Day 4

Thursday, 20 August 2015
Start: Gränna (S) 06:00
Arrival: Timrå (S) 19:30
Total: 726 km

Whenever I know that I have a very long day ahead, I tend to wake up on my own very early. Before the sun was up, I was fit and ready to go. But we had yet to pay for our accommodation. Hoping that the hotel staff were early birds as well, we loaded our luggage into the car and made for the hotel reception. The main entrance was locked. I rang the bell and waited. Nothing. That was unexpected. They locked their guests in for the night and just left? Finding that hard to believe for a four-star-hotel, I pressed the button again, this time more insistently. We didn't just want to leave, even though technically they had our credit card details. But I consider it rude just to up and go, without at least a good-bye and a friendly smile.
After what seemed like an eternity, a grumpy man opened the door a tiny bit. He evidently didn't share my friendly-smile convictions. Undeterred, I beamed at him: "Good morning. We would like to check out." He let us in, stepped behind the counter and started typing into his computer, all this without saying a single word. We waited anxiously. Was he mad at us for waking him up? Or maybe he just didn't speak English? He handed me the invoice, I paid and gave back the room key, all the while smiling good-naturedly at him, determined to infect him with my upbeat mood. Unfortunately, he was equally determined to stay grumpy. Finally, I asked whether it was a problem to check out so early. He gave me a stony look: "No." All right, then. We left, wishing him a good day, but he didn't find it necessary to make a reply. His bad. We were looking forward to an exciting new day.
Outside, the air was crisp and chill, the sort of tangling early morning feel that I enjoy way too little when at home. The grey morning light and a light drizzle set us in a perfect great-adventures-ahead mood. At a gas station, we bought an improvised breakfast of juice, bread rolls, chips and bananas. The guy behind the counter was as cheerio as we were. What more do you need?


Rök Runestone

Our first stop was yet another Viking attraction, in fact the last one on this journey. All around southern Scandinavia, there are stones covered with the old Norse alphabet Futhark. One such especially large rune stone is standing in a church yard in the little village of Rök, the village being named after the rock itself, I imagine. A bit like the English town of Battle, where the Battle of Hastings (or should that be the Battle of Battle?) took place.
Singing along to the music playing in our car, we missed the exit for Rök and had to make quite a long detour to turn around. Good thing we started early. The country road to Rök was asphalted, but quite narrow and bumpy. We crossed one village after another, all sporting picturesque red houses with white beams, the kind that you immediately associate with rural Sweden. We would see a lot more of these houses and finally took a picture of one in Luleå.
After the first road-sign for Rök at the highway exit, the landmark was no longer signposted and we started to wonder whether we were even on the right road. But suddenly, a parking lot in front of a beautiful little church appeared on our left. The huge stone in front of it couldn't be missed. We had found it! In the parking lot, a couple was eating breakfast in front of their camper. Except for them, there wasn't a soul around.
We slowly strolled around the church, admiring the weather-beaten old grave stones and enjoying the chill morning air, before stepping up to the main attraction: the rune stone. It was even more enormous than I had imagined, certainly bigger than the stone we had visited in Denmark a few years back. To scholars of Old English like Sonia and I are, such an artefact is of course quite a treat, although we never learnt to read the old Norse script. A plaque next to the stone informed the visitor of the story on the stone: It had been erected by a father whose son had died in a battle. And he had even signed his name on the bottom of the stone!
From Rök, we drove north toward Örebro, along lakes, hills and fields. Until nine o'clock, there was a thick fog envelopping us, holding the promise of a bright, sunny day. And indeed, as the morning progressed, the sun came out and we had yet another hot summer day.
There was no large highway going to Falun, and the Bergslagsdiagonale was a slow and winding road. This part of Sweden is called Bergslag, because the people lived here under the "Law of the Mountains". What sounds at first a bit brutish is in fact rather progressive: the miners were not subjected to the far-away king's whim, but made their own rules and justice, as a free, self-determined community.
The road was just one lane in each direction, although there was quite a bit of the traffic. Every few kilometers, there was a second lane to pass slow traffic. Unfortunately, there were lots and lots of speed cameras on the way. Naturally, they were strategically placed at places where the impatient traveller (viz: us) would normally speed up. Luckily, these cameras were advertised in advance, so I managed to break in time before getting caught doing the naughty. At least I thought I did. According to our friends, Swedish authorities take their sweet time sending you the speeding tickets home. So I might still get a nasty surprise in a few months' time. LOL I'm not an overly fast driver, and I strictly adhere to the principle of Vorsicht, Rücksicht, Nachsicht (being careful, considerate and understanding) while driving. Much more important than stubbornly insisting on your right-of-way, in my opinion. Admittedly, this also sometimes involves a more creative interpretation of traffic laws. Bergslag, if you will.



At 12 o'clock, we reached Falun. You really could not miss the mine, because it was a huge open gap in the landscape, a small village would easily have disappeared in it. The highway into Falun drove around it and was literally dwarfed by it, as the earth surrounding the mine piled up several meters higher than the road. Next to the mine stood its mascot, a wooden billy goat, just as Babsan had described it.
We were lucky, there were not too many tourists around, considering that this was a major UNESCO-sanctioned attraction. We got tickets for the tour starting at half past one, which left us more than an hour to grab a bite to eat and have a look around the place. We found a little buffet-style restaurant themed around miners' grub. The goulash they served was quite hearty, rather a bit too fatty for my taste, but the potatoes, salad and bread were excellent. Just the right meal for a hard-working miner, I suppose.
Afterwards, we took a walk around the site. There was a signposted way all around the hole, which introduced you to the most important buildings from back when this used to be a working mine. Everything was well-restored and interesting to see. Falun really deserved its UNESCO title! We soon noticed that the overall colour scheme was red. Dusty red earth on the ground and red-painted buildings around the mine. This was the famous "Falun red": the colour had been a by-product from the mining activity, and as such used to be exported all over Sweden, as our tour guide would explain later.
By now the sun was really burning down on us. We were dressed way too warmly, as we expected it to get rather chilly inside the mine. Gathering in the shade of the little outbuilding that served as assembly point, we were glad when the tour finally started.
First we were led down into a changing room, where each of us received an orange waterproof cape and a helmet. Thus equipped, we descended onto a wooden platform overlooking the mine. Here we were given a first introduction to the history of the mine. For centuries, it had been the largest and most productive mine in Sweden, and the country owed a lot of its wealth to the mine.
Our guide was a friendly and very knowledgeable old history teacher who spoke perfect English. He was an excellent story teller and the tour, which lasted almost an hour and a half, just seemed to fly by. We were led down the shaft, feeling like true miners now. We saw an impossibly deep shaft through which the buckets of ore used to be heaved up. But not only that: in the past centuries, they had horses down here doing the heavy work, and as horses cannot manage steep stairs or ladders, they hauled the poor animals up and down the shaft as well. We could only imagine how terrified the poor beasts must have been.
The workers themselves usually used ladders to get out of the mine. Obviously, there were no electric lights installed back then, so the men had to take their torches into their mouths to climb up. You could always recognize a miner by his singed eyebrows, our guide explained. If that sounded trying enough, some of the lads seemed to have preferred a faster route into the shaft: they made a sport out of gliding down the ropes through the deep shaft. Some of them even went head-first, just to impress their buddies, I suppose.
"The mines of Moria," Sonia whispered to me, while we walked over high bridges and through tiny spaces, across vast halls and narrow stone corridors lined with stalactite-laced niches. Our guide told us that fire was a major hazard to be feared in the narrow confines of the mine. Many people died down here, but once a large fire broke out on Midsummer Day. This was one of only two days in the year, where no-one was down here. All the miners were up in the town celebrating, so what could have been a terrible catastrophe did not cost one man his life. Could this have been the lady of the mine looking after her people? The lady of the mine was said to be seen, from time to time, walking through the mine. If she wore a black dress, something bad would happen to the person who saw her, but if she wore a white dress, you were lucky. Standing in a large hall, our guide extinguished all the lights while he told us this story. In pitchblackness, we tried to imagine what it must have been like for the miners down here.
The mine had some chemical curiosities on offer which I, being a chemistry buff, found particularly interesting. The air in the mine was unusually high in vitriol, which preserved dead tissue. If a man fell into a crevice and his buddies could not get him up, his body would be preserved for decades or even centuries. Once a dead man was hauled up after half a century, and his former bride, now an old lady, immediately recognized her beloved who still looked eerily like the young man he once had been. And here I was, thinking that vitriol was chiefly used by thugs to disfigure their enemies! It all depends on the concentration, I suppose.
The Falun mine used to make a large contribution to the wealth of Sweden, so the miners were proud and self-confident people. Over the centuries, every Swedish king had made a point of visiting the mine, and they'd left their signature there on a wall. Royal graffiti, neat! Just before leaving the mine, we were introduced to KÃ¥re the goat, who - legend has it - led to the discovery of the mine in the Middle Ages. The farmer who owned KÃ¥re followed him into a crevice and thus found the precious ore.
After the tour, we relished the soft, warm sun on our skin. We strolled once more to the restored workshops close by. From one building, the incessant dinging of a bell could be heard. This was the "highest bridge in all of Sweden", crossing the 208 meter deep Creutz mine shaft, in which we'd stood just a short while ago. The bell was supposed to tell the miners that the pumps work all right. If they didn't, the ground water would quickly fill the shaft, drowning everyone that worked down there.
Falun was more than worth the detour, we enjoyed the experience a lot and it was one of the many highlights on this trip. Back at the parking lot, we sorely missed the cool air from the mine: our car was an oven, we felt like we were being baked alive!
Before the last leg of our tour over the Bergslagsdiagonale, we stopped at a fast-food restaurant in Falun. A gang of young Swedes was making an ear-shattering racket with their motorcycles outside. We would notice this more than once in Sweden and Finland: there were many boisterous young people around, shouting and calling lots of attention to themselves. Slightly annoying, at times. Or were we just getting old? Maybe it was their Viking blood that wanted out. In any case, the people in Northern Russia seemed much more quiet and classy.
Outside of Falun, we noticed a large ski jumping hill. Did Falun ever host the Winter Olympics? Wikipedia told us that, no, they had lost their bid twice against Calgary and Albertville. But the Swedish Winter Games are often in Falun and the area is among the most important ski resorts in Scandinavia. So now we know.



The second leg of the Bergslagsdiagonale was organised along the same scheme as elsewhere in Northern Scandinavia: one lane on each side, and every few kilometers an additional lane to pass. We slowly trundled along, when the car in front of us suddenly swerved into the passing lane. There were some large bales or bundles lying in the middle of the street. Further down the road, a man had stopped his vehicle and was trying to haul his lost property back into the open van. Good luck to him. Thank goodness that traffic was slow and considerate here.
The rest of the afternoon flew by as we slowly approached our hotel in Timrå on the Swedish coast. Actually, Wifsta Varfs Herrgård was not a hotel so much as a large private mansion-come-guesthouse. Sometime in the early afternoon, Bertil, our host, sent us an SMS, wanting to know when exactly we would arrive. Hard to say. Best stay vague. I typed back: "In the early evening." But vague was not good enough. Minutes later, Bertil wanted to know if we could be more specific. Now I felt harassed. As if we could know precisely how fast we would make progress on these long and winding roads!
But in fact we need not have worried, our host turned out to be a most pleasant man who was more than willing to wait for and on his guests. His mansion was large and lovingly restored and decorated by himself. We seemed to have it more or less to ourselves that night. Oh, and there was apparently a ghost haunting our room. Well, skål to that. We got to talking and Bertil told us about his travels through Russia and Mongolia in the eighties. Suddenly, our short trip to the Barents Sea seemed not all that spectacular in comparison. But he was interested in our exploits and wished us a good trip. Before leaving us for the night, he told us the security code to get into the house, in case we went to town later. Had I not already liked Bertil by then, a man who used such a nicely personalised, Soviet-themed code was definitely fine by me!
Even though we were invited to use the kitchen and the impressive sitting rooms, we felt much too tired to really take advantage of our splendid surroundings. Overwhelmed of all the impressions of this long day, we fell on our beds and were soon fast asleep.


Day 3                              up                              Day 5