Nyköping & Söderköping

One hour south of Stockholm on Sweden’s east coast sits one of its oldest towns, Nyköping. The suffix ‘köping’ denotes a market town granted a charter to trade in the Middle Ages.

It was a prestigious tag and recognised a settled and advantageous community with agriculture, craftmanship and valuable materials to trade in exchange for an increased prosperity.

Nykoping Central Square

Nyköping was officially founded in 1187 and had a bustling heyday throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. Its most infamous moment occurred at a royal banquet at its austere riverside castle in 1317.

As was typical of dynastic disputes at the time, an older brother, King Birger, sent his two younger brothers to the dungeon during a Christmas Feast. He threw the key to their gaoled door into the River Nyköpingsan, presumably before the spiced rice pudding was served.

King Birger’s Castle

It was the climax of a 20-year dispute between the three which earlier, had seen King Birger and his wife Martha of Denmark thrown into the same dungeon in 1306 by the same two dukes, and freed two years later only after the interventions of the Kings of Denmark and Norway.

You can sympathise with King Birger’s exasperation. It didn’t end well. He finished his days in exile and his 20-year old son and inheritor of the Swedish throne was quickly dispatched by forces loyal to the two dead dukes.

Bridge over River Nykopingsan

Two remarkable churches from the early years of Sweden’s Christian conquest survive intact, despite destructive fires through the centuries.

St Nicolaus Church dates to 1260 but was largely built in the 1400s. The calm, limestone interior is simply decorated and, almost as an afterthought, an intricate wooden altarpiece from the 1500s is set intact on a south-facing column.

Its bell tower is several yards away on a pink rocky outcrop as it was built in 1692. The stony situation has saved it from several fires including a devastating inferno throughout the town caused by invading Russians in 1719.

Inside St Nicolaus Church

Across the river the equally old Alla Helgona (All Saints) Church has survived since the 1200s due to its thick stone walls. Updated and modern inside we didn’t warm to it particularly until spotting a unique alabaster alter screen carved in miniature and set on a pillar. It was made in England, around 1400.

Its bell tower is also set apart and was rebuilt in 1725 after the devastation of 1719. Until last year it still housed its three original church bells. On 2 June 2017 it blazed to the ground, the subject of a shocking arson attack from which the town is still reeling.

Alla Helgona Rectory

Nyköping mixes a vivid history with a colourful modern community of students and recent immigrants. It was the first time we had seen fewer white faces in Sweden and more African, Asian and Arabic ones.

The planned high-speed rail link between Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmo will call at Nyköping as one of thirteen favoured stops and this alone will seal its future as a popular holiday destination in the southern archipelago. And just as a footnote – during archaeological excavations, a large Medieval key was found sunk in the river bed, opposite the old brewery, near to the castle…

The old brewery sits on the river

Söderköping was also a favoured market town, and its importance as a trading centre continued well into the 19th century when the newly-constructed Göta Canal flowed alongside with its busy channel of cargo vessels and heavy freight.

Today its a pretty canal side village of brightly painted wooden houses set around a central square and historic church.

Soderkoping painted houses

St Laurentius was inaugurated in 1296 and built in Baltic brick in a gothic style. Inside and out it is unsymmetrical which gives it an endearing quirkiness.

It has a strikingly simple interior, painted in a thick lime white. The walls were originally covered in Medieval and 17th century frescoes but these were painted over in the early 1800s.

Probably regrettable, but now sunlight streaming through its tall windows plays off the clean surfaces and the gold and silver chandeliers.

Lopsided columns lean in on each other and the vaulted ceilings seem to press down and inwards. Its carved wooden pulpit is a prized example by the master ‘John the Idol Carver’ who worked out of Vadstena. It arrived in 1671 but was not painted until 1723 and only then by the Söderköping master Anders Wickstrom. It is the church’s most valuable fixture.

Stormy skies at Soderkoping

Outside a rune stone is set in the ground near to the front door. It attests to Söderköping’s importance as a settlement as long ago as 1000AD.

It was our first sight of such an important memorial stone and being keen to see more, we plotted a route west to Lake Vättern.