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.

Cycling in Denmark (and nearby)

The centrepiece of my recent trip across northern Europe was to cycle up the Jutland peninsula, or most of the way. I think most touring cyclists follow the coastal roads, but I chose to go up the middle along the Haervej or Military Way, perhaps more accurately known in German as the Ochsenweg or Oxen Way – it’s an ancient droving road, used for moving cattle from the Danish pastures to the markets of Hamburg, and also by pilgrims. (The Haervej is now designated as part of EuroVelo route 3, running from Trondheim in Norway to Santiago de Compostella in Spain, about 5,200 km in all, so it can still serve as a pilgrimage route.) It may be 4,000 years old, but it’s hardly the Ridgeway; towards its southern end it’s still partly an unpaved road (with lots of ancient burial mounds nearby, as well as a few nineteenth-century bridges), but the rest of the route is largely on normal roads and tracks. (There’s also a walkers’ route, which takes a longer way round as a rule, to avoid traffic.) Accommodation is, of course, an issue when it comes to route planning (Jutland is a lot emptier than you might think, and also very expensive) – there are some free ‘hikers’ shelters’, literally just a wooden platform with a roof and three wooden walls and as a rule a fireplace, but you’ll need a proper bed, with washing and device-charging opportunities on alternate nights. I diverted quite a way northwest, to Grindsted, in search of a relatively affordable bed, which also allowed me to notch up quite a few kilometres on former railway lines, some well surfaced and some less so.

In four days I made it to Viborg and then the next day to Aalborg, the historic northern termini of the Haervej, but I chose not to push on for a further couple of days to Skagen, the sandy northern tip of Jutland, to tick off the full 450km Jutland End-to-End. Although Skagen was known for its artists’ colony, drawn by the light and big skies, I was finding Jutland’s scenery a little dull and felt I needed to get to some cities if I was to actually learn anything about Denmark. At the time I didn’t know about the mink farms of northern Jutland, across the Limfjord from Aalborg, and the mutant version of the Covid-19 coronavirus they were incubating, not that it would have affected my choice.

My route
The route across the border

I actually started from Flensburg, the last town in Germany, where I can strongly recommend the Seemannsheim Hostel and in particular the excellent breakfast. The border crossing was on a short section of unpaved track in to Padborg, the first town in Denmark; then my route went through the Frøslev prison camp (in use 1944-5 and now a museum) and on authentic bits of unsurfaced route, quiet roads, and a good long grassy section in forest south of Kliplev. The wooden bell tower at Kliplev church claims to be one of the oldest in Denmark, dating from 1300, but I suspect it’s been renewed a few times. Beyond the Povlis Bro, a small bridge built in 1844, there’s a long unpaved stretch on which the only traffic was a fairly large milk tanker visiting several farms, then quiet roads continue past the villages of Hjordkaer, Rødekro, Øster Løgum, Hovlund Stationsby and Vedsted before reaching the town of Vojens, where I diverted slightly to a shelter in Maugstrup Plantage (plantation).

I joined the new railtrail here – ahead is a continuation that’s still under construction.
You’ve made it! 95 metres above sea level!

 On Day 2, quiet roads led to the Stursbøl Plantage, the town of Jels, and another historic bridge, the Frihedsbroen (Freedom Bridge) which marked the Danish-German border between 1864 and 1920; a little further north there’s actually a climb to a hotel and the Skibelund Krat, an open-air site where Danish nationalists from both sides of the border held patriotic meetings. It’s not much further to the town of Vejen, from where a good segregated cycleway leads alongside the road to Asbo and Baekke, where I turned off the EV3 to go via Vorbasse to Hejnsvig (partly on a busier road, but there was no problem and I was happy to make good progress). Quiet lanes took me to a railtrail that’s currently being extended further south from Grindsted, where I stayed the night. For most of Day 3 I followed another converted railway (of varying standards, mostly unpaved but good enough) to the northeast, rejoining EuroVelo3 at Funder; from here it climbs up a steep (for Denmark) hill to a junction with Route 11, which took me at speed down into Silkeborg. This is supposedly Denmark’s outdoor activities centre, with lakes, forests, and relatively high hills; I wouldn’t get too excited, but the youth hostel does have a lovely waterside setting, and there’s a decent museum.

 On Day 4 I returned (on a good roadside cycleway) up the hill to EuroVelo3 and then on minor roads to Hald, where you can either follow a railtrail for 10 km into Viborg or stick to EV3 which drops on a very rough bit of track to an attractive lake and manor house before joining the railtrail into town. Viborg is an attractive cathedral town (although the cathedral is a little way north of the centre) by another lake; however the cathedral was largely rebuilt in 1864-76 and is largely a copy of the one in Lund (Sweden), which I saw two weeks later. From here EV3 runs northeast but I headed north on a cycleway beside a main road, which wasn’t up to Dutch standards but still allowed good steady progress, to the village of Bjarregove and the Hvolris Iron Age village, where a reproduction long house doubles as a hikers’ shelter.

 On Day 5 I headed east to rejoin EV3 through Hvornum, but then came to a bridge over the railway that was being rebuilt for electrification work so had to find my own deviation northwards, taking a short cut on quiet roads via Brøndum and Hørby to rejoin EV3 at Døstrup. From Vebbestrup I should have taken a more direct route to the east of EV3 to Arden, after which the route (a bit rough in parts) passes through the Forest of Arden! Not I think the Shakespearean one, although of course Hamlet is set in Denmark. There’s potential for another shortish cut-off west of Skørping, after which EV3 runs relatively directly north, passing to the east of Svenstrup and Skalborg (having had to distinguish between three towns beginning with V on Day 1, the three towns beginning with S were less of a problem to my aged memory). The route into Aalborg is hardly a direct commuting link, but it gets you there soon enough.

 My route was almost entirely through pleasant agricultural country, dominated in southern Jutland by cows, corn (maize) and Christmas trees, as well as lots of wild rosehips, and by cows, potatoes and root vegetables in northern Jutland, which is slightly hillier but still easy riding. Roads are wide, smooth and little used, and EuroVelo3 is well signed, the only inconsistency being whether they show mileages as well as directions. Jutland is not heavily populated, but I could find supermarkets (if not village bakeries) frequently enough – I wouldn’t recommend doing the trip on a diet of nothing but Danish pastries, but it would certainly be possible, and enjoyable for a while at least.

Elsewhere in northern Europe
A cycle bridge in Copenhagen
Cycleway past Amsterdam Centraal station

I had already spent three days cycling from Hoek van Holland to Leiden, Haarlem and Amsterdam, and I also cycled from Roskilde to Copenhagen, from Malmö to Lund and back, from Berlin to Potsdam, and from Koblenz to Bonn, as well as using my bike around town every day. Copenhagen is generally touted as the world’s best cycling city, and that’s fair enough (they built seventeen bicycle bridges between 2006 and 2020), but Denmark as a whole is not as great for cycling as the Netherlands. On the other hand, for someone like me, constantly stopping to write notes, snap a photo, or just find out where on earth I am, cycling in the Netherlands is problematic because there’s constantly someone about to run into the back of me – in Denmark I didn’t usually have to signal and manoeuvre off the cycleway before I could draw breath. The same applied when I was a pedestrian – I was always getting caught out on Dutch cycleways while trying to take photos.

A nodal point near Den Haag

  Navigation is made easier in the Netherlands by a nodal system, with all the usual route signs but some at key junctions marked with a number and signs to other nearby numbered nodes – there are good maps at the nodal points and of course all the apps and online maps also show the nodal points. Belgium has a similar system, but Denmark and Germany don’t; in fact I was surprised that Bonn was not signed from Koblenz, or vice versa, despite its being a very obvious route along the Rhine – you have to follow signs for intermediate towns such as Andernach and Remagen. Even stranger, the route from Malmö to Lund is not signed (despite being a direct off-road route), but Malmö is signed from Lund. I quite liked the Dead End Except Cyclists signs used across northern Europe – they don’t comply with British regulations so we have to have an Except Cyclists plate beneath the standard Dead End sign – except that usually we don’t.

 In the Netherlands a road will usually have a one-way cycleway on each side of a road (although riding the wrong way for a short distance is acceptable), while in Denmark and especially Germany there’s more likely to be a two-way cycleway on one side of the road, which is adequate provision but not the best. In fact, Germany generally feels fairly similar to the UK from a cycling perspective – drivers are not particularly aware, and in most cities the idea of cycle provision is lines of white paint on the carriageway, with no physical separation. Dropped kerbs tend to be bodged ramps rather than properly planned infrastructure. I can’t speak for the Germans, but the Dutch and Scandinavians do not share the Anglo-Saxon obsession with not paying tax – they prefer to have decent infrastructure (for transport, health, education), which might also be linked to having proportional representation, often with coalition governments and a good degree of continuity rather than the to-and-fro system of undoing everything the previous government started.

A Danish roundabout

 There was some excitement recently in Cambridge when our first ‘Dutch roundabout’ opened (partly because it was absurdly expensive and late), with a cycle lane all the way round with priority over motor vehicles; in fact I found that the ‘Dutch roundabout’ is not as clearly defined as we thought and comes in various forms. Quite often it actually has a two-way cycle lane, but one that only goes halfway or three-quarters of the way around the roundabout. Where there’s no space for off-road cycleways in a built-up area, the Dutch will provide on-road lanes of a decent width and leave a central space which is wide enough for cars in one direction only – so to pass in the other direction, drivers have to negotiate and move into the cycling space where possible. This works with Dutch drivers, but I really don’t think British drivers could cope.

 I was surprised to see so many lycra roadies belting along on the Dutch cycleways – there are already scooters and mopeds on many Dutch cycleways, and adding fast road cyclists to the mix just builds annoyance and resentment – or maybe that’s just my reaction. I dare say they would be on the roads if Dutch law didn’t force them to use cycleways where provided. In the circumstances it seems weird that every one of them is convinced a helmet is part of the uniform, even though they’re not coming into conflict with cars except for the odd road crossing – what a triumph of marketing. I’m sure they don’t wear them when they’re out on their cheaper bikes around town.

 Road cyclists were also visible in Copenhagen, mainly going out in the early evening after finishing work, but much less so in the rest of Denmark (and the same applies to cargo bikes), and in Malmö they actually seemed to be commuting. They are very rare in Germany, for some reason.

 However the big issue in the Netherlands at the moment is the advent of ‘speed pedelecs’, electrically assisted bikes that are able to cruise at 45km/h rather than the 25km/h of regular pedelecs. E-bikes account for 42% of bikes sold in the Netherlands (and over 50% by value) and are expected to be over 50% of sales soon, as opposed to 4% in the UK. In 2019 65 people were killed riding e-bikes in the Netherlands, almost all of them for some reason men over 65 riding speed pedelecs, and just after I left the country it was announced that a 4km stretch of cycleway near Schiphol airport had been fitted with electronic devices that automatically slow e-bikes (presumably only those fitted with corresponding devices) when they approach junction or enter built-up areas. If the trial is successful, this will be rolled out across the country. I did notice that ‘close passing’ (car-to-bike and bike-to-bike) is pretty common in the Netherlands and doesn’t seem to bother people – but there’s not much of a safety margin. It didn’t greatly concern me, but it’s one of the things that puts a lot of people in the UK off cycling on roads.

 Incidentally, I was riding a Dahon Speed TR, a touring folder, I think, rather than a folding tourer. I’ve had a Brompton for some years, which is great for train travel but doesn’t really carry luggage – the Dahon will carry standard panniers and rides well all day long (it has the full 21 gears), but it is a bit heavy and too big for luggage racks on trains and so on. Virtually every train I used had loads of space for bikes so it was no problem (generally you need a cycle ticket, unless the bike is folded). It’s a compromise, of course, but one that I was happy with.

Back in Britain – what a shock! Why can’t we just fund our infrastructure properly?
A new road/cycle bridge in Haarlem, the Netherlands
km599 of the Rhine, north of Koblenz