Far to the north of the flat, fertile and idyllic Scania, Sweden goes wild. Smaland is even more rough than Blekinge, a province of dark forests and rocky crags. It has always been a poor land, from which desperate people migrated abroad (mostly to the US) in their thousands, until the coming of modern industry. This desperation produced some of Sweden’s finest and best known companies: IKEA, Husqvarna, and the many glass foundries scattered throughout the forest.
We try to get to one, but the weather drives us away. In fact, the weather turns crazy on us, going from a 20+ “heat wave” to a raging thunder storm. We pass something that looks suspiciously like a tornado in the making; later that day, we spot a waterspout out in the sea, and learn that at least five of these were seen earlier near Malmo.
We drive through Kalmar on the way to Oland, and we stop for a fika in the Krusenstiernska Garden – a cafe set in the middle of an 18th century garden estate; it makes you feel like you’re at a rural party in a Jane Austen novel. Kalmar is famous for its castle, a proper looking medieval fortress, with a mighty moat and massive walls, guarding the narrow strait separating Oland from the mainland. The strait is now easily passable by another of Scandinavia’s great bridges. The Kalmar Bridge’s peculiarity is that instead of being suspended or moving, it simply rises steeply in the middle to make way for the ships, and falls down on the other side, like an artificial hill.
Gone with the wind are our 500 krona, which we waste on paying the most ridiculous parking ticket imaginable – parking in the wrong direction on a two-way street! That leaves a bad taste in our mouths. Kalmar, you were nice, but I don’t think we’ll be returning any time soon…
Oland is that long, thin sausage next to Sweden, one of its two main islands. Gotland, sadly, we have to forego: the cheaper ferry line we were planning to use to get there had to cancel the summer bookings because of a strike in Greece, and the traditional ferry was just way too expensive for a short hop.
Oland is very narrow, and very flat. In fact, it might just be the flattest piece of land we’ve seen so far. That means, of course, winds: gales that throw our little van from one side of the road to another. Nothing we’re not used to after last year, of course, and still not as bad as Hebrides, so we putter on regardless.
The locals, historically, made good use of the weather: there are over 100 windmills scattered all over the plateau, sometimes in groups of two or three. Most of them are small – pocket-sized, almost – as if every family wanted to have a windmill much the same way they later wanted washing machines or indoor plumbing. A sign of progress, no doubt.
Oland’s super-flat landscape is so unique, it’s UNESCO-protected. The southern part of the island – one that, on satellite photos, has a different colour to the rest of Sweden – is a massive limestone plateau, upon which nothing but small, gnarled trees and grass grows. When the summer sun returns the next day, the island looks like an African savannah, only with sheep and cows instead of antelopes.
The island is also filled to the brim with antiquities, untouched by generations – not even the windmills were put on the barrow mounds. The stone circles, stone ships, mounds, cairns, dot the landscape all along the main road, stretching along the ridge of the plateau – in the old days, the edge of the sea. Ring forts are in abundance, too – most unexcavated, but one – Eketorp – reconstructed almost in full, with a massive wall, a gatehouse and many huts inside; sheep and pigs roam freely among the visitors, who come here from all over Sweden to see ancient and Dark Age re-enactments, including a full-on siege once a year.
The southernmost tip of Oland is separated from the rest of Sweden by a wall stretching across the breadth of the island; beyond it is the most precious, and most steppe-like in appearance bit of the Stora Alvaret plateau. The cars stop to let the cows pass lazily between them, and hundreds of fledgling lapwings skip along the grass like so many pigeons. We reach the lighthouse at the very end, and turn back to get to our port for the night: a cosy, half-feral marina – once a thriving timber port – near Vastervik, surrounded by an archipelago of small islands.