x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

A girl's Nordic fairy tale weekend in Stockholm

Passport: check. Tickets: check. Husband and son: no thanks, says princess-for-the-weekend Olivia Gunning-Bennani for a jaunt to the Swedish capital.

"Listen, princess," said my uncle. "There's your life before kids and then your life after them. You'll just have to get used to it." And so I compliantly left my fine clothes and social whirls at the door of mummydom. That is, until Sweden. Hanging the maternal hat on the door, I blow a kiss at hubby and bubby and pack them off like evacuated children to the grandparents' farm. Turning northwards towards Scandinavian skies, I set off to become a princess for a week. I alight, ready for the ball, in a city of islands scattered in the Baltic. I have seven days in a veritable quarry of culture, architecture, shopping and lounging to salvage my egocentric incarnation. Hello, Stockholm, please don't turn me into a pumpkin yet.

Stockholm, in my imagination, is a darling gingerbread town laden like a Christmas cake with dolls' house buildings, curving streets and twinkling lights. But aside from the prevailing scent of cinnamon, my mind's eye is wholly betrayed by a city of rather imposing, decidedly elegant architecture overlooking the ubiquitous waters. But I am far from disappointed.

The fairy tale image does exist in Gamla Stan, Stockholm's old town. Cross over the Norrbro bridge right into a warren of eight-century-old narrow cobbled streets, where tall scallop-roofed houses stand in rows of colours. Old shops mingle with subtly fronted retail franchises and a good portion of cafes and restaurants. Try Chokladkoppen for the best ever hot chocolate and a good snack. It is perpendicular to the Nobel Museum - in honour of that great Swede, Alfred Bernhard Nobel, who invented both the peace prize and dynamite - also well worth a visit. Gamla Stan comes complete with a Royal Palace and entertaining change of the guard - it's rumoured that the marching band once broke out into an ABBA track, although it didn't happen while I was there.

Modern princesses, unlike their husbands and toddlers, share a fondness for swank design. Having rejuvenated my presence in the domain of all that is vogue, I am delighted to discover the Swedish penchant for chic - both the interior and sartorial varieties. Marvel at Swedish interiors in no place other than Svenskt Tenn. On entry, it's a plush store, yet somewhere along the way it seems to morph into a museum. Josef Frank and Astrid Sampe founded the design movement known as Swedish Modern and also this stunning store. Designs are clean with a naïve charm, but beware - a pillowcase can set you back US$200 (Dh735).

Swedes are a well-turned-out yet unaffected lot; almost everyone I meet is unfussily dapper. In this warren of design emporiums showcasing the national penchant for the aesthetic, be it sleek minimalism or artful kitsch, it's impossible to refuse the allure of boutique-laced and designer-riddled Biblioteksgatan and the Sturegallerian mall. Not to be missed are Tiger, Gant, Filippa K and Acne, among many others.

The stores are testament to the Swedish skill of balancing functional with decorative. Check out DesignTorget, found all over town, for some gorgeous bits and pieces you didn't realise you needed. I quite forget my maternal existence and in a flurry of guilt call home, only to find that husband and child are feeding donkeys and have barely noticed my absence.

Comforted, I decide to stay up late and catch up on a couple of lost cultural years. I put on my best evening gown and head out to Operan - the Royal Swedish Opera. This elegant structure, which contains a room encrusted in gold, sits opposite the Royal Palace and hosts 350 performances per year.

Björn Olsson, a strapping French horn player with the Royal Swedish Opera, says: "Sweden has a long and celebrated singing tradition, and has produced a long list of stars. The same singers who appear regularly at the Metropolitan Opera in New York or London's Covent Garden Opera House can also be heard at the Royal Opera in Stockholm."

The performance is so beautiful that I cry delicately into the satin cuff of my gown. Culturally energised, the following night I trade in crown for beret and head to Stockholm's famed jazz club, Fasching. The Armenian piano genius Tigran Hamasyan is also in town - all the best, apparently, come to Stockholm.

Hitting the sack is enacted with as much sophistication as painting the town. The most regal of resting places is the Grand Hotel. Almost a destination in itself, the Grand stands like a monarch looking proudly over the waters, as she has done for more than 135 years, with the Royal Palace nodding back at the embankment. The Grand's guest history is some roll call: Martin Luther King, Charlie Chaplin, Frank Sinatra, Ingrid Bergman, Sophia Loren, Nat King Cole, Orson Wells, Alfred Hitchcock, Elizabeth Taylor, Madonna, Ray Charles ... you get the idea. The list is longer than the Grand has rooms - 330, on eight floors - and it was here that the first Nobel Prize dinner was held (1901).

Forty suites reflect a multifarious passage of styles, from Jugend to Rococo and Gustavian to American Classic. I go for the waterfront view to spoil myself, although I don't go as far as remortgaging my flat in order to check into the Princess Lilian suite. This self-contained fairyland stretches over 300 square metres and has its own cinema and spa.

Swedish baths are allegedly up there with the Turkish variety, thus it's only right that I investigate. Raison d'Etre spa, part of the Grand Hotel but open to non-residents, too, is touted as the finest in town. Decked in ash and birch from Gotland Island and local limestone, the spa proffers genuine Nordic treatments. After a skin brush, it's into the sauna before hopping into a cold bucket shower. "It gives a genuine kick to a tired system," explains the tanned attendant. "It also helps out the immune system." After a Nordic deep-tissue massage and a plunge in the 26°C pool, I quite forget that I'm not far from the North Pole.

Smorgasbord is the speciality at the waterfront restaurant, yet the Grand also cradles two restaurants with Michelin stars, both under the auspices of Mathias Dahlgren. Sweden's home-grown, big-cheese chef offers sumptuous menus at the serene Matsalen restaurant, as well as Matbaren, a wood-lined, less formal dining room. The menus change in accordance with the seasons (a Dahlgren philosophy), and I indulge in a decadent tasting menu that includes Scandinavian sashimi, egg and truffle and Swedish apple with cream of rice.

Every princess needs her own tower, and so beckons the summit of the Radisson Blu Strand Hotel. In the Tower Suite (ill-adapted to children, the unfit and those with vertigo), I fall in complete love with the twisting stairway leading from salon to bedroom, and more deeply with the acme terrace that supplies simply stunning views. I feel quite at one with Greta Garbo, who used to stay at the hotel and dine at the rooftop restaurant. Both, alas, are no more.

Overwhelmed by the grand-scale luxury, I go in search of a cosier abode and, following a Stockholmer's recommendation, check into the Diplomat. This boutique hotel resides discreetly in a pretty art nouveau building. Ubiquitous Swedish design - subtle chic, neither extravagant nor shabby - characterises each of the rooms. Nab a corner suite - its walls gently curve like a horseshoe - for royal views. There's a decidedly arty feel here, with the dusty library, raw silk wall coverings and original paintings.

In fact, there's an arty feeling all over town - Stockholm is a city of art and of artists. Even the underground stations exhibit contemporary sculpture and installations. After relishing the impressive Moderna Museet, which runs major exhibitions all year, I fall upon a burgeoning area of creativity, Vasastaden.

Ben Loveless is director of Nordenhake, one of the most noteworthy contemporary galleries in Stockholm. "It's quite interesting that this new area has emerged over the past three years," he says."There are seven galleries here now, all focused on contemporary art, as well as the headquarters for a few of Sweden's main fashion labels and some architectural offices.

"Stockholm has quite a few contemporary art galleries and, I think, a record number of art halls per capita. Add this to the number of museums and you'll see that Stockholm has a broad, active art scene."

Galleries within a gallery city - that Stockholm is a city to gaze at is by no means accidental. It's astounding that tradition is preserved amid striding economic development.

Henrik Lampel, a leading property consultant and native Stockholmer, is tall , blond and friendly, like so many Swedes I meet.

"Strict urban planning has contributed to a harmonious layout of the cities," Henrik says. "Buildings are generally well maintained and refurbishment has mostly been carefully done, taking good care of original details."

I confide that I am disappointed not to have seen rows of wooden houses like in the books. He laughs, of course. "Until the late 1800s, most of the houses in Sweden were made of wood," he explains. "Because of fire accidents, wooden houses with more than two floors were banned from the town centres. Now, most of the houses are made of stone or concrete, with the exception of some that survived the fires and demolition machines."

Princess Grace Kelly knew where the wooden chalets are hidden - out there in the vast Swedish archipelago, which is a mass of 30,000 islands coves. Visitors can hire Princess Grace's very same boat, which comes complete with captain and crew, chef and waiters, to explore the isles in regal style. There are few experiences so opulent. I almost burst into a rendition of Someday My Prince Will Come, but remember I have two - safely tucked in at home.

 

If you go

The flight Return flights with Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Stockholm cost from Dh2,770, including taxes.

The packages Double rooms at the Grand Hotel (www.grandhotel.se; 00 46 8 679 35 00) cost from 3,900 Swedish krona (Dh2,048) per night. Double rooms at Radisson Blu Strand Hotel (www.radissonblu.com/strandhotel-stockholm; 00 46 8 50 66 4000) cost from 1,895 krona (Dh998) per night.