Trip Journal - Kalmar

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Kalmar - 13 June 1998


We had to make two trips with the car to get our packs, Alexander's pram, toys, clothes, etc. to the train station. Peter was happy to drive us. Although he would miss us, he was eagerly looking forward to the first 6 days of his five weeks of vacation including uninterrupted World Cup soccer and sleeping late. Karin had also left a list of "projects" for him to accomplish, but these seemed not to be on his mind as we left for the train station.


Once we arrived in Kalmar, the whirlwind of activity began. I hadn't seen the Holmbergs since I was at University in Würzburg, and stayed with them one Christmas break when I was too poor to go home. They were wonderful, the house was alive with laughter and good-natured bickering, and the heart of the house was always the kitchen, where Mamma was cooking, and there was always good conversation and wonderful food.

It's still like that, but Kaj (Karin's father) is retired now and spends his new-found free time improving his English and being very involved in all sorts of cultural and intellectual pursuits. Ethel (Karin's mother) is just as busy and creative as she always was. She still works the night shift at the hospital, because it gives her more free time for her family and her own interests. She weaves wonderful blankets, makes baskets out of birch bark, and is a fantastic cook. She also has a little cottage about five minutes walk from the house, where she has a large garden full of flowers, fruit and vegetables.


The cottage is situated in Södra Kolonien, or Kollo, as it's called, which is, to my knowledge, unique to Sweden. It's a little colony of tiny wooden cottages, each with its own garden. The houses are meant for summer living only; the water is turned off during the winter. No cars are allowed, the paths are just for bikes and people. It's very quiet and tranquil there, and it is there that we had the privilege of staying while we were in Kalmar. Ethel seemed to think that we somehow had a bad bargain, and that we should come up to the house where it was warmer (it's true that one day it only went up to 8 degrees Celcius) but we loved the cottage. It had two rooms, the tiny bedroom, and a combined kitchen, living room and dining room. The kitchen was divided from the rest of the room by a little fireplace, which we used a couple of the nights that we were there. There is also a wonderful sunporch on the front of the house that overlooked Syrenvägen, or Lilac Way. And the entire path is lined with beautiful lilac trees. They had just started to bloom when we arrived. It was like living in paradise.

Kalmar is in the province of Småland; the soil is rocky and not very useful for farming. Most of the immigrants to the United States came from this region.

We had beautiful weather the first day that we were there, and after a wonderful meal, Karin, Alexander, Paul and I went on a 6 km walk through the woods surrounding Kalmar. The city keeps a wonderful park that has been left almost entirely natural. There are bike and pedestrian paths and places to swim. It's huge; even I could see taking up running in such beautiful surroundings.

14 June 1998


The next day, Sunday, we went for a bike ride through town with Kaj. He has an extensive bicycle collection and very kindly gave Paul and me our own to use while we were there. Both were ancient, one speed touring bicycles that have been very well kept. Our ride into town took us along the water, from where you have a wonderful view of the Kalmar Slott, or castle. We went to see the memorial for the 600 years' anniversary of the Kalmar Council, the first Union of the Scandinavian countries, which was convened in 1397 by Queen Margaret I, on June 14, which was the day we were there. (I'm sure that was planned by Kaj; he's a wonderful tour guide.) Afterwards we went to the Dom, or Cathedral, which was built between 1660 and 1682 by Nicodemus Tessin the Elder. Actually, Nicodemus didn't live to see it finished; his son, Nicodemus the Younger, completed the job. (The two were much in demand; many of the Churches we have seen all over Sweden were built by them.) It has a very impressive altar; in the old days, they used to allow prisoners to go to Church on Sunday, but they were made to sit in pews where they weren't able to see the beautiful altar. Unmarried women with children had to sit behind the prisoners. Hm.

After the Dom, we went to Åhléns Cafe, where Anna (Karin's youngest sister) is working for the summer. We had a drink there and then pressed on to the Museum. At this point, Karin left to go back home and see how Alexander was doing. There was an exhibit about Kronan, a ship that was twice as big as the Vasa (see Stockholm). During a battle against the Dutch, it fell on its side and then blew up and sank off the coast of Öland, which is an island right near Kalmar. The bodies of those killed were washed up on shore right near a Church on the island. It probably sank for the same reasons as the Vasa, topheaviness. It was also raised by Anders Franzén. Although there's really nothing left of the ship, they've recovered a lot of artifacts, including the largest gold treasure ever found in Sweden. It must have belonged to one of the soldiers. It's unclear to me why you would take your entire fortune on board a ship at a time when you knew so many of them sank. I'm sure that the wife and children of that soldier grieved for him, but they must have also been a little angry with him for leaving them destitute.

On the way back home (we were expected for dinner at 4:00) we rode by the old wall and saw the Swedish version of the Little Mermaid (she has two eel-like tails for legs). We were starving when we got home and were very excited about the Kykling Paj (chicken pie) that Ethel had made for dinner. We got the recipe in case anyone is interested in trying it. It was wonderful.

15-17 June 1998

It was raining the next day so we decided to do "indoor" things, like a tour of the Kalmar Slott. But before that, we had to be fortified by a hearty lunch. The Swedes believe that you need sweet things to eat on a miserable day and I happily concur. We had Priest's Cake for lunch, which has crushed almonds in it and is delicious. (We have the recipe for this as well.) The rest of Sweden calls it Mazarinkaka, but in the Holmberg family, it is called Priest's Cake because they served it to the priest when Anna was going to be confirmed. The next day, it was still raining, so we had waffles with whipped cream and strawberries for lunch. And we thought this trip would be a great way to lose weight...

We set off on our bikes in our rain gear, and I'm happy to report that we stayed very dry. (I should mention that Swedes bike everywhere in every weather. They keep their cars for long trips and transporting things. When I was in Kalmar for Christmas, Karin and I biked everywhere, even though it was 40 degrees below zero.) To enter the castle, you go through a series of tunnels and bridges over moats. We never actually saw a sign that had a bike and a red cross through it (i.e., No Bikes) so we just pedalled right in. Of course there had been a sign in Swedish, but we couldn't read it. D'oh! The ticket taker very kindly overlooked our transgression and let us leave our bikes behind her stand so that we wouldn't miss the English tour. The castle was first built in the late 1100's. In 829, Ansgar, the first Christian apostle, arrived in Scandinavia, from somewhere in Frankonia, which is now Germany and France. In 1123, Kalmar was forced to convert to Christianity by the Norwegian King, Sigurd Jorsalfore. From what I've been able to deduce, this always seems to be when the trouble begins and you need to build castles to protect yourselves.

The castle as it stands today is from the 1580's. A lot of it is original, which is amazing for something that old, and made with so much wood. Gustav Vasa (he seems to be the first Swedish King) was elected by a Council in 1523. He ruled until his death in 1560. After that, Gustav's son, Erik, took over. He was the eldest son, but allegedly was mentally unstable, and to make things worse, he took a "common" wife. Presumably, if he had married royalty and just been insane, he could have kept the throne, but the combination of the two was too much. In 1668, he was put into prison for his offence, and then, to add insult to injury, he was killed in prison by his own brother, who put arsenic in his pea soup. Erik's bedroom (the King's Bedchamber) attests to Erik's having been a bit paranoid (or was he? given a brother like that) and quite fanciful. More on his room in a bit. Johann, the next in line, and the one who killed his own brother, then became King. He ruled until his death, and then his son, Sigismund, took over. Sigi's mother was of Polish royalty, so he got to be the King of both Poland and Sweden. (When I first got to Sweden, I kept thinking how many similarities there are between Sweden and Poland. The landscape and architecture are in many ways strikingly similar. I never knew before how much direct contact there was between Sweden and Poland, and didn't realize how close they are. It's very easy to take a boat to Poland.) Anyway, Sigismund never bothered to learn a word of Swedish, and this disdain of his Father's tongue is what got him deposed. Karl, brother of poor Erik and evil Johann, took over as King thereafter. It was quite a tough time in history to be of royal blood! (By the way, I apologize to the Swedes if I've gotten any of this wrong; I tried to keep it all straight but it was quite confusing.) The present line of Kings (and one day, Queens; Victoria will be the first) is descended from a French marshall named Bernidotte. During Napolean's time, he was asked to be the King of Sweden. At the time, it was widely believed that a foreign King would be more apt to have the country's best interests in mind instead of his own. (Poland did the same thing.)

Since the King married for political and practical not affectionate reasons, the King and Queen had separate bedchambers and receiving areas. Each suite of rooms was reached by an extremely steep set of stairs. This was so that anyone visiting the King of Queen would feel small before his or her Sovereign. I thought it was steep and people were even smaller back in the 1500's, so it must have been a tough climb. Gustav Vasa reigned during a bad economic time. In 1527, he saw a wonderful opportunity to put funds back in the royal coffers. He converted the whole country to Protestantism, so that all the Church property could be confiscated. The gold and silver were taken, convents were demolished for their stone, and even gravestones were taken to be used in building the castle. The steep staircases that people were made to climb to see the King and Queen were made of these gravestones. The lettering was face up, and people could read whose gravestone they were walking over. Many time it was an ancester of theirs. Pretty creepy.

Let's just state for the record that the Queen's chambers were much less nice than the King's. Her walls were made of plaster and decorated only with a few tapestries and a painted border up at the top. The floors were cold stone. For a while, her receiving and bed chamber were the same room, but then a wall was put up to divide them. But then that meant that her bedroom had no heat, because the fireplace was in the other room. Of course the fireplace couldn't keep the whole room warm anyway. When it got too cold, soldiers were called in to run around the room, thus warming it up. The Queen's Hall, the more public room, was quite lovely however, with wooden panelling that used inlaid wood to create three-dimensional designs and pictures on the walls. In the 1580's, when this was done, it was quite a new thing to be able to show perspective on a flat surface. The panelling was restored in the 1880's, and only about 10% of it is original. In the Hall, the floors were wooden parquet, and very lovely.

All the King's rooms, on the other hand, were bedecked with decoration. The room where he met with his soldiers before battle was covered with inspiring frescoes of Sampson, and other men of strength and courage, because such images were thought to be powerfully motivating to his troops. Erik' bed is on display in this room, presumably because they couldn't take tours in his bedroom if the bed were in it. It's a very big wooden bed, covered with carvings. It's the only original piece of furniture in the castle, and was won from some other country's royalty. The King lived in twenty different castles all over Sweden and, as furniture was expensive, he took his furniture with him. Each time he wished to move, the bed was dismantled and transported to the next location.

Erik's bedroom is a piece of work. It is covered with wood panelling, and three-dimensional frescoes that depict Erik in a hunting scene. He is pictured right over the door, and is being attacked by a boar. Actually, he's underneath the boar. One of Erik's men saved his life, and was rewarded with the name, when translated into English, of "Pighead". The door itself is massive and beautifully carved, and has no less than five locks on it. Erik was very afraid of being killed in his bed. But he was also afraid of being trapped in his bedroom, so he had secret passageways contructed, both through his bathroom: either through two planks in the ceiling, which led to one of the towers in the castle, or, ugh, through the toilet itself, which we all know in those days was really an outhouse. It is rumored but was never verified that Erik used this escape to visit his concubines as well.

The ceiling is also wooden and is hung with chain from the real one. All of Erik's interests are carved into the rectangles of the ceiling, for example, weaponry and music. There is also a hanging ceiling in the receiving room. When the carpenters were building it, they found that the room was very much out of square and had to compensate by making some of the rectangles look almost like triangles. But it was very well done, it takes quite a while to notice it. Blue and gold were the most expensive colors to produce back then, so they are very prominently displayed in all the rooms, to show the wealth and importance of the King.

The Main Hall, which was the second largest hall in the castle (the largest was called Burnt Hall, and presumably wasn't used very much after it got its name), was where most of the banquets were held. These were two to three day affairs and thirteen to twenty main dishes were served, with an average of 6 liters of beer served per person. Naturally, this was a lot to consume, so each person had a feather next to his or her plate, and whenever the person felt too full, he or she could tickle the throat and "eliminate" some food so that more could be eaten. Dogs and pigs were always in the hall to clean up the mess. Lovely images...

After the castle, we biked out into the pouring rain and went to some pottery and glass shops that have been put in the old wall. You have to go over a wooden bridge near the prison to get there. (Looking at the Swedes, you can't imagine there being anyone "mean" enough to have to be put in prison!) The walls inside the old wall are arched and very low. The kilns are in the shops as well as the pottery wheels, so you can see how the work gets done.

One really nice thing that I did while I was in Kalmar was read "The Old Man and the Sea" with Kaj. He read the Swedish version for me and I read the English version for him. It was such a nice bonding experience. After a few pages, Kaj had me read the Swedish and he read the English. I found out that he is reading this book in his class and had missed the last class and the last test so he was going to be tested on all that the class had read so far. So presumably he wanted to get some free tutoring! But I really enjoyed it. Afterwards, Paul and I biked to the Dom to hear an organ concert. The music was quite stormy, very in keeping with the weather. Afterwards, we stopped by to see Anna at work. She was very busy and couldn't really talk, but she was awake, which was what we were worried about. She had taken over her boyfriend's paper route and had had to get up at 3:00 in the morning to go deliver papers. Then she got up a couple of hours later to go to work.

We came home to have waffles and then left for Öland, the island off of Kalmar. I have always wanted to go there, but never had the time. I was bound and determined to go this time. There is a castle ruins there, called Borgholm, which is very famous. Kaj was against us going unless the weather was nice. He thought we should take the bikes over on the double decker bike bus and ride around the island. I would have loved that, but we never had nice weather. So we had to go in the rain. But it was still beautiful, even in the wet and windy rain. Öland is special because it supports flora found all over the world and no where else in Sweden. Plants that live in Africa have been discovered there. The heaths are protected, and they try not to have too many sheep on the island, who would eat too much of the heath so that it would eventually erode. Limestone is quarried there as well; it seems to come out of the ground in flat pieces. In olden times, they used a horses to pull a flat piece of limestone over other pieces, to smooth them out. Someone, usually a woman, would sit on the stone to weigh it down. so as not to be "idle", she would also knit while riding. Later, windmills, or rubbing mills, were used to do the same task. The stones were laid out in a circle under the windmill and polished by another stone attached to the mill. Of course, the one doing the polishing got smooth more quickly than the others and had to be switched out frequently. It took about three days to polish a stone using horses and a knitting woman, and less with the windmill, when there was wind. There used to be 3,000 rubbing mills on Öland, now there are only 300.

Öland is also known for Kroppkakor, or body cakes, which is a staple of the island. They are dumplings made of potatoes and filled with meat, and either boiled or pan fried. They are quite good and very filling. At midsummer, they are eaten in great quantities. We had both varieties in Kalmar. You eat them with lingonberry jam and cream, or butter.


Borgholm was exquisite. Even in the pouring, blowing rain. It's a ruin, so most of it doesn't have a roof. The original castle was built in the 12th century. Johan III (the one who killed his brother, Erik) transformed the old fortress into a beautiful Renaissance castle. He put a round tower in each corner -- one was the "Maidens' Tower -- and repeated the same pattern in the outer wall. The castle was severely damaged in the Kalmar War of 1611-1613. King Karl X Gustav commissioned Nicodemus (remember him?) Tessin to reconstruct it in a restrained classical baroque style. Finally, during the Russian Campaign of Karl XII (around 1709), reconstruction was discontinued, presumably to save money for the war. Only the Guard stayed there, although Church services were held at the chapel until 1772. The castle fell into decay and disuse. In 1803, a clothing factory and dyer's workshop were housed there. On October 14, 1806, a terrible fire broke out in the factory and workshop, which quickly spread to the rest of the castle because there was a strong wind that day. After that, the castle was officially declared a ruin. Many of the townspeople, in revenge for the hard labor their ancesters had put into the castle, stole furniture and bits and pieces of the castle. You can see odd bits of castle architecture stuck into the houses around the island. The castle has a wonderful view of the sea from floor-to-ceiling windows. It is built with an inner courtyard that must have been wonderful when it was windy. The towers are big and airy, and there are huge stone flights of stairs leading to them. Every room has a fireplace in it, and some have two. It must have been a very nice place to live. It looks like original architecture was not taken into consideration when improvements were made, because the arches of the new work don't even try to center windows, doors, etc. It's all very charming. There was a scary "secret" passage that we went through. There was a tiny door that led into the Rider's Passage. I was terrified, because it was pitch black and you couldn't see the ground, the walls, or anything that might be on them, like spiderwebs, or bats. Also, you never can be too sure about floors in an old ruin. But we made it through safely, and my heart stopped pounding after about an hour.

We also stopped in at Solliden, the summer residence of the Royal Family, but didn't go into the grounds, since it was still raining.

The last night we were in Kalmar, Mamma made a very traditional Swedish summer meal, potato salad with thin-sliced roast beef, salmon, and ham. It was wonderful. Then it was time to say goodbye to Kalmar and our wonderful hosts. Next stop: Leksand and the midsummer celebration.