Bjorn in Mellanfjärden along the Kustvägen (Coastal Road).
This is Part 2 of our Europe 2016 Cape North to Gibraltar series, click here to check out Part 1: Stockholm and Central Sweden. After getting a glimpse of Sweden’s capital Stockholm and touring the home of the iconic Dala Horse near Lake Siljan, we continue to head north – a rather good idea if we do want to reach Nordkapp indeed..
Starting in Gnarp, we first discover the impossibly beautiful tiny harbours lining up the famed Kustvägen (Coastal Road), then hop on the majestic Höga Kustenbron (High Coast Bridge) to follow the Bothnian Coast all the way up to Finland, in Ylläsjärvi to be precise, where one of the wonders of Scandinavia awaits us: the aurora borealis…
But before we go exploring today, a nice surprise from Sweden’s best-selling car magazine, Auto Motor & Sport. AMS has been supporting BSCB by subscribing to the site from the very early days on, but it’s always heartwarming to see bestsellingcarsblog.com mentioned halfway round the world. The issue that was on sale when I visited the country had a special world market exploration dedicated to Kenya, and AMS kindly quoted us as the source. Thank you!
We met no bear – incidentally, björn is Swedish for bear…
In the first post of this Photo Series, I revelled in the fact that everything is working the way it’s supposed to in Sweden after spending four days in Malta, the kingdom of rip-off. But it’s not just “things” that are pleasantly efficient here. People are kind, trustworthy and reliable. At the end of my first day of driving, I arrived very late at a guesthouse in Gnarp that I had booked online only an hour earlier. Not to worry, the staff was asleep but left the entry door open, with the keys of all available rooms at reception for me to choose from. I just had to leave a note saying who I was and which room I chose. In the morning, it’s all smiles and welcome and copious buffet breakfast. Honesty goes a long way.
Björn in SkåtanSkåtanThis is the Sweden I remembered.
From Gnarp, we backtrack a few kilometres to catch the Kustvägen right from the very start at Jättendal and its picturesque church. Headed towards the Bothnian Gulf, we soon reach Mellanfjärden – pictured above and right at the top of this article. Back in 1993 when I first visited Sweden as a teenager, I got totally mesmerised by tiny, hauntingly quiet harbours open to a mirror-like sea. One of the aims of this portion of the trip was to recapture this feeling. And as soon as I get out of the XC90 in Mellanfjärden, it’s right there again for me to experience. Boat masts, water against the jetty and seagulls are the only sounds. No one seems to live here yet everyone is so discreet and quiet that all houses could be full of people for all I know. I drive Björn to the end of the jetty for a few photos. I soak in the calm. It’s heaven.
Our next stop on the Kustvägen is Skåtan (see pictures further up in the article). Driving into Skåtan is like driving into a town-sized museum. Every house is impeccably painted with the traditional red colour we have come to get used to since we left Stockholm, all gardens are meticulously manicured, yet it all feels homely, natural and welcoming. Being outside of summer season, the main/only restaurant in town is closed – another opportunity to enjoy the calm. Everyone passing by says hello. Can I please retire here.
Lörudden towards the end of the Kustvägen.
The last noteworthy stop along the Kustvägen is tiny Lörudden, where the houses (red-obviously!) give straight onto the harbour with no cars allowed near them, instead a vast parking is provided hinterland. Perfect. As I arrive the place is foggy and a little mournful, but goes from fog to full sunlight in a matter of minutes. And the spectacle continues. Simply but tastefully decorated windows, nothing out of place, Lörudden is a village deliciously frozen in time.
After 48 hours familiarising myself with Björn our Volvo XC90, I have to admit it’s been very difficult to fault him. The cabin exudes sophistication, every noise alert – seatbelt, line-assist, car in the blind spot as you prepare to overtake – is smooth and non-confrontational. The line-assist itself, as I progressively get used to it each day, is a stunning piece of technology that actually does make you feel safer on a constant basis. You know the car will nudge you back in place, without fault. I did try to provoke it into not reacting (repeated movements, fast, slow…) but always failed. The touch screen display is brilliant and instinctive to manoeuvre, keeping menu navigation bars at all times so it’s effortless to switch screens. You can get an overall view of what you really want to follow on the screen without having to back- and forward-screen all the time – see below two examples: 1. the all-navigation menu and 2. the detail of music menu with other menu bars (Navigation, Phone…) still there and clickable but not obtrusive. You can zoom the navigation map by just pinching the screen like on an iPad. Simply brilliant.
So of course, I did play the mandatory ABBA and Ace of Base to put me in a full-Swedish mood. I had to. Now one fantastic option this XC90 has been equipped with is the $4.500 Sensus Premium Sound by Bowers & Wilkins. I’ll cut to the chase: this is quite possibly the best sound I have ever got to listen to in any car I have driven so far in my life. Yessir. I threw everything I could at this sound system, the biggest bass lines, treble, music that would normally send even a robust sound system to the grave (try some good ol’ bass-heavy rap or nineties eurotrash), but nothing even came close to ruffling its feathers. Very impressive indeed. The only slight disappointment I have so far with Björn is the instability of the car (truck?) on the unsealed sections of the Kustvägen. At a full two tonnes, the XC90 isn’t a lightweight, granted, but it’s not the heaviest of the pack and its rear-end got a little too wobbly for my liking when I pushed the car more aggressively on winding roads. Surprising, yet again I am also discovering that this is not an SUV that was primarily destined to play in the mud.
Hyundai i30 SW sporting its add-on headlights like a Boss.
As for the surrounding car landscape we are encountering on this part of Sweden, the one element that has stood out the night before when arriving at Gnarp is the presence of add-on headlights on the bonnet of almost every single car. This is a rural part of Sweden with the only one-lane artery connecting Stockholm to Luleå, the rest being unlit countryside narrow and winding roads. Still, the Swedes seem to have a particular love for facing over-lit night landscapes, and this could have a lot to do with the omnipresence of wildlife throughout the country, namely reindeer, elk and bear. We have spotted none of the above yet though.
The main trend we described in the First Part of this series – an obsession with Station Wagons – continues on as we progress north, with a significant amount of VW Golf Alltrack such as the one pictured above spotted in Lörudden. This is however not a new trend, illustrated by the robust amount of middle-aged – I did not say vintage, anything older than 15 years seems to have miraculously disappeared from Swedish roads – luxury Mercedes, BMW and Audi-branded kombis, streaming around in the company of Volvos.
It’s full 900km and past midnight before we cross the border into Finland, and with an (unexpected) one-hour time difference between Sweden and Finland we immediately find ourselves even further into the night. But there’s a surprise waiting. Contacting my hotel earlier in the day, I learnt that the aurora borealis forecast was good for the night. A little like trying to spot kangaroos in the wild when I first arrived in Australia, the search is made harder when you don’t actually know what to look for. But suddenly and right above my head, here it is. Like curtains dancing in the sky. It was the very beginning of the aurora season when I visited (mid-September) so this almost god-like apparition only lasted a few seconds and prevented any pictures to be taken, leaving me wondering whether this was just all a big hallucination as perhaps I had been driving for way too long today. A nice chat wit the hotel owner around a very hearty Finnish breakfast the morning after confirms I have not lost my mind: I did just see my very first aurora borealis.
As I get ready for what could end up being the most exciting day of this European adventure, I notice the morning sunlight has a very distinct, softened glow. We have arrived in Lapland.
Stay tuned for the next iteration in this Photo Series: the journey to Nordkapp…