The predicted heavy breathing did not awaken my wife Roxie. She slept like a baby, undisturbed by the asthmatic baron who reputedly haunts these premises. Last evening, as we checked into the attic room of Bäckaskog Castle in southern Sweden, our hostess, Inger Lundin, offered a warning: "This is the room where Johan Christoffer Toll hangs out. He died two hundred years ago, but is still on the prowl, looking for a lady who will accept his hand in marriage. He proposed twelve times to different women, but was always rejected."
She added, "Tomorrow you can look at the grove of trees he planted - one for each lady who jilted him."
It was a tempting idea, but we opted for a tour of the castle.
In 1250, a monastery was built on this beautiful location - a narrow neck of land between two lakes - in northeastern Skåne, a district which, until the mid-17th century, belonged to Denmark. After the Reformation, Danes turned the monastery into a fortified castle, and then, in the 1800s, King Karl XV of Sweden transformed it into his favorite country retreat. His presence can now be felt in a suite of opulent rooms.
Despite alterations, Bäckaskog retains a medieval flavor. It`s almost as if you can still, after half a millennium, hear the footsteps of monks echoing through its corridors; the roof-line is steep and many of the windows are small and far apart. A remnant of this period is a kitchen, complete with a flat stone stove, fire pits, and baking oven. We learned that once a brook ran beneath it, providing an endless supply of fish, caught by the monks from an opening in the kitchen floor.
Which brings us to the question of food. Part of Skåne`s charm is its distinct, if diet-defying, cuisine. The Scanians love food, plenty of it, and, not surprisingly, boast their own Academia Gastronomica Scaniensis. Eels by the tens of thousands are caught in Skå¦ne every fall by their worshippers and feasted upon at special parties, and one day of the year, November 11th, is dedicated to the consumption of geese. As for our dinner last night at the castle`s restaurant, it was non- exotic but delicious: soup, enhanced with rich stock, followed by good steaks and commendable wine.
In mid-afternoon we had noticed that tables had been set up in the courtyard, along with an outdoor grill. When we returned in the evening, the place buzzed with activity. Hot dogs were sold at a brisk pace, and from the half-opened door of the ancient barn poured the "oompahpah, oompahpah" trumpeting of a brass band. Inside, locals were sitting around long tables, eating and drinking beer. Every so often they would link arms and swing back and forth with great merriment. All the musicians wore lederhosen, came from the same small village in Bavaria and, more often than not, kept a tankard of beer within easy reach. A little Oktoberfest, in other words.
It seems that in Scandinavia, every self-respecting castle affords not only fascinating glimpses of history, but also, each summer, a busy calendar of operas, concerts, and theatrical events - had we arrived at Bäckaskog a few days earlier, we might have seen Don Giovanni, and scheduled for the following month was King Lear, presented by an American drama group touring Europe.
None of the above, however, applies to neighboring Wanås, where the focus is on sculpture. As we drove through the morning mist, we sighted what we recognized as Maya Lin`s 11 Minute Line, a snakelike configuration rising out of a field of grazing cows. Inaugurated in 2004, this 7 feet high and 1,500 feet long "earth drawing" is now part of the Wanå¦s sculpture park, a growing collection of works by international artists. By the time we had reached the castle, the mist had turned into what the Irish euphemistically call soft weather. So, under umbrellas - and in the company of curator Eva Rydberg - we set out on a quick tour of the park. There in a small clearing, dripping wet, stood the featureless lone figure of Gormley`s "Together and Apart"; and there, rising above the trees, was Marina Abromovic`s "Chair for Animal spirits." We peeked through the narrow windows of a "House for Edwin Denby," inspected the brightly-colored balls in Baka`s granite "Play-pit," and wondered briefly who the crouching bronze woman relieving herself behind the bushes might be. Eva knew: "That`s "Ann-Sofi Sidén, she said, "the sculptress herself." Our visit concluded with a stroll through the castle`s barn and stable for a look at yet another exhibition: "Contemporary Nordic Sculpture 1980-2005.
In the portrait she looked very 18th century: porcelain complexion, long nose, large hooded eyes. She was Christina Piper, the original owner of Christinehof, the next stately residence we visited. Christinehof was built in the mid-1700s as an adjunct to Andrarums alunbruk, a mining operation that produced alun, a substance used for tanning leather, dyeing, and other chemical processes. As a rich young widow, Christina had bought Andrarum, then a failing business, and turned it into a huge success. For some time it was Skå¦ne`s largest industry, with hundreds of employees. A real little Dukedom, Andrarum had its own school and fire station, and even printed its own money. And over it ruled Christina Piper.
The alun industry is long since gone, but there`s now an utterly charming little village comprising some of the workmen`s dwellings, pretty little half-timbered houses with flowerpots in every window. The castle - painted in a yellow ochre color of unparalleled intensity - has been converted into a museum, with a number of rooms that look pretty much the way they did in Christina`s day. Christinehof also affords a few guest rooms - one of which we stayed in before continuing south for a peek at yet another of the many imposing edifices that dot the Skå¦ne countryside.
We were sitting under the open sky of a small outdoor theater. In front of us rose Marsvinsholm Castle, a magnificent backdrop to the stage below, in the middle of which a man was taking a bath in an old-fashioned bathtub. He was one of the characters in Gogol`s play Inspector; he ranted and raved, then rushed out of the tub, flashing a little flesh before wrapping himself in a big towel. Because of the evening chill, many of the people in the audience had wrapped themselves in blankets. Now, warming up to the Russian antics, they cheered. The play was performed in Swedish, which to Roxie, whose knowledge of the language is negligible, might have proven problematic. Not so. Knowing the the basic outline of the story, and aided by the colorful costumes, gestures and mimicry, she took it all in, enjoying herself thoroughly.
As for theater, more was to follow, including visits to the two oldest theaters in the world still in use. But first came Denmark, now easily reached thanks to the new Öresund Bridge.
From a castle-hopping perspective, it would be difficult to find a place more ideally situated than Hotel Store Kro in northern Sealand. Checking into this classic Danish hotel, we found ourselves next door to Fredensborg and in the close vicinity of two other major borgs (castles), Fredriksborg and Kronborg.
"When President Clinton was here," the receptionist told us, referring to Fredensborg where the royal couple often receive important guests, "it was like having a rock star visiting. Very different from Bush, who just flew in and out." She smiled, "With lots of security men who all stayed at Store Kro."
The palace was closed to the public, so our Fredensborg exploits were confined to the surrounding gardens, a king`s hunting ground turned mini-Versailles turned English-Romantic. Its most remarkable feature, we found, was Nordmansdalen, an 18th century sculpture site, shaped like an amphitheater, comprising some 70 sculptures of Norwegian peasants and fishermen - remarkable since, in those days, ordinary people were rarely depicted in such a regal setting.
If Fredensborg, white and pristine and with no onslaught of tourists, exuded an air of aloofness, nearby Fredriksborg presented a visage of utter accessibility. Complete with sweeping gables, sandstone decorations, and copper covered roofs and spires, Fredriksborg was built in the Dutch Renaissance style at the beginning of the 17th century, and was Christian IV`s preferred residence. Prominent among its treasures is the Castle Chapel, where Danish kings were once crowned. It houses a Compenius organ from 1610, and, for some 400 years, has been the knight`s chapel for the Order of the Elephant and the Knights of the Dannebrog. The word Dannebrog rang a bell. I knew it meant "cloth of the Danes," and referred to the Danish flag, the origin of which is steeped in legend. Supposedly, in 1219, the flag fell from the sky when the Danish army was in a particularly tight spot fighting the Estonians outside what today is the capital Tallin. It is by far Scandinavia`s oldest national symbol and, with its cross-adorned design, the precursor of all other Nordic flags.
Studying the coats of arms that line the walls by the hundreds I learned that the Order of the Elephant, with its connection to St. Mary`s Order, is the most distinguished. The elephant was picked as a symbol because it is a creature of Patience, Strength and Virginity - virtues identical to those of the Virgin Mary. Looking for familiar names, I found a sprinkling of foreign recipients of the award, among them Churchill, Montgomery, de Gaulle, and, lo and behold, the President of the United States General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Called the Windsor of Denmark, Fredriksborg is a popular destination and, not unexpectedly, a venue for cultural events, notably a number of concerts at which you can hear baroque music played on the old Compenius organ.
In the next castle we visited, we ran into the slumbering stone figure of Holger Danske. Once a mercenary at the court of Charlemagne, this legendary Dane never lost a battle, but got so homesick that he decided to walk all the way from the south of France to Denmark. Arriving exhausted at Kronborg (or what was there at the time), he fell asleep, and still sleeps today. Legend has it that he will awake and do battle if his beloved country is ever threatened. He sits in the deep underground of the castle, just a few feet from what was once a brewery, said to have supplied each soldier with about two gallons of beer every day.
We had arrived at Kronborg, known throughout the theatergoing world as Elsinore, the home of Hamlet. It is the most famous castle in Denmark, visited by about 200,000 people each year. Only 2.5 miles from the Swedish coast, it was originally a fortress, from which the Danes controlled shipping in the Sound and exacted Sound Dues. In the late 1500s it evolved into one of northern Europe`s most consequential Renaissance castles. As we trotted through its magnificent halls, we saw some tapestry which rather exemplified the kind of royal rivalry that ran rampant in Scandinavia some 400 years ago. At Kronborg, Fredrik II had commissioned about 40 tapestries featuring no fewer than 113 Danish kings. Meanwhile, in Sweden, Erik XIV presented a proposal for a similar series, featuring 143 kings - beginning with Noah as the progenitor of the Swedish royal line.
Two hundred years after Shakespeare's death, Hamlet was first performed at Kronborg. Now, every summer is a "Hamlet Summer." At the outdoor theater in the castle courtyard, we witnessed a rehearsal of "Al Hamlet," a contemporary play performed in Arabic. The director, Sulayman Al Bassam, black-bearded and intense, seemed to be everywhere. To check every conceivable angle, he ran back and forth, intermittently monitoring the proceedings from a seat in the audience. During intermission, he told me that Al Hamlet was an explosive piece of political theater. I later found that it had toured the world, and won several international awards.
Before leaving for Stockholm, we made a short stop in Copenhagen. There, in the Long Hall of Rosenborg castle, we encountered more tapestries. Instead of putting an exaggerated number of predecessors on display, this king, Christian V, had chosen motifs from the Scanian War of 1675-79, in which he had been fairly successful. The tapestries, magnificent though they were, rather paled in comparison with some of the hall`s other treasures. Exceptional are the silver lions and the throne made for Fredrik III in the 1660s. "The ensemble," the guidebook stated, "was modeled upon the Old Testament`s description of Solomon`s throne and first used for the anointing of Christian V in 1671." Also, here stands the Queen`s silver throne, behind which is the silver baptismal font, employed in the christening of the royal children for over three centuries.
The visit to Rosenborg ended with with a peek at the well-guarded Crown Jewels. Knowing what a prosperous little country Denmark is, we were astonished to hear that a portion of them had been pawned to a German businessman when the country`s finances had reached an embarrassing low in the late 18th century.
Anyway, the jewels are back, more glittering than ever.
Once again we were in an old boat on Lake Mälaren, now steaming towards Drottningholm, the pastoral residence of Sweden's Royal Family. Drottningholm (Queen`s Island) has long been a place favored by royalty. It began in the late 1500s, when King Johan III built a castle there for his wife Katarina Jagellonika, and continued a hundred years later when that castle was replaced by a much grander structure by Queen dowager Hedvig Eleonora. Drottningholm remained a "queen`s residence" until 1777, at which point it became one of the homes of Gustav III, Sweden`s ultimate rococo king.
Before entering the palace we walked around it, admiring the best of what two centuries could produce in terms of landscaping: a 17th century French garden and an 18th century English park. Inside, we were greeted by a guide who, as she showed us around, entertained us with tidbits of history.
"Here in the Green Room," she said, "you see a portrait of Gustav III`s cousin, Catherine the Great. She hated it because the artist had made her look fat and had given her the rosy cheeks of a kitchen maid." (Ha, I thought, we`re back to the porcelain complexion.) "And here," the guide continued after we had entered yet another palatial room, "is a portrait from the Baroque period, when allegorical paintings were all the rage. This shows Queen Hedvig Eleonora, at age 24, clasping a portrait of her 5-year old son Charles. Notice the cluster of angels at the upper left corner. They represent children who died in infancy... and in the large painting over there, Charles`s Guardian Angel is preventing an evil force from severing the boy`s 'life line`."
More symbolism awaited. In the largest room of the castle the four corners of the ceiling had animals representing each of the continents known at the time. A horse symbolized Europe, a lion and a camel stood for Africa and Asia respectively, and a crocodile, surprisingly, embodied the newly-discovered America.
After the reign of Louis XIV, it became fashionable for European kings to invite important guests to their bedchambers for the privilege of seeing royalty getting dressed, painted, and bewigged. As a result, Gustav III`s bedroom was in reality the castle`s main audience room, and one of its most spectacular. Gustav III presumably enjoyed the attention afforded him during these audiences. His mother, Queen Lovisa Ulrika, who liked to think of herself as the "Minerva of the North," had early on instilled in the young prince a love of the stage - even built him a theater.
The theater at Drottningholm opened in 1766,and soon became the center of Swedish cultural life. A major figure in its development was Gustav III himself, not merely as a high-ranking member of the audience, but as a designer, director, playwright, and principal actor. Since French was then the rule; his boldest move may have been to introduce Swedish to the stage, a language considered too rude and vulgar for the elevated thoughts voiced on a court stage. Thus, along with Gluck`s operas and French Operas-comiques, some newly written Swedish plays were performed at Drottningholm.
For about 30 years the theater thrived. Then, following the assassination of the king in 1792, theatrical life in Sweden stagnated and the theater fell into disrepair and oblivion. Some 120 years later, it was rediscovered - under meter-thick layers of dust - and, gloriously, brought back to life. Everything was there, including 15 original stage decorations, complete with backdrops, flats and set pieces. All that needed to be replaced were the ropes in the stage machinery and the hundreds of candles employed for lighting. Since no one dared to use candles anymore, electric lighting was installed, but with specially designed lamps, with an electronic device that made them flutter like real candles.
"The stage is a box of tricks in which amazing things can happen," declared our guide, Helene. She had brought our attention to how the deep, dimly lit scene mirrored the shape and slant of the auditorium, and was expanded on the subject of revived 18th century stage craft: "Around 30 stage hands are deployed in the fly loft, on the stage itself and in the basement below. They can make the villain disappear into the floor or have gods descend from the heavens in special cloud wagons. They have the machinery needed for claps of thunder and flashes of lightning, for transforming a city into country or heaven into hell in a few seconds "
As we peered behind the scene, climbed the stairs to the fly loft, and inspected the basement, I was struck by the theater`s resemblance to an old sailing ship, a comparison borne out by Helene`s assertion of how the stagehands worked: a teamwork performed with as much discipline and vigor as a ship`s crew - producing the same creaking sounds of wood and cordage. A comment on how close the air was on the fly loft triggered the story of how, recently, a soprano had fainted while sailing on a cloud in a tight, uncomfortable fish costume. "She had to be revived with oxygen," Helene said.
Works that could have been performed in the 18th century - operas by Mozart, Gluck, Haydn and Handel, Italian opera buffas and French opera-comiques, as well as ballets - are now performed to enthusiastic audiences every summer. Great acoustics, surely, are one reason for the theater`s success. Singing there is like singing in a Stradivarius, according to one of its performers, Elisabeth Soderstrom. Or, to put it in her own words: "For music lovers, Drottningholm resonates with the same magic as that of a Stradivarius. One thinks of the aged, scented wood of musical instruments that help to meditate tones in an altogether special way that confers solace on noise-buffeted ears."
Drottningholm is now one of the two oldest theaters in the world still in use. The other is Confidencen, which, as it happens, is just north of Stockholm and next on my agenda.
Confidencen stands on the ground of Ulriksdals Castle, one of the five official residences of the Swedish royal family. Like its counterpart, it was built by Queen Lovisa Ulrika, flourished during the reign of Gustav III, was left to decay, and then resurrected. Luckily, on my visit I was able to meet with opera singer and artistic director Kjerstin Dellert, the fiery soul who almost single-handedly caused the curtains to rise after two centuries of darkness.
It all began, she told me, on a snowy November day in 1976. "My husband I were walking in the park with our dogs, and ran into Princess Christina and her husband. The princess thought we looked a bit chilled so she invited us in for tea."
This led to a suggestion by the princess that they take a look at the theater next door, in the old yellow building that Kjerstin had passed many times without knowing what it was. So out they went, armed with flashlights. The princess opened the door with a large key. Stepping inside, they were assaulted by a dank moldy smell. Everything lay in shambles. The ceiling beams had loosened, the wind howled through cracks in the windows, and the floors were covered with planks, rotten mattresses and dead pigeons. What had once been the the stage was a gaping, black abyss. "I was appalled and enraged," said Kjerstin. How could this have been allowed to happen?
The princess commented that many had asked that same question, even planned to have the theater restored. But there was never enough money for it.
From then on, with Princess Christina as her supporter, Kjerstin became obsessed with the rebirth of Confidencen. "I would be the cog that started and kept the machine going," she said. With some friends she began doing some serious house cleaning, which included the use of an industrial-strength vacuum cleaner. But to get the project really going, she needed money. And lots of it.
The State had contributed funds for the renewal of Drottningholm Theater, but was unwilling to do the same for Confidencen. " Few politicians are visionaries," Kjerstin concluded, after she`d approached a number of cultural attaches without much success. She had read an article about sponsorship in an American newspaper, and decided to write to well-established companies, celebrities, friends, and acquaintances. Three hundred and fifty answered back, each one willing to contribute $1,000. Larger donations would arrive - including some from the United States - all helping to breathe new life into the old rococo theater.
The curtain rose in 1981. Like Drottninholm Theater, Confidencen now offers a summer program of operas, concerts and ballets. After my interview with Kjerstin Dellert, I was lucky to secure one of the theater`s 200 seats for the night`s performance of a Swedish folk opera, titled The Bride of the Mountain King. My visit to Confidencen included a tour of the building, which, in addition to the the theater, had an elegant suite of rooms from the 1740s. There, in the salon/dining room, stood the piece of furniture that had given the theater its name.
Those were times of political upheaval and intrigue, when walls had ears. So, to insure privacy, the queen had a dining table built that could be lowered through the floor to the kitchen, from which it would return laden with food. Thus, at this table a confidence, no spying servant could see or hear who was dining with the king.
Wandering around in this beautiful old theater I found, next to the wall and facing the stage, a bronze bust of Kjerstin Dellert.
"I won`t last forever, but the theater will," Kjerstin commented. "And this way," she added, "I`ll always be able to keep an eye on what`s going on."
Text and photography: Bo Zaunders
Illustrations: Roxie Munro
The Theater Museum at the Court Theater. Back in the 18th century, Sweden was not the only country in Scandinavia with a court theater. In Christiansborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark, there was Hofteatret, which opened in January 1767, to the delight of young and newlywed King Christian VII.
Hofteatret is now a museum, showcasing 300 years of Danish theater history, with a large collection of costumes, set models, paintings, engravings, photographs, and other items. At the time of my visit, Hans Christian Andersen`s 200th birthday was celebrated with a special exhibition. The setting was appropriate - here, at age 15, the great author of fairy tales began his career by attending ballet classes. In a separate exhibit were oils and pastels of opera singers, actors and actresses who had once thrilled Danish audiences. Created by Skagen painter P.S. Krøyer, they all dated back to what must have been a rather spectacular artist`s ball in 1885.
I walked through Hofteatret with Ulla Strømberg, a former theater and art critic for Danish Broadcasting, who for three years has been the museum`s director. There was no mistaking her enthusiasm and drive, a passion that had recently produced a flurry of publicity and promotional activities. "We have four new catalogs," she told me, "and three times as many visitors."
Gazing into the old theater, which a hundred and fifty years ago was refurbished in the romantic Biederman style in deep reds and gold, I wondered if it were ever used for live performances. Yes, indeed - with concerts, readings, ballet demonstrations and other events.
Not bad for a theater turning 339 this year.