24 September 2012

Castle Hunting: Slott Kalmar

The Bubonic plague struck Stockholm in 1571, so Johan III, King of Sweden, took his wife and son to Kalmar castle.  They lived there for the better part of two years, cut off from the capital, looking out over a pretty harbor and the calm waters of the Kalmar straight.  The fortress defenses had recently been modernized and strengthened, but the sturdy structure was more utilitarian than palatial.  Time moved slowly.  The King and Queen occupied themselves with construction.  The result is one of the prettiest and oddest castles we've been to, where pavilions and formal gardens once served as backdrops to sieges and cannon fire.
We spent two nights in Kalmar, huddled in pubs as the wind off the Baltic whipped through town. The leaves had just begun to change.  Our room was almost in the shadow of the castle's copper roofs, the moat was just outside our door.  We explored the castle from top to bottom, poking into places we weren't supposed to and walking around the marshy perimeter.
It's rare to see true Renaissance castles.  There are plenty of fortresses built (or renovated) during the Renaissance, and lots of forts that were prettified and turned into palaces during the period. But there are few defensible, Renaissance style castles, and I've never come across one like Kalmar.  What Johan III and Queen Catharine created was a military instillation with all the grace and accents of a fashionable residence.  The interiors are light and luxurious, there are fine carvings and painted woods.  The castle isn't outfitted with a true keep.  Instead, the inner courtyard is fully integrated with its surroundings and the main block was designed as a whole, which meant it couldn't be held beyond the front doors.  It also means that walking around the high-ceilinged rooms is pleasant and easy.  It feels "fit for a king" more than "strong enough for a warlord."
But this is no simple seaside villa.  During the 16th century, Kalmar served as a focal point for the maritime borderlands between Denmark and Sweden.  The Danes controlled the peninsula further south, the Swedes were centered north of the harbor, around Stockholm.  While there had been several agreements (the principle one, the Treaty of Kalmar, was actually signed at the castle in 1397) that had kept Scandinavia intermittently peaceful for a century, the dawn of the 15th century saw renewed hostility and restive borders carved across the region.  Being a crucial trading port - especially with mainland powers Germany and Poland - and being so close to antagonistic Denmark, the fortress needed to be strong.  Being situated on the sea, Kalmar also needed to be ready for the newest floating technology - namely, huge warships loaded with cannons.
An adventure: without realizing that we weren't allowed, we climbed up to the very top of the castle's highest roof.  A door had been left open by a caterer - a banquet was being prepared, things were in some disarray - and we found an intriguing wooden staircase.  Up several flights, through an attic coated with dust and bird droppings, at the top of a rickety scaffolding ladder, there was a door in the ceiling.  It opened.  We stepped up into the wind.  In a lofty cupola (you can see it in other pictures) there was a rudimentary railing and old bell, amazing views, a dangerous drop and a great perspective over the castle courtyard.  After climbing back down, it became clear that the doorway to the attic was usually locked.
The castle's rooms are mostly used as exhibition spaces these days.  History (old robes, plundered furniture, building models) was superseded by a vast collection of Bjorn Borg photographs (why?) and a room of paper cutouts.  Painted, paneled and restored ceilings are the architectural highpoint.  Electric fires radiate weak flickers over every hearth.
Kalmar's harbor was nicknamed "Kättilen," or "Cauldron," because of its depth, which allowed deep-drawing, large boats into its docks.  It's a pretty spot, with tiny islets in the bay and messes of high reeds along the banks.  The grey September water lapped rather peacefully against the rocks - Öland island shelters the site from the worst waves off the Baltic sea.  Significant dwellings have existed there since the stone age, and in the middle ages it was one of the primary ports of Eastern Scandinavia.  The first keep was erected on the castle island around 1200, probably to serve as a garrison and customs house.  A larger complex existed by 1300, with significant walls and separate towers.
Cannons swiftly changed everything about military architecture (I've talked about this in Castello di Trani, Kyrenia Castle, Palamidi Fortress and soaring Kotor ).  In terms of shore defenses, it changed things even more.  Before the advent of gunpowder, all that was needed to defend a port was a garrison of men - ships could only feebly attack land from the water and the real fighting was done once the attackers had come ashore.  After cannon were invented, ships and castles became direct adversaries.
A promenade meanders along the waterside in the present day.  Ducks and a few malevolent swans nest in the salty grass, high sycamores shade a cemetery and museum.  It's all very Scandinavian-peaceful, which is at severe odds with the past. While harbor castles are theoretically better off during a siege - it's hard for an enemy to seal off both the water and the land around a fortress - they are also subject to the full brawn of an opponent's cannon.  Sweden was especially concerned about this fact at the point when the Nordic Union dissolved - a lot of money and expertise went into strengthening and updating the country's medieval castles so that they could withstand gunpowder weapons.
The high old battlements were too delicate for the new cudgeling, so the outer walls of Kalmar, which rise directly from the water, are thick, low and earthen.  They didn't need to be very high, because attacking gun batteries would be firing on a horizontal plane.  Along the top, cannon ramps were installed for moving large guns, and firing stations were established.  Massive bastions were built at the corners, and a gatehouse was positioned at the back, fronting a wide moat.  In essence, the old castle was given a protective booting of sod and stone, and so was freed up to be made more luxurious.
Over the summer of 1611, a long siege and prolonged cannon war - dubbed the "Kalmar War," which is a generously expansive term - saw the castle fall to the Danes.  They captured it from the landward side, after the Swedes and run out of ammunition.  Fighting continued further north, but eventually petered out.  Forces on both sides were relying heavily on mercenaries, but didn't have the funds to pay them - many men were lost to desertion and disinterest.  After England and others put a stop to the flagging conflict, Sweden paid a hefty ransom to regain the castle.
As the new border between the countries was moved southward in a complicated treaty, Kalmar lost a lot of its strategic significance.  It continued for a while as a secondary royal residence, but eventually fell into disrepair.  Before it was spruced up in the 19th century - as a curio - it was reportedly in very bad shape.
An oft overlooked fact is that fortresses and castles were usually built by dreamers or egomaniacs - people who wanted their stone edifices to look impressive and feel imposing.  What we found endearing about Kalmar, in the end, wasn't its location, its grandeur or its sieges.  Castles were built to be fought over, and they were built by people with an eye for drama.  No, what was distinctive here, on the Swedish coast, was that a sixteenth century royal family decided to build a fortress that was both functional and beautiful.
Make no mistake, even in the 1500's, there were plenty of monarchs and low gentry who romanticized the middle ages, even as recent as they were.  They were rapidly taking disused piles and turning them into whimsical, fashionable country homes.  Most "renaissance castles" were built or renovated for show.  At Kalmar, under threat of imminent attack, the King built a true limestone stronghold, then made it livable.  By the cold, dark waters of the Baltic, Sweden has a special treat - a place where function and fancy have been given equal billing.
(And, if you can sneak in, the attics are one of the great castle experiences of Europe!)

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