Sweden: The Wallander Connection in Skåne

Skåne, Sweden: Exploring the Land of Wallander

By Faye S. Wolfe

Kenneth Branaugh as Wallander, set in Skane, Sweden.
Kenneth Branaugh as Wallander, set in Skåne, Sweden.

You don’t have to be a mystery lover to fall in love with Skåne, the Swedish setting and uncredited star of two Wallander series. In the Swedish version, available on Netflix, Krister Hendriksson plays the moody detective who drinks too much and badly needs a love life.

The tales are dark, but with endearing touches: the forensic expert wears cardigans, and Wallander has a black lab, Jussi, named after Jussi Björling, a famous Swedish opera singer.

The British production, aired in the U.S. as a PBS Masterpiece Mystery, is even more Nordic noir than the Swedish. Kenneth Branagh, playing the lead, has been known to chew the scenery—acting with a capital A—but in this case, who could blame him if he did? Skåne is definitely a feast for the eyes, and in both series, as the detective zooms along country roads seeking clues to whodunit, viewers are treated to alluring glimpses of it just beyond the Volvo’s windshield.

A beach in Skane, on the Baltic sea.
A beach in Skane, on the Baltic Sea.

Skåne’s natural beauty, Viking ruins, medieval castles, and picturesque villages are all worth savoring, especially in summer, when the days are long, and the sunsets spectacular.

There are also restaurants to suit every taste; a range of accommodations, including bed-and-breakfasts in country houses, seaside resorts, and elegant hotels; arts festivals; and other cultural attractions.

In fact, this southeastern Swedish province has long attracted artists as well as Swedish vacationers. In the last few years, it’s become a niche travel destination, thanks to Henning Mankell’s best-selling Wallander novels and the TV series.

Don’t Be Afraid

Don’t let the episodes’ deadly explosions in quaint town squares, brutal killings on uncrowded beaches, and heinous murders in barns with thatched roofs frighten you off: Skåne’s a terrific place for a vacation. The (not-so) dark secret of that farm with the thatched roof might be that it’s actually a hotel with a sleek, chic interior.

DIning at the Hos Morten cafe in Skane.
Dining at the Hos Morten cafe in Skane.

And in the square, nary a diabolical plotter can be found, but there will most likely be a farmers market—in July, look for luscious local jordgubbar and hallonen (strawberries and raspberries) sold there and at temporary roadside stands.

From Stockholm, you can fly or take the train to hip Malmo, Skåne’s biggest city (home to the improbably-twisty Turning Torso skyscraper.) Trains will take you to other towns in Skåne, such as Ystad, and bright yellow public buses to some of the smaller towns and villages.

You can drive from Stockholm to Ystad in about seven hours via an inland route, but we made a two-day tour of it, driving down the coast and stopping along the way at, among other places, the island of Öland, all of which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Once a Horse Barn, Now a Boutique Hotel

In Brantevik, we checked into the boutique hotel Marten Pers Bo. Because the navigator (that would be me) had packed inadequate directions, we got lost a few miles from the hotel, and when we arrived, checkout time was over, the reception desk deserted. We called the number left there and reached one of the owners. Rolf said politely, “Oh, I’m at the theater. I’ll be there in ten minutes.”

My embarrassment about being late ramped up to mortification at the idea of dragging someone away from a night out, but when Rolf, arrived, he explained that the theater is part of an arts complex he’s developing, just down the road.

Chairs in the converted horse barn of the Marten Pers Bo Hotel.
Chairs in the converted horse barn of the Marten Pers Bo Hotel.

(There’s also an art gallery.) He’d been at the dress rehearsal for a staging of West Side Story by teen students, in Swedish, as the finale to a summer drama program.

The hotel rooms, located in what was once a horse barn, have a stylish, slightly idiosyncratic decor: streamlined bath fixtures, polished cement floors and walls, Indonesian antique furniture and colorful throws, and the standard pristine, cosy white comforters. Days are warm, evenings are cool in Skåne, reminding me of coastal Maine.

Breakfast, a groaning board of local foods—the standard Northern European breakfast of hams, cheeses, rolls, cereals, yogurt, and fruit—with homemade pastries, is served in what was once the farmhouse.

Ystad's main square.
Ystad’s main square.

The eastern end of the horse barn/hotel is a soaring space, with oversize doors left open to a postcard-perfect view: deep blue sky above, the cobalt Baltic Sea beyond, and straight ahead, fields of grain, edged with blue cornflowers and red poppies, rolling down to the shore.

We took our morning coffee down to the open doorway and sat on surprisingly comfortable hand-forged wrought-iron chairs, made by an artist friend of Rolf’s.

(They put me in mind of a Louise Bourgeois spider sculpture.) Falcons, hunting in pairs, drifted, then swooped over the tasselled wheat. Practically inhaling the radiant landscape all around me, I thought, of course the Swedish flag is blue and yellow—it’s the natural palette: golden fields, golden light, blue-blue sky, slate-blue sea.

The serenity of the place is seductive, and Rolf is fun to talk to about the arts and history of the region. But if you can tear yourself away (avert your eyes from the hammock under the trees, the sunny stone terrace), you can take a ride along back roads on one of the hotel’s bicycles, available for a small rental fee, or walk to a little beach. It’s just beyond a cluster of cottages and lavishly blooming cottage gardens, down a little sandy path… Or you can drive about a half-hour into Ystad, Wallander’s base of operations.

Ystad and Beyond

Ystad is a lovingly preserved but thoroughly lived-in medieval town, with half-timbered houses and cobblestone streets, and a central square—with one of those open-air markets selling ripe berries.

Boats at Svaneholm castle.
Boats at Svaneholm castle.

We had a lunch in the courtyard of Hos Morten Café. To the burbling of a little fountain, patrons were chatting, sipping coffee, and drinking the local beer. The sun streamed down, and our brimming bowl of fish soup arrived steaming hot.

Fresh, local seafood is a given on Skåne menus. You can’t get much closer to the source than at Glada Räken, Swedish for “happy shrimp.” This shipshape restaurant in the fishing village of Simrishamn occupies the cabin of a former fishing boat moored harborside.

You place your order at the counter, then a cheerful waitress brings it to you. Diners sit at the handful of gleaming wooden picnic tables; the water, and the occasional duck, is just outside the windows.

The Happy Shrimp offers ample servings of shrimp, naturally, and flounder, salmon, and other fish prepared various ways, with side dishes such as klyftpotatis, the Swedish version of French fries, green salad, and potato salad.

The place has that unadorned but appealing “we’re all about the food” atmosphere of clam shacks, fish joints, and lobster coop cafés found on many a coast, with rolls of paper towels on the table and a décor limited to red geraniums in enamel buckets. But the garnish of a couple of prawn heads lent an exotic touch to my meal.

Berries at the local farmer's market
Berries at the local farmer’s market

 Storming the Castle 
Another ramble took us a few miles from Marten Pers Bo to Glimmingehus, a fortress, complete with moat, dating from 1499. Supposedly haunted by ghosts and featuring a medieval security system that included “murder holes” (from which the stronghold’s defenders could pour hot pitch on attackers), all the same, it is lovely in an austere way. Romanesque arches curve out from walls eight feet thick.

Stone staircases are lighted with lanterns set on the steps.In the whitewashed kitchen are drying herbs, heavy iron pots, and simple crockery—Skåne has a distinctive clay and from the 1800s was home to major commercial potteries. Families can bring their lunch and sit at a big table just beyond the kitchen. Aside from the paved roads, what you see of the surrounding countryside from the top floor seems as much of the period as the castle itself.

The Romance of the Stones

Ancient history is also a stone’s throw away: 15 minutes south of Borrby at Kåseberga is Ales Stenar. On a windy cliff above the sea, 59 standing stones form the 67-meter-long outline of a ship, which researchers believe to have been erected 1,400 years ago as a burial monument. The standing stones and their dramatic setting work together to evoke “the world of Beowulf,” as a Swedish archaeologist, Martin Rundkvist, has put it.

Glimminghus courtyard
Glimmingehus courtyard

The obvious comparison is to Stonehenge, but aside from the difference in shape, there’s a difference in scale. Although weighing as much as two tons each, the megaliths are more human-sized (three to six feet tall, with a taller one at the prow and at the stern) and thanks to Sweden’s allemansrätt, or “freedom to roam” policy, access is unrestricted, although you do need to be able to hike the path up the hill.

Hundreds of thousands, some via tour bus, visit the site each year, but there’s still a good chance that you may have it all to yourself or at most, share it with some grazing sheep or cows. And if keep your eyes open as you drive the country roads, you may spot unmarked, small-scale burial mounds or other prehistoric ruins there are lots of them.

At one time, Skåne was part of Denmark, and Swedes were the outsiders. A letter written by Swedish King Gustav II Adolf in 1612 breezily boasts about how his troops “have been able to rage, plunder, burn, and kill to our hearts’ content.”

Apparently, mayhem and murder in Skåne predate Wallander’s time by several centuries, but today the only thing peaceable visitors to the province really have to fear is finding accommodations in July if you haven’t booked ahead.

After a picnic lunch by the lake at Svaneholm Castle, we ended our Scandinavian adventure with an incursion into nearby Denmark. In our rental Nissan Qashqai and armed with just an easy pass, we said hej då to Skåne and zipped right across the dramatic Oresund Bridge into Copenhagen without any emigration formalities.

A fika in the garden Hos Morten. This is something dear to the heart of every Swede.
A fika in the garden Hos Morten. This is something dear to the heart of every Swede.

Our first few hours in Copenhagen, we half-expected a uniformed official to lay a hand on our shoulders and ask to see our passports. Our Skåne idyll spoiled us a little for Copenhagen. The city has many charms, but we wished that we had had more time to investigate the southern Swedish countryside.

For more information about the Marten Pers Bo Hotel, visit http://martenperskalla.se/bo.php

For ruins geeks, this database lists hundreds of Swedish tumuli, dolmens, burial mounds, etc.: http://www.fmis.raa.se/cocoon/fornsok/search.html

And for Wallander fans headed to Skåne, there’s a lot of information and guides online to help you track down the detective’s favorite haunts

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Faye Wolfe

Faye Wolfe

Writer and editor Faye S. Wolfe has been happily packing her suitcase since the age of eight for travels abroad and around the country. She lives in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts.