Splendour in the glass

Are Swedish artists hiding their light under a bush? Neil Roland has to go deep into the forest to find the country's top craftsmen

In this country of paradoxes, Swedes regard blending in as a true virtue, yet they like nothing more than to stand out. Ironically for a place which prides itself on being utterly straightforward, things are rarely what they seem.

A good example of this paradox can be found in the south-eastern province of Smaland. This vast terrain has known such sadness, intensity of emotion and creativity, it is somehow appropriate that its raw charms are veiled in a cloak of forest. Hidden among a necklace of lakes and swaths of birch and pine lurk Sweden's glass factories.

Fifteen glassworks are based here, the main players being the world-renowned Kosta Boda and Orrefors factories (once rivals, but now owned by the same company). Together with independents such as Linshammar, Bergdala (blue-rimmed tableware), Johanfors and the evocatively named Pukeberg, all provide daily glass-blowing demonstrations, a mesmerising sight as glass plugs are fished from their molten lakes at 1,100C, the glowing tangerine gobs rolled and shaped into recognisable forms.

Swedes may be charged with being reticent, often shy and modest beyond the call of duty, but when they do decide to promote something, the marketing is ferocious. A handful of glass designers at Kosta Boda and Orrefors are lauded with the most absurd hyperbole and tourist office staff sigh– as only Swedes can sigh – about their rare talents.

To find some truly innovative glass art, however, you should visit the tiny studios that receive none of this kind of promotion. Seek out the Transjo studio, just behind the Kosta factory. Wilke Adolfsson trained at Orrefors (the factory) but now creates special glass from a tiny studio in Brinkleden at Orrefors (the village). Take a look, too, at Gullaskruv, run by glass designers from Uruguay.

The towns of Vaxjo (pronounced Vah-quer) and Kalmar are the best places from which to explore the area. Vaxjo is home to the Swedish Glass Museum, which shows 500 years of glass heritage, though Sweden became renowned for its glassware only in the late 1800s. Among its permanent collection is the superb work of Richard Rackham, a British master who lectures at Vaxjo university and has a studio on the west coast.

Smaland cuisine is a product of poverty, but also a joy. Try a spicy sausage called isterband, traditionally served with potatoes in dill sauce, and potato pancakes with lingonberry sauce. The local dessert is a rich curd cheesecake with cloudberry sauce. For a painless encounter with the tourist trap, join a hyttsil evening. For centuries, local peasants and glass workers ate herrings, sausages and potatoes baked in the cooling embers of the glass furnaces at the end of each day. Almost all the glassworks maintain this tradition, on different days of the week.

Smaland is more familiar to Americans than to Britons. In the 1870s, a sixth of the entire Swedish population, faced with starvation due to agricultural reforms, emigrated to the States. By 1910, Chicago had more Swedes than Gothenburg. You can find out about their horrendous journeys, via Hull and Liverpool, at the House of Emigrants museum in Vaxjo. Of the 1,500 who died on the Titanic, several hundred were Smaland emigrants.

It is only about an hour's drive to the city of Kalmar, a modest treasure on Smaland's Baltic coast. Domestic tourists come here only to cross a 6km bridge leading to the island of Oland, one of Sweden's best-loved holiday destinations, yet it is a splendid goal in itself. Kalmar's New Town was built in the late 17th century after a devastating fire; the Old Town, which dates back to the beginning of the same century, is a tiny maze of cobbled lanes flanked by egg yolk-yellow and wisteria-blue cottages. Kullzenska Café is the most atmospheric in town. It's an early-18th-century house, which until fairly recently was home to three siblings who left its interior of eight interconnecting rooms exactly as it had been for 150 years. Old Indian carpets, elaborate ceiling-high glazed stoves, glinting chandeliers and hand-painted walls all look down on a mishmash of ancient couches and tables, where locals eat the gooiest cakes in town.

One final paradox has created a unique visual feast and a cemetery very different from any other. During the 1950s 100 or so cars were abandoned in the forest a couple of kilometres from Ryd in southern Smaland. The trees grew around them, and the cars began to sink into the peaty bog. Now Europe's only car cemetery is recognised as an area of historical significance. A ghostly traffic jam, and a photographer's dream.

Scandinavian Airlines (0845-607 2772; www.scandinavian.net) offers return flights to Vaxjo cost from £228 and to Kalmar from £230. Swedish Travel and Tourism Council (00800 30803080; www.visit-sweden.com