The Vasa: an elegant seventeenth-century warship in Stockholm

Stockholm, Vasa
Sweden’s capital Stockholm has a lot to offer-fine dining, good shopping, lovely parks, access to some interesting day trips (the old Viking capital of Uppsala being my favorite) and a unique museum. The Vasa Ship Museum is one of Sweden’s most popular tourist attractions and it’s easy to see why. It houses a beautifully preserved 17th century warship.

The Vasa was meant to be the pride of the Swedish fleet at a time when the nation was one of Europe’s major powers. The galleon was 226 feet long, carried 145 sailors and 300 soldiers, and sported elegant woodwork over much of its exterior. Its 64 cannon could blast out 588 pounds of iron from port or starboard, giving it more firepower than any other ship then in existence. It must have been a major letdown when it sank barely a mile into its maiden voyage in 1628. It turns out the whole thing was top heavy.

While the Vasa was a bad ship, it’s an awesome museum piece. The cold water, silt, and pollution of Stockholm harbor kept it safe from microorganisms that would have eaten it up. When archaeologists raised it from the sea they retrieved thousands of artifacts such as weapons, utensils, coins, clothing, tools, and hemp sails and rigging. Some parts of the ship still had flakes of paint and gold leaf adhering to them, so its once-vivid colors could be reproduced in a scale model in the museum.

This year is the 50th anniversary of its raising from the bottom of the harbor. This was a tricky operation that required 1,300 dives and a great deal of delicate underwater work in low visibility. Divers had to dig six tunnels under the shipwreck in order to run steel cables through them and attach them to pontoons on the surface. After that, the pontoons lifted it to the surface without a hitch.

The next step was to reassemble the ship. All of the nails had rusted away, so the archaeologists were left with a massive jigsaw puzzle with many of the pieces missing. Some 32,000 cubic feet of oak timber and more than 26,000 artifacts had to be preserved, cataloged, and archived. To house the restored ship, the Vasa Ship Museum opened in 1990.

Now the Vasa may get some companions. Five other ships dating from the 16th to the 18th century have been discovered during the renovation of one of Stockholm’s quays. This was the site of the old shipyards where the Vasa was built. They’re said to be in good condition and some are as long as 20 meters (66 feet).

If you love the sea, you’ll also want to check out Amsterdam’s Maritime Museum and Madrid’s Naval Museum. And if you’re going to Stockholm, check out our budget Stockholm guide.

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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A classic sailing ship in northern Spain

sailing ship, Santander, SpainIf you’ve been following my travels here at Gadling, you know I’ve moved to Santander in northern Spain and am busy settling in. I’ve had my first of many hikes in Cantabria and have even ventured into the chilly northern surf. I need to buy a wetsuit.

One advantage of living in a port is you get to see sights like this, a reconstructed sailing ship from the Golden Age of Sail. Called the Nao Victoria, it’s a Spanish ship from the 16th century and is currently on tour around the coast of Spain.

A nao, also called a carrack, was a type of sailing vessel used by the Spanish and Portuguese in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was a precursor to the galleon. The Nao Victoria was the first ship to circumnavigate the globe on Magellan’s voyage from 1519-22. Magellan didn’t survive the voyage and the commander to bring the boat back to Spain was Juan Sebastián Elcano. I saw his hometown while hiking the Basque coastline.

The Fundación Nao Victoria also manages a second ship, a reproduction 17th century Galeón Andalucía.

The reconstructed nao is a floating museum where you can see how a ship was run back in the olden days. It had a large storage capacity and could handle rough seas, important for long voyages to unknown parts of the globe. It’s not a completely faithful reconstruction, though, what with its flush toilet and electricity. I suppose the folks sailing this thing shouldn’t be expected to suffer from the filth and scurvy the old sailors did!

Downdecks is an exhibition on Spain’s first constitution, adopted in 1812 as Spain and her allies were busy pushing Napoleon out of the country. The constitution allowed for universal suffrage for men, extended numerous rights to citizens, and ended the Inquisition. The constitution was abolished two years later with the reinstatement of absolute monarchy. It came back a couple of times in Spain’s tumultuous history before other constitutions were introduced in later times.

The project is funded by various regional and municipal governments and government institutions. The stress they put on the Spanish constitution appears to me to be more than just celebrating the bicentennial. Deep fissures are appearing in Spanish society as various regions, especially the Basque region and Catalonia, are pushing for more autonomy or even outright independence. In Spain, any emphasis on national unity carries a political message.

If you like old sailing ships, be sure to check out Madrid’s Naval Museum.

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Naval Museum in Madrid: an overlooked treasure

MadridAfter six years of living in Madrid, I’ve finally made it to the Naval Museum.

It’s overlooked by most tourists. In fact, it’s overlooked by a lot of madrileños. I’ve met some locals who didn’t even know it exists. Perhaps being so far away from the sea they don’t expect there to be a major naval museum downtown. It also doesn’t help that it’s tucked behind a modest facade that’s easy to miss.

Go inside, though, and you find yourself in a massive collection of paintings, cannons, uniforms, even parts of old ships.

Spain was one of of the leading naval powers in the Golden Age of Sail. It owned much of the New World and scattered colonies around the globe. It protected its interests with a large fleet of warships.

The museum skips lightly over the medieval period and gets really detailed starting at the Age of Exploration. Columbus is given his due, and many other lesser-known explorers are also covered. The maps are fun to study. The most important is that of Juan de la Cosa, made in 1500 and the first known map to show the New World.

The biggest section is for warships from the 16th-18th centuries, when Spain was a superpower. Here you’ll find uniforms, weapons, flags, and a nice collection of figureheads like the one shown here. One of the most interesting exhibits is the wreck of the Nao, which sank in 1600. Archaeologists donned scuba gear and excavated the wreck, bringing up a huge collection of porcelain from China as well as other artifacts.

The 19th and 20th centuries are also covered, although not in as much detail. By then Spain’s power was waning. There are some detailed models and paintings of ships that were making the transition from sail to steam. They had steam engines but kept their masts just in case those early engines broke, which they did regularly! The Spanish Civil War is only covered in passing. I’ve yet to see a Spanish museum that’s come to terms with this bloody conflict. It’s still in living memory, so the old wounds remain open.

The section for the modern navy is worth a look too. While small compared to those of the U.S., Russia, and UK, the Armada still packs a punch. It has two aircraft carriers, ten frigates, four submarines, and a host of smaller ships. This puts Spain way ahead of Morocco, its only potentially hostile neighbor.

The only downside to this museum is that the signage is all in Spanish. Don’t worry if you don’t speak the language; most of the exhibits are pretty self-explanatory. The museum is free. Because it’s in a military building, make sure to bring ID to get in.

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