In 1953, a sultry sun-kissed young Harriet Andersson skinny-dipped her way into Swedish film history in the seminal Ingmar Bergman classic, Sommaren Med Monika. An ultimately tragic melodrama about impulsive Monika and her quiet boyfriend Harry as they escape from the cares of city life and explore the islands of the Stockholm Archipelago, the beauty of Bergman’s black and white classic came to mind as we pedalled a pair of old Skeppshult bicycles – complete with back-pedal brakes and handlebar baskets – down Hönö Klåva’s sleepy lanes. We were heading for the end of the public road, the Allmänlandsväg, where grey, white and blue-sided timber houses met a wind-whipped seashore where Hönö’s ice-rounded rocks dipped like surfacing whales into the Kattegatt.
After a brief flight from London Stansted to Gothenburg City airport (at Save, an easy drive or bus ride north of the city) we were back in Öckerö Kommun, on the opposite side of Sweden from where Bergman’s masterpiece of landscape, eroticism and emotions was filmed nearly 60 years earlier. It was the end of another summer and, in many ways like Bergman’s characters, we’d gratefully fled late summer’s cares for a few days in the islands off Gothenburg.
At Hästen, we left the bikes among the low spreading bushes, honeysuckle and thrift that struggles bravely against the west winds, and continued on foot past oxblood red huts to a small beach so characteristic of Sweden’s west coast.
Hönö is one of the Öckeröarna’s 10 inhabited islands. It’s not quite the southernmost (that honour goes to nearby Fotö, linked to Hönö by a modern road bridge), but, along with Öckerö itself, is the most densely populated because of its closeness to the mainland. As the northernmost archipelago – the Swedes say Skörgård – guarding the approaches to Gothenburg, the islands and islets of the Öckeröarna form a beautiful bolt hole lying remarkably close – and surprisingly undiscovered by Britons – to the UK.
Later, the setting sun turned the sea the colour and texture of beaten pewter and somewhere near Hönö Klåva’s fishing harbour a moped puttered into the evening. We made our way through a maze of tiny streets and alleyways to the foot of the cylindrical water tower that dominates the village. Climbing up its reverberating spiral staircase, we reached the flat concrete roof of the structure and stood between telecomm transmitters as we took in the stunning 360-degree panorama: Hönö, little Fotö to the south, the spire of Öckerö’s renowned church away to the north, Kalvsund (with its ever so distinctive cross-on-a-pyramid sea mark) and Grötö lying to the east between Hönö and the mainland.
Centuries earlier, when more oak trees grew on the islands (Ockero translates as ‘oak island’), life in the Skörgård was dominated by herring fishing, a tradition continued today in each island’s fishing harbours – and captured for ever in the ten swimming fishes featured on Öckerö’s coat of arms. Now, though fishing remains important, the islands have evolved into a maritime commuter suburb and leisure environment for the workers in Gothenburg’s busy factories and offices.
Looking south, the fishing harbour dominates the view beyond another scatter of red-tiled, pastel-sided wooden houses set among the ice-scoured rock outcrops and shrubby bushes and stands of willow, alder and hazel. As night falls, Gothenburg’s lights sparkle from across the Dana fjord as a huge car ferry, like a jewel-encrusted log as it navigates out to sea, heads for Denmark. Closer inshore, red tail lights trace the path of a car heading south to Fotö across the new bridge – built in the mid-1990s at public expense which would be the envy of Skye’s residents who are charged a toll to cross to their much more heavily populated Scottish isle.
Much of the islands’ transport infrastructure is free – from Föto’s bridge to the bright yellow ferries linking Hönö to the mainland at Lila Värholmen or plying between the outlying islands of Hälsö, Källö-Knippla, Rörö and Hyppeln at the north of the archipelago. But that’s for the morning, for another gentle ride on our old borrowed bikes. For now, as the sky darkens, it’s the intermittent scything beam of the lighthouse called Vinga fyr that competes for our attention with a rising Venus beyond Föto’s low-lying silhouette.
The next day, under sunny skies and with blustery winds still blowing in from the west, we leave Hönö Klåva for the 45-minute ride north through the islands. At first, we navigate quiet residential streets, past Hönö’s neat school and well-kept church before passing the island's tiny ICA supermarket and the Statoil filling station and braving the gusting wind to cross the reed-flanked Röds Sund on to the island of Öckerö itself. And to our east as we pedal, a pair of wind turbines – an original from the 1980s and a much more recent, much larger example, seem to keep time with our pedalling from their position beside the ferry terminal at Hönö Pinan.
It’s the end of the morning ‘rush hour’ and, even though the boats run every twenty minutes, traffic rushes for the next ferry. Then the traffic is quiet again and we’re on the Hönövägen, the two-lane spine road that winds, undulates and changes its name with each island for a dozen kilometres from Fotö, through Hönö, Öckerö and Hälsö until it reaches the ferry terminal at the end of the road at Burö. And like a chameleon, the road seems to change its character too – here bounded by residential properties, there by a fishing harbour and elsewhere by the ice-smoothed rocks, rambling honeysuckle and neat red-painted shoreline huts.
Passing through the heart of Öckerö, the islands’ largest, busiest harbour is dominated by ship repair, the paraphernalia of deep-sea fishing and a plethora of bobbing yachts and motor cruisers awaiting their weekend helmsmen and women. The bulbous-bowed hull of a trawler rises above the shops, cafes and sheds of the harbour; today it is the Astrid-Marie, being repaired before venturing once more into Norwegian waters – a year ago, it was Gunilla, one of several sail training tall-ships based on Öckerö, that stood high and out of her element and pointed over the yacht marina towards low-lying Björkö – the island of the birches.
On Öckerö, whether you’re heading north for windswept Burö or heading to the ferry back to the mainland, no culinary recommendation comes higher in our book than the understated grey walls and orange tiled roof of the Nimbus Missionsförsamling. A modern, low-lying complex beside the nautical school and Ockero’s gasthamn, Nimbus is a church and a seamen’s mission, a conference centre and a superb lunchtime venue where simple but delicious meat and fish dishes, as well as mouth-watering deserts, many of which are made by local people, can be enjoyed for just a few pounds. You thought Swedish dining was expensive? Enjoy tasty älggryta – elk – or even-more delicious fresh fish of the day and all you can eat from the salad bar for little more than the price of a McDonald's at home – you’ll soon understand why Nimbus is one of our favourite island eateries.
Though Öckerö isn’t mountainous by any means (as for all the Öckerö islands, it’s highest point is just a few dozen metres above sea level), the Hönövägen becomes the Hälsövägen as it curves and undulates past the headquarters of the Öckerö Kommun before descending gently towards a small wooded coppice and the Berg Propulsion factory standing sentinel before the bridge over the Tjolmesund to Hälsö. the next island north.
On Öckerö’s islands, it’s easy to talk about hills and factories and spine roads and rush hour. But here, even though the islands are clearly busier and more densely populated than even a few decades ago, these words take on a new meaning. They should be put into the context of a still peaceful island archipelago. Though only an hour by bus (half that by car) from downtown Gothenburg, everything on Öckerö’s islands must be qualified with smaller, quieter or less busy. Öckerö really is like that.
We cross another causeway and another bridge as our cycle path (cyclists are properly catered for by a network of safe, well-surfaced routes throughout the islands) follows the main road on to Hälsö. We pause briefly to admire the ranks of red and white huts beside yet another little yacht harbour in the sheltered, rock-bounded sound. To our east, in the choppy waters between Hälsö and Björkö, a small flotilla of yachts and fishing boats make their way north. Then, briefly amongst houses again, another gentle climb – even on a creaking, rusty three-speed utility bike – is followed by the exhilaration of a long straight descent and one more switchback through an increasingly barren landscape of low berry bushes, more rocky outcrops and windswept stands of alder, hazel and willow.
Not allowing for a coffee-break at Nimbus, it’s taken us barely half an hour of not very strenuous cycling to get from the boutiques, fish docks and pumping rock music of the densely populated Hönö Klåva’s quayside gym to the ferry terminal at Burö where the road ends in a handful of traffic lanes, a block built administration building and a duo of ferry ramps. On another occasion we’ve locked the bikes, left them here and continued on foot, boarding one of the little yellow ferries (the purists would probably say they were gold, taking their colour cues from the crossed bands of the Swedish flag).
Just like the much larger ferries between Hönö-Pinan and the mainland, these boats – each capable of carrying a few cars and a couple of goods vehicles – are free of charge to users. They run virtually 24/7, a floating extension of the islands’ roads to link remote Hyppeln, Källö-Knippla and Rorö where, wandering through the heather and boulders of the island’s nature reserve, you’re on the northwestern extremity of the Öckeröarna. Any further and you’re out into the Kattegatt – next stop Norway.
A pretty blonde teenager, blasé about the stunning landscape and studiously preoccupied with something on the ground between her feet, stands up and wanders down the loading ramp and onto the ferry. We follow her, wheeling the bikes onboard, this time to stand with them at the front of Monika’s car deck with the wind in our hair as the helmsman navigates skilfully between a myriad of tiny islets – each with its regulation line of resting seabirds.
A brown and white goose skims the waves ahead of us, and then the ferry’s hooter blasts a warning to an errant motorboat headed for Källö-Knippla. We dock briefly by the fiskehamn, just long enough for a couple of cars to disembark and a large box van to reverse onto the ferry’s metal deck. Then we’re headed for Hyppeln where the delivery lorry will make a 200 metre foray into the islands narrow streets before reversing back onto Monika for the return trip to Burö – leaving us to explore the island.
Intending to spend a couple of hours on Hyppeln in the warm September afternoon, we cycle through deserted lanes, past gardens decorated with recovered military shells and aircraft drop tanks, before leaving the bikes and continuing on through the thrift and heather to another rocky shore overlooking the Kattegatt. For a couple of hours we see nobody, enjoy our lunch and laugh at the previous day’s experience back on Källö-Knippla. We’d taken the bikes with us then too, planned a brief exploration of the tiny twin island. Our plans were abruptly upended moments after arriving when, as we sat and looked back towards Burö, another peaceful afternoon was shattered when one of the bikes’ tyres suddenly exploded. Naturally, we’d brought neither a spare tube nor a puncture repair kit with us. As events had transpired, neither would have helped because the failure of the tyre was due to the ravages of time on a very old tyre itself. Even allowing for the islands’ short distances, we’d suddenly been faced with a two-hour ferry ride and walk back down that undulating spine road to the Öckerö’s cycle shop.
Öckerö islanders are used to looking after each other. It’s a Swedish characteristic, accentuated by the challenges of island life and a tradition of resilience. As we pushed the bikes back onto the ferry, we were confident of friendly local help – and we weren’t disappointed.
Öckerö-based builder Per Arne had smiled with amusement as we explained our predicament through the open window of a large, tool-filled Chevrolet van towing a flatbed trailer full of scaffolding. We’d approached him as the next ferry returned to Burö; without hesitation he helped us tie the bikes onto the trailer, found space for two sheepish cyclists amongst the chop saws, boxes of screws and timber in the Chevy’s squirrels nest interior and immediately offered to divert to the Öckerö Cykelservice store – just a few hundred metres from Nimbus where we’d lunched earlier in the day. Ten minutes after driving off the ferry – and realising that it would have been a much longer endeavour on foot – we were 200 Krona lighter and admiring the brand new tyre adorning the old Skeppshult bike.
This demonstration of kindness and support for someone in difficulties is typical of the welcome we have experienced during several visits to the Öckeröoarne. Maybe it comes from the islanders’ historical need to look out for each other in a common struggle against wind, sea and other vagaries. Whatever, a cynic might argue that it was an outdated, even quaint gesture in an increasingly self-centred, fast-moving, dog-eat-dog world. We prefer to revel in the demonstration – the sort of thing we would hopefully do for a foreign traveller back in the UK – of spontaneous, generous kindness. Thank you again Per Arne.
Later in our island sojourn, after days spent exploring Hönö. Öckerö, Fotö and Hyppeln, during a relaxing week during which the wail of emergency sirens never once competed with the squawk of gulls or the restful chatter of small-boat rigging we wondered how long the islands can retain their peaceful beauty. Already, the network of free ferries runs 24/7 to link the community with Gothenburg and, though it’s been turned down twice at referendum, there’s a growing movement in support of a road bridge to Gothenburg. Just a few decades ago, the islands were the domain of boat builders, fishermen and a few smallholders eking a living from the thin soil. Nowadays, your neighbour is more likely to be a Gothenburg teacher or a Volvo engineer commuting in to Torslanda every day. It’s so easy with the ferries, and likely to get easier still if (more likely, when) a bridge is built to the mainland. Sadly, though perhaps inevitably, petty crime is on the rise too: leave your bike unlocked in one of the busier parts of Hönö or Öckerö at your peril; small boat owners and boutique owners around Hönö Klåva report a rise in thefts and vandalism. And, in 2006, Hönö even experienced its first bank robbery – apparently still unresolved after a daring James Bond-style speedboat escape across the Dana fjord from a local beauty spot.
In Bergman’s tale of Monika and Harry, the idyllic notion of carefree escape to a sun-kissed archipelago is ultimately shattered by lifes realities. Now, as Gothenburg’s urban sprawl spreads ever further, these beautiful islands will inevitably get busier and more crowded. Just as, in some people's opinion, Volvos aren't what they used to be, so the islands of Öckerö Kommun are changing too.
If you haven't already been, my advice is to get there soon. You won't regret it.
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