Småland is an area in Sweden also called “The Kingdom of Glass”, as it is the location of most of Sweden’s famous glassworks. The route to take from Stockholm is the E4 – once one has negotiated the endless road works that beleaguer traffic in and out of the city.
En route southwest lies the small town of Eksjö. Here visitors can stroll around the small Gamla Stan (Old Town), and see some of the best-preserved wooden buildings in Sweden, which date from the 17th century. The main street is lined with tubs of geraniums and petunias, and passes over a tumbling brook complete with a small weir and mill, now no longer in use.
The main church is a little gem dating from the 11th century, beside which stands a 10th century rune stone – a not unfamiliar sight throughout Sweden. Inside are many lovely decorations. I particularly enjoyed a series of 16 rather crude oil panels on wood, each depicting an angel playing a now-defunct instrument: a sackbut, dulcimer, shawm and bombard. An octagonal, oil-painted tablet depicts Lazarus rising from the dead, while a lower panel depicts the commissionaire, Postmaster Knutsson, and his wife and ten children – five girls and five boys – all kneeling piously in prayer in a masterly display of miniature perspective.
There is no shortage of interesting churches in Småland; every small town has one, each with its own individual character and architecture, each unique and beautifully maintained. Sometimes a wooden bell tower stands separately – a wise move considering the destruction by fire of so many wooden churches through the ages.
In the centre of the small city of Växjö – regarded as the gateway to the Glass Kingdom
– stands the distinctive Domkyrka – a magnificent cathedral with a long history. The booklet tells us that a wooden church was built on the site during the 11th century, when this region was converted from paganism to Christianity. A stone church followed a century later, which, when damaged by fire, was replaced during the 15th century by a larger version with two spires. The Danes burnt this down in 1570 and 1611 during the centuries-long conflicts between Denmark and Sweden for control of Scandinavia.
Further renovations and additions took place during the 19th century, and today’s
gloriously proud edifice was restored between 1957 and 1960. The twin-towered west façade is an unusual sight, with its needle-slim green copper spires and ochre-painted walls decorated with white patterns.
The interior is a veritable gallery of fabulous modern glassworks: the breathtaking altarpiece is the work of Bertil Vallien (2002), a complex design of glass panels depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments. The Tree of Life and Knowledge is a masterpiece of metal branches and translucent light and dark green glass leaves. Inside, the Temptation is depicted, with Adam and Eve greedily holding out their hands to the snake’s alluring fruit.
There are many other glass works of art in this cathedral, each redolent with Christian symbols and messages.
There are also three organs, “from three centuries”: 1779, 1885 and 1984.
Also of interest in Växjö is the House of Immigrants, a museum which explores the intense hardship faced by the Småland peasant population during the famine in the mid- 19th century, and their subsequent emigration to America. The displays and panels, also in English (because of numerous American pilgrims), trace the lives of individual immigrants, and recount the story of the shipping industry that flourished due to the immigration frenzy. Conditions on board were dire, with many people packed into small spaces often shared with oxen, pigs and other livestock.
Included is the sad tale of one Mautitz Ådahl, who sailed on the ill-fated Titanic in April 1912, and who was one of several hundred third-class Swedish emigrants who, due to insufficient life-boats, perished during the disaster. Only the “Lucky Swede” was a success-story, striking it rich in the Klondike, before losing it all to his chorus-girl wife. A fifth of the population of Sweden left during the second half of the 19th century – most from the Småland area – though some returned to their native land during the Great Depression in the 1930’s.
A little history (courtesy of glassOnline – A Brief History of Glass): https://zazna.com/cache/fSi8qJ20Ks/GlassOnline-com-A-Brief-History-of-Glass.html “Natural glass has existed since the beginning of time, formed when certain types of rock melted as a result of high-temperature phenomena – such as volcanic eruptions, lightning strikes or the impact of meteorites – and then cooled and solidified rapidly.
The earliest man-made glass objects, mainly non-transparent glass beads, are thought to have been made around 3500 BC, in Egypt and eastern Mesopotamia. In the third millennium the basic raw materials of glass were being used in central Mesopotamia to glaze pots and vases. The discovery may have been coincidental, with calciferous sand finding its way into an overheated kiln and combining with soda to form a coloured glaze on the ceramics. It was then principally the Phoenician merchants and sailors who spread this new art along the Mediterranean coast.
There is evidence, too, of other ancient glassmaking activities emerging independently, in Mycenae, China and North Tyrol.
A major breakthrough in glassmaking was the discovery of glassblowing some time between 27 BC and 14 AD, attributed to Syrian craftsmen from the Sidon-Babylon area. The long, thin metal tube used in the blowing process has changed very little since then. In the last century BC, the ancient Romans began blowing glass inside moulds, greatly increasing the variety of shapes possible for hollow glass items.
In the Middle Ages, the Italian city of Venice assumed its role as the glassmaking centre of the western world. The Venetian merchant fleet ruled the Mediterranean, and helped supply Venice’s glass craftsmen with the technical know-how of their counterparts in Syria, and with the artistic influence of Islam. The importance of the glass industry in Venice can be seen in the number of craftsmen at work there – more than 8,000 at one point.”
And so the long and fascinating story of glass began.
The techniques used in the Glass Kingdom are in many respects nothing new, but thousands of years old.
The first step in creating a piece, I learned, is the “gathering” of the molten glass from the crucible of molten glass nestled within the volcanic maw of a roaring-hot furnace (1200 degrees C), at the end of a long blowpipe. The master then blows with a short, firm blast into the end of the pipe, awaits the arrival into the globule of the air bubble, and, turning continually, begins to shape the hollowed orb with further blowing and a variety of techniques. These could be casting (using a solid mould), rolling it on a marver (steel table used for shaping), or moulding it in a wad of water-logged newspaper or a “block” (a wooden, cup-shaped mould) – both held in the palm of the hand.
If the artist needs to re-heat the glass to work on it further, he places it into the “glory hole” – another chimeric furnace – to soften it again.
Thereafter, various techniques are applied to achieve different decorative effects: crackling (dipping a piece while hot into a bucket of cold water, shattering the outside of the glass while leaving the inside intact, and giving the appearance of cracked glass), casing (applying an additional layer of clear glass over previous gathers of different colours and designs), or “feathering” (dragging a thread of glass in a different colour across a hot piece while rotating the original piece on the blowstick.)
There is also “flamework” or “lamping” – using a table-top torch and cold canes & tubes of glass to make a variety of smaller glass objects.
A wooden “paddle” is used to flatten the end of a piece, while a “cookie” is a small blob of hot glass pressed onto the marver and used as the foot on a piece. Fascinating, too, was to watch the artists cut off the molten mouth of a vase or bowl with large shears, forming a long spiral of coloured, razor-sharp glass which drops, like an apple-peeling, into a tin box. (I collected some of these colourful off-cuts later, dazzling in their raw beauty.)
At the end of the creative process, the hot glass articles are placed in an annealer overnight, to cool slowly to avoid cracking, while the temperature within gradually drops.
Golden globes of hot, liquid glass; syrupy, translucent, gathered and blown into magnificent shapes and objects by master craftsmen. Iridescent, clear, pure, reflecting all the colours of the rainbow ‐ is this the magic of man or of nature?
Perhaps it is both: a distillation of nature’s elements wrought by the skill of man into objects of unsurpassed beauty.
We watch spellbound as the molten mass transforms from a luminous lump into one graceful shape after another – now a tangerine orb with a cobalt core, then spun into a blur of flared blue with a scarlet rim, and finally a bowl with a rippling edge, cool and pure blue ‐ the colour of sky.
Another boiling bulb blooms from a green orb, spangled with white veins, into a sea‐ green pitcher, or a tall, elegant vase ‐ the colour of the forest.
King Gustav Vasa (r.1523-60) was Sweden’s first glass pioneer, founding glassworks in Stockholm during the mid-16th century. But large amounts of fuel were needed to feed the furnaces, and such fuel could only be found in Småland, an area of dense birch and pine forests. And so the glassworks were relocated there.
The forest is impenetrable, deep and dark. I have the weird déjà vu sensation that I have been here before. Was it in dreams, or perhaps a past life? The quality of this sensation is dreamlike, fantastic, other‐worldly. The scent of pine mingles with that of damp earth and moss. Ferns and undergrowth fill every space, green tendrils winding through the undergrowth. This experience begins to take on a nightmare quality. One can feel trapped, threatened by the damp and fenny gloom. This country is so wet and watery; there are many lakes, rivers, streams and bogs everywhere, fed by melting snows and ice.
I am an African, accustomed to heat and drought, wide open spaces, and crackling dry bushveld screaming with cicadas. Or silent bushveld – suspended in the midday heat, breathless, waiting.
This forest also waits, the silence occasionally punctuated by strange bird calls. I am in Europe ‐ a continent once infested with bears, wolves and dangerous brigands – a veritable marsh, a woodland bog. Imagine travelling by horse‐drawn carriage through this – the foul weather and the muddy, rutted roads!
And then I remember how and when I have been here before: in the Germanic tales of childhood ‐ tales of inconceivable child abuse, sorcery, witchcraft and magic. The world of Andersen and the Brothers Grimm come alive in these fairy‐tale Swedish woods with their tall black firs, thundering waterfalls and granite cliffs. Here they come alive, in all their brutal, shadowy mystery ‐ a perfect setting for the sinister machinations of evil make‐believe creatures, witches, trolls, spirits and specters.
The Glassworks we visited – each clearly sign-posted from the main roads – are world- famous, some founded as long ago as the mid-18th century (for example Kosta, originally an ironworks, in1742), the others in the late 19th century – Matts Jonasson at Målerås (1890), Pukeberg (1871), Orrefors (1898), Boda (1864), Skruv (1897), and Bergdala (1889). Some were founded in the last century: Sea (1956) and Nybro (1935), and Målerås more recently, in 2009. Many of the glassworks are now under the same umbrella ownership, absorbing many of the smaller ones along with them.
Tronsjö, a small privately-owned glassworks near Kosta:
We have stepped into a glass wonderland ‐ a tranquil glade where fronded trees confer quietly with one another over a tea‐coloured stream. This is a man‐made paradise, festooned with glass ornaments which spiral and rotate in the gentle breeze.
An aquamarine disc hangs suspended over the stream, casting iridescent reflections into the water. An octagon with a plump‐lipped face and mosaic‐spangled rim catches the sunlight and spins the colours of the rainbow into the bright morning air. A large diamond is suspended over the stream, its comical face of a myriad colours watches us, unblinking. These large ornaments have been blown by the Master of Tronsjö, a virtuoso sorcerer of glass.
It is a place of peace, beauty and magic. I shall imagine myself in this enchanted place again, later.
Each glassworks (bruk) has a hytt (hut) – a shed where the professional craftsmen can be watched blowing and turning glass into all sorts of magnificent shapes and objects – and usually a museum, an exhibition hall displaying recent glass artworks, a café or restaurant, and of course a shop. The shops are veritable Aladdin’s caves of magnificent tableware, ornaments, lamps and gifts, all displaying the individual personalities and techniques of the artists of each bruk. All are obtainable with a discount if you are in possession of a Glassriket Pass. Most still favour Czech crystal, but when it comes to ornaments, vases and bowls, the Swedish craftsmen are quite superb.
Accommodation in the area varies considerably, ranging from fancy to “unremarkable” hotels, rented apartments, houses and cottages, and “other” (Sweden doesn’t really abound in B ‘n B’s in the English sense.) “Other” can include old inns or manor houses, such as Grimsnäs Herrgård where we lodged for two nights – an experience in itself.
This old property, surrounded by an ancient oak forest, lies in the heart of the Glass Kingdom. A shared bathroom down the hall and cardboard-thin walls through which the neighbours could be heard snoring lustily, was evidence of yet another of those all-too- familiar exaggerated websites. But if you could overlook the inconvenience of cool showers (unless you get in early), narrow boarding-type beds, and fruitless (literally) breakfasts, then time spent in a 17th century manor house with creaking floors and a quaint atmosphere can be rather an adventure.
The approach, through a long, tree-lined avenue, held great promise. And if the lodging was rather cold and inadequate – most of the trip was bedeviled with chilly, rainy weather – the warmth of the other guests, friendly Swedes with whom we struck up conversations, certainly compensated.
Always fascinated with etymologies, I was able, through the linguistic skills of an erudite retired policeman, to understand a little more about the interesting suffixes to the names of Swedish towns. Interestingly, some are similar to English ones, revealing connections to Viking invasions long ago: torp (old cottage), by (settlement or village), bo (a place to live), köping (pronounced “shöpping” – somewhere where goods are bought and sold), hult (holt – a piece of woodland; especially a woody hill). Thus: Bengstorp, Hagby, Greveshult and Backabo.
Other names have obvious geographical contexts: Tjugojsö (tjugo = twenty, sjö = lake, thus “Twenty-lakes”), Ideskog (skog = forest), Srufvnäs (näs = nose or isthmus) and Orrabäck (bäck = brook, pronounced “beck”. Also an old English for a brook or stream.) It is amusing to translate place names when traveling, as this simple occupation reveals more about the history, psychology and culture of a people.
Hyttsill at Målerås Glassworks:
After a hard day’s work in the hytt, it is time to enjoy hyttsill – “hot‐shop herring” – the national dish of the Glass Kingdom, and a genuine Småland experience dating back to a time when the glassworks was a community gathering place.
It is now evening; the cold, day‐long rain has abated, and we relish the warmth of the now‐quiet furnaces, which are never completely extinguished.
It is time to gather together with friends, relax, and taste the rich, traditional fare of Småland. Long trestle tables are laden with platters of salted herrings, one baked in creamy brine, another pickled and cold, the third drenched in a rich, clove‐spiced mustard sauce. There are also platters of grilled bacon, roast pork, and plump, bready sausages with gravy. Enormous spuds are served with bowls of flavoured butter and sour cream, and there is bread, knäkerbröd (crispbread) and butter, all accompanied by freshly‐pressed lingonberry juice and throat‐scalding bitter schnapps.
For dessert there is warm baked curd cheese cake, served with homemade strawberry jam and whipped cream, followed by mugs of strong coffee.
An accordion‐player provides traditional folk music, and we sing along old Swedish drinking songs and toasts.
In days gone by, wandering tramps sought warmth, food and shelter in the glassworks, and told tales and disseminated news. When begging became forbidden by the Swedish government, they began making small objects and crafts out of wire and other bits and pieces, to sell. This simple peasant craft industry evolved alongside the glass production. A museum at Kosta displays their simple items.
Stories are exchanged with fellow travelers, continuing an age‐old tradition. They are interested to hear about our country, and we are eager for their advice and suggestions about theirs.
Replete and silently spell‐bound, we now watch master craftsman Carlos from Uruguay weave his magic with orbs of molten glass. He skillfully makes patterns of stick men on his vase, using coloured glass straws, while constantly turning his blowpipe, shaping and blowing, and moulding this mysterious material. It looks so easy! But we know that years of training and practice go into the making of each perfect piece.
The Grönåsens Älgpark (Elk or Moose Park) near Kosta, although small, was a delightful interlude during our glass pilgrimage. We enjoyed our “moose safari” – a 1.5 km walk through the park, with cheerful birdsong and crisp, pine-scented air. Tall wooden look-out towers enable visitors to seek out these shy illusive beasts in their natural enclosures. Through the wire fence I was able to touch their strange velvety antlers, and the nose of a large elk bull as he contentedly licked a lump of salt.
Also intriguing was a pen full of farm fowls for the children, which included a few spotted guinea fowl which chirped querulously at our approach.
Moose facts in the brochure inform visitors that these magnificent Nordic creatures live up to 25 years, have an 8-month gestation period – usually producing 2 calves – and that moose bulls lose their horns at the end of each winter and grow back new ones within 7 months. Sadly many of the 300,000 moose in Sweden are killed in car accidents each year, as they lunge forth from the undergrowth and hurtle across major highways.
Wooden chalets are available for rental within the park, and there are barbecue areas and fishing facilities. A shop filled with soft moose-toys, souvenirs and other tourist tat, and smoked meats and moose leather goods (from the popular hunting season) is judiciously placed at the only exit to the complex. The proceeds go to the conservation of these gentle endangered animals.
On the west coast of Småland lies the Baltic port of Kalmar. There, housed in the Länsmuseum, a refurbished steam mill, is the Kronan Exhibition. The Kronan was a Swedish warship – then one of the world’s largest vessels – which sank in 1676 during a battle against the Danes, with a loss of 800 of its 842 crew. The museum displays numerous artifacts found on the wreck off the coast of Öland island in1980, and includes human bones, items of clothing, a medicine chest, personal effects, and even musical instruments, some in reasonable condition, others not.
A video and walk-through reconstruction, complete with sound-effects, brought alive for us this long ago naval battle, and catastrophic end to this proud royal vessel.
Kalmar Cathedral was designed in 1660 by Nicodemus Tessin the Elder, a significant Pomeranian-born Swedish architect (1615 – 1681) who also designed Drottningholm and Skokloster Palaces near Stockholm. The Cathedral is Classical in design, but inspired by Roman Renaissance influences from Tessin’s studies in Italy. It is a remarkable structure, and symbolic of Sweden’s Great Power Era. The brochure informs visitors that Tessin designed the cathedral according to the Evangelical-Lutheran doctrine: altar as focal point, with homogenous white walls producing a unifying effect and emphasizing the community – a “the meeting place between God and man”.
The music swells and thunders through this great, white space. The organist, already poised for departure, has agreed to delay his supper a little longer and play some Bach especially for me! It is a thrilling experience as the music cascades around us in a waterfall of sound.
Music! Music! God how I love music! The sensation is physical, raw, as the ground beneath my feet vibrates. I look around me with awe at the high‐arched magnificence of the interior, luminous in bright afternoon sunlight. Surely there is a God, who invested mankind with gifts to create great works to His praise and glory ‐ MUSIC, sculpture, painting, carvings and reliefs, in marble, wood, plaster and gold.
I feel bliss – and profound gratitude.
Apart form the Cathedral, Kalmar Castle is the pother main tourist destination in this seaside city. It stands majestically on its own island, complete with moat and drawbridge, dungeon and storybook ramparts and turrets.
It’s foundations were thought to have been laid during the 12th century, and successive additions resulted in its gradual expansion through ensuing dynasties. When Gustav Vasa became King of Sweden in 1523, he set about rebuilding and refurbishing it. His sons, who later became Eric XIV and Johan III, decorated the interior, converting it into one of the most magnificent Renaissance palaces in Scandinavia.
Stufvenäs Gästgifveri (Guest House) is a beautiful old country hotel 35 km south of Kalmar which had been recommended by a friend. Here there are facilities for wedding receptions and conferences, as well as a delightful atmosphere for a romantic weekend retreat, with comfortable accommodation and superb cuisine.
Stufvenäs occupies a beautiful location on Kalmar Sound. The näs suffix refers to the inlet on the Baltic nearby, which provides the hotel with its own small private lake. The house has a long history that dates back to the early 19th century, and in summer it is surrounded by a sea of golden grain, rapidly ripening for harvest, broken only by the odd copse of ancient European trees.
Dinner may be a traditional Småland set menu: to start, a slice of dark rye bread topped with chopped egg, herrings and a slice of sweet red onion, and served with tiny bowls of crème frâiche and mustard sauce. Next is a daunting platter laden with a game-meat patty, a generous chunk of glazed roast pork and sausage, accompanied by lingonberry sauce, a slice of rich mushroom terrine, and boiled potatoes. Dessert is the classic Småland curd cheese cake, served with fresh strawberry jam and whipped cream.
Alternatively, from the á la carte menu there is gazpacho, served with a clutch of tiny sweet crayfish tails, steak with fennel slaw and roasted root vegetables – radishes, parsnips, carrots, onions, fennel bulbs and turnips, and small, raspberry-flavoured truffles for dessert. Coffee or tea may then be enjoyed afterwards in the cozy lounge which is beautifully furnished with Swedish antiques, ornaments, and glass items from the nearby studios.
Full moon on the näs
Why have the Swiss ladies assembled on the front verandah? I go outside into the warm night air to investigate. It is after ten, and the sun has left a tangerine tinge in the west. In the east the full‐sailed moon slowly glides above the Baltic, casting a spill of silver‐gilt pennies onto the trembling surface of the näs. The front lawn, reeds and trees have also been caressed with her silver‐Midas touch, and stand frozen, statuesque, in the pale summer night.
The dry scent of the wheat fields mingles with the tang of the marshy bay, while from the dining room waft the aromas of roasted meats, vanilla‐flavoured desserts and coffee.
The only sound is the wind ‐ a great hand brushing back and forth through the wheat, idly caressing, tenderly lingering, like a mother’s hand through her child’s hair.
Road travel through south-eastern Sweden was an interesting experience: an abundance of caravans on the roads during the summer semester (holidays) attests to the Swedes’ love of outdoor holiday-making beside the lakes and sea. The dearth of “ultra-cities”, with which we are so familiar in South Africa – and which we take so for granted – were conspicuous in their absence. There are very few places to stop and rest, refuel (self-service), buy a simple meal or sweets, and to use the toilet. Perhaps there is a niche here, to establish a chain of “pit-stops”. The few stops we did find were poorly staffed, with long queues for take-out food and toilets – hence the odd motorist seen relieving himself by the side of the road.
Otherwise travelers looked much the same as anywhere in the world in summer: men in shorts and T-shirts and women in scruffy summer gear, all enjoying holiday junk food while their ice-cream-licking children scamper around bare-footed.
Amusing are the numerous “leaping reindeer” and “trotting moose” road signs in orange and red triangles, as well as for other small creatures, such as ducks and pheasants.
I was reminded of the “leaping kudu”, “wandering cattle”, and even “hippopotamus crossing” signs in South Africa.
Sadly, since this trip to Småland, several of the glass works have folded, but thankfully not Kosta, Boda, Orrefors and Mats Jonasson.