Monday 28 December 2015

Winter lights in Örebro

Late lunch in the cosiest imaginable cafe of Örebro, Sweden, brought afternoon sunshine on the wall

while only a couple of hours later the sun had set, a colder temperature was finally kicking in after the mild weather and heavy rain of the previous day and the giant straw goat of Swedish tradition, covered in pine branches, glittered by the ice rink in the centre of this extremely likeable town.

I came here two and a half weeks ago to witness the birth of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra's project to twin each of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos with a new work inspired by it; you can read all about that and more on Örebro here on The Arts Desk. It was bad luck for the piece that the next day's recording sessions had been cancelled, and that amiable conductor Thomas Dausgaard was heading to Stockholm on an early train, but lucky for me and an ever curious companion, the delightful Lucy Maxwell Stewart that we had time to explore the delights of what the Swedes call a city but we can only think of as a well-equipped town.

We started off by walking past the concert hall, the pluses and minuses of which in its newly renovated state I've written about on TAD, and to the main church - effectively the cathedral - of Örebro, St-Nicolai. Begun in 1270 in this settlement which was long a valuable trading post, it had a tower added in the 15th century and major 19th century renovations.

Historically it's most famous for the cult of the Swedish rebel Engelbrekt, whose burial place became a site of pilgrimage, discouraged by the removal of his remains to who knows where. Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte, French founder of the current Swedish royal dynasty, was elected here in 1810.

The inside is warm and welcoming, as I've found with every Swedish church I've visited. There are some lively coat-of-arms memorials on the walls, but the chief treasure is the retable of carved saints flanking  paintings of Christ's crucifixion and entombment attributed to the Renaissance German carver Markus Hebbel.

It was given to the church in 1661 and makes a fine backdrop, along with the 19th century east window, to concerts, as we were to find out that evening. Many of you will recognise the Angel Gabriel, designed by a Victorian firm in England, from the upper half I sent as Christmas greetings. Here's his full length

and his solitary position in a north window.

Just as attractive is the Prodigal returning to his father.

Örebro's main square is to the east of the church. The town hall had an attractive digital advent calendar on the go.

Just to the north is the town's most picturesque sight, the castle founded in the 14th century and variously fairy-taled by Duke Carl, later Carl IX, at the end of the 16th and by 19th century romanticisers. Nowt worth seeing inside, I'm told, but the moat and the river Svartån as it rushes through it contribute to the magical external impression.

This reminds me of the rapid waters in Uppsala as punctuating points of Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. Still waiting to see that famous university town, always postponed it because it's so close to Stockholm's  Arlanda Airport by train.

'Old Örebro' in town is simply a courtyard with what might be the town's best restaurant, Kungsgatan 1, where we ate later. But there's much more of that sort of thing a bit further east. A walk in pleasant autumnal-feeling weather

along the Svartån which flows out into huge Lake Hjälmaran

took us to Wadköping, the name nationally-famous Swedish novelist Hjalmar Bergman gave to Örebro. Wadköping is partly like Stockholm's Skansen, and full of tourist-oriented dinky shops, but the buildings all came from the south part of town, thanks to the enterprise of one resident in 1965, and many are lived in, which keeps it all alive. And everything was open on 11 December, lacking only the Christmas market which was clearly happening at weekends since the empty wooden stalls were still waiting for something to happen.

The most impressive of the old buildings is Kungsstugan, King's Lodge, so called because Duke Karl before his royal appointment stayed here several times in the 1580s.

The grass growing on the roof isn't a new design feature; you can see it in late 19th/early 20th century photos (though not this one)

and retains its painted ceiling on the upper level, which you can see on selected occasions.

Next door (here, to the left)

is the house which once belonged to the father of Kajsa Warg, the Swedish Mrs Beeton. Good education for kids to see replica food laid out, but the authentic charm remains in the ceiling decoration here.

In the cafe, 'Kajsa Warg's Must' is to be had at this time of year. Not exactly a must, unfortunately, tasting a bit like cherry Cola, but a seasonal obligation.

To accompany it upstairs in the delightful eatery run by a hostess whose natural charm was typical of all Örebroians we met (and that includes the Syrian newsagent who settled here 26 years ago and was so proud that his son was now teaching at the English-language school), I chose obligatory meatballs with lingonberry sauce - forgive me for doing the boring Facebook thing of putting up the plate of food, but I did the same in Oslo -

and we lingered in these congenial surroundings until dusk. Next door is an olde sweetshoppe, which reminded me a bit of the Terry's Victorian reconstruction in the York Castle Museum, lacking only the latter's enticing smell which has stayed with me ever since I saw it in childhood.

The windowboxes are planted with mini Alpine and heather gardens,

with Wadköping's main street stretching out to the right. It bisects the older wooden buildings typical of the town before the great fire and the bigger new ones (17th-19th centuries), the grandest seen at the end of this alley,

while residents have some enviable dwellings including this one with mistletoe in the porch

and this courtyard.

Darkness had almost fallen by the time we headed back

along the river

where all these buildings are modern blocks of flats, but beguilingly lit in white with an illuminated paper star at each window. These haven't caught on to the same extent in the UK, but I remember them being prevalent in Kerala at this time of year.

We managed to inveigle our way into the university building where an avowedly fascinating natural history collection of stuffed animals hanging over banisters, the Biological Museum, is lodged, but the door to that curiosity was sadly locked.

So back via the now illuminated castle

to a tour of the Konserthuset and a chat with the Swedish Chamber Orchestra's director and animateur Gregor Zubicky, whom I'd met when he gave lively introductory talks at the Stavanger Chamber Festival.

Then a rest, then to the Luciakonsert we'd seen advertised in St-Nicolai. It was a stunner, a programme of 20 variously styled homages to the Sicilian saint so eagerly adopted by Swedes in the 20th century, rendered charming by nearly 100 schoolchildren wearing white with red sashes, holding candles and singing from memory around the chosen Lucia, whose lit-up crown is, of course, the loveliest thing of all. There's a more professional photo to illustrate the TAD article, but this one, which I ventured to take but of course without flash and hence fuzzier, I rather like.

Parents were proud and happy to chat with us, and then we returned to K1, nearly empty only by virtue of this Friday being the time when all employees go out to the conference centre in packs for their office Christmas dinner.

Frost had set in overnight to decorate the station as I waited for the 8.37am train to Stockholm Central, and the sun only just rising.

I missed snapping the flock of swans passing over the train lines, but got one reasonably evocative shot along the way.

So, in absence of the usual longer jaunt at this time of year - it's nice to experience mysa, the Swedish equivalent of the now-trendy Danish word hygge, a form of hunkering-down cosiness - this gave me the most benevolent take on what light means in Scandinavian darkness. You could easily spend more than a day in Örebro during the summer, when we'd certainly have cycled to the lake along the river and gone for a swim. But I'm happy to have experienced something of the real Jul so beautifully Edwardianised in Fanny and Alexander: it's reconciled me to the tawdrier version we have here.


David Damant said...

Sun in the winter in Sweden is so short in time that when Spring arrives .....well, one year I was there with one of my committees and at lunch quite a few of my female colleagues having left the building for a walk came running back in, having seen so many men using their lunch break to take off most of their clothes and spreading themselves all over the grass. The craving for sun is widespread in that part of the world - witness the Spring sight of scantily clad young men spreadeagled on the sides of the fortress of St Peter and St Paul in St Petersburg

Your remark about ye olde sweetshoppe reminds me that once in Toronto I saw Ye Olde Sexe Shoppe

David said...

Whereas the dead drunks discovered beneath the melted snow in Russia are known as 'spring blossoms'.

Everyone seemed in a good mood, which surprised me in December, but maybe this is the excitement of the season of artificial light and they get really low in Jan and Feb. I reckon the leaden winter skies of Berlin are probably worse than the snow and cold Sweden gets - if it's lucky. There's hardly been any yet.

I remember eating breakfast at 9.30am in Iceland during January and it STILL being dark. That was odd

Susan Scheid said...

Örebro looks so appealing, and you make apparent that this time of year has its own special charms. I popped over to TAD, and, as I thought, I've seen word of this project here and there. I enjoyed spotting Steve Mackey as the "first up" of the composers whose pieces you reviewed. Mackey is part of a married composer pair, the other half of which is Sarah Kirkland Snider. He also performs in another genre altogether, I recently learned, when I was guided by a native scout (David Bloom) to National Sawdust, the newest new music spot in Brooklyn, to see Big Farm, a "prog rock" band with an illustrious line-up, including Jason Treuting (percussion) and Rinde Eckert (vocalist/lyricist). As David noted, it's not usual, with rock bands, that the diction is so good you can understand the lyrics--and they were literate, too. Mackey, on electric guitar, channeled his inner Jimi Hendrix with aplomb. For a couple brief hours, I felt abreast of the times . . . I'm glad, by the way, that you were willing to post your meatballs and lingonberry jam. Swedish comfort food, and can't be beat, really.

Liam said...

Yes I agree, Orebro seems a lovely place and I liked the look of the meatballs.

David said...

That's two folk, then, who like my putting up a photo of a plate of food...

Sue, I had the pleasure of sitting next to Steve Mackey at a supper after the concert, with Hakan Hardenberger equally lively company opposite. Mackey seems to take up tennis coaching wherever he travels - a good way of staying sane - and commended the tall, blond, athletic tutor he found in Örebro. I didn't know his wife is also a composer, but I'd heard about the electric guitar.

Liam, all best New Year wishes to yourself and the Prof (and, of course, to you, Sue, and J). We were among O'Sullivans down near Winchester this afternoon, so Himself felt at home.