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Unexpectedly Awesome South-West Sweden

Unexpectedly Awesome South-West Sweden

by Alan Gow  |  July 2018  |  Sweden

We came to Sweden with no real expectations of what we would find here.  From our distant home in NZ, my preconceptions were of Volvos, snow, herrings and blondes.  However, we have been delighted to find a country rich in varied and beautiful landscapes, with friendly people and some really tasty food.  Oh, and yes, the blondes are here too.


We arrived in Sweden at about 3.30am on the late night cheap ferry  (€113) from Frederikshavn in Denmark to Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city.  A little lost sleep to save €120 in comparison to the daytime fares seemed a fair deal.  Now desperate for sleep we found a likely looking car park, pulled in, set the alarm and grabbed a few hours kip (with the cunning plan of leaving before the arrival of any overzealous parking wardens looking to get some early parking ticket runs on their board).

On rising way-too-few hours later, the first order of business was to fill our depleted LPG tanks.  For such a large country, Sweden doesn’t have a lot of LPG filling stations but luckily directed us to the only one near Gothenburg which was just 4km away.

After securing our gas supply for the next month or so we decided to head out of Gothenburg as we were already a bit tired of the big city feel and too sleep deprived to feel up to cycling into the centre.  This, however, presented another hurdle as Gothenburg has an unusual congestion zone which pings you even when bypassing the centre on the motorway.  Ultimately this meant we needed to detour about 45km to avoid getting snapped by the cameras.  It wasn’t that we didn’t want to pay the fee but more that because the fee demands get sent to the registered address of the vehicle we were not confident that would find its way to us in time to avoid us getting a 250 SEK (about €25) late or non payment fine.  After reading up on the zone and confirming our concerns with some Swedish motorhomers, we took the safe, albeit long route around and out of the city.

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Bohus Fortress

The roads were good, the traffic light and the driving easy.  The Swedish countryside was quite scenic with more ups and downs than Denmark but no particularly big hills.  As we approached the town of Kunglav we spied an impressive looking castle up on a hill and being in no real rush, we decided to turn off and investigate.

Bohus Fortress from the Road

Festung Bohus (Bohus Fortress), was built from 1308 and has a particular claim to fame.  It was besieged on 14 separate occasions but was never captured.  There has been a lot of restoration work carried out recently.  Much of this was made necessary because after it was no longer of military value, from 1786, the locals were encouraged to take the stones to build houses and gardens and the fortress was allowed to fall into ruins.

We had a glorious warm and sunny day for our visit and because we arrived just an hour before closing we were allowed to pay the student rate rather than the full adult entry cost €11.55 – a savings of 80 SEK, very nice.

We entered the fortress through the large doors of the ‘Blockhouse Gate’ – doors which were locked when we tried to leave the complex just a little after closing time.  The path led us past the Commandant’s quarters and into the courtyard where there were some people playing old instruments and there was an opportunity to have a go at some archery.  My old skills quickly returned and I managed to place some arrows in the black, impressing the young girl in charge (at least I reckon she was impressed).  Ruth marched up for her first ever go at shooting a bow and arrow and also managed to hit the black after a few pointers from the hired help.

The Entry Gate Locked – Whoops

Robin Hood Ruth in Action

Climbing up a steep path to the top of the fortifications, we were treated to fantastic views over the surrounding waters and countryside.  Bohus was strategically built on an island on the fork of the Nodre and Gota rivers which made it an ideal defensive position.

View from Bohus Fortress

The ‘Red Tower’ is where the fortress was saved from being captured when one of the defenders blew up the tower, himself and several hundred attacking Swedes with explosive charges in 1566.  The Swedes reportedly “flew into the air like crows”.

The ‘Fars Hatt’ tower contains a dungeon which is a 6m deep pit, where no natural light penetrated and into which prisoners were lowered.  Can you imagine being left there for years in the total blackness?  On the next level up were some medieval suits of armour including some pieces we could try on ourselves.  With just a breastplate and shoulder/upper arm protection on I already felt weighed down and with the addition of a heavy helmet you could start to appreciate how strong the knights and soldiers of the time must have been.

Alan in Armour

Fars Hatt Dungeon – 6m deep black hole

We lost track of time as we took our own journey back through the history of this remarkable place and before we knew it, closing time was upon us.  We chose to head back walking around the outside of the main walls however by the time we got back to the Blockhouse Gate, the doors were closed and locked.  There was another exit door however that also appeared to be locked shut.  A few choice words were said and we shared our predicament with another couple who sauntered down the path even later than us.  Just as we were starting to get a little concerned, one of the staff came down the path and demonstrated that the exit door just needed a really hard tug to get it open.  Phew!

Festung Bohus was the first attraction we have visited in Sweden and was a nice introduction to what we will be enjoying over the next month.

That night we stayed in a quiet car park near the beach on the island of Tjorn.  It was so nice and quiet in fact, that we stayed two nights.  The local blackberry bushes were prolific enough to provide enough blackberries for apple and blackberry crumble made in our Omnia cooker – yum. We nearly went for a swim but the wind picked up and put us off (we must be getting soft in our old age).

Our free parking spot: 57.98369, 11.68679

Tjorn Island Evening

The next night we spent tucked into a comfortable Rastplats (Restplace) with a stunning view overlooking the sea, parking areas designated for motorhomes and with a toilet block.  This was our first experience of what appears to be a standard Swedish design of toilet blocks sited on the public rest areas, where there is a separate room at the back setup for emptying and washing your toilet cassette.  We found a lot of these along the main roads and I was very excited to see them.  Isn’t it interesting what becomes important to you when you are wild camping in a motorhome?  Convenient places to empty the loo or fill up with fresh water are godsend to folk like us.  This is another example of how motorhome friendly these Scandinavian countries are.  The reality is that there are going to be thousands of motorhomes travelling the countryside so it makes sense to have facilities to deal with the waste they produce.

Our free parking spot 58.262700 , 11.680155

View from Restplats near Henan

Toilet Cassette Empying Point – Swedish Style


I should rewind here and explain how we ended up being in this small part of coastal Sweden.

Back in last January as we were whiling away the winter in the Peloponnese region of southern Greece, and we found ourselves parked up on a pier in the small town of Pilos with about four other motorhomes.  This was a novel experience for us, as motorhomes in Greece in the winter were rare and we could go for days without seeing another.  We all introduced ourselves, then went out for dinner that night, which was followed by a potluck shared dinner the next night.  We made our famous Mediterranean stuffed squid which went down a treat with the others.  Haken and Helena are a retired Swedish couple with a gorgeous wee dog Louise – a cross between a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel and Poodle.  They had a photo on the back of their camper of the blue seas and islands around their hometown of Bovallstrand which looked nothing like what our naïve conceptions of Sweden could conjure up.  That evening a tremendous storm hit Pylos and their motorhome, in particular, was hit with massive volumes of spray through the night.  The story of that storm is told in this blog. As often happens when you are on the road, they invited us to come and stay when we made it up their way.

The great time we had with Haken and Helena on their home turf just reinforces how important it is for us to connect with our fellow travelers whenever possible because it can lead to the most enriching experiences.

Anyway, fast forward about six months and there we were, rolling into Bovallstrand, following Emily’s (our GPS) directions to their house.

Bovallstrand is a small seaside settlement with a population that winds down to under 800 in the winter and swells to over 5,000 in the summer.  Smorgen, one of Sweden’s most popular seaside resorts, is just a few kilometres down the coast.  Heading further north to Norway is a procession of historic fishing villages now reliant on the summer holiday trade for their prosperity.  We all visited Hamburgsund, Fjallbacka and Grebbestad which all were bustling and attractive with uniformly traditional building designs and colours.

Sweden is having the best (for tourists, not farmers), summer for 250 years and the seaside is swarming with locals and visitors enjoying the warm days and reasonably warm waters.

Bovallstrand Harbour

Bovallstrand Sunset

Smorgen Harbour



If there was one word that comes to mind about the region, that would be the word ‘Granite’.  Granite is everywhere.  From around Bovallstrand, the famous red granite was shipped around the world to decorate the finest buildings, such as the Empire State Building.  Houses, wharves and other buildings seem to be perched on top of the immovable granite worn smooth from thousands of years of being ground down by the massive glaciers which once covered this land.  Deep cuts worn into the granite now form natural habours which offer protection to the many boats hidden away here.  Granite is used everywhere – for house foundations, piles and columns, as fence posts, and to support wharves.  Although the peak time of the stone cutters has long gone, the evidence of their activity remains in the vast piles of waste stone and the drill marks left in the surviving bedrock.

There is a fantastic local art collective which makes sculptures out of the granite.  The skill and imagination of the artists was immense and there was something almost sensual about feeling the soft, yet hard, polished granite.

Sculpture at the Collective

Meeting the Granite Sculpturer, Linda

The waters around here once supported a massive fishing industry built on the seemingly endless stocks of herring (sil).  The vast fish stocks were depleted by the late 1800’s and now there is only a scant handful of boats operating out of these harbours.  Our hosts generously procured fresh prawns and langoustine straight off the prawn boat for us and we had a feast fit for a king that night with the seafood served on fresh bread with homemade dill and garlic aioli.  We were also served up a range of pickled herrings which to the surprise of both us, and Haken and Helena, we really enjoyed. The herring flesh was firm to the bite but was not fishy at all and the flavour went really nicely with the various herbs and spices that went into the pickling liquid.

Haken Purchasing Fresh Prawns straight from the Boat

A Feast of Prawns and Langoustine

Haken and Helena took us out on their small runabout where we secured the rope to the shore by hammering a wedge into a crack in the rock.  We had a relaxing Bovallstrand style afternoon swimming, eating and exploring.

Traditional Style Boat

Unique Granite and Flora on the Islands

Ancient Vastergotland

Bovallstrand and the neighbouring towns are in the Vastergotland region of western Sweden which has a record of continuous occupation for thousands of years.  Numerous archaeological sites tell the stories of the Bronze Age farmers around 2000 to 500 BC through to the marauding Vikings from 1000 AD.

One of the benefits of having local tour guides is being taken to places that you probably wouldn’t have otherwise known about.  One of these was the rock carvings and museum at Vitlycke.  There are a staggering number of these images engraved into the granite dated from 1000 BC through to 1 AD showing a vast array of scenes and shapes of ships, people, battles, hunting, gods, animals and so on.  For example, there are over 10,000 images of boats or ships recorded in the greater area.  The Vitlycke Rock Carvings, however, are the most famous collection in the area and the free museum of the ancient culture and carvings gives an in-depth insight into the people who inhabited this land.  They really ‘do’ museums well in Sweden with lots of interactive displays and learning opportunities for adults and children.

While most of the world is worried about rising sea levels, Sweden has the opposite thing going on. The whole country is actually rising by about 1cm a year.  Most of the sites for the rock carvings were coastal when they were first cut into the granite but the land has risen about 25m since then and the sea is now many kilometres away.  This is due to the country being pushed down by the weight of the ice during the ice age about 15,000 years ago, and now, like a rubber mattress which has been compressed, it is slowly springing back to its original shape.  This means that some of the ports are facing expensive dredging operations if they want to stay in business.

The ancient church of Svenneby Gamla in Hambergsund (GPS 58.499662, 11.324094) , which dates back to around 1000 AD is well worth a visit and is open most days.  Of particular interest are the racks where the parishioners were supposed to hang up their weapons before entering the main church and the beautifully restored paintings on the wooden roof.

Svenneby Gamla Church

Wooden Ceiling Paintings

We spent our last evening in the area in the town of Fjallbacka wandering the streets of historic buildings, enjoying an ice cream and live music down on the foreshore then finding a flat safe area set aside for motorhome and bus parking just on the outskirts of town.

Rain was forecast for the next day and we were heading inland.  The coastal region of Western Sweden is certainly worth a visit (especially in the summer).

If you are a wildcamping motorhomer like us,  you sometimes have to look around to find free camping spots around the tourist hotspots in the high season but they are there if you look hard enough and take advantage of the on-line Apps available.  The main one we use is Park4Night which has built up a massive database through user contributions.  We always try to do our bit for the rest of the motorhoming community by adding new sites and relevant reviews.

Our free parking spot 58.262700 , 11.680155.

It is also important as full time motorhomers to talk with other people who obviously enjoy this lifestyle.  We want to say a massive thanks to Helena and Haken for their incredible generosity, opening their home to us, being wonderful tour guides, and providing the most delicious food for us to sample.  We look forward to returning the hospitality in the future.

Vasa Museum

Vasa Museum

The Vasa is the world’s most important marine salvage bar none.  She is the only almost fully intact 17th century ship existing in the world today.  This makes her incredibly unique, especially when you learn that when these ships were built, they had a life expectancy of just 30 years.

So how is it that we can see this ship some 390 years after her launch?

Sadly for those involved at the time, including the 30-50 people who lost their lives, the 64-gun warship sank on her maiden voyage at 4pm on 10 August 1628 having traveled just 1,300 metres down the Stockholm harbour.

Salvaged in 1961, 333 years after her sinking, the Vasa rose to become world’s most significant historic marine artifact, as well as a momentous archaeological find.

Her resurfacing allowed marine experts an unprecedented look into the reasons for her demise. It also provided an opportunity for modern-day archaeologists to study the population from the 16th century including what they ate, their health and ailments.

Fifteen significant skeletons were found, some were still clothed and one sailor even had his shoes on. The brackish water helped to preserve the bodies and even the brain of one person was intact.  The remains of these people are visible in the museum, complete with clothing and known facts on each person.  Look carefully at the photo on the left, you can see the shoes still attached to the feet.  On the right are the skeletons meticulously laid out.  Unfortunately the naming of these people has not been possible, although it is interesting to learn that DNA testing has started.  Could you imagine being told this is a relative of yours, after all these years?

The photos below show a reconstruction of three men whose remains were found when the ship resurfaced.   Isn’t modern technology fascinating?

Vasa’s Statistics


Here are some stats about Vasa.

  • Built by Dutch brothers Henrik and Arendt Hybertsson and constructed strictly according to the plans at the time.  Unfortunately, there are no surviving blueprints for us to view today.
  • She sank after sailing just 20-30 minutes when a gust of wind heeled her over, allowing water to pour into the open gun ports and she couldn’t right herself.
  • She was built tall at 52 metres high, 69 metres long, 12 metres wide and weighed 1,300 tons. Back then there were no mathematical calculations to determine her stability.   Clearly, she was built too narrow with insufficient counterweight below the waterline to keep her upright.
  • She carried 64 cannons, each weighing more than one ton.
  • There were between 135-200 people on board and she was on her way to pick up about 300 soldiers. Their lives were spared.
  • Of the 64 cannons, only three originals remain today and are in the museum, having been preserved due to the brackish water of the Baltic Sea.  With a cost of €25,000 each in today’s dollars, it’s no wonder that the others were salvaged back in 1660 and it is expected were used in future war vessels.
  • Vasa is reportedly the most visited museum in Scandinavia.

Who found Vasa?

So the question remains, how was she first found and then salvaged? It’s an interesting story and part of the story about her future is still being written. Let me explain.

An explorer by the name of Anders Franzén recovered a core sample of wood from the suspected wreck site, and it was Per Edvin Fälting and Sven Persson who confirmed on 4 September 1956 that the small plugs of wood came from a ship.  Further dives confirmed the identity as the Vasa.

Armed with the knowledge of the ship’s history and the divers’ reports, Franzén threw himself into building the coalition of institutions that could raise and restore the ship for the museum he envisioned.  The task would require technical expertise of many kinds, from diving and salvage to preservation.  It needed historical and archaeological knowledge of the early 17th century.  Most of all, it would require money, manpower and heavy equipment.

Known by some people as Sweden’s Apollo Program, the dramatic and complex technical effort took several years to do something few thought possible: raise an intact 17th-century warship from the bottom of the sea.

How was Vasa Raised?

The first attempt at raising Vasa failed as they could not lift her from the top as she was too heavy and it started to inflict too much damage. The first salvage attempt was in the 1950’s, but she didn’t resurface until 1961 when technology had improved.

Between 1957 and 1959, navy divers dug six tunnels under Vasa and pulled massive steel cables through them to suspend the ship in a basket. These cables were taken to two floating pontoons at the surface.  By pumping the pontoons almost full of water, then tightening the cables and pumping the water back out, Vasa could be broken free of the mud and was eventually lifted and moved into shallower water.

As the divers dug with high-pressure waterjets and dredges, they encountered a fascinating array of finds that had fallen off the ship, from rigging hardware to gunport lids, and the first of more than seven hundred finely carved sculptures. They also found the mainmast lying next to the ship, and the ship’s longboat.

One of the first things to be raised, on 5 September 1958, was a cannon.

The reason it took such a long time to raise her, apart from the thousands of suggestions that came in from around the world, was that the technology had to be readily available locally.

What was involved in the Salvage?

For more than 18 months, a small team of commercial divers plugged holes where bolts had rusted away, fitted covers over the open gunports, and rebuilt the bow and stern to make them watertight.  Steel rods were fastened across the hull to help hold it together.  It was also important to make the ship lighter. The central part of the upper gun deck, which was covered with mud and debris, was cleared. More than a thousand objects were found: coins, personal belongings, gun carriages, tools and the bones of five of the people who had been on board when the Vasa sank.

Thousands of tons of mud and water had to be pumped out of the hull to refloat her and the ship had to be moved onto a pontoon of its own, where it could be excavated and conserved.  Archaeologists had to come onboard to excavate the interior, and conservators had to begin the arduous process of treating the ship so she would not shrink and crack.  Divers would spend five more years recovering thousands of loose pieces from the beakhead, sterncastle and upper deck, which lay around the hull where the ship had been, together with the ship’s longboat and anchors.

Finally, in April 1961 Vasa came to life once more.

The ship was raised and placed on a reinforced concrete pontoon and supported by temporary shoring struts.  Excavation of the interior took place from May to September 1961, raising over 40,000 separate objects of different materials.  All the while, the hull was sprayed with harbour water to prevent the wood from drying out.

Vasa’s Preservation

When waterlogged wood is allowed to dry out without treatment, severe cracking and shrinkage can occur. The wood may look sound, but the wood cells are weakened by bacterial decay.  Conservators chose the synthetic polymer polyethylene glycol (PEG) to treat Vasa’s wood.  PEG is a synthetic wax that is soluble in water; it is a common component in cosmetics, such as lipsticks and face creams, and is widely used in the pharmacy and food industries.

Experiments showed that a PEG solution could diffuse into the wood structure to replace the water, and prevent cracking and shrinking.

PEG spraying began in April 1962. Initially, the work was carried out by hand which was time-consuming and not very efficient.  It took five men five hours to spray the entire surface of the ship.  More efficient spraying was achieved in 1965, when an automatic spray system was installed, with 500 spray nozzles directed over the inside and outside of the ship.  The PEG concentration was gradually increased from a low concentration of 10% and ending up with a 45% solution.

Boron salts were added initially to prevent micro-organism growth but later also to neutralise acids.

The spray treatment lasted 17 years, from April 1962 to January 1979, followed by another 9 years of slow air-drying.  A final surface layer of PEG 4000 was applied as physical protection to the ship and melted into the surface with hot-air blowers.

The photo below shows the effect of shipworms that eat wood submerged in saltwater.  Thankfully the Vasa was sitting in brackish, low salinity water, where the worms can’t survive.

Vasa’s conservation began as a huge experiment but the pioneering research by Vasa’s conservators have paved the way for numerous other shipwreck projects around the world.

Work and studies continue on Vasa even today and the replacement of the 5,000 bolts with stainless steel ones is an ongoing process.

Below are remains of the sails, found in the sail locker.  Read the plaque below in yellow to find out how the sails were preserved and how long it took.

Will Vasa survive another 100 years?

This is an interesting question. One thing that struck me upon entering the museum was just how dark it was.  I tried to take a video but the lighting didn’t allow this to be successful.

We learned that in a dark, cold room without oxygen Vasa could be preserved forever.  However, then she wouldn’t be a gift for us to ogle over.

Projects are currently underway to provide a better understanding of the chemical and biological processes in Vasa’s wood.  The goal is to be able to preserve the ship far into the future.

So to answer the question above, no one knows today how long Vasa will survive.

Vasa stands as the world’s largest jigsaw puzzle and is 98% original in her current state. After more than five hours of visiting we were still learning about this historic vessel.

If this story has interested you, or you are a marine enthusiast, I suggest you add a visit to Stockholm on your bucket list. This is without question the most profoundly interesting museum I have ever visited, and I have been to countless.

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