Sick of shopping mayhem and tacky decorations, Sarah Marshall seeks a sophisticated Christmas break in Stockholm and Sormland.
Winning a Nobel Prize could arguably be the best Christmas present of all. But not for Bob Dylan, one of this year’s best-known laureates. “He won’t even be coming to the ceremony,” my taxi driver complains as we whirl through snow-dusted cobbled streets below Stockholm’s City Hall, where a grand banquet will be held today. “He has other plans, apparently.”
Three days after the event, honoured guests will be woken from their rooms at the Grand Hotel by singing angels carrying candles, part of the St Lucia tradition. It’s fair to say Mr Tambourine Man won’t be in their repertoire…
No matter; the show will go on. Swedes honour traditions with clockwork precision, something I discover on a weekend winter break to their capital city and its surrounding areas. Fleeing the commercialised circus of high-street chaos, I surface in a world of clean, crisp sophistication, where flashing rainbow lights and tacky tinsel are superseded by simple lingonberry wreaths and the flickering gold flames of advent candles.
One of the most atmospheric of the city’s Christmas markets is held at Hovstallet, the Royal Stable. Stooping in a tartan blazer, equerry Lars shows me the king’s private property, which is open for public tours throughout the year.
“This is Stockholm’s best-kept secret,” he whispers conspiratorially, as we weave through ornate royal carriages and past pedigree horses nuzzling into their mangers, entering a room filled with 38 gleaming harnesses. “Every year, two are flown by hand luggage to your Buckingham Palace, where skilled craftsmen make repairs,” Lars tells me.
As the morning wears on, shoppers pour into the sky-lit Riding Hall and a labyrinth of stables, where stalls sell national favourites such as smoked fish, marzipan pigs and a parade of inventive condiments. (A champagne mustard fizzes with all the elegance of the celebratory drink.)
Sheepskin rugs and cushions spiral with tight silky curls, and toy elves peer from an unkempt tangle of felt and wool. Ice scrapers with knitted handles are my novelty gift find of the day.
Most people are gathering goods for their Christmas table. But to discover an even greater selection of produce, I head to the bread basket region of Sormland, a 45-minute train ride from Stockholm.
Majestic castles and manor houses command the agricultural landscape, where naked trees now claw at the ice blue sky and fields sparkle with diamond frost.
Residents of Stallarholmen are hosting a Charles Dickens-themed market, with carol singers gathered around a log fire and aromas of roast pork warming the cold air.
Gregarious baker Maria Printz is doing a roaring trade in sticky cinnamon buns and saffron cakes, traditionally eaten at this time of year. She’s one of several entrepreneurs in the small town who are championing quality produce, and shares a renovated 1900s barn with butchers, weavers and antique dealers.
Many of the local meats, cheeses and smoked fish make their way into a traditional julbord (a Swedish smorgasbord) served at Gripsholms Vardshus, a cosy inn located in nearby Mariefred. Vodka-infused salmon, herring pickled with fennel, and a salty roast gammon are all highlights of the festive fare, which requires a four-hour sitting and a few extra notches on the belt. Built in 1609, the inn sits on the site of a Carthusian monastery.
I learn more about the origins of this former Viking settlement at the Callanderska Garden folklore centre, a 274-year-old red clapperboard house bequeathed to the town by an artist in 1947.
Jaundiced song sheets sit pertly on a wooden piano and china tea cups are neatly stacked in a polished Welsh dresser; it’s as if the owner has just popped out for the afternoon.
Sprightly pensioner and self-made historian Torsten joins me for a glass of glogg (mulled wine) spooned with plump raisins and shaved almonds.
Regaling tales of King Gustav Vasa, he explains how materials from the monastery were used to build Gripsholm Castle – its dumpling turrets still dominating the town.
At dawn it’s resplendent, as the sun yawns above bristles of spruce forest, streaming across the motionless Lake Malaren and bouncing from windows.
In the early 19th century, King Gustav IV Adolf was imprisoned in the castle following an army revolt, and found solace in playing waltzes and marches on the piano. It was a torturous time.
Yet, I find it hard to imagine living in such fairytale surrounds could be a hardship.
Still, musicians are a peculiar bunch, and neither castles nor Nobel prizes can please a complex soul – even at Christmas.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of the Swedish tourist board.
Rooms at Gripsholms Inn (gripsholms-vardshus.se) cost from £138 with breakfast. Christmas is dinner available Wednesday-Sunday during December for £42.98.
Rooms at First Hotel Reisen (firsthotels.com) in Stockholm start from £164 with breakfast.
For more information, go to visitstockholm.com, visitsormland.com, visitsweden.com