In the middle of the 2020/2021 gap year, marked by the Covid pandemic, Asia was gradually closing its doors: from the farthest reaches of Siberia on the mythical Trans-Siberian Railway to Lake Baikal, then from Mongolia to Cambodia via China and Vietnam, what had been the promise of a trip of a lifetime was gradually fading away as the borders closed.
But we still had 7 months to go! Where else could we go? We remembered the words: ”If you change your mind, I’m the first in line. Honey I’m still free, take a chance on me! ”. That’s right! Sweden, home of ABBA (and lots of other incredible things, as I’m about to tell you, but ABBA > everything), was still one of the few countries open without restrictions!
So that’s what we did, we took our chances. As winter is rather cold, especially inland, what could be better than a winter trip to Sweden in a van? We thought we’d be original. Once we’d acquired our proud van (refurbished, it really needed it) – but more importantly, insulated it – we set off from our native Brittany for the great cold, well equipped. And while Asia may be the stuff of dreams, let me tell you that Sweden has nothing to envy!
We first arrived by ferry from Kiel in Germany to Malmö in Sweden (€50 MO on international waters, we love it), then headed for Lund. A charming little student town, we spent the day marvelling at its colourful old buildings and well-trodden streets. The botanical gardens, however, were not in bloom in mid-February. And so began our journey through the Nordic country.
From Lund to Simrishman, passing through Mölle and dipping our toes in the Baltic Sea, the journey from the South to the Far North got off to a gentle start: what a surprise it was to see 15 degrees on the thermometer in the middle of the afternoon on a February day. Hiking, sometimes in t-shirts, alternating with coats depending on the time of day and the wind, was our daily routine during our first days in Sweden. So the cold is just a legend?
Well, not quite! We then went to the island of Öland, a long island in south-east Sweden. Deserted in winter with more windmills than inhabitants, we discovered a somewhat mystical atmosphere with its moors strewn with windmills and ruins. As it’s the Corsica of the Swedes, we made a detour to the immense white-sand beaches to the north, where we were treated to a superb winter sunset. We then headed back up to Stockholm after a stopover in Gränna (great lake and hiking!) to visit the Swedish capital. The temperature was already cooling off, but not enough to discourage us – just a few degrees colder at night. Stockholm? Colorful, ancient, natural with its many islets, steeped in history and full of charming inhabitants, we wandered enthusiastically through the Gamla Stan and Norrmalm districts. As most of the museums were closed, we enjoyed the city’s architecture and its parks with their frozen lakes. The city has adapted to nature, which gives Stockholm a certain charm. As we were mostly outdoors, what better way to relax than with a good beer at €9 per 40 cL? Yes, Sweden isn’t cheap: despite a few well-deserved restaurants, our instinct to take provisions in our van didn’t fail us: student status obliges.
We then continued northwards, stopping off at Lake Siljan. What can we say? This is where we began to feel the wild beauty that is Sweden. Modestly ranked 7th in terms of surface area, the lake is simply splendid. Completely frozen and bordered by pine and fir forests, you can skate on ice as far as the eye can see, barbecue in the middle of winter with public equipment at your disposal (yes, in the middle of winter!) and admire fiery sunsets. Personally, it’s one of my favorites, and a must-see in my book! And the cold? Between 2 and -7°C. Even in the van at night, it’s still fine! Thanks Dad for the insulation.
The journey then continued to Sweden’s Courchevel, the huge ski resort of Åre. The highest mountain rises modestly to around 1,400m, but the resort is still Sweden’s largest ski area, and it’s not for nothing that a Ski World Cup was being held there: the people there are crazy! Black runs? Not even afraid, we thought! But that’s without taking into account our limited skiing experience and the fact that we saw little Bjorn (or Kerstin, or Maja) put us to shame despite their young age. Anyway, as they say, it’s easy to see why Sweden often vies with Norway for medals at the Winter Olympics! PS: current temperature, -12°C, but we’re still holding out in the van (when we can still get out with the snowstorms).
We then set off slowly towards the Far North, with a stopover in Umeå, a student city par excellence. And of art, with beautiful sculptures in all 4 corners of the university campus. And then it started to sting: -20°C !
We then headed for the Arctic Circle, stopping off at Jokkmokk. As it was -20°C again that night, we opted for a new shelter, a Swedish cabin. And good tourists that we were, we didn’t know that a Swedish cabin basically consists of: a living room, bedrooms, a sitting room, a fireplace, no heating, no running water and no shower. The Swedes love to spend weekends in these cabins, but we’re always wondering why, and if it wasn’t better in the van after all. A van that had to be unblocked from the ice with the help of our adorable Swedish neighbors, whose little girl had a C2 level of English at the age of 8, when we were still trying to pass the TOEFL.
The apotheosis of our trip, we have to admit, is the Far North, otherwise known as Swedish Lapland. With its endless snow-covered forests, towering mountains and ice-covered landscapes, it’s no exaggeration to say that we felt like we were in another world. And we made the most of it with a stopover in Kiruna for over a week, where we enjoyed superb hiking, the magnificent Jukkajärvi ice hotel, elks and reins in total freedom, and sled dogs (ok, we broke the piggy bank). But above all, after several cloudy nights – surprisingly green clouds – we finally saw what we’d been waiting for so long: the BOREAL AURORES. And frankly, for that alone, Lapland is worth the detour: it’s magical! Record temperature: -28°C, late March.
As the break wasn’t over yet and, unfortunately, we didn’t have unlimited money, we quietly made our way back down to Sweden, passing through Östersund to meet up with friends we’d met in Kiruna, then finishing up in Malmö, which we visited for a day before setting off again.
You’ve probably guessed it: we’d recommend Sweden to you at 200%. It’s a unique, wild country, with charming inhabitants, where even in winter, as long as you’re well equipped, you can discover incredible landscapes! Personally, I’m planning to go back in a few months’ time, but this time in summer, to discover its national parks.