Thomas Breathnach joins the fans descending on this year's Eurovision host city
It seemed like your routine EI-flight sign-off: "Go raibh maith agaibh as tastail le hAer Lingus inniu agus slán." However, this intercom protocol was about to be unexpectedly broken with an honour usually reserved for the likes of Ireland Six Nation's squads or Katie Taylor. "Finally, Aer Lingus would just like to wish Ryan Dolan, and all the Irish entry travelling with us today, the very best of luck in this year's Eurovision Song Contest!" came the announcement, to a somewhat befuddled buala bos from the largely Scandinavian passengers. What could I do but leave out a rescue cheer from the back seats of the Malmo Express?
As Team Ireland disappeared behind a carousel of baggage, bodhráns and Tricolours, I hastily high-tailed it to ground transportation: I'd a Eurovision capital to discover, after all, and only 24 hours to do it. Malmo, located in Sweden's southernmost tip, sits just 15 minutes from Copenhagen Airport – all gratis to the architectural marvel of the Oresund Bridge.
Although originally bucket-listed to traverse Europe's longest road-rail structure by car, catching wind of the return toll fees (€86), I was soon down at platform five, €12 train ticket in hand. Within minutes, my intercity was humming across the glistening waters of the sound: a Finnish tanker in transit below me; a motorway of pan-Nordic commuters above me, and in the distance, Malmo Arena, home stadium for this year's Olympics of kitsch. "Eurovision circus rolls in!" roared the red-top headlines across Central Station, setting the mood of a nation obsessed with pop.
With Malmo's hotels bursting at the seams with Armenian backing dancers and Balkan balalaika strummers, I sourced room at the inn of the STF hostelry. Checking-in in my midst was a 20-something Australian, making her fourth consecutive pilgrimage to the Eurovision. "I haven't listened to any of the songs this year," she confessed, to the rather slack-jawed receptionist, "I want to leave them as a surprise!"
And with the likes of space-suited rappers from Montenegro, Disney schmaltz from Azerbaijan and Bonnie Tyler all ahead of her, who was I to tell her she was in for one?
Out and about in the city, Malmo street-life was a Scandi-kiss of calm. The young and the beautiful peddled vintage bikes through cobbled lanes, kayakers muscled through the city's network of canals and Hugo Boss-hewn businessmen catwalked their way to the office. All this, to the backdrop of Eurovision countdown clocks and a fairy tale old town, fit for a Grimm Brothers' plotline.
Although Malmo's prettiest streets lie between the squares of Lila Torg and Gustav Adolfs Torg, following a tip-off for its less pricey fare, I lunched at Mollevangstorge square where I wolfed a generous darne of salmon, boiled spuds and a rich creamy tartar for €8.
Afterwards, I browsed Sodra Forstadsgatan's popular second-hand stores of vintage threads and Nordic bric-a-brac (who needs H&M or IKEA when you've got the original?), before joining the skinny latte and skinny jean brigade at the boho chill of Davidhallstorg square. Malmo's main trump is its open green spaces.
Later, I ambled through Kungsparken, where volunteer greenfingers tended to veggies in the city's organic plots, buggy-pushing pappas strolled through the cherry-blossomed canopy of paternity-leave utopia, and dog-owners put their pooches through their paces in the city's canine exercise park. It was the perfect parklife paradise.
Other highlights included Malmo's striking Moderna Museet, the quaint wooden huts of the fishermen's quarter, and Malmohus castle, where a gathering of local schoolchildren treated me to a chorus of last year's winning Eurphoooria. Having saved a few kroner from my lunchtime bargain, supper took me to Malmo's it-spot, Bastard: a victualler-vibe eatery of ceramics, meat-cleavers and sheepskin bar-stools, all with the air of some Marco-Pierre White gastro-pub. A main of local pork belly with cannellini beans, rocket and a tasty basil-salsa pesto proved a delicious combo and just the sustenance for what would lie ahead.
Being the season, where could my Swedish swansong take me but to Eurovision Club, set within the red-carpeted glitz of Folkets Park pavilion. Inside the boudoir ballroom, masses of fans lay on velvet pews sipping coupes of Sangria to the evening's events.
Beginning with a dry-run from this year's Estonian entry, and a re-run from Linda Martin's winning year, the kitsch-o-meter soon went up an octave when a local drag-queen act took a trip down the memory lane of Swedish eurosong entries through the annals.
It all prompted an impassioned sing-a-long from the guy next to me.
"Ah, you're local?" I quizzed, filling the void of being rendered speechless from the previous half-hour's offering. "No, I'm from Israel" came his reply, before rolling his shirt sleeve to reveal a Eurovision tattoo emblazoned across his forearm.
It seemed I'd really landed in the heartland of Eurovision build-up but at 2am in Malmo, there were simply no more words – just Eurovisionoke.
Need to know
Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com), flies to Copenhagen (your gateway to over-the-bridge Malmo) from €118 return.
For a "budget" base in a pretty pricey city, the STF Hotel & Hostel (svenskaturist foreningen.se) offers dorm rates of €47 and private rooms from €56pps. Both prices include breakfast and there are surcharges for linen and towels.