Vasa was top-heavy and too narrow for her depth/weight (the king dictated the measurements and no one was about to correct him).  The Vasa sank in Stockholm’s harbor, not even a mile into her maiden voyage!   Giant oops.   333 years later, in 1961, she was salvaged almost fully intact.

How the Vasa looked when she set sail

King Gustav Adolf built the Vasa for a major role in the Swedish navy.   Sweden had been at war with Poland since 1625 and embroiled in the Thirty Years’ War.   To advance its interests, Sweden needed a strong navy.  Sweden had recently lost twelve boats.  They desperately needed some new, fancy ships.  Unfortunately, the Vasa’s designer died without leaving written records, the king changed some of the specifications and the completion date was looming.  It was a rush job.

Recreation of the interior

How the ship’s interior was organized

Fanfare surrounded the Vasa’s launch.  Hundreds watched from the shore.  Crew members’ wives and children were on board for the first leg of the journey to an island with barracks just outside the bay (where soldiers would board the ship).  Small boats towed the Vasa from the dock.  After firing a farewell salute, she tilted took in water and promptly sank.  Small boats in the harbor picked up most of the 150 people on board, but about a third went down with the ship.

This diving bell was used to salvage some of the cannons in the 1600’s!

Salvaged cannon

The captain was thrown in jail and an inquest to determine the cause of the sinking was immediately undertaken.  It wasn’t long before it became clear that the king himself did much of the decision-making.  King Gustav Adolf determined the measurements, added a second gun deck and larger cannons.  The inquest instantly dropped and crucial paperwork vanished.  Hmmmm.

Today, the Vasa is the centerpiece of a colossal museum.  The real star of the museum is the Vasa itself.   The enormous strategically lighted ship is the first thing you see when you enter the colossal, dimly lit main area.   Prepare to be awed.   It is enormous and it’s intricate timber carvings are impressive.   You can view it from every angle and it is extraordinary.  Sorry, the pictures don’t do it justice.

Normally, sitting around looking at boats is not my idea of a rockin’ good time and he gets seasick.  It doesn’t matter if boats or history is your thing; it is one of the coolest time capsules ever.  Thousands of artifacts and the remains of at least fifteen passengers were recovered.  Clothing, weapons, cannons, tools, coins, games, dishes, cutlery, food, drink and sails are all on display.  The museum does an excellent job of displaying these items and giving them context.   Without lecturing or boring visitors, the museum educates them about naval warfare, shipbuilding techniques and everyday life in 17th century Sweden.

95% of the original ship survives.  There are several reasons why the Vasa is in such good condition:

  • The ship was brand new when it sunk.
  • The Baltic Sea has a Saline level of 0.4%, which prevented many of the organisms that destroy wood from living in the water.
  • It sunk in an area where neither ice nor currents damaged it.
  • The water temperature remains relatively consistent (and cold) ranging from 1-5 degrees Celsius (33.8 – 41 degrees Fahrenheit).
  • The ship was built from oak with high iron content.
  • To prevent cracking when exposed to air and sunlight, the wood was wrapped in plastic sheets as soon as it was lifted from the water.
  • It was treated with polyethylene glycol.

We weren’t the only ones interested in the Vasa.  It is Scandinavia’s most visited museum.  While we were there, we saw the King and Queen of Sweden, Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles.  They actually got to go on the ship.  Lucky ducks.