A new hotel with artworks by Antony Gormley is just one reason to head to the country’s far south, says SEAN THOMAS…
For most of their time here the Wachtmeisters ran the place solely as a farm and hunting forest. Today the estate is still rightly proud of the organic beef and dairy products produced by its thousand head of kine, as well as endless fruit, herbs and vegetables. And likewise it has plentiful game — from duck to moose — which is lustily shot, season by season. Yet what really differentiates Wanås is not its produce (superb as it is), it’s the art and the hotel. The art came first. In the 1980s a new generation of Wachtmeisters, Carl-Gustaf and his wife, Marika, inherited the ancestral home (and various Wachtmeisters still live in the oldest buildings, which are off-limits to visitors).
Having spent a richly bohemian life in Stockholm and Manhattan, moving to a remote if grandiose rural home was, as Marika has put it, “difficult”, by which I think she means: “Oh my God, it was boring.” So they spiced things up by inviting twenty five Nordic artists to decorate their sweet English landscape garden with various artworks. The show was a hit, so Carl Gustaf and Marika decided to do the same thing every year, each time keeping one or two pieces as permanent fixtures. Within decades they had a forest full of Antony Gormley statues and Yoko Ono wishing trees, and one of the most famous art-and-sculpture parks in Scandinavia. Plus 75,000 visitors a year. Job done, you might think. And yet, when Carl-Gustaf handed the estate over to his son Baltasar and daughter-in-law Kristina a few years back, Kristina decided they should go one step farther and create a posh boutique hotel, with an equally upscale restaurant. And she decided she would do the conversion herself — she is, after all, an architect who interned with the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
The result is a success. The eleven hotel rooms, housed in the old stables, are chic, soothing, serene, without shading into un-Swedish opulence. The restaurant is small, but perfectly formed, does splendid light lunches — think salmon and quinoa, wild boar and potato puree, glorious ice creams — and, for hotel guests only, even more delicious dinners. Vegans look away now: we feasted on roebuck, recently shot on the estate by Baltasar, with the meat served at least three ways.
“Wanas’ eleven hotel rooms, housed in the old stables, are chic, soothing, serene, without shading into un-Swedish opulence.”
The next morning, under a pure blue sky, my wife and I head off to check the art in the many acres of wooded parkland (it’s big, so take a map). As always with these things, some of the art bores, some of it delights, some of it confounds. Whenever we are confronted by a particularly confusing piece, such as a cottage made of red yarn inside an old mill, or a pyramid of cement and grass sliced in four, I make up something that I hope sounds wise and insightful to tell my wife what inspired it.
Among the various perplexing and affecting pieces, we agree on two stand-out works. The first is Thinking About Myself by Marianne De Geer. This is a series of speakers carefully concealed in the trees, which say ‘Mama’ and ‘Papa’ and various garbled sentences. It’s simple, yet seriously poignant, even spooky (young children, who generally love Wanas, sometimes get properly frightened by the idea of an unseeable man in the trees, pleading for his mother). The other piece we admire is A House for Ed Denby by Robert Wilson. This is a fake New England hut that reverberates with poetic phrases from within its emptiness, in memory of the artist’s dead friend. It sounds depressing, but it is profoundly moving, perhaps even magical.
You could spend a week in Wanas, consorting with the conceptualism, good and bad, but, given that it’s our first visit, we’re keen to see a bit more of Sweden than speakers in trees. We loop back to Malmö. This may seem odd, but Skåne is small and lots of main roads will route you through the regional capital. Our overnight stop is a fourteenth-floor room in the Story on the redeveloped harbourfront. This sleek new hotel has an excellent rooftop bar-cum-brasserie from which you can see the Øresund Bridge, which, satisfyingly, is the bridge in The Bridge. That night we have our first taste of neo-Nordic cuisine, at the lakeside urban cottage that is the Michelin-starred restaurant Bloom in the Park. This turns out to be a top-notch dinner, with one world-class dish, an extraordinary festival of assorted fungi orgiastically drowned in mushroom bouillon.
Malmö’s Stortorget in the old town
The next morning we make a quick visit to historic, cobblestoned Lund, just a few miles from Malmö, with its quaint Scandic squares, mildly buzzy student atmosphere and resonantly historic, thousand-year-old Romanesque cathedral. The mythical Irish warrior Finn MacCool is said to be entombed in its crypt, for reasons no one can explain. Nor do we have time to find out because we’re heading west, an hour down the winding coast to a place I’ve always wanted to see and am desperate not to miss. It’s called Ales Stenar and it’s the Swedish Stonehenge, a wild and mighty longboat-shaped oval of brooding megaliths erected in about 500 AD (and therefore proto-Viking). According to historians, Ales Stenar is possibly a site of human sacrifice. Its position, on a blustery green cliff above the hooligan waves of the Baltic, is certainly awe-inspiring. Make sure you end your visit with a herring-on-rye sandwich, alongside a cold Tarno lager, in one of the fish restaurants on the empty beach below.
Sweden is growing on me. Big time. Yes, the cities and towns can be utilitarian, even ugly. Yes, the people can be reticent and rather subdued (sometimes you walk into a bar and it seems every table is quietly discussing Mum’s chemotherapy). Yes, you can only buy alcohol at state-run liquor stores called Systembolaget — which close at 1pm on Saturdays. And yet Sweden has something. Which I am about to discover.
My wife has persuaded me that we should end our trip by roughing it, like proper, outdoorsy Nordics. That is to say we’re sleeping in yurts in the thickly forested heart of Skåne, maybe 40 minutes from the coast. Not only are we sleeping in Mongolian yurts, we are sleeping in yurts with no electricity, running water, proper heating or proper toilets. The place is called Nyrups Naturhotell, and the nearest town of any size (ie a town with a café with proper toilets) is called Hoor and it’s several miles away. The only way to get to Nyrups is to park at the signposted edge of the forest, then hike in with all your kit, following arrows painted on trees.
“The only way to get to Nyrups is to park at the signposted edge of the forest, then hike in with all your kit, following arrows painted on trees.”
As we yomp through the birchwoods I’m not in the cheeriest mood. I’m not into glorified tents, compost toilets and cooking bacon over firewood. My wife glares at me and says that I am spoilt. She demands that I have to do this for at least two nights. Humbled into submission, I concur. I even agree to use the compost toilets. At last we reach the central yurt, where a smiling, affable woman called Camilla greets us, explains how we use the oil lanterns, shows us how to cook outdoors with a field kitchen and reveals a surprisingly lavish hamper (from sumptuous local cheeses to fillets of perch from a nearby lake). Then she tells us we will be entirely alone because there are no other guests. In other words, we will be the only people in the forest.
“Are there wolves?” I ask, expecting her to laugh off my fears. She shrugs and says: “Probably not, but you never know.” And with that she disappears.
It’s clearly a recipe for disaster. We’re alone in a forest practically overrun by wolves and the nearest decent loo is in Hoor. And then the forest dark descends with the evening dew and a warm tranquillity surrounds us. We cook the perch over charcoal by the glimmering light of the lanterns and we sit on the tree stumps and eat our fish, sharing wine bought that day from the state-run booze shop.
Finally, as the firelight sparkles, we gaze up at the dazzling heavens and I realise three things. First, I have seldom been happier. Second, I like Sweden because it has no airs and graces — it is what it is, which is what everywhere should be. And third, I realise that there are many kinds of luxury — there is the obvious luxury of Wanås and its boho-chic, there is the luxury of Malmö and its Michelin stars, yet this, right here, is one of the best kinds of luxury: the luxury of solitude, silence and fine Spanish wine in the summery dark of a starlit forest, perfectly alone with someone I love.
SEAN THOMAS is a journalist and novelist (published under Tom Knox and SK Tremayne).
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This article has also been published in The Times.