A place of peace, Hammarskjöld´s Backåkra

KåsebergaWhere do you take someone who has never been to southern Sweden
before and wants to get away from it all? My recommendation is to
visit a stone in a field in Dag Hammarskjöld´s Backåkra
and enjoy some calming views of the Österlen coast.
This is not just any old stone. Engraved into the surface is the
word PAX. In case you did not have the benefit of studying Latin at
school, PAX means PEACE. Words have power and I believe this place
imparts a sense of peace to the visitor; a place to sit and ponder
on the state of the world or just escape the bustle for a moment.

Bring your worries or the world’s troubles to this place, release
them and leave with a lesser burden or with renewed hope for the

A friend and I came here from England while visiting Malmö in Sweden
for a long weekend in wintertime. It was not the warmest time of
year to visit Sweden and the snow had fallen covering the rolling
landscape of the county of Skåne in a white cloak. I decided to
brave the weather and take my friend to this stone that I had
visited once before in the summer. In winter, it would be an
entirely different experience.

Skåne is not like more northerly parts of Sweden where there are
pine forests as far as the eye can see. The Skåne countryside is an open agricultural landscape
of rolling fields with some woodlands.

East of Ystad stretches the area known as Österlen that is a popular
place for artists to practise their crafts. Going eastward from Ystad, the main road to Simrishamn follows a stretch of coastline with sandy beaches popular for bathing in the summer.

We turn off to the right after Nybostrand to take the eastern coast
road. The route takes us slightly inland as the landscape becomes
more undulating with a ridge of hills rising up at the coast from an
otherwise flat landscape.

Just after passing Backagården, I know we are near. I have stopped
at this popular tourist spot on a number of occasions. There is a
cafe inside the house but you can also take your refreshments out
into the large conservatory to enjoy the sun and indoor plants. The
shop inside sells arts, crafts and antiques.

I see the turn towards Löderups Strandbad and Kåseberga but keep
straight on until I see the signs to Backåkra. It is here that the
renowned Swedish diplomat Dag Hammarskjöld bought a secluded farm in
1957. Hammarskjöld was elected as Secretary-General to the United
Nations in 1953 at the young age of 47. He did not live long to
enjoy his new summer residence. In September 1961 while on a UN
mission in the Congo, his plane crashed killing him and all on
board. His death is clouded in mystery and is still under
investigation by the UN. Though officially an accident, some eye
witnesses say his plane was shot down as it came in to land at
Ndola. Whatever happened, a great statesman was silenced in his

After his death, the estate at Backåkra was bequeathed to the
Swedish Tourist Association (Svenska Turistföreningen) as a place of
sanctuary and cultural activities. The 30 hectares of land around
the farm is a nature reserve that is open to the public at any time
of year. The farm building itself, which contains artefacts
belonging to Dag Hammarskjöld, is currently closed to visitors while
awaiting renovation.

We follow the signs to Dag Hammarskjöld’s Backåkra taking us up a
winding narrow track full of snow and I am not sure if we will be
able to reach the top. Thankfully we manage the slippery bends and
find we are the only car in the car park at this time of year.

To reach the inscribed stone, we follow the signs to the meditation
place and wander across a large field. The stone is in the centre of
a circle with a low perimeter wall. The view of the coast is
unspoilt from here and we quietly take in the peaceful scene,
enjoying the solitude. We are fortunate to see a purple sunset that
afternoon indicative of the special lighting that has made Österlen
an inspiring place for landscape artists.

Kids just love this place because they can run around freely on the
grassy slopes. While adults like to ponder and meditate here, kids
tend to go wild! Peace is not what everyone seeks or finds!

At the bottom of the large field, a gate leads to a path through the
forest to the sea and sandy beaches. A good place for the family to
regroup is at Löderups Strandbad, a nearby hotel and restaurant
complex just along the coast from Backåkra offering rooms
overlooking the sea. During the tourist season, the restaurant
serves an excellent buffet.

If you have an appetite to see more stones, just up the coast to the
west is the spectacular formation of Ales Stones in the shape of a
ship. The site of the stones is on high ground overlooking the
sea with panoramic views. Ales Stones are the largest ship formation in
Sweden attracting many thousands of visitors – Sweden’s answer to

There is something about the high ground of the coastal landscape
here in Österlen that imbues a feeling of peace, an unwinding of
stress and a heightened sense of being. Our ancestors who created
Ales Stones about 1400 years ago probably felt it too.

Österlen’s champagne

Kopingsberg vineyardYou may not associate the climate of Sweden with winegrowing but in this northerly part of Europe in the county of Skåne, a number of vineyards have grown up since the turn of the millennium. The changing climate is working in favour of growing vines here but the climate is still far from ideal and makes winemaking a risky business. Nevertheless, with the right types of grapes and a lot of enthusiasm, wines of character with a distinct acidic taste can be made.

In Österlen, there are a growing number of vineyards but the one that receives the most visitors is Köpingsberg, east of Ystad. Köpingsberg’s speciality is sparkling wines including the Swedish equivalent to champagne called Köpingsberg Blanc de Blancs Vintage. This sparkling white wine made from Swedish grapes is aged for four years. When each precious batch of wine is released after four years, it usually sells out within minutes. That’s what happened when about 1,000 bottles went on sale in November 2014 at a price of about SEK 400 per bottle.

The wine is released through local Österlen branches of the Swedish state-owned chain of off-licences known as Systembolaget. They have a monopoly on sales in Sweden of wine, spirits and beers of a certain strength. Traditionally Sweden has had a strong temperance lobby for restrictions on the sale of alcohol. Indeed, from 1982–2000, the nationwide branches of Systembolaget were closed on both Saturdays and Sundays. Now they open on Saturdays but remain closed on Sundays.

Sweden’s strict rules mean that winemakers like Carl-Otto Ottergren of Köpingsberg cannot sell their own wine on their premises. “The rules are a bit crazy,” says Carl-Otto Ottergren. “If I could sell my wine direct to customers, I would keep my vineyard open for visitors much longer. But with the rules as they are, it just doesn’t pay.”  Visitors can pay for wine-tasting at Köpingsberg but they cannot buy the wine and take it home. For that, they have to travel to the local branch of Systembolaget in Ystad, Tomelilla or Simrishamn or order the wine from another branch in Skåne.

Currently the winery is open for drop-in visitors on certain afternoons in July and August. At other times, visits can be booked in advance by groups. Most of the visitors are Swedish but some groups come from abroad. With his command of English, German and French, Carl-Otto Ottergren is able to guide groups from different parts of Europe. Visitors are shown around a modern winery attached to the house at Köpingsberg dating from the 17th century.

Carl-Otto has strong connections with France where he runs a joint venture with a vineyard in Bourgogne. Under his supervision, two types of sparkling wines are made at the vineyard and sold under his label, namely Blanc de Blancs Cuvée Carl-Otto (100% Chardonnay grapes) and Cremant de Bourgogne Cuvée Carl-Otto (45% Chardonnay and 55% Pinot Noir).

Using the Champagne method to make wine is labour-intensive requiring not just one fermentation of the wine in a tank but a subsequent fermentation in the bottle. Carl-Otto Ottergren is a serious winemaker who makes his living from wine and has been planting vines (mainly Chardonnay) here in Österlen since 2005. The vineyard now has about 6,000 vines. The 2015 harvest is expected to yield 6,000 bottles of the sought-after sparkling wine Köpingsberg Blanc de Blancs Vintage. The wine will be aged for four years before the vintage from 2015 is released for sale. “Even some well known brands of champagne only age their wines for two years,” Carl-Otto points out. “Our long ageing gives a rich taste.”

The Österlen region is perhaps best known for its apples. Tasty apple juices and ciders are made here. But Österlen also has a few small vineyards. With no tradition of winemaking in Sweden, Carl-Otto Ostergren is one of the pioneers in these northern climes.

A selection of vineyards in Österlen receiving visitors

Köpingsberg Vineyard near Ystad between Nybrostrand och Glemmingebro. Started 2005. About 6,000 vines. www.kopingsberg.se

Ekesåkra Vineyard in Ekesåkra near Sandhammaren. Started 2002. About 2,000 vines. www.osterlenvin.se

Skepparp’s Vineyard in Skepparp near Kiwik. Started 2010. About 4,000 bottles in 2014. www.skepparpsvingard.se

Skillinge Vineyard on the coast near Skillinge. Started 1998. About 2,000 vines.

Traditional Swedish inn looks more at home in France

Lennart Mårtensson with a carving of Ganesha from India, one of the collection of elephants at his inn in Sjöbo.

Lennart Mårtensson with a carving from India of the god Ganesha who has the head of an elephant. It is one of the large collection of elephants at his inn in Sjöbo.

Sjöbo is an ideal spot for reaching most parts of Skåne including Österlen to the east. Within less than 30 minutes by car, you can be in Lund, Malmö, Ystad or Simrishamn. But getting around Skåne was not always this easy. Visitors of old often required a supply of fresh horses at strategically placed inns. That’s how Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård first started. Ever since 1700, there has been an inn at this location in the heart of Sweden’s southernmost county – Skåne. But there is something distinctly ‘unSwedish’ about Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård. The architecture is like a French chateau and inside are 3,500 elephants from around the world.

Ingeborg Liedholm, who ran Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård from 1917 to 1955 with her husband Hilding, loved elephants. Her guests used to bring her elephant souvenirs and ornaments when they returned from their travels in exotic lands. She dutifully registered each gift in a book and gave each elephant a name. By the time she died, her collection had grown to 500 elephants which are now displayed in a cabinet in the lobby of Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård.

The current owners Lennart and Eva Mårtensson have continued the tradition so visitors continue to bring elephants as gifts. The whole hotel is now overrun with elephants featured in every display cabinet and window sill. There are flying elephants decorating the dining area. An elephant is also part of the logo of Sjöbo Gästifvaregård.

This is just part of the quirky history of an inn that has been welcoming travellers since around 1700. This type of inn is known in Swedish as a gästgivaregård or gästis, which means more than simply a guesthouse. The name designated a statutory inn that was primarily for the nobility and ruling classes. No one else, apart from their entourage, was allowed to stay there.

During the first half of the 17th century, when representatives of the Swedish crown and Swedish noblemen travelled the length and breadth of the country, local farmers were obliged to offer them free accommodation. In 1649, this obligation was removed but farmers were still obliged to provide fresh horses free of charge to move these travellers from A to B. As a result, a series of coaching inns with stables were set up around the country. The law stated that these inns should be about 20 km apart to allow a change of horses at regular intervals along key routes. The routes were often signposted with milestones giving distances to the next inn.

So it was that Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård first came into existence around 1700 located at the crossroads of the Ystad to Hörby road and the Malmö to Simrishamn road. It was strategically located between Hörby and Herrestad. Incidentally, the inn in Herrestad dating from this period is still in existence today and open for guests as is the inn in Hammenhög on the old road east to Simrishamn.

In the old days, the innkeepers did not earn anything for providing horses. To compensate, they were exempted from paying tax and were given a monopoly to sell alcoholic beverages in a 20 km radius. Thus the inns became a focal point for the community and this is still true today.

Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård is today a popular venue for weddings and other family gatherings and has by far the largest restaurant in Sjöbo. It is a popular place to eat, priding itself on serving traditional Swedish recipes made with local produce. This is where the local people of Sjöbo eat out. Indeed, Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård was once a favourite haunt of one of Skåne’s most famous authors, Fritiof Nilsson Piraten (1895-1972), who wrote colourful stories about this area.

“We have a lot of Danish guests who appreciate the tradition of a local inn. In Denmark, the local inn still lives on in many rural towns. Many Danes come here in search of their history because Skåne was once part of Denmark,” says Lennart Mårtensson. The origins of his inn date from a time when the Swedish crown and military were keen to establish control over a part of Sweden that had only just been conquered from the Danes in 1658 and was still the subject of dispute.

One of the early visitors was the famous Swedish botanist Carl von Linné. He and his party planted two elm trees here in 1749. He stayed at Sjöbo to do an inventory of natural resources and land in the area. The inn is mentioned in his travel book “Den Skånske resan” (“Travels in Skåne”) where he comments on the softness of the down made from goose feathers.

Nothing remains of the original inn which was a low building with a thatched roof. The current eye-catching design dates from 1901. A firm of Swedish wine merchants from Malmö called Wiens & Sederholm first rented and then bought the property as an outlet for selling alcoholic beverages. They rebuilt the inn in the grand style of a French chateau or hunting lodge with distinctive oval windows. The building looks more at home in Versailles than in the provincial town of Sjöbo.

”Many of our international guests come from Denmark, Norway and Holland. They like the character of the place and our rooms rapidly fill up in the summer months,” says Lennart, who has been running Sjöbo Gästgifvaregård with his wife Eva since 1997. He has noted an increase in interest for online booking via sites like www.booking.com and www.hotelspecials.com. The inn is also to be found on Facebook at sjobogastis.

Even if the guest rooms are sometimes full, guests are welcome to the restaurant or bar seven days a week. And if any guests want to bring an elephant with them, Lennart will always make room for it!