20 Reasons To Love Sweden
Art, design, natural beauty, blonds… Sweden effortlessly mesmerises tourists and keeps some, like Xav Judd, coming back for more. He explains why…
What exactly might make a person fall in love with a particular nation? It can start, as in my case with Sweden, before you even step foot in the place if some of your early heroes (ABBA, Ingmar Bergman and Björn Borg) hail from there. Perhaps this led to a desire to find out how this land shaped these people.
On my first visit (2001) to Scandinavia’s largest state, it was as if I’d been promised a Tag Heuer for Christmas but instead received a Rolex – so much more than I expected. Distinctive, bustling towns; scenic, verdant countryside; and friendly, charismatic people are just a few of the reasons why I have returned every year since. Sweden now feels like my second home – I even lived there for a time – which is why I long to share some of the things that make it my dream destination.
1 BJÖRN BORG
Supreme athleticism, groundstrokes with heavy topspin and an unflappable temperament made this tennis ace the undoubted king of the court in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Born in 1956, in Södertälje, just outside Stockholm, he won five Wimbledon Championships in a row and six French Open crowns. Legendary rivalries with other greats John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors further enhanced his legacy. As did his iconic appearance: flowing blond locks held in place by a headband; Fila BJ trackie tops and Donnay trainers. He more or less retired in 1981 after only nine years of competitive play. Today, the “Ice Man”, as he was nicknamed, has his own unique clothing brand.
2 WACKY HOTELS
When it comes to cool, unusual sleepovers, Sweden is hard to beat. Visit Harads (a locality in the north of the country), to do your own “Me Tarzan, you John” impression when you’re approximately four metres above ground level in a variety of futuristic treehouses. While at the Utter Inn, instead of counting sheep, one might well be watching the number of fish swimming past. It’s a single room three metres below the surface of Lake Mälaren. Lest we forget, the 33-room hostel Jumbo Stay is a converted Boeing 747-200 permanently stationed just outside Stockholm at Arlanda airport.
Benny Andersson, Agnetha Fältskog, Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Björn Ulvaeus teamed up as ABBA in 1972. Over the next decade, their unique collaboration, which included pairing-off into romantic couples, resulted in worldwide chart domination. Eventually, the marriages fell apart and, in 1983, so did the band. Since then, the super troupers’ popularity has hardly waned and Stockholm is now home to an ABBA Museum. Here you will find their outrageous stage costumes, gold records, memorabilia, and even sing in the studio as the band’s fifth member.
4 MURDER MYSTERIES
A chalk line etched around the body of a slain prostitute. A Colt .45 but no bullets, and blood-splattered spectacles. Who isn’t intrigued by a nerve-tingling murder mystery? Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, a common-law wife and husband team, pioneered the Swedish crime thriller in the mid-1960s with a series of novels detailing the ups-and-downs of the enigmatic, taciturn detective, Martin Beck. Several of their stories were turned into TV adaptations or movies. The same applies to many of the books of other notable Swedish scribes in this genre: Karin Alvtegen, best-known for Missing and Shame; Kerstin Ekman, who penned Blackwater; Stieg Larsson, creator of the Millennium series; and Henning Mankell, the wordsmith who gave us Inspector Wallander.
5 THE VIKINGS
Blood, guts and glory is probably the way these 8th-11th century Scandinavian warriors would like to be remembered. Their methods of rape and pillage were extraordinarily brutal by today’s standards but were a commonplace, necessary evil in their cutthroat era. Skilfully-crafted protective armour such as helmets and shields; innovative weapons like two-handed axes and state-of-the art longboats meant these Nordic marauders were able to plunder or colonise many distant territories: Western Europe, North Africa, Russia, the Middle East – and, yes, they did reach North America before Christopher Columbus.
Despite their staunch belief in Thor and Odin, the gods of war and death, it’s easy to forget that the Vikings also established advanced, peaceful trading routes with numerous civilisations. These seafarers were non-literate, so they did not leave a written record, but archaelogical evidence suggests they were certainly more sophisticated than the popular cliches representing them today. They were democratic and treated women better than Christians and Saxons – Viking women could fight, and divorce. Neither were they heathen slobs. Combs are found in Viking graves, and they were known to carry a change of clothes in waterproof bags during raids.
6 VASA MUSEUM
Undoubtedly one of the most fascinating museums on the planet is the eponymous, 17th Century warship. As with the Titanic, Vasa was thought to be invincible but its assumed impregnability was just as short-lived. In 1628, on her maiden voyage (out of Stockholm), she sank due to instability after sailing less than a mile. The practically completely intact, immense oak hull (over 1200 tonnes) of the four-storey vessel was salvaged in 1961. Painstakingly restored, it now offers visitors a remarkable glimpse into a maritime world from a bygone era.
Founded in 1943, by a 17-year-old Ingvar Kamprad, the Swedish company brought ready-to-assemble furniture to the masses. When the first Möbel-IKÉA store opened in Älmhult (Småland), it was principally a mail order business but now, this gargantuan organisation’s countless outlets – they have 351 shops in 46 countries – sell everything from food and tools to books and games.
8 GRETA GARBO
An array of Swedish actresses have lit up the silver screen, but none have left a more indelible impression than Greta Garbo. After appearing in a few silent flicks in her homeland, she moved to Hollywood in the mid-1920s. There, the starlet’s European sensibilities, sublime bone structure and mysterious nature made her an unrivalled sex symbol, best evidenced in 1930s classics Queen Christina, Anna Karenina, Camille and Grand Hotel. In the last of these, the rumoured to be bisexual, sizzling siren uttered her most famous line, “I want to be alone”. Fact mirrored fiction as she retired from shooting pictures at the age of 35 and became something of a recluse.
As with the other Nordic states, Sweden is well-regarded in design, which traditionally embraces simplicity and function ahead of decoration. In this respect, a particular highlight is Josef Frank’s amazing modernist furniture and floral-patterned fabrics, which can be found in the legendary Stockholm-based lifestyle boutique, Svenskt Tenn. Another stand-out, are the beautiful handmade clear and coloured glass pieces of Kosta Boda. Designtorget, 10-gruppen and Asplund are other stores specialising in various types of interior décor, where it’s easy to flutter away your hard-earned dollars.
If ever a city looked as if it had been conjured by a higher power, it would have to be Stockholm. Situated on Sweden’s southeast coast, it’s a unique mixture of open spaces, residential areas and angelic stretches of water. In fact, the Swedish capital is actually a group of fourteen islands that extend into the frothy, ultramarine of the Baltic. Gamla Stan (Old Town) is unquestionably the beating heart of the metropolis. Dating back to Medieval times, it’s a picture-perfect confection of winding cobbled lanes and passageways with mustard, copper-rust and salmon coloured buildings.
There’s something delightfully perverse about a food item that smells so rancid that school kids left opened tins of it behind radiators to clear their classrooms. Meet Surströmming (soured herring), a staple of northern Swedish cuisine since the 16th Century. The fish undergo a six-month to one-year fermentation process, initially in barrels and then the cans they are eventually sold in. Typically, this unintentional stink bomb is spread across tunnbröd (thin bread) which is usually also topped with mashed potatoes and diced onion.
12 ALFRED NOBEL
When a French newspaper mistakenly printed the engineer and innovator’s obituary in 1888, part of it stated that Nobel, “Became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before”. Shocked by seeing the legacy he might leave as the inventor of dynamite and other destructive explosives, the Stockholm-born pioneer made it a stipulation of his will to set up the eponymous prizes. Presented every year and celebrating such things as hope, human endeavour and ingenuity, the five main award categories are for landmark advances in chemistry, physics, physiology or medicine, literature, and peace.
13 THE NORTHERN LIGHTS
Entrancing configurations of pink, green, orange and yellow lights spread across a darkening horizon could seem the prelude to an alien invasion. But, this isn’t sci-fi, it’s the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis). Typically, they materialise in the highest latitudes of Sweden and a few other nations. The basic cause of this ethereal natural wonder is the interaction of the solar winds (a stream of charged particles pouring out from the sun) and the earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere.
14 INGMAR BERGMAN
Nobody’s ever depicted the raw emotion of human suffering better than Ingmar Bergman. Born in Uppsala in 1918, the director and playwright frequently wrote the scripts for his movies, as with his first, Crisis (1946). Throughout his 60-year career, the influential auteur was famed for tackling subjects such as alienation, fear, morality, and whether God exists. For much of his cinematic oeuvre, Bergman used his own repertory company of Scandinavian actors which included Bibi Andersson, Liv Ullmann and Max von Sydow. The latter, as the character Antonius Block, plays a game of chess for his life with Death, in the filmmaker’s most iconic picture, The Seventh Seal (1957). Other notable features include Wild Strawberries (1957), Persona (1966), Cries And Whispers (1972), and Fanny And Alexander (1982).
When I tell non-Scandinavian friends that I’m having a fika (pronounced fee-ka) with a group of Swedes, they normally think it’s something I shouldn’t be doing. However, it’s actually a social institution that means “to have coffee” (or another beverage like tea, juice or lemonade) with work colleagues, friends, relatives or a date. Traditionally, during this get-together, kanelbullar (cinnamon buns) are eaten, although other sweet pastries or biscuits can also be consumed.
16 NUDIE JEANS
Although the company was formed in Gothenburg back in 1999, it took Nudie awhile to catch on. Nonetheless, it’s no surprise that their raw and pre-washed stylish denim jeans and other items of casual clothing and accessories, eventually took the fashion world by storm.
17 SOCIAL MODEL
In a time when the wealthy are getting ever-more super-rich at the expense of everybody else, there’s much to admire about the Swedish social model. Put into operation by the Social Democrats, broadly speaking it’s a system of government that favours an interventionist state, generous welfare provisions, and high taxation with the aim of wealth redistribution. This programme has helped to engender a decent, healthier, more egalitarian society.
Did we mention the men?
Stunning Scandinavian men might offer the best reason yet to visit Sweden. Typically blond and with startlingly blue eyes, Swedish hunks are also served up darker. Take Prince Carl Philip [pictured], an avid outdoorsman who skis, designs, races a Porsche, and is third in line to the throne. What’s not to love? But hurry, he’s set to marry a woman this month.
18 THE LANGUAGE
Mastering any new language is going to involve misunderstandings, but perhaps what’s most interesting about Swedish is the quirky nature of its vocabulary. For a start, make sure that if you want someone to plant a smacker on your lips that you say kyss and not kiss, as the former will bag you the expected peck on your mouth, but the latter means ‘to pee’. While if you’re seeking out a kock slut, you may also not get what you bargained for, as the words mean ‘cook’ and ‘ending’ respectively. More amusing still is the phrase Smaken är som baken – delad, which roughly translates to “Taste is like a butt – divided”. Finally, they realise!
19 GÖTA CANAL
Initiated by Count Baltzar von Platen in the early 19th Century, the Göta Canal connects the east and west coasts of Sweden. Over 190 kilometres long, an ideal way to experience this idyllic thoroughfare is on a vintage steamship just as Hans Christian Andersen did almost 180 years ago. You, too, will encounter lakes adorned with water lilies and swaths of pristine countryside smattered with imposing castles, historic churches and dark red-roofed wooden houses.
20 TUNNELBANA (TUBE SYSTEM)
Most people would prefer to measure the amount of slime a slug produces per hour, than take any interest in the monotonous interiors of the underground. That’s because they haven’t witnessed Stockholm’s tube system. First opened in 1950, it’s often said to be the world’s longest art gallery because over 90 percent of its 100 stations are decorated with engravings, installations, mosaics, paintings and reliefs. Designed by over 150 different artists over a sixty-year period, a particularly eye-catching stop is Solna with its rugged red ceiling that looks as menacing as molten rock being spewed from a volcano.
more: Go to www.visitstockholm.com. Also check out the Rough Guide to Sweden at www.roughguides.com.
© DNA 185