Friday, 17 December 2010

Gothenburg: future forward?

Sitting in the window of Cigarren, the life of Gothenburg walks past you across the energetic square of Jantorget as if you’re watching it on a widescreen tv. You put your thick espresso to one side, rest your chin on your palm and watch unfeasibly well-dressed Swedes stride past, disembark at the tram terminal or cycle lazily into their futures, unperturbed by the juddering in their arms brought on by the cobbled nature of the paving. Cigarren, with its sparse furnishing and simple colour palette – brown - is a masculine cafe. To the left of the bar is a floor to ceiling humidor with cigars lying in reverently stacked boxes. Connoisseurs take their chosen item out to smoke on the patio where they have a ringside view of the day, wrapping themselves up in the blankets provided to protect against the autumn chill. The minutes pass by unhurriedly.

Gothenburg has all the ingredients for being a bleak, frontier city. It sits on the southwest coast of Sweden, at the mouth of the Gota river, equidistant from Copenhagen and Oslo. This mighty waterway cleaves through the centre of Gothenburg, tying the city inextricably with trade and industry (Volvo and Ericsson have factories in the area), a strategically important maritime hub that’s been conquered, changed hands, torn down and rebuilt frequently since its founding in1621. Chunks of the centuries are scattered around the city, the historical ages slotting together like a rubix cube. The Dutch left the canals; the Scottish the Chalmers University of Technology and the distinctive rolling ’r’ in the dialect (Gothenburg is pronounced ‘yerrrteberra’ by locals).

Walking the streets of Haga you would be forgiven for disregarding this hard working past. The area is hailed as the arty, bohemian heart of the city with pastel coloured two-storey buildings lining its three main, cobbled arteries. In truth it embraces bohemia in a very refined, very Cath Kidson, very Swedish kind of way, vintage hat stores and jewellery shops mixing with chilled-out cafes. The Swedes have a phrase: ‘ska vi fika?’ which translates loosely into English as: ‘shall we have a coffee break?’ with fika able to function as both a verb and a noun. It’s a heartily embraced cultural tradition, as far away from a mad dash to Starbucks as is possible while still clutching a steaming cup of coffee. Fika involves friends, a pause in the day, pastries and a sense that the dirty business of working for a living isn’t half as important as a snug gathering in a warmly lit café corner. Gothenburg does fika well. Stepping into Cafe Kringlan on Haga Nygatan is like getting a big hug from a slightly overweight farmer’s wife clad in head-to-toe Prada. It is immaculate in its cosiness, its cinnamon buns beautifully laid out on the counter, its latte a swirling work of art. To the left of Cafe Kringlan is Le Petit Cafe, a coffee shop so sweet as to cause all natural teeth to fall out instantly on entry. To the right at the other end of Haga Nygata is the University of Gothenburg, its diametrically opposed buildings – one stone, imposing and grand, the other glass, modern and brutal – ably representing the city’s split personality; stolid, industrial, historic on one hand, eager, embracing and futuristic on the other. Students duck in and out of the cafes in Haga in packs, filling the rooms alternately with earnest talk and loud laughter.

Butik Kubik inhabits a slightly grittier part of town known as the ‘long streets’ or Langgatan. Here pastels are swapped for grand brownstones, an edgier atmosphere displayed in the tattoo parlours and punk shops which have taken residence. ‘People used to avoid this street – Tredje Langgatan - and walk down the main one,’ says Anna Saltzman, her sewing machine whirring as she talks in the chaotic explosion of clothes which is Butik Kubik. ‘But that’s changing now and this area is up and coming. The rents are low so younger, creative people are able to afford it.’ Her store, which sells handmade clothes and jewellery sits next to Dirty Records, the smell of dusty, eclectic LPs mixing with the aroma of coffee from the integrated cafe. It’s everything a record shop should be – scuffed lino, piles of obscure albums, a man with an impossibly large quiff sitting behind the front desk. Across the street is Cafe (and gallery) och Konsthantverk, all Sixties –style wallpaper, multicoloured lights and huge cushions. These diverse establishments sit easily together, Gothenburg a city so relaxed as hardly to be in the mood for a turf war.
‘Oh for sure, it’s a little big town,’ says Annika Larsson who edits ‘Gothenburg people are so happy and open. And it’s definitely a city in development. It has a nickname – Little London – because of the arts scene, fashion, music. People here are trying to make the city bigger.’ If you add up all the obvious factors –five Michelin starred restaurants, 54 art galleries, 20 museums, one-off clothes shops - Gothenburg is well on its way to doing that. But away from the bright lights and trendy shops of Avenyn, the revamped centrepiece of the city’s new confidence which inspires universal grimaces from locals, there is a shy charm which is captivating. Head out to Majorna, the residential district which borders the large green space of Slottsskogparken, and busy roads give way first to Soviet-style apartments and then to robust avenues, filled with art bookshops, criss-crossed by tramlines and lined with trees. Men in overalls and gumboots step into Cafe Skogan on Mariaplan, a hearty smell of steam and grease mixing with the salty Gothenburg air when they open the door. Further on, on the wide open Mariagatan, Cafe Marmelad greets with huge pots of geraniums, its red and white check floor and chunky mugs creating a warm, homely atmosphere. The edgy art scene is still there – the gallery Oro, housed in a warehouse on Karl Johansgatan hosts parties as legendary as its exhibitions of contemporary art – but it wouldn’t be very Swedish if it shouted about it.

Bar Kino (pronounced ‘schino’) on Linne sits in the basement of an old school which has been converted into an art house cinema – Hagabion. It’s a beautiful nightspot harking back to Prohibition speakeasies with a piano, low lighting and black and white flooring. It’s difficult to imagine as you sip red wine and talk about the 2011 Gothenburg Film Festival which kicks off in January, that this is the same city which made its name as the forefront of the melodic death metal scene, a genre of music which inspires admirers and detractors in equal measure. But the coexistence passes without comment and as Gothenburg gradually removes the overalls of its industrial past, it’s revealing itself to be a surprising cultural herald of the future, one coffee at a time.

I stayed at the boutique Avalon Hotel -  - which I would happily recommend. As you walk down the corridor you trigger something which sounds like fairy chimes. Makes you feel like Tinkerbell is following. The single room I had was a fair enough size with a floor to ceiling window as one wall and a wet room to shower in. Centrally located it's perfectly placed to get your early morning fika fix.

No comments: