Founded by St Sigfrid in the eleventh century, VÄXJÖ (approximately pronounced “veck-shur”), 120km from Kalmar deep in the heart of Småland, is by far the handiest base hereabouts. Though its centre is fairly bland and quiet, Växjö, whose name derives from väg sjö, or “way to the lake”, is within easy reach of some beautifully tranquil lake scenery. The town itself offers a couple of great museums, and once a year comes to life for the Karl Oskar-dagar (second weekend in Aug) – a long weekend of unbridled revelry in honour of the character Karl-Oskar, created by author Wilhem Moberg, who symbolized the struggles of Småland’s Swedish peasants in the nineteenth century. In reality, it means Våxjö’s youth drink themselves silly through the nights while daytime entertainment fills the streets.
The best place to kick off your exploration of Växjö is the Smålands Museum, behind the train station, which holds two permanent exhibitions: a history of Småland during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with a section dedicated to Växjö, and the infinitely more interesting “Six Centuries of Swedish Glass”. The latter shows sixteenth-century place settings, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century etched glass and stylish Art Nouveau-inspired pieces, with subtle floral motifs. “Trees in Fog”, designed in the 1950s by Kosta designer Vicke Lindstrand, illustrates just how derivative so much of the twentieth-century work actually is. Look out, in particular, for the Absolut vodka bottles made in nearby Limmared, which formed the basis of today’s design.
In a plain building directly in front of the Smålands Museum, the inspired Utvandrarnas Hus explores the intense hardship faced by the Småland peasant population in the mid-nineteenth century and their ensuing emigration; between 1850 and 1929, one quarter of Småland’s population left to begin a new life in America.
The museum’s displays, which include English-language translations and audio narratives, trace the lives of individual emigrants and recount the story of the industry that grew up around emigration fever. Most boats used by the emigrants left from Gothenburg and, until 1915, were British-operated sailings to Hull, from where passengers crossed the Pennines to Liverpool by train to board the transatlantic ships; conditions on board the ships were usually dire and the emigrants often shared their accommodation with oxen, pigs, calves and sheep. Exhibitions change frequently but there’s generally a mock-up of a street in early 1900s Chicago, a popular destination for the emigrants, where all the stores are run by Swedes – everything from a grocer’s to a photographer’s shop.
There’s also a section on women emigrants, entitled “Not Just Kristina”, a reference to a fictitious character in The Emigrants, a trilogy by one of Sweden’s most celebrated writers, Wilhelm Moberg. Upon publication, it became the most-read Swedish history book in the country, and was made into a film starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullman. On display here is Moberg’s writing cabin, which was given to the museum after his death in 1973. Moberg would himself have emigrated, only his father sold a farrow of piglets to pay for his son to go to college in Sweden.
The museum’s Research Centre charges remarkably good rates to help interested parties trace their family roots using passenger lists from ten harbours, microfilmed church records from all Swedish parishes and the archives of Swedish community associations abroad. If you want to use the centre’s extensive information services during its peak season (May–Aug), it’s especially worth booking ahead for an appointment with one of the staff.
In the centre of town, the distinctive Domkyrkan, with its unusual twin green towers and apricot-pink facade, is certainly worth a look. The combined impact of regular restorations, the most recent in 1995, together with a catalogue of disasters, such as sixteenth-century fires and a 1775 lightning strike, have left little of note except an organ. There are, however, some brilliant glass ornaments by two of the best-known contemporary Glass Kingdom designers: Göran Wärff’s wacky church font of blue glass, a stunning triptych altarpiece made entirely of glass designed by Bertil Vallien and the tree of life with Adam and Eve surrounded by glass leaves by Erik Höglund. The cathedral is set in Linnéparken, named after Carl von Linné, who was educated at the handsome school next door.