Sunday 17 November 2019

Sweden: Cycling heaven (and no hills) on a holiday with a difference

Cycling is a surprisingly good way to explore Sweden, as John Donlan writes for The Sunday World

Photo: The Sunday World
Photo: The Sunday World
Photo: The Sunday World
Photo: The Sunday World

John Donlon

Going over the spectacular Oresund bridge by rail from Denmark into Sweden, a foggy mist hung in the air.

Kurt Wallander, the fictional detective created by Henning Mankell, wrote about this mist enveloping his beloved Skane region in southern Sweden.

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Were we in for this mist and rain, I wondered as six days and close to 300km of cycling lay ahead.

And when a thunderstorm awoke me in Helsingborg next morning at 4am and bolts of lightening lit the room, I feared the worst.

But the thunder cleared the air and sunshine followed for almost the entirety of our two-wheel adventure.

Sweden surprised — and in a good way.

It was mid-July and cornfields and seascapes dominated the landscape as we swept around the southern coast.

At times we cycled so near the sea that you could almost dip your toes in it.

On other occasions we whizzed by vast ripening wheatfields and big barnyards reminiscent of the US prairies.

The quality of cycle lanes amazed. Not your token line on a road as in Ireland, but wide, generous and safe. The courtesy of the drivers surprised too: not one horn sounded in anger during the entire trip.

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Photo: The Sunday World

This was cycling heaven and above all for cycling softies like ourselves, no hills.

We were on a cycle route known as the Sydkustleden.

We were constantly on the lookout for these friendly red signs and occasionally one was missed and a bit of retracing had to go on.

It was a trip that would take us through villages with chocolate box houses lined with cornflowers, hollyhocks and the smell of roses, many homes proudly flying the blue and yellow Swedish flag. We would see cities like Malmo, Ystad and Simrishamn up close too — and we would experience a smorgasbord of culinary variations on this unique adventure.

And so with more than a little help from Alfred in Skane tourism (visitskane.com), our course was plotted.

We would begin on the west coast in Helsingborg and through daily stages of up to 60km we would wend our way along the southern coast through the Skane region, reaching our final destination, the city of Simrisham on the east coast.

Good bikes were essential for our adventure and we were fitted out expertly by Travelshop (travelshop.se) at their base beside Knutpunkten, Helsingborg’s central station.

We took a day to see the sights of this city, and among the highlights was the excellent Dunkers arts centre and museum which gave a real flavour of Sweden’s past; and the historic Karnan castle with amazing views over the city.

The Sofiero Palace and gardens on the outskirts of the city is one of Skane’s most popular attractions, an oasis of over 10,000 plants.

Our first day’s cycling was designed as a warmer-upper, a modest 27km on the Sydkustleden to Landskrona.

Worth seeing outside Landskrona is Citadellet, a moated fortress built between 1549-1559 which down the centuries was fought over by the Danes and Swedes. There are guided tours daily and a ticket cost around €8.

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Photo: The Sunday World

We stayed at the magnificent new Hotel Oresund Conference and Spa, which backs on to a massive new marina. We even hit upon an open-air beach concert at the city beach Lagunen which was only five minutes’ walk from the hotel.

Quickly we were getting a flavour of a Sweden we had known nothing about — far removed from Volvo, Ikea or Abba.

The rural scenery never disappointed.

If it wasn’t a golden wheat or barley field — and, believe me, the size of fields would make an Irish farmer envious — it was acres of potatoes, or rapeseed, or onions, even baby trees growing in drills as far as the eye could see.

And all enhanced by the salty smell of the sea.

We would also discover Sweden’s extraordinary drinking laws. Basically, you cannot buy alcohol in a supermarket or a filling station.

The off-licences, called System Bolaget, are run by the State, operate 10am to 6pm, and close at weekends.

Swedes have different takes on this restrictive system. One girl said it had cut down on road accidents by 30pc. Another man said politicians were afraid to change it, and felt it was a touch of the nanny state. The EU are also looking at it.

Our second day would be tougher — a 57km spin that would take us to Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city.

Master this and we would conquer Sweden — well, the southern corner, anyway!

When we reached Malmo, home town of soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimovic, we were a little saddle-sore and glad we had given ourselves that extra day to explore the city.

Malmo was lively and busy, the 16th century Lila Torg Square a hive of activity lined with half-timbered houses and a great place to have a beer and watch the world go by.

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Photo: The Sunday World

One of the high points was a visit to Folkets Park, a place alive with activity and atmosphere. We enjoyed really amazing food at Far i Hatten, a cosy restaurant located in the park.

With its excellent bike paths, Malmo is a joy for the cyclist.

Major action for shoppers is at Mollan, or you could take a bath at the Ribban open-air bathhouse, walk through the park Pildammsparken, or have a cup of coffee at the Slottstradgarden castle garden café.

You can’t miss the Twisted Torso, Malmo’s iconic skyscraper, and the tallest building in Scandanavia.

Uniquely the building curves 90 degrees clockwise as it rises to a height of 190 metres.

Outside Malmo, the beaches stretch for miles and Lomma beach is a favourite among families.

There is also a nudist beach outside the city and open-air swimming baths.

Day three would take us to Skanor, a distance of 51km. A visit to the Viking Museum outside the town of Holviken sees ‘real’ Vikings take part in everyday life and is on Lonely Planet’s Bucket List.

Near Skanor — famed for its horse fair — an array of bright pastel-coloured bathing huts dominate the sand dunes on beaches several miles long.

Our destination on day four was Trelleborg, Sweden’s southernmost city.

The harbour is one of the largest in the country with ferries to Germany and Poland. A Swedish ‘Fika’ (coffee break with cinnamon bun) is a must in the old water tower.

On a sun-drenched pedestrianized street, tourists were busy taking pictures of themselves beside the iconic public art statue ‘Bosk’ ironically featuring umbrellas! We watched, beer in hand.

Day five took us the 47km to Ystad, hometown of Mankell where there are dedicated tours to the spots immortalised in the Wallender series.

The historic Sekelgarden Hotel Anno with its timber beams and history dating back to 1793 proved to be a wonderful location in the heart of the city. But such is the serenity of the place

with its picture-postcard houses it’s difficult to imagine multiple murders here.

On the final day’s cycling as we left Ystad, dark clouds appeared.

The mist Wallander talked about had arrived.

Then it stated to really rain.

For 20km it bucketed down, we got wet, we got used to it, we actually began to enjoy it — and then it stopped and the welcome sunshine re-appeared. We changed into dry clothes in a graveyard beside a busy crossroads. Motorists must have been amused.

But it was glorious to cycle into Simrishamn, a stunning medieval town filled with tourists and their boats.

Picturesque pastel-coloured houses with beautifully carved doors line the cobbled streets, along with spectacular floral displays.

Dinner at En Gaffel kort just by the harbour, with ocean view included, was top notch with genuine yet innovative food based on locally-produced ingredients.

The key to cycling is have a good breakfast and the Swedes get the day off to a good start — scrambled eggs, bacon, cheeses, muesli and plenty of sweet stuff.

Travel notes

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Photo: The Sunday World

We flew with Ryanair from Dublin to Copenhagen airport.

The airport has direct trains to Sweden, over the Oresund Bridge with Malmo just half an hour away and Hensingborg (where our cycle started) about an hour off

The bridge has opened Sweden up to the rest of Europe. It took four years to build and is the longest combined road and rail bridge in Europe.

Skane tourism was determined we would experience different aspects of Sweden, so we stayed in the rather funky Ohboy Hotell in Malmo where you let yourself in.

By contrast we also basked in the castle grounds of the Jordberga Park Hotel in the heart of the country, which even had its own micro brewery amid fields of corn dotted with unique 19th-century limestone kilns.

Nearby was Smygehuk, the southernmost point of Sweden with a fine view from a preserved lighthouse.

When you have visited the Coign of Vantage at Smygehuk, you can get a certificate to prove you were there.

Sweden is expensive, particularly booze. A glass of wine or a half litre of beer costs around €7 to €8.

We were also impressed by Sweden’s varied culinary choices. From the ubiquitous pizza to the more traditional salmon, herring and meat dishes, it’s all available. Restaurant prices are on a par with Ireland, but wine is more expensive.

Summer temperatures in southern Sweden are quite similar to Ireland and thus ideal for cycling.

Given their global reputation for the best work-life balance, not surprisingly we found the Swedes very helpful if you seek help; otherwise they don’t smother or bother you.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday World.

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