Walking along Uppsala streets, an urban jungle, in Sweden feels like therapy. The streets are lined with thousands of trees and ornamental flowers potted in big black containers and artistically aligned to give a garden cover to grey cement.
There are some blue, yellow and red flowers outside shopping malls and others near white benches where a weary worker or a traveller can relax and watch water gushing out of a fountain and then see it meander down into a river below the roadway. Then there are the Lamb’s ears, flowers with lilac leaves popping out like artworks near sidewalks.
However, it is the botanical gardens across the city’s 16th century castle that is most breathtaking. The Botaniska trädgården is about 450 years old.
On a picture-perfect day in this peaceful city, visitors stream past thousands of trees that have been snipped into geometric shapes. Others saunter into a rock garden that is sprinkled with small ponds surrounded by trees and flowery bulbs.
Charming alpine trees
There is also a greenhouse in the garden that houses tropical plants, most of which grow easily, [without struggle] in Kenya, such as orchids and cannas. But in Sweden, expert gardeners are required to nurture these indoor plants. Then, outside the greenhouse, in small concrete ponds, they have planted water lilies and different types of ornamental grasses. And beyond the greenhouse, there are hundreds of charming alpine trees and shrubs collected from all around the world and planted in the botanical garden.
There are also other huge potted plants placed outside during summer. During winter, they are taken indoors to protect them from the harsh weather. Erick, a ground man who has worked at the botanical garden for years and knows every plant by name and age, says there are an estimated 9,000 different tree species and the oldest tree is 270 years old.
Tourists from mostly Spain and Italy come to Uppsala to see the botanical gardens and tour the wonderland architectural treasures in the city, including the cathedrals, fortresses and museums.
Other tourists come when international artistes are there, like Elton John who comes and performs in the gardens.
Besides the botanical garden, Swedes seem to have realised that flowers and trees are not just objects of beauty. They also play a role in the health of the city. Most homes are unfenced, with mini forests surrounding them. Anyone can wander through the mini forests and pick wild berries.
Swedes’ fascination with flowers seems endless. When you walk along the streets, almost every windowsill, be it of a shop or an apartment, has an indoor potted plants.
It feels odd to call Uppsala a city even though it is the fourth biggest one in Sweden.
That is because in these modern times, it still has an austere beauty that is set off by a modest cycling life, scenic walking trails, unflashy cottages and forests.
An old couple in their 70s who hosted my friend and I for dinner were not proud to own two modest Volkswagen cars, yet they are wealthy and have a holiday cabin by the woods which was listed in a design magazine as one of the best in the city.
They also own a small yacht that they use for summer excursions to Stockholm. Having two cars, she said, is not good because it pollutes the city.
By 7pm, the woodsy town quiets down. Most shops and restaurants close. It is very calming, as if hidden away from the chaotic world.
We decide to drive through the narrow roads, passing quirky-cool cabins with no curtains nestled in the woods (apparently insecurity in the city is almost zero). We finally reach a lake with a couple of quaint boats moored to the pier. During winter, the lake freezes and daredevils walk or skate on it.
Like many people who fall in love with Uppsala, I have to compare it with Stockholm, which is about an hour away by train.
In Stockholm, you can pay for a bus tour and marvel at the extraordinary architecture and exciting waterways and if you have 48 more hours in the city, you can hop onto ‘Gabriella’, a cruise ship to Helsinki in Finland. But my fondest memories will be of Uppsala.