Öland, Sweden’s Enchanting Island

One of Europe’s longest bridges (6,072 meters) stretches from Kalmar, on Sweden’s southeastern coast, to the island of Öland. For good reason, the 87-mile-long island is a favorite vacation spot for Swedes. Shallow waters, sandy beaches, yachting and sailing harbors, and long days of sunshine make it appealing to any visitor, including me. I found it enchanting.

Low stone walls crisscross the landscape, dividing tidy farms. Lilacs and wild apple trees bloom purple and white in spring along quiet roadsides, and outdoor markets sell incredibly luscious strawberries, along with local cheeses, handicrafts, and weavings.

Because I’m drawn to history, the further back the better, I was fascinated by Eketorp. This immense fortress, on Öland’s limestone plain, dates back 1700 years and up through the Middle Ages. Excavations have uncovered pottery, arrows, locks and keys, primitive ice skates, and hoards of gold and jewelry that were stashed under the floors and in the walls. The reed- and sod-covered homes and stables and the stone walls that encircle them have been reconstructed using Iron Age methods and materials. Pigs, chickens and geese mill about the grassy grounds and roosters strut on the roofs.

I saw a more recent past at the open-air Himmelsberg Folk Museum, a collection of red-painted farms and cottages typical of the 18th and 19th centuries. All over Öland, windmills, some 400 of them, form striking outlines against the sky. The picturesque wooden mills, now protected monuments, are the symbol of Öland. Some have been turned into cafes that sell the ever-popular waffles with strawberry jam and cream.

Bird watchers come to the island to see millions of migrating birds make their yearly flights. A Swedish woman told me her favorites are the cranes, flying through in September on their way to Africa. She said that once when she saw wave after wave of them, she stopped counting at 950. “A flock flew just in front of the full moon,” she said. “It looked as if their feathers were of silver.”  The birds fly above an immense heath, the Stora Alvar, covered with thyme and wildflowers in spring and summer (32 species of orchids alone). It’s a beautiful expanse of color scattered among low junipers and ancient rune stones and graves.

At the northern tip of the island you can climb to the top of the Långe Erik lighthouse for wide views of the land and sea, then stop for coffee and pastries in the lighthouse cafe. Another lighthouse, the Långe Jan, is at the southern end by the Ottenby Nature Reserve. This is a great place for bird-watching. There’s more: On Öland you can camp, hike, fish, golf at any of 8 courses, take cooking classes, and ride bicycles. There are several bike rental shops.

The imposing ancient castle southwest of the main town, Borgholm, is open for tours, along with Solliden, the century-old manor house nearby. Solliden is the summer residence of Swedish royalty and is open to visitors on summer afternoons. It has a pretty garden and a small shop where you can buy products cultivated here. Solliden’s “Coffee Cottage” serves hot dishes, sandwiches, Danish smorrebrod, beer and wine.

Islanders take great pride in their cooking, which is based on local produce, meats, seafood and fruits. Every fall they hold a 3-day Harvest Festival, celebrating their traditions and culinary riches. There are cooking demonstrations, special menus at restaurants, art exhibitions, and a handicrafts market. A popular regional dish is kroppkakor, potato dumplings stuffed with pork and served with lingonberry jam. That jam is terrific, good with almost everything. To taste local specialties, look for the sign, Regional Matkultur Öland (Regional Culinary Heritage) on restaurants. It indicates that they follow the guidelines of the organization.

In my experience, the best food on the island is at Halltorps Gästgiveri, a country inn set back from the sea 9 kilometers from the main town of Borgholm. The menu features fresh fish from the Baltic, lambs that grazed on the heath, locally grown fruits and vegetables, and herbs from the inn’s garden. They bake their own bread and even spice their own aquavit. My dinner of salmon mousse, salad, lamb medallions, potatoes au gratin with rosemary, and strong dark coffee was truly exceptional. The lodgings, too, were out of the ordinary. Halltorps Gästgiveri, among fields and trees full of nightingales, has 35 rooms, several furnished in the styles of different Swedish regions. Saunas, a jacuzzi, and spa treatments are all available. After a day of touring the island, I was happy just to relax on the terrace and admire the fabulous view of the sunset over Kalmar Sound.

Written by Marilyn McFarlane for EuropeUpClose.com

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