Stretching from just north of Sveg to the border with Lapland, a distance of around 250km, the province of JÄMTLAND is centred around one of Sweden’s greatest lakes, Storsjön, and its associated watercourses and is altogether more pastoral than its wilder and more mountainous neighbour to the south, Härjedalen. It was the plentiful supply of fish from the lake coupled with successful cultivation of the rich lands around its shores that enabled the region’s first settlers to eke out an existence so far north – Stockholm, for example, is 550km to the south. Although the province can trace its history back to the early Iron Age, Jämtland has only been Swedish since 1645, before which it was part of Norway. The people here have a strong sense of regional identity and, in recent years, have even called (albeit rather half-heartedly) for independence from Sweden. Spend any length of time here and you’ll soon encounter the tremendous pride the locals have in their villages, forests and lakes.
Approaching from the south, you'll reach the cross-country skiing centre of Åsarna first. Just beyond here, Hackås is the location for the wildly entertaining Årets Näck competition, which sees a group of naked male fiddle-players compete for the prestigious title. The most enjoyable town in the province is the provincial capital of Östersund, situated on Storsjön lake, whose murky waters reputedly hide Sweden’s own version of the Loch Ness monster. West of Östersund, Åre is Sweden’s most popular ski destination for foreign tourists, whilst nearby Storlien has some great summer hiking right on its doorstep.
The alpine village of Åre, 100km west of Östersund, is Sweden’s most prestigious ski resort, with over forty lifts, 110 ski slopes and guaranteed snow between December and May. In summer, the village is a quiet, likeable haven for ramblers, sandwiched as it is between the Åresjön lake and a range of craggy hills that’s overshadowed by Sweden’s seventh highest peak, the mighty Åreskutan mountain (1420m).
A cable car, the Kabinbanan (125kr return), whisks you from just behind Storlien’s main square up to a viewing platform (1274m) and Stormköket restaurant (open in conncetion with the Kabinbanan's operating times), some way up Åreskutan. From the viewing platform it’ll take you a further thirty minutes to clamber to the summit. Wear sensible shoes and warm clothes, as the low temperatures are intensified by the wind, and it can be decidedly nippy even in summer. From the top the view is stunning – on a clear day you can see over to the border with Norway and a good way back to Östersund. There’s a tiny wooden café, Toppstugan, at the summit (open in connection with the Kabinbanan's operating times), serving coffee and extortionately priced sandwiches. If you're walking back to Åre, bear in mind that even the shortest route requires stamina; other, longer, paths lead more circuitously back down to the village. One word of warning: there are phenomenal numbers of mosquitoes and other insects up here in July and August, so make sure you are protected by repellent.
In the centre of town, Åre Gamla kyrka (use the key hanging on a hook outside the door to get in), just above the campsite, is a marvellous thirteenth-century stone church: inside, the simple blue decoration and the smell of burning candles create a peaceful ambience.
A network of tracks crisscrosses the hills around Åre; ask the tourist office for the excellent Hikebike.se and Sommarguiden booklets, which will tell you all you need to know. A popular hiking route south of nearby Storlien is the Jämttriangle, which takes in fantastic wilderness scenery close to the Norwegian border and involves overnight stays in STF mountain lodges, at Sylarna (t 0647 722 00, w svenskaturistforeningen.se/anlaggningar/stf-sylarna-fjallstation; doubles 550kr), Blåhammaren (t 0647 722 00, w svenskaturistforeningen.se/anlaggningar/stf-blahammaren-fjallstation; doubles 850kr) and Storulvån (t 0647 722 00, w svenskaturistforeningen.se/anlaggningar/stf-storulvan-fjallstation; doubles 550kr).
The mountains around Åre are also as good a place as any to go mountain biking; the tourist office can help sort out a bike for you and has information about a series of trails, known collectively as Åre Bike Park. In July, the Åre Bike Festival (Warebikefestival.com), a four-day competition, takes place here.
Heading west from Östersund, the E14 and the train line follow the course trudged by medieval pilgrims on their way to Nidaros (now Trondheim in Norway) over the border, a twisting route that threads its way through sharp-edged mountains rising high above a bevy of fast-flowing streams and deep, cold lakes. Time and again, the eastern Vikings assembled their armies beside the holy Storsjön lake to begin the long march west, most famously in 1030, when King Olaf of Norway collected his mercenaries for the campaign that led to his death at the Battle of Stiklestad.
Today, although the scenery is splendid, the only real attractions en route are the winter skiing and summer walking centres of Åre and Storlien.
One of the most intriguing and quintessentially Swedish events you’ll witness takes place in Hackås, just 35km north of Åsarna, on the second Thursday in July. The Årets Näck competition (w hackas.se) features a succession of naked male fiddle players, who compete for the prestigious title by sitting in the unflatteringly chilly waters of the local river to play their instruments. The roots of this eye-opening spectacle of public nudity are to be found in the mists of Swedish folklore where the näck, a long-haired, bearded, naked water sprite, would sit by a river rapid or waterfall and play his fiddle so hauntingly that women and children from miles around would be lured to him, only to drown in his watery home. The event begins around 9pm on the island of Gaveriholmen near Strömbacka mill; Hackås is on the Inlandsbanan and is served by buses to and from Östersund.
Sitting gracefully on the eastern shore of the mighty Storsjön (Great Lake) about halfway up Sweden, ÖSTERSUND is the only large town along the Inlandsbanan (until Gällivare inside the Arctic Circle, another 750km further north), and is well worth a stop. Östersund’s lakeside position lends it a seaside-holiday atmosphere, unusual this far inland, and it’s an instantly likeable place. In addition to the youthful buzz about town, there’s an air of commercialism here, too (lacking in most other inland towns), since Östersund is also a centre for the engineering and electronics industries, as well as the Swedish armed forces, who maintain two regiments here. However, it’s for its lake monster, the Storsjöodjuret, that Östersund is perhaps best known.
King Gustav III gave the town its charter two hundred years ago with one thing in mind: to put an end to the lucrative trade that the region’s merchant farmers carried out with neighbouring Norway. Travelling over the mountains, they bartered and sold their goods in Trondheim before returning back to the Storsjön region. Although rival markets in Östersund gradually stemmed the trade, it took another century for the town’s growth to really begin, heralded by the arrival of the railway from Sundsvall in 1879.
Most visitors head straight for Östersund’s top attraction, Jamtli, home to the beautiful Överhogdal Viking tapestries and an open-air museum which expertly – and enjoyably – brings to life Östersund from years past.
The museum’s prize exhibits are the awe-inspiring Viking Överhogdal tapestries, crowded with brightly coloured pictures of horses, reindeer, elk and dogs, and different types of dwellings. Dating from the ninth and tenth centuries and woven from flax, most of the tapestries were discovered by accident in an outhouse in 1910. One piece was rescued after being used as a doll’s blanket – rumour has it the child had to be pacified with a 2kr reward to hand it over – and another was being used as a cleaning rag in the local church. Be sure, too, to watch the informative ten-minute slideshow explaining the tapestries’ history and their likely significance.
The Great Lake Monster exhibition
The museum is the place to get to grips with Östersund’s monster. Ask to see the fascinating film (with English subtitles) about the creature, which contains a series of telling interviews with local people who claim to have seen it; one very Swedish thing leaps out at you – having witnessed something unusual out on the lake, many people took several months, even years, to talk about their experience for fear of ridicule. Having seen the film, head downstairs for a further display of monster-catching gear, alongside what’s claimed to be a pickled embryo of a similar monster found in the lake in 1895; this quite grotesque thing is kept in a small glass jar on a shelf next to the foot of the stairs.
The open-air museum
The open-air museum on the same site is full of people milling around in nineteenth-century costume, farming and milking much as their ancestors did. Everyone else is encouraged to join in – baking, tree felling, grass cutting and so on. The place is ideal for children, and adults would have to be pretty hard-bitten not to enjoy the enthusiastic atmosphere. Intensive work has been done on getting the settings right: the restored and working interiors are authentically gloomy and dirty, and the local store, Lanthandel, among the wooden buildings around the square near the entrance, is suitably old-fashioned. In the woodman’s cottage (presided over by a bearded lumberjack, who makes pancakes for the visitors), shoeless and scruffy youngsters snooze contentedly in the wooden cots. Beyond the first cluster of houses is a reconstructed farm, Lillhärdal, where life goes on pretty much as it did in 1785, when the land was ploughed using horses, and crops were sown and harvested by hand – even the roaming cattle and the crop varieties are appropriate to the period.
Take the footbridge across the lake from Badhusparken, or the road bridge a little further north, and you’ll come to the island of Frösön. People have lived here since prehistoric times; the name comes from the original Viking settlement, which was associated with the pagan god of fertility, Frö. There’s plenty of good walking on the island, as well as a couple of historical sights. Just over the bridges, in front of the red-brick offices, look for the eleventh-century rune stone telling of Austmaður (“East Man”), son of Guðfast, the first Christian missionary to the area. From here, you can clamber up the nearby hill of Öneberget to the fourth-century settlement of Mjälleborgen, where a pleasant walking trail of around 4km leads through the area.
The people of Östersund are in no doubt: Storsjöodjuret is out there, in their lake. Eyewitness accounts – there are hundreds of people who claim to have seen it – speak of a creature with a head like a dog, long pointed ears and bulging eyes, that sweeps gracefully through the water, sometimes making a hissing or clucking sound, often several hundred metres away from the shore; each summer sees new reports of sightings. Although several explanations have been given that dispel the myth – a floating tree trunk, a row of swimming elk, the wake from a passing boat, a series of rising water bubbles – the monster’s existence is taken so seriously that a protection order has now been slapped on it, using the provisions of paragraph fourteen of Sweden’s Nature Conservation Act. For most people, though, the monster will be at its most tangible not in the lake, but on the web (w jamtland.se).
In 1894, the hunt for this sinister presence began in earnest, when King Oscar II founded a special organization to try to catch it. Norwegian whalers were hired to do so, but the rather unorthodox methods they chose proved unsuccessful: a dead pig gripped in a metal clasp was dangled into the water as bait, and large, specially manufactured pincers were on hand to grip the creature and pull it ashore. Their tackle is on display at Jamtli, together with photographs that claim to be of the creature.
If you fancy a bit of monster-spotting, consider taking a steamboat cruise on the lake on board S/S Thomée, a creaking 1875 wooden steamship. When we researched this edition the boat was undergoing renovation work; check w visitostersund for the latest details – generally, the boat runs a two-hour trip round the lake leaving from the harbour in town as well as tours out to the island of Verkön, where there’s a nineteenth-century castle.