Days 54-56 – The Land of the Goths

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Halland

We follow the steep shores of the narrow Iddefjord due south for a while, skimming the Swedish border. The land is densely wooded and sparsely populated; we finally saw an elk – and a couple of deer, fallow and red, as we speed through the forest.

The border – over which so many battles had been fought in the past – is marked with a small sign; the first difference is the price of petrol, no longer eye-wateringly high. The border, insignificant these days, was of course non-existant in ancient past, before either Norway or Sweden existed; and so the ancient rock-carvers crossed freely from Norway to Sweden. The Swedish rock paintings, focused around the hamlet of Tanum, are greater and more impressive than the ones in the north – so much so that they are inscribed into the UNESCO. The stone canvases are massive – 20 metres in one place – and filled with vivid images, not just of hundreds of ships and oarsmen, but with oxen, women worshipping the sun, and even a small whale in the corner of one. It’s not just a comic strip, it’s an entire graphic novel written in stone.

From ancient history, to modern. The industrial hub of Trollhattan, rising along a network of canals, sluices and waterfalls, produced of old train engines, hydroelectric turbines, and other heavy machinery, but most importantly of all, it is – or rather was – the headquarters of SAAB Automobiles. The SAAB museum, though small in size, is a must-see for any fan of the cult brand, as it traces the entire history of rise and fall of one of the most innovative automobile companies, and boasts both the very first and the very LAST SAAB every produced in the Trollhattan factory; as well as a number of models in between, including many custom, one-off and prototype ones.

From Trollhattan we went to camp on the nearby shores of Lake Vanern, the greatest body of fresh water in Europe outside of Russia; though we can’t really appreciate it from the narrow inlet that the campsite is on, our eyes reaching only as far as the horizon on one side, and a tall cliff on the other.

Sweden, from the view of the car speeding down the highway, is vast, flat and empty – though the population statistics bely that image; most people live along a narrow strip of coastline, so narrow that the settlements can hardly be spotted from the road. Other than the fact that most of the interior is taken by two huge lakes, it’s hard to see why the country would be so sparsely populated. It certainly seems fertile, as the motorway cuts through miles upon miles of corn fields and orchards – and still more barrow mounds.

Two out of three largest cities of Sweden fit into this narrow strip of populated land, and, passing a massive Bodehus fortress (formerly Norwegian, when the border extended all the way here) across the river, we enter the first of these on Day 2 – Gothenburg, the City of Goths. We are in the land of Goths now, the Gotaland, from which according to a legend these warrior people have supposedly come from. It’s a brief stop at Gothenburg, for coffee and cake – following the Swedish custom of “fika” – but it’s enough to capture the mood of the place, young and vibrant; it feels much more like a city than the much greater Oslo, perhaps because it is more compact. The city centre is on an island made of moat-like canals and river outlets surrounding a tall hill, but we take our “fika” outside of it, in the charming district of old timbered houses called, after the Dutch settlers who lived here, Haga.

The third day passes uneventful as we ride through Halland. Halland is the province infamously – and uniquely – avoided and sneered at by the geese flying with Nils Holgersson in the “Wonderful Adventures” novel. The birds saw nothing of interest here, and frankly, neither do we, although the road-signs point us towards a number of towns and castles, no doubt very picturesque. We stop for a “fika” at an old chocolatier in Halmstad, the river-side capital of the province. The town is small but curiously laid out; there are remnants of old town, especially a very lively main street lined with cafe gardens, leading to a small square over which looms a town hall; there’s a small red “castle”; and there are a few half-timbered tenements strewn along the river and further down the road. But it’s all checkered with modern buildings, some nice, some ugly; coming from a country which has suffered so badly during the war, I dismiss it naturally as filling the scars left over some battle, until I remember that Sweden stayed neutral through both World Wars, and the damage done to the old city tissue was done by the city planners rather than bombs.

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