Europe Cycle Tour: Sweden (Part 1)

I was excited going into my cycle tour of Sweden because I had heard about their law that allows anyone to camp anywhere in nature for free. The law is called ‘Allemansvretten’ and roughly translates to ‘all man’s freedom’. It has certain conditions that are fairly obvious – you can’t camp on (or too near to) private property, you can only stay a few days and you must leave the area clean. Those making use of this law clearly abide by its conditions – because Sweden is one of the cleanest countries I’ve ever seen.

However, having heard about a law and knowing how it works in practice are two different things, and I was a bit apprehensive about just how lenient this law is. Could I really just pull in and pitch up my tent wherever I wanted without being asked to move on? I was about to find out…

Day 1 – Stockholm to Soldetalje

I awoke in my overpriced Stockholm hostel ($30) ready to escape into the beautiful, and most importantly free, countryside. I spent the past week on a very expensive and boozy cruise through the Baltic peninsula and desperately needed a few cash-saving days of sobriety.

I had been raining heavily that weekend so I bought a rain suit and wrapped all my bags in plastic before heading out. However, by the time I got to the outskirts of the city, it was starting to clear. My first stop was a Decathlon just outside Stockholm where I hoped to get my bike serviced. Upon arrival, I proudly informed the store attendant that I had purchased my bicycle at a Decathlon in India over a year ago and ridden it through seven African countries. He looked disinterested and told me the bike mechanic wasn’t in yet.

Disheartened, I shopped around for a tent and some waterproof pannier bags, convinced I would be spending the next four months cycling in rain. Eventually, the bike mechanic arrived but told me they were booked up that entire week for services. He was equally disinterested in my global cross-country cycle expedition on a Decathlon-built bike that wasn’t designed to do more than collect groceries from the store.

I packed all my stuff into my new panniers and decided to see if any bike stores in the next town could help me out. Since rebuilding my bike in Stockholm after the flight it wasn’t changing gears properly and just needed a service in general after four months crossing Africa. I soon arrived in the next town of Soldetalje, following Sweden’s intricate but confusing bicycle paths all the way.

In Soldetalje I found a bike shop and the mechanic said he could have it done by tomorrow. I told him that would be fine and asked if there is anywhere to camp. People don’t usually camp in or around cities but Soldetalje benefited from a large forest on a hill right in the middle of it, so he told me that should be fine. I left the bike with him, took what I needed and headed into town to buy a simcard and grab some food. I got a simcard fairly easily at a small shop and topped up 3GB of data for 100 krona (€10).

I then checked out the town and ended settling at a familiar spot, a Subway sandwich shop, where I ate and used the wifi. I realised I was still wearing my cycling shorts so decided to change in the toilets. They only had a single toilet and stupidly I forgot to lock the door, so just as I had pulled down my cycle shorts and was bending over with my ass facing the door, somebody opened it! They must have gotten a terrible shock. Needless to say, I got the hell out of there pronto before someone called the police and reported me for indecent exposure.

I decided to check out the forest on the hill, called ‘Kussens Backe’, or Cousins Hill, and discovered its quite a popular after-work running area. I wondered if I would be able to find a quiet and hidden place to camp. The South African in me couldn’t shake the feeling that if somebody saw me setting up camp they may come back later in the night and try to rob me. Looking back now I realize I was more likely to get offered some coffee and cake than get robbed!

I decided to go work a bit at another nearby restaurant and wait until after dark. Little did I realize that the sun only sets at about 11pm in Sweden at this time of year, so I had a bit of waiting to do. Eventually, around 10pm I decided the park should be empty and I headed back. My suspicions were confirmed and the park was deserted, most likely because it was now freezing cold by this time. I quickly pitched my tent in a secluded area and turned in for the night.

Day 2: Soldetalje to somewhere in the countryside

Unfortunately, I didn’t get much sleep since the sun awoke me at 3am! I suddenly realized why the Decathlon had such a large stock of black-out tents. It never gets dark in this crazy country! I tried to get back to sleep but mostly just lay down for another two hours before packing up and heading down the hill to find coffee.

Nothing was open yet so I sat outside a cafe until they opened and then I promptly left upon discovering their coffee is €3.50 a cup! I sat on some benches at a nearby cafe advertising €1 coffee and did some work while waiting for it to open. Eventually, the owner arrived, opened up and promptly shouted at me to get away, even bringing out a hose for added intimidation. Clearly, he thought I was some kind of laptop-using homeless person with all my bags.

I packed my shit quickly, flipped him the bird and then continued on towards the shop where I had left my bike to get fixed. Fortunately, I found a nice cafe on the way which did bottomless coffee for €2 and had some cheap sandwiches, so I had breakfast and worked there for a few hours until it was time to get the bike.

Unfortunately, the bike shop turned out to be a dud, and they barely did anything to my bike. All they did was replace the gear cable and realign the gears – I was expecting a full service. He even forgot to fix my right brake which I told him was loose. So that was a waste of €30! Long story short, Soldetalje is a shithole, don’t go there.

I cycled off towards a nearby store to buy some camping gear and food and then cycled out of town, happy to see the last of that place. Town quickly gave way to the countryside and I enjoyed the decent roads with a wide shoulder and minimal traffic as lakes and forests passed beside me. Eventually, I had forgotten all about Soldetalje and as the evening drew near I began looking for a camping spot. This turned out to be easier said than done.

As I turned down a side road to find a lake I suddenly got a puncture on my front tyre. It was quite strange as my Schwalbe tyres are practically bulletproof and I couldn’t find any thorn in the tyre. I did find a small split in the side, though, and fixed it quickly enough with a patch and then headed off again. Unable to find any decent lake or grassy area I settled for hiding down a dirt path in small patch of forest.

As soon as I stopped, thousands of mosquitos surrounded me and started sucking the very lifeblood out of my tired soul. Wonderful. I carried mosquito spray 5000 kilometres across Africa and barely used it, and now I need it more than ever! I quickly set up the tent, jumped inside with my stuff and managed to get it closed with only one ill-fated mosquito sneaking inside. After splattering him, I cooked some tasteless tomato pasta and got to bed.

Day 3: Random camp spot to Stavsjo

Cleverly using a thing to cover my eyes, I managed to sleep until about 6 am. I packed soon after a quick cup of coffee and headed off towards Norrkoping, my next destination where I had arranged to stay with someone from the cycle touring app Warmshowers (like Couchsurfing). The route was relatively uneventful as I cycled along back roads and through farms and fields. Towards the afternoon my left knee started to get quite sore so I slowed down and took it easy.

I reached the town of Stavsjo in the early afternoon and decided to get some lunch, rest my knee and do some work. After a few hours I tried to cycle again but my knee was still quite bad and the evening was approaching. I messaged the Warmshowers guy and said I’ll rather stop here the night and could hopefully still stay with him the following night.

Using ‘satellite’ view on Google maps, I managed to find a lovely spot next to a lake to camp for the night. Although it was on a walking track, I barely saw or heard anybody passing until late in the night when somebody ran very close by my tent but didn’t stop to bother me.

Day 4: Stavsjo to Norrkoping

Since it was only about 10km’s to Norrkoping I was in no hurry to rush off. I had a few coffees around my beautiful campsite and waited until the sun was quite high in the sky and morning cold had worn off. Eventually, I packed and headed off on a slow cycle. Along the way, I found an awesome viewpoint and took some pictures overlooking the ocean.

Arriving in Norrkoping around lunchtime, I found my host Emil’s house easily enough and met him, his wife and their toddler. After they kindly shared their lunch with me, we headed out to check out the town. Norrkoping is built upon a complex water system that was one of the oldest operating hydroelectric power stations in the country until it was recently upgraded. Lots of the old construction remains, making for a beautiful old town built around a canal system and man-made waterfalls.

I bought a few extra pieces of equipment I needed and then we headed back for dinner at theirs. Emil offered to introduce me to a Swedish sauna, which inexplicably every building in Sweden has included as default. We grabbed some cold beers and up to the stairs to his buildings roof-top sauna. The experience was actually really cool as I’m not usually a fan of public saunas, but having the whole space to ourselves to drink some beers and chat was a nice change.

This was actually my first time as a Warmshowers guest and I was amazed at how welcoming and hospitable complete strangers can be. That evening after a nice dinner, Emil and I went out to town for a few beers and chatted about football, cycling and my life growing up in Cape Town.

Day 5: An awkward day in Norrkoping

My knee was still hurting in the morning and the night before Emil had offered to let me stay another night, so I told him I would. Unfortunately, I don’t think he had expressly discussed this with his wife so I may have caused an expected exchange between them. I didn’t understand what they were saying but it seemed awkward, even though they both said it was fine. I probably should have just left then but then it may have made her feel like it was her fault, so, unsure what else to do, I just kept quiet and stayed.

We all visited a beautiful nearby lake together which they had probably planned to do alone as a family that day. Either way, everyone seemed happy enough so I just went along with it. We swam briefly in freezing cold water and then hiked a nearby mountain that is clearly very popular with rock climbers.

Feeling bad for overstaying my welcome I stupidly offered to cook everyone dinner, as if my cooking would somehow make things better. Foresight lacking, I headed out to the shops and bought some lasagna sheets, butter, CRAZY EXPENSIVE beef (€10), cheap low-alcohol beers (50c), normally priced cheese (€2) and tinned tomatoes.

Back at their apartment, I placed myself in front of the stove promising my poor hosts the best lasagne they’ve ever had. Within minutes I had burnt the butter and set off a fire alarm that automatically alerts the fire department, so they had to call and tell them it was just an idiot homeless cycle-tourist who had forgotten how kitchens work.

Crisis averted, my long-suffering hosts somehow allowed me to continue my rampage of destruction and I managed to cobble together a barely-passable form of Italian cuisine that I feel unqualified to call lasagne. They assured me it was lovely in that special way that only parents with children are able to do. Needless to say, we all got to bed early and I made my thanks/apologies and departed early the next morning.

Day 6: Norrkoping to Gamleby

I cycled southeast from Norrkoping towards Valdemarksvik, a small coastal town where I hoped to find a pub playing the Liverpool – Spurs Cup final that night. The route took me along some lovely forested lanes and a town bizarrely called Tindered where I would have stopped if they had a pub with a TV.

Arriving at Valdermarksvik by early afternoon I quickly discovered they wouldn’t be showing any football in this tiny fishing village. After some lunch and a nap in a park, I continued on to Gamelby which Google Maps promised had a bowling alley and sports bar. On arrival, however, Gamelby was a literal ghost town, with the bowling alley long-closed and dilapidated.

I realized my quest was doomed and resigned myself to following updates of the score on my phone. I found a lovely quiet little spot on the river mouth, set up camp and made dinner. I briefly attempted to fish with a fishing line and hook that Emil had kindly gifted me but without proper bait, I didn’t have any luck. I ended up eating pasta and tomato sauce again.

Day 7: Gamleby to Oskarshamn

Heading south from Gamleby I discovered a strange wooden troll outside the town of Vastervik and decided to cycle onto a small, dirt forest road to see what I could find. After about 20 kms this quickly turned into a disaster as the path degenerated into a sandy, overgrown scrub that was impossible to cycle on. Too far in to turn back, I pushed my bike for a few kms until a more cyclable terrain reappeared.

I passed a shooting range which inexplicably faced ON to the road but fortunately was empty and then managed to rejoin the main tar road. I got back on the highway and road along in the fairly decently sized shoulder until I was almost in a small town called Oskarshamn.

Once again, Google Maps’ satellite view showed me a nice, discreet bit of lakeside forest that I could reach via a side road. I cycled off down there and found a quiet spot to camp. It was quite early so I spent some time exploring the forest and watching some fishermen who actually knew what they were doing.

Day 8: Oskarshamn to Kalmar

After leaving Oskarshamn I managed to find a decent bicycle path that weaved through the forests along the main road, keeping cyclists away from traffic. Unfortunately, it was also quite difficult to follow and often just ended without notice, leaving the cyclist abandoned in a random town. At one point while I was resting a young cyclist passed by and offered me an energy bar – I must have looked tired!

I decided to stop going on adventures and just get back on the highway and head straight to Kalmar where I was meeting friends I had met in Vietnam the year before. My knee was getting really sore again but all the strange and bizarre objects along the roadside in Sweden managed to keep me distracted long enough to arrive in Kalmar safely.

I pulled into a Burger King and spent a few hours working while waiting for my friends to get home from work. Oskar and Maria are a young couple who live in a lovely 1-bed flat in Kalmar and kindly let me crash on their couch and do some washing. We also visited the amazing Kalmar castle and the nearby island of Oland, accessible by a crazy long bridge.

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