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Canal Zones : Sampling Scenery, Grand Cuisine and History on Three European Waterways : Sweden's Gota Canal

May 26, 1991|LINDA DEUTSCH | Deutsch is a writer with the Associated Press in Los Angeles. and

GOTEBORG, Sweden — See the world and see it fast has been my travel motto. Planning all-too-brief vacations, my first question had always been: "What's the fastest way to get there?"

Then friends told me about a trip that sounded strangely alluring: a slow voyage on a vintage steamboat through Sweden's historic Gota Canal. The trip promised pastoral scenery, short excursions into fairy-tale villages, gourmet Swedish food and four days of going about 5 m.p.h. Seeing Sweden at a snail's pace seemed like the ultimate challenge for a person who lives in the L.A. fast lane. Could I turn off the ignition and zone out for four whole days?

And this wasn't my biggest fear. I get seasick just watching the tide go out, and past boat trips had produced disastrous results. Once, I had to be carried off a sailboat after a short cruise around San Francisco Bay.

But I had not seen Scandinavia before and, for once, time was not of the essence. Choppy waters were unlikely in the canal, so this cruise seemed to offer the romance of sailing without the drawbacks.

These thoughts were on my mind as I climbed aboard the Wilhelm Tham on a sunny day last August in Goteborg, a seaport city on Sweden's west coast. Our steamer would cross lakes Vanern and Vattern, make brief stops in the canal-side towns of Trollhattan, Motala, Forsvik, Vadstena and Soderkoping, progress up Sweden's east coast, cross part of Lake Malaren and ultimately dock in Stockholm on the Baltic Sea, one of the most beautiful ports in the world. Passengers who choose to do so can reverse the process, boarding the ship in Stockholm and cruising the same route back to Goteborg.

Unlike the cruise ships and ferries that ply other Swedish waters, the three historic steamboats that cruise the canal are the only commercial vessels small enough to navigate its narrow confines and many locks. The boats were custom-built beginning in 1874 to fit these locks, and sometimes it's a tough squeeze that tests the captain's navigating abilities.

My anti-seasickness patch was securely in place behind my ear as insurance against mal de mer . My traveling companions smiled indulgently, but wondered aloud whether anyone had ever gotten seasick on a canal. They would soon find out.

It seems now that this cruise on a sparkling white, refurbished, turn-of-the century steamboat was a journey in a magic time machine, a "Back to the Future" adventure into a long-ago era before fax machines, fast food and car phones made life such a breathless race.

Our contingent of travelers, all escapees from the rat race, pulled up deck chairs and began to try to relax. This, after all, was to be a trip for reverie.

At first we snapped pictures compulsively. But as the hours passed, our pace slowed. We were floating through an Impressionist painting, the perfect antidote for stress. The boat sometimes crawled along so slowly that we would get off and walk alongside or use one of several bicycles on board to cycle beside our moving hotel.

The Gota (pronounced Yo-ta) Canal has been called the longest and most beautiful park in Sweden. We could see why.

The scenery that drifted past was so lush it seemed painted against the sky. Waterfowl dipped and skimmed over the mirror-clear waters. When the sun glistened on green meadows and farms dotted with yellow and white houses, the countryside was breathtaking.

Sometimes, when the boat stopped, we would be led on little excursions into medieval villages where we could do some walking and learn about the historic canal we were traversing.

The canal, as it is popularly understood, is a 347-mile waterway consisting of rivers, lakes, coastal waterways and canals between Goteborg and Stockholm. More precisely, the Gota Canal proper is the 114-mile section of the route between huge Lake Vanern and the Baltic Sea.

It was built to accommodate shipping in the 17th Century, and has an intricate system of locks that dates back to as early as about 1610. Work on building the locks continued intermittently through the 18th and 19th centuries. Construction of the original canal locks was not completed until 1832, a feat accomplished by 58,000 men, most of them Swedish infantrymen commanded to work on the project. The present lock system, an updated version, was completed in 1916.

The canal's complex network of 65 locks provided one of the best adventures of this steamboat cruise. Lengthy stops were required for lock maneuvers, some of them in the middle of the night. With the creaking and groaning of machinery and water gushing outside, it was an event worth waking up for.

(By then, of course, I wasn't sleeping anyway because the anti-seasickness patches were having a side effect--my mouth was as dry as sandpaper.)

And during daylight lock stops, many of us debarked to watch from the shore their mechanical ballet as the heavy iron gates creaked open and closed, raising and lowering the steamboat, while massive waterfalls poured forth.

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