There used to be a religious fervour about the town SKELLEFTEÅ, 140km northeast of Umeå. In 1324, an edict in the name of King Magnus Eriksson invited “all those who believed in Jesus Christ or wanted to turn to him” to settle between the Skellefte and Ume rivers. Many heeded the call, and parishes mushroomed on the banks of the Skellefte River. By the end of the eighteenth century, a devout township was centred around the town’s monumental church, which stood out in stark contrast to the surrounding plains and wide river. Nowadays, more material occupations, including computer and electronics industries, and the mining of gold and silver, support the town.

There’s little to see in the town centre, and you would fare better concentrating on nearby Bonnstan, comprising an engaging collection of battered log cottages gathered together to form the kyrkstad (church town) next to the Neoclassical church, which houses one of Norrland’s proudest exhibits – the medieval carving of the Virgin of Skellefteå. Skellefteå is also well placed for jaunts into the Swedish inland, with good bus connections to Arvidsjaur and Arjeplog.

Bonnstan

Skellefteå’s church and church town, known as Bonnstan, are within easy striking distance of the centre: walk west along Nygatan and keep going for about fifteen minutes. An evocative sight, the church town, or kyrkstad here comprises five long rows of weather-beaten log houses, with battered wooden shutters. The houses are protected by law: any renovations, including the installation of electricity, are forbidden, making this the most genuine example of all Sweden’s church towns. You can take a look inside, but bear in mind that these are privately owned summer houses today.

Landskyrka

Next to the cottages is the landskyrka, a proud white Neoclassical church which so enthused Leopold von Buch, a traveller who visited here in the nineteenth century, that he was moved to describe it as “the largest and most beautiful building in the entire north of Sweden, rising like a Palmyra’s temple out of the desert”. Its domed roof is supported by four mighty pillars along each of the walls; inside, there’s an outstanding series of medieval sculptures. Look out too for the 800-year-old Virgin of Skellefteå, a walnut woodcarving immediately behind the altar on the right – it’s one of the few remaining Romanesque images of the Virgin in the world.

Kyrkholmen

Near the church, on the Skellefte River, the islet of Kyrkholmen, reached by a small wooden bridge, is a pretty place to sit and while away an hour or two. It’s home to an outdoor café that specializes in waffles with cloudberry jam (open mid-June to mid-Aug).

Lejonströmsbron

From the church you have two walking routes back to the centre: either follow Strandpromenaden along the river’s northern bank, interrupted by barbecue sites and grassy stretches; or cross Lejonströmsbron, one of the oldest and longest wooden bridges in Sweden, beneath the hill where the church stands. Dating from 1737, the bridge was the scene of mass slaughter when Russian and Swedish forces clashed there during the marvellously named War of the Hats, which started in 1741. Once on the south side of the river, you can stroll back to Parksbron, past the occasional boat and silent fisherman.

Sweden’s church towns

After the break with the Catholic Church in 1527, the Swedish clergy were determined to teach their parishioners the Lutheran fundamentals, with the result that, by 1681, church services had become compulsory. There was one problem with this requirement, though – the population in the north was spread over considerable distances, making weekly attendance impossible. The clergy and the parishes agreed a compromise: it was decreed that those living within 10km of the church should attend every Sunday; those between 10km and 20km away, every fortnight; and those 20–30km away, every three weeks. The scheme worked, and within a decade, church towns (kyrkstäder) had appeared throughout the region to provide the travelling faithful with somewhere to spend the night after a day of praying and listening to powerful sermons.

Of the 71 church towns Sweden originally had, only eighteen are left today, predominantly in the provinces of Västerbotten and Norrbotten. Each kyrkstad consists of rows of simple wooden houses grouped tightly around the church. The biggest and most impressive, at Gammelstad near Luleå, is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today, they are no longer used in the traditional way, though people still live in the old houses, especially in summer, and sometimes even rent them out to tourists.

Sweden's church towns

After the break with the Catholic Church in 1527, the Swedish clergy were determined to teach their parishioners the Lutheran fundamentals, with the result that, by 1681, church services had become compulsory. There was one problem with this requirement, though – the population in the north was spread over considerable distances, making weekly attendance impossible. The clergy and the parishes agreed a compromise: it was decreed that those living within 10km of the church should attend every Sunday; those between 10km and 20km away, every fortnight; and those 20–30km away, every three weeks. The scheme worked, and within a decade, church towns (kyrkstäder) had appeared throughout the region to provide the travelling faithful with somewhere to spend the night after a day of praying and listening to powerful sermons.

Of Sweden’s original 71 church towns, only eighteen are left today, found predominantly in the provinces of Västerbotten and Norrbotten. Each kyrkstad consists of rows of simple wooden houses grouped tightly around the church. The biggest and most impressive, at Gammelstad near Luleå, is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Today, the church towns are no longer used in the traditional way, though people still live in the old houses, especially in summer, and sometimes even rent them out to tourists.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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