How to enjoy Smorgasboredom: Andrew Brown savours days of simplicity in the Swedish woods, where the best things in life are definitely free

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The Independent Travel
PEEING against a lilac bush in the pewter twilight of midsummer is about the most fun you can have in Sweden, and it's free. All the best things in Sweden are. Everything else, including much that is generally reckoned essential, is somewhere between expensive and impossible to afford.

This partly explains why my two favourite houses in Scandinavia lack indoor lavatories. One is a friend's summer dwelling on an island not far from Stockholm; the other is a stuga about 40 miles north of Gothenburg that can be rented for 135 kronor ( pounds 13) a night. This one also lacks electricity and running water: to reach it, you must walk for 15 minutes through the woods carrying everything you will need for your stay, from washing-up liquid to babies. Children need to be about three or four years old before they can manage the irregular path with its whalebacks of granite and corduroys of birch logs laid over the boggy bits.

There are often rough clumps of grizzled elk hair lying on the track, although I have never seen one of the animals there - it is not that wild. It is almost impossible to get lost, even at night. The path is so broad that I could walk down it without a torch at 11.30 one evening in early June, although the moon was nearly full. The air smells of pine resin and wild flowers. There are no sounds but those you make yourself.

The red house stands at the end of this track, in a meadow by the lake. The grass in May and June is thick with buttercups and blue speedwell. There has been a dwelling of some sort here for at least 200 years: there are apple trees around the edge of the forest, and the tumbled remains of dry-stone walls deeper in the woods. But there is nothing remotely like a garden: merely a profusion of grass and wild flowers running down to the granite and bog-cotton by the shore.

The house that stands there now is called 'The Fresh Attempt', for no reason I have ever discovered. It is owned and maintained by the local fishing club. The club also looks after the lake, which must be dosed with lime every spring to counteract the acid rain from Britain.

A little further on stands a shack where anyone can spend the night without booking or paying. The house itself is spacious and sturdy, made of wood. There are three rooms and a sort of pantry or storage space, where the gas cylinder lives, along with a set of overalls, a helmet, ear muffs (for use with the chainsaw hanging on the wall), and an axe and chopping block.

The gas cylinder supplies a stove with three burners, and a number of lamps set around the ceiling of the living-room. These have to be lit with considerable care, and then tended so that they neither go out as the gas pressure drops, nor set fire to the ceiling above them. Most of the time, candles are less trouble for the few hours when light is needed indoors, but the gas lamps give off a great deal of heat on cold days.

Water comes from the lake in buckets: there is a huge and stately earth closet built on to one side of the guest shack. Everything is beautifully swept and garnished. A hundred years ago, this would have been a solid, comfortable dwelling, with the inestimable modern convenience of gas lighting. It still is, if looked at and lived in properly.

There is, of course, nothing to do. The lake is stocked once a year (sometimes twice) by members of the club, who carry the fish in water-filled rucksacks through the woods. There are not many trout, and they tend to be cautious. In the early summer, vast quantities of damsel- and dragon-flies move around the edges of the lake, rustling like Cellophane.

The trout will leap clean out of the water to catch them, but otherwise stay and sulk near the bottom, except in the early morning. Later in the year, there will be blueberries in the woods, then cranberries, which will be turned to jam and eaten with elk meat. But for most of the time there is nothing to do except walk, swim or think.

The stuga is furnished simply, but with love. The varnished pine tables have woven runners on them. The floor is parquet, with pastel-shaded rag rugs lying in strips across it. A minatory notice on the door from the hall says:

We don't walk here with shoes or boots on,

But you wouldn't do that at home, would you?

And it is true that in Swedish homes you take your shoes off at the door. That is why there is a row of cracked and worn clogs in the outer porch of the stuga, for people to shuffle into when they need to leave the building for just a few minutes.

On the pine walls there are watercolours of fish, and a list of the club's record catches, including the 'largest tree trunk' at 46 tons. But the fishing is really incidental to the purpose of the stuga, which is domestic, or idyllic. People come here to live the lives of dolls in a doll's house, and their subsequent comments in the visitors' book have a mindless contentment that is almost Californian. Life here is reduced to a few splendid simplicities, with a fair price in physical effort for everything you consume: the rubbish must be carried out just as the food is carried in, and, under those conditions, the packaging of modern food seems to weigh more and bulk larger when empty than it ever did full.

According to back copies of fishing year books in the stuga, the gravel road to Ljungskile, the nearest town, did not exist until about 1970. Until then you hiked in the whole way from the coast if you wanted to visit the lakes.

Ljungskile, on the west coast, is about 10 or 15 minutes' drive away down the gravel road, after you have walked through the woods. It is an excellent example of everything that is disappointing about Swedish tourism. Nothing can detract from the view over the archipelago - it makes your stomach drop into a pit when you drive over the crest of the hill above the main street. But the shops sell little of interest. The food prices knock the wind out of an Englishman even faster than the view, and anything stronger than 2.4 per cent alcohol is unavailable. The casual visitor is especially warned off anything sold in Sweden as 'cider': it tastes like the aperitifs of boot polish and men's cologne favoured among the Moscow intelligentsia, but contains no alcohol at all.

Boredom can surround you like aspic in a town that small. You can only really savour Sweden if you have a ticket out of it. You should certainly not look for metropolitan pleasures. The greatest delights of Stockholm are found in the Skansen museum of rural life, and on the 'summer islands' that surround it. There, from the turn of the century, the wise bourgeoisie have lived in large wooden houses, commuting into the centre of town on passenger boats.

Driving north, about 300 kilometres (200 of these go past one lake) you arrive in Torsby, in western Varmland, possibly the most boring town in Scandinavia. Imagine something like the Texan towns celebrated by Larry McMurtry, complete with a shut- down cinema, but instead of being beached on an endless Texan plain, Torsby is drowning in forested hills. It is almost famous: two of the best Swedish football managers came from here. It is the sort of town where the young Bjorn Borg would have felt at home, endlessly hitting a tennis ball against the garage door until he attained complete, pointless perfection like a sort of Zen.

We stopped for a hot dog on the main street, which is about 300 yards long. The man who kept the hot dog stall did five jobs, he told us: he had a day job in the National Insurance office; there was this stall, which a cousin of his ran; he himself owned a small electrical goods shop; some evenings he taught English classes; and he farmed a little where he lived, 30 miles out of town. Unemployment, he said, was largely a problem of lack of imagination.

While we talked the imaginatively challenged cruised up and down the main street in an assortment of extravagant cars. A youth on a trials bike did wheelies up and down the street about once every five minutes; for the rest of the time he drove around the block. Another drove a 1,000cc motorcycle that was capable of 130mph ) round and round the same route.

Only one Cadillac cruised the streets with these bikes: we had come too early for the traditional Friday night parade of gigantic American cars in Torsby, which goes on till four or five on summer mornings. There is nothing else to do, and nothing else to spend your money on.

When we left the town, the road north was empty and wide. It swept and swooped 30 miles into the next river valley - we hardly ever needed to slow down to 70mph. We saw five other cars and no animals.

The valley of the Klaralven river was, in contrast, densely populated. We were travelling in search of a stuga that would have most of the benefits of real life, and running water, too. At Syssleback, a hamlet about 30 miles south of the Norwegian border, we decided we had found it. The Syssleback stugor are run by the local tourist authority, much more professionally than the fishing club in Ljungskile. They are modern, closely grouped, and much smaller: the four of us fitted into one room the size of the living-room at the fishing club stuga, along with a refrigerator, an electric cooker, and four bunk beds. Everything was clean, new and well planned. There was even a flushing lavatory. Showers and laundry were available in a communal block.

Across the road was a large hardware store that sold everything a man might need in those parts, from shower furnishings to hunting rifles. There was a lot of expensive fishing tackle available: but Syssleback has not yet succumbed to the snobbery of fly- fishing: the door of the shop advertised worms prominently, and alongside the elegant wooden teardrop-shaped landing nets, which are no use for anything much but showing off, were axe handles, mouse traps, and rough steel knife blades.

Fortunately for our solvency, this cave of treasures did not accept credit cards. Neither did the stugor, for that matter, though they were due to start doing so in July; we had to pay our Skr310 ( pounds 30) a night in cash. Even more fortunately, the local co-op did take plastic. It is difficult to feel wholly immersed in Arcadia when you must resort to credit cards to pay the grocery bill. There is, of course, nowhere that sells booze over the counter for 100 miles in any direction.

The valley is beautiful, and the churches in it more so. No one much uses these churches: who would, when they had the landscape all around them? But they are as beautiful as any I have seen.

When we left, we drove a little further up the river until it changed name to the Trysilelv, and became part of Norway. The main roads grew narrower. The side roads were dirt, not gravel. Everything seemed smaller and more intimate and primitive than Sweden. At last we found a hotel, with a large dining-room dominated by a stuffed elk's head, a long menu in Norwegian, English and German, and no one in it. I shouted and rang the bell at reception. Not even the elk stirred.

We returned to Sweden, and after six hours' driving reached Enkoping, a medium-sized town within easy reach of Stockholm. It advertises itself as 'Sweden's nearest city', on the grounds that it has more medium-sized towns within a 50-mile radius than anywhere else in Sweden. This is about the only distinction it deserves. We arrived at 10 at night to find the whole place closed. It does have two hotels. Both had shut for the midsummer holiday.

FACT FILE

Scandinavian Seaways (071-493 6696) charged a total of pounds 618 for two adults a baby, a car, and (one-way) a 13-year-old child. Expect to spend about pounds 50 each way on food and drink. Duty-free on the boats is attractive only to those dazzled by Swedish prices. Anyone who wants to drink hard liquor in Sweden had better stock up from the local off-licence before setting off.

The Ljungskile stuga can occasionally be booked by non- members of the fishing club. Contact Andrew Brown at the Independent (071-253 1222) for details. The stugor at Syssleback can be booked direct on 010 46 564 10514. They cost pounds 30 a night.

All Swedish hotels are clean and modern. They are reckoned cheap if a room costs as little as pounds 50 a night (including VAT). The Hotel Allen in Gothenburg is recommended, on 010 46 311 01450.

(Photograph and map omitted)

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