A Bright City In The Shadows

9th September 2011

Chris Ambrose spends a few days in Gothenburg…

A cursory glance at my watch confirmed to me that it was still only mid-morning as I wiped my brow and placed a weary foot on the 194th – and final – step up to the Skasen Kronan (Crown Keep). The occupied picnic benches that lined the pathways on top of the fortified mound further put pay to any preconceived ideas I had about Sweden being a country of purely wintry exploits. From this prominent viewpoint you get a good sense of the undulating terrain in which Sweden’s second city sits, with its waves of red-roofed buildings rolling out over the bumps and hills in every direction.

Despite often playing second fiddle to the capital, Stockholm, in terms of both recognition and visitor draw, Gothenburg has far greater significance than it is sometimes given credit for. It is in fact Scandinavia’s busiest port, and the home to iconic car manufacturer, Volvo; a Volvo museum is, in fact, one of the city’s attractions – and every second car in the city is a Volvo, of course. It has also spawned some numerous internationally successful music acts (including composer Kurt Atterberg and pop act Ace of Base amongs others) and offers a thriving music scene for both classical and pop and rock acts.

At the foot of Skansparken, on which the keep sits, you find the mini tourist hub of Haga: a hippy neighbourhood in the 60s and 70s, that now features a small network of cobbled streets filled with craft shops and quirky cafés. Here the wooden buildings that originally housed the city’s working classes have been carefully restored to add to the architectural and cultural interest, while the stock and decorations of some of the shops emphasise the slightly… offbeat… culture that can be found throughout this city. The active promotion of tourism is also prevalent in this area: high across the narrow streets trails ‘European flags’ bunting, and beneath it people sit, chat – and consume tourist-priced coffee and cake.

Mixed in amongst the tourists are students from one of the many college buildings dotted throughout the city, which together form one of the largest universities in Scandinavia. The students contribute heavily to the eclectic art and culture scenes that exist in Gothenburg, with posters advocating the numerous concerts and art shows on offer in the coming days and weeks. My visit also coincided with Swedish elections, and on all the major streets and squares were small groups of heavily propaganda-clad twenty-somethings handing out leaflets for their chosen party.

As I made my way in a southerly direction behind the district of Haga and towards the Botanical Gardens, darkening clouds overhead urged me to take solace indoors . Luckily this area is home to the Natural History Museum (or the the Naturhistoriska Museet). I had barely stepped inside the doors to the museum (which is largely hidden away amongst the trees on the edge of Slottsskogs-parken), when a man behind the information desk greeted me most bizarrely.

‘Hello! Today is election day… and the word for ‘vote’ is similar to the word for ‘whale’, so today you can go inside the whale!’

This was, to say the least, a quite unexpected welcome, but I didn’t have a lot of time to reflect upon this odd promotion, or how he had immediately guessed my nationality, as I was ushered through (under 25s get into many of Gothenburg’s museums free) to the first exhibition room.

I found myself surrounded by an array of life-size stuffed animals in glass display cases: from birds of prey in simulated full flight, to lions on the prowl, with a large African elephant standing guard in the centre. Beyond were more rooms and corridors featuring drawers of carefully pinned insects and cabinets full of familiar bird species beside the more exotic offerings.

Having paused to take in some of the more imaginative displays (including a clever pond floor projection… when you stepped onto the ‘water’ it rippled and the fish swam away) I soon found my way through to the main exhibit – the ‘stuffed’ blue whale. Taking up much of the hall space, the whale is indeed an impressive sight, and can be viewed from the floor or from the balcony that runs around the room at an upper level. The day’s special addition to the feature was also prominent – two metal ladders leading up to the open jaw. Having climbed the steps (unsupervised), I was surprised to find the inside lined with a pair of wooden bench seats – bringing into question the word ‘stuffed’ in its description, but certainly providing an unusual (and quite literal) insight into this giant seafaring mammal.

The clouds had started to break apart when I emerged from the museum an hour later, with the sun intermittently piercing through to the city below. After a short stroll around the hilly parkland beside the museum, I headed back towards the centre, once again battling with the complex road junctions that regularly feature a daunting array of roads, tramlines and two-way bike lanes that make establishing the direction(s) to check before crossing both essential and terrifying.

The centre of Gothenburg City is marked by a zigzagging canal network that branches off the river where the city lies. Numerous bridges enable you to cross over at regular intervals, allowing you to visit the smart boutiques and eateries around Magasinsgatan, or to hop over the water and see the remains of Sweden’s only original Viking boat in the Stadsmuseum. If you want to gain a different viewing perspective on the city, head to one of the many surrounding parks and squares where peaceful mini-protests and rallies add intrigue and diversity to the afternoon’s proceedings.

Back in the heart of the canal-cordoned city centre I found myself next to Gothenburg’s cathedral, the Domkyrkan. The small square adjacent to this 18th century building was playing host to a mini-festival tied in with the election day, featuring a selection of food and craft stalls as well as a large stage where an eclectic line-up of music acts and speakers were scheduled. On the other side of the building a high-spirited game of team handball was in full swing.

Most of the city’s professional sports are played to east of the centre, where a varied collection of sporting and entertainment venues advertise the upcoming matches and popular visitor attractions such as motorcross speedway and rock concerts.
If all that sounds a bit ‘full-on’, you can always pay a small entry fee and slip off into one of the more serene gated park areas, with bright, neatly kept flower beds and gentle water features, where you can just sit and soak up a more relaxed city vibe…

Find Your Local