Midsummer is coming! There may be no better place to celebrate the warm-weather solstice than in Sweden, where the longest, sunniest days of the year are cause for weeklong festivities. Aquavit is drunk, toasted, and drunk some more; families pack up for the country’s many beaches. If you find yourself in the land of Ikea this summer, make like the Swedish royals and head to Småland, a region of thick forests, crystalline lakes and idyllic beaches in the country’s southeast.
Besides being a royal retreat, Småland is the Sweden of Ikea’s founders and of Astrid Lindgren, the beloved creator of the literary character and intrepid heroine Pippi Longstocking, whose theme park is a destination. Småland is also something of a refuge from the problems that plague urban Sweden, which has received a justified dose of negative press for its lackadaisical response to mounting anti-Semitism — especially in the city of Malmö, where the 1,000-strong Jewish community has suffered relentless attacks from a largely Muslim immigrant crowd.
Rural Småland, where reindeer and elk often outnumber people, has a friendly, easygoing feel, although — like many remote vacation areas — little in the way of organized Jewish life (the nearest real community is in Gothenburg, just west of Småland on the other coast). But I was interested to learn that one of Sweden’s most accomplished Jews, the Russian-born photographer Anna Riwkin, was a longtime collaborator of Lindgren in the 1950s and ’60s on a series of books documenting children around the world. That focus on the humanistic and the universal epitomizes liberal Scandinavian culture at its best — an ethos one hopes will prevail.
Lindgren herself hailed from Vimmerby, a village in northern Småland’s eastern woods and home to Astrid Lindgren’s World, a rustic theme park that boasts Sweden’s largest outdoor theater. In addition to regular dramatizations of the adventures of spunky Pippi Longstocking — the freckled, spunky adventuress beloved by generations of readers worldwide — the park features a turn-of-the-last-century, recreated Swedish farm that children can explore alongside characters from the Pippi books.
If Pippi Longstocking represents the Sweden of our grandparents, IKEA is the Sweden of modern imagination — a land of meatballs, recyclable brown boxes and no-fuss design. The very first IKEA store opened in the 1950s in the south-central village of Älmhult (also the birthplace of the famed botanist and taxonomist Carl Linnaeus). When the store relocated three years ago, its original building was designated for what IKEA describes as “the first and only IKEA Museum,” which will open on June 30 and showcase highlights from the company’s first seven decades.
But you don’t have to visit IKEA to find Småland’s ubiquitous lingonberries. In fact, the food of this forested region will be familiar to anyone versed in Eastern European Jewish classics. Beets, herring, dill potatoes, and pickles are well represented; they’re making a comeback in popularity here, as the so-called New Nordic cuisine puts new twists on recipes featuring these regionally sourced, sustainable ingredients. All of them get washed down with juices from local orchards and beer from more than a dozen Småland breweries.
Royals have been vacationing on the island of Öland since the late-17th century. But only since the 1970s have they been able to drive across the three-mile strait to this lushly forested isle in the Baltic Sea. Nowadays, the royals stay at the Solliden Palace, a lovely white villa that is nonetheless modest by palace standards, reflecting a Nordic disdain for showiness. While it’s no Versailles, Solliden makes a delightful stop for its acres of formal gardens, cafés that elevate coffee and cake to a regal art form, and shops selling traditional handcrafts like blue-and-white ceramics.
The modest Swedes enjoy no-frills accommodations, so campsites are common, as are bicycles — Öland is quite flat. Long, white sandy beaches stretch along the north coast, where carefree students and families on holiday linger by the chilly sea long into the sunny June evenings. There are plenty more pristine beaches all along Småland’s eastern coast and on the shores of its many lakes.
Just across the bridge from Öland on the Swedish mainland is Kalmar, which was a stronghold of Swedish military might at its zenith … about 800 years ago. Today you can tour the vestiges of that epoch: a well-preserved castle and fortifications, cobblestoned streets, and stately old mansions along the main square of town. With its quaint cafés, boutiques selling artisan glassware and clean, sandy Baltic beaches, Kalmar typifies the pleasures of this corner of rural Sweden.