Story and photography by Bo Zaunders
From Vadstena to Visingsö: Along the shore of Lake Vättern
Chivalry did not begin with Sir Walter Raleigh laying down his valuable cloak in the muddy ground to prevent Queen Elisabeth I from dirtying her feet.
In Sweden long before that a giant named Vist, making sure that his wife had something to step on as she crossed Lake Vättern, threw a tuft of grass into the lake, thus creating the island of Visingsö.
Moving from gallantry and legend to medieval history, this sliver of an island, 7 ½ miles long and less than 2 miles wide, was once a hotbed for Swedish royalty with some half a dozen kings using it as their home back in the 12th and 13th centuries. Now, as you approach the island by ferry, Visingsborg, an old castle ruin, is one of the first things to catch your eye. Dating back to the mid-1500s, it is something of a newcomer, built to replace Näs, the first royal castle of Sweden, which burnt to the ground in 1318.
History permeates not just the island but the entire eastern shore of Lake Vättern, a stretch along which Roxie, my wife, and I traveled for a few days this past summer.
Visingsö, which lies at the southern end of the lake, was our final stopping point on a journey that began in Linköping, the capital of Östergötland County. From there, in a rented car, we headed north-northwest. Our first stop: Göta Hotell in Borensberg, a large red wooden building with white trimming, familiar to anyone who ever cruised the Göta Canal, Sweden’s famous 19th century waterway.
Arriving at lunchtime, we met with Karin and Frederick Eklund, the couple who owns the hotel along with its restaurant. There, in a dining room overlooking the canal, I indulged in – what else – Vatternröding, the delectable char for which the lake is famous. Roxie, meanwhile, ate poached salmon, expertly plated by Karin and served with – what else – the kind of scrumptious new potatoes in which, during the summer, the whole country takes well-deserved pride.
In good spirits, we continued toward Vadstena, making a stop at Övralid, Verner von Heidenstam’s last home.
So who was Verner von Heidenstam? Had the question been asked a century ago it may have raised an eyebrow. Then at the top of his game, he was quite a celebrity and just about the most famous and respected poet and writer in all of Sweden. A leading figure among the literary romanticists of the 1890s, he later became a member of the Swedish Academy and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1916. To Swedes from earlier generations, his most beloved work may have been Karolinerna (The Charles Men), a series of historical portraits of King Charles XII and his cavaliers, a narrative steeped in unabashed patriotism.
A blueblood through and through and rather overbearing at times – he was involved at one point in a highly publicized debate in which he and his old patron August Strindberg fought each other viciously - Heidenstam also showed a human side. Which brings us to his rambunctious wedding on the small Baltic island of Blå Jungfrun in the summer of 1896. Apparently it was a Dionysian feast without compare, an orgy of nudity and abandon. In faded photographs you see him and his guests, prominent artists and writers such as Albert Engström and Gustav Fröding, dressed in togas, skinny-dipping, or romping through the woods with nothing but leaves to protect their private parts.
In 1925, Heidenstam moved to Övralid, the manor house he designed and had built on a hillside next to Vättern. It’s now a museum, kept the way it was at the time of his death in 1940. Here we met with manager Per-Gunnar Andersson, who enthusiastically guided us from room to room, displaying an inexhaustible knowledge of everything connected to the great “National Poet.” The library, his favorite room, had some 3,000 books sorted by their colors. Those with golden backs were placed to reflect the sun at sunset. There were blue, red and green spines, the latter to replicate the forest outside one of the windows. Then came the study, with desk and chairs arranged so that the beautiful lake view would not distract him while working. On the other hand, he loved watching it while shaving, as evidenced by a large shaving mirror right in the middle of his bedroom. Another bedroom was for Kate Bang, the woman he lived with at the time, and others were for dear friends and frequent visitors, such as Prince Eugene and explorer Sven Hedin. In the kitchen stood the first electric model of an Electrolux 1934 refrigerator, still in good working order.
As we passed through the main hallway I took note of an imposing statue of Heidenstam’s mythological hero Folke Filbyter, sculpted by Carl Milles, yet another close friend. Back in the library, I caught sight of worn-out rapier, used in the wars that raged back in the early 1700s. Per-Gunnar’s eyes shone with excitement as he picked it up. “On his 70th birthday,” he said, “Heidenstam was given a lot a fancy gifts but this, by far, was his favorite.”
Looking toward the lake, we could see his tomb and final resting place. “He designed it himself,” Per-Gunnar said, and told us of a meeting he had had a long time ago with a man who, as a teenager, helped build it. As work on his tomb progressed, Heidenstam would often show up for inspections. “Make sure I get plenty of space,” he told the workmen, “as I’m suffering from claustrophobia. And also, as you can see, I’m quite tall, 193 cm.”
Before we left Övralid, Per-Gunnar presented me with a bag full of various paraphernalia. Printed on the bag was a photo of Heidenstam, sitting on the terrace, gazing at his beloved lake - always that aristocratic profile, shown in practically every picture of him.
Driving south, we arrived in Vadstena, a medieval town best known for its connection to Sancta Birgitta (Saint Bridget), its Abbey Church, and Renaissance castle. Here for an overnight stay and dinner, we checked in at the Vadstena Klosterhotell, a former monastery dating back to the mid-13th century. In keeping with its historic past, the dimly lit restaurant featured ancient vaults and thick brick walls. As I dug into a Skagen Toast, Roxie began her meal with a light concoction of bleak roe, sour cream, and chopped red onion. I followed with a side of smoked pork confit boiled in beer and fennel cream, and Roxie, ready for a taste of the lake’s specialty, settled for a baked filet of char. This seemed an appropriate ending to a day full of history and good traditional food - enhanced by a bottle of Chablis Pinot Noir, all in the chiaroscuro light of a Rembrandt or Caravaggio painting.
The next morning, eager to explore Vadstena, I visited the Sancta Birgitta Convent Museum and the Vadstena Castle. The museum elucidates the life and achievements of Birgitta, Scandinavia’s first and only saint. In one room, you’re invited to “converse” with Birgitta and browse through her heavenly revelations; in others you get glimpses of what life was like in the old nunnery. You also learn about the crusades, so popular in those days, along with the history of the Brigittine Order. I was a little surprised to discover that the Order ran the largest brewery in the country, producing 90,000 liters of beer a year, and that each nun received three liters a day for personal consumption.
King Gustav Vasa, who brought about the destruction of the convent, while converting Sweden to Protestantism, also built the castle, thus retaining Vadstena’s prominence in Sweden.
Surrounded by a moat and flanked by stout round towers, the castle, which began as a fortress when it was built in the mid-16th century, was later transformed into a continental-style Renaissance palace. Its heyday, apparently, was when Gustav’s son, King Johan III, lived there in the late 1500s. It never played much of a role in defending Sweden, nor as a royal residence, and for a long time it was used as a garrison and later as granary and linen mill. More recently, however, much has been restored, and guided tours will now show some of the grandeur of its early days. The Great Hall, the Lesser Hall, the Wedding Hall, some lovely tapestry, the Royal Steps… the list goes on. In one large hall was a display of opera costumes from various epochs, costumes which you were welcome to try on, and which were part of an exhibit called “Opera on Hangers – the art of wardrobe at Vadstena castle.”
Arriving at Ombergs Turisthotell, a few miles south of Vadstena, we found ourselves once again in the era of Heidenstam. The hotel, built a hundred years ago with support of Ellen Key, another literary luminary, sits on a hill with lush vegetation and boasts a lovely view of Vättern and the surrounding countryside. Inside and out, it exuded an air of Carl Larsson and turn-of-the century Sweden: pastel colors and lots of white furniture. And the view was always present, from the broad terrace that seemed to stretch around the entire building to the dining room with its huge multi-paneled windows.
The next day we planned to visit neighboring Strand, the home of Ellen Key, which, like that of Heidenstam’s, has been turned into a museum. But right now we were making ourselves comfortable in the hotel, chatting with chef Marcus Larsson and his wife Pernilla, who along with Marcus’ brother Jonas and sister Linda, bought the hotel about six years ago and now run it.
Dinner was about to begin. A selection of opening tidbits stretched almost the entire length of a long table. After that came an exceptional, most creative cucumber soup, poured over a small piling of char, bleak roe, and sour cream. A tenderloin brisket of beef followed, with brown sauce, carrots, and potato purée. As for wine, we began with a glass of white Bordeaux and continued with Valpolicella, an Italian red. And we must not forget the dessert: a cheese cake with rhubarb, raspberries and white chocolate - given a maximum five-star review by Roxie, who is generally not that crazy about sweets.
I mentioned Carl Larsson. At Strand, Ellen Keys’ home, his presence once again could be felt. As it happened, the famous painter and his wife Karin were both close friends of Ellen’s and, presumably, had something to do with the way she decorated her house.
Like Heidenstam, Ellen Key is no longer much talked about these days. But like him, she was once one of the most prominent writers in the country. An early feminist and suffragist with strong political views on most subjects, she’s best known for her book Barnets århundrade, “The Century of the Child,” which has been translated into 26 languages and reprinted many times. It contains her ideas on educational and school problems, many of which are so modern that they are only now being put into practice.
In it she emphasizes the importance of allowing children to specialize in subjects of their own choosing, not be spoon-fed with humdrum knowledge, and, since young people should be able to grow up without fear, she takes a firm stand against all forms of corporal punishment. A sought-after lecturer, she traveled extensively, especially in Germany; Goethe was one of her idols, as were Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson, both of whom were also dear friends.
Key lived in Strand from 1910 until her death in 1926. According to her wishes, the house was turned into a summer home for indigent working women, and has today become a place where adult women students, during the summer can engage in study and meditation.
As curator Hedda Jansson guided us from room to room, I took note of a couple of portraits of Key, one of which was by the well-known painter Richard Bergh. Apparently he was another good friend. “To Ellen from Dick,” he had written on a print of his famous painting of the poet Gustaf Fröding, also on display in this remarkable Lake Vättern homestead.
Before continuing to UrNatur, a most unusual accommodation, we paid a visit to Rökstenen, a rune stone from the early 800s, boasting the longest and, arguably, most difficult-to-decipher rune inscription in the world (I remember seeing it featured in the New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology). A great tourist attraction, it’s some 8 feet tall and stands under a protective roof near the church in which it was discovered. Adjacent to it is a Viking-inspired shop and café, complete with a woman in Viking garb.
Once again a married couple in charge of running a place!
This time it was Håkan Strotz and Ulrika Krynitz, he a Swedish forester and she a German biologist and designer, both with a “back to the future” dream, which slowly but surely has become a reality.
It began 20 years ago when they bought a 100-acre farm. In the midst of meadows and forests and next to a small lake, it suited their purposes to perfection. A forest hermitage evolved - a poem to Swedish nature, and what could be termed the epitome of eco tourism, where everything is driven and inspired by nature and sustainability.
UrNatur, which roughly translates to “essence of nature,” is now the perfect place for relaxation and reflection. Here, without electricity, in the soft light of a kerosene lamp, you can sit by the fireplace, listen to the crackle of wood burning and to the soft wind in the trees outside. Each residence is a unique handcrafted cabin with an evocative name, such as Hat Cabin, the Charcoaler’s Hut, Wolf Cot, Pilgrim’s Hut, Little Tree House, and Air Castle.
On our arrival, Håkan was there to greet us. Subsequently, we and the other guests were hoisted onto a small cart and taken to our respective cabins. The cart bumped and rumbled. A herd of black sheep showed up behind the traditional fencing lining the path on both sides. Soon we reached our destination: the Air Castle.
As “perchers” rather than “nesters” (to use definitions picked up during a visit to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water), we had asked for this, the newest and highest of UrNatur’s two tree houses. Twenty-nine steps up a spiral staircase and we were at our temporary home halfway up a tall pine tree. A small roof deck perched on top of it, and a suspension bridge led to a nearby platform wrapped around another tree, and with two chairs and a small table. Now we just had to wait for twilight to light the kerosene lamp.
I mentioned that there was no electricity. All the toilets were outdoor wooden huts, impeccably clean, with little flower bouquets to make you feel extra pampered. The no-electricity rule did not, however, apply to the metal-roofed Tin Castle, UrNatur’s largest building. Here we gathered for wine, company, and a delicious improvised dinner, which, with a little help from Håkan, was whipped up by Ulrika, and consisted, not surprisingly, of fresh ingredients appropriated from the farm.
Foraging, timbering, building a fire, using an axe, and wood chopping - these are some of the classes offered at UrNatur, and which are part of its back-to-nature, back-to- basics agenda. Or you can borrow a rowboat or a canoe, go fishing, or sweat it out in the forest sauna.
The next morning, after a hearty breakfast we visited Ulrika’s studio, a spacious loft with a display of various furnishings: carpets, interior textiles, glass, and more. I was struck by the utter simplicity of many of the patterns, all linked to nature with names such as “Seaweed, Jellyfish,” and “Bark Beetles.” Before departing, we went for a short walk, and found a young woman busily cutting down the upper branches of a tree. A pruning system called “pollarding,” this is yet another one of those things you can do at UrNatur.
Next stop: Gränna.
Mention the name, and everyone in Sweden thinks of polkagrisar, the red and white candy for which the town has become famous. Though aware of Gränna’s popularity among tourists, I was amazed at the crowds lining the main street, not to mention lots of honking cars. We had just paid a visit to Brahehus, the ruins of the 17th century castle situated on the outskirts of town, and were now heading for the harbor, where the ferry to Visingsö, our final stopping point, awaited. On the subject of Gränna, we must not forget its famous son, August Andrée, who in 1897 with two companions, attempted to reach the North Pole in a hot air balloon. The town remembers him with a museum, as well as a very popular annual balloon festival.
So this was the tuft of grass that the giant Vist threw into the lake!
Visingsö was pretty much as I remembered it from an earlier visit, except for the increased number of tourists. As I did ten years ago, I climbed onto one of the rustic “Remmalagen” horse-drawn carriages for a tour of the island. Off we went, twenty passengers equally divided on the left and right side of the wagon, proceeding in a leisurely, clickety-clack fashion to various island sights. I recall an herb garden and a place where a couple of hundred Russian prisoners of war were buried back in the early 1700s. And I remember passing through a beautiful oak forest before reaching the Kumlaby church, where we made a brief stop. Invited to visit the church’s high lookout tower, I decided to give it a miss after I got stuck with my camera bag in the incredibly tight space in a medieval stairway.
Lunch at Café Solbacken came next. Here, at an outdoor table, overlooking the harbor and the old castle ruin, we dug into a summery salad with herb dressing and a generous serving of those delectable tiny shrimp you get only in Scandinavia. Smoked whitefish followed, complete with a creamy roe sauce, slices of red onion, and – of course – new potatoes.
Here ends our Vättern adventure: four days of history, unique accommodations, and good food. It was also tinged with a bit of nostalgia since it was in this neighborhood we stayed overnight in Gränna during Roxie’s first visit to Sweden. For some reason we were offered the bridal suite, a lovely room with a superior view of the lake. And in the dining room, which we had all to ourselves, Roxie had her first taste of vätternröding.
She still raves about it.
© January 2015 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.