Inland from the Bohuslän coast, the landscape is dominated by the largest lake in Western Europe, Vänern. Sitting proudly on the lake’s northern shores, the provincial capital of Värmland, Karlstad, makes an agreeable destination after seeing the highlights of the Swedish west coast; both Route 45 and the rail network lead here from Gothenburg. The city provides ready access to an extensive area of sweeping forests and fertile farmland, crossed by lazy rivers – once used to float timber into Vänern, these are now an excellent way of seeing this most peaceful part of western Sweden.
Selma Lagerlöf (1858–1940) was the first female winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, in 1909, and is arguably Sweden’s best-known author of her generation and familiar to every Swede. Her fantastical prose was seen as a revolt against the social realism of late nineteenth-century writing; commissioned to write a geography book for Swedish children, Lagerlöf came up with The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, a saga of myth and legend infused with affection for the Swedish countryside, which became compulsory reading at every school in the country. Lagerlöf never married, but had a long-term relationship with another woman, though this wasn’t generally acknowledged until their love letters were published some fifty years after Lagerlöf’s death. The first woman to gain membership of the Swedish Literary Academy, her be-hatted features now appear on 20kr notes, which Swedes affectionately refer to as “Selmas”.
Her house, complete with portico supporting a wonderfully long balcony, was completely rebuilt after Lagerlöf won the Nobel Prize. Upstairs is her study, much as she left it, along with a panelled library and an extensive collection of her work.
Resting elegantly on the northern shore of Lake Vänern, KARLSTAD is named after King Karl IX, who granted the place its town charter in 1584. Since then, the town has been beset by several disasters: devastating fires ripped through the centre in 1616 and 1729, but it was in 1865, when fire broke out in a bakery on the corner of Östra Torggatan and Drottninggatan, that Karlstad suffered its worst calamity; virtually the entire town, including the cathedral, burned to the ground – of the 241 buildings that made up the town, only seven survived. Sweden had not experienced such a catastrophe in living memory, and a national emergency fund was immediately set up to help pay for reconstruction. Building began apace, with an emphasis on wide streets and large open squares to act as firebreaks. The result is an elegant and thoroughly likeable town that’s the perfect base from which to tour the surrounding country and lakeside.
It’s best to start your wanderings around Karlstad in the large and airy market square, Storatorget. The Neoclassical Rådhuset, on the square’s western side, was the object of much local admiration upon its completion in 1867, just two years after the great fire; local worthies were particularly pleased with the two stone Värmland eagles that adorn the building’s roof, no doubt hoping the birds would help ward off another devastating blaze.
In front of the Rådhuset, the rather austere Peace Monument, unveiled in 1955, commemorates the peaceful dissolution of the union between Sweden and Norway in 1905, which was negotiated in the town; when translated, the inscription reads “feuds feed folk hatred, peace promotes people’s understanding”.
Continuing east along Kungsgatan and over the narrow Pråmkanalen into Hagatorget square, the road swings left and changes its name to Nygatan ahead of the longest arched stone bridge in Sweden, Östra bron. Completed in 1811, this massive construction is made up of twelve arches and spans 168m across the eastern branch of the Klarälven River. It’s claimed the bridge’s builder, Anders Jacobsson, threw himself off the bridge and drowned, afraid his life’s achievement would collapse; his name is engraved on a memorial stone tablet in the centre of the bridge. On sunny days, the nearby wooded island of Gubbholmen, reached by crossing Östra bron and turning right, is a popular place for soaking up the rays and an ideal place for a picnic.
Heading back towards town, retrace your footsteps across the bridge and turn right into Tage Erlandergatan. Carry on until you reach the old bathhouse, Gamla Badhuset, on Norra Strandgatan, which functioned as a spa and swimming baths until 1978; the building’s exterior is worth a quick glance for its impressive red stonework.
At the junction of Norra Strandgatan and Västra Torggatan is the bishop’s residence, Biskopsgården, dating from 1781 and, as such, one of the handful of buildings in Karlstad not destroyed in the great fire. A two-storey yellow wooden building with a mansard roof, it owes its survival to the massive elm trees on its south side which formed a natural firebreak, and to the sterling fire-fighting efforts of the bishop of the time, which gave rise to the local saying “the bishop swore and doused the flames whilst the governor wept and prayed”. The only other houses that survived are in the Almen district of town, next to the river at Älvgatan; though their facades are all nineteenth century, their oldest parts date from the century before.
The Karlstad region is renowned throughout Sweden for its relatively long hours of sunshine, something the locals make the most of during the summer months. The sandy beach by the campsites at Bomstad, 7km west of the city along the E18, extends for several kilometres and is known as the Värmland Riviera. It benefits from the sheltered waters of Kattfjorden, one of Vänern’s northern bays, and the shallow waters here heat up quickly during the long summer days, making swimming deliciously enjoyable. Adjoining to the east, Skutberget offers smooth rocks which gently slope down to the lake. There’s also an unofficial – though popular – nudist beach here, at the western end of the beach by First Camp Karlstad Skutberget.
Between June and August every summer, a flotilla of gleaming, wooden boat buses – båtbussar – ply the waters around Karlstad and make a great way of seeing the city. Though routes vary slightly from year to year, the most popular is the hour-long trip from Residenset, just west of Storatorget, via the Pråmkanalen and the harbour area, to Mariebergsskogen. Tickets cost just 25kr (a 24hr ticket costs 75kr) and can be bought on board. Timetables are at w karlstadsbuss.se.
Covering a whopping 5600 square kilometres (four times the size of Greater London), Lake Vänern totally dominates the map of Sweden, stretching 140km in length from Trollhättan, northeast of Gothenburg, up to Karlstad. Travelling along the lake you could be forgiven for thinking you’re on the coast: the endless vistas of water and sky really do resemble those of the sea. Indeed, such is its size that the Swedish Met Office even produces a shipping forecast for the lake.
Vänern was created after the last Ice Age about ten thousand years ago. Very slowly, as the land began to rise following the retreat of the ice, islands formed in the extensive waters that once covered this part of southern Sweden. With further landrise, today’s familiar pattern of forest and lake gradually took shape. Consequently, Vänern – and neighbouring Lake Vättern – contain several species of marine life left over from the Ice Age and not normally found in freshwater lakes.
To explore northern Värmland – home to bears, wolves and lynx – pretty EKSHÄRAD makes a perfect base. Whilst here, check out the ornately decorated eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wrought-iron crosses in the church graveyard beside the main crossroad.
Ekshärad is a good spot for getting out onto the Klarälven River, a 500km-long waterway that begins over the border in Norway near Lake Femunden, entering Sweden at Långflon in the north of Värmland at slightly over half of its course. The Klarälven was one of the last Swedish rivers where timber was floated downstream to sawmills; the practice only ceased here in 1991.
Between June and August, two companies operate trips along the Klarälven River on sixteen-square-metre timber rafts, each of which holds two people; book ahead no matter which company you choose. Their prices are roughly the same, but with Vildmark i Värmland you build the raft yourself, supervised by a member of staff, using the 3m-long logs and the rope provided; no other materials are allowed. Once you’re under way, you’ll find the water flows at around 2km/hr, which gives you time to swim, fish and study the countryside and animals (beavers and elk are plentiful). At night, you sleep in a tent either on the raft (which is moored) or on the riverbank. Each company will give you details of where to meet and assemble when you book; departure points vary depending on the length of the tour – full details are on the websites.
Sverigeflotten Transtrand 22, Branäs
t 0564 402 27, w sverigeflotten.com. 1 day 960kr (overnight 1360kr), 2 days 1800kr, 3 days 2500kr, 6 days 3000kr; tents, kitchen equipment and canoes can be hired for an extra charge.
Vildmark i Värmland Röbjörkeby 7, Torsby
t 0560 140 40, w vildmark.se. 4 days 2750kr, 7 days 3310kr. Rates include tent and canoe; there's an extra charge for kitchen equipment.