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Find your Christmas spirit in West Sweden

Carrie Lyell gets into the Christmas spirit with a little help from some glögg.

Carrie Lyell

Mon, 19 Dec 2016 13:58:56 GMT | Updated today

It's ridiculous-o-clock on a cold December morning and I'm sitting in the back of an Uber on my way to Heathrow. The radio is playing all the Christmas classics, but I couldn't feel less festive if I tried. I swipe through my work emails, remembering all the work I have to do, and sigh. Sweden has its work cut out with this particular Grinch. 


It makes a valiant effort. Stepping out of the airport into the crisp cold of Gothenburg, I'm greeted by yule goats made from sprigs of pine trees and decorated with red ribbons, and I feel the stresses of London life melt away as we drive an hour north of the city, to Klädesholmen Island. 


Klädesholmen is one of 8,000 islands dotted along the Bohuslän Coast, an 160m stretch from Gothenburg to Norway. Described as one of the country's most enchanting and alluring regions, it's love at first sight as I find myself captivated by the stunning views. Fog hangs low over sprawling fields dotted with windmills and red wooden houses, and for a minute I wonder if I'm in some kind of Christmas Nordic noir, before the car comes to a stop and I'm snapped back to reality by the sounds of the sea. 


Our guide, Emelie, has brought us to Salt and Sill, a restaurant famous for its seafood and their many varieties of pickled herring. I try several, all of which are delicious, but my favourite is their whisky and mustard variety. I'm given a chance to make my own with a lesson from their chef. It's not quite Salt and Sill standard, but it definitely cuts the mustard!        

After lunch, and a tour of the adjoining floating hotel, we take a short drive to the other side to watch the sunset. Pink, purples and reds dance off the water as waves crash dramatically off the ragged cliffs, and I realise it's been hours since I thought about deadlines. 


We hop back in the car, and drive another hour to Orust island, where we'll be spending the night at Lådfabriken. Once a factory producing fish crates, Lådfabriken has been completely transformed by owners Johan Buskqvist and Marcel van der Eng, and is now a gorgeous boutique B&B and without a doubt the most wonderful place I've ever had the pleasure of staying. The couple, and their lovely dogs Bruno and Curro, welcome us with homemade Christmas cake and glögg, and we after being in the door less than an hour I know I never want to leave. 


After a quick change, dinner is served, and I'm blown away by the feast Johan and Marcel have prepared for us. Their take on the traditional Swedish "Christmas table" is a veritable banquet- or smörgåsbord - of local seafood. We're served a delicious mussel soup while our eyes drink in the offerings on the table, which includes crab claws, lobster, langoustines and oysters, the latter of which I have never tried. Johan offers some friendly advice as I consider these odd-looking specimens suspiciously, even offering to fetch me a bucket if they don't agree with me, but there's no need as I greedily slurp it down and reach for another. 


We eat and eat until we can hardly move, but there's always room for desert, and Johan and Marcel serve up some wonderful poached pears that taste just like Christmas. The pair sit with us and chat about festive traditions in Sweden, while keeping our glasses topped up with wine and schnapps, and in the cosy surroundings, I feel a pang of Christmas spirit. Well, I never! 


Soon, I make my way to bed, with a full belly and a happy heart, and sleep more soundly than I have in months. 


The next morning, we're up bright and early for another smörgåsbord - this time of the breakfast variety. There's homemade bread and 10 different types of homemade marmalade (the peach was my favourite) as well as fresh fruit, granola, meats and cheeses, and plenty of fresh coffee. Heaven. Once our appetites have been sated, we head out for a stroll, taking in the splendour of the coastal surroundings and the nearby village of Edshulthall, where Johan shows us the house his grandmother was born in. On our return to Lådfabriken, we're greeted by the waft of gingerbread, and find Marcel has been busy in the kitchen. We're each tasked with building a gingerbread house, a traditional Christmas activity for Swedish families, and feel like children again as we set to work. 


There's just time for wander down to the water before we have to pack our bags and say farewell to our wonderful hosts, who make me promise to come back and bring my wife, which I do so gladly. But before we go, Marcel dashes into the kitchen and returns with two oyster shells which he has washed; a memento to remember the time I lost my oyster-virginity. I'm sad to leave, but I know I will be back. 


In less than an hour, we're in bustling Gothenburg, and ready to experience a completely different kind of Christmas. After a quick check in at the gorgeous Hotel Bellora, slap bang in the city centre, we set off for a spot of lunch at Bee Bar, a friendly bar and restaurant which cheekily describes itself as "straight friendly". Sweden has a reputation for being on the expensive side, but here was very reasonable and the food was lovely. 


After lunch, we stroll lazily through the city, before taking a "fika" at Da Matteo, famed for being one of the best coffee stops in the city. I couldn't argue with that, as the flat white I ordered was one of the best I have had. And my cinnamon bun was delicious, too! 


By then, the sun was starting to set, and we made our way to the canal for a Christmas Paddan Tour - a lovely way to see the city. The mulled wine on offer may have been cold by the time we boarded, and it was hard to hear our guide's history lesson over the sound of the ice cracking underneath us, but it was great fun nevertheless, and our arrival at Liseberg - Sweden's largest Christmas market - took my breath away as five million lights sparkled above us. 


I'm not kidding about those lights. Liseberg really is huge, but here are some numbers that might help you gauge the scale - 1,262 Christmas trees, 5km of Christmas, 27 attractions and 75 stalls and shops make up this incredible spectacle - and there's something here for everyone, whatever Christmas means for you. We wander around the Traditional Christmas Market and up into Swedish Lapland to meet Santa, but the queue is long, and I'm hit by a wave of guilt should I deprive a child of his or her dream. So instead we make our way to the Design market, a perfect place for gift-buying, before making our way to see something truly special - The Nutcracker on ice. Sofie, from the tourist office, has secured as the best seats in the house on a balcony overlooking the show, and though it's so cold we can't feel our toes, it was absolutely fantastic. A real Christmas treat. 


For dinner, we head to nearby restaurant The Green Room, and warm up with some more glögg before feasting on a veggie version of the Christmas buffet, including roasted spuds and celeriac, sprouts and that Swedish classic - meatballs. And then we wrap up warm again, and head out into the chilly night to find Gretas, famed as the oldest gay bar in Gothenburg. It's early when we arrive - 10.30 maybe - but the dance floor is already packed and I'm pleasantly surprised to find its majority women. The crowd is friendly, the music is great, but the drinks are pricey - even during happy hour - so we don't stay for long. Instead, we stumble back to Bellora, and for the second night in a row, I sleep like a baby. 


The next morning, I arrange to meet my friend Pete who moved to Gothenburg seven years ago. He arrives with his three children, who are the definition of adorable in their little snow suits, and we set off on an adventure to Härlanda tjärn, a picturesque lake in the eastern part of the city. A popular swimming spot in the summer, the lake is now mostly frozen over, and the kids squeal in mock horror as Pete walks on the ice. "Be careful, Papa!" they shout in Swedish. We walk for a while, before tucking into our picnic of bananas and cinnamon buns, as the kids patiently teach me Swedish words and laugh at my pronunciation. 


They have a sleepover planned for later, so Pete drops me off back in the city centre, and I make the most of the fading light by taking out one of the city bikes. Similar to London's "Boris Bikes", Styr and Ställ have stations throughout the city, and you can use them free if you have a Gothenburg City Card. Easy to use, I'm soon cycling down the canal and through the city's many green spaces, stopping for another fika at Da Matteo and to take pictures of another incredible sunset. 


Sadly, my Swedish dream is almost over, so I pick up my bags and head to the airport. The five million lights of Liseberg twinkle as we speed past on the bus to Gothenburg-Landvetter. But I take with me a jar of my pickled herring, oyster shells, lovely memories, and a jingle in my bells that London is going to have to wrestle out of me.  


Enjoy your own winter wonderland in West Sweden this Christmas, with flights starting from London to Gothenburg starting at around £50. 




Images: Lådfabriken/Dick Gillberg


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