I walked up to the front to pay my bill, “did you like the recommendation?”
“Yeah! It was really good! I was quite surprised that lunch could be good without meat.”
“Haha, yes me too. It’s one of the few dishes I can do without having meat… anyway where have you come from?”
“Oh I’m working in Stockholm, I came over here for the weekend…”
“Welcome to Gothenburg! We’re 10 times cooler than Stockholm”
“Indeed, and much friendlier too.”
That was Gothenburg in a snapshot, the second largest city in Sweden and the capital on the west coast. Although it is second in size it does not play second fiddle to Stockholm, but gyrates sensually to its own beat. If Stockholm is stylish, Gothernburg is groovy. Where Stockholm is steeped in history, Gothenburg is infused with reinvention.
This is the story of a former industrial city that has since transfrormed and is now the capital of cool.
By Swedish standards, Gothenburg (or Göteborg) is a middle aged city, since it was founded only in 1619 on the direction of King Gustav Adolf. Old foes to along the Scandanavian border, Sweden and Denmark was at war again in the early 17th century, this time precipitated by a religious reason (followed by the subtext, i.e. politics). This would be called the Thirty Years War.
The Thirty Year War ended only in 1648 with the Treaty of Westphalia.
(Check out this rather humourous take by Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie.)
The political boundaries of the 17th century were different from today. Norway as well as present day South Sweden (Scania) was part of the Kingdom of Denmark while the whole of present day Finland belonged to Sweden. Gothenburg occupied a narrow strip of land wedged between the Norwegian and Danish sides. It was a strategic location that would serve as a westward defence of the Kingdom.
The city was built by the Dutch (who were Lutheran too), because it was the Dutch city planners who best understood how to build a city on flat marshy land. Taking a leaf from Amsterdam and Jakarta (then a Dutch Colony known as Batavia), the city planners dug canals inside the city.
Tourist today can take tours through the canals in the city, something that has been going on since 1939.
The treaty of Roskilde in 1658 ceded the surrounding lands to Sweden (essentially Sweden’s present day west coast) and gave Gothenburg much more breathing space. This allowed the defensive fortification to grow into a trading city. Sweden’s largest one that opened up trade to the North Atlantic Ocean. Because of the focus on war and more war, Gothenburg was never able to truly fulfill its role as Sweden’s Atlantic gateway. Therefore, the end of the Swedish Empire was a sort of ironic fortune for the city. The fall of a Great Era of Sweden allowed the country to undergo an Age of Liberty where greater powers were put in the hands of parliament rather than the monarch. It was at this time, in 1731 that the Swedish East India Company was set up and did roaring trade for East Asian spices and tea. Products that headed for Sweden first arrived at Gothenburg and eventually found their way to Stockholm and other cities. The company and trade was facilitated by many English and Scottish traders (including William Chalmers, a scotsman who set up the Chalmers University of Technology) giving the city the moniker “Little London”.
Life in Sweden began to change, farms grew larger and more people wanted to find work in the shiny cities. As individuals gained more education and capacity for critical thinking they begun to resent the control and authority of the Church of Sweden on their lives. Many decided to move to the cities and others left for the new world – United States. Gothenburg was a witness to all this, with industrial firms set up in city that would end up being world leaders including Volvo and SKF. It was also the final port of call for the “American Dreamers” before leaving Sweden (a nod to that fact can be found in the town of Gothemburg, Nevada).
Of those who stayed in Sweden in the 19th century many chose to make Gothenburg their home and they wanted to make the city beautiful. So up came the middle class Parisian styled Avenyn, the main boulevard of the city and the first residential area outside the old city walls. Avenyn today has a litany of bars, clubs, pubs and restaurants that charge relatively low prices (by Scandanavian standard) due to the proximity of the nearby University of Gothenburg and the students (who form the most regular of the patrons).
A little further west, in the Haga district, stayed the working class. The district has been re-energised from a shady indsutrial town into a popular pedestrians street with chic fashion outlets and great cafes.
With a city proper of 500,000 (and an urban area of over 1 million) the larger city area has no metro system but is served by buses and trams the latter of which for some reason seem to add to the rather laid back charm of the city. But beautiful streets were not enough, as more and more people arrived, the quality of life had to increase, and so came beautiful parks in the city, including the Gothenburg Garden Society located literally in the centre of the city.
Beauty attracts those who can afford to move there and the industrial city drew more creative and culture-lovers of their day who could afford to spend time engaing in creative and cultural endeavours. The city became home to an artistic elite too and is now home to the best collection of Scandanavian art in the world (at the Gothenburg Art Museum).
This environment has combined to gift artists of all forms to the world, from the nationally famous troubadour Evert Taube,
to the indie singer Jose Gonzalez of Junip
from Jazz pianist Bength Hallberg,
to thrash-metal band The Haunted.
Did I mention that Alica Vikander (of The Danish Girl and Tulip Fever) was born in this city? (I find the strangest reasons to mention her, seriously)
Gothenburg’s location next to the ocean also means that its seafood is supremely fresh. Seafood is a religion in this city which is also home to the culinary renaissance in Scandanavia – making this place Sweden’s culinary capital.
All these combine to give a wonderful smorgasbord of a city and I haven’t even mentioned the amazing Liseberg amusement park, wonderfully integrated into the city,
or the Gothia Cup, the largest annual youth football tournament in the world (continually held since 1975), that counts stars like Alan Shearer, Ze Roberto, Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo and Zlatan Ibrahimovic as alumni. So of these kids could be tomorrow’s stars.
That’s the sign of a vibrant city. There are places that you visit for a weekend and decide that you’ve probably done all the touristy things, then there are places that you know you have barely scratched and you want to go back. Gothenburg is the latter and the articles in the next few days we will barely scratch what this fascinating city has to offer (a future trip is surely in the offing).