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.