A chain of islands linked by a thread of bridges and short ferry crossings make up the region of Bohuslän where, despite the summer crowds, it’s still easy enough to find a private spot to swim. Sailing is also a popular pastime among the many Swedes who have summer cottages here, and all the way along the coast you’ll see yachts gliding through the water. Another feature of the Bohuslän landscape you can’t fail to miss is the large number of churches here. The region has a long tradition of religious observance, fuelled in the early nineteenth century by the dogmatic Calvinist clergyman Henric Schartau, who believed that closed curtains were a sign of sin within – even today, many island homes still have curtainless windows. The churches, dating from the 1840s up to the early twentieth century, are mostly white, simple affairs, and look like windmills without sails. Once you’ve seen the inside of one you’ve mostly seen them all, but the few that are exquisite or unusual have been highlighted in the guide. Each church is usually open between 10am and 3pm, but the clergyman invariably lives next door and will be happy to unlock the building at other times.
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About 50km northwest of Gothenburg, the island town of MARSTRAND buzzes with activity in the summer, as holiday-makers come to sail, bathe and take one of the highly entertaining historical tours around its impressive castle, Carlstens fästning. With ornate wooden buildings lining the bustling harbour, Marstrand is a delightful place to visit and, as an easy day-trip from Gothenburg, it shouldn’t be missed.
The town’s colourful history – as so often in western Sweden – mainly revolves around fish. Founded under Norwegian rule in the thirteenth century, it achieved remarkable prosperity through herring fishing during the following century, when the ruling king, Håkon of Norway, obtained permission from the pope to allow fishing in the town even on holy days. Rich herring pickings, however, eventually led to greed and corruption, and Marstrand became known as the most immoral town in Scandinavia. The murder of a cleric in 1586 was seen as an omen: soon after, the whole town burned to the ground and the herring mysteriously disappeared from its waters, neither the fish nor Marstrand’s prosperity to partially return until the 1770s. The town fell behind Gothenburg in importance, and by the 1820s, the old herring salting-houses had been converted into bathhouses as Marstrand reinvented itself as a fashionable bathing resort.
St Maria kyrka
On leaving the ferry, head up Hospitalsgatan and turn right into Kyrkogatan and after a couple of minutes, you’ll arrive at a small square, surrounded by beautiful wooden houses painted in pastel hues; the locals play boules here beneath the shade of a huge, ancient beech tree. Across the square is the squat, white St Maria kyrka, whose interior is simple and unremarkable. From here, all the streets, lined with wooden villas, climb steeply to the castle.
Carlstens fästning is an imposing sweep of stone walls solidly wedged into the rough rock above. You could easily spend half a day clambering around the castle walls and down the weather-smoothed rocks to the sea, where there are always plenty of places to bathe in private. The informal tours take 45 minutes, and guides will explain about Carlstens’ most noted prisoner-resident, Lasse-Maja, a thief who got rich by dressing as a woman to seduce and rob wealthy farmers. A sort of Swedish Robin Hood, Maja was known for giving his spoils to the poor. Incarcerated here for 26 years, Lasse-Maja ingratiated himself with the officers by deploying his cooking skills in a kitchen not renowned for its cuisine. His culinary expertise eventually won him a pardon: when the new king – who was reputed to hate Swedish cooking – visited, Lasse-Maja had the foresight to serve him French food. Some tours include climbing the 100m-high towers, built in 1658. The views from the top are stunning, but the steep, spiral climb is quite exhausting.
FISKEBÄCKSKIL, 50km north of Marstrand, is one of the most attractive villages along the entire length of the Bohuslän coast. Peppered with imposing old wooden houses perched high up on rocky rises, many with fancily carved porches and intricate glazed verandas, it also boasts several attractions that are well worth exploring.
Arriving by road from the south, you’ll find the remarkably stylish art café, Saltarvet just on the right where the road enters the village at Saltängen. Its galleries display constantly changing exhibitions of contemporary Swedish artists.
Carl Wilhelmson’s house
Fiskebäckskil’s most famous son is the artist Carl Wilhelmson (1866–1928), who was born near the marina. He made his name nationally with his powerful, evocative portraits and landscapes, which beautifully reflect west-coast Swedish life at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1912, he had a strikingly elegant cottage built close to his birthplace, with splendid views over the waters towards Lysekil, its double-height windows letting the famous Nordic light flood in. Reproductions of his work line the walls (the originals are mostly in Gothenburg’s Konstmuseum or the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm), the subjects often being the scenery just outside these windows. The most poignant of the prints, On The Hill, shows a scene from Wilhelmson’s childhood. Aged 9, he had stood unnoticed behind a group of old men sitting on a rock in Fiskebäckskil, while they discussed a hurricane which had wrecked twenty ships the day before, killing his father, a sea captain. When they became aware of the boy’s presence, they asked him not to say anything, and he kept the secret from his mother, who only learnt of her husband’s death from the post-boat captain a month later.
Not far from Carl Wilhelmson’s house, close to the marina, the church dates from 1772 and has an opulent yet almost domestic feel about its interior. There are chandeliers, gold-plated sconces, etched-glass mirrors with hand-carved wood frames and fresh flowers at the ends of each pew. The luxuriance of the decor is thanks to donations from Bohuslän’s richest eighteenth-century landowner, Margaretha Huitfeldt, who also paid for the wrought-iron and sheet-metal spire, crowned with a gold-plated weathercock. The wooden, barrel-vaulted ceiling is worth a glance, too: it’s covered in eighteenth-century murals, the oddest aspect of which is the scattering of angels’ heads. Outside, in the graveyard close to the main door, is Wilhelmson’s rather plain grave, his likeness carved into the granite tombstone. More unusual is the grave in the far corner, where an English officer and a German soldier, who died in the Great North Sea Battle of 1916, were buried together.
From Lysekil, head back along Route 162 and turn left (west) for Nordens Ark, a wildlife sanctuary on the Åby fjord. It’s a twenty-minute drive north from Lysekil, and on the way you’ll pass a couple of notable churches, in particular the one at Brastad, an 1870s Gothic building with an oddly haphazard appearance: every farm in the neighbourhood donated a lump of its own granite towards the construction, but none of the bits matched.
Don’t be put off by the yeti-sized puffin plonked at the entrance to the sanctuary. This non-profit-making place is a wildlife sanctuary for endangered animals, where animal welfare takes priority over human voyeurism. Red pandas, lynxes, snow leopards and arctic foxes are among the rare creatures being bred and reared in a mountainous landscape of dense forest and grassy clearings that’s kept as close as possible to the animals’ natural habitat. The enclosures are so large, and the paths and bridges across the site so discreet, that it’s a good idea to bring a pair of binoculars with you.
Fifteen kilometres west of Nordens Ark along the coast, the old fishing village and island of SMÖGEN is one of the most picturesque and enjoyable destinations in the whole of Bohuslän. Today, the village is an attractive mix of shops and boutiques in old seafront wooden houses, fronted by a quay that runs for several hundred metres that’s famous across Sweden and known as the Smögenbryggan. Smögen first hit the big time in the late 1960s as tourists began to discover its unassuming charms. Then, during the 1970s, it became the number-one summer destination for Swedish teens and 20-somethings who came here to party all night long in the countless bars that once lined the jetty. Things are quieter now and Smögen, though still busy, is once again regaining its dignity. When it comes to beaches, most people take the boat (every 30min; 10min; 80kr return) from the harbour to the tiny, low-lying island of Hallö where the smooth, flat rocks that make up the entire island, which is also a nature reserve, are perfect for sunbathing and swimming.