Sweden's glass country sparkles with pride
By RICK STEVES | ricksteves.com | Published: December 21, 2017
You can’t say you’ve seen Sweden if you’ve only been to Stockholm. Rural Sweden, especially the province of Smaland, is a worthy addition to any Scandinavian itinerary.
Covering the entire southeast coast and running deep into the interior, Smaland’s most appealing corner is bookended by the smallish towns of Kalmar and Vaxjo (locals say VEK-hwuh; Stockholmers pronounce it VEK-shuh). In between lies Sweden’s famous Glasriket, Glass Country, sparkling with glassblowing studios.
It’s no surprise that glassmaking caught on here. The necessary resources are abundant: The region is densely forested (endless wood to fire the ovens) and blanketed with lakes (ample sand to melt into glass). Glassblowers have been at work in Smaland since at least 1742.
Glass Country’s first boom came during the difficult 19th century, when a sixth of Sweden’s population emigrated to America as the country’s iron mills were closing. The Smaland laborers who stayed behind were highly skilled at working with materials at high temperatures. Glassmaking became their salvation and by the early 1900s, this region had more than 100 workshops creating everyday glasses, vases, bowls and bottles.
There are fewer glassworks now — cheaper imported glass has taken its toll. Today’s Glass Country artisans have refocused their efforts, emphasizing high-quality, high-end art pieces and welcoming guests to tour (and shop) their workshops.
There’s something deeply satisfying about a visit to a glasbruk. Even at the bigger places — and especially at the smaller ones — you’ll feel genuine artistic energy in the air, as glassblowers persuade glowing globs of molten glass to take shape. Demonstrations are intimate — you’ll be close enough to feel the heat from the furnaces.
The storied Kosta Boda workshop dominates, with a flagship campus in the village of Kosta that’s complete with plush hotel, art glass gallery and a discount seconds shop. But there are many friendly independent producers scattered throughout the woods, where you’ll be invited into a simple barn-like studio to watch glassblowers at work for free.
If glass isn’t your thing, check out local critters at the Moose and Farm Animal Park. At this offbeat attraction just outside the village of Kosta you’ll walk through the moose-happy gift shop before taking a mile-long stroll around the perimeter of a pen holding live moose. Life-size dioramas with stuffed moose round out the attraction. You can even buy moose sausage to grill on-site.
Because the 70-mile stretch of Glass Country between Vaxjo and Kalmar is relatively undeveloped, most visitors tour the glassworks by day, then sprint to the nearby coastal town of Kalmar for dinner and a bed. History students might remember Kalmar as the place where Norway, Sweden and Denmark signed a 1397 treaty that united the countries into one huge kingdom. That union lasted about 100 years before dissolving in the 16th century.
Historic Kalmar has an Old World ambiance that’s rare in Scandinavia. It’s dominated by a moated castle that makes for a great medieval experience. With stout watchtowers, park-like ramparts and a creaky, drafty interior, this place was a royal hub for centuries. But when the Swedish border shifted south in the mid-17th century, the castle lost strategic importance. No matter — it’s now the biggest attraction in Kalmar.
Besides the famous castle, the town offers a cozy, cobblestoned center. The restaurants survive on the town’s short, intense summer season, when vacationing Swedes liven the streets day and night. If you drop by the cafe/tea parlor Kullzenska, tucked into an 18th-century house, you’ll see locals enjoying warm berry cobbler and richly brewed coffee.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Kalmar on a hot summer day, stroll out to its beach. With snack stands, sand castles and views of the castle, the beach makes Kalmar an unexpected fun-in-the-sun stop. For people-watchers, it’s a combination of Swedish beauty pageant and tattoo show. For me, it’s the best possible dose of authentic, off-the-beaten-path Sweden.
Rick Steves (ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.