Up, up and away over Sweden's 'Venice of the North'
There are few capital cities in the world that you can fly over in a hot air balloon. Fortunately, one is beautiful Stockholm. It is quite common on summer evenings to see several multicoloured balloons floating gracefully overhead against a glorious Nordic sunset. From a thousand feet up you can enjoy a unique perspective of the geography of this remarkable city, which is spread over 14 separate islands and rightly known as the 'Venice of the North’.
Stockholm, which has named itself ‘Capital of Scandinavia’, is a beautiful mix of the historic and modern. Established in the middle of the 13th century and until recently considered a slum, the island Old Town (or Gamla Stan) has fortunately retained much of its original medieval atmosphere with small cobbled streets and narrow alleyways (one less than a metre wide). Here you’ll see Stortorget, site of the infamous ‘Stockholm Bloodbath’, the massive Royal Palace, the Storkyrkan Cathedral, the Nobel Museum and the Swedish Parliament.
In contrast, much of the city centre area north of the Old Town was extensively redeveloped in the 20th century. Visit this part of town for shopping in famous department stores such as Nordiska Kompaniet (or just known locally as ‘NK’) and PUB, where Greta Garbo first started work in the 1920s. There are also numerous smaller boutique outlets selling the highest quality glassware, cutlery, china, linen and, of course, designer fashions.
For nightlife, Södermalm - south of the Old Town - is where you'll find numerous bars and restaurants, but if you are looking to do something more adventurous as a perfect end to a day of shopping and sightseeing – then this is the ideal time to take to the sky.
The balloon flying season starts around the beginning of May and finishes at the end of September with several companies providing flights in Stockholm. I chose UppNer, established in 1991, which has about 12 balloons. The cheapest evening ticket is around £90 which includes transport from the base on the outskirts of Stockholm to the take-off site, and a small picnic after landing approximately 12 miles away.
The whole exercise is very hands-on. For example, you will be expected to help with unloading the balloon from the transport wagon and with various other tasks. After about 30 mins when the massive balloon envelope is fully inflated you’ll be signalled to quickly clamber into the wicker basket and up you go!
After the exciting take-off the calm and tranquillity you enjoy as you gently glide along your flight route is of course quite magical in comparison. Reaching about 1,000 feet and for the hour or so that you are airborne you have a completely different and captivating view of even the most mundane things on the ground, everything seeming to be part of some huge animated map set out below you.
Our journey took us from a south west suburb flying in a north easterly direction over Södermalm, crossing the Saltsjön, low over Skansen/Djurgården and landing at the open fields of Ladugårdsdärdet near Kaknästornet just to the east of the city centre.
Back to earth literally with a bump and it is time to help with packing the balloon away before it gets too dark, followed by an optional ‘christening’ - a quick splash of champagne over your head to celebrate your initiation into the wonderful pleasures of ballooning.
Many of those in the group were celebrating an anniversary or birthday so I can highly recommend a balloon flight as a unique way to mark a special occasion and I can’t think of anywhere better to do this than in Stockholm.
As the perfect luxury combination, I’d suggest staying at the Hotel Rival owned by none other than Benny Andersson (of ABBA fame). Facing a pretty square on Södermalm, the largest of the islands south of the city centre, it was opened a few years ago after extensive renovation of the 1930’s building, which had been a café and cinema. Depending on your balloon route, you may even get to fly directly over it as I did! Though obviously not a budget option, surprisingly room prices start at around £180 per night in this ultra chic boutique hotel.
One final tip, don’t miss the fantastic tea shop round the corner from the hotel at Hornsgatan 46 – every blend you can think of and home of the famous Söderblandning Swedish black tea.
My balloon flight was with www.uppner.se (Saltsjöbadsvägen 20, 131 50 Saltsjö-Duvnäs; 08 644 04 00). They also have a shop/showroom in the city at EventShop, Regeringsgatan 25, 111 53.
Other companies are Ballongflyg i Stockholm AB at www.ballong.se, Scandinavian Balloons at www.ballong.nu and Nordic Balloons at www.nordicballoons.se.