I’ve had a long-standing love affair with seductive Stockholm, but after a recent fling with flirtatious Gothenburg 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. Down-to-earth Gothenburgers aren’t given to boasting – it isn’t in their nature – but they’ll tell you, casual as you like, that “west is best”. Having been wooed and won over by the place they proudly call home, I’m inclined to agree.
|The 17th Century Skansen Kronan fortress and, beyond, the Gothenburg brand, painted in 20-foot-high letters|
on the side of a floating dock in the harbour. Photo: Stendahls
The Burg Lebowski
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 prats 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, who make ‘The Dude’ Lebowski look hyper.
My admiration for the easy-going Gothenburgers soars when I overhear the 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.
|The Poseidon statue at the top of Kungsportsavenyen. Photo: Dick Gillberg.|
Below, Gothenburg Museum of Art's Furstenburg Gallery
An embarrassing moment with some nude women
At the top of the avenue, behind the Poseidon fountain, stands the yellow-brick Gothenburg Museum of Art (www.konstmuseum.goteborg.se), where the star 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 pillar on which sits a life-sized fibreglass baby in a green romper suit – with antlers sprouting from his head. It’s a good spot from which to view the huge oil painting on the wall.
The pillar 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, her arms folded, eyeballing me. She arches a brow and diverts her attention to my hand, which I immediately shove in my pocket before she can get the cuffs out.
“Touching the exhibits is not allowed,” she says.
“Oh. Sorry,” I reply. “But I didn’t actually touch it – I just rested my hand while I was looking at that painting of the naked women.”
Doh! 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 beetroot-faced embarrassment I’m out the front door in a flash.
|Matts Johansson's first Da Matteo coffee shop in Victoriapassagen. Photo: Beatrice Tornros|
Drip drip, hooray!
Businessman Matts Johansson is instantly likeable, though there’s nothing instant about the brews the young baristas serve in his four Da Matteo coffee shops (www.damatteo.se). I can’t vouch for his knowledge of onions, but award-winning master blender Matts knows his beans and has pretty trenchant views on how coffee should best be enjoyed.
“Only bad coffee needs milk,” he says, which is a bit awkward as I have the jug in my hand, ready to pour. I immediately pass it – and the buck – to the puzzled teenager behind me with a cheery “Here you are”.
I take my first sip from the drip blend that barista Markus offers. It looks and tastes like no coffee I’ve ever tried – the colour of weak tea, it has a bitter-ish tang. I drain my cup in record time and ask the obliging Markus for a refill.
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 Da Matteo’s goat cheese and fig marmalade sandwiches, I can’t resist buying one to take with me on my afternoon stroll.
|Coffee and cinnamon and cardamom buns in Da Matteo in Magasinsgatan. Below, the Nudie Jeans outlet and|
repair shop in Drottninggatan. Photo: Michael Collins
Gothenburg isn’t especially big, but when it comes to serving up delightful distractions to those out for a dander 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 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. Height of nonsense, more like. However, curiosity gets the better of me and I step inside.
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. That’s what I call service.
They’re into recycling too 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 on reflection 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.
|Charcuterie expert Mario in Scandic Europa Hotel's HAK restaurant. Photo: Tadhg Peavoy|
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 spotted that 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’s 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 wifi on this,” he says, twiddling the ends.
As he expertly cuts some tissue-thin slices of jamon Jabugo (the Rolls-Royce of rashers, from black-footed pampered pigs fed exclusively on sweet acorns), I ask him what part of Spain he’s from.
“Milan,” he says, but spares my blushes by adding that he lived in Barcelona for nine years.
The food is every bit as good as it looks and smells, and the conversation is sparkling – as is the cava. I’d normally sip a chilled dry sherry with Spanish charcuterie and cheese, but the Catalan version of bubbly does the business.
Everyone 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.”
Well, there will be one more crazy person in it before I head back to Dublin, because that’s the pub that everyone has named, so I add it to my itinerary.
|A Paddan boat tour of Gothenburg's canals and the harbour is a great way to see the sights.|
Photo. Kjell Holmner. Below, don't forget to duck going under the Cheese Grater bridge
You’ll laugh your head off – if you’re not careful
I’m late for breakfast, having forgotten that 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 (www.barkenviking.com).
Psychology student Annika, who works part-time for sightseeing boat operator Paddan (www.stromma.se/en/gothenburg), 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’d 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, she 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.
|The splendid four-masted sailing ship Viking is now a hotel. Below, the Feskekorka as seen from a|
Paddan canal tour boat. Photo: Steampipe Production Studio
|Restaurant owner, chef and champion oyster-opener Johan Malm. Photo: Lars Ardarve|
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 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,” she says, “it pays the rent,” 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 (www.restauranggabriel.com). It’s owned and run by Swedish 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. The last time I tried to open an oyster, the Elastoplast share price went through the roof.
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.
|Half-a-dozen oysters as served in Johan Malm's Restaurang Gabriel. Photo: Lars Ardarve|
|Frequent fast ferries serve the archipelago, but you can take a pleasure cruise too. Photo: Kjell Holmner.|
Below, soaking up the sun in the archipelago. Photo: Emil Fagander
Swede dreams are made of this
A 25-minute ride on the number 11 tram from Brunnsparken in the city centre takes me to Saltholmen, from where I catch one of the frequent ferries that serve the islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago. One of these 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.
|On car-free Styrso, the islanders get around on homemade|
transport like this. Below, Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse.
The Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse, which is owned and run by Ola Tulldahl and his wife Ylva Sjoberg, is as far from Fawlty Towers as you can get, but a mere five-minute stroll from where the ferry pulls in. Ola tells me he loves Fawlty Towers, which is a wee bit worrying because I’ll be dining later in his restaurant, so I make a mental note not to order the Waldorf salad in case he’s 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 clearly handmade from teak or mahogany or oak by craftsmen now long-dead.
|The sitting room in the Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse. Below, charming|
owners Ylva Sjoberg and Ola Tulldahl are the perfect hosts
A sole-destroying experience
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 at all. I’ve only just paid €35 to have my best brogues resoled, yet within 10 minutes of setting off from the guesthouse I feel like 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 soles 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 blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Byn, the lady minister, 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. I don’t know what the penalty is in Sweden for leaving tyre marks on a Lutheran minister, but it’s bound to be hefty.
My soles hit the tarmac, and the quick-thinking Pastor Olsson 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.
|Lutheran minister Agneta Olsson's whitewashed church, built in 1752, in the tiny village of Byn|
Play it again, psalm
Disaster narrowly averted, and having denied the local police officers the chance to read me my rights, I step inside the church, which was completed in 1752 (it says so above the door).
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 those well-known 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, wild-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. Speaking of which . . .
|Me on the girly bike with devilish brakes that I borrowed from Ola|
Happy as Larry. Well, Lars
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’s back a couple of minutes later with the menu, which changes every day according to the catch.
“So. I hear you bumped into the pastor,” she says, with terrible timing, as I nearly drown on the mouthful of No.1 Lager that’s halfway down my throat. Word obviously travels fast on a tiny island.
“No, no,” I splutter. “I nearly bumped into the pastor. It was the brakes. I couldn’t—”
“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’s heard of a pub named Olhallen 7:an.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It’s like Fawlty Towers. You should go there.”
|Preparing for lunch in the restaurant in Pensionat Styrso Skaret. Photo: Emil Fagander|
Céad míle fáilte Swedish-style
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 to visit Sweden, so those who make the effort to 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.
Like the vast majority of Swedes, bearded barman Christoffer Johansson speaks flawless English, though 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.
“Are you from Belfast?” I ask.
“Nah, I’m from here, so I am,” says Christoffer, with a big grin that suggests I’ve just made his day.
It turns out his 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.
“What’re ye havin’ anyway?” he asks. “A wee pint?”
|Bearded barman Christoffer Johansson and colleagues in Olhallen 7:an|
Cheers! We only serve beers
I take my wee pint outside to the busy terrace, where I notice that everybody 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.
Next door to the Avalon Hotel in Kungstorget, Olhallen (7:an is the street number) 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. Sorry, but that’s like a tour guide in Giza 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 – because the place is always packed – is if you’re first in the door when it opens. Forget the floor – Christoffer and the lads should instead be shouting from the roof that Olhallen 7:an is not only the oldest but the best bar in the city by far. Then again, they probably don’t have to, seeing as everyone already knows.
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.
|Enjoying pints on a sunny afternoon outside Gothenburg's best bar by far, Olhallen 7:an|
Gothenburg is Go
Ireland’s ambassador to Sweden, Orla O’Hanrahan, took up her role only a few months ago, which would explain why she hasn’t yet had a chance to appoint an honorary consul-general in Gothenburg. Well, I can save her 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 Johansson deals with diplomatic incidents every day, so he’s a shoo-in – and an Irishman at heart (I’d say there’s more than a rub of Viking Dublin in his DNA).
Christoffer 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. It’s true that people make a place, and truer still that salt-of-the-earth people make it special. And that’s especially true of Gothenburg, which doesn’t start with “Go” for nothing. I can’t wait to go back.
|The terror-inducing Atmosfear ride in the Liseberg Amusement Park.|
It's an absolute scream, as you can see from the riders' faces, below
OTHER GREAT THING TO SEE AND DO
Liseberg Amusement Park. If you want to get dizzy without spending the afternoon in Olhallen 7:an, the rides at Liseberg are an alcohol-free alternative, though you’ll probably need a drink to steady your nerves after a go on some of the scariest. Forty-two rides are open in summer, 20 in winter. The main attraction is Atmosfear, which is well-named. From the top of the tallest freefall ride in Europe (116 metres) you’ll see all of Gothenburg – if you’re brave enough to look down. The seats drop without warning at 110kph (G-force 4), so don’t store your mobile phone in your shirt pocket or you’ll reach the ground – in three seconds – before it does. See www.liseberg.com
GREAT PLACES TO EAT
Swedes generally take their lunch very early – 11.30am is not unusual. Walk into a restaurant at 2pm and the place could be empty. That’s no reflection on the establishment – it may well have been packed with satisfied customers only half-an-hour before, so don’t be put off by a sea of empty tables.
Food trucks: As this was my first visit to Gothenburg, I can’t yet give you my usual half-dozen or so recommended restaurants, but I can tell you that the city has a great tradition of funky street food stalls, kiosks and trucks. It’s a fun and far-from-expensive way to fill up while taking in the sights. The city tourist board’s website is among the very best I’ve seen, and it has a section dedicated to food trucks. See www.goteborg.com/en/foodtrucks/
|Gothenburgers love their street food, and they're very well catered to. Burrito Bros, above, and Hola Ceviche,|
below, are two of the city's favourite food trucks. Photos: Jennie Smith
GREAT PLACES TO 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 wifi and 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. See www.scandichotels.com/gothenburg
Pensionat Styrso Skaret (Skaretvagen 53, Styrso Island) is a warm and welcoming base from which to explore the island. Rooms from €170 to €195 and a restaurant to rave about. See www.pensionatskaret.se
Hopefully, SAS will reconsider its recent decision to drop its Dublin-Gothenburg direct flights. Meanwhile, fly from Dublin with SAS to Gothenburg via Stockholm or Copenhagen from €78 one way with hand luggage. Add a checked-in bag and the fare is €92 one way. See www.flysas.ie
Flygbussarna coaches connect Gothenburg Landvetter Airport with the city centre (25km/30 minutes), with departures up to every 15 minutes. Tickets can be bought online, at the airport kiosk or on board (with debit or credit card). An adult return costs 185SEK (€19.66) online or 195SEK at point of departure. See www.flygbussarna.se/en/landvetter
It makes sense to buy a money-saving Gothenburg City Card which offers free admission to most of the museums and other attractions, plus free travel on buses, trams and boats. There are also discounts in selected stores. Take full advantage of a city card and it pays for itself. Buy online for delivery to your home, or pick it up on arrival at any of the tourist information centres.
For more information on visiting Gothenburg, you’ll find everything you need at www.goteborg.com
|Take a stroll or cycle through Gothenburg's sun-dappled and bicycle-friendly streets. Photo: Jorma Valkonen.|
In the wetter months, a vending machine at the airport sells umbrellas