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What to do in Stockholm: tips for experiencing the Scandinavian Downton Abbey

This travel article on what to do in Stockholm is published in issue 22-23 of Vanity Fair on newsstands until 4 June 2024.

It's blue hour in Stockholm. The writer pointed out to me that, in the North, the blue that separates sunset from night is an even more intense blue Ruth Kvarnström-Jonesan Englishwoman who has lived here for over thirty years because “from the first day I felt that it was as if I had always been here”.
We are drinking a cocktail, “a kind of Spritz”, in front of a spectacular window overlooking the island of Stadsholmen, where the Gamla Stanthe old city: in a few minutes the smörgåsbordthe traditional Swedish buffet consisting of appetizers, hot and cold fish and meat dishes, cheeses, salads and desserts, which is important to serve according to a very specific ritual that I am more than ready to follow.

«Do you see that building? It's the Royal Palace: they say it has exactly one room more than Buckingham Palace. The restaurant where we are now, however», and he points me to the luxurious Veranda room, «was built after the Wilhelmina era». Wilhelmina Skogh is the real-life heroine of her novel The formidable women of the Grand Hôtela kind of feminist Downton Abbey set behind the scenes of Grand Hôtel in Stockholmwhere Ruth and I are, including concierges, room service workers, maître d's, waitresses, secret daughters, stolen rings, misogyny and even the involvement of the royal family.

The Grand Hôtel in Stockholm (grandhotel.se).

The smörgåsbord the traditional Swedish buffet.

The smörgåsbord, the traditional Swedish buffet.

What to do in Stockholm

«The first time I heard of her was in 1982. I was still attending university in London and, every summer, I came to perfect the language. That year I had gotten a job here, as an “egg boiler” in the staff canteen. They spoke of her as one of the Swedish pioneers, but few people outside of her knew her, perhaps because she was too far ahead of her time.”
Effectively, it was 1901 when the management of the Grand – as Ruth calls it – entrusted to a woman the management of the most prestigious hotel structure in the capital, the one which hosted the banquet of the wedding ceremony Nobel Prizes. But Wilhelmina was not just anyone: strong-willed, hard-working and married to a man who supported her, before arriving at the Grand she already owned three hotels, an exceptional fact for an era in which women had very little autonomy.

The Rooftop Suite.

The Rooftop Suite.

The Flag Suite.

The Flag Suite.

Ruth, she tells me, was so fascinated by it that she made a promise to herself: sooner or later she would write her story. The next morning it is Ruth herself, a volcano of anecdotes and enthusiasm, who takes me to visit the Grand Hôtel which, in addition to being the location of her novel, is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

«The entrance has remained essentially the same as when Wilhelmina was there», he tells me, «apart from a staircase which was later removed. But look at her, it's her!”, and points to a painting to the left of the reception from which a middle-aged lady, with a twentieth-century bun and lilac dress tied with a bow, looks at me sternly: “It's the portrait that the painter Lotten made of her Rönquist, to whom he had entrusted the decorations of the first Winter Garden in Stockholm which he had built next door.” «And he is the Frenchman Régis Cadier», adds Anders, one of the hotel's managers, pointing to the painting alongside, «who founded the hotel in 1874.

A vintage photo of the Grand Hotel where the book was set.

A vintage photo of the Grand Hotel where the book was set.

Potatoes and vegetables au gratin, a dish by chef Mathias Dahlgren.

Potatoes and vegetables au gratin, a dish by chef Mathias Dahlgren.

The bar is dedicated to him, the area least affected by the various renovations: the ceiling decorations and columns are those wanted by Wilhelmina. Do you know that, for your anniversary, we dedicated a cocktail to you? Dill, coconut and Timut pepper.” I ask him what her role is, and he tells me he is in charge of room service. «Like Ottilie!», exclaims Ruth. Ottilie is the other protagonist of the novel, a young but very determined girl, to whom Wilhelmina entrusts the management of room service. «At the time it was a real scandal, because that was considered a job for men.

In addition to being a very good director, Wilhelmina also committed herself to promoting the women who worked with her”, adds Ruth, who obtained permission to consult the hotel's private archive to write this story. After a visit to the cellar, where around 250 thousand bottles are kept and where I feel the thrill of holding a Château Mouton Rothschild from 1874 in my hand which will be worth a small mortgage, and a short tour of the nearby Bolinder Palace, where Wilhelmina lived and which today is used for receptions, we go up to the first floor.

The Cadler Bar.

The Cadler Bar.

Hasselblad H6D

The Epithany cocktail.

The Epithany cocktail.

Bolinder Palace where Wilhelmina Skogh, the real-life heroine of the novel, lived.  today it is used for receptions.

Bolinder Palace, where Wilhelmina Skogh, the real-life heroine of the novel, lived. today it is used for receptions.

Here, suite number 250 (the Grand has 279 rooms in total, of which 70 are suites) is dedicated to the legendary director and has been decorated with her favorite colours, lilac, dove gray and beige. Ruth wants to show me a couple of other places, near the Grand Hôtel, that she included in her novel. We head towards the National Library, attended by Torun, Ottilie's little sister who, after working with her, decides to follow her love of books. «The bookshop where you were hired was right here, in Stureplan. While that building”, and he points out one that overlooks a small triangular square, “was the very first location of the department store Nordiska Kompaniet (NK), where Märta, a former Grand employee, starts working.”

The formidable women of the Grand Hôtel by Ruth KvarnströmJones Translation by Francesca Toticchi.

The formidable women of the Grand Hôtel by Ruth Kvarnström-Jones (North, 480 pages, 19 euros) Translation, Francesca Toticchi.

Ruth KvarnströmJones born in England has lived in Stockholm for 36 years.  Great success in Sweden, the book in Italy has...

Ruth Kvarnström-Jones, born in England, has lived in Stockholm for 36 years. Very successful in Sweden, the book debuted in sixth place in foreign fiction in Italy. photo Emma Hammar

Ruth is passionate about the history of her city's buildings. Today, she tells me, the NK is located in a beautiful Art Nouveau building near the park Kungsträdgårdenthe one also frequented by the employees of «his» hotel: «And it is precisely at the NK that I set the second novel in the series The Stockholm Treasures of which The formidable women of the Grand Hôtel it's the first chapter.” After a bit of local shopping in the basement of the NK (the Fröcknäcke, three-seed crackers, and cloudberry jam, delicious arctic bramble), a short walk up to Fotografiska, the coolest photography museum in Northern Europe, and a snack break (here they call it “fika”) at the pastry shop Sundbergs Konditori in Gamla Stan, one of the oldest in the city. Finally, we return to the Grand where Pia Djupmark, manager director and CEO of the structure, awaits us. In many ways she reminds me of Wilhelmina: «For me too, the most important thing is “service”.

A place can be perfectly renovated, but if the food is bad or the staff is grumpy, you will take home a bad feeling.” Before saying goodbye, I ask you if you think you too have contributed to the valorisation of other women. Her answer is enlightening. «Do you want to know what my motto has always been? “If you want to do something useful, hire a woman.” Wilhelmina would have more than agreed.

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Source: Vanity Fair

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