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Österlen: The jewel of the south

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Österlen: The jewel of the south
12:30 CET+01:00
With Easter fast approaching, Peter Vinthagen Simpson travels to Österlen in southern Sweden, where the annual Open Studio Week kicks off the holiday season this Good Friday.

When thoughts turn to Österlen, they turn to the sky, to the sea, and to the art. The south-eastern tip of Skåne in the far south of Sweden has tempted city dwellers to choose an alternative, simpler life for decades. With a resonance of Provence and Tuscany and rumoured to be home to more artists per capita than anywhere else in Europe, the land where the sea and sky meet combines simple rural pleasures with an air of quiet, cultured sophistication.

There are several gateways to Österlen, an area that is considered to consist of the countryside to the east of the road stretching from Ystad in the south to Brösarp in the north. In actual fact, however, the term is used more broadly by a lot of people, estate agents being a case in point. It seems that many want to share in the glow of Österlen's appeal.

One common route is the one from the north, cutting through the woods of Småland, past Kristianstad and the Brösarp hills. This is the route taken by many of Österlen's summer guests – as Stockholm's well-heeled leave the city for their summer houses, which dot the countryside and pack the coastal villages.

Just as the sky and sea are said to meet in Österlen, the same might be said of its summer guests and permanent residents. This meeting is not without its problems and many of the old fishing villages become deserted ghost towns during the long winter months. But as the winter turns slowly to spring and the traditional beamed 'long' houses and quaint fishing cottages start to show signs of life, Österlen announces the dawn of a new season with a bang.

Easter time brings the traditional 'Open Studio Week' (Konstrundan) to Österlen, with the villages of Kivik, Brösarp, Rörum, Simrishamn and Baskemölla, to name but a few, becoming hives of activity. Local artists open the doors of their galleries and little shops and welcome in their eager customers. Perhaps those summer guests and visitors from the city are not so bad after all.

There are over 150 professional and many more amateur artists working here. Silversmith Lisa Tofft has this to say about the Easter week:

“It is a driving force that many other small regions do not have. It is important economically not only for the artists but also for restaurants and hotels in the area which get going that weekend. It is the extra spice that gives people the chance to discover all that Österlen has to offer.”

Österlen celebrates the 40th anniversary of the Open Studio Week in 2008. Jeanette Langert from Gothenburg plans to join the throngs on Good Friday:

“It is the mix that I find so appealing; to drive around in the beautiful countryside and experience art at the same time. The art represents and is formed by its environment, its surroundings, in a concrete way in contrast to going to a gallery or museum.”

So the tourism season goes into full swing around Easter and then the place is transformed into a sort of Swedish Cancun? Well, not exactly. The mild climate and rich soil of the region has meant that farming, fishing and tourism have long shared the burden of economic development down here.

The tempo of Österlen is slow and therefore ideal for both a weekend or a longer break. Even in the peak of the summer season a secluded spot can be found on the region's 50 kilometres of beach.

For those willing to work a bit harder, a climb to the top of Stenshuvud in the national park of the same name affords panorama views along the coastline. That is if you don't choose to eat your picnic in the magical forest that shrouds the 97 metre peak.

Not that there is any shortage of activities. There are golf courses in Vik, Ystad, Tomelilla and Stiby. Ale's Stones can be found near Kåseberga. An old steam train chugs into Brösarp throughout the summer. Horse riding, and water sports such as fishing and yachting can be easily arranged. A wander through the cobbled streets of Ystad or Simrishamn can push the stresses of daily life firmly to the back of your mind. If that doesn't work then why not try morning yoga in the Baskemölla eco-village, followed by lunch at the enchanting Mandelmann's Gardens in Rörum.

Accommodation could be anything from a castle, B&B, hostel, camp-site, or why not rent a cottage by the seaside or tucked away in the rolling hills?

Food traditions are strong down here and you can eat very well at any number of country inns, harbour fish stalls and gourmet restaurants. Skåne is rightly called the breadbasket of Sweden and locally produced fare is available wherever you turn on Österlen. Farm stalls sell vegetables, fruit and of course the region's celebrated apple cider.

Many of the musicians that tour Sweden during the summer play at Kristinehov and Öja Castles, Brantevik, and at the intimate Backa festival by the beach in Baskemölla. Theatre can be found in Skillinge, and although not strictly Österlen, plenty of people pack their picnics and head to Marsvinsholm's Castle near Ystad for evening performances of classical plays by Molière and other eminent writers.

The summer season reaches its peak around the time of the Kivik market in mid-July and then starts to draw to a close with the apple harvest towards the end of September. The crowds disappear back to the cities and the locals go back to whatever it is they do in the winter months with the easy satisfaction that soon they will have their Österlen back, to themselves...at least until Easter comes round again.

Getting there

By air the gateways to the region are Kristianstad Airport and Malmö Airport with domestic and international connections.

By rail from the west a commuter train from Malmö runs along to Ystad picking up flight arrivals in Sturup, continuing on to the seaside town of Simrishamn. From the north Kristianstad station is linked to the towns in the region with regular coaches from Ystad and Simrishamn.

For more general tips and information on Österlen visit: www.visitosterlen.se

For information on the Open Studio Week, which runs from March 21st to 30th, visit: www.öskg.nu

For information on transport and hotels in the region visit: www.skane.com

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