A sizeable province, DALARNA takes in not only the area around Lake Siljan but also the ski resorts of Sälen and Idre, close to the Norwegian border. The area holds a special misty-eyed place in the Swedish psyche and should certainly be seen, although not to the exclusion of places further north. Tiny countryside villages and rolling meadows sweet with the smell of summer flowers make up most of Dalarna, a rural idyll given a handsome backdrop by the land to the northwest of Lake Siljan, which rises slowly to meet the chain of mountains that forms the border with Norway. One small lakeside town can look pretty much like another, so if time is short, restrict yourself to visiting just one or two: Leksand and Mora are the best options, and the latter is also the starting point for Sweden’s most beautiful train journey, along the Inlandsbanan to the Arctic Circle.
North of Mora, the province becomes more mountainous and less populous, the only place of note here being Orsa, with its fascinating bear park. There’s no need to worry about accommodation in the province: you’ll find numerous hotels, hostels and campsites around.
Things have changed since Baedeker, writing in 1889, observed that “Lake Siljan owes much of its interest to the inhabitants of its banks, who have preserved many of their primitive characteristics. In their idea of cleanliness they are somewhat behind the age.” Today it’s not the people who draw your attention but the setting. Lake Siljan, created millions of years ago when a meteorite crashed into the earth, is what many people come to Sweden for, its gently rolling surroundings, traditions and local handicrafts weaving a subtle spell on the visitor. There’s a lush feel to much of the region, the charm of the forest heightened by its proximity to the lake, all of which adds a pleasing dimension to the low-profile towns and villages that interrupt the rural scenery. Only Mora stands out as being bigger and busier, with the hustle and bustle of holiday-makers and countless caravans crowding the place in summer.
Perhaps the most traditional of the Dalarna villages is LEKSAND, about 50km northwest of Falun. There's little to do here other than take it easy, but it's certainly worth making the effort to reach at midsummer, when it stages festivals recalling age-old dances performed around the maypole (Sweden’s maypoles are erected in June – in May the trees here are still bare and the ground can be covered with snow), and featuring kyrkbåtar boat races.
If you believe the tourist blurb, then TÄLLBERG, all lakeside log cabins amid rolling hills, is Dalarna. Situated on a promontory in the lake 10km north of Leksand, this folksy hillside village, whose wooden cottages are draped with flowers in summer, first became famous in 1850 when the Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen paid it a visit; on his return to Copenhagen, he wrote that everyone should experience Tällberg’s peace and tranquillity, and marvel at its wonderful lake views. Ever since, hordes of tourists have flooded into the tiny village to see what all the fuss was about – prepare yourself for the crowds that unfortunately take the shine off what is otherwise quite a pretty little place. Tällberg today is also a prime destination for wealthy middle-aged Swedes, who come to enjoy the good life for a few days, savour the delicious food dished up by the village’s hotels, and admire the fantastic views out over Lake Siljan. To escape the crowds, walk down the steep hill of Sjögattu, past the campsite, to the calm lapping water of the lake and a small sandy beach; keep going through the trees to find a couple of more secluded spots.
At the northwestern corner of the lake, 60km from Leksand, MORA is the best place to head for hereabouts. An appealing, laidback town, its main draws are two excellent museums, one dedicated to the painter Anders Zorn, and the other to the Vasaloppet ski race. It's also handy for onward trains on the Inlandsbanan and for moving on to the ski resorts of Idre and Sälen.
No matter where you travel in Sweden, you’ll come across small wooden figurines known as Dala horses (dalahästar). Their bright red colour, stumpy legs and garish floral decorations are, for many foreigners, high kitsch and rather ugly; the Swedes, however, adore bright colours (the redder the better) and love the little horses – it’s virtually an unwritten rule that every household in the country should have a couple on display. Two brothers from the town of Nusnäs, Nils and Jannes Olsson, began carving the horses in the family baking shed in 1928, when they were just teenagers. Though they were simply interested in selling their work to help their cash-strapped parents make ends meet, somehow the wooden horses started catching on – Swedes are at a loss to explain why – and soon they were appearing across the country as a symbol of rural life.
Stretching over 1000km from Mora to Gällivare, north of the Arctic Circle, the privately operated Inlandsbanan, the Inland Railway, is a great way of travelling off the beaten track through central and northern Sweden; onboard guides provide commentaries and information about places along the route to ensure you get the most out of the journey. State-owned until 1992, it’s now run as a private venture, supported by the fifteen municipalities that the route passes through.
Trains run on the Inlandsbanan for a few months in the summer, generally between late June and late August, though the exact operating season varies year to year, so check the latest timetable at winlandsbanan.se. To give an idea of prices, Mora–Östersund is 600kr, a seat reservation is an extra 50kr and a bike costs 100kr; InterRail cards are valid. Timetables are only approximate, and the train will stop whenever the driver feels like it – perhaps for a spot of wild-strawberry picking or to watch a beaver damming a stream. Generally there’s one daily train north from Mora at around 2.45pm, with a connecting train running from Gothenburg via Kristinehamn (the original starting point of the line) from July to mid-August. Done in one go, the journey from Mora to Gällivare lasts two days, with an overnight stop in Östersund. It’s a much better idea, though, to take it at a more relaxed pace, with a couple of stops along the route (you can break your journey as many times as you like on one ticket).
If you’re planning using the Inlandsbanan a lot, consider investing in the Inland Railway Card (Inlandsbanekort; 1995kr), which gives unlimited travel for two weeks.
Should you be around during the first week or so of July, don’t miss Musik vid Siljan, nine days of musical performances in lakeside churches, the stunning former limestone quarry, Dalhalla, and at various locations out in the surrounding forest. The range of music covered is exceptionally wide, including chamber music, jazz, traditional folk songs and dance-band music, with proceedings starting in the early morning and carrying on until late evening every day. Full details at w musikvidsiljan.se.
Dalarna’s midsummer celebrations are the most famous in Sweden, and culminate in the church boat (kyrkbåtar) races, a waterborne procession of sleek wooden longboats, which the locals once rowed to church on Sundays. The races start on Midsummer’s Day in Siljansnäs – take the roughly hourly bus #84 from Leksand – and continue for ten days at different locations around the lake; the races hit Leksand on the first Saturday in July. Leksand’s tourist office will have details of the arrangements for each summer’s races.
As you travel around Sweden, you can’t help but notice that virtually every timber structure is painted deep red. Many outsiders mistakenly see this lack of individuality and expression as stifling social democractic conformity. It is actually more a question of practicality combined with age-old tradition. In a climate as severe as Sweden’s, wood needs special protection from the elements: the red paint used for generations on structures across the country, produced in Falun, contains a natural copper preservative. Known as Falu rödfärg, this paint is Sweden’s aesthetically more pleasing answer to pebbledash.