August 15, 2014 5:55 pm

The Fast Lane: a Swedish road trip

Older Swedes are happy to go naked but younger ones are more prudish and prefer to cover up

The summer vacation schedule took an unexpected turn last week when the eastbound flight out of Heathrow veered north rather than south. I’ve been taking a “one week off/one-to-two weeks on” approach to the holidays this year and, for the most part, have been touching down in Switzerland or Italy. So far, there has been a trip to Forte dei Marmi (a company retreat, in fact), a lot of South Tyrol and bits of the chilly and waterlogged Engadin valley.

But then an invitation to a friend’s 40th birthday in the south of Sweden, along with a few other longstanding invitations to spots on the country’s west coast, convinced me to swap southern Europe for a Swedish road trip.

Landing in Copenhagen on a sunny but blustery Saturday, we opted for the ferry crossing to Helsingborg. On board, we saw highly organised Swedish passengers staring with shock and delight at a chaotic group of Chinese tourists struggling with jumbo lime-green and pink suitcases. As the tanned Swedish families made their way to the restaurant’s hot-dog station, a group of about 15 of the Chinese tourists had spread out at the bottom of the stairs to repack their cases with trinkets, footwear, winter coats and designer handbags. Younger family members were charged with carrying multiple shopping bags that couldn’t be stuffed into the cases, while the adults had to manage three wheelie bags each.

There were raised eyebrows and looks of surprise all round. “How are these people going to travel over land?” asked one Swede. “I’m happy I’m travelling by car and not stuck behind them when they board the train to Stockholm,” said another.

After 20 minutes the ship pulled into Helsingborg harbour and, with Mats at the wheel, we headed north to the small town of Mölle for my friend Tessan’s birthday and an evening of Swedes “performing” speeches. If you have never been to a Swedish wedding, birthday or similar celebration, here’s how it goes: expect no fewer than 20 people to stand up at some point and deliver anything from an exquisitely rehearsed poem to a drunken mess of confessions or a PowerPoint complete with childhood photos.

My theory on this extraordinary style of showmanship is that Swedish schools don’t put a lot of emphasis on public speaking or debate as part of the high school curriculum, so it’s only later in life that Swedes get to show off their stuff in front of their peers. I could be wrong, of course, but there’s surely something odd, or missing, when everyone ends up running for the mic later in life. (Think of the nation’s highly successful pop music industry as well.)

From Mölle, we went up the coast to visit friends Magnus and Lena in the smart enclave of Torekov, where the local custom is to don clogs and robes to ride bicycles down to the beach for a dip. As Magnus and Lena’s home is only 100 metres from the closest jetty, we did without the clogs and bikes and just went to the sea with our towels. Nevertheless, it’s quite a spectacle to watch Sweden’s wealthiest families cycling in flapping robes en route for their morning or evening swim. There is something uniquely Nordic about a ritual that sees everyone from leathery grannies to young billionaires to children in matching waffle robes all pulling up on rickety bikes (the more rusted and clapped-out the better), clattering along the dock, dropping their bathrobes and then plunging into the water. As one friend noted, the older generations are still happy to go naked but younger Swedes are a much more prudish bunch and prefer to cover up.

Swedish schools don’t put a lot of emphasis on public speaking or debate as part of the high school curriculum, so it’s only later in life that Swedes get to show off their stuff in front of their peers

The following morning it was back in the car and off to visit some of Mats’ relatives south of Gothenburg, and then north to the tiny island of Marstrand. With a ferry crossing that takes under two minutes, Marstrand is the illustrated children’s book version of what a well-to-do Swedish seaside town might look like: elegant wooden houses with big windows and balconies, outcrops of bare rocks, and people pushing carts full of groceries and supplies (there are no cars here). The town’s main hotel might have seen slightly better days but it served up excellent Swedish west-coast classics and was less than a five-minute walk to a pair of public jetties ideal for morning plunges into an unusually warm sea.

After dinner with friends Anna, Emilia and Amaury, it was over to Stockholm on a very nice (and punctual) train, a few nights at the lovely Ett Hem hotel and then out to my island for a couple of cloudless days. For all readers who’ve been writing in looking for August and early September holiday tips, a visit to Sweden is something I can highly recommend. But just give Magnus and Lena a bit of advance warning if you plan on dropping in.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

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