By Cindy Bigras
Despite what you may have heard, Sweden in December is not a land of 24-hour darkness; Santa Lucia brings light to all of Scandinavia each year on December 13, and so begins the Christmas season. Gingersnaps and saffron buns are the day’s traditional complement to the morning coffee.
Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, has become a Christmas destination bathed in the soft glow of Santa Lucia’s candles. It begins when a young lady in each town across Sweden is crowned.
She appears throughout the season with her entourage of handmaidens and in some cases young men, performing in churches, shopping centers, and other public venues. The young women wear white angelic robes tied with wide blue sashes and carry candles to light the way.
Lucia herself wears a crown of candles and holds her hands together in prayer. The music is hauntingly beautiful, sung in either Swedish or English. Such was my introduction to Christmastime in Sweden.
My beau, Max, and I arrived in Sweden with one goal — to experience Christmastime in a foreign land; I would write the story, he would post the blogs and man the camera. Our week in Gothenburg gave us opportunity to feel the sense of community and talk with many Swedes about their beloved city.
Upon arrival at Gothenburg’s Landvetter airport, travel to the city is easy – take the Flygbussarna! peopletravel.se. The bus departs every 15-20 minutes – for 70 kronor (about $10) you’ll be taken to the center of Gothenburg.
Conveniently, one of the first stops was our hotel — the Elite Park Avenue elite.se. Part of a Swedish chain, the hotel met our criteria of being centrally located on the Kungsportsavenyn, or simply, the Avenue.
It is close to the museums, the library, the FOREX currency exchange office forex.se and plenty of shopping. The Gothenburg passes were our admission to many museums and public transport. Get yours at the tourist office on the Avenue or in hotels and tourist spots and then set off to explore this charming city.
God Jul (Merry Christmas!)
Gothenburg has done an impressive job marketing itself as a Christmas destination; facades of municipal, commercial and private buildings are bathed in light each evening, trees lining the avenues are outlined in thousands of blue bulbs, fresh garlands and wreathes are strewn everywhere.
Icicles, wrapped parcels and music in public spaces complete the scene. Ice skating in the center of town is a festive delight; everyone wears red Santa suits!
Too cold to skate? Warm your hands at the fire pits surrounding the rink, and warm your innards with a cup of glogg, mulled red wine containing 10% alcohol served only during the Christmas season. You’ll be given raisins and almond; add these to the cup for an extra treat!!
Don’t leave too soon — the living Christmas tree is about to perform. Dozens of adults and children scamper to their places on the triangular frame –- all wearing green capes, red caps and red scarves. During the season, this “tree” performs several shows of traditional Christmas carols in English and Swedish.
Walking back to the hotel we notice a jovial crowd accompanying us; everyone is headed to the Art Museum (Konstmuseum) for the Christmas multimedia show; upbeat music accompanies images projected on the museum’s façade. Tinkerbell opens, followed by dancing geometric Santas and snowmen, Indian women in saris, spaceships carrying aliens, Mozart and his wife arriving on a train, flowers and pop singers. Wow! This is not your father’s Christmas!
Kronhuset is the city’s oldest official building and houses a traditional Christmas market. It’s conveniently located in the city’s center and features work of local artisans, and performances of traditional folk dancing to lively music of fiddles and flutes. We watched the blacksmith pound out hooks and buckles with tools heated in his portable wood-fired, hand-cranked forge.
Haga, the city’s oldest area, has its own Christmas market as well as numerous cafes where tradition is to get a fika (Swedish for coffee and a cinnamon bun).
Gothenburg has close to 200 cafes, amazing for a city of less than 500,000… attesting to the country’s position as one of the highest per capita coffee consumption rates in the world.
But don’t expect to find many cafes with wifi because Swedes go to cafes for socializing, not internet. Wifi is available free at the Condeco cafes scattered throughout the city or, if you don’t mind waiting in line, you can use the computers at the library on the Avenue near the Museum.
Perhaps the largest Christmas market in all of Scandinavia is found at the Liseberg amusement park which opens each afternoon during the season. Five million twinkling lights outline the park’s hundreds of trees creating an otherworldly warmth.
A limited number of rides and games operate to the delight of the children. (We passed on rotating teacups in December temperatures!) For adults there are 80 booths selling crafts, an ice house serving drinks in ice glasses, fire pits and of course glogg.
This is an ideal place to get your tomte, the traditional Swedish gnome historically entrusted with protecting homes and families year round but within the last century he has become credited with Santa-like activities. He’s quite recognizable throughout Sweden — look for the long red stocking cap! Before leaving Liseberg, take a ride to the top of the tower to view the wonderland of lights sparkling in the Swedish night.
What about Swedish Cuisine?
I confess that prior to visiting Gothenburg my experience of Swedish cuisine was limited to meatballs at IKEA. This called for an introduction to other traditional favorites. The restaurant Smaka (smaka.se) which means “to taste” in Swedish, was the scene of my first smorgasbord.
We were guided through this experience by Bjorn, our attentive waiter and host. We sampled knackebrod (flatbread made of rye flour), inlagd (six different varieties of pickled herring), surstromming (fermented herring), janssons (old Swedish recipe of anchovies, potatoes, and onions), smoked eel, marinated and smoked salmon, oven baked ham, ham smoked on bricks, venison pate’ and smoked sausage. Bjorn also brought a sampling of six local aquavits to wash it all down.
Seafood and shellfish are staples of traditional Swedish cuisine; herring has a dense consistency and takes on the flavor of the sauce in which it has been pickled. You’ll also find a variety of game from the nearby forests. This is comfort food — good, hearty fare to get you through the Scandinavian winter.
The Saluhallen market on Kungstorget is where locals go to buy groceries and eat lunch. The restaurants inside the market building are varied – Stand 46, Alexandras, serves soup; Restaurant Till Salu serves traditional fare and the day’s special is the way to go because of its nutritional balance and affordability. Most of their ingredients are from the Saluhallen market. This is where I encountered Swedish meatballs, mashed potatoes and lingonberries, a less tart, delicious cousin of the American cranberry!
Another dining option for a special evening is Avenyn No. 1 (avenyn1.se) located on the Avenue across from the skating rink. Opened in July 2006, the restaurant is upscale and the décor is elegant.
The menu offerings include mushroom soup, veal carpaccio, reindeer, salmon, and chocolate mousse. Because Sweden has no domestic wines you’ll have ample offerings from abroad.
There is a more casual section on the first floor so that they can offer their high-end cuisine in this relaxed setting. They told us that they often see Americans in town to pick up a Volvo at the local carmaker’s headquarters in Gothenburg.
Linnegatan is a bustling neighborhood located about 30 minutes by foot from our hotel. Candles shine in nearly every window of the residential buildings lining the wide avenues. Heat lamps and radiant floor heat enable many restaurants to serve guests outside, even in late December. The entrance to each shop or restaurant is flanked by large windproof candles mounted on cast iron frames, lighting the way inside.
We had ventured to Linnegatan for tapas at La Sombrita, a recommendation from one of the local Swedes we met. Yes, tapas in Sweden! We were embraced by the warmth of a diverse crowd and cozy atmosphere. Was that a group of Brazilian soccer players clustered at the bar? Don’t skip a visit to this gem… not only was the atmosphere lively, the food and sangria were fantastic.
Thorskogs Slott is located 35 minutes north of Gothenburg in what was part of Norway until 1658. This privately owned resort is ideal for a wedding or corporate retreat but also offers pampering to individuals and couples looking for a getaway!
The place was aglow as our taxi pulled up, and we were welcomed in to an elegant scene: fires burned in each fireplace, candles adorned the mantles and tables. Each bedroom was individually decorated in elegance… and above our bathtub hung a chandelier with real candles providing a soft, natural glow.
(The wireless connection was all Max needed to immediately post a blog about the place). A perfect spot for R&R, you’ll be encouraged to stroll around the grounds, take the afternoon tea, or relax in the fire-heated wooden hot tubs surrounded by kerosene lanterns, visit the saunas, or go trap shooting on the grounds.
Just be sure to return for dinner as it will surely be one of your finest meals in Sweden. Herring, salmon, mushroom broth with lobster tail, reindeer steak (tastes a bit like good beef), schnapps, wine, special Christmas beer… all prepared and served to perfection! We were seated with Swedish guests, providing us an unexpected opportunity to meet more locals and learn about the city.
Meeting the Locals
By far our favorite part of Sweden was the Swedes themselves and opportunities like this give us a chance to put form to our own impressions. Everyone speaks English fluently, attributed mostly to the fact that Swedish television broadcasts British and American programs in English with subtitles. Imported products and video games require users to learn everyday modern English.
Andreas Kjellgren and Elin Wallinder, art director and architect respectively, invited us to their home to discuss lifestyle, technology, and the midsummer holiday when Swedes take to the forest to celebrate the longest day of the year.
Max hasn’t stopped talking about the 3G phone Andreas showed us, his portal to the world. Swedes may not go to cafes to log on but with their cell phones they are completely wired to the world. Cell phone technology is far more advanced in Europe than in the US, probably partially due to the government’s involvement in requiring all systems to be compatible.
All the Swedes we met use their cell phones regularly to surf the internet, and they do so at a fraction of the price paid by Americans! (Internet speeds of 10 and 12 megabits are common there, and in some offices people surf at 100 mps.)
We talked about Sweden’s history of non-intervention, the freedom and security net that was shattered in 1986 with the assassination of Olaf Palme and the more recent assassination of foreign minister Ann Linde.
Bo Kjellberg, a high tech entrepreneur who studied in Hawaii, shared thoughts about Sweden’s tax system, and the wonderful benefits available to Swedes. He feels Swedes have fewer worries because tax revenues provide childcare, university education, ample vacation time, parental leave and he wouldn’t have it any other way. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Tina Lagerstrom, editor of the Gothenburg’s free daily newspaper, “City”, loves Gothenburg because the second largest city’s character is often different from the largest, in any country. She describes Gothenburg as a small town in a big city, evidenced by the creativity and camaraderie of all parties working together to accomplish things such as the promotion of the city as a Christmas destination. Advertisers, city planners, board members, media, have all worked together to realize this.
Ingrid Johansson, our tour guide one morning, accompanied us to the city’s center and all-important port –- the largest in Scandinavia. Once an important shipbuilding site, the port is still active with shipping commerce. The maritime museum features more than a dozen floating boats.
The city is attempting to capitalize on the port and Gota River by building underground highways thereby making way for residential properties along the riverfront. The water views will be fantastic in this urban setting.
She told us about the 1000 or so islands that dot Sweden’s west coast, suggested we take a ferry to one of the inhabited islands, showed us the East India House built in the mid 1700s as office and storage space for the important trade between Gothenburg and China.
The importance of trade between Gothenburg and China cannot be underemphasized. For more than 80 years locals sailed east and didn’t return for nearly 18 months, bringing with them spices, tea, and silk.
Before departing Gothenburg, I buy a box of heart-shaped gingersnaps at the 7-Eleven. They are the best gingersnaps I’ve ever eaten. Remembering the tradition explained by our waiter at Smaka, I lay a cookie in the palm of my left hand and poke it with my right index finger. If it breaks into three sections I’ll be granted three wishes. I don’t know if this is Swedish tradition or his own imaginative game, but of course I try it with my cookies and am thrilled that I’ll be granted hundreds of wishes.
Our plane lifts off the runway as I reach for the last one. It is still dark at 8:00 a.m. in Gothenburg, but when our plane rises above the cloud cover there is sunshine everywhere, and a bright red horizon to the east. The soft northern light is about to arrive in Gothenburg.