The celadon birch leaves tremble in the warm breeze as I pick my way along the fern-edged path, up a slight incline. The moist, fragrant woods are dappled with sunlight, and I hear the burbling of a nearby stream. Scanning the verdant copse, I spy a delicate amethyst lily with black-spotted leaves in the middle of the path ahead, lit by a solitary beam of sunlight, and stoop to examine it.
Cocking my head, I realize that there is no stream. My senses have been fooled: It’s the trees sighing in the breeze. The path leads to a hilltop picnic table set in a shorn hayfield overlooking the curvaceous slopes of field and forest in central Sweden. My nose is tickled by the musty, dry-grass fragrance released by the warmth of the day, and I tilt my face to the sun, letting its radiance warm my skin.
I’m not on a hike; I’m waiting for a lunching merchant to open his shop so I can peruse his wares. And his shop isn’t in a city; it’s situated at the artist’s home, a hillside timber house rimmed by rose gardens, past Belgian horses grazing in vernal pastures and tidy red wood houses with white-lace curtains at the windows.
At the tourist bureau in the nearby lakeside village of Rättvik, I had found a flyer for Bosse’s Träslöjd — a wooden handicrafts shop where the owner, Bosse, makes his own versions of Sweden’s fameddalahäst (wooden horse).
Map by my side, I had ventured into the rolling countryside in my leaf-green rental Volvo, following the well-marked road signs to North Lindberg, a tiny hamlet of no more than a dozen farms. Bosse greeted me and suggested that I might enjoy a stroll while he and his wife had lunch.
“Välkommen tillbaka! (Welcome back)” says Bosse with a warm smile when I emerge from the woods. “What did you think of Semester Väg (holiday path)?” I enthusiastically share with him my lily discovery, and he explains that it’s common in this area.
I follow Bosse uphill to a rustic timber studio, and he unlatches the door and ushers me into the shady space, filled with shelves of dalahäster in mostly pastel colors. The area Bosse lives in, Leksand, is known for its richly colored, shiny red and yellow horses. Yet these horses are creamy pastel confections. An azure horse with gilt mane and a tiny seashell necklace draws my attention.
“That one reminds me of the sea near where I grew up, south of Göteborg,” says Bosse.
A lyrically lovely white mare with golden swirls of paint and a bell tied around its neck is the perfect gift for my 11-year-old horse-loving daughter, Kirsten.
“That one is patterned after my Shetland pony, Blända; she’s grazing in the forest right now.”
We share a conversation about our love of horses, and Bosse tells me about a nearby herd of horses that come from all over Dalarna for a “summer holiday” every year, to learn how to get along with other horses. As I thank him for my purchases, Bosse invites me to join him for a forest walk and picnic the next day at the fäbod (summer farm) where the horses are kept. I promise I will return, bearing sweet, local strawberries.
On the downhill drive back to Rättvik, with my radio blaring Swedish pop tunes and the heady fragrance of wildflowers in hedgerows wafting through the open window, I reflect on how this kind of experience is only possible away from the bustle of the city, where an artist working alone all day in his studio is eager to share his thoughts and his life with visitors.
I’m on a weeklong pilgrimage to Sweden, the home of my ancestors, to see old friends, dance to ancient, soulful fiddle melodies in country halls and experience the wonders of the flora and fauna in Sweden’s folk province. Just as, when at the seashore, I search for rocks with a white ring around them — “lucky stones,” my grandmother called them — I’m here to find treasures in unexpected places.
I’ve circled artisans’ abodes on my map, and plan to explore backwoods studios and lakeside cottages in search of handcrafted works of art that will summon up the scents of summer in Sweden whenever I look at or handle them.
I don’t know which is better … knowing precisely who it is who made the piece of art adorning my home, or the experience of discovery as I drive through some of the most beautiful countryside I’ve ever known.
And I’ve come to the right place: Sweden may be known as the land of the midnight sun and of tall blond people with an egalitarian bent, but for those in the know, it’s also a place where centuries-old folk traditions continue in artisanal ceramic bowls, glass vases, silver pendants, woven table runners and wooden baskets.
And one of the best places to find a broad array of these crafts is in Dalarna, Sweden’s lake-dotted folk province, three hours northwest of Stockholm.
The morning’s warmth holds the promise of adventure as I drive through woods north of Rättvik. Fireweed blazes in purple, pink and white in the roadside pastures, each of which seems to contain at least three horses, sometimes a whole herd. I’m in search of a gift for my husband, Eric, who loves thick, handsome, well-crafted ceramics. In restaurants and stores, I’ve seen the homey brown platters and vases from nearby Nittsjö Keramik, a well-known ceramics factory, and figure it’s just the ticket.
I pull up to a plain-looking two-story brick building in a clearing. It doesn’t look very auspicious, yet, when I enter, I am surprised at the size of the store and the extensive collection. A few customers wander among shelves that hold ceramic figurines, such as bright-rednisser — gnome-like folkloric figures known for their tender ministries to animals — and whimsical, bird-shaped ocarinas.
Other shelves are laden with serving ware in deep blues and earthy browns, all carefully hand painted with flower and leaf motifs. I select a cobalt-blue bowl with a daisy pattern painted along the rim for Eric. At home, it will become our favorite bowl for serving homemade applesauce, carrying me somehow back to both Sweden and my grandmother’s cinnamon-scented kitchen.
It’s another sultry day as I drive a winding road several miles southeast of Rättvik, toward the community of Tällberg — known for its crafts shops housed in tiny wood buildings centered on a grass courtyard. Rounding a bend in the road, I come across a sign for Siljansleden, a popular walking/bicycling path that circumnavigates 25-mile-long (40 km) Lake Siljan, Sweden’s third largest lake.
I turn down a side street and park the car next to a field. Wild roses, bluebells, daisies, buttercups and wild strawberries grow at the verge of the field. I stroll down a narrow lakeside street shaded by a canopy of birch trees. Small rock jetties curve from the shore, creating little pocket beaches where wooden rowboats rest, upside down. One jetty sports a delicate white pavilion. Nearby, a family sunbathes on a narrow deck.
Across the road from where my car is parked, bright-white letters on a rust-colored wood building declare it to be the workshop of a basket maker: Korgmakeri. I step inside Knäppasken Korgmakeri to find a quiet, bespectacled man, Björn Majors, peeling inch-long strips from a paper-thin sheet of birch wood. Pungent curls of wood shavings are piled high between stacks of woven baskets.
As he works the wood, his hands deftly hefting tools, Björn tells me how he retired from postal work in the city to take up his dream job, woodworking in a relaxing country setting. The crinkles at the corners of his eyes speak as loudly as his words, when he says he has found the perfect niche for himself.
I let Björn tend to other customers who enter the shop, and absently pick up an oval willow-and-ash tray whose sides are made of a single strip of willow, curved and fastened with tiny pegs and, improbably, running stitches made of wood fiber. It’s cool and smooth as a child’s cheek, and I keep returning to caress it.
I decide it will be perfect for serving sandwiches, and I can imagine pretty cupcakes nestled on a linen cloth on it; clasping the tray to my chest, I thank Björn for making such an elegant piece of art as I make my purchase.
In Tällberg, I poke in and out of the crafts shops, fingering linen dresses and woven tablecloths, eyeing locally made ceramics and jewelry. But the prices are high. A tray similar to the one I just bought costs one-third more.
Before returning to the car, I mount wooden stairs to the deck of Siljansgårdens Kaffestuga (Lake Siljan farmstead coffeeshop) high above the lake, where I enjoy moist, heart-shaped vaffler med hjortronsyllt och krämme (waffles with golden-hued cloudberry jam and whipped cream).
Farther south, I cross a high bridge over Dalälven River where it flows out of Lake Siljan, and roll into the old part of Leksand, a community of 15,400 with a lovely 13th-century church. As with the other approximately 100 villages in the area, Leksand is a place of living traditions. Locals still row to church on special occasions in a long boat festooned with birch boughs, they still dance around the maypole that stands at the center of the village every mid-summer eve, and they still wear richly colored folk costumes for celebrations.
Tendrils of embroidery on poppy-red vests and carefully stitched golden scrollwork on the shoulders of deep-blue wool waistcoats speak of the region’s rich textile heritage in an alcove of Leksand’s Hemslöjd (handicraft shop).
Hemslöjds, found in towns throughout Sweden, are an outlet for local artists to display their wares. For visitors without time to wander through the countryside, hemslöjds, which feature an astonishing range of artisan crafts, are the next best thing. While prices can be on the high side, prices at hemslöjds are often lower than at commercial, tourist-oriented crafts markets — and artists who sell at a hemslöjd get a fair cut of the profits.
Leksand’s hemslöjd is the best I’ve seen yet, its shelves lined with traditional crafts and modern interpretations alike: A modernist metal candleholder takes the shape of a grazing horse, with space for four candles along its back. Upstairs, in a section filled with handcrafted wood furniture and housewares, I come across plump round bowls that beg to be held.
Inside, they are the pure white of birch; their outsides are painted a luminous cerulean blue. Turning one upside down, I am startled to see my own name — Forsberg. Surely I’m not related, but it does give me pause, as I muse about whether a nearby artist shares my family’s bloodline.
I squint as I step out the doorway into the brilliance of the sun. Billowing clouds, pregnant with rain, drift languidly at the horizon. It’s muggy, and I’m ready for a dip in the lake. The hemslöjd clerk has told me how to get to her favorite beach. I park the car at a pullout in the woods above the lake and scramble down a steep path to a lovely shoreline walk lined with tiny, nook-like beaches separated by small rock jetties.
I settle onto a copper-colored sand beach that’s flecked with shiny, pink-and-orange and gray-and-white shards of granite. A trio of young blond boys pokes along the shore at the next beach over, shovels and buckets in hand, while their mom sunbathes, book in hand.
I wade through the brisk water until I’m waist-deep, then swim out to nearby rounded rocks. Perching on one, I view the low, pine-and-fir cloaked hillsides interspersed with clusters of russet houses, and listen to the happy squeals of the boys as they splash in the water. Nature and man seem to coexist so peacefully here.
A freshet of air springs up, ruffling the surface of the water, and the sun glints off it like molten silver, like flecks of quartz in the granite rocks. A quicksilver memory that will stay with me, to return whenever my gaze is caught by the flash of my silver heart pendant, the glint of the bell on Kirsten’s dalahäst, or the airy presence of other talismans found amid the trees and lakes of central Sweden.
If You Go
Norr Lindberg 65
793 90 Leksand
Nittsjö Ceramics: www.nittsjokeramik.se
Leksand’s Hemslöjd: www.hemslojden.leksand.org
Swedish Hemslöjd Locator: www.hemslojden.org
Tourist Information Offices in Dalarna: www.sverigeturism.se
Swedish Travel & Tourism Council: www.VisitSweden.com