Megan Abbott

Best coast: A roadtrip through west sweden

Megan Abbott
Best coast: A roadtrip through west sweden

Sweden is well known for its long, dark winters. In their depths, temperatures can dip below freezing, and daylight lasts just a few hours. These cold, unrelenting conditions may seem harsh to outsiders – and they are. But winters like these mean there is no place on earth where summertime is more cherished.

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After lapping up the bright-eyed locals, effortless style, cutting-edge food, music and endless green spaces of Gothenburg, we set off early on a sunny Sunday morning to explore the westerly edges of Sweden by car. This part of the country is nicknamed ‘Best Coast’ by locals, who escape there from the cities to unwind. They spend these warm, endless summer days swimming in shimmering lakes, sailing, fishing, wild camping, exploring toytown villages and stretching out on clean, empty beaches.

In just a few days, we scaled the coast and collected images of Sweden that batted away any preconceived notions of the dark, costly country that it is often seen as. We fell asleep in the afternoon sun on jetties jutting out onto cold, mirror-like lakes. We drove past creaking windmills, exploring rickety fishing villages painted red and yellow, and passed by hundreds of gleaming vintage cars in shades of pink, emerald and powder blue. We swam in freezing water at 9pm, with the sun still high in the sky. We ate oysters plucked straight from the icy North Sea, and berries straight from the bushes. The glut of local produce could be found on every plate of food we ate, with summer’s brightest ingredients playing the starring roles – peas; strawberries; fennel; glistening trout roe. At night, we slept on soft sheets strewn with blankets, read books on linen hammocks and in the mornings we ate light, summery breakfasts on tables dotted with candles and flowers.

A bohemian, infectiously laid-back attitude pervades this end of Sweden. People here grow up enjoying the natural surroundings, making use of the ‘right to roam’ rule that allows anyone to pitch up and camp almost anywhere. An innate understanding of the land and the seasons means that most Swedes understand a thing or two about foraging, fishing, trekking or sailing, and come summer, their diaries are usually packed with plans of group camping, outdoor excursions or boating trips.

A road trip around West Sweden means spontaneous island hopping (its famous, impossibly beautiful archipelago is scattered along the coast all the way to Norway), wild swimming (bracing and ice-cold), natural, inventive food (even in the humblest places), lounging on sun-kissed rocks, lazy afternoons on the beach and crisp, fresh air that you’ll want to gulp in until the moment you step on the plane.

When the days are this long, a sense of unhurried pleasure suffuses everything, like the soft golden light that still burns late into the evening. Summertime in West Sweden is short and sweet, and when it finally comes around, the locals know exactly how to spend it. Join them by getting yourself a car, a stack of books and a good playlist to discover this sprawling, windswept corner of the world, where winter couldn’t feel further away.

Day One

We left Gothenburg early, walking to the car through the empty, Sunday morning streets. Seagulls flocked the sky above the canals, and our eyes slowly adjusted to the bright sunshine. Once in the car (a hulking great 4x4 that reminded us of a water bed), we got on the road and left Gothenburg behind – discussing our plans to return next summer for most of the journey. The roads were flat and wide, bookended by pine trees, flat green farmland and fields of yarrow rolling out as far as our bleary eyes could see.

Vintage cars passed every few minutes – red Mustangs, sunflower yellow 1960s Chevrolets, glinting Chryslers with their roofs popped down. As it turned out, there was a classic car convention in the area, but we will forever think of rural West Sweden as a playground for these sunny, otherworldly vehicles. Passing by the small town of Lidköping, with its traditional red and yellow wooden buildings, we stopped for fika (the Swedish daily ritual of coffee and something sweet) at Garströms Konditori, a bakery dating back to 1857. It is a sugary sweet cafe of mint green walls, wooden paneling and parquet floors, with a carved gold bar stocked with pastries, cakes, sweets and tarts. We helped ourselves to a few cups of bitter coffee and tore apart a sweet, gently spiced cinnamon roll (kanelbullar).

Spurred on by sugar highs, we pushed on towards Bjertorp Manor, a sprawling Art Nouveau masterpiece built by a Swedish industrial magnate in 1914. Each soaring, creaky room has been preserved in all its splendour, from the glittering ballroom to the oil paintings that bear down on the dining room, the custom-made Swedish marble walls or the pure red granite finishes. It is now a luxurious hotel, bar and restaurant, and regularly hosts weddings. And by the looks of the mahogany staircases, glittering chandeliers and sweeping back lawn, it’s not hard to see why. Head chef Stephen Rowe is at the helm of the award-winning restaurant, which serves Nordic food with French influences. Wherever possible, he uses locally-sourced produce, letting the seasons dictate each and every dish. “I have thirty-six local farms that I work with directly.” He tells us. “If we don’t order products locally, we will use Swedish. If not Swedish, then Nordic.” We took a seat on the patio overlooking the manicured lawns, where children ran around the grand fountain at its centre. We ate two vibrant, moreish dishes - dried tomatoes with garlic puree and nutty local cheese, followed by veal with potato roots and carrots – before lying on the grass for a while in the sun, the smell of roses in the air.

Next, we made our way to Läckö Slott, a chilling Baroque castle in the Lidköping region which was first built in 1298. It looms over the water of Lake Vänern, with a walled garden sweeping down its edge. Inside, it is a labyrinth of sparkling white stone walls, creaking wooden floors, stained glass, frescoes and centuries-old oil portraits whose eyes seem to follow your every move.  British-born Simon Irvine has tended the gardens of Läckö Slott for 25 years, transforming it into a canvas of wild, perfumed flowers, plants, vegetables and fragrant herbs. Simon greeted us – looking not dissimilar to a Renaissance painter in a canvas hat, waistcoat and white beard -, and took us for a stroll around the garden. He picked little handfuls of herbs and leaves for us to taste – firey, peppery rocket; citrusy sorrel; sweet, aniseedy fennel.

Simon’s vegetables are used by the nearby Hvita Hjorten restaurant, where we spent the evening knocking back natural wine with colourful plates of bright green leaves, locally-farmed meat and fish caught fresh from the lake. We took our last glass out onto the lake, where a flock of geese were skimming the water, where brave locals had been diving earlier that day. We kept our clothes firmly on, taking a seat on the wooden jetty as a bulbous orange moon rises above the pine forest beyond. That night was spent at Naturum Vänerskärgården, a nature centre/hotel rendered in natural materials, standing in the centre of the lake. Guests can rent bicycles to explore the area (which is pleasantly flat after a week of cinnamon bun sampling), and spend the night in cosy rooms furnished with organic fabrics, cloud-like beds and views of the castle, lake and forests.

Day Two

Charlotte Berg grew up between Gothenburg and Stockholm, learning the rules of traditional Swedish baking from her mother and grandmother. When her young family was born, she moved to the small waterside town of Ljungskile. It is here that we came across her bakery, Café Flora. Set inside a classic falu red wooden house, Charlotte describes it as “a rural urban bakery”. Staples of the modern Swedish home are for sale in the front; soft blankets, brass serving spoons, ceramic candles holders and picnic baskets. Guests fill the back room, a cosy warren of velvet armchairs, bamboo seats, fur rugs and white wooden walls. Using “only what the season has to offer”, Café Flora sells a colourful selection of freshly baked cinnamon rolls (which we inhaled in two bites), pies and cakes. A classic, pale blue milk bar serves up fresh ice cream, while outside, a ‘black bar’ churns out coffee and cocktails beside the lawn and trickling creek. “I want people to feel like they’re coming home when they’re here.” Charlotte tells us, filling up a paper bag of wild strawberries for us to take on our journey.

Locals use the seaside town of Lysekil as a springboard for hopping the eye-wateringly beautiful Bohuslän archipelago. Boats churn back and forth from the bustling dock, carrying visitors to the the nearby islands of Skaftö, Smögen or Fiskebäckskil for beaches, camping and freshly-caught seafood. Local fisherman Lars Marstone has been braving these waters his entire life. He comes from a long line of fishermen, with a mussel farm that has been going for 250 years. Today, he and his wife Ann supply plump, silky mussels and oysters for some of best restaurants in the region. Together, they operate mussel and oyster tours for small groups. We met Lars on the jetty at Lyseki and boarded his small, gleaming fishing boat, which is named Signe after his grandmother. We hummed slowly through the water, passing tiny islands studded with red wooden fishing houses and creaking jetties. We reached the small floating farm, where Lars lifted a rope from the side of the boat. Hundreds of emerald-slicked mussels clung to it in rattling bunches.

The water was flat and transparent as we approached a tiny private island, where Ann was waving from the doorway of a small wooden fishing house, painted black and propped on the smooth red granite rocks. Sipping cold local beer, we watched Lars shuck wild oysters straight from the fishing cage. They were fleshy, creamy and cold, with that unmistakable taste of the sea which lingered deliciously for hours. “You’ll never have fresher shellfish than this.” They laughed, pouring a clattering pot of fresh mussels, cream and white wine into bowls. We sat on blankets thrown onto the warm rocks, soaking up the last drops with crusty bread. We drank in the pure, seaweed-scented silence in between conversations about travel, family and the secrets of their 40-year marriage. Our only other company was a small herd of ancient-breed sheep chewing on grass and dipping their noses into the crystal-clear water.

Strandflickorna has been a guest house for Lysekil visitors since 1905. The red wooden house (a sight that never gets old) has retained its century-old, bohemian atmosphere, with much of its original interior still intact. Two detached villas can be found over the crest of a giant red granite rock, complete with outdoor hot tubs, hammock rooms, saunas and a ladder straight into the sea. If we were feeling sleepy from a day on the boat, a dip in the biting water soon sorted that out. Wandering down to the dock afterwards, we discovered Backyard, an industrial-style outdoor bar where locals sip spritzes and gobble up homemade burgers into the night. A few drinks in, we made our way down the waterfront to Norra Hamnen 5. This critically-acclaimed restaurant serves up luxurious, freshly caught seafood in a sun-drenched conservatory overlooking the gently rocking boats in the harbour. Along with carefully-selected wines, we feasted on shellfish platters, oven-baked fish with beetroots and lemon-spiked salmon tartar. Afterwards, we joined the small groups of young friends and locals on the jetty to drink in the golden light. Some were fishing, while other were jumping off a diving board into the water, which had turned inky blue in the evening sun.

Day Three

On our last morning, we hopped on the ferry to Orust, Sweden’s third-largest island. It is a wild expanse of woodland, flat blue waters and storybook fishing villages. Locals get around by bicycle, many walking home wrapped in bath robes fresh from an afternoon swim.

Mias Sjöbod is a popular local café housed inside an old boat storage house. It is run by Mia, the vivacious, pink-spectacled owner whose lifetime collection of Swedish antiques and curiosities cover every inch of the place. She serves up local Swedish comfort food and classic sweet treats – with one of the best cinnamon rolls in the area (we’re assuming that, like us, you will have developed a dangerous addiction to them by now). We ate creamy fish stew with home-baked bread and butter out on the waterside terrace. It overlooks a smattering of yellow, white and red wooden boat houses, with tiny islands speckling the water. We chatted to Mia about West Sweden (“There’s a different attitude here.” She says. “People here are always open. You’ll feel it everywhere you go.”), as her neighbours jumped into their boats for an afternoon on the water.

For one last fika, we headed to Gunnebo, a grand neoclassical house and gardens built by a wealthy merchant in the 1700s, and designed by Gothenburg’s famous architect Carl Wilhelm Carlsberg. This opulent, whitewashed manor house is a work of architectural art, but what is even more capturing is its organically certified grounds. There are three separate green spaces: a splendid English park, formal Italian-style gardens and the ‘kitchen gardens’, a lush, colourful patchwork of vegetables, herbs and cut flowers. Using historical methods of gardening, a passionate team of ground staff stock the on-site restaurant all year round. The menu, based on a traditional husmanskost cuisine, changes each day. Dishes are dictated by whatever mood strikes head chef Andreas, whose only rule is to follow the seasons. We paid him a visit in the kitchen, where he let us sample a few of his creations – sour milk pickled radishes, lavender caramel, and a whipped thyme mayonnaise that we could have drunk with a straw. “If it’s not from the ground, we won’t use it.” He says, explaining his plans for berry season (compotes, juices and pickles will feature). “When the land is this full of produce, the only problem is choosing what to use. It’s a pretty wonderful problem to have.”

 

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Go to visitsweden.com/abitdifferent