How to enchant little trolls and ice maidens in Sweden

Deserted beaches, haunted forests and a stone circle. There's more than enough to fire little imaginations in the Swedish region of Skane, says Mark Rowe

I've always wondered why so many fairy tales involve creatures from the north; the trolls, ice queens and other inhabitants of my childhood bedtime reading all hailed from the cold, dark lands on the edge of habitation.

One tale involved a less unsettling figure, Nils Holgersson, a creation of the children's story writer Selma Lagerlof. Her tale, The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, tells of a boy transformed into an elf, who flies from Lapland to the south on the back of a goose, settling in the southernmost region of Skane for a magical crane dance. For years I'd wondered just what Skane had to offer children, and with two kids of our own on board, the time was right to find out.

Skane covers the hinterland south of Malmo, dipping down into the Baltic Sea. Like much of Sweden, it seems almost empty of people; the roads that meander through the undulating landscape are quiet, the coast is lined with beaches that even in the height of summer are so long that you can soon leave the rest of the world behind. It's a place that is easy to explore, and Hannah, our eldest child, quickly picked up the relaxed vibes of her parents; Thomas, just six months old, found the easy travelling ideal for dozing.

One way to enhance this sense of remoteness is to travel to Skane by train, rather than by plane. The journey, via Brussels, Cologne or Hamburg, and Copenhagen, and then across the Oresund bridge to Malmo, takes around 24 hours.

The benefit of travelling this way was that we were able to stop off overnight in cities on route, giving the children a break from travelling and parents the opportunity to see cities that might otherwise only be visited on a weekend break.

A further bonus was that, given that young children's sleeping patterns are so often unsettled on holiday, the gentle rocking of the overnight train journey to Copenhagen gave them – and us – a 10-hour solid sleeping slot.

On driving from Malmo to the small town of Ystad, our base in Skane, we passed a huge statue of Nils on his gander. On either side, farmland interspersed with enticing woodland; up above red kites, more numerous in Skane than anywhere else in Europe, could often be seen.

For children, the main appeal of Skane is its endless beaches. The most delightful is Sandhammaren, a short drive east of Ystad. Here the fine, white sand forms a strangely ruler-straight waterline. As we wandered down through the dunes to the shore, a gentle mist formed, funnelling along the beach like ghostly barbed wire, shrouding the sea from the inland forests. Hannah was in her element, playing hide and seek in the mist and diving into the soft sand.

Skane's road network is excellent and remote sites that can satisfy the cultural interests of Mum and Dad are easily reached. The most intriguing of these is Ales Stenar, a gathering of 56 stones shaped like a Viking longboat, with a large stone at either end to denote stern and prow. The setting is outstanding, on a post-glacial ridge high above the Baltic.

Swedes tend to be more relaxed about young children in public places than Britons, and it was refreshing not to receive the glowering looks that can accompany a visit to stone circles in the UK.

This relaxed attitude also means that eating out is a realistic option, though, as formal restaurant prices are high, cafés are the best bet. Down another quiet lane north of Sandhammaren we found Olof Victor's Café, which was voted the country's best café last year. An in-house bakery makes delightful cakes and the café sprawls around a wooden conservatory and a courtyard.

We made a number of gentle day trips from Ystad, heading inland to explore some of Skane's many castles, such as Sovdeborg, where you can take a tour of the atmospheric interior. Along the coast, we explored a Bronze Age burial cairn, the Kungagraven (King's Grave), at Kivik, which sits alongside a delightful stream, and more cafés.

Further north, towards Ahus, we saw old eel huts along the shore, denoting an industry that once thrived on the eels that swim from here to the Caribbean and the Sargasso Sea.

Ystad, with its cobbled streets and scrupulously maintained little town houses, merits exploration too. At its heart is the church of St Maria, a favourite with children. Here, every night, between 9.15pm and 3am, the night bugler sounds the quarter-hour from the belfry.

For tour groups, he takes up his bugle during the day and groups of children gather at the foot of the church trying to guess from which window the instrument will emerge. The tradition dates back to medieval days, when the night bugler would warn of invading hordes. As the sonorous note rang out, I wondered if it wasn't the sort of call that the mischievous Nils Holgersson would have loved to use to summon up his geese companions.

How to get there

Mark Rowe travelled to Skane in Sweden with Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk), which offers return fares to Malmo via Cologne and Copenhagen from £201 per adult and £169 per child. He stayed in Ystad courtesy of Skane Tourism (skane.com), which can offer accommodation ideas and make booking arrangements.

Further information

Visit Sweden (020-7108 6168; visitsweden.se).

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