Sweden’s Surprising Conviviality

Freshly shucked oysters make a breakfast treat in Sweden. Photos by David Yawn.
Freshly shucked oysters make a breakfast treat in Sweden. Photos by David Yawn.

Sweden: Spectacular Scenery, Fine Art, Fine Food, and Surprising Conviviality

By David Yawn

Swedes are private, reserved and formal. They get right down to business after very brief cordialities. So go the business guides which many rely upon for pre-trip advice. Such books are quickly getting outdated, based upon a recent trip to this Nordic country.

People Who like People

The nation recently has garnered much attention recently ranging from Tiger Woods’ nuptials to Swedish model Elin Nordegren to Swedish golfer Annika Sorenstam to recently named Nobel Prize laureate candidates. The Scandinavian country that’s home to Volvo, ABBA, Ericsson, Greta Garbo, Bjorn Borg, Ingrid Bergman, and Pippi Longstocking has curiously not been a customary stop on many Americans’ European travel itineraries or grand tour destinations.

That’s an oversight, judging from the vast treasure house of what this nation offers in terms of scenic fishing villages, ancient rock carvings, gourmet restaurant gems and royal castles, among other sights.

It’s the people who are intriguing at this juncture, though. I found almost no one refused to lend directions when asked. Overall, the lingering perception of frozen personalities walking with determined faces in the land of smorgasbords and Kosta Boda glass does not readily bear itself out these days. In fact, the Swedes seem today to lean more toward carrying the kind of conviviality associated with their nearby neighbors, the Danes.

The whole country still exudes an atmosphere that is at the once liberal, simple and decent – without irony. Streets are clean and neat. Food is crisp, clean and fresh. Ostentation is not part of the deal at all. The state is still close to supreme — yet quite human. Hereditary class distinctions seem subliminal at best. In essence, it is frowned on to boast in this land, even about hard-earned successes in sports or business exploits.

See for Yourself

A week’s tour might logically start on the Western coastal city of Gothenburg( Goteborg) to locals. This city, the second largest in the nation, was founded in 1620 – the same year as our first settlements in Virginia – and began as a shipping port. It remains so to this day, on a much larger scale. However, it also has now turned into a city of universities, museums, conventions, sports events and gastronomy. Its close proximity to a vast countryside of forests and lakes also means that it’s not unusual at all to find moose wandering through town once in a while.

This cultural and entertainment city has many attractions including its opera house, Museum of Art and special exhibition centers. It is also home to Nya Ullevi, Sweden’s largest sport arena and to the Swedish Exhibition Center. One of the more palatial museums is the Nordic Museum built in high Flemish style from 1907 until it was finished around the outbreak of WWI. It has themed galleries housing tens of thousands of objects.

The Swedish royal palace can be seen across the harbor in Stockholm from the Grande Hotel. photos by David Yawn.
The Swedish royal palace can be seen across the harbor in Stockholm from the Grande Hotel. photos by David Yawn.

The main artery of this city is a lively boulevard called the Kungsportsavenyn. Branching off from it is a myriad of narrow pedestrian retail streets and alleys. The cultural center of town is called Gotaplatsen and the historic neighborhood, Haga. Gothenburg’s Art Museum is considered to have the finest collection of Nordic art from around 1900 including masterpieces from Carl Larsson, Anders Zorn and Edward Munch.

Food Glorious Food

Gothenburg is home to many fine restaurants such as Restaurant 28+ (a deluxe eatery with one of the city’s best-stocked wine cellars); Herr Dahls, a new contemporary one, and others. Along the culinary line, don’t miss the Fish Church, shaped like an ecclesiastical building on the outside. Inside this 1874-vintage building on the harbor, the canal is a vast seafood market on the ground floor and a fine, but small restaurant called Gabriel Fish and Seafood Bar on the mezzanine loft.

Popular fares there is the cold seafood buffet with crayfish, crab, herring and other delicacies and on the menu, fish soup with dill, mushrooms, white wine and seafood; chilled shrimp with a sweet taste that only comes from growing slowly in cold Baltic waters, and other dishes.

Some of the primary types of food in this country are seafood in the form of lobster, crab, herring, crayfish and oysters; deer, the smorgasbord (now mainly served during special holidays), Jansson’s Temptation (a casserole of potatoes, onions and cream); lamb, Swedish meatballs, and breads of every conceivable assortment.

See Food

Altogether, there are three chef institutes now in Gothenburg where would-be chefs get experience for apprenticeships.

Just two hours outside Gothenburg along the coastline to the north is the quaint fishing village of Fjallbacka near the Norwegian border in the Bohuslan region. There, veteran sailors now often serve as tour guides. The hospitality nexus of this area is the Stora Hotellet, an old inn featuring 23 rooms decorated in motifs of cities and harbors from around the world.

Each is distinct and some feature explorers such as Marco Polo. From the end of September, Stora Hotellet arranges lobster weekends, which includes “lobster safaris” with local fishermen, followed by a lobster feast at the hotel. Such participatory fishing tours along the coastline are geared toward lobster, crab, mackerel, crayfish, and oyster seasons. Often the boats venture near actress Ingrid Bergman’s summer cottage on a rocky island at Fjallbacka.

While visiting Fjallbacka, travelers might as well venture about 30 minutes onward to the UNESCO-listed Bronze Age rock carvings and museum in nearby Vitlycke, really just a tiny village. There, they have reconstructed Bronze Age houses and a farm near the actual 8,000-year-old rock carvings.

Smorgasbord of Sites

Palace guard in Stockholm.
Palace guard in Stockholm.

Stockholm too is now one of Europe’s leading gastronomic destinations and home to a lively dining scene. It also is a center for Swedish Modern design and interiors, one of the chiefs of which is Svenskt Tenn. The capital city is accessible to Gothenburg via an intercity train that can bridge the distance in about 4 hours.

Beautifully situated on 14 islands that are separate by very broad canals and bays, this city has scenic vistas from almost every direction. The Swedish capital is nestled on Lake Malaren at the point where the fresh water flows into the salt water of the Baltic Sea.

Stockholm itself is home to the Royal Palace and its guard; the Vasa ship museum, scores of other museums, design centers, the Gamla Stan old city (17th and 18th-century vintage) district, botanic gardens, ceramics centers and more.

The palace has some 600 rooms and was started in 1697 and completed in 1754. It is larger than Buckingham Palace. There, one may view the crown jewels of Sweden including crowns, scepters, orbs and a vast collection of enamels of decoration given the monarchs by other heads of state, in addition to the throne room. A gem next to it is the Great Church, which features a giant painted carving of St. George slaying the dragon, crafted four years before Columbus’ voyages.

Vasa Museum

The Vasa Museum is Scandinavia’s most popular with more than 8 million visitors per year. Vasa was a proud warship that sank in the harbor in 1628 and salvaged around 1960. It is magnificently restored in a giant museum building. The Baltic Sea, not being very salty, helped preserve the ship for centuries.

This city isn’t only history – it has transformed itself from a small domestic urban center into a modern, trendy and creative cosmopolitan culture. Its coolest bar is the Icebar at the Nordic Sea Hotel, The world’s first permanent ice bar has a year-round temperature inside of 23 degrees and everything from the furnishings to the glasses is made of pure ice from the Tornealven River in northern Sweden. Guests don silver capes and warm boots during their visits there.

The Nobel Prize ceremony is the pinnacle event, perhaps for Sweden each year where 200 waiters serve 1,200 guests three courses for three hours amid laureate pageantry each December 10 th at Stockholm City Hall. Tourists can elect to dine on Nobel banquet fare of the past any time of the year at the adjoining Stadshuskallaren restaurant.

From rising timberland and lakes for the outdoor-types to lively urban centers for the urban sophisticates, Sweden has abundant sights to satisfy a diversity of tastes and interests — modern and historic, visual and culinary.

David Yawn writes from Memphis, Tennessee.