Rural Sweden: Glass, Castles, and Minnesotans

Mighty Kalmar Castle has kept watch over its harbor town since the 12th century.
By Rick Steves

You can't see only Stockholm and say you've seen Sweden. Go south to visit Kalmar and Växjö to get the best possible dose of small-town and rural Sweden. The surrounding province, Småland, is famous for its forests, lakes, great glass, and the many immigrants it sent to the United States.

A six-hour train ride south of Stockholm, historic, coastal Kalmar has a rare Old World ambience and the most magnificent medieval castle in Scandinavia. In its day, Kalmar was called "the gateway to Sweden" — back when the Sweden/Denmark border was just a few miles to the south.

History students remember Kalmar as the place where the treaty establishing the Kalmar Union was signed. This 1397 "three crowns" treaty united Norway, Sweden, and Denmark and created a huge kingdom — impressive for its day, as most of Europe was fragmented and bickering. Today Kalmar is just a sleepy has-been: a gateway only to the holiday island of Öland.

Kalmar's moated castle is one of Europe's great medieval experiences. The stark exterior, cuddled by a lush park, houses a fine Renaissance palace interior. You'll walk up steps made of Catholic gravestones into faded but grand halls alive with Swedish history. As was necessary in the relatively poor north, the fine architectural details were mostly painted onto the walls. The elaborately furnished rooms are entertainingly explained in English. Check out the eerie exhibit on the women's prison.

From Kalmar, cross one of Europe's longest bridges to hike through Stonehenge-type mysteries on the island of Öland. A 60-mile automobile tour of the island's southern tip takes you by Gettlinge Gravfalt, a boat-shaped, Iron Age graveyard littered with monoliths and overseen by a couple of creaky old windmills.

Farther south is the Eketorp Prehistoric Fort, a very reconstructed fifth-century stone fort that, as Iron Age forts go, is fairly interesting. Several evocative huts and buildings are filled with what someone imagines may have been household items back then, and the huge rock fort is surrounded by strange, runty, piglike creatures — common in gardens 1,500 years ago. A sign lettered with Iron Age humor reads: "For your convenience and pleasure, don't leave your children alone with the animals."

An hour's drive inland, the pleasant, plain town of Växjö squats in the center of Småland. More Americans came from this area than any other part of Scandinavia. An emigration festival, held for three days around the second Sunday in August, is a real hoot, as thousands of Minnesotans storm Växjö.

Connecting Växjö and Kalmar is Glass Country, a 70-mile stretch of forest sparkling with glassworks. Frankly, these glassworks would hardly raise a rattle elsewhere, but they gleam in Sweden's calm countryside air.

Of the several renowned glassworks in the area, Kosta is the oldest, dating back to 1742. Set up to appease the masses, it offers tours, daily glassblowing action, easy shipping, and nearly perfect crystal seconds at shattering discounts. The tiny Transjö Glashytta offers a much different experience — expensive but fine art pieces created on an old converted farm. Orrefors was once a glassworks with its own proud history, but is now part of the Kosta empire and plays second fiddle to the flagship brand. While Kosta does more of the handmade pieces, Orrefors focuses more on machine-made mass production.