Many women who shaped the culture and history of the world were left out of history books. On a tour rife with discoveries in Copenhagen and Skåne, our writer turns the tide and reckons with a force that is female. By Rashima Nagpal
Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Sweden, and Norway—repeatedly top the list of the most women-friendly nations in the world. So, when an invite for an all-women trip to Copenhagen and the south of Sweden crops up, I take it as an opportunity to test the waters.
The golden hour gleams on the wing of our 787 Dreamliner as we land in Copenhagen. Soon after, our girl gang—five journalists and a nonchalant host, Anita de Canaga—set out into the city. Night falls by the time we arrive in the heart of the Danish capital, in the atmospheric Latin Quarters, where Skt Petri is our home for the night. With an unassuming entrance around the corner on the Krystalgade, and boutique cafes on either side, it doesn’t wear the garb of a conventional hotel. One has to take a tour to believe it houses 288 rooms. I head straight to my room to get some shut-eye. But once I draw the curtains and stand in the balcony of the cosy studio-apartment-like room, my jaw drops. I’m on the top floor of the hotel. The 180°-view in front of me is dotted with dozens of sloping red tiled roofs and mint-green steeples aglow with the soft light of the full moon rising in the distance. As the blissful quietude of the moment envelops me, it feels like I’ve travelled back in time. The 500-year-old facade of the University of Copenhagen across the street only adds to the feeling. It’s hard to call it a night now, but I must. The next morning, I wake up to a tintinnabulation of bells coming from St Peter’s Church—the oldest church in the city. And just like that, Room 718 at Skt Petri sets the tone for the rest of my trip.
To begin the journey with some Danish hygge, we head to Conditori La Glace. Located very close to Strøget—one of the longest pedestrian-only shopping streets in Europe—La Glace is a 150-year-old traditional confectionary. “In this time, La Glace has had five owners. I am the second generation of the second family,” says Marianne Stagetorn Kolos, the owner since 1989. She’s been around since the age of 11—that’s when her mother, and pastry enthusiast, Merethe Stagetorn, bought it. “We are only here; La Glace is not a chain. You cannot buy us anywhere else. And everything is made right here,” she adds proudly. “You’ll get ice-cream cakes, and layered cakes, and wedding cakes, and cakes you’d have never heard of. But you will not find a salad, a sandwich, or anything savoury.” Except a bun with some cheese on top. In beverages, La Glace serves coffee, tea, and hot chocolate—the best of its kind. “No cappuccino, espresso, macchiato, latte, or whatever… Because we were
invented before any of that.”
The second leg of our trip lies across the Öresund Strait. Dragging our suitcases with one hand and clutching our cameras with the other, we take a morning train from Nørreport station to Hyllie station in Malmö. We’re headed towards Skåne, the southernmost province of Sweden. The iconic 16-kilometre-long Öresund Bridge connects the countries of Denmark and Sweden by rail and road. But it is only 20 years old, which means that not a lot of cross-country permeation has yet happened. That fact is evident as we alight from the train at Hyllie station and drive towards our first stop in Malmö—Yalla Trappan, a social enterprise that works for the immigrant women living in the region. As we arrive at its humble office-cum-cafe, we meet a pair of beautiful hijab-clad ladies from Iran making lunch in the kitchen. Malmö, the third-largest city in Sweden, is known for its multi-ethnic culture. For 10 years now, Yalla has been striving to make this identity stronger, by creating jobs exclusively for women refugees, says Anna Ryden, one of the project leaders at the organisation. At present, it is an army of 35 women, including natives of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, who work across its three units of catering, cleaning, and sewing. Yalla also boasts of an association with global brands like Ikea and H&M, which use its sewing services. As we savour homemade baba ganoush and lasagna, among other things, a smiling Nasir Abida regales us with her story. A Pakistani national, Abida instantly cheers up when she discovers that we’ve come from India. As I start to converse with her in Hindi, she exclaims with surprise, “Aap toh boht acchi Urdu bolte ho! (You speak such good Urdu!)” Before she moved to Sweden three years ago, Abida used to teach badminton at a school in Lahore. “Some of our relatives had been living here for years, and they liked the quality of life, so my husband and I decided to move,” she tells me. She’s a trainee at the organisation, and spends her free time playing badminton with the other women. “This feels like home now,” she declares.
In what is supposed to be a wine-tasting pit stop, we stumble upon the story of a bio chemistry teacher turned wine-maker. Annette Ivarsson is the brain behind Arilds Vingård, one of the significant vineyards in Sweden’s emerging wine industry. It started with 20 hectares of family land in 2007. “I studied Biology and Chemistry at the Lund University. So, when I signed up for a course in winemaking, I learnt pretty easily. It’s the same!” she says. However, theory is very different from technique, so when it came to the actual process, Issrava faced some challenges. “Sweden doesn’t have a tradition of wine, so every time we’d face a problem, we had to call somebody in France or Germany,” she laughs.
Our next stop in Sweden is a Renaissance-era castle. Swedish castles are fairly well-known, but Skarhults Slott has been an underdog so far. Now, thanks to its present inhabitants, Carl Johan von Schwerin and Alexandra Frick von Schwerin, who opened their home to the public in 2014, the story of the castle is being told. In fact, one of the reasons the castle is attracting more visitors is because Alexandra, who used to be a journalist herself, has attempted to rewrite the 500-year-old history of the castle by revisiting old records and including the voice of the women of the castle in the narrative. To delve deeper, we meet Emma Ehrenberg, a 25-year-old gender-studies graduate and our guide for the tour. “Despite being one of the best-preserved castles of its time, the data that was previously available about it appeared rather amiss when Alexandra, the new lady of the house, came here and tried learning about her predecessors. All she found was long texts about men,” Ehrenberg says. “When she consulted some of the foremost historians of the region, they said that people usually didn’t ask about the women. This led her to rewrite the story of Skarhult, which is not limited to the castle but also challenges the male dominated Swedish history as a whole.”
We enter through the eastern gate of the castle. An inscription overhead states that Steen Rosensparre built thette hus (this house) in 1562. But Rosensparre died in a battle in 1565, and the castle wasn’t ready until the late 1560s. The timing of his death, and records of communication between his widow, Mette Rosenkrantz, and the castle’s workers led to the conclusion that most of the Skarhult Castle was actually built under Rosenkrantz’s leadership. She chose to take no credit for it. For around 100 years, the castle passed through the hands of the subsequent heirs of the family. In 1663, when Denmark handed
over the governance of Skåne County to Sweden, Count Pontus Fredrik de la Gardie was known to the public as the new owner. But recent research reveals that Gardie himself rarely visited Skarhult, and his wife, Beata Elisabeth von Königsmarck–a minor at the time–bought the castle for herself with her own money. Her name did not appear in the list of owners until the death of her husband in 1692. When she died in 1723, her two-year-old great-grandson Erik Brahe inherited the castle. Ehrenberg regales us with many more tales of “power in disguise” as we tour the east wing. The von Schwerins continue to live in the south and west wings of the castle with their three children. “And they live pretty much like we do, with just a couple of antiques thrown in,” Ehrenberg quips.
After a much-needed fika in the landscaped gardens of the castle, we head to our next stop—Wallåkra Stenkärlsfabrik, a stoneware factory where 60-year-old Åsa Orrmell has been making pots for more than half her life. Having visited numerous pottery warehouses back in India, I do not expect anything but a souvenir from a local sexagenarian’s studio. But once again, Scandinavia has surprises in store.
Our car stops in what looks like the backyard of a countryside home, with a pile of coal and another of wood. Ahead of us is a wooden cottage on the left, and two brick houses on the right. Further ahead is what looks like a path into a forest. There’s also a stream of water close by. As we regard the idyllic setting, a fair woman with a fluff of salt-and-pepper hair
walks out. Åsa Orrmell defies her age; she neither looks nor acts like a 60-year-old. “When I came here in 1988, we were three people working together in a pottery farm nearby. One of us, who was from this area, would say that it was not possible to save the old kilns. But I was a young girl with curly hair from Stockholm. I saw possibilities. Now they see what I did 30 years ago,” says Orrmell. Situated in a nature reserve called Borgen, nestled in the Råån Valley, Wallåkra features a kiln from 1864 that Orrmell refurbished 10 years ago, a cosy restaurant with a slim stream running underneath, and an organic garden. All year round, a team of five to six people runs Wallåkra Stenkärlsfabrik, including a chef at the tavern, and two skilled potters, one of whom is Orrmell. Without wasting any time, she takes us to the kiln. “Here we are, standing inside the kiln, where the pots are glazed
at 1,300° Celsius,” she says dramatically. The hotter it is, the brighter the colour gets. At that temperature, the clay shrinks, becomes waterproof, and turns hard as stone. “This is why it is called Wallåkra ‘Stoneware’ Factory. And it is good because waterproof pots are
good for storing food. Elsewhere in Sweden, you’ll only find earthenware,” she emphasises. Orrmell fires up the kiln twice or thrice a year. Each time, around seven tonnes of coal is consumed and three to four months of clay work goes in. “We fill it all the way to the top.”
The kiln can be entered two weeks after the process ends. But even then, the temperature hovers around the 100° Celsius mark, so only experts do it with proper measures. It is not long before we discover that Orrmell was also a psychotherapist once. “I treat my pots the same way I’d treat my patients,” she says, and goes on to explain how the pots get their glaze. “I throw some salt in the fireplace when it’s really hot. Once the salt vaporises, the silica in the clay mixes with the sodium from the salt and lends a layer of glaze to the pots.” The different colours, however, come from the different clays, depending on the region from where it’s sourced. “You can see they have been in the same kiln, but they all turn out different. All my pots are like human beings. No two are the same, and that’s really good,” says Orrmell, with an evident sparkle in her eyes.
Inspired by Orrmell’s energy, we all sign up for a hands-on experience. Up in the attic, her warehouse is beautifully raw and rustic. The space is soaked in natural light pouring in from the windows and skylights, and the shelves are decked with unglazed pieces. Two potter’s wheels are set up against a window each, with a mirror. We take turns to learn from Orrmell and create something of our own. I listen to her instructions to the others and pay special attention to how her hands work the clay. When my turn comes, I sit in front of the mirror wearing an apron, foot on the peddle and hands on the wheel. Pottery is a delicate process, and hence, one needs to be mindful all the time. As I press the peddle and the wheel rotates, she throws a block of clay in the centre. Orrmell takes my hands in hers and lays them gently on the clay. With the slightest touch of a finger, the mould changes shape. She senses my apprehension and says something that hits home: “It’s good to be strong, but don’t be too hard.”
Where Denmark meets Sweden
On your next visit to the seamless Danish capital, get to the other side of the Öresund Bridge and explore rustic Skåne. This is where hygge meets fika.
Air India offers direct return flights from Delhi to Copenhagen thrice a week. The striking Öresund Bridge, a 16-kilometre-long road and railway link, takes you from the Danish capital to the coastal city of Malmö in the south of Sweden in less than 45 minutes.
Skt Petri (from INR 16,000), an upscale design hotel in the Latin Quarters of Copenhagen, is recommended for a refined stay. Nothing compares with the historic Hotel D’Angleterre in grandeur, and its location on Kongens Nytorv, the city’s largest sqaure.
Clarion Grand Hotel Helsingborg makes for a cosy stay in the artistic town of Helsingborg. In Skåne’s Landskrona Municipality, Örenäs Castle, overlooking the Öresund Strait, is the youngest castle in Sweden, and offers idyllic stay options. Alternatively, book yourself a tent at Arilds Vingård, which doubles up as a glamping site from April to September.