A flying visit to Sweden

It only takes 35 minutes on an Øresund train to cross from Copenhagen to the Triangeln station in Malmö (40 minutes if you continue to the ‘Central’ station), but the two cities feel very different. Copenhagen is full of interest and things to do (see my previous two posts) whereas Malmö just seems rather bland, as if it had been bombed and rebuilt as an efficient businesslike city. Obviously I’m being unfair, it’s a fine place to live, and economically dynamic – I was only there for two nights, and spent most of a day visiting the nearby town of Lund, which I have to say I found far more attractive.

 My first stop was the Malmöhus or Malmö Castle, just west of the centre, which now houses the city’s history, art and natural history museums. The town was founded in the mid-thirteenth century as a port for the bishopric of Lund, and grew fast due to its strategic location on the Øresund between present-day Denmark and Sweden, and its very profitable herring trade. The first castle was built in 1434 by Erik of Pomerania, king of the Kalmar Union (Denmark, Sweden and Norway), and it was rebuilt a century later (1536-42) by Christian III of Denmark, to serve not just as a fort but also as a residence for the county governor and occasionally for the king. The second half of the sixteenth century was its heyday, when Crown Prince Frederick and then King Christian IV spent a lot of time in their fine renaissance apartments; however from 1658 Sweden took control of this area and the fortifications were extended, resisting a Danish siege in 1767. It then fell into disrepair and served as a prison from 1828 to 1909; then the surrounding area became a park and eventually the northern wing of the castle was restored and opened as a museum in 1932, with more modern buildings on three sides of the courtyard inaugurated in 1937.

 You’ll start in the main museum building, facing the entry, where there’s an excellent aquarium,  with both local and tropical fish as well as tree-frogs, chameleons and snakes such as the green tree python and the Gaboon viper, as well as dioramas showing boar, bison and elk in their mocked-up habitats; the art galleries were closed when I visited. The history displays (a bit incoherent and mostly in Swedish only) are in the original north wing, where there also a couple of furnished rooms with royal portraits and a Gobelins tapestry (circa 1740); there’s also coverage of the episode just before the end of the Second World War, when volunteers drove white buses (there’s one in a glass box in front of the castle) to Germany to rescue 15,000 concentration camp survivors, of whom 2,000 were housed in the castle for some months. Incidentally, Malmö is likely to become the site of the Swedish Holocaust Museum. You can also wind your way across to the Cannon Tower, part of the seventeenth-century fortifications, with better coverage of the Danish-Swedish wars that ended in 1710.

 Immediately to the west are the Kommandanthuset café and the Banérskajen wharf, with herring boats and typical late nineteenth-century wooden houses, used to sell fish; in a modern building just beyond (and covered by the same ticket) is the Museum of Technology and Shipping. This feels like a real museum rather than random displays in a castle; highlights include the interior of the ferry Øresund, a small coastal submarine that you can go inside (in non-Covid times), a Saab Draken jet fighter, a Krauss narrow-gauge tank engine, and various cars and traction engines.

 The historic centre consists of two squares, the main Stor Torget, dominated by the Rådhus (City Hall), built in 1546, and just to the the southwest Lilla Torg, livelier with cafés and restaurants, and on its southern side the Form/Design Centre, with galleries that show off the best of Swedish design. Behind the Rådhus, St Petri is Malmö’s oldest church, dating from about 1319-80, and a fine example of Baltic Brick Gothic, perhaps modelled on the Marienkirche in Lübeck, which I’ll be writing about soon. It has a plain white interior with a simple vault and a splendid fifteen-metre-high altarpiece (dating from 1611) and funerary monuments. Don’t miss the murals in the so-called Krämare Chapel (the chapel of the vendors, built for the cloth merchants’ guild) – painted between the 1460s and the 1510s, and covering the ceiling and walls, they’re quite sophisticated and not at all like the naïf murals in the area’s village churches.

 I was also quite taken by St Paul’s church, just east of the centre, a hexagonal building built in 1882 that reminded me of Russian Orthodox churches of that period; it’s gay-friendly and swathed in rainbow flags.

There are two fine spaces for exhibitions of contemporary art: the (free) Konsthall just south of the centre, and the Moderna Museet just east of the centre, which was founded in 2009 (in a former power plant dating from 1901) as an outpost of the original Moderna Museet in Stockholm. If you go a little way west beyond the castle to the waterfront, there are good views of the Øresund bridge and the Turning Torso tower, now a symbol of the city, and there’s a sea-bathing pontoon, as in so many Danish cities, but that’s pretty much it for Malmö.

 Lovely little Lund

The small city of Lund is known both for its cathedral and its university, and it’s also the home of Tetrapak. It’s just 18km northeast of Malmö, with a direct cycle route that for some reason is not signposted from Malmö, despite being such a short and pleasant ride; in the other direction, there are signs from Lund, which may say something about the two towns’ relative sense of their own importance. Lund dates from the end of the tenth century, when it was defended by an earthen rampart with four gates; the Romanesque cathedral was built between around 1080 and 1145, and became the seat of the Archdiocese of the Nordic countries, founded in 1103. It was taken over by the Danish state in 1636, after the Reformation, and became rather dilapidated; in 1658 the region became part of Sweden, and in 1666 a university was established, to help in the Swedification of Skåne – at first teaching took place in the cathedral, but from 1688 the university took over the King’s House, just north of the cathedral, which had been built by King Frederik II in 1584.

 Although it’s been restored, the cathedral retains its Romanesque unity and would be worth a detour anywhere in Europe. Inside, there are some fine Romanesque stone carvings, especially in the crypt, wooden choir stalls (1361-79), and the splendid astronomical clock, installed around 1425, with two carved knights on top who clash their swords at noon and 15.00 daily, after which an organ plays the tune In Dulci Jubilo and the Three Kings and their servants emerge in procession. There’s also a neoByzantine mosaic in the apse, completed in 1927 by the painter Joakim Skovgaard.

 To the south of the cathedral is the very modern Cathedral Forum, opened in 2011 to house community facilities, visitor information, exhibitions and a fairtrade café. To the north is a park with the King’s House and, beyond, it, the modern university. Just northeast of the cathedral, the university’s Historical Museum has housed its archeological collections since 1918, and since 2003 it has been transformed and opened up to the public (with an English leaflet and summaries, at least). The finest Iron Age set of horse trappings yet found were excavated at the Sösdala Iron Age burial site, showing that this area had connections to the nomadic cultures of the steppes and the Black Sea area; there are also finds from the nearby Vätteryd and Frederiksberg burial sites and from Uppåkra, the largest Iron Age village in northern Europe. Then you might as well go to the top of the building and make your way down via the skeletons of an aurochs and other animals, casts of classical statues, coins and well displayed medieval carvings of Christ; a bridge leads across to the cathedral museum in the Chapter House, with the usual vestments and so on. There’s also an ethnographic hall, closed for remodelling until 2021.

The main building of Lund University

 A few hundred metres further to the northeast is Kulturen, another of the open-air museums of transplanted historic buildings that are common in Scandinavia, such as in Aarhus and the original Skansen in Stockholm. Not too far north are the Skissernas museum (Sketches Museum) or Museum of Artistic Process and Public Art, and the Livets museum (Museum of Life). The first is a unique collection that aims to illustrate the creative process from sketch to finished work, especially in the context of public art. The latter (run by Kulturen) is a museum of medical history, opened in 2012, that studies the human body and its diseases through both historical implements and modern technology.

 Just east of the centre, the university’s free Botanic Garden (moved in the 1880s from the park immediately north of the cathedral) is impressive, with beautiful gardens and greenhouses housing flora from nine climatic zones, as well as an attractive café.

 Finally, just south of the centre by the Saluhallen market, the Lunds Konsthall is another free space for exhibitions of contemporary art – something they do really well across Scandinavia.

 By chance, just a week ago, Lund’s first tram line opened, running from the railway station to the modern university/hospital area north of the city, and nowhere within sight of the historic centre. I left by a less modern form of transport, the ferry from Malmö to Travemünde, which has fairly basic passenger facilities, as it exists mainly for truck traffic; but it’s an interesting trip along a busy shipping lane. Travemünde is almost a suburb of Lübeck, which I’ll write about soon.

 The Swedish Covid-19 controversy

Libertarians (probably the same people who used to despise Sweden’s egalitarian high-tax social-democratic governments) seized on Sweden as a great example of the virtues of not locking down against Covid-19. Factually wrong, and with hindsight it didn’t work out at all well. There may not have been a full legal lockdown, but the government was very much relying on people behaving responsibly and not going out to mix in large numbers – and they didn’t go out, by and large, because the Swedes still trust experts and government, unlike other nations that have been led astray by populists and fake news. The major glitch in the initial stages was that care homes were left exposed to the coronavirus, and there was a high rate of infection and deaths there.

 In the longer run it turned out that Sweden’s death rate from Covid-19 was indeed higher than in countries that had locked down, and at the same time its economic downturn was greater, although the pay-off for not locking down was supposed to be less economic harm.

 When I was in Malmö in October, virtually no-one was wearing masks, even in buses and trains, which was the bare minimum everywhere else I went. Sweden was already a largely cash-free society, but I did absolutely everything by card and didn’t change any cash at all. The second wave of the pandemic arrived in October, soon after I left, and hospitals soon had to postpone non-emergency operations; the Skåne region, including Malmö and Lund, was forced to introduce various measures such as no alcohol being served after 22.00, public gatherings being limited to eight people, and switching to online teaching in schools. People were also urged to avoid public transport, gyms, libraries and busy shops, and to limit social interactions to single households. Much like everywhere else then.

 Reports revealed how badly things had gone wrong in the care homes, and in his Christmas message, the King admitted that the country had failed. The advocates of laissez-faire herd immunity are finally having to eat their words.

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