Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life

Article excerpt

I am on my first ever visit to Sweden and enjoying it greatly. My idea of this country had recently become rather confused. I used to picture it as a social democratic paradise, a tolerant, law-abiding welfare state in which everyone was a good and caring citizen. But then came the Wallander television series and the Stieg Larsson books and films in which Sweden was portrayed as a country in which violent crime was rife and corruption, sadism and perversion held sway.

The reality, as I have experienced it over the past few days, has neither upheld nor discredited either of these stereotypes. But this is hardly surprising, since I am here as a member of a small group of discerning English tourists led by my estimable Northamptonshire neighbour Lord Charles FitzRoy, whose company, Fine Arts Travel, correctly claims to offer 'privileged access to the most beautiful private houses in Europe'.

So we haven't spent much time with ordinary folk.

If, like me, you have never been to Sweden before, the grandeur of its royal palaces comes as a surprise. The 18th-century Royal Palace in the centre of the city, with its 608 rooms, is far bigger than Buckingham Palace. And while the King and Queen of Sweden don't actually reside there any more (they use it as an office and to host important visitors like Prince Charles), they do still live at Drottningholm Palace, the royal family's 17th-century country retreat on the island of Lovon, an hour's boat ride from Stockholm, which is breathtaking in its splendour.

We tend to forget that neutral, peaceloving Sweden was once a great European power, which in the 17th century conquered an empire that stretched as far south as Prague. Having arrived rather late in the day at the top table of European royalty, its warrior kings wanted their palaces to reflect their new exalted status and, like upstart Russian oligarchs today, rather overdid it.

Drottningholm, now a Unesco world heritage site, was designed like Versailles to impress on people the glory of the monarchy; and while it may not be as large as Versailles, there is no royal residence in Britain to compare with it in opulence.

It seems something of a paradox that a country so wedded to social democratic ideals of equality and fairness should at the same time tolerate a monarchy on this scale. …

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