Kalmar Castle: Sweden’s Royal Hub

From medieval palace to prison, distillery and granary, this castle was finally restored to its original glory

Kalmar Castle
In the mid-19th century, a newfound respect for history led to Kalmar Castle's renovation. Pat O'Connor / Courtesy of Rick Steves' Europe Through the Back Door

This moated castle is one of Europe’s great medieval experiences. The imposing exterior, anchored by stout watchtowers and cuddled by a lush park, houses a fine Renaissance palace interior. Built in the 12th century, the castle was enlarged and further fortified by the great King Gustav Vasa (r. 1523–1560), and lived in by two of his sons, Erik XIV and Johan III. In the 1570s, Johan III redecorated the castle in the trendy Renaissance style, giving it its present shape. Kalmar Castle remained a royal hub until 1658, when the Swedish frontier shifted south and the castle lost its strategic importance. Kalmar Castle was neglected, being used as a prison, distillery, and granary. Finally, in the mid-19th century, a newfound respect for history led to the castle's renovation.

Cost and Hours: 80 kr (sold in gift shop inside, or sometimes outside the gate in summer); July daily 10:00-18:00; Aug daily 10:00-17:00; May-June and Sept daily 10:00–16:00; April and Oct Sat–Sun 11:00–15:30, closed Mon-Fri; Nov–March open only Sat–Sun 11:00–15:30 on second weekend of month; tel. 0480/451-490 or 0480/451-491, www.kalmarslott.se.

Tours: If you can catch the 45-minute English tour, it's worthwhile to hear about the goofy medieval antics of Sweden’s kings (included in admission price, offered daily late June–mid-Aug usually at 11:30 and 14:30, reconfirm times by phone or on website). You can buy a too-thorough, 45-kr English guidebook; or, for the highlights, follow my self-guided tour.

Self-Guided Tour: Approaching the castle, you’ll cross a wooden drawbridge. Peering into the grassy, filled-in moat, look for sunbathers, who enjoy soaking up rays while the ramparts protect them from cool winds. To play "king of the castle," you can scramble along these outer ramparts (included in castle ticket, or open and free when castle interior is closed).

In the central courtyard is the canopied Dolphin Well, a particularly fine work of Renaissance craftsmanship. If you haven't bought your ticket yet, buy one in the gift shop on the left. Then follow the well-marked, one-way tour route.

Near the gift shop, the models and drawings in the Governor's Quarters illustrate the evolution of the castle over time. Notice the bulky medieval shape of the towers, before they were capped by fancy Renaissance cupolas; and the Old Town that once huddled in the not-protective-enough shadow of the castle. In the adjoining Prisoners' Tower, you can peer down into the dungeon pit. The room was later converted into a kitchen (notice the big fireplace), and the pit became a handy place to dump kitchen waste. Nearby, behind the WCs, the Women's Prison exhibit explains a grim 19th-century chapter of the castle's history.

Then you'll climb up the Queen's Staircase, up steps made of Catholic gravestones. While this might have simply been an economical way to recycle building materials, some speculate that it was a symbolic move in support of King Gustav Vasa's Reformation, after the king broke with the Pope in a Henry VIII–style power struggle.

At the top of the stairs, go through the wooden door into the Queen's Suite. The ornate Danish bed (captured from the Danes after a battle) is the only surviving original piece of furniture in the castle. The faces decorating the bed have had their noses chopped off, as superstitious castle-dwellers believed that potentially troublesome spirits dwelled in the noses. This bed could easily be disassembled ("like an Ikea bed," as my guide put it) and moved from place to place--handy for medieval kings and queens, who were forever traveling throughout their realm. Adjoining this room is a smaller servants' quarters, called the Maidens' Chambers.

Proceed into the Checkered Hall. Examine the incredibly detailed inlaid wall panels, which make use of 17 different types of wood--each a slightly different hue. Notice the unmistakably Renaissance aesthetic of this room, which strives to achieve symmetry and perspective. Door handles were left off so as not to break up the harmony. (When the queen wanted to go into the next room, she'd clap her hands to alert servants to open the doors for her.)

Speaking of which, continue into the dining room (a.k.a. Gray Hall, for the frescoes of Samson and Delilah high on the wall). The table is set for an Easter feast (based on an actual, detailed account by a German visitor to one particular Easter meal held here). For this holiday feast, the whole family was in town--including Gustav Vasa's two sons, Erik XIV and Johan III. The giant birds are for decoration, not for eating. Notice all the fish on the table. Since Erik's wife Katarzyna Jagiellonka was a Polish Catholic (their marriage united Sweden, Poland, and Lithuania into a grand empire), she was abstaining from meat during this holy time. Forks (which resembled the devil's pitchfork) were not used--just spoons, knives, and hands. At the adjacent table, peruse the dessert selection, with marzipan and expensive herbs and spices.

The door with the sun above it leads to the King's Chamber. Notice the elaborate lock on the door, installed by King Erik XIV because of constant squabbles about succession. The hunting scenes inside have been restored a bit too colorfully, but the picture of Hercules over the window is original--likely painted by Erik himself. Examine more of those elaborate inlaid panels. Peek into the little room (to the left of the fireplace, with a fine castle illustration embedded in its hidden door) to see the king's toilet. Also in here was a secret escape hatch the king could use in case of trouble. Perhaps King Erik XIV was right to be so paranoid; he eventually died under mysterious circumstances, perhaps poisoned by his brother Johan III, who succeeded him as king.

Backtrack through the dining room and continue into the Golden Hall, with its gorgeously carved (and painstakingly restored) gilded ceiling. The entire ceiling is actually suspended from the true ceiling by chains. If you visually trace the ceiling, the room seems crooked--but it's actually an optical illusion to disguise the fact that it's not perfectly square. Find the portraits of the (dysfunctional) royal family whose tales enliven this place: Gustav Vasa, one of his wives, sons Erik XIV and Johan III, and Johan's son Sigismund.

Peek into Agda's Chamber, the bedroom of Erik's consort. The replica furniture re-creates how it looked when the king's kept woman lived here. Later, the same room was used for a different type of captivity: as a prison cell for female inmates.

Go to the top of the King's Staircase (also made of gravestones like the Queen’s Staircase, and topped by a pair of lions). The big door leads to the grand Green Hall, once used for banquets and now for concerts.

At the end of this hall, the chapel is one of Sweden's most popular wedding venues (up to four ceremonies each Saturday). As reflected by the language of the posted Bible quotations, the sexes sat separately: men, on the warmer right side, were more literate and could read Latin; women, on the cooler left side, read Swedish. The fancy pews at the front were reserved for the king and queen.

At the far end, near the altar, a door leads to a stairwell with a model ship, donated by a thankful sailor who survived a storm. In the next room is Anita, the stuffed body of the last horse who served with the Swedish military (until 1937); beyond that you might find some temporary exhibits.

The rest of the castle complex includes the vast Burned Hall, which--true to its name--feels stripped-down and is not as richly decorated.

For all the details on Kalmar Castle, please see Rick Steves’ Scandinavia.

Excerpted from Rick Steves’ Scandinavia.

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at [email protected], or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

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