Monday 16 September 2013


As I am writing this, rain is pounding my window sills and autumn chill is creeping into my bones. But it was not always like this. Just yesterday, temperatures hovered around the twenties in daytime and did not surpass 15 degrees at night. Even this morning, a most beautiful sky with rosy clouds was welcoming my eyes half-asleep, as if Summer would continue another week.

It has been a long and warm Summer indeed, here in Stockholm, the longest I can remember. Only ten days ago, I got a call from my old friend Hans Christian, who is, with his wife Isolde, spending summertime in the Inner Stockholm Skerries, on Mjölkö. By the way, the word "Skerries" denotes the myriad of islands, large and small, that spread out in the Baltic around Stockholm.

Hans Christian sounded spritely enough on the phone, asking me, would I care to join him on a boat trip through Stockholm's Skärgård (Stockholm Skerries)? Post some hesitation – after all, I am an old Austrian and mountain man – I agreed, ready to grab an unexpected offer. My old friend, with whom I had sailed several times before in warmer waters, both in Turkey and Croatia, is nowadays operating a small boat rental and excursion business on Mjölkö, called "Tur till sjöss", but wanted to benefit from the Indian Summer to make a trip on his own for once, honoring me by inviting me along as company.

Nybroviken in Stockholm

So off I went, on a sunny Thursday morning (it was September 5) to catch the ferry out to Mjölkö. President Obama just happened to visit Sweden, so the berth was for once changed to the quay on Nybroviken. This gave me the opportunity of taking fresh pictures from the Stockholm harbor, in between some of the boats transporting  persons and goods to the islands.

Soon it was time to board one of the larger and more modern ones, called Sandhamn, which carries you to Mjölkö within two hours. The distance is not huge as the crow flies, but the boat has to take a rather circuitous trail, winding through the islands, with lots of shallows and cliffs lurking underwater. Due to the on-going land rise, it is getting ever more difficult to navigate your way out of Stockholm.

After one hour and a half, Waxholm was reached, the fortified town defending the Stockholm inlet. Well, as an old Austrian I love to tell stories and there is a nice one to tell about Waxholm. The Prussian General Moltke once took the boat out there, just as I did. It is said that he has laughed only twice in his life: first, when his mother-in-law died and, secondly, when he saw the fortress of Waxholm.

The "flagship" of "Tur till Sjöss"

From a more southern geographical angle, there is another intriguing story about Moltke. It is said that he once refused to take the train from Zurich to Vienna via Liechtenstein, preferring a lengthy detour via Munich. Apparently, he feared being taken prisoner-of-war in the "Ländle". In the mid-1860s, there was a civil war between the Northern German States and the Southern ones, in which Prussia and – as sometimes believed – Liechtenstein (with 8 soldiers!) were on opposite sides. Since Liechtenstein was "forgotten" when the peace treaties were signed, the Principality was supposedly still at war with Prussia at least until 1871, when the German States re-unified into an empire.

But enough of these serendipities! Back to our story line! From Waxholm it is but half an hour to go to Mjölkö, where Hans Christian gave me a cordial welcome. His residence is only 5 minutes' walk from the ferry berth, but beautifully situated just on the beach, with a splendid view of the sound between the skerries and the mainland. On mellow Summer evenings, the Cars family can be seen sitting on its veranda, sipping sun-downers whilst watching the sun set over the lonely ferries carrying travelers back home to Stockholm.

Isolde and Hans Christian carrying supplies to the boat

But now it was already noon, so no time to lose starting with our trip. Supplies were spirited away on the boat and it was boarding time. You can see the boat, a Bayliner, on the earlier picture. It is difficult to gauge its size on a photo, but it is quite large. It sleeps four comfortably, and contains a nice coffee table with sofas, as well as a toilet inside. More importantly, it can travel at up to 25 knots, if you are in a hurry or want to go far.

Not us, we had a more leisurely pace in mind, since the main goal was to reach a good restaurant located on Möja, an island not too far away from Mjölkö, going eastwards. That way, you would eventually reach Estonia, if you set your mind to it.

Möja it was for us. Across wide straits we travelled, being pummeled by the waves, as soon as we left the protection of small islands. But soon Möja beckoned and we arrived at this civilized centre of the mid-skerries, where hungry travelers and thirsty boats get their relief. Civilized it may be, but this is Sweden, so the harbor was still a cosy little layby, as made for relaxing in a busy world.

Ramsmora Harbor on Möja

With our bellies rumbling, we ascended the small hill up to Wikströms Fisk, a humble name for a restaurant, as befits the cosy surroundings. We were late for lunch but nonetheless admitted, sitting as the last and only remaining guests in the luscious inn garden. And now comes the big surprise! We ordered perch and fresh water whitefish (The Baltic is brackish, so they thrive also in this Sea!) and, let me tell you, this was the best fish I have ever eaten. The secret behind it is that IT WAS FRESH!

Father Wikström goes out fishing as soon as the last guests have finished eating and stays out all night, sleeping on the boat. So there is no delay between fishing net and luncheon table! A far cry from Stockholm restaurants. Did you know that all fish caught commercially in waters around Sweden is being landed and traded in Gothenburg? We never experience fresh fish in the capital, which is quite scandalous!

Father Wikström on his way to the fishing grounds

Whilst I was enjoying this fabulous meal, Hans Christian blinked at me with mischievous eyes and asked me, would I like to join him in continuing the trip all the way out to land's end, to the last skerries on the eastward route? Somewhat taken aback I saw before my inner eye a boat that suddenly appeared small, riding on rough waters far out, where the high waves of the untamed Baltic seemed to swallow the cliffs barely showing above the water, not to speak of the little vessel in which we would hover. But, "What the heck!", I thought, I have lived long enough and fruitfully, time to leave this world with clamor, rather than a whimper. So, rashly, I agreed to his proposal, which also would have to include a night out in the boat, somewhere among the thundering waves.

But this trip turned out to be most pleasant and educating. Granted that we had to slow down the boat the more the farther out we went, since, true enough, waves were getting ever bigger. But the boat (and skipper) dealt with all this splendidly and it was exhilarating to feel, blowing at our noses, the fresh unhindered winds traveling all the way from Estonia. Only one problem remained: where would we find a place to stay overnight in all this watery waste?

Fortunately, Hans Christian was no novice in those waters and knew how to stop our voyage in time, lest we embarked on a hapless drift towards Estonia in the dark. The very last island group before the Great Sea is called Björkskär and there we went towards a small sound that completely protected us against both wind and waves. This was literally the last chance to get such succor for the night, and the skipper steered to it with delicate precision. The enclosed maps show the precise position, as well as indicating what would have lain ahead of us, had we continued our journey eastwards!

Bjökskäret, Horssten and the Baltic            Source: Google Maps

Well arrived, serene calm was reigning over the sound where the boat was residing. The bare cliffs kissing the water reminded me of an old film that always has tickled my imagination, "Sommaren med Monika" by Master Bergman. By all means, don't miss this link, it shows Ingemar at his best at a time, when he was still young, and his instincts were still sound enough to urge him saying "Yes" to juvenile togetherness.

Berthing the Bayliner on Björkskäret

Hans Christian had hoped to berth the boat at a spot, where we could watch sunset and sunrise both, whilst drinking, respectively, sun-downer and morning coffee on the boat. But this was not to be, geography did not play along; no harm done though, the views were marvelous even without this possibility.

We attempted some exploratory hikes on the cliffs hinted at to the left in the above picture – much as Monika did in Ingmar's movie – but soon found out that vegetation got the better of our, due to age, unstable feet. So, back to the boat to have a nice evening snack, to prepare the boat for the night and, last not least, get the camera ready for the famous "Blue Hour"!

Bayliner on Björkskäret in the "Blue Hour"

Due to the late season, I kind of expected that there would be a lot of shivering during the night, but this was still Indian Summer time, so no hardship was involved at all. Instead, the gentle sound of waves lapping the boat and the cool salty air around us soon brought us to the realm of dreams.

What the cool air did, though, was to wake us up well before sunrise. But this was to the best, since it led me to search for a suitable position to paint the boat in Aurorta's first pink colors. It was a bit hazardous to climb the cliffs in the semi-dark to that effect, but the result seems well worth the effort, don't you agree?

Bayliner on Björkskäret at sunrise

With some regret we lifted anchor from this lovely place. But there was no time to lose, new challenges awaited us. To gift me a true impression of steering a small boat in between the wild Baltic waves, we ventured out a bit into the light blue zone depicted on the two maps above. But soon I had enough of this experience and we turned back towards the safety of the islands. On the way I did observe, though, several small and large lighthouses, either placed directly in the water, or perched precariously on bare cliffs. Their task was, as explained by Hans Christian, to direct the boats and ships to the proper inlet between the first islands, so that the right – and only – route to Stockholm, would be taken.

Passing by one of these sturdy light bringers, I ventured a quick shot, with the camera in one hand, sitting in the back of the boat and taking a fast grip on the rail with the other hand. Here we have the result: a lonely beacon being battered by the Baltic!

A lonely beacon in the Baltic

And now comes a new surprise! Hans Christian confessed to me that he had an AGENDA with this trip. He had just finished an article about lighthouses for the Österreichisch Schwedische Gesellschaft's Christmas Journal. Would I mind taking a few pictures for his article, in particular of one favorite of his, the Grönskär Fyr (Lighthouse)? I was only too glad to oblige him, since photography is a secret hobby of mine – maybe not so secret?

So, with his eyes atwinkle and his hands firmly anchored on the steering wheel, Hans Christian set course on Grönskär. The island was not so far away, lying at the outskirts of the skerries just like Björkskär. It goes without saying that we nursed the hope of landing there and spending at least an hour exploring the sight of the monument, taking pictures from all possible angles.

But this turned out to be completely out of reach. Baltic's waves spurned our rash expectations. It simply was too dangerous to try accosting any of the narrow and stone splattered inlets and we had to content ourselves with circumventing the isle at a safe distance, rather far away from the action, I am afraid.

Eventually, we found a viewing angle accommodating enough to get me interested in attempting a suitable shot. With waves half as high as the boat, and the latter dancing about as if in joyous greeting of the lighthouse, it seemed almost impossible to get in position for a picture. Finally, I had to STAND in the bow to get a shot, grasping camera in one hand and the boat's roof with the other and, in addition, with Hans Christian holding on to my belt with all his might, to prevent me from falling over and prematurely meeting my Lord and Master. I barely managed a burst of three shots in quick succession before quickly sitting down again and taking a deep breath. The result of all these efforts?

Grönskärs Fyr (Lighthouse), Östersjöns Drottning (Queen of the Baltic)

Shere royal serenity! No wonder that Her Serene Highness goes by the name of Östersjön's Drottning  (Queen of the Baltic).

For all of you longing to see and hear more about the most royal of beacons, take a look at this little video of Grönskärs Fyr, filmed by a company of enthusiasts disembarking on the island in calmer weather and waters. And, if this should not be enough to quench your thirst for admiration, there is also a 360° panorama of Grönskär in store for you.

But enough of work, back to the pleasures of cruising the skerries. By now, it was 9 am and time to return to Mjölkö. The road back would pass by Sandön, Hans Christian told me, an island well known for its posh summer visitors, arriving with the famous yachting competition "Gotland Runt". In fact, despite the island being located far out on the borderline to the Baltic, its main settlement looks like a major agglomeration on the mainland, not unlike Sjöstaden, where I am living.

The settlement of Sandhamn on Sandön    Source: Wikpedia

We both felt a certain longing for anchoring in this civilized splendor, to get a  nice cup of coffee in one of the noble establishments there. Unfortunately, there did not seem to exist a berth for our humble boat that we could access without heavy fees, if only for an hour or so. But Hans Christian, never at a loss of ideas, recalled that friends of the Cars' had a bit of property not far out of town, lying on the tip of the peninsula reaching out from the island at the top of the picture. Should we give them a call to announce our visit? Said and done, and receiving back a cordial "Welcome!", despite the somewhat early hour.

It took but five minutes of leasurely boating to arrive at the long quay – or should I say pier – jutting out from the Jahnberg property. It was quite long, due a shallow sandy beach it had to span. The name Sandön (Sandy Island) in fact tells us that this used to be a quite desolate place in olden days, full of sand dunes and little else. About three hundred years ago, pines were planted on the sand and, as a result, the island is now adorned by a beautiful wooden interior.

Pier on Sandön

Peder and Ann-Katrin Jahnberg welcomed us with open arms and soon we were seated outside their house chatting, drinking coffee and – last but not least – savoring Ann-Katrin's cookies and homemade crumbles, which tasted just SO delicious after the night out on the Baltic. By the way, who is the photographer in the picture below? In fact, it is yours truly, using the miracles of digital processing to put myself in there among my friends!

Hans Christian Cars, Ann-Katrin Jahnberg, Emil Ems and Peder Jahnberg on the Jahnberg property on Sandön

After coffee it was time for inspecting the premises. To our surprise we heard that the Jahnberg property reached "from Sea to Sea", spanning straight across the peninsula. Actually this is not as large as it sounds, since you can walk across – through beautiful pine groves – in 5-10 minutes. Still, it is an amazing piece of land to own on the Skerries. Peder's forefather acquired it many years ago, when population was sparse on the island and land was still cheap. Nowadays, the larger family, with siblings and children, uses it as a common property – each having built their own summer house there – enjoying together this colorful summer idyll.

Flower and Grass Snake (Snok) on Sandön

On the beach opposite the one we were sitting at coffee, the wild wastes of the Baltic made themselves known all over again, with just a few isles lingering in the vastness of the Sea. Wind tousled our hair and we gave a last "Farewell" to the open ranges. On the picture you can see the big Skipper himself, with his eyes wide shut and with one of his beloved beacons in the background.

Hans Christian Cars, lighthouse in background

There were still three hours of voyage ahead of us, with many stories to tell along the way, but I am feeling your patience getting exhausted. So let's interrupt here and resume our tale just about when accosting Mjölkö again in the early afternoon, with the Cars property beaming at us from afar and with Isolde already waving us welcome.

The Cars Property on Mjölkö

As eager as Isolde was to welcome us back, as eager were we to greet her, since we had been unable to find a restaurant still open in late season on the return trip. To our delight she managed to get a very tasteful meal together in no time, with chanterelles from the island forest, egg and potatoes;  hungry as we were, we felt to never have eaten anything more delicate than this.

A great "Thanks!" to Hans Christian for this nice trip, as well as to Isolde, Ann-Katrin and Peder for their cordial welcome

What else remains to tell? Well, on the return trip to Stockholm, I was lucky to get SS Storskär as the carrier. Given a choice, I could not have chosen better; huff-puffing with a veteran steamboat through the skerries must appear as a glorious finale to anyone. Here below you can see its elegant saloon in mahogny. Isn't it nice to dream yourself back to 1908, when Storskär first rode the Baltic waves?

SS Storskär Saloon

This means the end of the trip, I am afraid, as well as the end of this post. But also an end to the longest Summer in memory. It is therefore only fitting to finish the essay with a heartfelt "Goodbye, Summer, you were sweet! See you again next year!"

"Hello and Goodbye!", from Emil Ems, exploring the cliffs of Björkskär