Linked to mainland Sweden by a 6km-long bridge, the island of Öland, with its unspoilt beaches, mysterious forests, pretty meadows and wooden cottages, has been drawing Swedes in droves for over a century. Although it’s a popular destination in summer and holiday traffic can clog the road from the bridge north to the main town Borgholm, this long, splinter-shaped island retains a very likeable old-fashioned holiday atmosphere. The bathing opportunities are among the best in Sweden, and the island’s attractions include numerous ruined castles, Bronze and Iron Age burial cairns, runic stones and forts, all set amid rich and varied fauna and flora and striking geography. Labyrinthine walking trails and bicycle routes wend their way past more than four hundred old wooden windmills, which give Öland a peculiarly Dutch air. The island is perfect for camping, and while you can pitch tent anywhere under the rules of Allemansrätten, there are plenty of official sites. Almost all are open only between May and September, and are scattered the length of the island; for more details, visit w camping-oland.com.
A royal hunting ground from the mid-sixteenth century until 1801, Öland was ruled with scant regard for its native population. Peasants were forbidden from chopping wood, owning dogs or weapons and selling their produce on the open market. While protected wild animals did their worst to the farmers’ fields, Kalmar’s tradesmen exploited the restrictions on the islanders’ trade to force them to sell at low prices. Danish attacks on Öland (and a ten-month occupation in 1612) made matters worse, with seven hundred farms being destroyed. A succession of disastrous harvests in the mid-nineteenth century was the last straw, causing a quarter of the population to pack their bags for a new life in America. In the twentieth century, mainland Sweden became the new magnet for Öland’s young and, by 1970, the island’s inhabitants had declined to just twenty thousand, around five thousand less than today’s total.
Geology and flora
Öland’s geology varies dramatically due to the crushing movement of ice during the last Ice Age, and the effects of the subsequent melting process, which took place 10,000 years ago. To the south is a massive limestone plain known as alvaret; indeed, limestone has been used here for thousands of years to build runic monuments, dry-stone walls and churches. The northern coastline is craggy and irregular, peppered with dramatic-looking raukar – stone stacks, weathered by the waves into jagged shapes. Among the island’s flora are plants that are rare in the region, like the delicate rock rose and the cream-coloured wool-butter flower, both native to Southeast Asia and found in southern Öland. Further north are the twisted, misshapen pines and oaks of the romantically named trollskogen (trolls’ forest).