Everything is going to be OK. Uppsala and the 110-year-old guidebook

Since I often write about trains, some people assume that I am interested in trains. I am not. Trains are crammed, dusty, uncomfortable, full of noise and breadcrumbs and stains and toilets out of order. They wobble and toss from side to side and bring nausea and dizziness. No, I like trains as a symbol. Or rather, the railway. The rail structure, joining together towns big and small, always there, nailed firmly to the ground, ready for ever new trains, connections, journeys, meetings, farewells. Even if many train networks all over Europe presently are ill-kept and threatened by reduction or closure, this structure still gives me the same feeling of security as traffic lights or the postal service. Someone is watching over me, someone sees to that the trains leave on time, that the traffic light turns green, and that my letter reaches you tomorrow morning. The railroad and the lights and the letters seem to tell me that everything is going to be OK.

And I have always been fascinated by railway stations. I love how the morning light falls in one’s eyes on the platform, I love the old station buildings constructed as futuristic iron palaces, I love the smell of oil and dirt, I love the announcements in the loudspeakers. I thrive in the cold and the dust and in the depressing fast-food restaurants because all this means adventure, and as much as I fear unknown surroundings and situations, I paradoxically love the possibility of adventure. The loudspeakers and the platforms and the rails that symmetrically stretches towards the horizon into an eternity perspective tell me that everything is going to be OK and that all roads lie open.

Would an adventurer use a guidebook? I’m not sure. Today I am on a train towards Uppsala, and as usual travelling together with my Baedeker guidebook to Sweden and Norway from 1906. With its small format, red cover and golden lettering it looks like a Bible, and it is immensely entertaining to read about the places I pass by from a 1906 view. The journey between Gothenburg and Stockholm took some 11 hours then, and one had to stop overnight mid-way. Information flies by as fast as the landscape outside the windows. A few lines about each town, the number of inhabitants, any larger industries or historically valuable sights, and, last but not least, railway hotels and railway restaurants if a stop would be necessary. But what good would it do me to know that Alingsås has 3900 inhabitants or that Skövde has a lovely view towards the Billingen mountain? The scant reports seem to fill only one function: to show that the guidebook knows, and so, wherever I go, I am assured that if I keep my guidebook near, everything is going to be OK.

And perhaps that is one of the most important functions of a guidebook. Not to teach us about the places we visit, but to give us a feeling that everything is going to be OK when we encounter strange and new and unknown places. We may very well look into the book now and then to find information about the nearest restaurant or the foundation year of some old church. But most of what we learn on a journey, we may not learn from a guidebook, but from people, papers, signs, discoveries and deduction.

To travel with an over hundred years old guidebook, on the other hand, is a different thing. In this case, one can be rather certain that the guidebook no longer knows, and cannot be turned to for security. Rather, the 1906 guidebook is a door to not only another world, but also what someone in that other world found worthy of notice. And as I find whenever I turn the pages in the Baedeker, things do not really change, or only very slowly.

Uppsala in 1906 had three hotels worth mentioning, to judge from the Baedeker: the City Hotel (Stadshotellet) near the cathedral, and Hotel Svea and Hotel St. Erik near the train station. None of the hotels are preserved today, but the buildings still remain. Ironically, a Hotel Sveva (!) is instead situated in between the old Svea and St. Erik hotels, but housed in a modern building. My favourite place to stay in Uppsala, Grand Hotel Hörnan (and where I write these lines), was built a few years after the guidebook was published, and is thus, for the moment, out of the game.

Grand Hotel Hörnan, Uppsala.

Grand Hotel Hörnan, Uppsala.

The main sights to see in Uppsala were the cathedral (marked with a star – the Baedeker system of pointing out the highlights of a place), the ”new” university building (built 1877–1886), the university library (the Codex Argenteus, one of the treasures of the library, gets a star), the castle (no star for the castle itself, but the view from the castle has a star) and the cemetery. And these sights are quite alive and well even a hundred and ten years later.

Intriguingly, the former owner of the guidebook has marked some places of interest in the margin of the book, but only for Copenhagen, Stockholm and Uppsala. The five must-sees in Uppsala are dutifully marked, and opening hours are underlined. For the cathedral, though, an addition has been made at the plan of the church. A pencil cross at the Bielke/Linden chapel is followed by the explanation: ”Swedenborg”. And as a matter of fact, the bodily remains of the 18th century Swedish scientist-turned-mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, who died in London in 1772, were moved to Uppsala cathedral in 1908, two years after the publication of the guidebook. Probably, the transfer had rather newly been made when our visitor came to Uppsala, and therefore it was noted in the guidebook as a bit of a sensation, or else, our visitor may have been a great fan of Swedenborg and travelled to Uppsala to see his grave. So in this case, the guidebook knew only to a certain extent, and had to be revised by its user.

I would have loved to visit the cathedral with the guidebook, being guided to Swedenborg’s tomb by the anonymous guidebook owner, but time was too short, and instead I crowned my research by having dinner opposite the old hotel Svea, in the midst of the noise of the railway station, just as a traveller in the beginning of the 20th century could have done. And the cathedral, the castle, the university, the library and the cemetery were all still there. Everything was going to be OK.

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