Words by Jennie Paterson, Photographs by Tom Bunning.
It’s curious that I’d never been curious about Sweden before. My Scottish father was seconded to Stockholm in the 1960s as part of his medical training and, as a result, my Cotswolds childhood was peppered with Swedish notes: breakfasts of knäckebrot and Kalles kaviar branded smörgåskaviar (crispbread and caviar paste), evening feasts of my Australian mother’s take on svenska fisksoppa (fish soup) and afternoon snacks of Annas Pepparkakor (ginger thins). Aside from the odd delirium-inducing trip to IKEA, a passion for Wallander and late night cook-ups with friends making vats of that same fish soup, Sweden had somehow fallen off my radar.
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It was a conversation at dusk over a whisky with my father that ignited a longing to discover the country that had helped shape my taste buds, and the place he had discovered at around the same age I find myself now. He regaled me with stories of the Stockholmers’ easy hospitality, long kitchen suppers, summer days messing around in boats and nights spent wild camping out on the islands of the archipelago, making the most of the Swedes’ law of Allemansrätten (the Right of Public Access). This sort of AAA pass gives any person the right to visit someone else’s land, bathe in and boat on any water and gather wild flowers, mushrooms and berries, amongst other things, from almost anywhere, so long as you’re suitably respectful of the owner’s rights. It sounded blissfully bucolic. But memory can apply a soft filter to the mind’s eye through which the past appears honeyed and mellowed. Added to this, we were finally visiting just on the cusp of winter, so I didn’t know quite what to expect from my first experience of Sweden’s quiet Baltic treasure, the archipelago islands.
Flying into Stockholm gave a tantalising first glimpse of the some 30,000 islands and skerries that make up the archipelago’s Skärgården (garden of skerries) and as we touched down I could hardly wait to get out on the water and start exploring. With a few hours to kill in the city it became apparent that you could ask any Stockholmer about the archipelago and their enthusiasm would have you heading straight down to the port and hopping on one of the many ferries heading east towards the Baltic Sea. Luckily that’s exactly what we were doing. So with bellies full of hip eatery Urban Deli’s recommended special of pea soup and pancakes (apparently the ruminations of the Nobel Prize for Literature Committee are conducted over this very meal) we boarded a Waxholmsbolaget ferry for the first stop on our archipelago adventure: Vaxholm.
You could go by road to Vaxholm, crossing the water at the bridge over Pålsund, but why do that when you can travel by sea? For year-round islanders the trip would be a very ordinary commute home, so naturally they stayed below deck in the warm for the hour-long journey. But as virgin voyagers we couldn’t resist zipping up our coats and venturing to the back deck for a blast of Baltic Sea air.
It’s easy to imagine these islands and waterways buzzing come July, filled with sailing enthusiasts, day-trippers and seasonal residents toing and froing from summerhouses. However, on a cold November weekday the water was calm and the air still, and as dusk fell the city’s lights winked and flickered in the distance. I could feel the grime of a London winter seeping from my skin; it felt cleansing, stimulating, a reprieve from the stresses and strains of everyday life. I was hooked already.
Disembarking at Vaxholm Harbour, cries of “Tak” and “Hej-då” rang through the cold air as islanders hurried down the gangplank and across the harbour towards warm homes (and steaming bowls of svenska fisksoppa, no doubt) and we headed towards the welcome sight of the Waxholms Hotell looming out of the dusk.
This splendid old fishing hotel was opened in 1902 by Augusta Karlsson, an extraordinary woman from Sweden’s southern district of Vetlanda. Augusta was a true archipelago entrepreneur who, having been orphaned in her early teens, moved to Stockholm to make a living. She worked as a maid, a seamstress and in catering on the railroads before turning her attention to boats. Here she went into business with the Waxholmsbolaget ferry company to purchase the Waxholms Hotell, becoming the General Manager – no mean feat for a woman at the turn of the century. With one of only three liquor licenses on the island, a thriving music scene and spectacular views across the archipelago, Augusta and her hotel helped put Vaxholm on the map. At the time of our visit the Waxholms Hotell was coming to the end of a refurbishment project, having recently changed hands for the first time in 35 years. After several decades of nautical inspired décor, the new owners were carefully restoring it to its original 1880-1920s glory, complete with a grand bar, fittingly named The Augusta for its pioneering founder.
Vaxholm itself has a rich seafaring past, famous for its role in defending Sweden from marauding would-be conquerors throughout the centuries, as well as its fleet of strömming (Baltic herring) fishermen. History enthusiasts may spend hours exploring its fortifications, citadel, museums and winding lanes, but Vaxholm’s wide-ranging charms include birch and fir woods for balmy walks, beaches for bathers and boutique shops, restaurants and chic B&Bs for pleasure-seekers and foodies. The islanders urged us to come back in the summer to revel in the archipelago party season, but for us hyped-up citydwellers it was the cold, grey skies, the rich autumnal hues, the closed sign of the ice-cream parlour clattering in the breeze and houses shut up for the winter months that signalled paradise.
Once filled with fishermen, farmers and sailors eking out a living from the islands and sea, the archipelago’s economy now feasts on summer residents and tourism, but come winter the population shrinks and today’s islanders need to be creative to keep vital lifelines open through the shorter dark days. We heard stories of local entrepreneurs including cheese-makers, craft beer-brewers, boutique B&B owners and even a mobile slaughterhouse that travelled from island to island to service farms and small-holdings. Enter one such creative soul, Captain Anders Borjesson – a charming grocer-cum-skipper who invited us onboard his taxi-boat for a private tour of the local waterways.
Passing along the strait with traditional wooden houses on one side and the imposing citadel on the other, we raced through narrow passages and weaved in and out of spiky skerries before reaching open water, where the real magic of the archipelago’s natural beauty revealed itself. This watery wonderland with its silvered rocks, windswept pines and grass-covered hillocks was breathtaking and we had it all to ourselves. Waterside cabins and summerhouses of all shapes, sizes and hues adorn most of the islands, from modest huts painted in the traditional Falu Rödfärg rust-red paint with their jaunty white-trimmed windows, to elegant pastel-coloured mansions. We came ashore at a white sandy beach on an uninhabited island and, filled with the Swallows & Amazons spirit of young children, raced up a small hill to find the perfect camping spot – the fire would go here, the tent there, we’d bathe in these shallow waters, and we’d forage for berries, if it wasn’t quite so freezing . . .
In summer it’s reputedly difficult to find a Swede in Stockholm as they all flee the city for their holiday homes, and with this natural paradise on their doorstep it’s not hard to see why. The Swedes take their summers very seriously and messing about in boats on the archipelago would be a serious treat under the Scandinavian sun. But for a couple of weary Londoners, puttering about on a very cold, quiet corner of the earth with its expanse of iridescent water, island havens, open skies and rich hues of green, copper and gold, it was the autumn archipelago and its calm beauty that captured our hearts and imaginations. And, just in case we needed any more persuading, as Captain Anders turned about for our return leg to Vaxholm we were offered one last treasure. A giant eagle perched atop its rocky maroon beat its wings once, twice, a third time, and made for the heavens, circling up and up into the low grey skies.
Returning to London, I waxed lyrical about the archipelago to anyone and everyone, including my permanently insouciant and well-travelled father. “Well, yes,” he said, “the Stockholm archipelago is a wonderful part of the world and you certainly should go back in the summer. But if you want a real Swedish midsummer adventure . . .” I poured us another whisky and let the storyteller take me on a road trip up the east coast, round the Gulf of Bothnia, across the Finnish border at Haparanda and on a tiny plane from Kimi to the transient sunshine state of the Arctic Circle where, “it was blazing hot, there were flowers everywhere and we partied all day and night long under a never-setting sun.” Time to get the map out.
Extract from Lodestars Anthology Issue 5: Sweden