I land in Sweden with a few expectations. It will be raining, and probably cold at night. The prices to order a drink or get something to eat will make me choke. I'll be eating pickled herring for lunch and dinner. At least I'd have beautiful women to look at.
That last one turns out to be true sometimes. As for the other assumptions, they all start falling apart as I bike along the seashore in the Halland region in the south while eating great meals full of fresh ingredients. I realize I probably could have used some more pre-trip research.
Most of what was stuck in my head about Sweden came from three pieces of info lodged in recesses of my brain. First there was the Swedish chef on the Muppets, one of the funniest TV characters of all time. Then there was unavoidable Abba, boring into my brain no matter how hard I tried to avoid them. Next was a Swedish exchange student that somehow ended up in my high school in rural nowhere, Virginia. He was in our senior play, which happened to be about a redneck wedding event in rural Appalachia. The accent was second nature to us, but we had to add lines to the script to explain why our cousin talked funny.
Later there were unavoidable Swedish pop bands (I heard Ace of Base in at least 20 countries) and the rowdy drunken Swedes I kept running into during World Cup matches wherever I was in the world every four years. While the Brits still claim the crown of having the most sauced travelers in bars around the world, the Swedes seem to be worthy opponents in the World Cup of Drunken Abandon. I just always assumed it was because they were celebrating beer that cost them the equivalent of one euro instead of six.
Finally, some 25 years after I started traveling, I spent a few days and short summer nights in Stockholm and started to realize there's more to Sweden than my Abba and Ikea stereotypes. A few perceptions already shattered, it was time to head into the countryside, to see it slowly on a bike.
We begin our journey in Tylösand, sleeping with an international pop star. Well, in his hotel anyway. One of Hotel Tylosand's owners is Per Gessle, the founder, guitarist, and principle songwriter of Roxette. Anyone alive in the late 1980s can probably sing along with "Joy Ride," and "Listen to Your Heart."
Music plays a big part of the scene in the summer here, when bands play at the hotel's own amphitheater and Swedes flock to the beach to take advantage of a few months of warmth. I strolled the halls to check out the rock star photo portraits by Terry O'Neill and Elliot Landy. Then as the sun finally started to go down around 10 p.m., I walked at the edge of the surf to see what qualifies as swimming temperature for the locals and felt thankful that my own definition comes from the southeast USA. The topography is more Cape Cod than I had expected though, with big rolling dunes topped with sea grass and a beach that stretched on for miles.
We join up with the Kattegattleden biking trail right outside the hotel in Halmstad. We won't cover the whole thing on this trip as Sweden's first biking route is 370 kilometers long (230 miles). It's nearly all off the roads, on paths that range from dirt to fine gravel to paved. We roll along on hybrid bikes with sturdy tires, past large summer vacation homes. Our guide points out what I've heard a few Swedes in Stockholm grumbling about: the country's egalitarian ethos is showing some cracks as the rich keep getting richer. "It's becoming less taboo to show off your wealth."
I've packed multiple layers, gloves, and a serious performance raincoat for this trip, expecting the worst that Scandinavia could throw at me. Instead I'm riding along with a t-shirt and a sun hat. By the time we arrive at Steninge Hostel for a snack and a mountain bike excursion, I've worked up a sweat even.
We switch our hybrid bikes for mountain bikes supplied by a local tour company and take a spur route through forests and the seaside, the smells of seaweed and the ocean in the air. Expansive views rarely include any people in them, but when we ride over small hills and through boulders in a meadow, we're outnumbered by sheep. Famished by now, we dig into a nice lunch back at Steninge and get more excited by the homemade popsicles that come out after. In this blue and white where even the refrigerators match, we mingle with overnight guests and hear how the male side of the owner couple here, Per Carlsson, has a dubious claim to fame. He's a former national oat porridge making champ.
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