Marstrand

Gothenburg’s archipelago is smaller than Stockholm’s where the boat passes the spacious summer homes of the nineteenth century rich on its first hour of travel, still a long way from the scattered islets and sea views of the outer archipelago.

Marstrand offers both. Its official population is about 1,300 (with strong seasonal variations in actual footfall). It’s built on two sides of a narrow waterway separating two islands, linked by a cable ferry. The historic parts of the small town are on the far island, refreshingly free of cars and dominated by its old fortress, Carlsten.

In the nineteenth century, it was a popular spa town with all the accompanying medical and social rigmarole of taking salt water baths and after bath genteel hobnobbing. Apart from some fine houses, I didn’t see many traces of this period but learnt about it from a fine little book written by Ingmar Stenroth called just “Marstrand”. (2015). Strindberg, Selma Lagerlöf, Frederika Bremer and Topelius all wrote about their visits here and Albert Engström, Carl Larsson and Zorn painted. King Oscar II (1872-1907) was fond of the place too, which drew those attracted by closeness to the monarch (Strindberg perhaps in spite of rather than because of).

I didn’t find much about the decline of the spa era but it seems to have passed by the time of the First World War.

It’s been a very fine weekend but the closed museum reminds us that we are out of season and covid’s viral shadow is with us here. However, Carlsten Fort is open for visits. It’s large and stems from the period when Sweden’s breakthrough to the West Coast and conquest of Bohuslän from Denmark-Norway was still tenuous. It was captured a couple of times before the Danes lost hope of restoration. For a substantial portion of its life it was used as an unpleasant prison for long-term hard labouring prisoners. The prison period and the spa period seem to have overlapped and some of the prisoners such as the crossdresser Lasse-Maja acquired star status before being eventually pardoned. Confused pictures in my mind of prisoners equipped with chains and rifle-carrying guards stopping to tell garrulous tales to fine folk on their way to or from a brine bath or massage battering. More reading about Marstrand will hopefully tidy this up…

Further back in the late eighteenth century, Marstrand had free port status (porto franco) for a period of about twenty years (1775-94 ca). Here there was religious freedom in the otherwise strictly Lutheran Sweden and an early synagogue was built. It was also a refuge for criminals, provided apparently that they reported their misdeeds to the free town’s authorities (I’m not sure how this worked alongside the fort but it was presumably not a prison then). The town attracted the economically serious and the less serious and folk whose joie de vivre chafed those struggling under the burden of morality. It was hard to guard the border with “normal” Sweden and the citizens of the free town successfully petitioned to have its special status abolished.

Any description of the town would be incomplete without mentioning the herring, which at intervals throughout history have visited the town in great numbers, bringing wealth in the form of abundant fish food and oil extracted from fish cadaver presumably not at the same time as the worthies were fawning around the monarch.

We walked far around the islands, enjoying the calm comfort of our air bnb and the intense vibration-free quietness where even the motor saws had taken a rest from their otherwise usual assault on the Guinness Book of Records log splitting record.

Memorable days and fine to think about and keep our spirits up as we trudge on in these pestilent times.

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