Head for Heights

Determined to conquer his fear of heights, Peter Geoghegan signed up for a rooftop tour of Stockholm. But could sweeping views of the beautiful Swedish capital cure him? (From Ryan Air magazine, May 2011).

A couple of days before I left for Stockholm, Veerle, my rooftop tour guide, had sent me a pithy, one-line email: “Don’t forget your diaper.” Swedes are known for their dark sense of humour, but, as I inch along the edge of the Old Parliament’s roof, I can’t help but wonder if she really was joking. “See all those people,” Veerle smiles, as she points at a sea of bobbing blonde heads far below. “We are 43m above them!” My throat is bone dry, my palms soaking wet, and the nearest clean underwear is back in my hotel room at the Clarion Sign.

Most European city tours don’t begin in the dusty loft of a centuries-old building, but then again this isn’t your typical leisurely jaunt around picturesque Stockholm. Our group of around 25 hardy souls meets on the tiny island of Riddarholm, a cobblestone’s throw from the fabled old-town district, Gamla Stan. From here the only way is up. After a short elevator ride to the top of the impressive former Riksdag, we each get a harness, a comprehensive safety talk, and a hefty dose of panic (at least, I do). Veerle, however, doesn’t do fear. Lean and athletic, she looks like she’s spent the last five years on the roof of the Old Parliament building in all weather, roaming about, carefree. Which, of course, she has.

“Now you’re ready for the roof!” Veerle exclaims, slamming a white plastic hard hat onto my unwilling head, before politely but firmly ushering me towards the small staircase that leads directly onto the open roof. Strict safety rules are adhered to, and you have to be at least 1.5m (4.9ft) tall. But nevertheless my heart starts palpitating wildly as soon as I step out.

Fear of heights is remarkably common, and acrophobia (unlike vertigo) is a purely psychological condition. However, most sufferers aren’t in the habit of taking rooftop strolls on one of the Swedish capital’s most iconic buildings.

Six floors up, the wind is noticeably stronger than it was back on terra firma. Already, I am regretting the horseradish schnapps knocked back after dinner in Matbaren the previous evening. Luckily, help is at hand. “You will be walking the dog,” Veerle says, as she attaches the cable that runs from my harness to a fixed line that follows a foot-wide metal catwalk. This pathway runs for 300m up, across and down the rooftop, covering roughly the same distance as a city block. If anything happens then the bulky safety cable connected to my harness will save my bacon – or at least that’s the plan.

Our group is split into two – English and Swedish – and I file in at the back of the former, silent and rather sullen, looking for all the world like a reluctant miner. However, with a supporting rail to hang onto for dear life and our friendly guide, Inger, at the head of the troop, I begin to warm up (metaphorically speaking – it’s freezing on the roof). I also get to enjoy the spectacular views across one of Scandinavia’s, and indeed Europe’s, most breathtakingly beautiful cities.

Stockholm is built on 14 separate islands in Riddarfjärden bay, where Lake Mälaren meets the Baltic Sea, and its nickname, the Venice of the North, is just about the only predictable thing about this diverse, exciting city. On the ground, Gamla Stan, which dates back to the 13th century, is a warren of medieval alleyways and cobbled streets. From the air the old town is transformed into a huddled mass of traditional black roofs. Once home to about 9,000 inhabitants, today barely 3,000 remain but the island still boasts some pretty influential residents. As Inger explains, the Swedish flag fluttering in the breeze over imposing Stockholm Palace signifies that the King is in Sweden, although even from 40m up it’s impossible to tell whether he is at home in his palatial pad or not.

Shimmying along the roof a little further, the trendy Södermalm district comes into view. This old working-class neighbourhood has undergone a massive revival in the last 10–15 years and today Söder (which means south) boasts a plethora of funky shops, hip bars and good restaurants. In fiction, it’s also home to Lisbeth Salander, the girl with the dragon tattoo in Stieg Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy. Brave and pugnacious Lisbeth would make light work of a little rooftop ramble – unfortunately I am made of much weaker stuff.

Creeping from the southern side of the Old Parliament building to the west, the handrail finishes. My nerve quickly follows suit. Despite the wind, beads of cold sweat begin to hang on my brow as I shuffle across the roof ’s edge.

“This is the tricky part, but don’t worry, it’s not too hard,” Inger says as she skips with nonchalant ease between the front and the back of our group. Everyone seems to agree, moving quickly along, stopping only to snap pictures and to chat to one another. Everyone except me. Beating a pace that a snail would be ashamed of, I try my best not to look down.

I fail. Far below me, I watch a train disgorge passengers at Gamla Stan station. They seem so tiny, so far away. Dizzy, my pen slips from my clammy hand (what was I hoping to write – ‘save me’?). It bounces down the roof, almost in slow motion, before silently falling six floors to the ground. If I couldn’t empathise with James Stewart’s character in Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo before, I certainly can now.

In the distance, the three gold-plated crowns on the summit of the stately City Hall glisten in the evening light. Here, on 10 December every year, the Nobel Prize winners’ banquet is held. Unfortunately, I’m too busy concentrating on staring straight ahead to pay it much attention right now. “Don’t worry, you’re almost there,” Inger assures me, but the remaining track feels more like 40 miles than 40m. Resisting (just) the temptation to get down on my hands and knees and crawl to the finish line, I keep on walking. Slowly. Very slowly.

The rest of my group have long finished by the time I limp home – some are standing around taking photographs of nearby Riddarholm Church, the venerable burial place of Swedish monarchs until 1950; others are already getting changed, but I don’t care. About 45 minutes after we started I have completed a full circuit of the roof. And it feels amazing.

“You did it!” Veerle exclaims, slapping me hard on the back. I smile broadly, trying not to look too proud. Out to the west the setting sun shimmers on the still waters of Riddarfjärden bay. It’s my first photograph from the roof.

Half an hour later, minus the harness and the hard hat, I stop for a well-deserved glass of aquavit in a bar in Gamla Stan, to celebrate conquering my fear. From my seat at the window, the Old Parliament building is clearly visible. Clouded in semi-darkness, the roof now seems impossibly, frighteningly high. Was today a fantastic experience? Definitely. Did I leave my fear of heights behind in Stockholm? Not quite.