Discovering Sweden Via Its South
Say Sweden and the first thing that comes to mind is frigid winters. For a few months every year though, the snow melts and the frost evaporates, the greys and the blacks metamorphose into striking colours, trees begin to carry leaves again, and the sun remains a constant on the horizon. A remarkable transformation takes place each spring and summer in Sweden. The short-lived, albeit playful, summer hatches an escapist mood, and is much yearned by the Swedes. Tourists travelling to Sweden in the months between June and August would find packed outdoor cafes, streets throbbing with entertaining performers, and well-trimmed stately parks interspersed with picnicking families.
Tourists visiting Sweden for the first time usually gravitate towards Stockholm and to its idyllic archipelago. While Stockholm, with its cobblestoned Gamla Stan, royal palace, museums (Nobel and Abba, for instance), and an abundance of blue waters surrounding its city islands is a safe bet to experience the allure of Sweden, it’s the less visited, low profile southernmost part of country — called Skåne region — that has a wider spread of Nordic charms to offer to its visitors.
Skåne — Scania in English — is Sweden at its most continental, a gentle reminder of what’s to come further south in central Europe. It covers 3% of Sweden’s entire area but 13% of the country’s population lives in this region. Its counties are separated by sweeping stretches of land, full of blooming yellow rapeseed flowers in summer. Elsewhere, it is marked with untarnished white sandy coastlines, and numerous trails that snake through the forests. Skåne provides alternating, at times contrasting, views of Sweden from what one gets to see in the capital. It’s not a weekend destination to be browsed in a rush, but rather meant to be savoured piecemeal over a few days at least, if not a few weeks.
For those keen on art and culture, and city-life, Skåne has a substantial number of museums, art galleries, nightlife options and other cultural spots.
The most important city of Skåne is its capital Malmö. Malmö, together with the rest of Skåne, once was a part of Denmark. That was before it was ceded to Sweden in a long-drawn war that went on from 1675 to 1679. Today Malmö is better known as the home of one of the best football clubs in Sweden, Malmö FF, which gave the platform to Sweden’s megastar Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Coupled to the Danish capital, Copenhagen, through the partially underwater Öresund Bridge, Malmö has seen an economic boom which led to its transformation from an old industrial town into a knowledge driven economy.
Malmö is popular for its cosmopolitan nightlife, daytime cafes serving artisan brews, and the Turning Torso that dominates its skyline. One of the best ways to study Malmö is to walk across it, an activity that could take up to half a day, while giving perspectives into the layered society that Malmö has become with parallel, albeit contrasting, diffusion of new wealth and influx of poor immigrants. A suitable place to start such a walking tour is Malmö’s Western Harbour, which overlooks the Öresund Bridge while yachts shilly-shally in the cold waters of the Baltic Sea touching it. The rich of Malmö live here, evident in the expensive residential buildings that span across its promenade alongside the 190 feet tall Turning Torso, the tallest building in Scandinavia.
From Western Harbour, one can walk alongside the moat-ringed Renaissance castle of Malmöhus, into the elegant spread-out parks, Slottsparken and Kungsparken, before heading to the medieval centre of the city, Gamla Väster. Gamla Väster now houses several art boutiques and is a fine place to experience the aesthetic side of Malmö. In the gingerbread houses of Gamla Väster is where the middle-class of Sweden can be found. A 10 minute-walk further towards the outer periphery of the city leads to the poorer immigrant quarters of the city. Sweden has an open immigration policy, but the huge intake of immigrants has resulted in ghettoisation of some parts of its cities, despite the considerable efforts towards integration. Malmö, in many ways, is like a spread-out open-air museum, offering glimpses into its many societies, co-existing alongside one another.
Lund is yet another important city in Skåne. This second oldest city of Sweden, is marked by an impressive cathedral, called Domkyrkan. Domkyrkan was constructed in 1100 AD and saw a visit by the Pope in 2016 when Catholics and Lutherans together commemorated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Lund in also a university town. Its university is not only the oldest in Sweden, but also a continuous churning pot of innovations including the first artificial kidney, ultrasound, and Bluetooth. No wonder that some of the world’s leading technology companies, including Sony and Ericsson, have set up offices in walking distances of the prestigious university. With its old buildings, photogenic cobblestone streets and youthful vibe, thanks to a huge student population, Lund provides an excellent base to spend a couple of days in Skåne.
While Malmö as well as Lund provide both a mix of history and city-life, Skåne is scattered with several smaller towns that offer a peek into life in the Swedish countryside. Standout mentions in this regard are the towns of Båstad and Torekov, both located further North from Malmö along the West coast. In terms of architecture, there may not be much to see in these towns, except rustic halcyon villas with unobstructed views into the ocean. Life in these towns moves at a calm pace and a day or two here is a fantastic opportunity to slow down, eat lengthy meals with a glass of locally made gin, and go for a dip in the ocean. Perhaps that’s why famous Hollywood actors and soccer players also find their way here during the summer months.
For nature lovers, Skåne is a playground with plenty of activities to choose from – hiking, kayaking, diving, fishing, camping, biking, and even horseback riding. Thick deciduous forests carpet the whole region, while several lakes punctuate it, opening opportunities for both day trips and longer-duration hikes. To top it, the Swedish law of Allemansrätten (the freedom to roam) allows anyone to camp in an open area, including a private farmland, for a night, making it easier for the trekkers to access the nature in its rawest form.
While paddling in the canals of Malmö is popular with the locals, the county of Blekinge, on the East coast of Skåne, provides an ideal platform for plotting a kayaking trip across its archipelago. "Blekinge" comes from the Swedish word bleke, which roughly translates into “calm". Sprinkled with pine trees, some of its islands are uninhabited, while others have few rustic wooden cottages painted in the Swedish flag’s yellow-blue, or more common red-whites. The waters are calm and ideal for long cruises between the islands. Some of the islands have stunted rocks, which are pre-fitted with nuts and bolts to enable practicing of basic rock-climbing skills.
For a more intensive experience of rock-climbing and trekking, Kullaberg Nature Reserve on the Eastern peninsula in Hoganas county, is ideal. Its bony rugged cliffs, and steep precipices are preferred by rock climbers, and there are several opportunities available for the first timers to take training lessons here. More recently, Kullaberg got a bicycle trail — ”The Kattegatt Trail” — that covers a long route of roughly 370 kilometres. Kullaberg is also ideal for spotting some Swedish wildlife, including foxes and elusive red deer. The trails here are well-marked, and the staff at the visitor center, which is located conveniently at the base of the excursion, is helpful and can suggest good hiking routes in this region.
The most interesting highlight of Skåne is its Skåneleden trail. At 1000 kilometres, it’s an unbelievingly long trail that burrows into beech forests, curves alongside lakes, circumvents towns, and runs parallel to the rapeseed fields and the coasts of this region. This trail has a cult status among the walkers and hikers in Sweden, and is rarely covered in one summer. Those who course it, do it in smaller bits and over several years. Skåneleden consists of five separate trails, which are further divided into 89 sections. The entire trail is marked with clearly visible orange signs, and there is little chance of someone getting lost. For those interested in doing only one section of Skåneleden, the 70 kilometre long Kullaleden trail is recommended. It has been certified by the European Ramblers Association as one of the best hiking trails in Europe. The whole trail route has campsite options, and the best part is that access to these facilities is free.
Skåne also has 400 kilometres of coastline, dotted with some untouched beaches. The bathing season is not long and usually lasts for the months between May and July. The temperature in these months could be in high twenties. The popular city beaches include the unspoilt beach at Ribersborg in Malmö and the beach in the city of Helsingborg. In Ribersborg, one can go to Kallbadhus (cold bath house), which is a traditional Swedish sauna with open air swimming in the waters of the Baltic. In Helsingborg, the beach overlooks the Danish coastline. On the East coast, the town of Ystad has a white sand beach, and a luxurious spa hotel to complement it. The exceedingly shallow waters of Lomma beach, in Bjarred county on the West coast, makes it a favourite for families with young children.
Then there is the delightful little island of Ven, which like the rest of Skåne, comes with a split personality given shared histories with both Denmark and Sweden. Ven is called Hven by the Danes, and people come to this island off the West coast to indulge in its good food and rich wines, to ride around on tandem bikes, and to do kite-surfing. In summer, regular ferries run from the city of Landskrona to Ven. Though not many people live on the island, less than 500, it’s a top draw when it comes to owning a summer house. A solitary trail curves around the island, running parallel to the coast, along which the sea-facing villas queue up like chocolate squares lined next to one another. Far off in the blue water, expensive yachts of all shapes and sizes lay scattered in relaxed informality, like thousand pieces of broken china littered on the floor. Complains disappear in Ven, and the life seems alright, at least for the while spent here.
The food landscape in Skåne is carved out of locally produced and sustainably sourced ingredients. Lately, Nordic cuisine has gained fame, thanks to the world-famous Danish restaurant, Noma. This cuisine, also central to Skåne, is defined by slow food, prepared with simplicity and freshness. While there are many fine dining restaurants, one of the best places to taste local fare are the food markets —called saluhalls — of Malmö, Höganäs and Lund. These food markets are lined with several kiosks serving local street food. Malmö’s saluhall is converted from an old warehouse, and is lined up with farm shops selling fresh juices, jams and ciders, along with organic cheese, fish, and vegetables, while Lund’s is perfect for trying some local cheese. It’s difficult to go wrong with food in Skåne, even for vegetarians.
Skåne has a considerable immigrant population and its influence is visible in the food as well. Malmö arguably is the falafel capital of Europe and several kiosks serve this much beloved snack. It’s an affordable meal, easily available on the streets, and perhaps that explains its popularity. Swedes love their coffee and Skåne is also home to some of the best artisanal cafes in Sweden. That’s a good reason to take a Swedish coffee break, called fika. Some of these popular cafes are Lilla Kafferorsteriet and Solde in Malmö, Java and St. Jakobs in Lund, and Flickorna Lundgren in Kullaberg.
While Skåne is the birthplace of Absolute Vodka (from the small village of Åhus in the East) and Spirit of Hven Gin (organic gin, distilled in the island of Ven), and Akvavit has long history here, it is now slowly gaining fame for its micro-breweries also. Popular ones include Helsingborg’s Bryggeri, and Stockeboda Brewery, which is located in the pleasing Österlen region on the East coast. Many of the breweries arrange guided tours and beer tastings on a regular basis.
Skåne has a rich variety on offer, and what makes it notable for visitors are the short distances between the places. This not only makes the region accessible (more so given its proximity to the Copenhagen airport) but also allows to accumulate multiple experiences even in short stays. Skåne is slowly being discovered. Its sights and landscape, art and culture, food and drinks all fuse together into an education into the Swedish way of life - one defined by gentle pace, slow food and deep history.
A version of this story appeared in Outlook Traveller