The antiquity of the Scania province is attested by the many ancient monuments scattered throughout, including two of Sweden’s greatest. We drive to the first of them in the morning, the simply named Ales Stenar – Ale’s Stones; grandiously nick-named “Sweden’s Stonehenge”, the monument is the largest representative of the “stone ship”: a set of standing stones placed, as you might have guessed, in the shape of a ship. These are nowhere near as old as most of Europe’s megaliths, and are rather a strange remnant from what must have been already by then ancient history: Ales Stenar are dated at 7th century AD, so they were set up somewhere between the Dark Age and the Age of Vikings; somewhere between the Anglo-Saxon and Viking burials in actual wooden ships, the Scanians decided to try building their burial ships out of stone.
The stones are set in a marvelous location, on the top of a fairly top, grassy cliff, from which you can easily see Bornholm’s jagged edges. This is another “artist land”, with clear light and splendid, far-reaching vistas. The local “capital” is in tiny Simrishamn, where we stop to treat ourselves to a pizza in a remarkable establishment: a genuine Moorish villa in the middle of a Swedish town. The genuineness comes from the owner having built the villa using authentic Mediterranean techniques, and then crafting an almost magical garden of southern trees (with real citrus fruits) and flowers around it. We’re now in the middle of a Scandinavian “heat wave” (temperatures reaching 22 C!) so the effect is even stronger: the moment you step through the gates of the Apotekarns, you are immediately transferred into the middle of a Mediterranean summer.
From Simrishamn, the road cuts through endless apple orchards, the pride of this region; the first and oldest of these is in Kivik, where we make a brief stop – passing by the second of Scania’s ancient treasures, the Bronze Age “King’s Grave” cairn, almost Egyptian both in its size and strange hieroglyphs adorning its walls. Kivik Apple Orchard is a major tourist attraction, with big shop and an exhibition orchard freely available for all; while it’s a treat to wander among the apple trees, with tiny fruit already blushing red and gold, we can only imagine how wonderful this place must be in April, when the trees are in bloom, or in August, when the apples are ripe for picking.
We leave Scania’s fertile plains and almost immediately we’re in another world. The first sight of Blekinge County goes a long way to answering my earlier question about Sweden’s population. It’s rocky, hilly, cut through with lakes and marshes; the fields are covered with stones and boulders brought in by the Ice Age, and without modern technology seems good enough only for growing potatoes and rye.
Pausing only briefly for a midday stroll in the Brunns Park in Ronneby – reputedly the prettiest park in all of Sweden – we reach the capital of the county, the glorious Karlskrona. Karlskrona is one of the strangest places we’ve yet visited. It is a tiny town – barely 30,000 people – and can be crossed from one end to another within minutes. But once you get inside, and lose sight of the sea which spreads all around it, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in the middle of a vast city, on par with Helsinki or Stockholm. You enter a grand square, bordered by two cathedral-like churches; all the buildings and streets leading to and from it are city-sized. The scale of Karlskrona is impossible to grasp, and if it feels like a bit of a big city cut out and thrown onto a small island, that’s because it’s exactly that. The town was built from scratch on an empty field, and to a grand plan; it is a masterpiece of baroque urban planning, designed as the main base for Sweden’s once-mighty (and still quite substantial) navy. It is one of the best protected naval bases in the world – set on an island, surrounded by other islands and reefs, all of them fortified and impregnable; it almost rivals Scapa Flow. There are still navy ships stationed in Karlskrona, and the days of past glory can be witnessed on the museum-island of Stumholmen, to the east of the “city centre”, the only part of the town which hasn’t completely burned down at the end of the 18th century.
We are now staying mostly in marinas – they are much cheaper and nicer than “commercial” campsites; there are boats coming here from all over Northern Europe, though mostly, course, Germany.
Compared to the scarcity of wildlife in Britain, Sweden feels like Serengeti. Again, we can watch birds from the van: Sandwich Terns fighting over fish, an osprey flying out on a morning hunt; cranes, herons, red kites, even good old larks are all rare sights back home, but here they are easily within reach no matter where you go. On calm evenings we witness a feeding frenzy as hundreds of small fish come up to the surface catch insects. The water is boiling.