This year’s vacation trip was a roadtrip into Norrland, the northern part of Sweden. With the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it seemed safer and fairer to the healthcare system to stay in our own country. It was also an opportunity, since I have wanted to and look at some places up north for quite a while now (such as Bodens Fästning and Hemsö Fästning).
For those unfamiliar with Swedish geography, Sweden has traditionally been split into three major parts: Götaland in South, Svealand in the middle, and Norrland in the north. Of those, Norrland covers 55% of area but only holds 12% of population, mostly concentrated along the coast. In many ways, it is the wild west of Sweden, a land of long distances, few people, harsh winters, and exotic locations. I myself was born in Götaland and has lived most of my life in Svealand, but during my student days I knew a lot of students hailing from Norrland, and who made a point out of playing up the exotic and rough aspects of the country. In particular in contrast to the softies from Stockholm and down south…
The cities in Norrland are mostly found along the coast (even though there are several important cities and industries in the inland), and mostly along the mighty rivers. Many of the big cities are called after the rivers, like Umeå alongside Ume River, Luleå alongside Lule River, Piteå, Torneå, etc.
The dominant form of nature where we went is forest, as with most of Sweden. Inland towards Norway, there are some reasonably high mountains, but we did not go in that direction.
The northern parts of Norrland has an indigenous population known as the Sami, who are best known as Reindeer herders. When we got to Jokkmokk, we started to see road signs that added Sami language names for places. At the Arctic circle café in Jokkmokk, they flew the Sami flag. We did see a couple of Reindeer on the road at one time (but missed the chance to photograph them due to technical issues), but we never really went into that part of Norrland for real. The area along the coast is basically Swedish, having been settled from the south.
The distances are longer up in Norrland, and people seem to think nothing about driving long distances to get somewhere interesting. When we visited Storforsen we talked to some people who had come up from Piteå to have a barbeque picnic, a distance of roughly 100km… and thought nothing much about it. Back home, that would count as a rather significant trip.
One thing we did not see that Norrland is infamous for were the mosquitoes. For some reason, we saw barely a single one during the entire week, the one exception being at Skuleberget where we walked through some forest.
We drove some 2500km in total, with Jokkmokk being the furthest north we went. There is still a lot of Lappland left until the northern tip of Sweden from there, but it is already some 1000km from home. Driving south for the same distance would have gotten us to the northern parts of Germany, through Denmark!
It was striking how much longer the days became and how much lighter it was at night as we went north. We made the trip in mid-July, which was far enough after the summer solstice that we missed the midnight sun. Even so, take July 20, when the sun rose at 02:24 and set at 23:04 in Jokkmokk… while it rose at 04:04 and set already at 21:45 in Uppsala. I.e., the day was three hours longer up north, which was clearly noticeable (and nice, since there was no need to drive at night).
We rented a Toyota C-HR (to leave the family car back home with the rest of the family), and it was an interesting acquaintance. It was my first time driving a hybrid, and it is really nice to have that electric motor for low-speed driving and parking. Fantastic as a city car, but not as suited for long haul trips where you mostly use the 1.8-liter gasoline engine to propel the car with a rather high fuel consumption as a result. I cannot understand why Toyota put that kind of stupidly large gasoline engine into the hybrid – a normal small one-liter engine should have provided much better fuel economy for long distance. But then again, the C-HR is not designed to be practical. The body shape might provide good room for two people and some bags, but has no chance of transporting an actual family with luggage for a week (at least not the way we pack, ready for all circumstances).
Places to See
We saw a lot of places during our trip, but far from everything. I have already blogged about Bodens Fästning and Hemsö Fästning, and in the rest of this post I will cover a few additional places worthy of mention.
Högakustenbron spans Ångermanälven, and is a beautiful piece of architecture in a fantastic setting. It is the third longest suspension bridge in Scandinavia, and has been open since 1997. On the northern side there is a hotel, restaurant, visitor center, and playground/park. The hotel was unfortunately sold out when we passed by – the original plan was to stay overnight in a room with a view.
When we visited, the parking lot at the visitor center was absolutely packed. I guess that explained why it was not possible to book a room at the hotel by the bridge, as I had originally hoped to. It is a very popular place.
Note that you can get a view of the bridge from Batteri Havtoudd on Hemsön, especially if you bring a good zoom lens.
Gammelstad Kyrkby is right next to Luleå. It is a well-preserved “Church Town”, a rather unique concept that is found in a few places in Norrland. Very picturesque, and a World Heritage site since 1996.
The church towns in Norrland came into existence during the late 1500s due to the state introducing a legal requirement for all citizens of Sweden to attend church every week… which was not that hard to do in the rather densely populated (relatively speaking) southern parts of the country. The situation was different in Norrland, however. The church at Gammelstad, called Nederluleå church, was initially the parish church for most of Norrland if I understood correctly. This meant that it could take many days just to get to the church, and the attendance rules were moderated so that people only had to come every second or third or fourth week depending on how far away they lived.
This in turn meant that “going to church” turned into a major expedition, and once people arrived at the church, they needed a place to stay for a few days. Thus, the church towns sprang into existence. Over time, more than 500 houses were built in Gammelstad, all of them privately owned. They were put wherever it was convenient, and the whole place entirely lacks any kind of planning. Usually, several families would share a single house, since they came to church in different weeks.
Over time, systems and traditions developed where there would be some weekends when only the unmarried young would gather, and other weekends would be reserved for the older folks. The church and its town was a social center where a lot of people met their spouses.
When the church was originally built, the land was a lot lower than it is today. Since the last ice age ended, the land in northern Sweden raises at a rate of up to 1 cm per year (isostatic uplift). For Gammelstad, that meant that when the church was built in the 1400s, it was situated on an island with excellent water transport access. Indeed, it was the site of the main settlement at the time. However, over the centuries since, it became an inland hill as the land rose and dried up. In the end, the actual city was moved to the current location of Luleå. The name of “Gammelstad” means “Old Town”, indicating this shift to the new settlement some 10 km away.
Storforsen is a waterfall/rapids on the Pite River. It is a fantastic experience to visit – the main waterfall itself is majestic.
The hotel at Storforsen is good, with a decent enough standard and good breakfast. They did want an additional 300 SEK to provide a room facing the river and the fors, which we did not consider worth it. You can walk straight into the Storforsen area from the hotel, which is rather ideal. Definitely recommended.
The “dead fall” (Döda fallet) area just beside the main fors was totally unexpected and a really great place. The water used to run there before humans put up the current walls around the main fors. A little water still flows by, and people use the area as a picnic area, even bathing in some of the natural pools that form among the rocks. There area is well-equipped with walking paths, bridges, and other facilities.
There is a café and museum right next to the dead fall, and during the weekends the parking lot and area is almost overrun with people from surrounding cities (which means from hundreds of kilometers away).
We went all the way up to the Arctic Circle, in Jokkmokk. This is one of many places where you can stop by the circle, but this was just a short distance north of Storforsen. Nothing fancy, just a rest stop by the road, with a rather boring café that also sells some souvenirs.
While we were there, we briefly talked to a man who had biked all the way up from Helsingborg in the south of Sweden. He had only needed some twelve days for the roughly 1600km, but he still had some ways to go before his arranged pickup even further up north! Needless to say, he just stopped for a minute and then biked on!
Following tip from a friend, we stayed one night at Pite Havsbad. This place is like a beach resort at the Mediterranean, but far up north in Sweden. It draws in enormous crowds (in a normal year), to enjoy the beach and the many family-friendly attractions that include a large water land and other indoor facilities in addition to the beach and sea itself.
The sea is very shallow, and you have to walk quite some distance out before it is possible to swim. The water is comparatively warm considering the latitude, and the Baltic sea is not very salty at all this far north. I think this looks like a fantastic place for a vacation if you have small kids – ten years ago, this would have been greatly appreciated by my kids. Today, maybe not so much.
The hotel at Pite Havsbad is OK, but not great. Most people either stay in the cottages or the camping area – which has some rather enormous spaces along the beachfront. Due to Covid-19, their sky bar was closed and the available restaurants were honestly not all that great. I guess most people cook their own food in the cottages or in the camping, in which case the restaurants matter less.
The cities and towns in Norrland are generally younger and smaller than what you find in the south of Sweden, but there is still a lot to see. Sometimes, striking architecture can be found in unexpected surroundings, like the current city hall of Härnösand. Beautiful building from 1790s, built as a high school (gymnasium) but now housing the city administration.
In Luleå harbor, we found most of the Swedish state icebreaker fleet at summer anchor.
During our trip, we stayed six separate hotels, one night each. Some of the hotels were surprisingly full given the situation with fewer foreign tourists. But then again, the hotel capacity in some cities might not be all that great.
The further north, the better the hotels got. Down in Sundsvall and Härnösand, we found a couple of rather cheap hotels. Up north of Umeå, they were generally better with either bigger rooms or cooler design. The coolest hotel was Stora Hotellet Umeå, with an amazing décor and style. The room we got was rather expensive for its size, but still worth it for the sheer experience. Perfect hotel for a weekend away. The breakfast buffet was really good, the best in our entire trip.
The Covid-19 pandemic did not affect our trip all that much. Some museums that would have been fun to see were closed, and guided tours tended to reduce the size of the crowds. There were signs everywhere to be careful to keep your distance, including in some rather comical places like the middle of the forest! Hotel breakfasts were still buffets, but with tape on the floor to instruct guests to queue up in a safe way. And hand sanitizer was everywhere. People were a little more careful around each other and kind danced away a bit.
A more noticeable effect of the pandemic was the absence of foreign tourists. That meant that it was easier for us to book hotels at good rates at a late date compared to a normal year. It is quite possible that many places would have been sold out otherwise.
In particular, during our trip, the Norwegians who make up a lot of the tourist base in northern Sweden were missing. Sweden never closed any borders and anyone from the EU has always been welcome, but Norway itself had a mandatory quarantine for anyone who had visited Sweden… which made it a bit too awkward for most to go to Sweden (even though I do know of Norwegians who did go to Sweden and then just sat out their quarantine at home and considered it worth it). It apparently hit Boden really hard, as people from northern Norway tended to go camping around Boden as it is lot warmer and nicer than where they live…
At Storforsen, they had limited the number of seats in the restaurant and you needed to have had a reservation to use the a-la-carte section. The place most affected by the pandemic must have been Pite Havsbad. They lost the huge crowds of Norwegian camping tourists that normally come, as well as having to cancel or limit the crowd sizes for their concerts and shows. Pite Havsbad also had to limit the number of people in their water park to keep the risks down.