The grand naval town of Karlskrona owes its existence to its southern-most harbour which, unusually for Sweden, does not freeze in the long winter.
After losing the Swedish Navy at sea during the vicious Scanian Wars against Denmark, King Karl XI declared that a new naval base should be built on series of islands.
What became the town of Karlskrona (named after the King) began in 1680. Its southerly position meant the sea would not freeze and the warships could launch attacks at any time of the year.
The town was set up on a hill overlooking a natural ice-free harbour and was designed to hold a large ship building port, naval colleges, barracks, churches and a breezy, open square.
Add in a fishermen’s quarter, the tiny wooden homes of the original shipbuilders, a single shopping centre and a modern holiday home or two and Karlskrona is exactly as planned out more than 400 years ago.
The wide avenues and stately squares were designed to accommodate the parades of the King’s navy. Even today, cadets in uniform tumble around the streets named after Swedish heroes of the admiralty.
We were impressed by airy, open space of the central square, Stortorget. The highest point and geographical centre of the island on which the Old Town sits, it is home to not one but two churches by Tessin (the Younger). Warmly decorated in apricot and grey on the outside, neither church is the same.
The circular domed Trefaldighetskyrkan (Holy Trinity Church) has an impressive wooden and circular interior, topped with a planked dome painted to look from below as showing three dimensions.
The larger Frederikskyrkan has been remodelled inside and only just reopened to the public after three years of extensive works.
Its original gigantically columned and well-lit white interior is the same, but with new additions of a jet black boat-shaped baptismal font and a simple stone alter piece, as well as the latest Scandinavian audio and visual tech to appeal to a modern congregation.
A darkly-suited chap was using a headset microphone to address a small group of business types who were eagerly taking notes about the spec of the projection and audio recording systems.
Outside in the square other voices were vying to be heard. It was one week before the hotly contested General Election in which people feared (or hoped) that the far-right party, the rather incongruously named, Swedish Democrats would cause a major upset.
Schoolchildren, not yet voters, were swarming around each candidate’s stall to ask questions and note down answers. We found out later that this is a coming of age lesson for young teenagers and it was heart-warming to see their positive engagement and animated discussions with candidates across all spectrums.
At Fisktorget, the Old Town’s fishing quarters and site of the daily fish market, groups of older teenagers and young families were merrily making their way across the wood and steel bridge to the tiny island rock of Stakholmen for picnics in the sun.
We headed uphill into the Björkholmen area. This was where the original carpenters and woodworkers that built the ships of Karl XI’s fleet lived.
Before they set to work in the dockyards they built their own homes, single storey wooden houses of two or three rooms warmed by wood burning stoves and fitting snugly together across the hilltop.
Today the old carpenters’ quarter is a highly desirable and expensive part of town to live in, albeit the bijou pads are tiny.
The carpenters also built Sweden’s largest wooden church, Amiralitetskyrka, designed to hold the entire company of a ship that was to be blessed before it set sail. Its light-filled interior and pale blue and cream walls and pews were calming and soothing.
A repaint is planned and the local Church board is in deeply divided over whether to revert the colour scheme back to the original ‘putty’ colour paintwork. We learnt this from an animated local (and board member) who favours the putty.
She also told us that the church was only meant to be temporary as an even larger stone built one was planned, but never built. After 333 years Amiraliteskyrka is still an important part of the seaside community.
Back at the harbour where we were pitched up and enjoying free, hot showers and remarkably, free washing and drying machines, there was one last treat in store. Perched magnanimously on a large granite rock stood the verdigris sculpture of Biskup Morski.
A Sea Bishop from mythology, he was said to be captured by fisherman and taken to the Polish King as a gift. Having shown the sign of the cross in the King’s company it was understood that he wished to be returned to the Baltic Sea and the King agreed.
The Germans have the same myth, but their version is cruel, as the Sea Bishop was kept captive and refused to eat and died after three days. I preferred the Polish version.
Monk Fish apparently grow up to two meters long and when seen from beneath, their bodies can resemble human faces in a cloaked form. Bishop Morski was a quirky end to an interesting couple of days in this charming town.