Sweden may not be high on the list of chic holidays to impress your neighbours with, but it’s a feast of coastal pleasures, including some of the finest seafood this side of the Atlantic. It also has the unspoilt air of a marine environment that’s been protected for future generations by a nation proud of its natural heritage. Bay’s Nick Smith finds out more.
Rightly or wrongly, for better or worse, some travel destinations have associations you simply can’t shake off. New York is marketed on the quality of its modern art, London its West End theatre, Milan the fashion catwalk and as for Paris, you can take your pick… restaurants, parfumiers, chocolatiers. Travellers harbour lifelong ambitions to go to Peru to walk among the ruins of Machu Picchu, or maybe they want to go to Cambodia to see the extraordinary temple complex of Angkor Wat. And who hasn’t secretly got on their bucket list a quick spin around Egypt’s Giza pyramid complex or the Valley of the Kings? But when it comes to Sweden, it’s a lamentable fact that for most of us nothing immediately obvious will leap to mind. Maybe I’m just speaking of my own ignorance here, but when a few years ago I dusted off my Times Atlas of the World to acquaint myself with what was in store for me on my forthcoming trip to Scandinavia, my mind went a bit blank, largely because we don’t really have a clear set of ideas about what any expedition to Sweden might be like. I hardly thought I’d return from the place with images of seafood swimming in my head.
That’s not to say that there aren’t clichés by the bucketload. It’s hard to find a newspaper or magazine travel article on Sweden without the words Volvo, Abba or IKEA trumpeted in the opening sentence. It’s as if travel writers look for the statistically most recycled clichés and conclude that this must be the only available truth. And then repeat them. Another reflex is to describe Sweden as uninteresting: “let me tell you about Sweden” sang the Stranglers. It’s the “only country where the clouds are interesting”, growled Hugh Cornwell (a bit ungratefully if you ask me, since he did his post-graduate research in biochemistry at the University of Lund). The song Sweden rumbles on in a disparaging vein, recounting an unpleasant experience Cornwell and his chums had there, when a Stranglers’ gig was trashed by a gang of greasers. “Too much time to think, too little to do,” he continues, reinforcing the stereotype that Sweden is introspective, and presumably unaware of how annoying he’s being. Not often influenced by groupthink – especially the sort generated by travel hacks or guitarists in leather jackets – I was happy to visit the Scandinavian shores to find out for myself. For the record, I was more inspired by the adventures of Pippi Longstocking and the Swedish engineer whose gifts to the world were dynamite and the Nobel Prize institution.
My invitation to Sweden came in the form of a delicious set of circumstances in which the food editor of one of those posh, expensive London lifestyle magazines got put on the sick list after eating a dodgy oyster. A food editor in the repair workshop with a bout of Delhi belly is not a good look for any broadcast medium, and so the magazine in question had to cast around for a last-minute substitute for a culinary ‘familiarisation’ trip – read ‘jolly’ – to Sweden, the purpose of which was to travel around eating seafood. As tempting as this may have sounded, when the paperwork
landed on my desk I turned the invitation down flat, informing the commissioning editor that I knew nothing about either Sweden or fancy food. “But you know how to eat and catch a plane?” she responded archly. And so before the sun had risen thrice again, I found myself at Stansted International waiting for a Ryanair flight to Gothenburg, that if I recall correctly cost something like £7.99 and was hideously overpriced at that given the contempt the airline treated its passengers with from start to finish. To make matters worse, they then charged the earth to put my luggage on the plane.
It was a bumpy flight over the North Sea, and I arrived in Gothenburg thirsty and irritated, mostly because the airline in question didn’t provide refreshments for its passengers (they called us ‘customers’) unless you paid for them. Since I had no cash on me and their credit card machine thingy wasn’t working, I was bluntly informed that the problem was mine in its entirety and there were plenty of places in Sweden where I could quench my thirst. Making a mental note never to have anything to do with Ryanair again, I tumbled out of the airport into the famously elegant university city on Sweden’s west coast, where I was met by Anders, who was helpfully holding up a sign that read something like ‘Visit Sweden’. Anders informed me that over the next few days we could relax as we went on our voyage of exploration up the coast on what his itinerary described in software-translated English as “a culinary adventure to dine in restaurants in some of the most inspiring places in West Sweden and taste for yourself the country’s autumnal flavours and experience the fabulous Swedish lobster season.” Phew. Reading between the lines of computerish gobbledygook, it all sounded a bit too good to be true, but as we drove north to Strömstad, he confirmed that the following days would be all about lobsters, crayfish and oysters, all to be sloshed down with locally crafted beers and snaps, which I was to discover was the Swedish version of the more familiar German schnapps, which I was further to discover was – in both languages – the word for any strong alcoholic drink.
As we drove along the lonesome E6 highway I was able to get the measure of the landscape: a peaceful rolling pastureland of printer’s yellow canola, distant bottle-green treelines of birch, aspen and alder, rolling meadows full of harebells, orchids and cornflowers. Every now and then we’d see a red-painted clapboard house or log cabin, a weather-beaten windmill or high-sided barns that have now been given over to more modern purposes such as wedding venues or microbreweries. Then I started to realise why generations of travel journalists have struggled to pin bold labels on the place. The reason was there in front of me. It’s a subtle, gentle, level landscape, hard to photograph and harder to put into words. I could imagine all those tourism marketing board executives sitting in their conference suites frantically trying to come up with punchy slogans for Sweden, lead facilitator with a dry marker and a white board practically begging for three words to describe the place. “Volvo, Abba, IKEA,” suggests the joker in the corner and everyone laughs nervously because they can’t think of three adjectives (in a world that’s drowning in them) to describe a landscape so calm, ethereal and understated. You can see the problem. Imagine the billboard at Heathrow, the size of a double decker bus: “Visit Sweden. Calm. Ethereal. Understated.”
At Strömstad I linked with a cadre of journalists from Japan, Australia and Canada. We said goodbye to the mainland, setting sail into the Skagerrak which we crossed on our way to the Koster Islands that seemed so much like one of the last frontiers trying to fend off the modern world. In these most westerly of Sweden’s inhabited islands you won’t find any cars, but you will find moors and forests, angular rocky coastlines and a restored lighthouse, traces of the Iron Age and rare biodiversity all packed into merely four square kilometres of land. This was where Anders explained that Sweden is a great place if you are a nature lover: “Sweden’s right of public access is called allemansrätten, and it gives everyone the right to enjoy wilderness, to pick mushrooms, herbs and berries.” But while we are here, he continued, we should drop in on the opening ceremony for Kosterhavet National Park. There will be singing and speeches. The king will say a few words
of national pride and royal blessing over Sweden’s first marine national park. It’s the country’s most species-rich oceanographic area, covering 450 square kilometres and includes the seriously impressive Koster-Väderö Fjord which has more than two hundred different animals and plants that can’t be found anywhere else in Sweden. There will be fire-works and a feast where we can stuff ourselves to the gills with local shrimps and crayfish. In the evening we discussed what seemed to me to be the sophisticated idea that you could both farm and preserve Sweden’s waters while holding the process in commercial and ecological balance. As if to prove the point, one day we set out to the fishing grounds, covered from head to foot in orange waterproofs, chucking lobster pots into the deep, receiving instruction from fishermen whose families had been in the business for generations. The next, we sailed from North Koster into the protected waters of Kosterhavet aboard a scientific research vessel kitted out with a subsea camera projecting images onto a screen in the cabin, expert commentary provided by a marine biologist from the Tjarno Marine Biological Laboratory.
You don’t often get to meet royalty while abroad, or anywhere else come to that. And so it stands to reason that one of the highlights of my Sweden adventure was an encounter with King Carl XVI Gustaf, with whom I exchanged a few bon mots. Admittedly they didn’t extend much beyond me saying: “Would you move a little
to your left and look straight at the camera lens.” But I thought there was a certain poetry to it, and I imagin-ed him later recounting the episode to the Queen over dinner. “He was a fascinating man, this photographer chap. Do you know, he asked me to move to the left and look at his camera?” But what I really wanted to ask King Carl XVI Gustaf (who isn’t the sixteenth anything – there was a counting error dating back to the Middle Ages that left him with a meaningless roman numeral in his name), was whether he’d give me a royal title. The story goes that the Sveriges Konung has something of a reputation for dishing them out willy-nilly, and so I thought he might oblige in recognition of my visit to Sweden. But my instinct for royal protocol held me back and I confined myself to taking a photograph of this regal personage donging the bell that announced that the Kosterhavert National Park was now officially open. When I got back to the hotel I wrote in my note-book: “suggested headline. King rings in new eco future for Sweden.” Then crossed it out, having proven yet again that when it comes to travel writing, notebooks are the font of all dullness. If something’s really that memorable, I reminded myself, you’ll remember it. And if it isn’t, you might as well forget it.
Later that evening Anders led the party to Brygghuset restaurant in the village of Fiskebäckskil (which means something like ‘fish brook ledge’). This was where, before we could put on the nosebag, a local dignitary explained to everyone that we were about to eat, “black gold from the depths of the west coast’s deep blue waters, where lobsters grow slowly in the cold salty water.” It’s the water that gives them their distinctive strong and delicious taste, in his opinion far superior to those found in Maine in the United States that until now had been the place to which all lobster aficionados flocked. It was all a far cry, I reflected, from the lovely little poem by Ebba Lindqvist, who in her 1939 book Fiskläge (or ‘fishing village’) describes how life on the Swedish coast was once so much harder than it is today, with nothing to eat but mackerel, fresh in summer, salted in winter.