Gävle city centre, Sweden
Getting to Gävle
I was in Sweden just after Easter 2008, combining some business meetings with a visit to friends in Gävle. I didn't know anything about the town before the visit, except what I managed to read in a copy of the Rough Guide to Sweden which I bought a couple of days before going there. Ryanair operates regular services between Sweden and Scotland, and I flew in to Skavsta airport at Nyköping, which the airline advertises as Stockholm although it's a good distance south.
If you're just going in to Stockholm from Skavsta airport, there's a regular bus service to the Central Station taking 80 mins, and then there's a train service to Gävle. However, I arrived on a Sunday evening when there were fewer trains, so my route was rather more complicated with a taxi ride to Nyköping station then a train journey changing at a place called Södertalje. Fortunately I'd been able to get information on Swedish trains beforehand through the easy-to-use website. Services to the far north are operated by a separate company from Swedish Railways, Connex (trading as Veolia transport), and I was on the overnight service to Umeå and Luleå at the northern end of the Gulf of Bothnia.
Whilst waiting for the train at Södertalje, I'd been talking to an older man with a hefty rucksack and outdoor clothes. He was heading for the far north where he would be going on a long trip in the snow with a sled and dogs, as he used to in his younger days. There was a cold wind as we were waiting on the platform for the train so it was a relief to get on board.
Once on the train, I ended up talking for most of the two-hour journey with a Swedish guy in his 20s with a strong (and loud) American accent. He had spent some time at university in New York, and had studied the situation of the native Indians in the US and Canada. We talked about the similarities with the Sami people in the north of Sweden, Norway and Finland, and much besides. He wasn't expecting to arrive in Luleå until 1 pm the following day! The single train ticket to Gävle was surprisingly cheap, at Skr 270, or just over £20. The train arrived just a few minutes late, at midnight, and I was picked up and taken to a delightful family home in a village on the edge of the town.
I heard a little more about the city from my hosts and other people I met whilst there, adding to the information from the Rough Guide. It's a city of about 90,000 people, and built its prosperity around its large harbour, trade in timber and supplies for the north of the country. There's a Sandvik precision tools factory reflecting a traditional steel industry and several large pulp and paper mills, as well as the processing plant for Gevalia coffee which is popular throughout the country.
The city is near the coast and has pleasant beaches, but there's no hint of this in the city centre.
Gävle was devastated by a fire in 1869, leaving only a few old buildings standing. This means that much of the city dates from the same period at the end of the 19th century. It was rebuilt with wide tree-lined streets to minimise the risk of a similar disaster happening again, and this gives it a special character.
After attending some meetings I was shown round the town by Annika, the friend with whom I was staying. It was late afternoon but still quite bright and surprisingly mild at around 10°C. Some piles of snow remained from a period of cold weather the week before, but they were gradually shrinking. There are more photos from the walk in the Gallery.
We started from the County Administration building on the south side of the Gavleån River which runs through the centre, but instead of crossing the footbridge we turned left and walked along Kungsbäcksvägen. It's a colourful street of old timber houses which looked as though they were some of those that had survived the fire. At the western end we turned right to cross another footbridge, overlooked by the larger span of a main road bridge.
There were a few cars crossing the small bridge, as well as cyclists. Like in Amsterdam, people can come up from behind on their bikes and tinkle their bells, but you need to have an ear open to hear them. Annika was much more used to this than me, and gently moved me to the side a few times so I wouldn't be struck by a bike!
The bridge led towards a fine-looking church (Helige Trefaldighets Kirke), standing among birch trees, with a crescent of wooden buildings behind. We turned left, away from the church and down to the river bank where a wide path led into wooded parkland. This was the start of the Boulognerskogen, a large park which stretches away to the west. There was a neat semi-circular wall on the river bank enclosing flower beds and benches, looking across the river past some flying figures on poles towards the cylindrical blue-tiled shape of the Concert Hall. It stood out, maybe not quite like a sore thumb, but I didn't think it really fitted well with the style of other buildings.
We didn't venture far into the park, but instead turned back towards the church, walking past it and continued north-east along the main shopping street of the city (Drottninggatan). It was much like shopping streets in other cities, but led through to the main square and then a second rectangular place which the town hall (Rådhus) looked onto.
We continued onwards, then turned right and down to the Norra Strandgaten (North Shore Street) beside the river. A footbridge led across to the south side, and we turned right past the Lansmuseet Gävleborg (city museum). It was rather an imposing red brick building, and looked like it deserves a visit when there's time to spare.
Just beyond and behind the museum, past a reconstructed old rural wooden building was the collection of little streets and houses making up the old town (Gamla Gefle). They were well maintained, many with the blue and yellow national flag flying outside. Now it's become a neighbourhood for artists and craftsmen.
We found a cafe for some refreshment on the Södra Kungsgaten which runs south-east from the town hall, before completing our circuit along Hamiltongatan. It passed a large amber-coloured building which I was surprised to learn was the castle (Gävle Slott). Once it had fortifications but these were lost in a fire and it was rebuilt more in the style of a comfortable stately house. Apparently there's a room reserved for the king, whenever he needs to visit the city!
So that was the walk - a very pleasant and relaxing way to see around an attractive city on a human scale, not dominated by tall modern concrete and glass structures.
Next day I had another hour to spare in the morning, and took advantage of the sunshine to go back to the park (Boulognerskogen) and walk further, up to the hydro power dam which holds back a lake and provides power for the city. There were plenty more people out walking (many with their hiking poles), cycling, or with pushchairs, but clearly the parkland stretched quite a long way and is a great asset to the city.
I also had a look around some more streets to the south-west of the centre, between a large imposing school building and the Concert Hall. These fine timber houses are each individual but seem to share a common style. They reminded me of a couple of the more impressive timber houses I'd seen in Tromsø in 2004, but maybe late 19th century timber town houses all just look the same to me! There were plenty of tall trees around as well, providing a very attractive urban environment.
Contributed by Andrew Llanwarne, with thanks to Annika for showing me around - April 2008
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