Sweden’s most impenetrable castle sits on its own island at the coastal fortress town of Kalmar on the east coast.

Built for defending the country’s border its legendary moment is one of peace. It was the venue for the coronation of Erik of Pomerania who became King of Sweden, Denmark and Norway in 1397.

Kalmar Slott sunset silhouette

The event is known as the Kalmar Union and whilst it contrived to end warring between the three countries, it meant the castle’s constant crossing into and out of the hands of Denmark.

By the time Swedish King Gustav Vasa was on the throne in 1523 the fortress castle needed repair and he and his sons turned it into a fine Renaissance palace, very much in keeping with that at Vadstena.

Vasa evidently understood the message of might and power that could be conveyed through prestigious buildings and he seems to have employed an effective programme of restoring – and adding to – Sweden’s architectural heritage.

Castle courtyard

The castle has every element of a classic stronghold – a moat and drawbridge, crenelated walls, ramparts, towers, turrets, a dungeon and a central, cobblestoned courtyard overlooked by balconied walkways.

Passing through two long passageways lined by meter-thick stone walls to get to its massive bolted doors, you can’t help but feel impressed by the castle’s heavy immensity. Yet seen across the water in a glowing sunrise it is almost ephemeral, shimmering above its own reflection like a dream.

Kalmar Slott at sunrise

Kalmar’s Old Town was largely destroyed by fire in 1640 but a handful of winding streets of wooden houses remain. We wandered to them in a cool dusk past the town’s picturesque old graveyard, peppered with ornate iron-worked memorials and just then, hosting a touching ceremony of songs sung by an elderly male voice choir.

Some of the group dispersed for drinks at a nearby swanky restaurant, others tottered off on bikes down a tree-lined avenue strung with elaborate chandelier lighting. How I wished to see them illuminated!

Kalmar Gamla Stan

The pretty wooden houses had single lamps lit in at least one front window each, facing the street. This is a practice that begins at the start of the winter season and is a sharing of light in communities where the sun sets before 3pm and is not to rise for another 18 hours. Winter is here, then.

After the fire, the town was moved onto the nearby island of Kvanholmen. Rebuilding was carried out in the Renaissance style and the grand central square remains vast and airy. At its heart towers the lofty Domkyrka designed by Nicodemus Tessin (the Elder) in 1660. The works of Tessin and his son (the Younger) loom largely and impressively in this corner of Sweden.

Kalmar Domkyrka by Tessin the Elder

The square was busy welcoming teams of young athletes for an International Triathlon, being held the next day. Squads of excited teenagers in national sports kit posed for pictures with beaming parents and coaches. Team GB was taking part although we didn’t see them but noticed they were referred to in the publicity as United Kingdom Great Britain.

Kalmar puts on a good show and has a busy calendar of events. Two weeks earlier it had staged the 2018 Iron Man championship and an International Film Festival, after the triathlon it was hosting a national Pride celebration. This is in addition to headline concerts, theatre and opera performances.

Harbourside camping

We were safely tucked away from all the bustle down at the harbour. A sleek shining yacht, the Africa, was moored alongside (a bit of online research showed it had been bought recently for £16.5m).

We shared the same view of the entrance to Kalmar’s harbour and the impressively engineered road bridge to the island of Oland. The next morning the yacht set off on the waters and we did too, crossing the six-kilometres over the Baltic to the ancient island.

Harbour entrance and bridge to Oland