Dalaro and the Deep Blue Sea

Scenic : One option for overnighting near Dalaro is Smadalaro Gard, a 19th-century converted manor house. The seaside town 25 miles southeast of Sweden’s capital is a gateway to the Stockholm archipelago and a prime summertime retreat.

By Erica Johnston
The Washington Post

Nearly 20 years ago, during a long bicycle trip through Europe, a friend and I happened upon a small coastal town that was too alluring not to stop in. We were about 25 miles southeast of Stockholm, pedaling north from Copenhagen to meet up with a friend.

There wasn’t much to the town, really; I remember a cobalt blue bay with several small islands dotting the horizon, a ragged shoreline and a few of the simple yet stately cottages that line the back roads of Sweden.

As we looked for a place to pull over for a rest, we saw an inconspicuous sign featuring a drawing of a house and a single word beneath it: “Vandrarhem.” We had unwittingly ridden to the door of a waterfront youth hostel. The decision, it seemed, had been made for us: Our friend in the capital would have to wait a couple of days.

We had stumbled upon Dalaro, gateway to the Stockholm archipelago, historical defender of the Crown from seafaring Russians and, for more than 100 years, a summer retreat for fortunate Stockholmers. I can’t recall what we did there, but I’ve remembered it ever since as one of my favorite spots in a country I came to know quite well.

So when my brother and sister-in-law asked if I could join them for a vacation in Sweden, how could I say no? For several summers they had rented a house near Stockholm, in a quiet town on the Baltic Sea.

You can guess the rest. My brother, Chip, had found Dalaro by chance, as I had. Unlike me, he had the good sense to keep going back.

A few weeks later, not long after Midsummer’s Day, I was back in the land of cloudberries and cardamom buns, lolling on the deck of the rental house, watching as the near-midnight sun performed a slow-motion light show across the darkening bay. A clan of ducks commuted along the shallows in V-formation. Come mornings, we came to see, they evidently were permitted a free-swim period, with each doing its own thing before falling into line once again.

Some vacationers did pretty much the same thing. A middle-aged couple strode to the water’s edge in the mornings, stripped out of their robes and dived in. The nudists next door? Not really. In Sweden, it’s just an invigorating, sensible way to start a summer day.

You could spend a lot of time — all of it highly useful, of course — pondering these phenomena. But we had pressing business to tend to. In my long absence, my sister-in-law said, Dalaro had changed. I had to check out the main street.

Sure enough, there it was, in the center of town: a newish bakery, complete with warm cinnamon rolls, blond wood tables, fancy sandwiches and even something called Dalaro bread, a seemingly good-for-you affair. To my brother and me, this was a major development, like a skyscraper might be to others. And so it came to be that we felt morally obligated to walk there every morning for some serious carbo-loading. You know, to support small business.

* * * * *

The modern conveniences and contrivances had arrived, if only in a typically understated Swedish sense. There were boutiques and at least one art gallery, though it never seemed to be open. Things change. After all, it had been nearly 20 years.

I knew that the youth hostel must be gone. Location, location, location: Some laws of real estate are immutable, even in famously left-leaning Sweden. It surely didn’t make sense that a US$15-a-night refuge for the young and restless would command such prime property. OK, fine. After all, I didn’t need it any longer.

What really mattered, I figured, was the enduring calm of the town, the saturated golds and iron reds of the houses, and the magnificent archipelago (the Swedes call it skargard, or a garden of rocks). Sure, there were a few modestly showy houses in Dalaro now, and I noticed more Crocs-clad feet than traditional Swedish clogs. But the big things, the stuff that counted — none of that had changed, as far as I could tell.

One morning, we board a ferry for Orno, a 20-minute hop from Dalaro. (Boats are like buses around the archipelago; they also leave from Stockholm and other towns.)

Layer upon layer of isles, islets and barren outcroppings instantly begin to reveal themselves. There are more than 24,000 in all, stretching across a 50-mile arc that extends nearly into Finnish waters. The vast majority are uninhabited.

In the summertime, the islands — lush in the shadow of the mainland before becoming sparser and more severe farther out to sea — offer Swedes a treasured playground. The enjoyment of nature is a fundamental principle in Sweden, and broad public access to the land, even when privately owned, has been equated with Americans’ constitutional freedoms of speech and religion. (The right of public access is called allemansratten, or all people’s rights.)

My brother and sister-in-law, Judy, roll off the boat on their bicycles, ready to cross the verdant island on a road too narrow for a stripe down the middle. We stop at a nearby farm so I can rent a bike, which turns out to be a three-speed (at least in theory; only one works) better suited for a teenage girl. No doubt the farmer’s daughter, circa 1980. The seat is banana-shaped and way too low; the bell has been rendered silent by rust and time. None of this matters in the slightest. It is, in fact, the perfect island transportation.

The farmer surprises us all: Arriving in his truck, chatting on his cellphone, we soon realize that he doesn’t speak English. That’s rare in Sweden, even on a rural island, even for a farmer, even one who looks about 60. In fact, there’s a good chance that anyone you happen to run into under the age of 65 or so will speak English nearly as well as you do.

Which is almost a shame, because the Swedish language is so melodic and sometimes so wonderfully confounding. Sure, it often seems easy, especially in writing: “bageri” for bakery, “parkering” for parking. Then there are the words that look like you should know them, such as “snart” (soon) or “snabbacash” (the “speedy cash” offered at the ATM).

But similarities can be deceiving. Our u’s often become y’s in Swedish, hence a restaurant’s meny. Kornbiff isn’t corned beef; it’s a type of meat substitute. And the nearby island of Kymmendo, the onetime home of playwright August Strindberg, is pronounced “sher-men-DURH.”

We glide past sheep, horses and wildflowers bursting with blues, yellows and purples. Ads posted at the harborside cafe where we stop for an alfresco smoked-salmon lunch tout faster broadband Internet connections. This jumble of scenes and signals might appear contradictory, but they actually seem quite happy together.

On the way back to the ferry, I prop my bike against the farmhouse as cars board the boat at the bottom of a long hill. My brother motions for me to climb onto the rack at the back of his bicycle to quicken the trip. A minute later, we’re pulling away on the ferry.

Back in Dalaro, we return to form, succeeding spectacularly in doing pretty much nothing at all. A comprehensive tour with Judy proves that there is more to the town than I had thought — though not that much more.

* * * * *

One day, mysteriously finding ourselves back at the bakery, we buy a newspaper and are gratified to learn, using our beginner Swedish, that Lettland had just sworn in a new president. The sad fact that we have no idea where — or what — Lettland is barely dents our enthusiasm. (It’s Latvia, by the way, so be happy for them.)

Walking home along the harbor, Judy points to another newish landmark, the vaflestuga. It’s a shack, or cottage (stuga), more than 100 years old, all wide planks of weathered wood, maybe 14 feet square. What’s new is the vafle part: freshly made Belgian-style waffles, with deep bowls of whipped cream and fresh-fruit preserves set out on the counter.

As we stroll out, a little fatter and a little happier, we walk into a light, slightly chilly rain. On one side of the street is a docked shipping boat, a workhorse hauler. Having just spent several nights watching videos of Henning Mankell crime novels, we amuse ourselves by imagining the boat’s dastardly cargo: illegal immigrants, surely, or maybe a cache of drugs from the former Eastern Bloc countries across the Baltic.

I’m so preoccupied that I almost miss the small sign along the walkway, one door down from the waffle shack. It shows a house with one word beneath it: “Vandrarhem.”

The hostel lives. About a quarter-mile from where we’re staying and right where it always was. No huge deal, really. But still.

For a country of 9 million people and a California-size place that many Americans seem to believe is a frozen nation of brooding blonds, Sweden has managed both to prosper and stick to its principles. So while the continued existence of an international youth hostel on a choice chunk of waterfront probably has nothing to do with the long arm of the government, it seems to speak to the country’s egalitarian, allemansratten ethos.

And Swedes take their icy reputation in stride, even managing to shrug when Americans mistake their nation for Switzerland. (Snowy? Check. Mountains? Check. Starts with “Sw”? Yep. Spooky.) When one of your homeland’s biggest cultural exports is Abba, it helps to have a healthy sense of humor and perspective.

The next night, friends of my brother and sister-in-law pull up to the dock in a motorboat, along with their two young daughters. As we step a few feet away into the rental house, with its glass doors allowing full view of the waterside deck, Flisan, the 4-year-old big sister, plays quietly outside. After spending the summers on an island a few miles north, she understands the rules: No going in the water.

But just in case, her life jacket remains tightly fastened. Along its back is a luggage-like plastic handle, so she can be plucked from the water as easily as a milk jug. Yet more evidence of the Swedes’ affinity for design and style (Swedish crystal, Ikea and H&M also come to mind) that seems to flow from a wellspring of common sense and a taste for elegant simplicity.

Hours later, the parents bundle their sleeping children into the boat, along with summer supplies and maritime maps, and whisk them back home through a slalom course of miles of isles. This is summer in (or near) the city for thousands of Stockholmers.

In the morning, I boost the economic prospects of the bakery one last time. The waffle shack will have to wait. You know, the one next to the hostel.

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