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Sweden - Helsingborg, The Winter of a Bon Vivant
Helsingborg, the pearl of the Sound, is perhaps best loved for its summer pleasures when the sun shines on lively festivals, waterside eateries and miles of some of the best urban beaches in Scandinavia. But with stunning scenery, cultural riches and an epicurean flavor, the thriving "little big city" is also a winter wonderland for bon vivants as Laurel Williams reveals.
Discovering a rare blend
Helsingborg is one of Sweden's most beautiful seaside cities, commanding the narrowest point of the Öresund Sound, a little bottleneck or "hals" between Sweden and Denmark from which Helsingborg gets its name. This is Sweden's closest link to the continent and, like the rest of Skåne, was Danish longer than it has been Swedish and that lends a tangible cosmopolitan whiff to the atmosphere. At once sophisticated and flamboyant, Helsingborg has become a magnet for young, active creatives and lovers of style and gastronomy. One thousand years of history and recent awards such as Sweden's finest city center, Sweden's best music city and the city with the best business climate for entrepreneurs in Sweden, offer a rare blend of the ancient and modern that beguiles visitors and locals alike.
Helsingborg is easily walkable and with the Sound to the west and the heights of the Landborgen ridge running parallel to the east, orienting yourself is effortless. A good starting point is Stortorget, the main square lined with upscale shops, restaurants, hotels and the impressive City Hall. Stand in the middle of the square and take in the view of the busy ferry harbor at one end and at the other, the magnificent steps that rise up to the Kärnan tower that has stood guard in Helsingborg for over 600 years. Climb up the ancient steps in the tower's 4 1/2-meter thick walls for brilliant views of the Sound and the menagerie of boats frisking about or heading out upon the seven seas.
Kullagatan, the oldest pedestrian street in Sweden, winds north away from the square and deposits you at the concert hall and the theatre. Beyond is the North Harbor, fringed by delightful restaurants and cafes with immense windows perfect for gazing at all the boats and people passing by. A welcome surprise there is a row of heated benches outside the marina building. Just south of the main square, discover the charming cobblestone streets around the beautiful St. Mary's Church. In this, the oldest part of Helsingborg, almost every dwelling has its own ghost story. Ivy creeps prettily over the red bricks of St. Mary's, the Danish Gothic masterwork that was completed in the 1400s and that took 100 years to build. Bruksgatan leads pedestrians further south and eventually to the exotic, vibrant district of Helsingborg where the currents of the world swirl in dozens of languages around the daily fruit, vegetable and flower market.
All on a winter's day
Winter is the perfect season to take in the unique wealth of culture that Helsingborg offers. A generous donation from resident industry mogul Henry Dunker, famous for his Tretorn galoshes, boots and tennis balls, fixes Helsingborg's status as a flourishing cultural center for years to come.
Go to Dunkers Kulturhus for its striking architecture, expansive views of the North Harbor and a bounty of concerts, theatre and exhibitions of local history, Nordic mythology and modern art. Take moment to stop in at the gift shop for some of the most unique and genuine souvenirs of a visit to the city including Tretorn boots and other rubbery novelties.
The nationally renowned city theatre warms hearts during the dark winter months with the cabaret "Brel" in homage to Jacques Brel's life and immortal songs. Take in a symphony at the concert hall or take a stroll in the magnificent gardens of the Fredriksdal open-air museum or Sofiero castle. Look for the juniper-hedge maze at Sofiero, ironically a puzzle in itself to find, and ramble down the ravine to the seaside where swans bob aimlessly about. Lately named Sweden's most beautiful park, the grounds of Sofiero play host to flower festivals, art exhibits, rock concerts, Shakespearean plays and classic car shows during the spring and summer but is utterly tranquil in winter.
Stroll along Kullagatan and Bruksgatan for some superb shopping. All the usual chains are represented but the real gems are the many small clothing boutiques, interior design shops, galleries and cafes.
This region is rich with high quality clay and you will find plenty of unique handmade stoneware available in Helsingborg.
Visit the wonderful Gastronomibutiken gourmet delicatessen in the Tågaborg neighborhood where locally sourced goodies rub shoulders with European delicacies from the best producers. Their own fresh foie gras pates soaked in grappa, cognac or rum are incomparable.
Many locals also make regular pilgrimages to south-side institution Tasty House where towers of baklava compete with exotic candy and, most importantly, row upon row of freshly roasted nuts.
Stop in at a cozy cafe for a cup of Zoégas dark roast gourmet coffee. The Zoégas beans have been roasted Helsingborg since 1881 and on roasting days when the wind is right the whole town smells like one big fragrant coffee shop. Take the waters with a glass of the local iron-rich Ramlösa mineral water that Carl von Linné raved about and that has found its way onto water menus around the world. The holiday season will find you nibbling at crisp gingerbread cookies or golden saffron buns washed down with piping hot mugs of sweet and spicy "glögg".
Helsingborg also boasts no less than three gourmet chocolate shops. Sofie Choklad and Peter Beier Chokolade keep their chocolate fountains gushing on opposite sides of the St. Mary's church and Chocolatte on the Sundstorget square offers a unique white hot chocolate laced with fresh lime.
For cappuccinos whipped up by Sweden's best baristas head to the K&Co cafe off Kullagatan.
Don't leave town without buying some gourmet chocolates or Zoégas dark roasted coffee beans to stuff stockings with.
Bundle up and take a winter walk in the beautiful Pålsjö forest among towering beeches and oaks. A most romantic tunnel through the ancient hornbeam hedge near fairy-pink Pålsjö castle leads you to stunning views of the Sound and Denmark. You can link in here to a walking path that follows the edge of the Landborgen ridge and stretches nearly 15 kilometers from Sofiero in the north to the medieval Raus Church in the south, past sumptuous homes, secret gardens and along the valley of Råå Creek.
As the winter sun sinks lower make your way to the to the Påljsöbad sauna and bathhouses, set on stilts in the Sound, for a wholesome and magical conclusion to your day. It is a cherished tradition in Helsingborg to gaze at the sunset over Denmark from the sauna windows, emerging only to shimmy down steps for the occasional swift dip in the refreshing (read icy) water.
Hometown soccer hero Henrik Larsson is back in Helsingborg after a spectacular international career and has led Helsingborg's own team, HIF, straight to the top classes of Swedish football. If they play their way into the Royal League then be sure to catch a game at Olympia, one of Sweden's nicest outdoor sports arenas.
Eating, Drinking & Being Merry
It would be foolish to go to Helsingborg and not indulge in the gastronomical delights. Helsingborg's reputation for offering Skåne's best dining can hardly be disputed. It is home to the likes of GASTRO, NIKLAS HELSINGBORG and Sofiero Slottsrestaurang, three of the top four restaurants in Skåne and among the best in the country. The traditional Swedish Christmas buffet is served in grand style at Sofiero during the month of December and it is a most marvelous feast of homemade Christmas delicacies in regal surroundings. The White Guide recently proclaimed GASTRO the best restaurant in Skåne and the Christmas buffet stays true to the Gastro concept of preparing locally sourced fish, game and vegetables to perfection, capturing the essence of Skåne's traditional cuisine.
Celebrate the holidays like royalty at the baroque Örenäs Castle, set on a bluff in Glumslöv, just 15 kilometers south of Helsingborg. Sweden's youngest castle (a 92-year-old whippersnapper) houses a hotel and restaurant that hosts a Christmas buffet complete with a small orchestra to entertain guests. This is also the setting of an opulent Twelfth Night ball in January where ladies in rustling gowns and their tuxedoed consorts dance and glitter in the ballroom. The castle grounds are lovely and afford vast views of the Sound and the little island of Ven. The surrounding hills and valleys offer some Skåne's premiere sledding if snow is forthcoming. The most enduring attraction in the area must be the magnificent Örenäs passage grave nearby. Several people at a time can creep into the large, 5000-year-old grave chamber but bring a flashlight and perhaps some candles for dramatic effect. Below the castle is the diminutive fishing village of Ålabodarna, "the eel shacks" where eel fishermen traditionally lived. Walk along the only road past picture perfect houses, to the tiny harbor where in summertime Sweden's smallest restaurant serves visitors through a window.
Step back in time in provincial Billeberga, 20 km southeast of Helsingborg, where an out of the way farm houses Farbror Elofs Skafferi (Uncle Elof's Pantry). This is the most peculiar restaurant you may ever set foot in but the experience is unforgettable, especially at Christmastime. The entry to the country courtyard is laid with evergreen boughs that fill the air with rich, green perfume. Crossing the threshold sends you into a wacky museum of random kitsch, where grown men and women sit at rickety yard-sale tables and play with whatever toy or bauble they find there. Meanwhile one lucky member of each party tries to keep track on an old clipboard of how many shots of homemade Swedish schnapps everyone is having. There is a wall of bottles to choose from with handwritten labels announcing such unlikely flavors as saffron, dill, ginger, horseradish and clove. Novel and zany as it is, it is hard to understand what all the fuss is about, that is until you see the buffet spread. Long tables sag under the weight of 22 different kinds of homemade pickled herring, the best of the rest of traditional Swedish Christmas dishes and an enormous Italian feast. Save room for the silky little panna cottas. If you find a trinket that strikes your fancy you will probably be able to take it home. Just ask the waiter to put it on your bill.
If Christmas fare is wearing thin head back into town and straight to NIKLAS HELSINGBORG where the dashing young celebrity chef Niklas Ekstedt devises beautiful winter dishes that please all the senses. The epic wine list matches his Classic French and Mediterranean cuisine where you will detect masterful currents of experimentalism, reminiscent of his time at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, El Bulli in Barcelona and French Laundry in Yountville, California.
When you are hungry, New York style, book a table at Brooklyn on the square by St. Mary's church. Inspired by the legendary Peter Luger's steakhouse under the Brooklyn Bridge, Chef-Patron Rickard Persson serves whopping Porterhouse and New York strip steaks and lobsters. In the lofty and genteel rooms of the oldest restaurant in Sweden, now home to the Cafe le Fils du Rasoir, you can savor a monstrous, steaming bowl of French onion soup and other French classics. Come in from the cold at the new Copenhagen-style bistro and wine bar, Papi, just off Kullagatan. Designed by esteemed Danish architects Vandkust, the interior features cozy sofa niches where you can nestle in for lunch or glass of wine. On weekends devour wonderful brunches at Papi, Brooklyn, Sofiero or the restaurant in Dunkers.
The word gourmet originally meant wine taster and at Lagmark on Sundstorget you can live out this meaning at a new shrine to wine, the "Vinotek", that allows guests to sample some of the world's finest wines for a song. The long gallery of stainless steel and glass proffers 40 bottles of fine wine but the doyenne of the collection is the Chateau d'Yquem. A sip of this, the world's most exclusive dessert wine, always seduces first-time tasters. "In 25 years I never sold a bottle and now I sell one or two a week," proprietor Torbjörn Lagmark declares. Lagmark is a foodie mecca that also offers catering, cooking lessons, a gourmet deli and an array of dainty Swedish tapas dubbed gourmetas.
Bask in relaxed ambience at MeNTO on Kullagatan, notably Helsingborg's only Cristal restaurant and where each dish includes something fresh off the grill. Your hosts, award-winning bartender Susann Nilsson and bartender/sommelier Ola Book dazzle with clever concoctions of fresh fruit and flavor fusions inspired by the finer cocktail trends of London. Try the Frisky Bison, an artful union of apple, pear, crushed mint and lemon that is utterly fresh or the lavish pineapple Flirtini spiked with Cointreau and topped up with champagne.
If the night is still young, follow the music to Mink behind St. Mary's church. This is the place to dance till dawn and if the floor gets too crowded patrons are welcome to board the tables and the long (though narrow) bar and very regularly do. If you make a go at it then you will be happy to discover that the ceiling is low enough to help you keep your balance. Bar tenders do brisk business anyhow, nimbly serving drinks through the forest of twitching legs. The Tivoli in the venerable old station building by the ferry harbor is buzzing almost every night with live concerts, stand-up comedy and drag shows. A jazz club lurks under Kullagatan and at the Grand Hotel's piano bar champagne cocktails flow to the tunes of Elton John and Robbie Williams.
A night on the town will leave you feeling that the 122,000 residents of Skåne's second city love life and are determined to live it well. So come hither, bon vivants. When the winter sun sinks into the dark slice of Denmark and the sounds feasting and laughter float out from candlelit restaurants, the pearl of the sound is your oyster.
Ängelholm's airport is just a 30-minute drive from Helsingborg and has direct flights to and from Stockholm. Kastrup in Copenhagen and Sturup in Malmö serve international travelers.
Drivers can follow the E6 north from Malmö (1 hour) or south from Gothenburg (2 1/2 hours) and the E4 from Stockholm (7 1/2 hours). Trains run several times a day from Malmö, Gothenburg and Stockholm and deliver you to Knutpunkten, the central station in Helsingborg where all the train, bus and ferry traffic meet.
The most enjoyable way to arrive in Helsingborg is, without a doubt, by ferryboat from Denmark. The flags of Kronborg, Hamlet's famous castle, wave you off from Helsingör.
Where to stay
Elite Hotel Mollberg: www.elite.se/hotell/helsingborg/mollberg
Radisson SAS Grand Hotel: www.radissonsas.com
Villa Thalassa: www.villathalassa.com
Farbror Elofs Skafferi: www.elofsskafferi.com
Örenäs Castle: www.orenasslott.com
Local heroes share their best winter tips
Håkan Nilsson, Wine Consultant and Writer
Niklas Ekstedt, Celebrity Chef and Owner of NIKLAS HELSINGBORG
Johan Wissman, Silver Medalist at the 2006 European Athletic Championships and Swedish record holder in the 200-meter sprint
Get more information from the Wikitravel Sweden Travel Guide.
© Laurel Williams, 2006
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