I Found My Happy Place, And I Didn’t Expect It Would Be Here.
“Katie, I’ve never seen my husband–” Maria didn’t have time to finish her sentence before Staffan, her husband, laughed and spit wine all over the table. It was one of those moments — one of those meals — I’ll not soon forget.
A metallic sun hung from a stately tree in the center of the yard, hand painted yellow and glinting beneath the real sun’s rays. Suns upon suns, and that’s exactly how I felt from the moment we pulled our little Volvo up the hill in front of the main house until the moment we pulled away. Beneath the manmade sun was arranged a set of white iron benches surrounding a bed of flowers. Tree, sun, benches, and flowers all enjoyed views of the bath water clear lake resting at the bottom of the valley below.
This property had, to me, all of the elements that make a place truly memorable: imaginative inhabitants, a melding with nature, and an overwhelming abundance of warm, natural light. The owners had brought their table outside — the rare week of sunshine was not to be spent indoors looking out, but outdoors looking out — the sculptural sun almost redundant under the rare warming rays of the Nordic original.
What was I doing in Sweden, anyway?
Matthew Karsten and I had picked up our Volvo several days earlier, direct from the factory.
Did you know Volvo has an overseas delivery program?
Listen. This trip wasn’t my campaign. I was just along for the ride as a lucky contest winner, and I’m not obligated to write anything whatsoever about it. But here’s the thing: This program is like — way cool. Now this is coming from someone who’s been driving the same car since 2002, but if I had to get a new car, I’d seriously consider budgeting for a Volvo for the simple fact that a couple of days ago I noticed one in my grocery store parking lot and it had windshield wipers on the headlights. But also because I can order one custom and Volvo will actually fly my sugardaddy and me all the way to Gothenburg, put us up in a hotel for a night, give us a tour of the factory (which, trust me, is WAY cooler than it sounds with sci-fi robots and driverless vehicles but I wasn’t allowed to take pictures), send us on our own or a curated road trip around Sweden or Europe, then ship the car back to the states when we’re done.
Sadly, the dapper driver who taxied us to the factory said that few people take advantage of the freedom that driving their own vehicle around Europe affords and instead opt to come to Gothenburg for a night, visit the factory and approve their new car, then fly straight back home.
I mean, I kind of get it. The idea of taking to the wheel in a foreign country can seem a bit daunting, but to me not nearly as daunting as hopping on and off six different planes for two days in a row. Which is why Volvo and Sweden basically invited Matt out to show people that driving in Sweden is not, in fact, even half as terrifying as driving up I-95 towards D.C.* and that Sweden, especially when her beautiful sun shines its face on the coast for nearly an entire week, is a country worth spending some time in.
*I should state for accuracy that aside from my tendency to sing with the radio — even to the Swedish music — it’s cross-country driving in Sweden that’s not terrifying. The roads are in fantastic shape, the drivers there understand that the left lane is for passing, and while the street names can be a bit daunting (Lövgärdesvägen, anyone?) it’s nothing a modern Swedish navigation system can’t handle. City driving though, just like anywhere else, could potentially induce a mild panic attack. I’m really grateful for the fact that Matt doesn’t have video of me trying to navigate some of the construction riddled streets of downtown Gothenburg. There may have been some screaming involved.
And spend some time, we did.
From exploring beautiful fishing villages along the coast to delving deep into the forests of Dalsland, we sampled a healthy portion of the fun outdoor activities western Sweden has to offer.
I’ve never been an “outdoorsy” type.
It’s true. I think nature is stunning beyond all belief, and I love looking at it from beneath an umbrella or shady tree surrounded by citronella candles with a cocktail in my hand. And when I dip my toes in a bit further, I do so at a liesurely pace — a swim in a lake or a nature trail hike. When it comes to nature, I approach it with a healthy dose of fearful respect. I’m not used to getting all up in it, like with helmets and kayak aprons and expensive gear and stuff. That’s why we have adventure bloggers — so we can read about what they do and pretend we’re half as cool.
The catch is that on this trip, I was with one of those adventure bloggers. And we were expected to do things like mountain bike and sea kayak and feed moose and sleep in a tipi tent and zipline.
All of the photos in the above gallery were taken by Matthew Karsten and the zipline, mountain biking, and moose photos were (crappily) edited by me.
Which we did, and all of it pushed me out of my comfort zone. It was pretty fantastic. (Except for the mountain biking. Turns out mountain biking is only cool in theory. In reality, I kept tripping over the middle man-bar thing every time I had to hop off, uphill rides were really uphill walks, and on the way down one rocky path I suddenly became very aware of the fragility of my body and the organs therein should I fall and my bones decide to fracture into a million splintery pieces.)
At the end of it, I was is need of some serious Gemütlichkeit. Enter Staffan and Maria Berger, their daughter Jeanna and son Axel, as well as Jeanna’s boyfriend. (I feel bad because I don’t remember her boyfriend’s name. There’s a good chance it was Magnus, though. Magnus is apparently to western Sweden as Antonio is to southern Italy.) Knowing we’d be exhausted from several days of driving through western Sweden, the family invited us to have dinner with them at their house rather than cooking for ourselves down at our cabin. Once we took in the gorgeous surroundings and the relaxing atmosphere seeped into our skin, we gladly accepted their invitation.
This, too, is Sweden.
It’s no secret that most Swedish people enjoy the outdoors. From skiing to kayaking, biking to boating, there are few opportunities they’re willing to miss. But there’s another kind of “outdoors” here as well — the kind that brings you so close to nature that you can hear a bee buzz past a distant flower. A fish jump on the other side of the lake. That’s the kind of “outdoors” they offer at Stenebynäs. We were served a delicious gazpacho (I’m still bugging them for the recipe), and grilled fresh Salmon fished just off the coast. We had salad, potatoes, wine, and of course cheese. I learned about their family, and they about mine. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much.
Once we’d all wiped away our tears of laughter, Maria corrected her sentence. “Katie, I’ve never seen anyone eat more slowly than my husband. Until now!” she smiled. I’ve always been a slow eater — even more so when I know it’s a meal I don’t want to end.
Neither Matt nor I took any photos of the solitary tree or the gold metal sun. I checked. The sun, the bench, the family sized table bedecked with cheese and wine with dinner, fruit and juice with breakfast — it all just exists in my beautiful, wine flushed memory. That, and Matt’s quick snap of the ever-present Swedish caviar-in-a-tube:
In a previous life, Stenebynäs served as a home for children with lung problems. It was said that the air was so clean and fresh that it was an idyllic place for rest and recovery. The Bergers bought this 200 acre property years ago and slowly restored (I believe) 5 rental cabins, each sleeping anywhere from 2 to 10 people. A walk through the property is a walk through a sculpture garden, with pieces they’ve collected over the years hidden amongst the rocks, trees, and flowers. One aspect they’ve clearly maintained is a sense of calming peace and serenity.
I’m pretty sure, in fact, it’s the first — and probably only — time on the trip that I could visibly see Matt take off his working travel journalist hat and let himself relax and enjoy the moment.
“Welcome to my outdoors!” I wanted to say. While it’s no secret I appreciate a solid rush of adrenaline every now and then, my time at Stenebynäs epitomized to me the heart of what travel — and life — is all about: the breaking of bread, the drinking of wine, the sitting down as strangers and the walking away as friends.
(Photo by Matthew Karsten. Edited — badly again — by moi.)
Need to Know:
SE-660 10 Dals Långed, Sweden
Good to Know:
I would pay to go back to Sweden, simply to stay here and do nothing else. That is all.