Wednesday 30th July 2008, Karlstad, Sweden
Just as Ian trotted off to take a cold shower last night in Oslo, there were sudden thunder claps, flashes of lightning and such a burst of rain he need not have bothered walking all the way to the showers at the far end of the campsite. Throughout the night the storm continued. Sleep was impossible with the continuous lightning but it was nice to lie in bed listening to the rain hammering on Modestine's roof.
This morning the air was far fresher and soon we had left Oslo behind and were driving along the deserted E18 main highway towards Stockholm. Before we left, Ian had tried to spend his last few Norwegian kroner in the campsite shop but there was nothing there of a sufficiently low price. This turned out to be fortunate as we encountered a road toll and had just enough to pay to use a newly constructed bridge. It could have been awkward otherwise!
So here we are, for the first time in our lives in Sweden – famous for what? Ikea, slim blond male au pairs called Sven, knackerbrot and open sandwiches with prawns, football managers and Eurovision Song contestants Abba. Is that all? No, of course not! As you all rush to remind me, there is the botanist Karl Linnaeus, the astronomer Anders Celsius who invented the centigrade scale, the poet Gustaf Fröding and the authoress Selma Lagerlöf, to name but four (and the only ones we can think of.)
We stopped at Töcksfors, the first town we reached, to get some Swedish kronor. We asked the exchange rate in the bank and found it to be quite a bit better than it had been in Norway. Prices too are far more realistic in the supermarket where we went next. Swedish seems harder to understand than Norwegian and so far we are not doing too well on intuitive guessing. Fortunately everyone we have met is at least as proficient in English as were the Norwegians.
In Norway a lady working in one of the supermarkets told us we'd love fish pudding, served cold with salad and mayonnaise. It looks like a white sausage and is actually fairly tasteless – a bit like fish-flavoured blancmange. Now we are in Sweden where prices are reasonable we decided to buy some meat. We had two choices, reindeer or elk! As elk was cheaper we chose that.
Next we called at the library where we were allowed two hours on the computers free of charge, so we are catching up on emails and sending blogs again. There was a very pleasant atmosphere in the town and people seem very friendly. Towns are small and few and far between. We drove all afternoon without seeing much more than the odd house near the roadside. The landscape has been fairly flat with forests, lakes and some arable crops. It's very pleasant but unchanging and eventually it becomes very tiring to drive through.
Near Karlstad we turned off down to the lakeside where there were a couple of campsites listed. They turned out to be very crowded and very expensive. We are becoming a little bored with always staying on lakesides or beaches, particularly as our interest is more often in the nearby towns. Feeling tired and unsure what to do we chanced upon a private site belonging to the Swedish Caravanning Club. It is really pleasant, ten pounds cheaper and, although we are not members, they stretched a point and let us stay. We have been very lucky so far in getting reasonable sites. Nearby to us this evening a group of Swedish campers are playing an intense boules match. It's taken just as seriously here as it is in France.
Thursday 31st July 2008, Karlstad, Sweden
Everybody else on this site is Swedish. They are very friendly, speak excellent English and seem to find us rather odd preferring to stay here with them rather than on a proper tourist site. Several have called over to see inside Modestine and when we unfolded Hinge and Bracket to cycle into town we were waved off on our way with amusement.
Southern Sweden is very flat and ideal for cycling. There are separate cycle tracks into town, away from the roads, that take you along forest paths and quiet residential streets right into the heart of Karlstad. It also passes near a mega shopping complex on the outskirts. Here we had the full Swedish experience with a trip to IKEA. Somehow we have never got around to visiting one of these amazing stores before despite the company having over 225 stores in 33 countries. Hinge and Bracket were happy to be left at the entrance. They felt quite at home amongst all the folding furniture. Meanwhile we wandered in and were immediately lost amidst the Scandinavian wood sideboards, minimalist plastic chairs, bendy metal lamp stands and an entire battery of stylish kitchen utensils each uniquely designed for some unspecified purpose. As we wandered on, drawn from side to side to explore brightly coloured filing boxes, desk lamps, storage racks and stacking baskets, we began to feel a vague disquiet, soon rising to a sense of total panic. Where was the exit? The stores seem designed not to let you out until you have visited every department at least three times! The signs were obviously all in Swedish and the one we assumed meant Exit sent us in two different directions at the same time. As we passed by the "must have" turquoise polka-dot dog beds for the fifth time Ian realised that IKEA stands for "It's Knowing the Exit Arrows". We are convinced there are people who popped in for a gadget to make melon balls several years ago who are still wandering around in there! Eventually we found ourselves at the centre of the maze where there is a huge, clean, air conditioned cafeteria serving Swedish meatballs with cranberry jam. So we joined the queue. Also included was a mixed salad, a glass of chilled cloudberry juice and a cup of coffee. All for 55 kronor each - less than £5. Refreshed, we made a final, successful attempt to find the exit and continued on into town.
Karlstad is a very likeable place. It sits on the delta of the river Klarälven where it flows into Lake Vänern. It is one of Sweden's major towns - though it is really quite small. Over the centuries it has suffered several devastating fires that have burned most of the traditional wooden buildings to the ground. After the last fire in 1865 it has been largely rebuilt in stone with wide streets to act as fire-breaks. There are still a number of very attractive wooden buildings surviving from the 18th century, particularly on the edges of the town. Wide, shady green areas within the town are crossed by a canal, opened in 1838 as a short cut for barges descending the river to the lake. The town also has the longest stone bridge in Sweden (another superlative), the Östra Bron, a massive168 metre-long structure completed in 1811. It is a handsome piece of engineering but the architect, fearing that it might collapse, threw himself from the parapet shortly after its completion - a fine piece of forward thinking that others might well emulate; after all if the bridge did collapse, he would not have been able to throw himself from it!
The cathedral dates from 1730 though the fittings look as if they come from IKEA with minimalist decoration and a crystal font. In the large main square stands the Town Hall dating from 1867. In front is a macabre peace monument depicting a wild woman with a broken sword standing on a dismembered head. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Karlstad, granting Norway independence from Sweden. The treaty was negotiated in the Masonic Lodge on the south side of the square in 1905.
The public library is huge, well used and nicely stocked and furnished. We made free use of the internet, browsed the local history shelves and enjoyed a coffee in its air conditioned cafeteria before collecting Hinge and Bracket and cycling back to the campsite.
After supper – the elk is still in Modestine's freezer as we finish our Norwegian fish pudding – we cycled through the surrounding forest in the dusk, down to the lake where a few campers were splashing amongst the reeds along with the ducks. The lake appeared very bright set amongst the dark pine trees, reflecting the evening sky – a palette of pale blues, greens, pinks and gentle mauves.
Friday 1st August 2008, Arboga, Sweden
We have become IKEA junkies. This morning we returned to the megastore to purchase a couple of blue throws to match Modestine's interior. She now looks very smart in her new "Mod cons". By now we were old IKEA hands, so were able to ignore the arrows and take the short cuts to the exit before setting off eastward through the endless forests. On a hot afternoon it soon became tediously dull. Our atlas was so small in scale we passed Örebro, our intended destination, before we realised. Stopping to cool off with a walk in the forest we found it carpeted with bilberries and cranberries. We also discovered yet another lake and a huge caterpillar in the undergrowth. Eventually, unable to suffer the boredom of the highway any longer, we turned off along a side road and found ourselves in the little town of Arboga. It does not even merit a mention in our Scandinavian Rough Guide.
It proved to be an inspired decision. A little town of some 14,000 inhabitants it seems to be one of the few places in Sweden which did not suffered a devastating fire in the years around 1860. Its cobbled streets were lined with colourful wooden houses, the façades bright with flowering shrubs and the windows framing lace hangings and candles. Even many of the letterboxes were decorated with paintings - a practice we had also noticed in parts of Norway. The Arbogaån River flows through the town under an ancient bridge with stone piers and a wooden superstructure. An elderly lady cycled sedately over the bridge, while a couple of fishermen stood by the banks of the river. There was virtually no traffic, certainly not enough to be worried by the scaffolding and hoists of the workmen busily stripping and repainting one of the wooden houses.
The little town was the seat of the first Swedish parliament, convened by Engelbrekt in 1465. His impressive statue stand in front of the Holy Trinity Church – the first church of a familiar type we have seen after all the wooden and stave churches of Norway. It is a Franciscan foundation, begun in 1256 and much altered over the centuries. The charmingly written guide states that "in the 16th century the brothers were no longer wanted and they were driven way and the town took over the management". Nevertheless medieval frescos survive, their subject matter echoing paintings to be found in Assisi, showing the life of the saint, his preaching to the animals, his stigmata and so on. The brass chandeliers are the largest in Sweden (oh no, not another superlative) and the "pulpet" has a baroque exuberance not seen since we were in Germany. The guide reports that "the two families who donated the money wished to have their names written well visibly, but finally they had to agree to have just a little shield over the door to the pulpet".
A thunder shower prompted us to seek out the campsite we had passed on the way into the town. It proved to be run by a native of Middlesbrough who had run away from home as a teenager, just after the war and seems to have made good in Sweden, ending up running this campsite in his retirement. He was very concerned about a group of gypsies due to arrive this evening. Had he tried to refuse them, they would probably have appealed to the Swedish Ombudsman claiming harassment and discrimination. They have now arrived and are parked on the other side of the field and all seems quiet.
Saturday 2nd August 2008, Uppsala, Sweden
Actually the gypsies were really antisocial in their behaviour and the poor camp site owner was completely justified in feeling anxious about their arrival. This morning their smart caravans were surrounded by the detritus of last night – a jumper, several plastic bags and a used nappy. Meanwhile children, far too old to do so were, wandering around sucking dummies. In the ladies' showers, which we had seen spotless on our arrival, Jill encountered a lady doing the family washing in the hand basins while her children played in the toilets where they had managed to flood the floor. Her washing done, the woman walked off leaving the sink full of dirty water held in by blocking the waste pipe with paper hand towels. (Plugs are not generally supplied on campsites in Europe.) The toilet seats were all covered in yards of used, wet toilet paper which was also plastered up the walls. We were horrified that people could be so rude. When they find clean facilities why deliberately make them filthy and then watch while the campsite owner and other campers have to clean it all up? We have been told that they prefer Turkish toilets and refuse to sit on our western ones, instead, climbing up to stand on the seats to use them! It is a regular problem in Scandinavia and there is little that can be done to stop them, such is the inflexibility of the law.
It seems these East European travellers have discovered a lucrative way of living. Driving powerful, expensive cars they buy large, smart caravans in Holland, tow them up through Sweden, stopping off at regular campsites where they have caused enough trouble to intimidate the owners, and sell them on at a huge profit in Norway! That would also explain the puzzling situation we encountered at the campsite in Bergen in 2006 when a group of East European travellers monopolised the camp site kitchen to boil up massive quantities of meat. We wondered at the time why the management tolerated it. Now we understand. We almost feel angry with ourselves for such negative feelings, but it is not prejudice, rather the evidence of our own eyes.
We returned to explore the rest of Arboga this morning. It is a gem of a place. The nicest small town we have discovered in Sweden. After exploring yet more cobbled streets of timber housing, many dating from the 17th century, we visited both the churches, each with its own mediaeval font, baroque furnishings and 17th century elaborately carved tombstones. The Franciscan one had the remains of 15th century wall paintings while the other had a superb early 16th century north German triptych on the main altar, a mixture of wood carving and painting depicting the Passion and Crucifixion. The Franciscan church was serving coffee and home-made cakes to raise funds. We willingly participated.
The rain began in earnest as we left Arboga and continued eastwards. At Västerås, Sweden's sixth largest city, we parked and set off in the rain to explore on foot. It was a pleasant enough town with its cathedral, botanical gardens and small quarter of old wooden houses, but we had been quite spoilt by Arboga. It was Saturday afternoon and in Scandinavia, everything stops at lunchtime – except the rain. So the museums, the library, all the buildings of any interest, even the main shops and bars were shut.
We drove on to Uppsala through continuous, heavy rain, right through the centre of the city searching for a campsite that no longer existed. Our second choice, indicated in our recent guidebook, never has existed. (We are convinced the Swedish section was written by someone using the internet while sitting snugly in a London flat. There is so much muddled information in it, and it never even mentioned Arboga.) So tonight we are camped in a quagmire of a site we found about nine kilometres south of Uppsala and will have to drive back in tomorrow morning.