A very Noble Christmas

Gripsholm CastleGripsholm Castle
Gripsholm Castle
Winning a Nobel Prize could arguably be the best Christmas present of all. But not for musician and lyricist Bob Dylan, one of this year's best-known laureates.

“He won’t even be coming to the ceremony,” my taxi driver complains as we whirl through snow-dusted cobbled streets below Stockholm’s City Hall, where preparations are hurriedly under way for the grand December 10 banquet.

“He has other plans, apparently.”

Three days after the event, honoured guests are woken from their rooms at the prestigious Grand Hotel by singing angels carrying candles, part of the St Lucia tradition. It’s fair to say Mr Tambourine Man won’t be in their repertoire...

No matter; the show will go on.

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Swedes honour traditions with clockwork precision, something I discover on a weekend winter break to their capital city and its surrounding areas.

Fleeing the commercialised circus of high-street chaos, I surface in a world of clean, crisp sophistication, where flashing rainbow lights and tacky tinsel are superseded by simple lingonberry wreaths and the flickering gold flames of advent candles.

It’s officially four weeks before Christmas, and the first markets have sprung up in the city.

One of the most atmospheric is held at Hovstallet, the Royal Stable.

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Stooping in a loose-fitting tartan blazer, equerry Lars shows me the king’s private property, which is open for public tours throughout the year.

“This is Stockholm’s best kept secret,” he whispers conspiratorially, as we weave through ornate royal carriages and past pedigree horses nuzzling into their mangers, entering a room filled with 38 gleaming harnesses.

“Every year, two are flown by hand luggage to your Buckingham Palace, where skilled craftsmen make repairs,” Lars tells me.

“We give the horses these jingle bells to wear in winter,” he says, pointing to a set of silver chains. “So they can be heard by traffic when the sound of their hooves is deadened by snow.”

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As the morning wears on, shoppers pour into the sky-lit Riding Hall and a labyrinth of stables, where stalls sell national favourites such as smoked fish, marzipan pigs and a parade of inventive condiments. (A champagne mustard fizzes with all the elegance of the celebratory drink.)

Sheepskin rugs and cushions spiral with tight silky curls, and toy elves peer from an unkempt tangle of felt and wool. Ice scrapers with knitted handles are my novelty gift find of the day.

Most people are gathering goods for their Christmas table. But to discover an even greater selection of produce, I head to the bread basket region of Sormland, a 45-minute journey from Stockholm by train.

Majestic castles and manor houses command the agricultural landscape, where naked trees now claw at the ice blue sky and fields sparkle with diamond frost.

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Residents of Stallarholmen are hosting a Charles Dickens-themed market, with carol singers gathered around a log fire and aromas of roast pork warming the cold air.

Many of the local meats, cheeses and smoked fish make their way into a traditional julbord (a Swedish smorgasbord) served at Gripsholms Vardshus, a cosy inn located in nearby Mariefred. Vodka-infused salmon, herring pickled with fennel, and a salty roast gammon are all highlights of the festive fare, which requires a four-hour sitting and a few extra notches on the belt.

Built in 1609, the inn sits on the site of a Carthusian monastery. Two of its original stone wells are encased in a wine cellar allegedly visited by ghosts.

I learn more about the origins of this former Viking settlement at the Callanderska Garden folklore centre, a 274-year-old red clapperboard house bequeathed to the town by an artist in 1947.

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Sprightly pensioner and self-made historian Torsten joins me for a glass of glogg (mulled wine) spooned with plump raisins and shaved almonds.

Regaling tales of King Gustav Vasa, he explains how materials from the monastery were used to build Gripsholm Castle - its dumpling turrets still dominating the town.

At dawn it’s resplendent, as the sun yawns above bristles of spruce forest, streaming across the motionless Lake Malaren and bouncing from glass windows.

In the early 19th century, King Gustav IV Adolf was imprisoned in the castle following an army revolt, and found solace in playing waltzes and marches on the piano. It was a torturous time.

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Yet, I find it hard to imagine living in such fairytale surrounds could be a hardship.

Still, musicians are a peculiar bunch, and neither castles nor Nobel prizes can please a complex soul - even at Christmas.