Penny Bunting visits the most "Swedish" of regions, and finds tradition, wildlife and outdoor adventure
If someone mentions Sweden, what sort of picture comes into your mind? Like many, I envisage rolling landscapes of green forest, vast, glistening lakes and red wooden houses with white-painted window frames.
No region of Sweden encapsulates this image better than Dalarna. Situated in the heart of the country, less than four hours by train from Stockholm, Dalarna is well known to Swedes as a holiday destination – and is as classically “Swedish” as it gets. Yet it's often overlooked by overseas visitors, who are more likely to head to the Stockholm archipelago or to the beaches of the southwest coast.
With its vast tracts of pristine wilderness – home to elk, wolf, lynx and bear – Dalarna is perfect for outdoor exploration, and ideal for adventures such as camping, hiking, kayaking and cycling. To get the best out of your visit to the region, it's a good idea to stay somewhere that enables you to immerse yourself in the unspoiled and idyllic landscapes.
One such place is Johannisholm Adventure. This collection of cosy cabins and cottages sits alongside forest and lake – but is conveniently situated just 30 minutes away from Mora, a pretty lakeside town with train station, shops and cafés.
Johannisholm was actually once a village – built in 1808, it was here that the first Swedish glass windows were made. We stayed in a Tjäder cabin, opposite the picturesque red-painted church. Tjäder means capercaillie, a forest bird found in the region, and well known for its spectacular courtship ritual, or “lek”.
These simple, two-bedroomed cottages were once homes for workers in the glass factory. They have now been renovated to offer comfortable and spacious family accommodation that is full of character, with some of the original 1800s features – such as the old ranges – left intact.
Each cottage has a modern kitchenette with hob, microwave, fridge, kettle and coffee maker, a shower room and an outdoor seating area.
Exploring the immediate vicinity of the cottages is a must. There are extensive paths through the forest and alongside the lake for walking or going for a run straight from the door, and a sandy beach for lake swimming just across the road.
But to really get a feel for the place, it's a good idea to book onto one of Johannisholm Adventure's tours and activities. Guided cycling and walking tours, wildlife safaris, bushcraft and raft-building get you deep into the most beautiful local areas – or you can try your hand at archery, volleyball or climbing.
We opted for a self-guided evening canoe tour. The southern end of the lake, Venjansjön, is just a short walk from the cottage and we launched our canoes into clear water under a blue sky. The setting was sublime. Dark green forests tumbled down the hillside to the lakeshore, reflected in the glassy waters. The only sounds were birdsong and the gentle splashing of paddles dipping into still water.
One of the benefits of taking an evening canoe trip is the possibility of seeing wildlife along the way. Our target destination was Moose Island – named after a female elk that gave birth on the tiny islet, then swam backwards and forwards to care for her calf.
Along the route to Moose Island there are little inlets and hidden pools, where elk are sometimes spotted at dusk. We paddled silently through a narrow channel into one of these – a tranquil, almost perfectly circular inlet dotted with water lilies and surrounded by sun-dappled woodland. We waited patiently, floating serenely on the water, for 20 minutes or so as the sun began to set. No elk emerged – we were perhaps a little too early – but it was a magical spot, nonetheless.
Johannisholm is within easy reach of several attractions – and the Dala horse workshops were at the top of our list of places to visit.
Painted wooden Dala horses are a traditional symbol of Sweden – and of Dalarna in particular – and the brightly-coloured ornaments, with their intricately-patterned coats of red, white, green and blue, can be found in homes across the country.
The little horses make wonderful souvenirs, and can be bought almost anywhere. But for true authenticity, and to see the horses being made by hand, head for Nusnäs, near Mora.
It's here that the creation of Dala horses as a commercial enterprise really took off. Little wooden horses have been sold in markets in Dalarna for centuries – carved from scraps of wood during long winter evenings, they were popular toys for children. During the 19th century, families in the villages around Mora began to paint the horses in bright, cheerful colours, selling their creations to supplement the family income.
One of these families was the Olssons, of Nusnäs. Brothers Nils and Jannes, aged 15 and 13, started a small factory in 1928, taking out a loan to buy a saw and producing dozens of Dala horses to sell.
Descendants of the Olsson brothers are still making Dala horses in Nusnäs nearly a century later, and visitors can visit the two factories – Grannas A. Olsson and Nils Olsson – to see the decorations being produced.
A lot of work goes into the creation of each Dala horse. The basic shape is cut out using an electric saw, then the horses are carved by hand and smoothed into the finished shape.
A base colour is applied – traditionally this was red, but horses are now also available in yellow, green, blue, black, grey and pink. Once this base colour has dried, the intricate patterns are added by hand.
Watching this final stage of Dala horse decoration is fascinating and absorbing. As each new colour is applied, the design grows and develops – flowers appear, a white saddle is adorned with red and green leaves, a flowing mane cascades down the horse's neck.
Choosing a Dala horse as a souvenir can be a time-consuming process. Each horse is unique, with subtle variations of colour and pattern from one horse to the next – no two horses are the same. The rows of brightly-coloured horses marching across the shelves are irresistible, and selecting just one is a challenge. We ended up buying three!
Bears in Sweden
There are around 3500 brown bears in Sweden – with the largest number of bears living in the central regions of Dalarna, Gävleborg and Jämtland.
Seeing a bear in the wild isn't all that likely – bears are very shy and will avoid contact with humans if possible. For your best chance to see a wild bear, join a bear tour – led by experienced rangers, these allow you to observe and photograph bears from the safety of a hide.
Another way to see bears up close is to visit Orsa Grönklitt Predator Park, which is an easy day-trip from Johannisholm.
This wildlife park houses indigenous Swedish animals – and some non-native, endangered species – in huge, natural enclosures. These are so large that it's recommended you take binoculars for guaranteed sightings – because the animals have plenty of space and plenty of cover, some can be hard to spot.
We did spot plenty of animals on our visit though. There's an extensive programme of talks and feeding schedules – these give visitors a chance to see the animals close up and find out more about them.
The park's Polar World is the world's largest polar bear facility, and is home to the only two polar bears in Sweden. There's an excellent exhibition here, with informative and interactive displays, where you can learn all about the Polar regions and the threats to Arctic and Antarctic wildlife caused by climate change and pollution.
At Orsa Grönklitt Predator Park you can also see the four Nordic predators – brown bear, wolverine, wolf and lynx – as well as snow leopard, Persian leopard and Amur tiger.
One of the highlights of our visit was seeing a group of five or six brown bears visiting a waterhole in a little clearing surrounded by pine trees. From our vantage point on a raised wooden walkway we were able to watch the bears bathing, playing and interacting – all the while seemingly unaware of our presence.
Although this could not match the thrill of seeing a bear in the wild, it was a pretty good alternative – and a great chance to learn more about the natural behaviour of these wonderful animals.
Green Adventures September 2016