Visitors revel in Stockholm's light. Exploring Sweden's capital by foot

`IT'S the light. The beauty of the light all around. No place but Stockholm has this light.'' The elderly French lawyer, a dual citizen of Paris and Stockholm, continued. ``For over 50 years I have been trying to photograph this light. But, of course, the camera cannot see as the eye sees,'' she said with a little remorse.

Stockholm can indeed glow with a wonderful luminescence, because of its unusual situation - a city not so much on the water as in it.

This city, full of 1.6 million blue-eyed blonds, floats on 14 islands scattered in Lake M"alaren among a labyrinth of canals. The surrounding waters send the sun's rays shimmering in all directions. Humid air captures, softens, and holds the light, casting a mellow, almost mystical haze over the city.

A cloudy sunset can turn the sky silvery-blue, like the belly of a freshly caught herring.

But there's more than just ethereal wonder to this city. I don't think even a Dane would dispute that Stockholm is the most beautiful capital in Scandinavia and has to rank among the most attractive in the world.

Under a canopy of pointed towers and spires spreads a metropolis with broad swaths of parks, 50 museums and 150 churches, theaters, opera, ballet, and more than 700 restaurants. Throw in an assortment of castles and palaces, and Stockholm begins to appear.

So why is it so often overlooked, even by seasoned travelers?

Partly it's the relative remoteness - and short summer season. The problem (if it's a problem at all) may also lie with the Swedes themselves. They appear rather content with what they have and seem to accept it matter-of-factly. They're not given to drum-beating or horn-tooting, except maybe the wild evenings at Hard Rock Caf'e on Sveav"agen.

Stockholm looks like a very walkable city. That's a bit deceiving. Nothing is too far away - as the gull flies - but water keeps getting in the way. It's best to get some wheels under you, ride to an area, stroll around, and then go off to another place.

A bicycle is handy, but don't overlook the subway system. Although a bit dogeared here and there, it's still second only to Moscow's with its museumlike stations. Taxis are always there, but expensive.

To test your sea legs, board an ``Under the Bridges of Stockholm'' tour boat docked in front of the Grand Hotel. From here you are swept from the briny Baltic, through the locks to freshwater Lake M"alaren, under a few of the 40 bridges, and back again. No surprise that Stockholm is called the ``Venice of the North.''

There are many other boat tours as well, but this one covers the most area.

One eminently and exclusively walkable area is Gamla Stan - Stockholm's ``Old Town.'' Start in front of the pompous statue of Gustav III across from the Royal Palace. Wend your way up to the Great Church. This is where Swedish royalty is christened, crowned, and married. Be sure to see the enormous 500-year-old, carved wooden statue of St. George putting the coup de gr^ace on a very nasty, prickly dragon.

Gamla Stan is etched with a series of charming, narrow, Saab-free, lantern-lit streets. Tall stucco buildings, in warm shades of ocher, dating from the 16th to 18th centuries, house some of Stockholm's finest artisans, chic boutiques, and best restaurants. It's tiny and touristy, but there are quiet pockets here and there.

Certainly the most quiet place to slip into is Riddarholm Church. Beneath the lacy, iron spire rest centuries of Swedish royalty - save Christina - Sweden's only Roman Catholic queen, who is interred at the Vatican.

From Gamla Stan it's just a short hike across a bridge to Stadshuset - Stockholm's handsome, red brick City Hall. Overlooking Lake M"alaren, it has been hailed as one of the most magnificent pieces of 20th-century architecture. The Nobel prizes are handed out here in the Golden Hall - a cavernous room studded with 18 million golden mosaics. You don't have to receive a Nobel prize to be dazzled here. Be sure to take a tour and don't leave without taking an elevator up the 348-foot tower for a gull's-eye view of the Old Town and the new city as well.

Tucked below in the cellar is wonderful little medieval-looking restaurant - Stadhusk"allaren - open only from 11 to 5. The perfect spot for lunch.

On the way back, stop in at the Royal Palace. It's a massive, intimidating, rather gloomy affair from outside. But like a geode, there's a lot of glitz within its incredible 608 rooms. Filled with centuries of royal chattel, suites for visiting dignitaries, armor, and the opulent Karl XI gallery, it's an eyeful if your feet hold out.

If you can't see it all, at least see the Royal Treasury and the exhibit of coaches and sleighs at the Royal Armory. Gamla Stan is only one thumbnail-size area of a half-dozen streets in this stunning city.

Rest up at Kungstr"adgarden (King's Garden) before stopping in for a staggeringly sumptuous smorgasbord at Operak"allaren, Stockholm's most famous restaurant.

Then head off to see the Wasa. Certainly you couldn't leave Stockholm and not see this remarkable vessel that lay submerged for 333 years before being raised in 1961. It sank just minutes after launching and is now being restored at its temporary quarters on Djurgarden.

Besides, there are museums to take in while on the way. Especially Skansen, the world's first theme park, a sort of open-air museum featuring an ethnographic exhibit of Swedish life in the mid-19th century. Plus a zoo. Plus there's dancing here at night.

On second thought, better do all that tomorrow. If you go

Pick up maps, city guides or a Stockholm Card at the Tourist Center, Sweden House, Kungstr"adgarden. The cost of the card depends on how long you purchase it for. With it you have free public transportation, free parking, and entrance to about 50 attractions, including sightseeing and museums.

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