Swedish children grow up enraptured by trolls. Stories handed down the generations feature the big-nosed creatures, roaming from forest dwellings to make mischief in towns.
Could it be that these rascals have scuppered my plans in Smaland, a wild region of southern Sweden? My troll-themed boat trip has been cancelled because a tree fell that morning, blocking the route.
But eventually I arrive at the edge of a forest, where sunbeams break through the canopy to give an other worldly quality to silver cobwebs and birch trees’ creamy bark. A scarlet toadstool shines like a ruby in the moss. A fairy surely will soon fly past.
Swedes have a name for a place like this: ‘Bauer forest’. The artist John Bauer, born in 1882, captured a fantasy world of nature in his paintings for children’s fairy tale books, featuring giants, princesses and trolls. This month marks the centenary of his death. So, I have come to where he was born and died.
Smaland is a land of vast spruce, pine and birch forests, bogs and swamps — including a ‘marsh sea’ called Storre Mosse — around 5,000 lakes.
My first base is the John Bauer Hotel in Jonkoping (pronounced ‘Yon-sherping’), 90 minutes from Gothenburg airport. Exploring its suburbs on the windswept shore of Lake Vattern, Sweden’s second largest lake, I learn that despite their fantasy worlds, Swedes have a deadpan side, too.
‘This city has thousands of free parking spaces,’ my guide informs me. ‘Smalanders are known as the Scotsmen of Scandinavia — we don’t like to pay.’ Free too, is the Jonkopings Lans Museum, where an exhibition is dedicated to the area’s famous illustrator. It features ‘singing’ moose stepping out of the walls.
On November 19, 1918, a boat set off on the lake with John Bauer, his wife Esther, and their two-year old son Bengt. Next day, the only sign of it was a floating toddler’s shoe. The steamer had sunk, along with 24 people on board. Locals have no qualms recounting this tale. But then, Smalanders have never been head-in-the-clouds types.
One of these is Jan, an engineer who quit the rat race to build the Ramoa Adventure Village in the wilderness an hour and a half from the city. Jan explains his masterplan. ‘For Swedes, being in nature is a spiritual experience. So we want people to feel as close to it as possible.’
There’s adventure here, if you want it, with watersports on the lake in summer and ice-skating in winter. But the focus is on connecting with your surroundings.
Accommodation takes different forms. Jan hands some people a map and they head off into the forest to find a hammock between the trees. I opt to stay on a tiny island in the wide Orken lake, alone, in a 2 metre by 2 metre wooden hut.
Jan says: ‘It was built for crayfish parties.’ (A Swedish tradition where everyone dons pointy paper hats to feast on their haul).
The growl of Jan’s speedboat fades, not to return until daylight. I feel a twang of apprehension.
But then, it’s so calm. No mod cons or distractions. No insects singing. The lake is still, with light from the full moon reflected onto it as if it’s rolled out a glittering VIP carpet, just for me. In the morning, seeing mist drift against the sunrise, I remember Jan’s departing words: ‘If you see mist rising from the lake, it means elves have been dancing on it.’
Bauer’s friend believed the artist deep down thought the creatures he painted all truly existed. After my night on this fairytale island, I might be persuaded to agree.
Rooms at the John Bauer Hotel in Jonkoping (johnbauer.se, 0046 36 34 90 00) from £93 B&B. Ramoa Adventure Village (ramoa.se, 0046 70 575 82 20) offers two-person cabins from £59 and the private island from £108 pp per night. BA (ba.com) flies to Gothenburg from £72 return. See visitsweden.com and visitsmaland.se/en.