As darkness falls in the port town of Ystad, 72-year-old Roland Borg heaves himself up the spiraling church tower and, like clockwork, cries out every 15 minutes between 21.15 and 01.00 to the pretty hamlet below. Mr Borg is a tower guard — the only one still going in all of Sweden — warning Ystad’s citizens of incoming danger with his honks and cries every night of the year. When you hear his yelps, all is safe. Some tourists believe his cries are that of a robot, but the septuagenarian really does stand there each night. Except for tonight. I’ve not heard a whisper from Mr Borg, and when I catch the eye of my waiter and ask him where the tower guard is, he checks his watch and panics. Mr Borg should be there. This has never happened before.
I never do find out where the mysterious tower watchman of Ystad disappeared to on that balmy summer’s evening. But I do discover that Ystad is the city of Wallander, the hit TV show based on Henning Mankell’s crime novels. For fans of Nordic Noir, you can trace his tracks along the Wallander crime tour, drink coffee at Fridolfs Konditori, the police detective’s favorite hangout, or book a room in the former train station, the setting for the police HQ.
That’s the thing about road trips through Skåne — Sweden’s untamed southern province: you can dip into off-grid villages, discover unsung stories and round the corner for hit-the-brakes scenery when you least expect it. On the second day, we reach the sleepy fishing village of Vik, lapped by the Baltic, where salty-haired sailors once set a course for the trading routes of the Far East, their ships laden with Swedish amber. When I pull up by a beach, it smells of seaweed and apple blossom. I discover it’s the site of an ancient sandstone volcano, better known in Vik as ‘the bath of the priest’ after a man of the church once bathed in the ‘eye’ of the volcano.
On we go. There’s the quiet beach at Knäbäckshusen, and later I breeze by Ales Stenar, a mysterious megalithic monument known as the Stonehenge of Sweden. I drive past fields of wheat, hazy lavender and sunflowers reaching for the skies. Now and then, white churches appear in the distance, and a black kite and a flock of cranes cruise along the waterfront. The trees are in blossom and ripe rowanberries cling to branches. It’s summer, and there isn’t a single cloud in the sky.
Halfway into our road trip, we stop for lunch at Allé, an old farmhouse where owner Eva Thuresson serves an eggs and herrings salad called gubbröra — which literally translates as ‘old man’s mess’, even though it tastes fantastic. We have salmon for our main course and an early fika for dessert. The food in Skåne, a good part of which is produced locally, is a finger-licking sensation: visit Jord & Bord, a little restaurant; pick fruits in Bränneriets Gård; cook outdoors on a fire in Nyrups Naturhotell, where you can spend the night in a yur; or take the kids to Holy Smoke, a barbecue paradise for the unswerving carnivore. For dessert: ‘holy smoked’ vanilla ice cream.
I arrive at Immeln — Skåne’s third largest lake with a scattering of 200 tiny islands — and push off from shore in a canoe, led through the inky water by Jon Marin, the owner of canoe rental company Outcraft. Towering trees rear up from the shoreline, their lower branches dipping into the water, and a mini pier juts out for adventurers to climb back on land for nights beneath the stars. Later, that’s exactly where I find myself, moored up on an island in the middle of Immeln. There’s no wind, the first stars have begun to appear and the sparks of our makeshift fire are dancing around Jon’s face. We’re eating pytt i panna — a slow-cooked hash-like dish — and stare into the flames, knowing we have to canoe back in the dark, crossing over the deep blue lake. This is my best canoeing experience yet.
I wind up in Kullaberg, a rugged peninsula in northwest Skåne with caves carved into its hulking cliffs — a popular spot for adrenalin-seekers to abseil down towards the crashing waves. Head out in a kayak and you might catch sight of bottlenose dolphins breaching the waves, a lonely lighthouse perched cliff-side, and Denmark on the other side of the water. A little further up this coast, you’ll find pretty-as-a-picture Mölle — a one-time-glamorous seaside resort that drew sunseekers in the early 19th century to its waters and golden sands. Today, surfers come to cruise its waves and sleek boats bob in the harbour. I pull up a chair at Mölle Krukmakeri, where owner Lisa Wohlfahrt crafts ceramic pieces in her pottery workshop and its neighboring hip beachside cafe dishes up homecooked plates. She joins me, her fingers smudged with clay, and her husband pours the wine as the kitchen prepares our Neapolitan pizzas. As I take a sip, I’m already wishing I could stay a little longer: for the peace of the wild, for the homegrown food and for the olde worlde enclaves I might never have discovered, were it not for this road trip.
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