Thursday-Tuesday, August 2-7, 2018
As I’ve mentioned before, other cruisers’ notes provide an excellent resource when exploring new areas. The information comes from online articles, sailing organizations’ websites, and conversations boat-to-boat. Reviewing the boatload (pun intended) of information landed us on Aspo, an island described as a gem by fellow visitors.
One reason for making this our destination was Aspo’s location relative to Karlskrona, Sweden’s primary naval port since the late 1600s. King Charles XI relocated the navy from Stockholm because the spring ice thaw arrived earlier than in the Stockholm Archipelago further north.
In 1998 Karlskrona, also on an island, became a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its Baroque architecture and town layout, the naval dockyard, and the military fortifications. Displays at the maritime museum (yes, another one of those!) explains how the Swedish navy became such a force on the Baltic, something I’ll get into later (oh, lucky you…).
But, back to Aspo. Sitting at the entrance to Karlskrona, this small island played a fascinating role in Swedish history. Thanks to another island (Kungsholm)1200 meters (3/4 mile) directly opposite Aspo, the Swedes constructed two forts each loaded with cannon shooting balls halfway to one another. Grouped at different heights, the cannons had more of a chance to hit a moving target, ie a ship.
This 17th-century map shows the two islands (Aspo is on the right) with Karlskrona at the bottom.)
Max is demonstrating his juvenile side. And, if you can tear your eyeballs away from him, you may spot JUANONA in the background on the right.
In short, any hostile vessel attempting to reach Karlskrona had to first pass through this double line of fire.
Drottingskar Citadel was designed by the military architect Erik Dahlbergh (1625-1703) who also planned the new town of Karlskrona. Built over fifty years (1680s-1730s) it’s an impressive stone building enhanced with walls, ramparts and a moat.
Several blueprints of the structure explain the different parts, which I tried to keep straight to no avail.
However, I did wonder about the high ceilings on the top (third) floor compared to such low ones on the other two floors. I later discovered the height allows the air to clear from all the smoke from the cannons lined up down the length of the building.
Along with its cousin across the way, Aspo’s citadel stood as a major deterrent – so much so that it was never involved in a battle! Admiral Nelson was reputed to have deemed it impenetrable.
The Brits weren’t the only foreign powers who avoided this bristling gauntlet of guns. OSupposedly, when Russian forces refused to attack Karlskrona because of having to sail through the strait, Catherine the Great furiously exclaimed, “If it wasn’t for that grey louse, I would soon capture Karlskrona.” The ‘grey louse’ being the low and wide, grey-stone Drottingskar Citadel.
Erik Dahlberg, if he’d been alive then, would have loved hearing that. As it was, he was so pleased with the outcome of Drottingskar he proclaimed “there can hardly be a more beautiful citadel along the entirety of the coasts of Europe.” Obviously, not shy about blowing his own horn (shooting his own cannon?), he commissioned a plaque for the entrance identifying who designed the fortress. If you notice, his name is as large as the king’s…
Yet, Dahlberg has been linked to the famous French military engineer, Maquis de Vauban (1633-1707). He’s the guy known for his brilliance in siege craft and fortification design. If you’ve stood in a fort in France, there’s a good chance it was one of the 37 new ones he constructed or one of the 100 he renovated.
Decommissioned in 1871, Drottingskar operated as a military barracks and store. Unchanged (except for a restaurant in the commander’s little house in the middle of the fort) and undamaged, this citadel is a fascinating part of Karlskrona’s UNESCO designation.
We didn’t know any of this until we toured Aspo. We weren’t even sure we’d be able to dock at this island because only one small boat club offered a few (six) guest moorings. The alternative being a large city marina in Karlskrona, we decided to at least stop on our way and check it out. Good choice!
Not only did a prime spot alongside the outer wall offer an easy landing,
we had a kind young man offer to help with our lines. Which is how we met Fines (accent over the “e”) and Hanna.
Sharing cups of coffee with them we found out he’s from Miami (originally from Cuba) and she’s Swedish. They both are interested in cruising, with Fines living on his boat back in the U.S. In the midst of applying for visas (Swedish for him, US for her) they were taking a friend’s sailboat for a shakedown cruise. Always great meeting people such as them. Just wish there were more opportunities to re-meet later.
Taking a photo in our cockpit,
Hanna then offered to take some with their Polaroid. With a tripod and this little camera loaded with individual photo cards, she commemorated our meeting.
The club reminded us of our Orr’s-Bailey Yacht Club, also operated all by volunteers.
When paying for our nights there, we’ve met several members as each one takes a turn during the summer to staff the office. One was a history buff, and I’m sorry I didn’t have more time to speak with him but a needed shower took priority.
We saw a lot of these hybrids of motor bike and wheel barrow, which would have been fun to use.
But, bikes were what was available. So, we rented those during our stay. We toodled around the island, not really knowing where we were heading (in spite of a map).
Along the relatively car-free roads we spotted painted posts topped with small signs.
One of the more memorable ones described how a large stone served as a stopping point halfway between the church and the other side of the island. A story attached to the stone described how a priest saved this piece of rock by paying a stone cutter not to use it for building a road. It was a nice stone…
Being an important military location, the citadel was only the first defensive construction on Aspo. During WWII and the ensuing Cold War Sweden loaded up the area with guns and underground structures. We stopped at one only to learn the two steel doors we were standing in front of
led to the atomic fall-out shelter of the central command four stories down (!). And, it’s still operational along with one of the three guns (minus ammunition), the electric generators, sleeping quarters, kitchen, eating facilities, medical quarters, workshops and much more.
NOTE: Sweden, once the buffer between Russia and part of Europe, stands ready. Its military conscription, begun in the 19th century and abolished in 2010, was just recently reinstated (2017). The reason? Not enough citizens signing up for military service and ‘a change in security situation in the world’ (noted on a display at the Maritime Museum). With the mounting tensions in the Baltic (we’ve heard of joint naval exercises occurring in this sea), no surprise to read of Sweden’s preparation for any unknown crisis cropping up.
Thinking these gun batteries and underground forts were all the military items we’d see on Aspo we discovered the Museum for Mobile Coastal Artillery.
Appropriately camouflaged (or so it seemed to us who’d ridden by the dirt road into this site at least once before) we stumbled upon the museum after following a cycle path through the woods and spotting some big guns.
Paying our entrance fee we were handed an English translation by one of the two seemingly ex-military reception guys and began to wander through a large warehouse of artillery and support equipment. Three small rooms off to the side provided a historical background documented by portraits of former commanders, photographs of soldiers, some history of the MCA (my abbreviation), and citations. We moved pretty quickly through those rooms soon returning to the main part of the exhibit.
Even with the English notes I wasn’t sure exactly what I was looking at. Of course, part of the non-understanding was I really didn’t care too much about seeing guns, trucks and accessories.
That was until one of the museum guys (definitely ex-military) headed our way. Thankfully, his explanations turned the drab objects into a technicolor of–to me–’OMGs’. For instance, initially all I saw was a big ole army truck with a big ole gun decorated with leaves.
Yet, he told us the ‘bullets’ it shot could travel up to 30 kilometers…
while heading for a target precisely identified using radar and laser equipment.
He pointed out a vehicle with a photo mounted in front. Turned out this was one of the many abandoned trucks, etc., on Omaha Beach rescued from rusting to death by the Swedes. They repaired them and then drove over a 100 of the vehicles up to Sweden to use for defense.
Another reminder of how a human voice can add a lot to one’s enjoyment of a site.
Our time on Aspo wasn’t all filled with weapons of destruction and times of war. One fine day (actually all of them have been fine with many a bit too hot) we cycled to a possible swimming hole on the other side of the island. Deciding another beach would be better but this one a perfect picnic spot we plopped ourselves down and pulled out some delicious tuna-fish sandwiches.
Which always reminds us of Chris and Karina who share our hankering for this meal, especially when by the water.
Checking out two other swimming sites we returned to JUANONA and simply jumped off the boat, checking for any errant jellyfish prior to diving in. In the heat this water was a godsend. Always refreshing and never so salty that you felt encrusted afterwards. Some cruisers said they didn’t even feel the need to rinse off.
Not moi. As far as I’m concerned, any salt travelling on one’s body from deck to cabin leaves a trail of moisture-capturing crystals that can turn a non-sticky seat cushion or bedsheet into a humid hot potato. For that reason I always use fresh water, which is how I ended up taking buckets from the nearby water spigot on the dock to douse myself with lovely clean, salt-free water.
Yet, it was on one of those occasions that I noticed a snake slithering from one side of the dock to the other. Even if it was no thicker than a pencil or longer than a ruler it still counted as a snake, enough to make me keep a look out whenever traipsing from our boat to the club located on the other side of the harbor…
Aspo offered plenty of cycling routes, one where Max played Forest Ranger to clear a recently fallen tree.
Having read about a cemetery holding victims from the bubonic plague we just had to find it. After all, we will never miss an MDT (Max Disaster Tour) opportunity…
Not really finding it we did see an old tree with a navigational beacon mounted on it. A plaque nearby explained seafarers used this tree at least since the mid-1800s to navigate to Karlskrona.
Definitely true as the government purchased it in 1861 to ensure this navigational mark remained operational. We didn’t see it from the water as our course pointed in the other direction.
During our bike rides we kept noticing a sign stuck in front of many homes on the west side of Aspo.
Curious we finally broke down and did a Google Translate. Still puzzled, we asked one of the Swedes about the phrase. He smiled and said, yes, it means ‘Fiber for the Future’ – fiber optic cable is coming to your street. At that, Max and I both laughed as HE thought it meant fiber as in eat-your-cereal-fiber’s-good-for-you and I thought it meant use-local-yarn-as-our-fiber-cottage-industry-is-important. Hah! You’d think we were Luddites!
With the winds aligned for making our way to Copenhagen we left for Simrishamn, a port on the coast 53 miles southwest. And, I’ll write about that soon but next up… where the ferry rides from Aspo took us… :)