The county of Värmland in western Sweden, situated only two hours from Oslo airport in Norway, is surprisingly easily reached from the UK, yet still this scenic part of the world remains little known to the British public. The Dutch and Germans have long been in on the secret and in recent years Brits have finally also started discovering this Swedish haven, where elk outnumber people and the great outdoors is never far away.
Where is Värmland?
Värmland is wedged between giant Lake Vänern, the third largest in Europe, and a long stretch of the Norwegian border. With just over 300,000 people spread across over 7000 square miles, over-crowding is hardly an issue here. The main town, Karlstad, sits pretty right on Lake Vänern and most other settlements are situated in lakeside locations. Although there are plenty of picturesque towns to explore, this is mostly the land of lakes and forests, with the odd field, river and hill thrown in. The county is well-known for its creativity, both as a centre for handicrafts and as the home of many writers, poets and artists, past and present.
How to get there
Most visitors fly to Oslo (Gothenburg is another, slightly further, option), rent a car or hop on the convenient train – the Oslo-Stockholm line runs right through Värmland, making a number of stops. Whether arriving by car or train, Western Värmland, will be the first place you reach. Just half an hour across the border, the small town of Arvika, situated on Lake Glafsfjorden, is a good place to use as a base for a few days, while exploring the area.
Arvika, a Western Värmland gem
Arvika is worth a visit for its pleasant location, open-air museum and good quality shopping, as well as many interesting sights in the surrounding area. An old market town, its main square is converted into a lively market every Wednesday and Saturday morning. It’s also a long-standing arts and crafts centre with the oldest handicraft shop in Sweden, dating back to 1922 (www.arvikakonsthantverk.nu). If visiting in July, try to coincide with the week-long Gammelvala festival, (20th-27th July in 2013, www.gammelvala.se), which celebrates craftsmanship from days gone by. An entire village is set up at Skutboudden Peninsula outside Arvika and you can watch charcoal burning, spinning, weaving and many other traditional crafts from the area. The opening ceremony usually has the participants arrive at the village from across the lake in a replica Viking ship – a bit kitsch, but lots of fun for the whole family.
The art of linen
On the outskirts of Arvika lies one of Sweden’s best art museums, the Rackstad Museum, dedicated to the art colony known as the Racken Group, that settled here at the end of the 19th century. The light, airy building, opened in 1993, holds temporary, as well as permanent, exhibitions and one of the old artist’s cottages is open to the public. This is not the only place of renown near Arvika either – some 15 miles southeast, at Klässbol, lies the old-fashioned linen mill that weaves all the table linen for the Noble prize dinners, the Swedish Royal family and all of Sweden and Norway’s embassies (www.klassbols.se). It’s possible to take a tour of the linen factory to see how the famous products are created, find out about the history of the mill, now nearing its 100th anniversary and of course visit the shop to take some excellent quality linen home.
The great outdoors
Värmland has a great combination of nature and culture – there are enough interesting museums and art galleries to keep you occupied indoors should the weather get grotty and an abundance of outdoor activities for sunny summer days. The lakes tend to warm up quite nicely in July and August, making them ideal for a refreshing swim (or a quick dip if you’re used to the Med) and with Sweden’s right to roam laws, camping is allowed in nature without a permit, provided you’re not staying more than a couple of nights at a time and you respect privately owned land. Canoeing on the many lakes and waterways is a peaceful and pleasant way to get around and canoes can easily be rented in most of the towns with a lakeside location or at council-run bathing spots. Renting a bike is another popular and usually reasonably priced option, while hikers will find the nature reserve of Glaskogen (www.glaskogen.se), south of Arvika across Lake Glafsfjorden, a very good option. Almost 200 miles of hiking trails spread across a wilderness area where you’re pretty much guaranteed to see elk. Even the elusive lynx has been spotted here.
Pilgrims and writers
Hiking is quite an ancient pursuit in this part of Sweden – several old pilgrims’ routes up to Nidaros cathedral in Trondheim, Norway, run right through Värmland. The routes have been in use since medieval times and are slowly being regenerated and opened up as modern hiking trails, through some of the most scenic parts of the county. The one starting at Hammarö, near Karlstad, was officially re-inaugurated in 2012 and the route takes in the river valley of Klarälven river. Not far from here, amidst the beautiful Fryken lakes lies Mårbacka, the former home of Nobel Prize winning author Selma Lagerlöf (www.marbacka.com). This grand manor house, dating from the late 18th century, is open to the public for guided tours, has a pleasant cafe and extensive gardens.
Elk for dinner
Roaming the towns, lakes, forests and picturesque countryside can be thirsty, or even hungry, work. After many years of languishing as a culinary backwater in the wild west of Sweden, Värmland has luckily undergone a bit of a foodie revolution in recent years. One place that’s well worth a visit is Tvällen, an old-fashioned inn, specialising in regional rustic cuisine with an emphasis on game dishes (www.tvallen.com). Getting there is all part of the adventure, because believe you me, this place brings new meaning to “off the beaten track”. Situated on Lake Tvällen, in the deepest forest, close to the Norwegian border, Tvällen is a bit of a trek, but the food is exceptionally tasty and it’s now possible to stay overnight after dinner, rather than undertaking the journey ‘back to civilisation’. Sample the gravad elk, the wild forest mushroom soup, cloudberry chutney, the wild boar with chanterelles or the capercaillie stew, not to mention the wicked-good schnapps to wash things down with. From here it’s not far to Oslo airport for the return journey to the UK.
Reasons to go
Värmland is increasingly up and coming as a destination, particularly in summer, attracting more visitors from further afield, drawn by its pleasant mix of natural and cultural sights, unique shopping opportunities and good quality regional cuisine. There is plenty of history, some of it very much alive, at festivals such as Gammelvala, English is widely spoken, it’s safe, family-friendly and with several low-cost carriers flying to Oslo, it’s cheaper to get to than ever before.
Norwegian, British Airways and Ryanair all fly to from the UK to Oslo.
Where to stay
Hotel Oscar Statt, www.oscarstatt.se, on Arvika’s pedestrianised high street is a good option. Excellent restaurant, pleasant bar and a spa.
Hillringsbergs Herrgård, www.hillringsbergsherrgard.se, a beautiful manor house on the southern side of Lake Glafsfjorden, is open as a b&b in summer only.
Larstomta b&b, www.larstomta.se, recently renovated rooms, half an hour from Arvika, near Lake Gunnern.
Clarion Hotel Plaza, www.nordicchoicehotels.se, in the heart of Värmland’s main town, Karlstad.