Farewell to the Arctic
We left Jokkmokk on Friday afternoon, having concluded the course with Krister Stoor that morning. I think it's safe to say that everyone considered this a bittersweet moment--happy to be heading toward home, but sad to depart from new friends and to see the trip coming to an end.
Once back in the van, with our two official road songs (Anders Glenmark's "Högre Standard" and Wimme's "Texas") having provided the necessary accompaniment for a proper launch, we quickly settled into travel mode, i.e., virtually everyone fell asleep or remained contemplative as the miles passed by. Within a half hour, we had dipped below the Arctic Circle for the first time in nearly two weeks and the seemingly endless woods gradually gave way to farmland, the latter a testament to the early settlers who began arriving in this area over 500 years ago under the auspices of the Swedish crown. It's hard to imagine how people eke out a living as farmers in a region where the growing season is so short, but clearly they manage to do so.
Friday's journey was actually quite short, bringing us only as far as Luleå, the northernmost of the "å" cities (Umeå, Skellefteå, Piteå and Luleå, from south to north), each of which takes its name from the old term for river, since they all mark the mouths of major rivers merging with the Bay of Bothnia, the brackish sea that separates Sweden and Finland. More specifically, however, we're not in Luleå proper, a fairly large, modern city, but in Luleå Gammelstad, the old town that lies about 15km NW, and was once the original site of Luleå. Some 500 years ago, this settlement actually sat on an island, surrounded by the Lule River, and part of an archipelago that eventually disappeared due to an up shift in the land that raised the coastline significantly and led to the decision to move the town to its current location.
Beyond this rather striking geological oddity, however, is the fact that Luleå Gammelstad is home to a stunning 15th century church that has remained in constant use, despite the obviously radical shift precipitated by the Reformation that brought Catholic parishes under the aegis of the newly established state Lutheran church. Unlike other sections of northern Europe, however, where similar transformations occurred, most of this building's religious symbols and artifacts associated with the "old" religion were not stripped by the Protestants, but were left in place. As a result this church is the closest thing to an intact medieval structure as one is likely to find in Scandinavia. The vault over the altar is still decorated with elaborate paintings of scenes from the bible, most of them grim reminders of what would happen to non-pious parishioners. Additionally there is a magnificent carved and gilt altarpiece from the 15th century, and what is considered one of the finest medieval carved crucifixes suspended over the choir. All told, this church certainly merits a visit if one is in the area...but wait, there's more.
As we learned when visiting Arvidsjaur a couple of weeks ago, until the early years of the 20th century, all Swedes were required to attend church on a regular basis, the frequency determined by their proximity to the parish seat. Luleå residents were no different, but given how few of them actually lived close enough to the church to simply show up on Sunday morning, only those living within a 10km radius were required to make the trip every week; those within a 20km radius came every other week, and so on. This eventually resulted in the establishment of a kyrkstad (church town), consisting of more than four hundred, privately owned small red cottages, set in concentric circles surrounding the church grounds. Today, these cottages are all lovingly maintained, serving primarily as summer cottages, with artists' studios, cafés and other amenities interspersed among them. Car traffic is limited to those residents needing to load or unload goods--otherwise this is a walking town. By the way, Luleå Gammelstad has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, so it will continue in this same fashion, minus tawdry fast-food franchises or even a grocery store, for the foreseeable future.
"Music opens a space within us that we can't open ourselves."
When we arrived in Gammelstad, I was more than a little dismayed to discover the church was closed, but this was soon eclipsed by the realization that this was because a concert featuring local folk musicians was scheduled to take place there in the evening. Therefore, several hours later, with dinner securely tucked under our belts, we made the short walk up the hill from the hostel and joined a small assembly of local people for an evening of music. This particular concert marked the opening of a spelmans stämma (folk festival), one of myriad such events that occur annually in Sweden during the summer. With very little effort, other than the travel involved, it would be very easy to attend a stämma every weekend from June through August, each one featuring a blend of local and nationally celebrated musicians, all gathering to exchange dance tunes and traditional songs in a decidedly non-competitive atmosphere. What's happening here is the conveyance of traditional knowledge--there it is again--whether it's aimed toward the continuance of regional dance repertoire or simply sharing the experience of making music across generations.
The concert began with a small ensemble, most of whose members played the nyckelharpa, a bowed instrument unique to Sweden. A friend of mine once described this oddity as the unfortunate progeny of a fiddle and a typewriter, and given its array of keys and its violin-like shape, I think he may be onto something. Nevertheless, it's an instrument that the Swedes have embraced quite passionately since a major folk revival in the 1970s rescued it from obscurity. I find it even more interesting that the majority of players have built their own instruments, usually by attending one of the many community-sponsored evening workshops found all over the country.
The acts that followed the Luleå Nyckelharpa Club were diverse in terms of instrumentation and repertoire--one group even closed their set with a fine rendition of the American hymn, "Have Thy Way, Lord" composed in 1909. What all of these musicians shared (and one might argue the audience, as well) is a belief in the inherent value of amateur music making, an attribute that I find all too often missing in contemporary society, which seems much more interested in watching others attempting to be professionals with mixed results. None of these musical groups was of professional caliber, yet that in no way impacted the overall result of the concert: it was simply a very enjoyable evening of people playing music together for all the right reasons. As the parish minister reminded us during his short homily, music provides a trip into ourselves while simultaneously encouraging us to connect with others. Couldn't have said it better if I tried.
On our way back to the hostel, a young man to whom I had spoken earlier stopped us, and asked if we'd like to take a look at the town from the top of the bell tower, a free-standing building in front of the church, built in the 1850s. How could anyone decline such an invitation? Moments later, after climbing up several flights of increasingly narrow and steep stairs, we found ourselves gazing out over the entire countryside, as our guide pointed out interesting historical facts about the church, the town and the region. This is decidedly not something that other tourists experience. The tower is closed to all but church personnel and their guests, yet somehow this young man had recognized in our group a level of interest that deserved this little reward, and for that we are all indebted to him and his generosity--I doubt very much that any of us will forget this experience.
And finally the High Coast
Most of today was spent driving due south on E4, the closest thing one finds to a freeway in Sweden. Much of it comprises two wide lanes, with a non-descript "neutral" zone in the center for passing purposes. Periodically, however, the road narrows significantly and the speed limit drops to 70kph (about 45mph) as E4 courses through small towns along the way.
Within a couple of hours, we were back in Umeå, the town we stayed in before heading up to Jokkmokk, and home to Krister Stoor, his wife Karin, and his two sons, Lars-Henrik and Per. Before leaving Jokkmokk, Krister had asked if we'd like to stop by for a cup of coffee and one more round of farewells, an offer we gladly accepted. When we arrived, however, Krister and Karin surprised us with a big platter of freshly made Swedish waffles, served up with homemade blueberry-raspberry jam (fruit from their garden) and whipped cream. Needless to say they disappeared quickly, and soon thereafter we said our good-byes to all and once again hit the road.
A number of years ago, my family and I discovered Sweden's Höga Kusten (High Coast), another geological phenomenon that resulted from an up lift that raised the coastline significantly and created many small bays with protected harbors. Not surprisingly, this ultimately became one of the most important fishing regions in northern part of the country. While there is very little commercial fishing there now, the area is still full of small fishing villages, made up of yet more, tiny, red cottages nestled around the harbors. Additionally, there are a number of so-called fishermen's chapels, very small churches housed in structures that would easily be mistaken from the outside as personal homes. This tradition began as a means of discouraging thieves from stripping the interiors, but continued after this threat was eradicated, as an architectural style unique to the High Coast.
Having encountered one of these chapels on a family excursion in the past, I thought it would be worthwhile making a small side trip to see if we could duplicate the experience. After a couple of false starts, we finally found one sitting just above the village of Norrfällsviken. We had to wait a few moments before entering the chapel because a wedding had just concluded, but once inside it was clear the effort expended to find this place was worth it. The chapel was built in 1649, and has been renovated on several occasions, but remains a charming reminder of the importance of the church, even in these remote villages. The interior is quite stark, having only a few paintings from various eras, and a simple elevated pulpit from which the local priest delivers his readings and sermons. As is the case in all of these fishermen's chapels, however, the most distinctive feature is a model ship suspended directly over the altar, serving as a reminder of the importance of this livelihood in local culture.
We concluded this small adventure with a meal of fresh fish from local boats, served up in a small restaurant right there in the village. Among the dishes sampled were warm-smoked salmon, fried herring and...hamburgers for the non-fish eaters. And of course, there was room for ice cream.
Tomorrow we'll continue south to Uppsala, where we'll spend the night before heading for the airport early on Monday morning. With any luck, we'll finish up our stay in Sweden with a visit to Skokloster Slott, a magnificent 17th century castle that remained in the same family until late into the 20th century, and as a result is in exceptionally fine condition. Since I doubt I'll have time (or the energy) to update this blog tomorrow evening, however, this will be the final entry. My thanks to all who helped make this trip possible, and to my stalwart and patient fellow-travelers. You did great, gang, so here's a little reminder of the trip, just for you...