Halland is a county just to the south of Gothenburg, its main population centres are Varberg and Halmstad with Falkenburg in the middle. It is mostly a coastal county, well known for it summer water-sports.
Varberg is only a short distance away from Gothenburg, on the coast and is most commonly used as a summer destination, with beaches, bathing spots and it is Sweden’s only place for surfing. Despite this, I chose to see how it held up in the winter.
Varberg is a fairly small town, and much of its shopping closes at 4pm, not really a surprise when Gothenburg is under 30 minutes away by train. Most of the shops are within a street or two of the shopping mall, and it is largely chain stores you will see elsewhere in Sweden.
Not far from the station and near to the ocean, the Clarion in Varberg offers an unusual deal, not just breakfast was included but also dinner. A different meal each evening is on offer in a buffet style. Its a handy idea, but not exactly what I am looking for when travelling and I want to experience more of the cities I visit.
In addition, there is a fika hour, where small cakes and coffees are served, again included in the cost of the stay.
Within the hotel there is a ‘relax’ area with a hot tub and sauna and in the same building is a gym the guests have access to. The gym is a very good size and had a lot of free weights, making it ideal for a lifting program.
The decor is lightly nautical, based as it is by the port and fortress, but nothing too overstated.
One of the most impressive buildings in Varberg is the Societén, a restaurant and bar in an old building near to the fortress. Set over two floors it is reminiscent of a upper class summer home.
Next to the Societén, is Lottastugan, a small venue for custom exhibitions and shows. Listed as a museum on google, it is more an available space.
Most of Varberts shops, at least the generic ones, are in the Gallerian, which closes early. Espresso House, H&M, Clas Ohlson and similar are found here, and it shares a space with the Systembolaget and the small cinema.
Opposite the Gallerian is a small park with a series of interesting sculptures dotted through it, well lit at night.
A cosy Italian restaurant opposite the cinema, it does an excellent mini-pizza starter as well as some great pasta.
A small cinema with a couple of screens in the centre of town, with traditional red seats. Its got a classic vibe to it and a good way to spend an evening.
Inside or outside of the summer season, the main attraction is the Fortress of Varberg. Parts of which date from the 13th century. It is visible along much of the coast of Varberg and even has a rear moat, limiting access to only the north and the south.
Like many fortresses and castles, which were in continued use, you can see the changes and new buildings and extensions as you explore.
The wind off the water is bitterly cold during the winter, and the sea when I visited was calm, giving a sharp quiet to the fortress, enhanced by the fact there were only a few other people in the grounds.
There is even a small hostel offering beds in the fortress cells for those who are interested in experiencing the way people lived in the past.
In the centre of the fortress, the culture and history museum takes one full side of buildings. Clearly recently renovated, the museum is mostly on the first floor. The collections are slightly unusual, being more focused on significant items through the history of Varberg and Halland county, there is a carved and painted ancient stone.
There is also the remains of the Bocksten Man and his unique dress from the 14th century.
As well as the Kulknappen – the shot that is assumed to have killed Carl XII.
It is not a particularly large museum, but it is well laid out, child friendly and gives an interesting insight into the history of Varberg.
There was also a small temporary exhibit of the painters of the Varbergsskola, who spent some time in Varberg painting the landscapes in different styles.
In the same building as the museum is a small, cosy cafe, offering a small curated selection of meals to patrons. The Kyckling Paj was a great lunch.
With snow on the ground, and a temperature that felt like -15 degrees Celsius, the coast of Varberg was quiet, but there were still dedicated dog walkers and some enthusiastic runners in layered clothes.
The landscape is bleak, the rocks were lightly dusted with snow and the water was a flat grey, reflecting the grey cloudy sky. Briefly the sun burned through the cloud cover and the shallow water lapping the stones took on a golden cast.
Along the coast, past the nude male bathing area is Ankaret, the Anchor, a large statue marking a popular location for picnics and swimming in the summer.
North of the Fortress is the Children’s Beach, the only sand beach in Varberg. During the winter, it was deserted and it was my first experience with a snow covered sand beach. The water froze the sand, making it crunch underfoot. The water curves in a bay past the fortress, making it a sheltered spot that is no doubt extremely popular during the summer months.
A uniquely Swedish building, at the end of a promenade is the bath house, with a cafe in the centre offering a well needed hot chocolate in the cold, on the right is the men’s bathing and the left the women’s. These offer stairs down into the ocean in a protected bathing space. It is a little like the opposite of a sauna in the ice water.
Even in the middle of winter, with snow on the ground and the arctic wind coming through, the ever tough Swedes were lining up to bathe.
Far to the south of Varberg are the linked water towers Albert and Frida. Hidden behind a hotel and a office park, the water towers are an interesting pair of buildings. Surrounded by forrest, and up a short Albert was build in 1916 and Frida in 1926, and were refurbished in 2001.
They were named after two doctors who worked in the Sanatorium that was there during the first world war.
Halmstad is a noticeably larger town than Varberg, though not so large as Gothenburg. Like Gothenburg it is divided by a river, but separating the city into the east and west with teh west being the old town with the old buildings and the east being newer.
The city has a small town feel, despite its comparative size, perhaps because I was there on Sunday and very little is open on Sunday. Clas Ohlson of course being the exception. The cafes and later in the day restaurants were all open, but shops were largely closed.
Most of the shopping is, like Varberg, cantered in a few blocks in the old town near to the castle. Over the river, the most obvious and impressive building is the Konsthall.
Not quite gourmet burger, not quite fast food, Shady straddles the line between an easy and fast burger and a more sit down experience. The burgers are good and the fries plentiful.
A small cosy pizza place on the main street. Popular takeout place for the locals as well as a nice place for a meal.
Stopped for an evening coffee to kill half an hour, this large venue is part bar part coffee shop. It’s aiming for an up market look, but doesn’t quite pull it off.
In the centre of old town is Stora Torg, the ‘large square’ or ‘great square’ with a fountain in the centre. During winter, it was peaceful, and pristine with snow hiding the stones of the square, and ice in the fountain. In the summer, you would expect a bustling market place here.
High up on a hill, past the open air museum is the Skogsvaktartornet, the ‘forest guarding tower’. During its open season, you can climb the tower to get views over Halstad, but during the winter you must content yourself with views of the tower itself.
Situated on the riverbank, at the foot of old town, the castle is a deep terracotta red. Entrance is through the north wall into the main courtyard. During the summer months, the buildings are opened to the public, but the castle is closed through the winter.
Behind the castle is the grounds including the moat. These are not accessible during winter as they are fenced in from the road and require access through the castle itself.
Though slott is traditionally translated to castle, in most cases I have seen it could more appropriately be translated to manor house, it is the fästning, such as you see in Varberg that are more reminiscent of traditional castles.
Facing Stora Torg, St Nikolai Church is an imposing building in the centre of the city. Like most Churches in Sweden it seems to see little traffic through its large wooden doors, but it remains the visible landmark and reminder of part of Sweden’s past.
Halmstad is rightly proud of its public art, around the city there are statues and graffiti enlivening the city and its people. From the Picasso Head in the Picasso Park:
To Pi opposite the Konsthall
And the anti-gun violence statue you can also see in Gothenburg and Stockholm
As well as the unseen ‘burial’ a 1m cubed stone block buried without trace, as it is the art, not the display that is important gives the visitor a good reason to explore the city by food.
In a new building, on the east side of the river (actually both on the river bank and on pylons on the river itself, the Halmstads Konsthall is primarily a library and community space, with a corner set aside for artworks. The gallery had a collection of local works, primarily paintings, but a small number of photographs of famous people taken by a local photographer.
About five kilometres outside of Halmstad is the Mjellby Konstmuseum. The easiest way to access it is via car, and it is a short drive, but it is also possible to get there via bus, there is one bus, that runs less than once an hour to an eponymously named bus stop about seven minutes walk away from the museum. That seven minutes is a long walk in the driving snow with nothing to protect you but open fields in both directions. Equally, you need to be conscious of the time until the next bus as they are so infrequent.
These issues aside, the museum is excellent. The staff were deeply knowledgeable and when hearing I was english, and perhaps taking pity on my bedraggled state due to the weather, they explained all the exhibits currently being shown.
The permanent exhibitions are based around the Halmstadgruppen, the Halmstad Group, who are Sweden’s connection to Cubism and Surrealism (and the reason for the Picasso statue and park). The museum itself was created by one of the groups daughters, a noted writer of art history.
The museum also features an art space, allowing visitors to express themselves and post it on the walls for everyone to see. Artist smocks are even provided incase you get really into it.
The main exhibition at the time of my visit was the Guerrilla Girls, an anonymous artists collective who have charged themselves with challenging the substantial lack of diversity found in art museums around the world. The main section was their survey work, itself posted as an artistic piece where they asked over three hundred art museums and galleries to answer questions on the diversity of their collections and shows. Less than a third responded. Those who failed to respond have pride of place on the floor where patrons are encouraged to walk all over them.
The statistics are powerful, and somehow not surprising. Whilst it has not been something I have actively considered, when laid out, it was something I had always subconsciously known. Art, particularly art history is white men. European white men.
There are also a series of examples of their other works, often frames as questions with bitingly sarcastic answers or by a careful rephrasing of the inherent sexism. One of the most surprising pieces of information to me was that the US Senate, long derided for its conservative traditional make up, is dramatically more representative than Hollywood. Film directors are 94% white men, the senate is ‘only’ 75%.
The Halland Konstmuseum is currently closed for refurbishment and rebuilding, due to open again in autumn 2019.
North of the castle and south of the Konsthallen is Picasso park, even from a distance you can see the sculpture that gives it its name, a stone woman’s head (based on his wife Jacqueline Roche), one of sixteen unique sculptures donated to cities around the world. This one was created and installed by Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar, working on Picasso’s behalf. There are other works, but local artists in the part as well, and the view along the river is lovely.
Opposite the castle is a small park with a lake. In the summer no doubt a popular place to spent an afternoon, it was blanketed in snow during my visit, which was beautiful it its own way.
On a hill above the city, the open air museum of Hallandsgården sits. On a much smaller scale than the similar museum in Oslo, it gives a good impression what a small village would have been like centuries ago. Traditional wooden buildings and a blanket of snow convince you that out of season, the locals would have remained inside, by their fires keeping warm.