In his final stop on his ‘road less travelled’ tour, Christian Nielsen uncovers the possible prototype for Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a Swedish hamlet.
Tuesday 28 August 2018
The first thing you notice as the ferry docks in Varberg, in present-day Sweden, is the impressive fortress built between 1287 and 1300 by Jacob Nielsen, an outlawed Danish Count, to rebuff likely attacks by Eric IV of Denmark who sought revenge for the murder of his father, Kind Eric V. Sounds like familiar territory methinks … except Shakespeare’s Hamlet takes place further south between royal antagonists in Helsingor (Demark) and the Swedish city facing it is called Helsingborg.
Vargerg’s ramparts overlook the township to the East and a quiet sandy beach facing the Kattegat sea area enclosed by Denmark’s Jutland peninsula to the West, with a quirky boardwalk and pavilion resembling something Aladdin had started after a few shots of Absynth.
Inside the fort are some private houses, a youth hostel nestled beside a cosy bar and restaurant called ‘Happy Fish’ (not so happy customers though … tasty but tiny dishes). The Varberg County Museum inside the inner courtyard tells the town’s story and boasts having the remains of a fully clothed victim of foul play in the 13th century. Experts say the so-called Bocksten Man had been impaled and weighted down in a lake which became a bog that preserved the body and garb from the period.
I’d arrived by ferry from Grenaa in Denmark, as part of a byways and myways tour from Brussels to Stockholm, in time for the World Cup quarter final showdown between Belgium and Brazil. The town had set up a big screen on the main square facing the port. Viking-style long tables were weighted down by out-sized beers. With no real skin in the game, the Swedes were more interested in watching the greats of Brazil do their thing, perhaps sizing up what they might face should they get through England the next day in what would be a 60-year grudge match (Brazil beat Sweden in the 1958 FIFA World Cup final, which gave the world its first glimpse of 17-year-old debutant Pele).
But a page had been torn out of that script because Belgium shocked the brilliant Brazilians, helped by the star of the 2018 Word Cup, the VAR play review technology, and the referee’s disdain for Neymar’s diving performances. (Postscript: England also put paid to it by beating Sweden the next day … a country in mourning, but only briefly … it is the stoical north, after all).
I returned to my semi-homestay for the night, which bills itself as a ‘bed and kitchen’ rather than ‘breakfast’. The arrangement is reasonably typical in Sweden, where families pitch up to these large purpose-built houses with all their own food, linen and toiletries (you can rent sheets and towels for a little extra). It’s not a hostel per se, because the places are more comfortable and the sleeping rooms are not communal, but you share bathrooms, and the clean kitchens, dining facilities and lounge areas set these homestays apart.
Outside at Anna’s Bed and Kitchen is an expansive garden with clusters of chairs and tables, summer games, a rabbit hutch and ample birdsong (from about 3:30 am onwards, when the sun starts coming up). Just over the road is a great bakery and what looks like a boutique brewery. They did a great breakfast (very reasonably priced), which fortified me for the home stretch up to Stockholm.
About halfway up the E4, the forest opens up to the city of Jonkoping, which borders the massive Vattern Lake. I couldn’t pass up the chance to stop at Granna, about 40 km further north along the scenic lake-side drive, a town made famous for its red and white ‘polkagris’ lollipops, invented by Amalia Eriksson in 1859. Today, the neat little town tucked between a hillside and lake, plies its many visitors with hand-rolled candy canes in all shapes, sizes and flavours. You can watch the candy-makers shaping, layering in the colours/flavours, then twisting and rolling the sweet treat. Timing is everything, as the whole blending and rolling process has to be done before the mixture gets too hard to work. Then it is cut to perfect length using a template and wrapped and folded by hand. You can taste the different flavours, and sometimes even buy the batch just made.
From Granna it’s a hop and a skip to our cottage south of Stockholm, and honestly, I was keen to just get there. Of course, there were many other interesting places to stop on the way, including the Swedish Airforce Museum just outside Linkoping and the Rok Runestone, reportedly the longest runic inscription on record, and located just a couple of kilometres off the main highway. But no doubt I’ll be driving that section again in years to come, so maybe it’s not really the ‘road less travelled’, which means it doesn’t qualify for this particular series of stories.