Things have changed since Baedeker, writing in 1889, observed that “Lake Siljan owes much of its interest to the inhabitants of its banks, who have preserved many of their primitive characteristics. In their idea of cleanliness they are somewhat behind the age.” Today it’s not the people who draw your attention but the setting. Lake Siljan, created millions of years ago when a meteorite crashed into the earth, is what many people come to Sweden for, its gently rolling surroundings, traditions and local handicrafts weaving a subtle spell on the visitor. There’s a lush feel to much of the region, the charm of the forest heightened by its proximity to the lake, all of which adds a pleasing dimension to the low-profile towns and villages that interrupt the rural scenery. Only Mora stands out as being bigger and busier, with the hustle and bustle of holiday-makers and countless caravans crowding the place in summer.
Perhaps the most traditional of the Dalarna villages, LEKSAND, about 50km northwest of Falun, is certainly worth making the effort to reach at midsummer, when it stages festivals recalling age-old dances performed around the maypole (Sweden’s maypoles are erected in June – in May the trees here are still bare and the ground can be covered with snow). The celebrations culminate in the church boat (kyrkbåtar) races, a waterborne procession of sleek wooden longboats, which the locals once rowed to church on Sundays. Starting on Midsummer’s Day in nearby Siljansnäs – take the roughly hourly bus #84 from Leksand – and continuing for ten days at different locations around the lake, the races hit Leksand on the first Saturday in July. Leksand’s tourist office will have details of the arrangements for each summer’s races.
There’s little to do in Leksand other than take it easy. A relaxing stroll along the riverside brings you to Leksands kyrka, one of Sweden’s biggest village churches; it has existed in its present form since 1715, although the oldest parts of the building date back to the thirteenth century. The church enjoys one of the most stunning locations of any in the land, its peaceful churchyard lined with whispering spruce trees and looking out over the lake to the distant shore.
Next door to the church is the region’s best open-air Hembygdsgård – about a dozen old timber buildings grouped around a maypole, ranging from simple square huts used to store hay during the long winter months to a magnificent parstuga, which forms the centrepiece of the collection. Built in 1793, this two-storey dwelling, constructed of thick circular logs, is notable because buildings of the period were rarely more than one storey in height, since timber was expensive. From directly behind the museum a narrow track leads down to the lake, where there’s a reconstruction of a church boathouse used to house the kyrkbåtar for which Dalarna is known throughout Sweden.
Whilst in Leksand, it’s worth taking one of the cruises on Lake Siljan aboard the lovely old steamship M/S Gustaf Wasa, built in Stockholm in 1876, which depart between May and September from the quay near the homestead museum; take the track down to the reconstructed boathouse (see The Dala horse) and turn left following the lakeside to the bridge and the quay. The excursions include a round-trip to Mora and back (150kr), or a two-hour cruise round a bit of the lake (100kr).
If you believe the tourist blurb, then TÄLLBERG, all lakeside log cabins amid rolling hills, is Dalarna. Situated on a promontory in the lake 10km north of Leksand, this folksy hillside village, whose wooden cottages are draped with flowers in summer, first became famous in 1850 when the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen paid it a visit; on his return to Copenhagen, he wrote that everyone should experience Tällberg’s peace and tranquillity, and marvel at its wonderful lake views. Ever since, hordes of tourists have flooded into the tiny village to see what all the fuss was about – prepare yourself for the crowds that unfortunately take the shine off what is otherwise quite a pretty little place. Tällberg today is also a prime destination for wealthy middle-aged Swedes, who come to enjoy the good life for a few days, savour the delicious food dished up by the village’s hotels, and admire the fantastic views out over Lake Siljan. To escape the crowds, walk down the steep hill of Sjögattu, past the campsite, to the calm lapping water of the lake and a small sandy beach; keep going through the trees to find a couple of more secluded spots.
Mora and around
At the northwestern corner of the lake, 60km from Leksand, MORA is the best place to head for hereabouts, handy for onward trains on the Inlandsbanan and for moving on to the ski resorts of Idre and Sälen. An appealing, laidback town, its main draws are two excellent museums, one dedicated to the painter Anders Zorn, and the other to the Vasaloppet ski race.
The main attraction in Mora is the outstanding Zornmuséet, showcasing the work of Sweden’s best-known painter, Anders Zorn (1860–1920), who moved here in 1896. Most successful as a portrait painter, he worked in both oil and watercolour and spent periods living in both St Ives in Britain and Paris. Zorn even went to the United States to paint American presidents Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt and Taft. At the museum, look out for his larger-than-life self-portrait dressed in wolfskin from 1915 and the especially pleasing Midnatt (Midnight) from 1891, which depicts a woman rowing on Lake Siljan, her hands blue from the cold night air. The artist’s remarkable silver collection, containing four hundred pieces ranging from tankards to teaspoons, is also on display.
Across the museum lawn is Anders Zorn’s home, Zorngården, where the artist and his wife Emma lived during the early twentieth century. What really makes the place unusual is its cavernous 10m-high hall with a steeply V-shaped roof, entirely constructed from wood and decked out in traditional Dalarna designs and patterns, where the couple lived out their roles as darlings of local society.
The other museum in town worth considering is the Vasaloppsmuséet; it’s east of the Zorn Museum, on the other side of Vasagatan, and covers the history of the ski race, Vasaloppet, held on the first Sunday in March. The event commemorates King Gustav Vasa’s return to Mora after he escaped from the Danes on skis; two men from Mora caught up with him and persuaded him to come back to their town, where they gave him refuge. The longest cross-country ski race in the world, the competition was the idea of a local newspaper editor, who organized the first event in 1922; it was won by a 22-year-old from Västerbotten who took seven and a half hours to complete the course. Today, professionals take barely four hours to cover the 90km. Although the Vasaloppet enjoys royal patronage (the current Swedish king has skied it), it does have a somewhat chequered past, since women were forbidden from taking part until 1981. Whilst here, make sure you watch the half-hour film (with English subtitles) about the race – the impressive aerial shots really help to portray the massive scale of the competition.
Grannas A. Olssons Hemslöjd
Whilst in Mora you might want to consider a visit to Nusnäs, just east of town on the lakeside, where you’ll find Grannas A. Olssons Hemslöjd, the workshop of the Olsson brothers, creators of Sweden’s much-loved Dala horses. Skilled craftsmen carve the horses out of wood from the pine forests around Lake Siljan and then hand-paint and varnish them.
Orsa and the bear park
An uneventful little place barely 20km from Mora, sitting beside Lake Orsasjön, a northerly adjunct of Lake Siljan, ORSA’s draw is its location – right in the heart of Sweden’s bear country – and its fascinating bear park. It’s reckoned that there are a good few hundred brown bears roaming the dense forests around town, though few sightings are made in the wild.
Orsa Grönklitt björnpark
The Orsa Grönklitt björnpark is the biggest bear park in Europe. The bears here aren’t tamed or caged, but wander around the 277 thousand square metres of the forested park at will, much as they would in the wild. It’s the human visitors who are confined, having to clamber up viewing platforms and along covered walkways.
The bears are fascinating to watch: their behaviour is amusing, and they’re gentle and vegetarian for the most part (though occasionally they’re fed the odd dead reindeer or elk that’s been killed on the roads). Trying hard not to be upstaged by the bears are a few lynx, wolves and wolverines, the other three Swedish predators – although you’ll be lucky to spot the wolves in particular; in fact, it’s a good idea to bring along a pair of binoculars to help you pick out any rustlings in the undergrowth. In addition, the park has a couple of Siberian tigers, two truly enormous Kamchatka bears from eastern Russia (the male weighs a whopping 900kg) and a pair of Eurasian eagle owls, the largest owl in the world, and found throughout Sweden’s forests.
Ever-expanding, the park now features a new Polar World section, where you’ll find a couple of polar bears, and a leopard centre where you can observe several different species including a snow leopard.