Golden hour and sleeping behind bars.
Varberg is a rather peculiar city on the west coast of Sweden, in Halland county. I went there in the summer of 2019 primarily to experience the bizarre Lenin spa in hotel Gästis (read about that one here) and see the mighty Varberg fortress, but I was surprised to discover that the city had a couple of other interesting gems to show me as well.
When I was booking my accommodation, I realised it’s possible to sleep inside the Varberg fortress for cheap, in a former prison that has been converted into a hostel. Naturally, that’s exactly where I chose to spend the night. Fästningens hotel and hostel is located inside the fortress courtyard and you can either sleep at the hotel in the smaller buildings where a hospital and a bakery used to be, or in the old Kronohäktet hall in one of the prison cells. That part of the prison was operational between 1856 and 1931 and had 24 cells, which serve as individual hostel rooms today. They are appropriately sparsely furnished, but clean and comfortable, and open up to the main hall with a communal dining area. There’s also a shared kitchen and communal showers, which were rudimentary at best, but as far as hostels go, it was alright.
Varberg fortress hostel
Sleeping behind bars was certainly a new experience for me and the thick fortress walls felt surprisingly comforting, although I imagine they had just the opposite effect on the prisoners. Both the hostel and the hotel share a nice, green courtyard with a cafe and some very relaxing hammocks, which came in handy after my spa morning.
As for the Varberg fortress, its castle was first built in the 13th century, while the walls and fortifications were added later in the 16th and 17th century by the Danes. It is considered to be one of the best preserved fortresses from the Middle Ages in the world. Even before that, the hill it’s built on was known as Wardberget and was used as a look out point for signal fires, with ward meaning to guard. After the war between Sweden and Denmark was over in 1645, Halland became a part of Sweden and Varberg fortress was used as a military installation and a prison, housing up to 500 prisoners between 1848 and 1881 during its prison boom.
The fortress is located right next to the sea, which makes for gorgeous views during the golden hour and I took full advantage of that. Today it houses a museum with some peculiar historical items, such as the button that supposedly killed the Swedish king Charles XII, a full set of clothing from the 1300s and several cannons. The moat is also supposedly inhabited by a small, brown lake monster with a half a metre long tail that was last seen devouring a duck in 2006. Sadly I didn’t see it, but who knows…
Impressions of Varberg
There’s a harbour just outside the fortress and a rather unexpected oriental-looking sauna complex called the Kallbadhus, where you can combine a cold dip in the sea with a hot Swedish sauna. It’s so ridiculously out of place that it almost fits in and makes for an over the top romantic backdrop at sunset. However, I was more impressed by the wooden crocodile sculptures on the beach, which are a favorite with the kids.
Besides the fortress and the harbour, Varberg also has a rather charming city centre full of tragic statues of a little boy. There’s a story behind them that I’ve forgotten, so you’ll just have to discover it on your own, but Varberg also has another famous statue of a woman hitting the Nazis with her handbag during a demonstration in 1985.
The statues of Varberg
There are some other spots close to the city that I wanted to visit, but run out of time, like the Gamla Varberg nature reserve on a moraine hill, the Getterön peninsula with its bird station and sandy beaches and the Bexell’s talking stones, a collection of mossy stones carved with red philosophical bits and musings made in the 1800s by an eccentric member of the parliament. All in all, it turns out Varberg is a lot more interesting than I first expected, so I’m glad I took the time to stop there.
P.S.: The graffiti on the cover photo says “The harbour is now finished, big, splashy and blue”. I think, anyways.