Islands fit for Ingmar Bergman

Discover the brutally seductive landscape off Sweden's coast

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

4 January 2014

9:00 AM

Who would have thought of staying in a factory? My view is of a grey industrial building, a gravel pile and a crane  standing like a metal giraffe at the end of the pier. It’s not your usual picture-postcard hotel vista, but it’s oddly beautiful.

Instead of following the masses to the Mediterranean, we had headed north to the Baltic islands off Sweden’s coast. Gotland is Sweden’s biggest island, and it’s here that the Fabriken Furillen hotel sits, on a remote peninsula in the far northeast of the island.

This hotel is the brainchild of photographer Johan Hellstöm. It takes an unusual man to see that an abandoned limestone quarry could be a hotel. Swallows swish past, leaving their home in a building previously used to house the conveyor belts for transporting the limestone. Close by, nestled on the edge of the Baltic Sea in front of a gravel hill, is an incongruous American Airstream caravan, and near that, the tunnel that was formerly used by the trains carrying the limestone. Now it’s a favourite location for people shooting car ads, looking for a dramatic exit into an otherworldly landscape.

I wander along the remains of the rusted train tracks, where old wooden carriages lie on their side amid tufts of wild flowers. Something catches the my eye: the flicker of a wind turbine. I decide to explore further, and borrow one of the hotel bikes. I cycle out along the sea’s curve, discovering gloriously wild shingle beaches. Alongside them, black and white cows graze in corn-coloured meadows.

Nearby is the fishing hamlet of Lergrav: a handful of beach huts along the water’s edge, all painted in the traditional rust-red colour, which originated from the copper mining industry in Falun. There is an old mystical-looking wooden statue of a fisherman with a pipe, and strange rock formations — arches and fists — on the surrounding hills. For lunch I eat a bowl of freshly caught prawns at a table outside one of the huts, watching the boats bobbing on the water.

On other days we wander along the many rocky beaches, almost entirely empty of people. Deep green forests of pine trees fringe them. The skies are cinematic. My two-year-old son enjoys collecting stones and piling them on top of each other to create sculptures.

There are other neglected quarries nearby, now transformed into lakes. The biggest is Bästeträsk, a startling turquoise colour. It is delightful to dive in, but this lake is popular, and there are many others less crowded.

Everywhere, you glimpse stone windmills and spires through trees. The island was wealthy during the medieval period and there are many distinctive Gothic churches with deep-tiled roofs. Inside the walls retain their original murals and painted wooden pew doors.

After leaving Fabriken Furillen, we stay at the Hotel Stelor, close to the historical city of Visby. It’s an 18th-century farmhouse with six guest rooms, all funky wallpaper, old wood burners and antiques. The garden is full of fruit trees and gorgeous 1920s Italian wrought-iron furniture. Outside, in a rustic barn, they have daily yoga, regular live music and film nights (we snuggle up on benches watching The Big Lebowski, with rugs and homemade popcorn in brown paper bags).

Visby, once a Viking trading town, is now a Unesco world heritage site with fortified walls along the sea. Coloured houses line the cobbled streets. It is strange to consider that stone-age fishermen selling seals once gathered here.

After Visby, we head to the tiny island of Fårö, on the half-hourly free car ferry. This is the Sweden of Ingmar Bergman: wild, romantic and brutally seductive. Although thousands of people holiday here, only 500 live all year round on this isolated island, and it just about retains its own dialect.

Bergman began filming here in the 1960s. He planned to make Through a Glass Darkly in the Orkneys, off Scotland, but the producers persuaded him to look at Fårö first. ‘It was love at first sight,’ he said, and he not only decided to film here but also became a permanent resident.

My husband and I walk on the beach. The light is utterly magical in early evening: everything glows. A natural arch of rock stand in its own pool of clear water. Further along is the fishing village of Lauterhorn — deserted in the evening. The nougat-grey stone buildings and red wooden huts glisten in the brilliant light.

We stay next in the appropriately named Slow Train B&B (don’t expect early breakfast here), in a cream-coloured stone house. It’s run by Thomas and his daughter, Valériane, who are fascinating eccentrics. There are mannequins, a giant tiger, chintz curtains; and music plays on a record player. Thomas looks like an ageing rock star and is never seen without a bandana tied around his head. ‘I originally came from the cold Arctic in north Sweden, but fell in love with this place,’ he says. ‘It’s unchanged — outside the summer months it’s as it’s always been, back in time. We’ve created our own world here.’

Thomas and Valériane also own a bookshop and a French bistro. Inside the shop a man in a black bowler hat sits behind an old-fashioned till, strumming a guitar. The bistro is like an old American diner, with rusting vintage cars and antique metallic fridges and ads everywhere, all set in a garden of red roses.

On the rooftop is a wreath with a cross in a circle and two fir tree branches poking up like a stag’s horns. ‘These protect the roofs from witches and evil,’ Thomas explains. ‘The wreath is known as Tahlagskrans. It’s a sign that the roof has been properly thatched, and blesses it. The tradition continues today — everyone joins together to help, and afterwards the owner throws a big feast to say thank you.’

These islands are full of tradition and full of the unexpected. They draw you in and cast a spell. It’s easy to see why Bergman was smitten.

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Show comments
  • GenJackRipper

    Nice review but there is nothing called the “Baltic Islands”. This is Gotland, which is a distinct region of Sweden with it’s own special culture.

    It’s like calling Sardinia and Corsica “the tyrrinean islands” or something.

    Gotland, nothing more, nothing less.

  • Martin Preis

    My family fled Stockholm for Gotland some ten years ago, and we have never looked back. In a way we feel like on a sneak vacation that never ended. Half the time we live in Visby, and half the time in a small hamlet on the coast. It´s quite impractical, and strangely wonderful. A short trip far away.