West Sweden, the humble hero
As part of our guide to Climate Smart Holidays in West Sweden, Sarah Baxter discovers the green heart of West Sweden.
As we wandered past the secondhand stores on Magasinsgatan – perfectly curated dens of vintage vinyl, cool dresses and worn-leather jackets – guide Ricky thought through my question. “Has Gothenburg been proactive in pursuing sustainability – or was it just doing those things anyway?” he mused. “I think it’s just a way of life here.”
Gothenburg has been ranked ‘world’s most sustainable destination’ six times in a row according to the Global Destination Sustainability Index. But most locals don’t go on about their city’s excellent public transport (95% of which runs on renewable energy) or share-bike scheme; about the restaurants serving organic food or the fact that 92% of the hotels are environmentally certified – including grand Hotel Eggers, which has its own wind turbine. They go to Liseberg for fun, not because it’s the first amusement park in the world to receive sustainability certification. The city is clearly doing a lot right. Just in a very Gothenburgian way. “It’s a low-key place,” Ricky explained. “We don’t blow our own trumpet.”
The stylish Hotel Eggers is opposite Gothenburg's main railway station. Photos: Richard Hammond
Certainly, Gothenburg makes a great green mini-break. But it’s also the gateway to great green breaks in wider West Sweden. To the east and north of the city lies an easily accessible hinterland of lakes, more lakes, globally important mountains, meditative forest, moose, arable land, ancient history and characterful, climate-smart places to stay. It’s also a region that’s Stepping up Sustainability, a new initiative working on limiting tourism’s environmental impact, driving visits to wider areas and in different seasons, and ensuring the hospitality industry is good for both residents and visitors. I’d come to explore.
First, I found Platåbergens, 3,690 sq km of table mountains and important rock on the south shores of Lake Vänern that was designated Sweden’s first UNESCO Global Geopark in 2022. Reachable by train, Platåbergens a fine place for hiking, biking, canoeing, wildlife-spotting – and also, I discovered, time travel.
“Look slowly from ground to ceiling,” instructed Pia Åkesson, chair of the Minnesfjället mine museum, as she swung her torch around the cavern’s dark belly, from the gneiss bedrock to the sandstone above our heads. “That’s 1,000 million years in one go.”
Not only that, Pia added, “you have the first life on earth here.” She focused her torch on the roof, revealing imprints of worms, jellyfish, feathery trilobites – animals that lived 540 million years ago. The mine itself dates from the 19th century; the men who worked it for its first-class millstones called these fossils moons and stars. “They didn’t know what they were,” Pia said, “but they sold them to geologists who did.”
Pia is also co-owner of Lugnåsberget Ekohotell, a climate-smart guesthouse nearby, which proved to be an excellent base. As well as being only 4km from the nearest train station (from which she can pick you up), the 140km-long Biosphere Trail runs right past the Ekohotell’s door. I used the train to hike a section of the trail, between the little request-stop stations of Råbäck and Hällekis. In just five miles I walked the flanks of Mount Kinnekulle, explored two nature reserves, browsed the gardens, gallery and flea market of Hellekis Manor, and ate the best cinnamon bun I’ve ever tasted on a rock ledge overlooking Vänern’s endless waters.
I used the train to hike a section of the trail, between the little request-stop stations of Råbäck and Hällekis, with local guide Amanda Hessle. In just five miles we walked the flanks of Mount Kinnekulle, explored two nature reserves and browsed the gardens, gallery and flea market of Hellekis Manor. Amanda brought along some buns from the bakery in nearby Blomberg, which we ate on a rock ledge overlooking Vänern's endless waters. Flavoured with vanilla and cardamom, they were some of the best I've ever tasted.
The Biosphere Trail begins in the town of Mariestad. It ends at Läckö Slott. People have lived at this strategic site on the tip of Kållandsö island for at least 2,000 years – there’s rock art to prove it. But what stands today is a baroque castle, built by Count Magnus Gabriel De la Gardie in the 17th century – and little changed since.
What has changed is Läckö’s walled garden. British horticulturalist Simon Irvine took it on 30-odd years ago, and set about transforming what was then a sterile patch of lawn and roses into an ecologically cultivated kitchen garden that is now both beautiful and abundant. After admiring its walnut trees, bulbous tomatoes and gargantuan kale, I took a seat at nearby Hvita Hjorten, the award-winning restaurant it feeds.
“Some things are 20 minutes from picking to serving,” said chef Katrin Ljungblom as she placed a dish in front of me: pike-perch from the lake, courgettes, leek and sage from the garden, wild garlic powder, made from leaves picked on Kinnekulle. “Produce comes into the kitchen when it’s ready; you have to take care of it, respect it. It’s a creative way to work.”
Two of the hermitages at Swedish Country Living. Photos: Richard Hammond
Heading clockwise from Läckö, continuing around Lake Vänern, you eventually end up in Dalsland, a province with a tiny population but a huge amount of water. Indeed, it’s a quarter covered by lakes, with much of the rest cloaked in dense, uninhabited forest. Trains do penetrate here too, though. It takes just over an hour to ride from Gothenburg to Mellerud, where David and Marie Naraine can collect you and whisk you to their eco-friendly homestead, Swedish Country Living.
Warning: once you’ve arrived, it’s hard to leave. The three, off-grid tiny houses here are the perfect marriage of sustainable materials, eco-design and Scandi-cool. Snuggled in my wood-and-slate hermitage (pictured above, centre and right), woodburner roaring, candles twinkling, I didn’t really want to be anywhere else. However, the next day, after an invigorating lake dip and a breakfast of homebaked bread, cheese and eggs from the couple’s chickens, I decided to wander a little further afield.
The 100km Pilgrimsleden in Dalsland traces part of the route medieval pilgrims once used to reach the tomb of St Olaf in Nidaros (now Trondheim). And it passes close to Swedish Country Living. Unable to resist a tramp in historical footprints, I caught a lift to the Svankila Nature Reserve and followed the pilgrim path from there. The sun shone through the trees, shimmered on the lake and kissed the clapperboard summerhouses as I headed north on the easy track, my only company a low-flying buzzard. Soon I reached the village of Upperud, a one-time industrial hub and key centre during the construction of the Dalsland Canal. It was quiet here, too; I was the only visitor at the eco-designed Art Museum, and happily browsed the lyrical landscape paintings of local-born Otto Hesselbom. There was also a wonderful collection of traditional Dalsland crafts and furniture, including painted cabinets and wooden figures. “The area was really poor 200 years ago,” the lady at the front desk told me. “The people here didn’t have much but they used what they had, and made it beautiful. A humble, quiet beauty.”
Which seemed to sum up West Sweden. A place of glorious landscapes where conserving, reusing, creating beauty and striving for sustainability is, for many, just a way of life.