SWEDEN, April 5, 2014 – Build a canal across Sweden? The idea seemed preposterous, though the purpose was simple. It would be a shortcut, designed to expedite iron exports between Stockholm in the east with Gothenburg in the west. It was also intended to avoid exorbitant Danish customs fees for passage through the Oresund Sound
As far back as 1450 B.C. a canal had been built between the Nile and the Red Sea for irrigation purposes. The Gota Canal project had been proposed to connect the Baltic with the North Sea as early as 1526, but it was tabled for financial reasons. The concept did not arise again until 1806 when a Swedish naval officer and government minister, Count Baltazar von Platen, renewed the proposal. Four years later, construction on the Gota Canal began in May of 1810.
For 22 years, 58,000 billeted soldiers, including a company of Russian deserters, toiled 12 hours a day, six days a week with little more than simple hand tools to remove eight million square meters of earth creating the equivalent of a bank that measured 16 feet high and 3 feet wide across Sweden.
Connecting two major inland bodies of water, LakeVattern and LakeVanern, the canal now stretches 87 man-made kilometers from Mem to Gothenburg. Sadly, von Platen died three years before completion and the realization of his dream.
Commercial traffic on the Gota Canal thrived for nearly a century before railways and motorized vehicles diminished its important. However, the death of commerce brought about the birth of tourism and pleasure boating. When the government took over operations in 1978, the canal became and environmental masterpiece overnight, and it has been attracting visitors from all over the world ever since. Today, only tourist boats are allowed and a complete trip takes about four days to go from one coast to the other.
Visitors sail the meandering little channel aboard three refurbished historic ships that ply its waters throughout the summer. Depending upon the ship, capacity ranges from 25 cabins to 29, each with enough space to accommodate 60 passengers. The flagship of the mini-fleet is the Juno, which went into service in 1874. She also has the distinction of being the world’s oldest registered ship with overnight accommodations.
Nearly four decades later the Wilhelm Tham joined Juno in 1912, followed by the Diana, which was built in 1931. Traditional four-day excursions on Juno cruise between Stockholm and Gothenburg, while six-day outings include overnight dockings during the journey.
For passengers seeking only to sample the canal experience, the Diana does sailings from Motala on the shores of LakeVanern to the spa village of Soderkoping. Occasionally there are also special three day weekend cruises which travel between Toreboda and Soderkoping.
Ships are lined with padded tubular cushions along both sides of their hulls as protection from bumps and dings while entering the multitude of locks that often resemble aquatic escalators.
Ships feature a different cabin class on each of their three decks. Due to the narrowness of the canal, shipboard accommodations are necessarily small. The miniature cabins are only slightly larger than a compartment on a train. They include bunk beds and washbasins with hot and cold water, with shared bathrooms and showers on each deck. There are no private facilities in the rooms.
Still, the polished brass, varnished doors and cozy surroundings create an intimate, romantic ambience throughout, and the postage-stamp facilities quickly yield to a picturesque travel experience that will never be forgotten.
All meals are included and served in the beautifully appointed dining room. For socializing, passengers gather in the salon. There is also a small library aboard each ship.
Some may find the slow pace of an excursion on the Gota Canal boring. Others might have difficulty adapting to the Lilliputian size of the cabins. But for a world-weary traveler, the calm and serenity of gracefully sailing through seemingly untouched scenery with no perceptible deadline along a panoramic ribbon of water is alluring. As one passenger said, “This is one very impressive ditch.”
He didn’t know how right he was for the Gota Canal is an opportunity to cruise through time and space, floating through the past while savoring the joys of a simpler era. Not only does it pass through ever-changing scenery with 65 bridges and 58 locks, the canal also offers fascinating insights into Swedish history. The Gota Canal can be counted among an ever-dwindling list of discoveries that travelers frequently seek, but rarely encounter.
The canal is a friendly place where its narrow width allows walkers who stroll along the towpath to engage in conversation with passengers as if they are lifelong friends. Or, if passengers choose, they can disembark during stops at locks and reboard the ship when it reaches the next water level.
Vapor steams from a mirror-smooth surface, enhancing shoreline reflections with dual images. Columns of sheep stroll along the water’s edge while birds glide silently upon unseen currents of air and deer graze in the distance. Passengers become intent on catching a glimpse of a finch or a wren or a nightingale while others identify each wildflower that comes into view; daisies, buttercups, and peonies. Mother Nature is in charge, and she will not be hurried for she is solace for all things.
The Gota Canal is the ideal way to explore the soul of a country by surrounding yourself in the wonder of nature known as the “Blue Ribbon of Sweden.”
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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