Saturday, 24 February 2024

Unveiling the Charms: Why This Compact and Welcoming Iteration of Stockholm Deserves Your Next City Break

Unveiling the Charms: Why This Compact and Welcoming Iteration of Stockholm Deserves Your Next City Break
Sunday, 26 November 2023 14:48

"Are you excited about the Svampen?" I asked eagerly, the anticipation building for the 17th time as our plane taxied for takeoff at Gatwick. My boyfriend managed a weak smile, replying with a resigned, "Yes, darling." Little did we know that this inquiry about the Svampen, the literal translation being "The Mushroom," would be the catalyst for our unexpected journey to the Swedish city of Orebro.

Initially oblivious, like many British travelers and, I suspected, a fair share of Swedes, to the existence of this city, I delved into the unknown territory of Orebro after being tasked with evaluating its underrated weekend-break potential. Enthusiastically anticipating untapped Scandi cool, fairy-tale castles, and Nordic folklore, my expectations met a reality that primarily featured the Svampen – a sizable water tower, impressive but not quite thrilling. My heart sank momentarily, but I was determined that if this was Orebro's pièce de résistance, we would muster some genuine enthusiasm for it.

As we prepared for our weekend of discovery, our journey took us first to Stockholm, where we met Swedish friends for a drink. With the eagerness of novices, we asked if they had ever been to Orebro, mispronouncing it in our excitement. Correcting us with an "uhh-ruh-broo," they shared insights into the city's character. "It's a university city – we used to go there to get drunk," said one friend. "It's basically students and elderly people, not many in between," added another. The picture painted was of a place akin to Bournemouth without the seaside – a mix of student bars and retirement complexes.

Undeterred, albeit with some trepidation, we left Stockholm and embarked on a two-hour train journey westward, arriving at Orebro's central station around 9 pm. The city greeted us with an encompassing darkness, an intense blackness that seemed extreme for this side of the Arctic circle, especially in early November. The mystery of Orebro awaited, promising more than just the enigmatic allure of the Svampen.

Yet, it wasn't just dark; it was also raining, the kind of icy rain with enormous drops that leave you especially wet. As we trudged through streets that seemed utterly closed, sodden, and eerily quiet, lined with stalwart Swedish chains like Ahlens department store, Bastard Burgers, and Pressbyran convenience stores, along with down-at-heel Thai massage parlors and somber modern apartment blocks, doubts crept in. Even the prospect of visiting the Svampen appeared questionable as our spirits wavered.

However, a glance at the city's history provided a context for its modern appearance. Positioned halfway between Stockholm and Gothenburg, Orebro has been a commercial hub since the 13th century, situated on a major river. After a devastating fire in 1854, the city seemingly resigned itself to a fate of practicality, prioritizing function over aesthetics. A pragmatic approach, similar to that of less attractive cities like Milton Keynes, had shaped Orebro's urban landscape.

Amidst frigid mist and smooth concrete facades, the outlook appeared bleak until we stumbled upon Jarntorget, one of the city's main squares. Suddenly, everything transformed. Tiny quaint pubs illuminated the surroundings, hosting plaid-shirted musicians playing lively tunes on double basses. Homely restaurants adorned with Hamptons-chic hurricane lanterns and quirky artwork offered hearty food. Rosy-cheeked students mingled seamlessly with vivacious retirees, creating an atmosphere devoid of friction.

Crossing the Svartan, the river dissecting the city, revealed more of the same charm, with antique stores, a shop selling hand-crafted pipes, and lively establishments like karaoke bars and sports bars. It was Friday night, and Orebro came alive with the exuberance of students seeking music, cheap beer, and burgers. That's when the city began to make sense.

Balancing the diverse preferences of both students and retirees, Orebro had discovered a fabulous medium. Whether it was vibrant nightlife or refined dining, the city catered to both ends of the spectrum. The lively atmosphere, where students reveled alongside retirees, gave Orebro a unique charm. Despite the initial misgivings, the city unfolded as a place that embraced its dual identity with grace. The affordable price tag, with dinner for two and drinks setting us back barely £60, added a touch of Scandi rarity to the experience. Orebro, it seemed, had found its stride, showcasing a delightful blend of history, charm, and affordability.

The following day, the mist relinquished its hold, revealing a crisp, blue-skied winter day that unveiled Orebro's hidden treasures. The city's Swedish Renaissance castle, with its spectacularly curvaceous architecture, emerged from the fog right next to our hotel, a sight we had missed in the obscurity of the previous night. Eager to explore, we discovered that Orebro, with its modest population of scarcely 150,000 residents and a city center that could be traversed on foot in under 20 minutes, is both compact and casually inviting.

Our day unfolded with visits to the castle's neat museum, state rooms, and an outstanding photography exhibition on its upper floors (orebroslott.se/en). We wandered through the Slottsparken, a charming park dating back to the 1770s, explored two unremarkable churches, strolled along a long, wide high street adorned with smart homeware shops and familiar chains, and immersed ourselves in Wadkoping, an open-air museum portraying the quaint pre-fire Orebro of yesteryear.

By 2 pm, we had traversed the city's offerings, except for one notable attraction – the Svampen. We embarked on a half-hour stroll north, passing corporate warehouses, retirement condos with striped awnings, and a sprawling bog that gave way to a delightful neighborhood adorned with red and yellow houses boasting wraparound porches and gambrel roofs. There it stood, the Svampen, rising from a grassy mound in alien, mushroom glory. At its summit, a tiny restaurant offered panoramic views of the city, a nature reserve to the east, and a bar with a draught beer pump shaped like, naturally, a Svampen.

Here, in this unexpected gem beyond the typical city-break staples, Orebro encapsulates the charm of Stockholm but on a smaller, friendlier, and less need-to-be-cool scale. While Stockholm often seeks approval, Orebro comfortably resides in its own skin, proudly average. Despite lacking the grandeur of some of its counterparts, it embraces a lightheartedness that many cities could benefit from. It may not boast palaces or poise, but Orebro's self-assured authenticity is its greatest allure.

For those enticed to explore this hidden gem, various airlines including Ryanair, Norwegian, SAS, and British Airways offer direct flights from London to Stockholm, with returns starting at £29. From Stockholm, the Arlanda Express transports you into the city for £31 return. Subsequently, the onward train to Orebro, just shy of two hours, costs from £41 return (omio.com).

Gemma Knight enjoyed the hospitality of the Clarion Collection Hotel Borgen (00 46 1920 5000; strawberryhotels.com), an enchanting 19th-century establishment nestled in the heart of Orebro, commanding views over the Svartan river. The hotel, with double rooms starting at £86 per night, offers a comprehensive package including breakfast, fika (coffee and cake), and dinner (excluding drinks). The dramatic setting and thoughtful amenities of this establishment add to the allure of Orebro, making it an ideal base for exploring the city.

For those seeking more information on Orebro or planning a visit to Sweden, visitsweden.com and extra.orebro.se provide valuable resources and insights to enhance the overall experience. Whether you're captivated by the city's historic charm or enticed by its modern offerings, these resources serve as valuable guides to make the most of your Orebro adventure.

In conclusion, Gemma Knight's exploration of Orebro unveils a city that may not boast the grandeur of some Swedish counterparts but possesses a distinct charm and authenticity. Nestled within the Clarion Collection Hotel Borgen, a 19th-century gem overlooking the Svartan river, Orebro welcomes visitors with a blend of historic allure and modern amenities. With double rooms starting at £86 per night, inclusive of breakfast, fika, and dinner (excluding drinks), the hotel provides a comfortable and comprehensive base for experiencing the city.

Orebro's compact and casual atmosphere, coupled with its unexpected delights such as the Svampen and vibrant city life, makes it a compelling destination. Its unassuming pride in being "proudly average" distinguishes it from larger, more bustling cities. Whether strolling through Wadkoping or enjoying the panoramic views from the Svampen, Orebro offers a unique blend of history, charm, and affordability.

For those contemplating a visit, resources such as visitsweden.com and extra.orebro.se offer valuable insights and information to enrich the Orebro experience. The city, with its lighthearted authenticity, invites travelers to explore beyond the conventional city-break staples and discover the beauty of a smaller, friendlier, and less need-to-be-cool scale. Orebro may not have the palaces or poise of its peers, but it embraces its identity with grace, proving that sometimes, in a world seeking grandeur, proudly average is refreshingly extraordinary.

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