Scurry to Skane: History and modernity combine in Sweden
I feel a little guilty about making Swedish archaeologist Ann-Louise Ferngard get up so early. But on a blustery morning in Skane, Sweden’s southernmost region, she shrugs off my morning visit and warmly welcomes me to Kivikgraven, or the King’s Grave, a Bronze Age tomb that dates back some 3,500 years.
“I’m happy to share this with you,” she says of the historical site normally only open in summer months. She leads me down a path flanked by chunks of granite, remnants of a former quarry, to a locked metal door, already telling me stories. There’s some graffiti, fresh from last night, and she stops to rub at it, swearing softly. I can hear the nearby waves like rhythmic thunder. The air smells of salt and apples. Eventually she pulls the knob, opening the door to reveal a dark portal. “Come in,” she says, and I follow her into the shadows of another time.
Kivikgraven is just one of dozens of prehistoric vaults and barrows, stone circles and fortresses in Skane, a forested region with rolling farmland and beaches so white some call the area the Riviera of Sweden. For history buffs, Kivikgraven delivers with original petroglyphs and a sacred history. Ferngard further ups the ante when she plays me a recording stored on her phone. It’s of a scientist blowing into an intact bronze horn discovered in Sweden that dates to this tomb’s time. According to Ferngard, it's similar to the ones depicted in these petroglyphs. The notes, eerie, entrancing, on a gut-punching vibrational frequency much like the om sound, stop me in my tracks. I can almost see the petroglyphs — people, birds, horses, fish — come to life. “Soulful, isn’t it?” says Ferngard, leading me out again to modern-day Skane’s uncanny golden light.
While Skane (pronounced Skoneh) brims with history, including Vikings and bloody takeovers by the Danes, it also reigns as a particularly continental and cosmopolitan piece of Sweden. Connected to Denmark by a bridge, it brandishes the emerging hipster city of Malmo as well as picturesque medieval villages and beachside hamlets. With unique denizens, blessed with their own singsong accent, regal carriage and affable ways, Skane offers a Sweden that contrasts to more oft-visited Stockholm up north. Apple orchards, farms, castles, golden fields of rapeseed, grazing beasts, church steeples galore and bone-hued beaches lined with diminutive, colorfully painted cabanas combine to define Sweden’s smallest region as a treasure trove. Add in a farm-to-table movement, Michelin-starred restaurants, spa hotels, canny bars, artistic chocolatiers, a major design culture and a century-old (-plus) sauna complex atop the Baltic Sea, and nobody leaves bedazzling Skane bored or hungry.
Ready to go? Here’s what you shouldn't miss.
Walkable, youthful Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city, pairs nicely with a visit to Copenhagen, which lies just across the Oresund Bridge. Stylish, vibrant and diverse, Malmo has cobbled streets and medieval squares, as well as striking modern architecture, such as Santiago Calatrava’s Turning Torso, rising from the restored Western Harbor. Fly into Kastrup, Copenhagen’s international airport, then take the train across the bridge to Malmo. A short walk from the train station, Hotel Duxiana welcomes with classic Scandic chic. hotelduxiana.com
Take a dip
The Swedes define "spa" a little differently. Follow their ancient sauna-plus-plunge tradition at Malmo’s Ribersborgs Kallbadhus, a more-than-century-old bath house that hovers above the sea. Cast aside bashfulness as you toss your clothes into a locker, perspire in a wood-fired sauna, then dive into the frigid waves — all the while wearing nothing but your birthday suit. ribersborgskallbadhus.se/sv
Book a boat or ride a bike
Pack a picnic and play explorer when you sightsee Malmo from one of its charming, eco-friendly, electric canal boats. A relatively flat city, easy to pedal around, Malmo has a plethora of parks (try Folkets, a huge green lung, ideal for families) and 213 bike routes around town. Conversely, use your feet and walk Malmo’s many pedestrian streets, squares and nooks. Gamla Väster, the Old Town, is an Instagram must. bookaboat.se
Nouveau Nordic Cuisine
Global gourmets have prophesied that the next new Nordic culinary stars will come from Skane. I ate my best meal of 2018 at Vollmers, situated on a cobbled side street in Malmo’s heart. With two Michelin stars, the friendly, fun restaurant, owned and helmed by two creative brothers, sources everything from the Skane region. Dishes, less weird than NOMA, more inventive than El Bulli, less rich than some Michelin favorites in France, draw from Swedish childhood memories. Also, sure to please gourmands, further-afield Horte Brygga, by Martin Sjostrand, provides two unforgettable, seasonal opportunities for eager eaters in search of the profound. Come in summer for an epicurean box lunch on the porch of his restored weaving house, a meal based on what Sjostrand's foraged that day. In the winter, snuggle in for Köksbordet, or the Kitchen Table, where one seating of strangers per night becomes an intimate dining experience, with the chef and his crew never more than an arm’s length away. Innovative, thoughtful preparations and local cider, schnapps or wine pairings will put this at the top of your lifetime dining experiences. Ready for dessert? Chocolate lovers can take a bonbon-making class at Mat & Chokladstudion, where talented confectioner Joel Lindqvist shares the sweetest secrets.
Ystad and Beachy Nordic Noir
Those who’ve read Henning Mankell’s popular novels, which feature the melancholy detective Kurt Wallander, have heard of this pristine, medieval town. A short drive from Malmo, it lies wedged between bucolic farmland and the stellar beaches of the Baltic Sea. Touted for its colorful, half-timbered houses and night watchman who still rings a bell from the ancient tower, the town brims with art galleries, boutiques and restaurants. Stay at historic Ystad Saltsjöbad, a modernized icon of a spa hotel, right on the water. ysb.se
You’ll want to dance with joy inside the oval formed by the Ale's Stones, a 1,400-year-old megalithic monument that exudes mystery. Up a hill from the rustic fishing village of Kaseberga, the landmark dominates the verge of a breathtaking cliff. Shaped like a ship, composed of 59 standing stones, it may have been a burial ground or energy center. www.visitystadosterlen.se
Viking fans can get their fix in the the seaside town of Trelleborg, where a fantastic Viking fortress has been reconstructed according to artifacts and remnants found during archaeological digs on-site. Believed to have been ordered by King Harald Bluetooth, king of Denmark, the original structure may date to the 980s. Peruse the museum, or take part in myriad Viking-themed activities — including a campout — beloved by kids. visittrelleborg.se/en
Take a break
Coffee break. In Sweden, there’s a verb for that. To fika means to sit down in a cozy haven with steaming coffee and a cinnamon bun. (For word nerds, fika can also be a noun, as in “a fika,” or coffee break.) Skane’s citizens love their coffee. As Horte Brygga’s Sjostrand told me, “Without coffee, we die.” Be sure to try kanelbulle (cinnamon buns), for which every grandmother holds a treasured recipe. In Malmo, take your fika at Solde or Uggla Kaffebar. solde.se, ugglakaffebar.se