Uppsala: Sweden’s Historical Heart

IN THE AFTERNOON Yanyan and I make our way further 40 kilometers north to the city of Uppsala, considered to be the historical and spiritual center of Sweden. It’s a city steeped in history as evidenced by the number of buildings from bygone eras in the city center, most notable of which are the cathedral and the university. It’s a popular day trip from Stockholm, though travelers with a bit more time in their hands would do very well to spend at least one night here.

No sooner than my sister and I alight the train do we see the Domkyrkan, the largest church in Nordic Europe, dominating the city skyline. This imposing Gothic structure was built between 1272 and 1435 and is currently the seat of the Church of Sweden. The interior walls are decorated with frescoes depicting King Gustav Vasa, whose reign was notable for his war to liberate Sweden from the Kalmar Union.

Domkyrka’s imposing Gothic structure dominates Uppsala’s skyline.
The Upplandsmuseet contains exhibitions on the history and culture of Uppsala County. The museum is housed in a former water mill building.
The Linnéträdgården, which was laid out by Carl Linnaeus in 1741, contains around 1300 varieties of plants.

Another notable building is the 16th century castle perched atop a hill near the church. It’s not particularly impressive compared to other castles in Europe, but it has nonetheless born witness to important events in Swedish history. More interesting is the botanical garden at the foot of the hill, where more than 10,000 species of plants are handsomely arranged to make for a pleasant afternoon stroll.

In fact, Uppsala has a handful of gardens. North of the city center is the Linnéträdgården,  a loving memento to Uppsala’s favorite son, taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. It’s also one of Sweden’s oldest botanical gardens, established in 1655 by Olof Rudbeck the Elder. This was then rearranged by Linnaeus in 1741, introducing a number of species to the garden. He lived with his family in an adjacent home until his death in 1778, and the house today has been turned into a museum providing a glimpse of the beloved scientist’s life.

The hill where the Uppsala Castle stands overlooks the Botanical Gardens, part of the Uppsala University compounds.
Uppsala’s city center is peppered with gardens where locals gather and engage in various activities.
Three large burial mounds in Gamla Uppsala, 5 kilometers north of the city center, mark the original pagan settlement in the pre-Viking era.

Yanyan and I then head out of the city center to Gamla Uppsala, 10 minutes north by bus. This site was originally founded as a pagan settlement where ancient sacrificial rites by the Svear tribe were carried out. However, the site evolved to be a major administrative center, eventually becoming the religious and political seat of Viking-era Sweden.

The original site of the town is marked by three large mounds, which according to legend, are the burial grounds of three ancient royals (which reminds me of the similar burial mounds in Gyeongju, South Korea). Excavations of one of the hills in 1846 and 1847 revealed the remains of a woman, believed to be a regent in her 20s or 30s when she died.

Imagining the macabre history of the place, in no small part aided by the heavy gray clouds hovering above and the single-digit temperature, a slight chill embraces me. Yanyan and I spend a few minutes strolling along the paths surrounding the mounds before we catch the bus to the train station and return to Stockholm.

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