A gentle land of forest and water is revealed on an 85-mile walking route in south-west Sweden
The English language has spawned some cracking opening lines, from Jane Austen’s “a truth universally acknowledged” to Orwell’s “clocks striking thirteen”. And now another has been added to the canon: the opening gambit of an info board on Sweden’s Biosphere Trail. “Every village,” it declares, “was required by law to dig its own wolf trap.”
It was only our second day on the trail, but we’d already been so enchanted by the scenery – the placid lake, the bright welcoming woods, the picturesque rural cottages – that it came as no real surprise to find we’d stumbled into a fairytale.
Opened last summer, the 85-mile Biosphere Trail skirts the southern shores of Lake Vänern, Sweden’s largest and Europe’s third largest lake. The route is named after the Lake Vänern Archipelago Biosphere Reserve, designated by Unesco in 2010. I confess I’d not really come across biosphere reserves before but there are 738 of them worldwide, all promoting “solutions reconciling the conservation of biodiversity with its sustainable use”. There was certainly a good deal of conservation going on, for we seemed to be continually entering one nature reserve or other. And we’d arrived by train from the UK (a pleasant trundle through France, Belgium, Germany and Denmark), which we hoped would bolster the “sustainable use” bit.
We started our walk at Mariestad, the town that marks the trail’s eastern extremity. It possesses one of Sweden’s best-preserved historic districts, so we had a wander through streets of what looked like giant doll’s houses, all decked out in bright pastel shades. After a shufti round a cathedral with fossils embedded in its stone floor, we set off along the shore, armed with maps that the frequent waymarkers made all but redundant. Very soon we saw our first wildlife: a statuesque heron, a rather busier woodpecker, followed by kestrels, butterflies, deer and lapwings.
Lake Vänern is so large (about quarter the size of Wales) that where the trail runs along the shore it seems more like a coastal path – an impression reinforced by the appealing sandy coves we come across. We discovered that south-west Sweden can get quite warm in August, so by the time we reached our first night’s lodgings, we were somewhat parched. Äppelgården B&B is a perfectly preserved 19th-century farmhouse, full of pleasingly esoteric period antiques. It’s also far from the nearest off-licence so I asked co-owner Diedrich if we could buy some beer from him to accompany the meal we were about to cook in the kitchen. A few minutes later he was plying us with four bottles of a local brew for which he refused any payment. He replied to our protests with a wink and a laugh. “Don’t worry,” he said, “I’ve just stolen them from my son.”
So began five days of gentle rambling through woodland and farmland, meadows and hamlets. While the route is mostly rural, there was always a shop or cafe en route where we could buy lunch. And this being Sweden, everything was extremely clean and fresh and uncomplicated. The only major town we encountered was Lidköping, a town that found fame and fortune as a producer of porcelain, and where we ate dinner at Mellbygatans restaurant. The owner, Emil, told us that running the restaurant was “all about having fun”. It seems a successful strategy since in Mellbygatans’ first year it entered the prestigious White Guide with ratings on a par with some Michelin-starred restaurants.