Sitting gracefully on the eastern shore of the mighty Storsjön (Great Lake) about halfway up Sweden, ÖSTERSUND is the only large town along the Inlandsbanan (until Gällivare inside the Arctic Circle, another 750km further north), and is well worth a stop. Östersund’s lakeside position lends it a seaside-holiday atmosphere, unusual this far inland, and it’s an instantly likeable place. In addition to the youthful buzz about town, there’s an air of commercialism here, too (lacking in most other inland towns), since Östersund is also a centre for the engineering and electronics industries, as well as the Swedish armed forces, who maintain two regiments here. However, it’s for its lake monster, the Storsjöodjuret, that Östersund is perhaps best known.
King Gustav III gave the town its charter two hundred years ago with one thing in mind: to put an end to the lucrative trade that the region’s merchant farmers carried out with neighbouring Norway. Travelling over the mountains, they bartered and sold their goods in Trondheim before returning back to the Storsjön region. Although rival markets in Östersund gradually stemmed the trade, it took another century for the town’s growth to really begin, heralded by the arrival of the railway from Sundsvall in 1879.
Jamtli open-air museum
Most visitors head straight for Östersund’s top attraction, Jamtli, home to the beautiful Överhogdal Viking tapestries and an open-air museum which expertly – and enjoyably – brings to life Östersund from years past. It’s full of people milling around in nineteenth-century costume, farming and milking much as their ancestors did. Everyone else is encouraged to join in – baking, tree felling, grass cutting and so on. The place is ideal for children, and adults would have to be pretty hard-bitten not to enjoy the enthusiastic atmosphere. Intensive work has been done on getting the settings right: the restored and working interiors are authentically gloomy and dirty, and the local store, Lanthandel, among the wooden buildings around the square near the entrance, is suitably old-fashioned. In the woodman’s cottage (presided over by a bearded lumberjack, who makes pancakes for the visitors), shoeless and scruffy youngsters snooze contentedly in the wooden cots. Beyond the first cluster of houses is a reconstructed farm, Lillhärdal, where life goes on pretty much as it did in 1785, when the land was ploughed using horses, and crops were sown and harvested by hand – even the roaming cattle and the crop varieties are appropriate to the period.
The indoor museum
The indoor museum on the same site is the place to get to grips with Östersund’s monster. Ask to see the fascinating film (with English subtitles) about the creature, which contains a series of telling interviews with local people who claim to have seen it; one very Swedish thing leaps out at you – having witnessed something unusual out on the lake, many people took several months, even years, to talk about their experience for fear of ridicule. Having seen the film, head downstairs for a further display of monster-catching gear, alongside what’s claimed to be a pickled embryo of a similar monster found in the lake in 1895; this quite grotesque thing is kept in a small glass jar on a shelf next to the foot of the stairs.
The museum’s prize exhibits are the awe-inspiring Viking Överhogdal tapestries, crowded with brightly coloured pictures of horses, reindeer, elk and dogs, and different types of dwellings. Dating from the ninth and tenth centuries and woven from flax, most of the tapestries were discovered by accident in an outhouse in 1910. One piece was rescued after being used as a doll’s blanket – rumour has it the child had to be pacified with a 2kr reward to hand it over – and another was being used as a cleaning rag in the local church. Be sure, too, to watch the informative ten-minute slideshow explaining the tapestries’ history and their likely significance.
Close to Jamtli, Exercishallen Norr is an excellent modern art museum with constantly changing and thought-provoking exhibitions. Housed in a former military building, the spacious exhibition hall can easily be visited on the way to Jamtli.
Whilst the lakeside Badhusparken, is an extremely popular sunbathing spot in summer, in winter it is the place for a quick dip in the invigorating waters of Lake Storsjön – a hole in the ice is kept open here for this purpose (mid-Jan to late March). Once you’re out of the water, head straight for the nearby sauna or you’ll be covered in frost faster than you can say “Storsjöodjuret”. This is also the place to rent skates to go long-distance skating on the lake (150kr/day), which freezes over each winter.
Take the footbridge across the lake from Badhusparken, or the road bridge a little further north, and you’ll come to the island of Frösön. People have lived here since prehistoric times; the name comes from the original Viking settlement, which was associated with the pagan god of fertility, Frö. There’s plenty of good walking on the island, as well as a couple of historical sights. Just over the bridges, in front of the red-brick offices, look for the eleventh-century rune stone telling of Austmaður (“East Man”), son of Guðfast, the first Christian missionary to the area. From here, you can clamber up the nearby hill of Öneberget to the fourth-century settlement of Mjälleborgen, where a pleasant walking trail of around 4km leads through the area.
Five kilometres west of the bridges, along the island’s main road and up the main hill, is the beautiful Frösö kyrka, an eleventh-century church with a detached bell tower. In 1984, archeologists digging under the altar came across a bit of old birch stump surrounded by animal bones – bears, pigs, deer and squirrels – evidence of the cult of ancient gods, who were known as æsir. Today, the church is one of the most popular in Sweden for weddings – to tie the knot here at midsummer, you have to book years in advance. Bus #3 from the centre comes here.
Storsjöodjuret – the “Great Lake Monster”
Storsjöodjuret – the “Great Lake Monster”
The people of Östersund are in no doubt: Storsjöodjuret is out there, in their lake. Eyewitness accounts – there are hundreds of people who claim to have seen it – speak of a creature with a head like a dog, long pointed ears and bulging eyes, that sweeps gracefully through the water, sometimes making a hissing or clucking sound, often several hundred metres away from the shore; each summer sees new reports of sightings. Although several explanations have been given that dispel the myth – a floating tree trunk, a row of swimming elk, the wake from a passing boat, a series of rising water bubbles – the monster’s existence is taken so seriously that a protection order has now been slapped on it, using the provisions of paragraph fourteen of Sweden’s Nature Conservation Act. For most people, though, the monster will be at its most tangible not in the lake, but on the web (w storsjoodjuret.com).
In 1894, the hunt for this sinister presence began in earnest, when King Oscar II founded a special organization to try to catch it. Norwegian whalers were hired to do so, but the rather unorthodox methods they chose proved unsuccessful: a dead pig gripped in a metal clasp was dangled into the water as bait, and large, specially manufactured pincers were on hand to grip the creature and pull it ashore. Their tackle is on display at Jamtli, together with photographs that claim to be of the creature.
If you fancy a bit of monster-spotting, consider taking a steamboat cruise on the lake on board S/S Thomée, a creaking 1875 wooden steamship. Routes and timetables vary, but in general the boat does a two-hour trip (100kr) round the lake leaving from the harbour in town. Also available are trips out to the island of Verkön, where there’s a nineteenth-century castle (5hr 30min; 130kr).