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Unexpected treasures in the heart of Sweden

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02:51 CEST+02:00
Many a Stockholmer will tell you instinctively that the Swedish capital is about half way up the country, forming a cultural and commercial bridge between the north and the south of this long land.

In fact, Stockholm is nowhere near half way up Sweden's east coast. 'Half way up Sweden' is another four hundred kilometres north and the marker point is the city of Sundsvall.

Observing the city from above - not from a plane but from the observation post in a delightful open air museum high up on the North Mountain - you can't help but feel that Sundsvall has missed a trick.

A glorious arching bay with a South Mountain facing its northern partner, wide 19th century boulevards and forests all around, the harbour should be full of leisure boats moored before a waterfront of cafés and bars.

Instead, great lumps of heavy industry have muscled their way onto the scene. Imagine an aluminium works in place of Sydney Opera House, and you'll get the idea.

But as far as the region's tourism is concerned, what it lacks in the obvious, it makes up for with the downright bizarre.

"I've got something funny to show you," said Andrew, an Englishman who's been living in the city for several years, after meeting me at the station.

The world seems bigger up here. Big hills, skirted by big expanses of forest under big sky. But perhaps the biggest of the lot is the Indalsälven, the majestic river which flows from the mountains of Norway in the west to the Baltic in the east.

Off we set along route 86, heading up the valley away from Sundsvall past farmsteads and stables, rising slowly above the wide river.

"What would you least expect to see here?" asked Andrew after half an hour's car drive which led us into a steeply hilly, intensely green landscape.

That's a difficult question to answer. I blurted out a few randoms for the fun of it (the Marie Celeste, a giant inflatable Elvis Presley, the Holy Grail - the usual sort of thing) but as we turned off the road the reality presented itself vividly.

In the middle of the Swedish countryside, in the middle of Sweden, miles from the nearest town, lies an ornate Thai temple.

It is possibly the most incongruous construction I have seen since the French unveiled the glass pyramid outside the Louvre.

The 26-metre high temple, resting peacefully in a Thai-style garden, is curious enough. But the comedy effect - unintended, I presume - is rounded off marvellously by the stalls outside selling wonderful Thai tourist tat straight from the streets of Bangkok. You half expect to be able to pick up a Rolex for fifty kronor.

Like all strangely displaced buildings, there is a good story behind King Chulalongkorn's Pavilion.

At the end of the nineteenth century, the beloved king of what was then Siam went on a grand tour of Europe, hoping to pick up a few ideas for modernising his country.

Sweden was on the list, and in 1897 the king and his entourage found themselves wending their way down the Ragunda valley by horse-drawn carriage and steamboat to Sundsvall.

This part of Sweden doesn't get a lot of visits from Asian heads of state and the incident lived long in the local memory. Fifty years later a road was named 'King Chulalongkorn's Road' in honour of the visit. Clearly municipal planning was slow in those days too.

Then in 1992 a Thai folk-dancing troupe visited the area, and were amused to find a road named after their old king. Six years, countless building committees and ten million kronor later, the Ragunda valley was host to its very own Thai temple - the only one of its kind outside Thailand.

Andrew was right: it's funny, given the location, but it's also strangely beautiful and very impressive.

There is another good story behind the Dead Falls (Döda fallet), which was the next stop on our trip up the Indal.

Up until 1796, this was the site of one of the fiercest waterfalls in Sweden, as the Indal river plunged 35 metres onto jagged rocks and all-consuming whirlpools. Which was all very well for the occasional tourist, but something of an inconvenience for the local timber merchants, who used the river for transporting logs to the coast.

Something had to be done, and a merchant from Sundsvall called Magnus Huss, or Wild Huss, came up with an idea for diverting the river around the waterfall.

With a dam here and a canal there, Wild Huss solved the problem. But his calculations hadn't accounted for a massive spring melt which burst the banks of the canal, sending a giant deluge down the valley and draining an entire lake in four hours.

Houses, barns, mills, forests and fields were devastated, but miraculously nobody was killed.

The waterfall dried up forever, presenting later generations with a remarkable natural attraction. Now, wooden walkways snake over and around the giant boulders that once made the falls so treacherous and every turn gives a stunning view.

This is a ghost river, at once eerie and awesome, and a potent reminder of man's tendency to bugger things up when he dabbles with nature.

As if the Thai temple weren't enough, there was a touch of the surreal at the Dead Falls too. A small, rotating theatre has been built at the start point, presumably for atmospheric Scandinavian drama on silvery-light summer nights.

But we were treated to a couple of zany Swedes in wigs and pink dungarees, whose performance of some sort of pantomime echoed after us along the canyon, long after we had made our escape.

Further information

More about tourism in Sundsvall.

More about the Thai pavilion.

More about the Dead Falls.

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