Vasteras: tails of the unexpected

by Deborah.King

From frolicking ponies to inquisitive fish and a ghostly house, there’s plenty to sharpen your senses in the Swedish hideaway of Vasteras

Nothing prepares you for a Swedish night underwater. The room, with glass-panelled walls, is hardly big enough to swing a squid but it contains twin beds and a bedside table. It also lies six metres below the surface of Lake Malaren in Vasteras, Sweden. Staying here is like being in a goldfish bowl: a bit like taking part in an underwater version of Big Brother where viewers can observe you 24 hours a day without having to lift a fin. I shine a torch on a pike but it swims along to the next glass panel and I begin to feel slightly, um, exposed. 

The Utter Inn, my quirky accommodation for the night, weighs 25 tonnes and has a solar-panelled roof; heating and electricity is generated from a car battery and the whole thing is the brainchild of Mikael Genberg, a local artist and sculptor who has chosen to focus on "making art for the public".

A night spent underwater is not the ideal place to stay if you are remotely claustrophobic. "My work makes people question their perception about what is safe and secure, and when you experience fear, it sharpens your senses," explains Genberg. I can vouch for that.

That evening, we sat in deck chairs on the pontoon, eating a takeaway meal delivered from the mainland by boat and polishing off a bottle of Chablis. Two Polish seamen in a speedboat hovered for a while, no doubt attracted by the sight of a red light above what resembles a garden shed bobbing on the water. Apart from this, and an all-male crew on a Sigma shouting something undecipherable in Swedish, we were left alone to catch the magnificent sunset. Even craft heading for the nearby marina created just enough waves to gently rock the pontoon, so what happened later that night was a tad unexpected.
The boat that rocked
I awoke at 3am to find our room rocking sideways like a seesaw and, sure we were about to drown, scrambled up the aluminium ladder to the floor above and pushed my brow against one of the portholes. Utter darkness. I ventured outside on to the swaying platform but saw no sign of anything that could have caused such a commotion. Only the damp floor and some cutlery and candles scattered across the room confirmed that I had not experienced my first underwater nightmare.The next day, Genberg tells us it was probably the wake from the early morning ferry on its way to one of the islands on the lake. Ah, if only he’d said so earlier…
Nearby, the island of Ridon, a relaxing 40-minute journey in a catamaran from Vasteras, has rolling hills, forests, small-scale farming and fishing – and four inhabitants. One of these runs a riding centre on the island and Ingela Gorjeby meets us at the jetty and transports us in a trailer behind her motor-powered quad bike, a bizarrely modern version of the horse and cart. We make a slight detour to see the youth hostel, coated in the traditional copper-based red paint to preserve the wood, and pass some of the 25 summer houses owned by the mainlanders. 
Since 1978, the island has been preserved as a nature reserve, one of more than 40 such places in Vastmanland. At one time, the area boasted so many oak trees that a shipyard was set up here, but nowadays Ridon is renowned for its Icelandic riding school. We set out on a pony trek and I discover the tölt, a sort of running walk that Icelandic ponies have and feels to the rider as if you are gliding through the air.
Ghostly goings-on
Less than 30km from Vasteras, beside another nature reserve, is Engsö Manor. This attracts many visitors looking for a supernatural experience, as there are regular sightings of ghosts.  The stone manor house is no longer lived in but, even to a sceptic, the building seems exceedingly eerie. At the end of each step of the wide stone staircase are three white circles, thought to be painted in egg yolk in the 18th century to highlight the stairs in the dark, and also to keep out the gnomes, or "small people". Superstition has a big role to play in the everyday life of the area and one of the items on display at the manor house is the gold chain won, according to legend, by Count Sparre during a game of Nordic backgammon with the devil. Reputedly, Engsö catches fire every time this chain leaves the premises. 
Vasteras itself has plenty to offer, including some good restaurants such as KonserthusTerrassen in the concert hall, and the waterside restaurant and bar on Slottsgatan. I enjoyed discovering the sculptures in the city, including the group of cyclists in the main square, and the cathedral and art museums are superb. Vasteras is a city of contrasts but one thing is certain – it will undoubtedly sharpen your senses.