Travel Europe

Thursday 14 December 2017

Sweden: An archipelago adventure in the wilds of Stockholm

Europe: Off the beaten track

Sunlight in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Sunlight in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Eating on Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.

Des FitzGerald

There's far more to Stockholm than city breaks, as Des FitzGerald discovers on an archipelago adventure.

Think of Sweden and what comes to mind? A global leader in home furnishings, sturdy vehicles and tuneful pop music, probably.

Well, for me it's all of these things and Ingmar Bergman.

When I think of the director’s early work what stands out most is his use of the Stockholm archipelago. In films like Summer With Monika and Summer Interlude, the characters are often escaping the stultifying city for the freedom of the Baltic.

Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.

As the name suggests, the archipelago is a series of islands (up to 30,000, depending on who you read) within easy reach of the capital by ferry. 

Leaving Stockholm in brilliant sunshine (unlike Ireland, Sweden had a proper summer this year), I looked out at the watery cityscape before me.

There, in all its Art Nouveau splendour, was the Royal Dramatic Theatre where Bergman had directed many plays - when he wasn't busy making films about the human condition that gave him the Godfather of Nordic Gloom title.

It seemed a good omen for this trip to the heart of the archipelago.

The playwright August Strindberg, a great influence on Bergman, spent much time on the islands. In his foreward to 'Life in the Skerries' (1888) he writes: “It is these shifts between gloomy and bright, poor and rich, cultivated and wild, inland and coastal, that make Sweden’s eastern archipelago so captivating".

Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.

I'd decided that my time allowed for somewhere in the middle of the archipelago, with a blend of the features that Strindberg found so attractive.

Looking on a map, the island of Finnhamn seemed fit for my purpose. It got its name because Finnish shipping would use the island as a kind of halfway stopping off point on Baltic journeys to and from Stockholm.

There's little that points to this past, however - apart from a strategically placed funnel outside the island’s hostel - once the impressive summer villa of a rich city coal merchant.

Eating on Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.
Eating on Finnhamn, in the Stockholm archipelago. Photo: Des FitzGerald.

The municipality of Stockholm City actually bought the island in 1943, becoming the first recreation reserve that the city bought, saving it from private exploitation. Consequently Finnhamn has a very back to nature feel with no roads to speak of and a complete lack of the famous summer houses dotted throughout the archipelago. 

Accommodation on the island consists of the aforementioned summer villa and a series of simple holiday chalets dotted around Finnhamn. A very 21st Century spin on this is the ready availability of wi-fi (if you want a truly back to basics feel, it's best to switch off devices entirely during your stay).

Finnhamn is a small island (just 2.5km long), which makes it an ideal place to wander and explore. There are many spots where the smooth rocks meet the water, perfect for swimming. The Baltic here has more of a lake swimming feel about it - due in no small part to its low alkalinity. 

Old abandoned farm buildings allude to its agrarian past. Farming largely disappeared by the 1950s, but has recently been revived with the island’s only farm supplying the shop and cafe with fresh organic produce.

Café Krog is Finnham’s only restaurant and contrasts nicely with the back to basics feel on the island. The café is bright and elegant with nods to Scandinavian design in a homely, yet chic and stylish manner. Archipelago produce is to the fore and my late dinner of trout with seasonal vegetables and a smashing local bitter from Nynäshamns, full of Chinook and Cascade hops, was memorable.

Before long, it was time for me, much as the characters in Bergman’s early films, to catch a boat back to the city and reality.

Follow Des FitzGerald on Twitter at @desfitzgerald.

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