I’ve had a long-standing love affair with seductive Stockholm, but after a fling with flirtatious Gothenburg and a little treasure of an island in its archipelago, there are now three in this relationship. While my passion for Sweden’s capital is as hot as ever, its as-cool-as-they-come second city will be seeing a lot more of me.
Like Nancy Sinatra’s boots, the streets of Gothenburg are made for walkin’. That said, you wouldn’t want to dilly-dally while crossing the main avenue, Kungsportsavenyen, on Saturday afternoons. That’s when the fancy-car fraternity and the even noisier show-offs on two wheels use it as a race track when the cops have their backs turned.
I’m soaking up the sun on the street-front terrace of one of the avenue’s posh bar-restaurants and thinking dark thoughts about the idiots roaring past. Looking around to share my chagrin with someone, it strikes me that nobody is paying them a blind bit of notice. It apparently takes more than a pimped-up Porsche or a growling Guzi to impress the laid-back locals.
My admiration for the easy-going Gothenburgers soars when I overhear a waitress reprimanding an English guy for lighting a cigarette.
“But I’m outside. It’s a terrace – innit?” he says in a tone that makes me bristle.
“Yes, but it’s a non-smoking terrace,” says the waitress. “People are eating – and that lady there is pregnant. So please, put your cigarette out now.”
I’ve been in Gothenburg for only a few hours, and I’ve already fallen for a feisty waitress who speaks in italics. I know I’m going to like it here.
At the top of the avenue, behind the Poseidon fountain, stands the yellow-brick Gothenburg Museum of Art, where the exhibits include works by Rembrandt, Monet, Munch and Picasso – and a four-metre-tall, upside-down revolving pole dancer.
In the Furstenburg Gallery on the sixth floor, I innocently rest a hand on a waist-high pink marble table on which sits a life-sized fibreglass baby in a green romper suit with flower-tipped antlers sprouting from his head. It’s a good spot from which to view the huge oil painting on the wall.
The table must be wired with sensors, because a couple of seconds later I feel a presence at my shoulder. I turn, and there’s a security guard, arms folded across her chest. She arches an eyebrow and nods at my hand, which I immediately shove in my pocket before she can get the cuffs out.
“Touching the exhibits is not allowed,” she says.
“Sorry,” I reply. “I just rested my hand while I was looking at that painting of the naked women.”
The words are out before I can stop them. Two minutes later, I’m on the ground floor, hot-footing it through the Hasselblad Centre. I’m told the photographic exhibition is well worth seeing, but you’ll have to read about it elsewhere, because in my embarrassment I’m out the front door in a flash.
Businessman Matts Johansson is instantly likeable, but there’s nothing instant about the brews the young baristas serve in his four Da Matteo coffee shops. I can’t vouch for his knowledge of onions, but award-winning master blender Matts knows his beans and has trenchant views on how coffee should be best enjoyed.
“Only bad coffee needs milk,” he says, which is awkward as I have the jug in my hand, ready to pour. I immediately pass it to the puzzled teenager behind me with a cheery “Here you are”.
The first Da Matteo opened in Gothenburg’s Victoriapassagen, but I’ve fled after my run-in with the security guard to Matts’ flagship cafe, coffee roasting shop and sour dough bakery in Magasinsgatan, named Sweden’s Cafe of the Year 2015 by the country’s authoritative White Guide.
Matts knows his buns as well as his beans, and although he says the cinnamon and cardamom varieties that sell like, well, hotcakes will kill the subtle flavours of the coffee, they’re too good to ignore. As for the goat cheese and fig marmalade sandwiches, I can’t resist buying one to take with me on my afternoon stroll.
Gothenburg isn’t especially big, but when it comes to serving up delightful distractions it goes large. Quaint cobbled alleyways are home to hipster hangouts, coffee shops galore, micro-breweries, the occasional biker bar, vinyl stores and loads of vintage clothes shops and big-name designer boutiques.
In Drottninggatan, I halt at the Nudie Jeans Co sales outlet and repair shop, where a guy is busy at a sewing machine in the window. Young people in Gothenburg get their jeans repaired? They don’t in Dublin, where girls walk around with theirs full of holes and guys wear them halfway down the back of their legs and think they’re the height of fashion.
Nudie Jeans Co was founded in Gothenburg in 2001 and is fast becoming a global brand. Its repair shops will wash and patch your frayed or torn Nudies at no cost, or you can trade them in for a discount on a new pair.
They’re also into recycling at the Myrorna second-hand emporium (Jarntorgsgatan 10), where a rummage among the retro rails on the ground floor suggests the Bay City Rollers were once popular in Gothenburg, as tartan-trimmed short-sleeved shirts and high-waistband, shin-length flares abound.
I was a child of the mid-Seventies when Rollermania was at its peak, and that was how my classmates and I dressed for school, so I take back what I said about the young fellas with their jeans flying at half-mast. We looked even more ridiculous and we had mullets as well.
I decide to have dinner in my hotel, the four-star Scandic Europa. This is mainly because I’m all walked-out, but I’ve noticed the in-house HAK restaurant has a Spanish charcuterie station offering a big selection of chorizos, cured hams and strings of sausages, plus some of my favourite cheeses. There’s also a big potato tortilla that has just been made, so I pull up a high stool where I can inhale the steam and get chatting with man-behind-the-counter Mario, who sports a splendid Salvador Dali waxed and pointy moustache.
“I can pick up Sky Sports on this,” he says, twiddling the ends.
Everybody I’ve asked so far to recommend the must-visit pub in Gothenburg has, without hesitation, cited the same place, so I run the question past Mario.
“That’s easy,” he says. “Olhallen 7:an. It’s crazy, and full of crazy people.”
There will be one more crazy person in it before I head back to Dublin, because that’s the pub everyone has named, so I add it to my itinerary.
I’m late for breakfast next morning, having forgotten Sweden is an hour ahead of Ireland, so I grab a couple of croissants and a banana from the buffet and head out to do some more exploring.
Swedes are the foremost consumers of bananas in Europe, getting through, on average, 20kg each per year, a fact I learn from commentator Annika Nilsson during a 50-minute flat-bottomed boat tour of the city’s 17th century canals and moat.
Gothenburg is just as winsome from the water, where the much-photographed four-masted tall ship Viking is moored in the harbour. With a 55-metre foremast, this magnificent vessel is a permanent fixture – its passage to the sea is barred by a 45-metre-tall bridge that wasn’t there when it arrived in 1950. Viking is now a hotel that gets glowing online reviews.
Psychology student Annika, who works part-time for sightseeing boat operator Paddan, could enjoy a glittering career as a stand-up comedian specialising in painful puns (“We Swedes are bananas for bananas”) if it weren’t for Gothenburg’s Cheese Grater bridge. With only six inches of sitting-down headroom as the boat passes underneath, she would be decapitated if she even tried to stand up. When the wise-cracking Annika says “duck”, she’s not referring to the ones that go “quack”.
Slipping effortlessly from commentary in Swedish to faultless English and back again, Annika and her fellow guides are a big hit with passengers. It’s a hugely enjoyable way to see and learn about the city, with laughs galore thrown in. The boats leave three times an hour from Kungsportsplatsen, where Gothenburg was founded in 1621.
One of the more unusual sights during the Paddan tour is the Feskekorka, or Fish Church, at Roselundsgatan by the canal. It certainly looks like a church, but it’s Gothenburg’s indoor fish market, “built in 1874 and dedicated to the glory and worship of the Lord our cod”, says Annika, to a chorus of groans.
Back on dry land, I head straight to the Feskekorka, where the first person I get chatting with is student Hanna Mahaffey, from Chicago. Between chopping the heads off fish, she tells me she’s half-American, half-Swedish, and is studying to be a sea captain.
I ask her if working in the fish market is part of her course. As stupid questions go, it’s up there with the best. “No, it pays my rent,” she says, and I leave it at that as she’s brandishing a cleaver.
The Feskekorka is home to one of Gothenburg’s best seafood restaurants, Restaurang Gabriel, which is owned and run by chef Johan Malm, a former gold medal winner in the Oyster Opening World Cup, the Nordic and Swedish Championships and the Galway International Oyster Festival. He must be good, because despite opening around 500 oysters a week in Restaurang Gabriel, he has a full complement of fingers and thumbs.
A tip from maestro Malm: a squeeze of lemon is all an oyster needs, and you should chew it properly to “get the flavour of the sea”. An oyster takes up to seven years to grow to maturity, so it seems a shame to just chuck it down your neck.
A 25-minute ride on the number 11 tram from Brunnsparken in the city centre takes me to Saltholmen, where I board one of the frequent ferries that serve the islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago.
One of those islands is Styrso, which occupies a mere 1.58 square kilometres and has a resident population of 1,300. I wish I was one of them. If Robinson Crusoe had been washed up here, he would have put out the fire, hidden in a hole and told Man Friday to stop leaping about like a lunatic if the sails of a rescue ship had appeared on the horizon. This is an island to escape to, not from.
Life on Styrso is car, care and crime-free. The islanders and their envious visitors get around on foot, bikes, mopeds and what appear to be converted lawnmowers. If you call a cab, a golf buggy arrives. I’ve no idea how the two resident police officers occupy their time, but it’s reassuring to know they’re there.
The Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse, which is owned and run by Ola Tulldahl and his wife Ylva Sjoberg, is a mere five-minute stroll from where the ferry pulls in.
Ola tells me he loves Fawlty Towers, which is a wee bit worrying as I’ll be dining later in his restaurant, so I make a mental note not to order the Waldorf salad in case he has run out of Waldorfs.
Ola and Ylva started off working here for the previous owner, then bought the place and toiled day and night to turn it into the best guesthouse I’ve ever set foot in.
“We want our guests to feel like they’re visiting grandma’s house,” says Ola, which evokes best-forgotten childhood memories of Granny Sweeney’s bloomers steaming on the drying line above the kitchen range.
I know what he means, though. This is a flat-pack-free zone: every piece of furniture in the common areas and 13-bedrooms, which have sea or garden views, is handmade from teak, mahogany or oak by craftsmen now long-dead.
Ola lends me a bike – a girly one – so I can cycle around the island and see the sights. The last bike I owned was a Raleigh Chopper that I rode on my paper round and had conventional brakes, unlike Ola’s, which he says I have to pedal backwards to slow down and stop.
I can’t get the hang of it. I’ve only just had my best brogues resoled, yet within 10 minutes of setting off from the guesthouse I feel I’ve been walking on red-hot coals. Picture the moment an aeroplane lands and its tyres throw up a pall of smoke. That’s the bottoms of my shoes every time I plank them down on the road to avoid overshooting a junction, crashing through a fence into someone’s garden or taking an unplanned dip in the sea.
As I approach the lovely old whitewashed Lutheran church in the village of Byn, the lady pastor, Agneta Olsson, steps into the narrow road ahead and gives me a cheery wave. Little does she realise that any second now she could be waving the world goodbye.
My soles hit the tarmac, and the quick-thinking pastor performs a manoeuvre not unlike the one in bullfighting that’s known as a veronica. This is where the torero stands rooted to the spot and swings sideways as the bull charges past, its horns – or in my case, handlebars – a mere inch or two short of doing appalling damage. In the bullring, a successful veronica is accompanied by a deafening “Ole!” from the crowd. In Byn, it’s accompanied by a pathetic “Ting-ting!” from my bicycle bell.
I step inside the church, which was completed in 1752. Near the pulpit, a local teenager is practising on the piano, and very talented he is too. Smart as well, because as soon as he realises he has company, he segues seamlessly from Taylor Swift to something a bit more suitable for the surroundings. His playing is accompanied by the tick-tock of what I presume to be a metronome, until I realise it’s coming from the grandfather clock behind him that’s nearly as old as the building.
Continuing my two-wheeled tour, I pass a couple of eye-poppingly plush properties that are probably owned by Swedish billionaires Viktor and Vilda Volvo and their good friends Erik and Elsa Electrolux. There are plenty of no-less-impressive cottages too, with picket fences, rose gardens, apple trees and, invariably, a kayak or small boat from which many a line is no doubt cast to reel in something tasty for tea.
Ola and Ylva’s restaurant, which specialises in superlative seafood caught each morning within a couple of hundred metres of their front door, is open to non-residents and is always busy, so reservations are a must.
Ylva steers me to a table by a window, with wonderful late afternoon views of the channel that separates Styrso from the neighbouring island of Donso. She comes back a couple of minutes later with the menu, which changes every day according to the catch.
“I hear you bumped into the pastor,” says Ylva, with terrible timing, as I nearly drown on the mouthful of lager that’s halfway down my throat. “Ola was buying some things in the store opposite the church and saw you chatting. Did you take photos of the church. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
It certainly is, and so is my early dinner of wild mushroom soup, langoustines, fish and shellfish with vegetables and herbs from Ola’s garden, plus freshly-baked bread, each dish accompanied by a craft beer recommended by Ylva. I’m as happy as Larry. Or, seeing as I’m in Sweden, as happy as Lars.
Before setting off for the ferry to return to the city, I ask Ola if he has heard of a pub named Olhallen 7:an.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It’s like Fawlty Towers. You should go there.”
Gothenburgers go out of their way to look after visitors – stand in the street for two seconds consulting a map and someone will be over to ask if they can help with directions.
As a second city, it’s not always a first-choice destination for anyone planning a visit to Sweden, so those who go there will find they’re extra welcome, and visitors from Ireland are extra-extra welcome, as I learn when I squeeze through the early-afternoon crowd in Olhallen 7:an (Kungstorget 7).
Like the vast majority of Swedes, bushy-bearded barman Christoffer Johansson speaks flawless English, although in his case with a broad Northern Ireland accent – the last thing I expect, because Swedes invariably sound as if they’ve learned the lingo from either Captain Mainwaring or Captain Kirk.
I ask him if he’s from Belfast. “Nah, Ah’m from here, so Ah am,” he says, with a big grin. “Wee pint?”
It turns out Christoffer’s best buddies are Belfast expats living and working in Gothenburg, “so they are”, and he can’t wait for the autumn, “so I can’t”, when he’s going to Ireland for a wedding. It will be his first visit, and he’s super-excited, so he is.
I take my drink outside to the busy terrace, where everyone else is drinking “wee pints” – from Smithwick’s Irish ale glasses. There isn’t a wine to be seen, or a gin-and-this or a vodka-and-that. That’s why it’s called Olhallen, which translates as ale hall – it sells only beer.
Olhallen 7:an has been in business since 1900, which makes it Gothenburg’s oldest watering hole. It has umpteen reasons to blow its own trumpet, but chooses inexplicably to big up the fact that it still has its original floor. That’s like a tour guide in Egypt telling visitors to ignore the pyramids and admire the sand.
It’s OK as floors go, but it’s hardly a Roman mosaic, and the only way you’ll see more than a square foot of it at a time is if you’re first in the door when it opens, because the place fills up quickly.
Olhallen 7:an doesn’t sell food. Rather, customers help themselves to as many free salami sandwiches, sausages and chunks of cheese as they want from regularly replenished platters on the counter. It means you can soak up the beer as well as the atmosphere.
Ireland’s ambassador to Sweden, Austin Gormley, took up his role only a few months ago, which would explain why he hasn’t yet had a chance to appoint an honorary consul-general in Gothenburg (where there’s a pub called The Irish Embassy). I can save him a lot of time and bother, so I can, because I know the very man, so I do, and he’d do a grand job, so he would.
As a barman working in a pub where hairy bikers rub shoulders with bankers, hipsters and less-of-your-lipsters, Christoffer deals with diplomatic incidents every day, so he’s a shoo-in – and an Irishman at heart. He epitomises all that’s great about the grounded and good-natured Gothenburgers and their city, as do Ola and Ylva on Styrso and tour guide Annika.
People make a place, and salt-of-the-earth people make it special. That’s especially true of Gothenburg, which doesn’t start with “Go” for nothing.
STAY: The 456-room Scandic Europa Hotel (Nilsericsonsgatan 21) is slap bang in the centre of the city and has rooms from €115 to €240 with free access to the pool, sauna and gym. The hotel’s HAK restaurant and bar are hugely popular and hopping most nights, with live music at the weekend. The central train station is directly opposite, and Nordstan, Sweden’s biggest shopping centre, is right next door. Pensionat Styrso Skaret (Skaretvagen 53) is a warm and welcoming base from which to explore Styrso island. Rooms from €170 to €195 and a restaurant to rave about.