Friday 10 June 2016

The Tour With the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson's Stockholm

Last month I joined a tour of "Scandi noir" TV crime dramas In Copenhagen, Denmark, which I'll be writing about later. The experience reminded me of the time I took the Millennium tour along the mean modernist streets of Stockholm, Sweden. 

As my article about that tour has since disappeared from the Web, here it is again for your enjoyment...

“Over there is where all the bad people live,” says Kirsti Hirvonen. “At least, according to Stieg Larsson.”

Tour guide Kirsti is gesturing across the water from a high point on the island of Södermalm, just south of Stockholm’s picturesque Old Town.

As our group gazes out at the city spread below us, there’s little evil to be seen. On the contrary, it’s a beautiful vista of church steeples, brightly painted historic buildings and cruise boats.

Larsson, however, was the type of novelist who peels back a city’s prim exterior and reveals the sinister truth beneath.

His immensely popular Millennium trilogy of novels, beginning with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, pits crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and socially dysfunctional IT genius Lisbeth Salander against a grimy cast of psychopathic killers, corrupt businessmen, crooked cops and sinister gangsters.

Larsson, who died in 2004 before his novels were published, was himself a journalist who investigated right-wing extremism.

As he lived here in Södermalm, he chose its streets as the setting for the Stockholm sections of his stories, using real addresses and peopling them with good guys such as Blomkvist and his colleagues at Millennium magazine.

The black hats lived over there across the water, in the establishment part of town. Not that it’s all bad – Kirsti points out the distinctive brown-brick bulk of the City Hall, where the Nobel Prize winners each year are celebrated at a lavish banquet.

Our tour group met outside Bellmansgatan 1, the fictional address of Blomkvist. It’s an attractive old building with reddish-brown walls, a pointed tower and planter boxes in the windows.

It looks too expensive for a journo, but Kirsti tells us that the building is actually public housing, and that creative types still live in this area of Sodermalm.

“Söder”, as it’s nicknamed, was once one of the poorest districts in Stockholm, housing many factories and humble working-class homes. However, it’s been thoroughly gentrified in recent decades and is now packed with top-notch restaurants and cutting-edge bars.

As we walk, Kirsti points out locations used in both the Swedish and Hollywood films of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, explaining the differences between the two versions.

She also relays a funny story about the American movie’s director David Fincher, whose Hollywood credentials couldn’t save him from being given a bad table at a local restaurant.

Speaking of which, we then pause outside the Lebanese restaurant Tabbouli, which Larsson tweaked to Bosnian restaurant Samir’s Cauldron in his books. Nearby is Lundagatan, where Salander first lived in a tiny apartment.

According to Kirsti, this ace researcher and surprisingly good fighter was based on Pippi Longstocking, the unconventional, assertive children’s book character created by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren.

The architecture is changing as we move away from the water, revealing big concrete housing blocks from the 1960s.

As we pass them, Kirsti discusses the dispute over the ownership of Larsson’s work since he died, claimed by both his family and his de facto partner. Her useful advice: “If you’re living together and not married, make a will.”

Reaching Hornsgatan, we leave the quiet streets behind for the bustle of a busy commercial road and pause at Mellqvist Kaffebar, a real-life café frequented by Blomkvist in the novels.

In real life Larsson had an office nearby, and it’s easy to imagine him having the inspiration for his stories while enjoying fika (a coffee break) here.

More fiction landmarks follow as we head east past grand art nouveau apartment buildings once owned by wealthy industrialists.

There's Maria Square, an early hangout of Salander; Salvation Tattoo, her favourite tattoo parlour; the synagogue attended by police inspector Bublanski; and the address of the Millennium offices above Gotgatan, a lively pedestrian street.

Plunging into a well-groomed residential quarter, we pass the beautiful St Catherine’s Church to admire the flash apartment building bought into by Salander after she fleeced a dodgy businessman of his billions.

Descending hillside steps to the square in front of Slussen Metro station, I feel the memorable scenes of the Millennium novels have been vividly filled out in my mind by the colours, sounds and smells of Sodermalm’s real-life streets.

And there’s one more treat in store – before she walks off, Kirsti points me to Nystekt Stromming, a van in front of the station which she says serves the city’s best herring burger.

I walk over, order one, and before long am sitting at a plastic table in the late northern summer sunshine, chewing away as I look over the nearby waterway. There’s something fishy going on here, but for once it isn’t happening in the pages of a Larsson thriller.

The Millennium Tour departs 11.30am Saturdays from October to June; then at
6pm Wednesdays and 11.30am Saturdays from July to September. Ticket $20, visit

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