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Swedish Lapland

Swedish Lapland, the heartland of the indigenous Sámi people, is Europe’s last wilderness, characterized by seemingly endless forests of pine and spruce, thundering rivers that drain the snow-covered fells and peaceful lakeside villages high amongst the hills. The irresistible allure of this vast and sparsely populated region is the opportunity to experience raw nature at first hand. This unsullied corner of the country is a very long way away for many Swedes; in terms of distance, Gothenburg, for example, is closer to Venice than it is to Kiruna. The reputation of the local people for speaking their mind or, alternatively, not speaking at all, has confirmed the region’s image within Sweden: remote, austere yet still rather fascinating.

One constant reminder of how far north you’ve come is the omnipresent reindeer that are still fundamental to the livelihood of many families here, but the enduring Sámi culture, which once defined much of this land, is now under threat. Centuries of mistrust between the Sámi and the Swedish population have led to today’s often tense standoff; Sámi accusing Swede of stealing his land, Swede accusing Sámi of scrounging off the state. Back in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear accident led to a fundamental change in Sámi living patterns: the fallout affected grazing lands, and even today the lichen (the reindeer’s favourite food) in certain parts of the north is unfit for consumption, a fact which the Sámi, perhaps understandably, are keen to play down. The escalating problems posed by tourism – principally the erosion of grazing land under the pounding feet of hikers – have also made the Sámi’s traditional existence increasingly uncertain.

The best way to discover more about Sámi culture is to drive the 360km-long Wilderness Way (Vildmarksvägen) from Strömsund, a notable canoeing centre, over the barren Stekenjokk plateau to isolated Fatmomakke, a church town of dozens of traditional wooden kåtor (huts) beside the steely waters of Kultsjön lake. The road terminates at Vilhelmina, another tiny church town which makes an interesting diversion on the way north. Storuman and neighbouring Sorsele have handy train and bus connections that are useful access points for a small handful of charming mountain villages close to the Norwegian border, where hiking is the main draw. More accessible Arvidsjaur, reached by the Inlandsbanan offers a fascinating insight into indigenous culture at its lappstad, a diverting collection of religious dwellings and storehuts.

However, it’s Jokkmokk, just north of the Arctic Circle, that is the real centre of Sámi life – not least during its Winter Market when thousands of people brave the chill to buy and sell everything from reindeer hides to wellington boots. Moving further north, the iron-ore mining centres of Gällivare (where the Inlandsbanan ends) and Kiruna share a rugged charm, though it’s undoubtedly the world-famous Icehotel in nearby Jukkasjärvi that is the real winter draw. Beyond, the rugged national parks offer a chance to hike and commune with nature like nowhere else: the Kungsleden trail runs for 500km from the tiny village of Abisko – oddly, yet reassuringly for hikers, the driest place in all of Sweden – to Hemavan, northwest of Storuman, through some of the most gorgeous stretches anywhere in the Swedish mountains.

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