Sweden: “It’s very good to go, and see the world with your own eyes”

Sweden: “It’s very good to go, and see the world with your own eyes”

What do apple trees, skinny dipping, wild mushrooms, berry picking, cinnamon roll fika and Volvos have in common? We cycle through the largest country in Scandinavia, through deserted forests, but also over countless golf courses (every village has one?!). We will swap our cycling gear for painters’ overalls as we will be painting the typical red and white wooden houses!

A few more kilometres in Norway

After a few days with the family in Oslo, we cycle further south. Before we leave the campsite in Oslo we are approached by a couple: “We saw you just before the North Cape!“, by now we are more than 2,000 km south. “Have a good trip“, they call after us. A few minutes later, a woman in the toilet block recognises the Kazakh flag on our bike. She is from there and wants to know all about our experience of cycling in Kazakhstan. We don’t leave the campsite until midday, so we decide not to cycle too far today.

Thirty kilometres further on we stop at a shelter by a river. We see some rowers training fanatically and decide to do a quick oil change on our gearbox. Meanwhile, the sun is setting much earlier as we are now well below the Arctic Circle, and it is not long before we crawl into the shelter and a thick fog appears on the water. Eloy looks at the huts across the water: “They look like Christmas houses with tea lights inside.

Fredrikstad and Roald Amundsen

On the way to Fredrikstad we meet a cyclist. He seems a little lost and asks in a distinctly Dutch accent, “Which way to Fredrikstad?” We reply, “That way!” and he bursts out laughing. It’s Cas, and he’s cycling along for a bit. Or rather with Eloy, because Audrey can no longer keep up with the pace of this almost 2 metre tall Dutchman and Eloy…. After a lunch break together, we part ways and wish each other a safe journey.

Roald Amundsen was born near Fredrikstad in 1872. His name was unknown to us, but in Scandinavia it is truly unthinkable. In fact, he is the famous Norwegian explorer, best known for his expeditions to the polar regions. He was the first person to reach the South Pole on 14 December 1911. His expeditions contributed to the knowledge of the polar regions and navigation in extreme conditions.

Unexpected history lesson: powerful messages from a lost world

We have some trouble finding a remote place to sleep, but at one point we cycle past a farm until we reach some more remote fields. There is a sign with some information. A little further on, there are indeed engraved rocks from the Bronze Age (about 3,000 years ago). There appear to be ships, footprints and circles of unknown meaning carved into the rocks. The footprints may symbolise possession, but could also represent a journey. The words for death and movement are linked in many ancient European languages. For example, deceased people are often described as having ‘gone on a journey’. Images that express movement can therefore be associated with both life and death.

Life at the border

The next morning we get up early because chestnuts are falling hard on the tent. Next time we’ll choose another tree. After exactly 22 kilometres of cycling we reach a petrol station with a special ‘truckers’ area’. We are close to the Norwegian-Swedish border and there are a lot of truckers in the car park, waiting to drive again tomorrow. It is Sunday after all. There is a free shower area, so while the tent is still drying outside we take a quick hot shower. It’s almost a miracle how much good a shower can do.

We continue into Sweden over the old bridge that links the two countries. In the distance we can see the new Svinesund bridge, which is only open to cars. Villages and places just before and after a border are always a bit special. Sometimes they seem deserted and abandoned, and sometimes, on the contrary, there is an incredible amount of life. Today we stand there with our eyes wide open. No houses, but huge hypermarkets and Islamic shops and it is nice and busy. We see many Turkish families, they see the Turkish flag and are only too happy to shout and roll down their car windows to give the thumbs up. Norwegians also come here on Sundays, as Sweden is much cheaper than Norway. Cars with Swedish licence plates are hard to spot. It is an unusual scene, but we cycle on quickly to avoid the crowds.

The bustle of this place is in stark contrast to the deserted forest road we cycle on a few minutes later. For 20 kilometres, we encounter hardly anyone except a few horses. It is only up and down, though. ‘Sorry, I chose the scenic route,’ Audrey says with a smile. Around 8pm it’s dark and we quickly pitch the tent, then warm up yesterday’s leftover food with the head lamps on our heads and crawl into the tent. First night in Sweden!

An abandoned stone ship

It is hard to imagine that centuries ago people could see the sea from here. But there is a stenskippet, or stone ship, near where we spent the night. It probably dates from the Iron Age (around 2000 years ago), when the sea level was higher and this ship overlooked a bay. There are many legends about the Stone Ship. For example, it is said that an important Viking was buried here with his crew, but this remains uncertain.

What we also did not know before was that there are petroglyphs all over the region. Outside Scandinavia, these Bronze Age finds are rare. The petroglyphs in Tanum are all quite close together and have been on the UNESCO World Heritage List since 1994. The largest rock is covered with more than 400 drawings!

Later in the evening we want to sleep in a shelter in the woods near Strömstad, but after desperate attempts to get there we give up. The path is too steep and overgrown with tree roots. We turn right and sleep under the open house of the local trim club. Many runners pass by, some looking surprised, others curious. It is a popular running route and further down the road they have even built a huge gym (in the forest!) with lights and everything. There are pieces of tree trunks to lift and pallets to lift.

Apple trees

It is noticeable that there are many apple trees in Swedish (front) gardens. It is hard to find a house without one. They are also common in parks. They are the most common fruit tree in Sweden and their popularity dates back to Viking times. At that time they were used in many forms, including juice and wine, as well as fresh and dried. Apples (and also potatoes) could be stored and preserved for a long time during the winter. It seems that there are so many apples growing that not everyone manages to eat them. We make grateful use of them and pick a few from the ground every day to eat with oatmeal or to make applesauce.

Off-grid with Angela

The sun has set and we cycle into the evening. Owls start to sing around us and the forest is a little eerie because of the total blackness. The GPS says we are there, but all we see is a dark private road with a barrier in front of it. Then we see a small light shining through the trees and hear Angela shouting a few hundred metres away. She and her boyfriend Jonne live in a small cabin in the woods with no running water. Many remote cabins have a well, but not theirs.

Angela shows how they use rainwater to shower outside, literally between the trees. They also use rainwater to wash their dishes. Their toilet is a compost toilet and they eat lots of vegetables from the garden. Almost everything is homemade and their prototype washing machine, powered by a bicycle, leaves us speechless.

The next morning we had breakfast of toast and cheese. They found the cheese while dumpster diving. Once a fortnight, after the shops have closed, they visit the (storage) bins of the supermarket, only to come to the astonishing conclusion that so much is thrown away in shops that is actually good to eat. As well as the food they can live on, she talks about the hundreds of packets of coffee, candles and markers they have already found. As if these would ever go out of date? Waste is still a huge problem in our consumer society.

During the days we spend with Angela, she shows us the forests around the house and introduces us to mushroom picking. A national pastime in Sweden. She teaches us which ones to avoid. And the favourite of many: the yellow chanterelles. Recently she even found a turquoise mushroom on a piece of old wood – unbelievable that nature can do this! Dinner will be a mushroom tasting.

On the second day, together with a friend of Angela’s, we will paddle her homemade raft to a small island. The island is literally littered with red cranberries. Bizarre! “There are soooo many this year!” they keep saying. Skinny dipping in the lake is also a must. Audrey brings the cinnamon rolls and Angela the thermos of tea. According to them, we are really settled in Sweden now: a dip in the water, fika (see below) and picking berries and mushrooms.

The next day Angela has to go to work early, but she says we can stay. We wash our clothes by boiling rainwater and mixing it with cold water. The same goes for the dishes. Everything goes much more slowly, but also much more deliberately. Then we sorted the buckets of berries, using a sieve to separate the blue from the red. In the evening we make jam together from the slightly bitter red lingonberries. In Sweden it is usually eaten with savoury dishes rather than on bread. Here it is mainly used as a red sauce for Swedish meatballs from IKEA, yay!

It is incredible how much Angela has taught us about living in nature in just a few days. Her life in the forest is a choice and whatever she wants.

Pee break at the church

As in other Scandinavian countries, public toilets are often found in cemeteries, supermarkets and churches. Today we pass the church in Brastads and Eloy has to go to the toilet. This time it is not an excuse for Eloy to take a quick look inside the church, because if it was up to him we would have gone inside every church on this trip…. As soon as he opened the door, Andreas came out. He was just about to leave and close the church, but Eloy was allowed to go to the toilet. While Audrey waits outside, Eloy waves her in a moment later. Here we go again, she thinks. …. Once inside, we take our dripping rain gear and sit down at a table at the back of the church. Every church in Sweden has a kind of coffee room with a table and chairs where people can sit together after the service. Andreas tells us about his life and how he has recently become the church’s regular musician and is still getting used to it, as he used to live in another part of Sweden. He plays the piano and organ during services at this church and a few others nearby. At people’s request, for example at funerals or weddings, but also during the weekly services. Today he had come to practise and to listen to his pieces, but now he has suddenly found himself making coffee and serving chocolate to strangers. He asks curiously about travel safety, where we sleep, why we travelled by bike and what the most difficult trials were.

After more than an hour we are back outside, the rain has stopped. As we leave, he hesitates for a moment and says: “You can also sleep at my place“. As it was getting dark and his house was quite far away, we declined his offer, but thanked him for the conversation, the toilet and the coffee. We are made happy by people who give a piece of themselves, over and over again, and who live in our souls.

Coincidence or a sign from the universe?

We take a couple of ferries and pass through Lysekil. Famous for its rocky coastline and charming traditional wooden houses in all sorts of bright colours. Although the Swedish coast is beautiful, we decide to cycle inland. It is quieter and there are more forests and nature reserves with shelters. Autumn is now in full swing and sometimes the weather can be quite bad with lots of rain and strong winds. So the shelters, in all shapes and sizes, are nice places to spend the night. But there is something else that is fascinating.

Near a shelter in a nature reserve, a Greek-Swedish couple is cooking over a campfire. The Greek asks enthusiastically if we have been to Greece. We admit that we only cycled there for one day, but apparently we passed his home town on that one day. Coincidence? Not much later, when we are cooking our own meal, he comes up to us and offers us a Greek souvlaki. And when they leave later that evening, they leave a bag of marshmallows for us to roast in the dying fire. It is these small gestures that make for good conversation and lift our spirits.

Another day we arrive at a shelter in a remote forest, just in time for hiker Christine to stop by. She is from Sweden, lives nearby and walks here often. She asks if she can sit in the shelter and if we can have lunch together. “This shelter always leads to special stories“, she says. She talks about her life, her recent struggles and how she would love to travel but finds it so exciting to go alone. We talk for over an hour and she concludes that it must have been a sign from the universe that we met. She is inspired to draw her plan.

And another day we emerge from the overgrown bushes, covered in mud, with overweight bikes. It must have been a strange sight for the Germans Hanna and Tim. They are travelling by car and have already pitched their tent in the shelter. Without hesitation they offer us a place in the shelter. Bizarrely, Tim then says he thinks he recognises us, probably from social media. We spend a cosy evening around the campfire, sharing the last of the marshmallows and watching the brilliant night sky above us. There, in that vast sea, a few stars are falling. Coincidence or a sign from the universe? 💫

Storms, golf balls and Gothenburg

On the way to the city of Gothenburg, we notice that we pass through a golf course remarkably often. Every little village seems to have one and the roads run right through them. Here and there we fish a few golf balls out of the bushes along the way and put them somewhere on the course. The wind also picks up enormously during the day. An autumn storm is forecast for the next few days, so we are happy to spend a few days in Gothenburg with friends of Angela’s (who we wrote about earlier in this blog). Angela and Jonne used to live in this cosy apartment, where Karl Marx has a prominent place in the hall.

There are currently 3 students living in the flat. Each has their own room and we get to sleep on a bunk bed in the living room. In between showers, we explore Gothenburg. The city of Volvos and nice neighbourhoods. We drink coffee and have a snack in the café of the old people’s home, among grandma’s furniture, but it turns out to be cosy too.

Further south

After a few days we cycle on. The weather is still a bit stormy, so from time to time we seek shelter. One such place was a pizzeria. When Audrey asked if she could go to the toilet, one of the staff came out. His eyes light up when he sees the Turkish flag hanging. He films the whole thing, asks us where we have been in Turkey and soon the other staff come out too. We are offered coffee and decide to order a pizza for lunch. Eloy writes a thank-you card in big letters: teşekkürler (thank you in Turkish).

At the end of the day we arrive at a kind of recreation area where you can sail to an island on a raft attached to a rope. The German couple we met a few days ago told us there was a shelter on the island. We decide to have a look. Eloy sails us across by turning the handle for 15 minutes. There was nothing there but forest and a shelter. A special place, but we sail back to the shelter on the mainland because we can’t take our bikes.

Endless forests

After a day’s rest in this beautiful shelter, we cycle through the Swedish forests. The extent of nature never ceases to amaze us: almost 70% (28 million hectares) of the country is forest. You can walk for days without meeting a soul. It is also a Walhalla for ticks, deer louse flies and stinging daisies. Every night we check each other for ticks, and every night we find one or more that have decided to join the adventure. Deer louse flies thrive in areas with lots of wildlife, such as elk and deer. They sting and are difficult to remove because their legs stick to everything like Velcro.

As we leave the forest, we pass through a small village with a mini-market. We buy a pack of yoghurt and sit down for a while. A man with his son, both on bicycles, joins us and asks if we need anything. His house is nearby. We indicated that we didn’t need anything, but Eloy asked if he knew where we could get water and where he could go to the toilet. The man points to the unstaffed library. He is happy to let him in with his membership card.

Further on, we duck back into the forest. We are looking for a shelter run by the local church community. Getting there is a challenge, and as Eloy battles mosquitoes, flies and bugs, he drops his bike in frustration. But the view and the sunset make up for it, he says later, grinning.

First experiences with WorkAway

In Sweden, we are trying out the WorkAway platform for the first time, as are our hosts Lotta and Bertil. WorkAway is an international website that brings together people from all over the world for cultural exchange. People post a request for help in exchange for accommodation and food. We help Lotta and Bertil paint their wooden house and do some gardening. In return, they offer us a place to stay and an insight into their lives. WorkAway is very popular in Scandinavia.

Lotta and Bertil, both in their 70s, have lived in this house, where the fireplace warms the house every evening, for 40 years. They have brought up their three now grown-up children here, and the place is clearly very dear to them. Apple trees, a river through the garden where they take a daily dip, several lovely gazebos…. It’s a special place, and the cottage we’re staying in even has its own sauna. This is also the first time they have hosted people through WorkAway. In fact, they could use some help painting the house and doing some heavy pruning in the garden.

The next morning we start painting. Hopefully it will stay dry! The alarm goes off at 7.45am, 2 minutes before the rooster crows. We have breakfast with all sorts of goodies that Lotta and Bertil have prepared in the kitchenette. Then we put on our overalls and, armed with lots of red paint and brushes, get to work.

Fika

We are an hour in when Lotta arrives with coffee and bread. It is around 10.30 and then it is time for fika, by the water. Fika is an important and popular tradition in Sweden. People take a break to enjoy coffee or tea with something sweet. It’s about taking a moment to relax, enjoy each other and strengthen relationships. Something we could get used to. It often happens twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. In some workplaces it is even scheduled.

As we sit by the water drinking coffee, Audrey asks if people with canoes ever come by and Lotta points out that the season is coming to an end. Just then two more canoes pass by. After fika we go back to work until about 3pm. Then we quickly get ready, because at 16.00 we leave again, because they want to take us to an old house with a water mill. The house is 400 years old and was the home of a family with nine children. Now it is run by the local history society. After the tour Lotta brings out a bowl of apple pie from the car and then it seems to be time for the second fika of the day.

The Swedish cuisine

Over the next few days we paint as much as we can between showers, prune trees, cut the grass and Eloy helps Lotta clean her mobile phone. Something he knows from home and has done many times before. The fact that our arm muscles have completely melted away while cycling is painfully obvious after gardening…. When Lotta goes to Stockholm for a few days, Bertil takes care of lunch and dinner. He is a bit nervous about it and asks, full of doubt, if we like “matje” with rye bread. He does not know the English translation, but it turns out to be “maatjes”, or herring. That we are getting closer and closer to the Netherlands is evident in our culinary preferences. We eat pea soup, knakworsten and more potatoes in a week than in the whole of last year put together. After lunch, Bertil proudly shows off his ‘snickarbod’, or carpentry workshop. In the evening he makes mashed potatoes with sausage and mustard, then invites us to the fireplace for more stories.

After five days of work, it is the weekend and the couple invite us to the Sunday service. This time to give thanks for the harvest. We understand little of the spoken Swedish, but have plenty of time to admire the impressive paintings on the wooden ceiling. After the service, there is a fika moment for all churchgoers. Coffee is served at the back of the church and it remains something special to see. As if that weren’t enough, we are then taken to a local fishmonger. There are eight tables in a small caravan. Small pieces of all kinds of fish are served on plates, many of which we haven’t yet identified.

National Kanelbullar Day

On the other weekend day, we go hiking in Söderåsens National Park, near the village where Lotta and Bertil live. They recommend that we walk through the 90-metre deep ravine, Skäralid. Here you can still see clearly how the gorges were created by tectonic movements that created cracks and fissures in the rock. It is hard to imagine that the gorge was covered by glaciers 10,000 years ago. At the end of the trail, Lotta and Bertil are waiting for us with homemade cinnamon rolls(!), because today is National Cinnamon Roll Day in Sweden. Yes, it is! First celebrated in 1999, the day was created to honour Swedish baking traditions and encourage people to bake at home. Many bake their own kanelbullar on this day, often using traditional family recipes.

After 1.5 weeks we say goodbye to Lotta and Bertil, but not before they show us what they value one last time. Barbecuing together over a fire, in nature and in this case in their garden. They try to do this once a week. Dressed in woollen jumpers and candlelight, we eat together and look back on the past 10 days. It is hard to express how much they have shown us of the local traditions, customs and culture. They shared their hearts, our hands helped.

Last day in Sweden

From Lotta and Bertil we cycle towards Helsingborg. Suddenly we see a lot of half-timbered houses, as we know them from southern Limburg. Looking at the landscape in the picture below, you could be forgiven for thinking we are already in southern Limburg. As Audrey waits outside a supermarket in a village for Eloy to return, a man in his 80s, leaning on his walking frame, saunters up to her. In almost perfect English, pointing to the flags, he asks if we have been all over this place. “Yes,” says Audrey. “On this bike?” “Yes“. He smiles broadly, waits a moment and then says: “It’s very good to go and see the world with your own eyes.” Then he goes over to his comrades, who are also older, and starts telling them about what he has just seen. With a final smile, he wishes us a good journey.

We spend another night in a hostel near Helsingborg, from where we take the ferry to Elsinore in Denmark. The 27th country, but the value of a journey does not depend on the number of flags, stamps or countries you collect. It is the unhurried experience of meeting and interacting with thousands of random strangers, including outside, inside and next to the supermarket.

Statistics and route in Sweden 🚴🚴

  • Total days: 31
  • Cycling days: 16
  • Cycled: 720 km
  • Altitudemeters: +6000m
  • Nights: 17 nights in tent or shelter, 16 with local people. Wind shelters can be found on: https://vindskyddskartan.se/en/
  • Tick bites: A LOT, a device to remove them is not a luxury item 😉
  • Cinnamon rolls: countless!

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