Dalarna - Valley Of Toys

Eva Bell

© Copyright 2004 by Eva Bell

Photo of giant toy horse in Dalarna.

Morning was just breaking as we motored out of Stockholm, and headed towards Dalarna, three hundred kilometers away in the north westerly direction. For me, the rural atmosphere of any country holds a strange fascination. It is here that one meets the true citizens of the soil with their simple lifestyles, their quaint practices, their steady unhurried pace of life, still fairly uncorrupted by the din and bustle, and the consumer culture of the cities. Besides, Dalarna was something of a geological wonder which had to be explored. But how long would it retain its old world charm! It had already become the third largest tourist location in Sweden, raking in five billion SEK annually.

It is a three-hour drive through miles and miles of pine and conifer forests, interrupted by fields of wheat and rye. Legend has it that 360 million years ago, a meteor four kilometers in diameter, fell into this dense woody region and formed the Siljan Lake. Around this expanse of blue, pretty little villages sprang up, and today, a visit to this region ensures hours of fun and adventure. The circumference of Lake Siljan is about 120kms. It is 50 kms in length and 35 kms in width. Once long ago, wolves, bears and reindeer roamed freely in the jungles. The people were mostly nomads and hunters. But as time went by, they settled down to agriculture and stock farming. The villagers zealously guard their traditions and lifestyles.

As we neared Dalarna, the first thing that struck us was the red wooden houses and log cabins, clustered together into small villages. The red color used to paint the houses, was debris from copper mines, mixed with arsenic and other chemicals. It made the buildings durable and termite–free, and extremely cheap to maintain, as they needed repainting only once in 12-15 years. Red contrasted colorfully against the green of the forests.

We stopped at a quaint village called Avesta, for a coffee break. The restaurant was a wooden house out of the 19th Century, with a high threshold, and scenes of ancient folklore painted on the walls, interspersed with quotations from the Bible, and sprays of flowers. The rooms were heated with tile stoves called Kakelugn. The outer part was decorated with painted tiles, and the stoves fired by wooden logs, with smoke rising in a convoluted stream through the chimney. Simple wooden tables covered with handmade crocheted lace, added to the old-world charm. We were waited upon by smiling girls in traditional costumes, as we feasted on “bullas” (sweet buns) with fillings of marzipan. We drank from gold-rimmed cups and saucers, wiping our mouths with dainty lace-edged napkins – something like an English tea party without the fuss and formality of the latter.

The log stoves in the kitchen made the copper kettles and jugs on the shelves, shine like burnished gold. Pretty maids bustled around doing their assorted chores. Avesta boasts of many firsts – the oldest stainless steel industry, the best beer made of the finest Swedish water, and the most famous ceramic factory. The Alvar Aalto Ceramic building is worth seeing. It is covered with blue ceramic tiles, and was supposed to have been built in 50 days.

We then drove on to Leksand, which is on the south shore of Lake Siljan. There are compact villages of living traditions in this area, all made up of Falun houses with a distinct character of their own. The open-air museum at Tallberg, which is 400 metres high, brought to life an age that had gone by. A number of log cabins built in the Dalecarlian style, with logs fitted into each other without nails or rope, display workshops of blacksmiths, carpenters, weavers, bakers of Tunn bread (like crackers), and homesteads furnished as they were as in times gone by. People in folk costumes explained to eager tourists, the intricacies of each trade. Boat building, carving and painting were other occupations on display. From Tallberg, one gets a beautiful view of the lake.

Handicraft shops were irresistible. Wooden toys, jewelry, clothes, dolls and trinkets were brought here for sale, from outlying villages. Midsummer festivities had just ended. They always took place around the Maypole, which was a permanent fixture in every village, and the decorations were still flying in the air. Maypole Day is usually celebrated on the 20th of June, the longest day. Swedish folk dancing takes place around the May pole, in the ‘boy-meets-girl’ tradition. Heathen practice has merged with Christian celebration, and the Feast of St. John is also celebrated on that day.

Further up the lake, in the heart of Dalarna, is the Siljan garden where there are guest houses and cottages, and internationally known people give cultural and educational programs. It was founded by a woman called Signe Bergner and her husband Harald Alm, and has been in existence since 1927. Now the place is run by the Family Trust. Signe was an artist who bought and moved cottages from different villages around the lake, and grouped them into a museum. Her own house was something of a museum, and was famous for a coffee table made from a 14th century millstone called Storstuga, that had been brought from the northern part of the lake.

Axel Munthe author and physician of Queen Victoria, spent part of the summer in Leksand. He married a local called Hilda Pennington Mellor, in 1907. Hildasholm Gardens are the planned work of this lady, who toiled for 10 years to make the landscape a vision of beauty. The gardens are still owned and maintained by the Munthe family.

The women of Dalarna are called “kulla” and the men,”mas.” The agricultural fields are not very extensive. So each village has a “fabod” (place to put the livestock), deep in the forest, sometimes 40 kilometers away from home. One herdswoman called the “valkulla” is appointed in charge of the entire fabod, and it is the job of the “kullas” to supervise the animals, milking them in the morning, and sending them off to graze. The evenings are spent making butter and cheese. It’s a hard life, but the “Fabodar” (mountain dairy farms) are well maintained and prosperous.

On the following day, we motored to Nusnas, to see the Dala Horse factory. These wooden horses are a speciality of this area. Forestry has existed since the 15th century. The iron, copper and silver mines in the area, needed charcoal for processing the ore. Lumberjacks and charcoal workers lived far away from home, deep within the forests. After a heavy day of felling trees and transporting them, they would sit outside their log cabins, around a roaring open fire. When the evening meal had been cooked and eaten, their form of relaxation was to carve wooden toys, to be taken home for their children. The horse became a popular model, as horses were invaluable as beasts of burden. They pulled logs in the forest in winter, worked in the fields in summer, provided means of transport for the family, and were greatly prized by the people.

Each toy horse was carved from a single piece of wood. In the 19th century, these toys were given a coat of bright glossy paint, usually red, and traditional designs of flowers and creepers were painted on the horses. This kind of painting is called ‘kurbit’ painting, a peasant art known since 18th century.

About 400 years ago, itinerant peddlers took these beautiful horses, and sold them to people they met on their travels. Thus a market was created for these toys. Peddlers even used them as legal tender for food and accommodation.

But it took another century before it could be turned into a commercial venture. Granas Anders Olsson, the eldest in a family of nine, was driven by economic need, to open a workshop for Dala horses. He invested in a band saw in 1922, so that pattern blocks could be made in different sizes. The patterns were then drawn on the wood block, and roughly carved. The finer carving was done by hand, and later, painted. Thus each horse had its own individual identity. Finally, a protective layer of varnish was given.

The Dala horse became a celebrity at the World Exhibition in New York, in 1939. It is the emblem of Dalarna, and a symbol of Sweden. At the Granas factory in Nusnas, one can see the different stages of manufacture. The horses come in different sizes, with distinct patterns. Tiny horses are made into earrings and pendants. Some are used to make napkin or letter holders or wall hangings. Though the predominant colour is red, black, blue and green are also used. Apart from horses, pigs and roosters are also made. Horse making has become a cottage industry, and about 50 craftsmen bring their ware to the Granas Olsson factory, which is the oldest in the area. But the largest horse, stands in Dalahastan, Avesta. It is cast in concrete, and is 13 metres high, 12.8 metres long, and weighs 67 tonnes. It is visible from a long distance away.

Also on display at Nusnas, was an old church boat that could seat 80 people. In the olden days, people dressed in their native costumes, came to church by similar boats that were rowed by 10 people. They made a ‘joyful noise unto the Lord’ singing hymns back and forth from home. Later, these boats took part in races, held during the Midsummer celebrations.

Dalhalla or Draggangarna was our next stop. It is an awesome natural amphitheatre metres long, 175 metres wide, and 65 metres deep, with a green lake in its depths, left by an extinct lime quarry. Quarrying was stopped in 1990 because the mine was flooded from subterranean springs. The colour green of the lake is due to calcium carbonate reflecting the sunlight.

At Whitsun in 1991, Margarita Dellafors an Opera singer, discovered this place. The acoustics were excellent, and it struck her that this would make an ideal place for an open-air Opera concert. She was then the Minister for Culture in the Government. Her vision took six long years and 40 million kroners to materialize. The stage is 600 square metres, and the green water surrounds three quarters of the stage. The conductor of the orchestra travels by a boat around the stage, to the “pit.” There are no loud speakers because of the super acoustics.( 65 decibels of sound.) The effects are best when there is a solo, or when one musical instrument plays. This makes it most suitable for operas. The galleries can seat 4042 people in an area of 1227 square metres.

The first concert to be held was an abridged version of Wagner’s “Rigoletto.” It was performed in1997, by an international cast. The rock walls were flooded with colored lights, to contrast with the green lake below. The visual effects were spectacular and stunning. Today, artists from all over the world vie with each other, to perform on the world’s best sunken, outdoor stage. Twenty six concerts are held every year during the Summer festival (6th June to 1st Sept.) Though best for opera, Gospel, Jazz and other classical concerts are also held. However Rock concerts are not allowed, as security becomes risky because of the drunks, druggies and unruly elements such concerts attract. The green water comes from a spring 175 metres below the mine. All employees here are from surrounding villages.

Pavarotti once performed here, when the temperature was –10 degrees centigrade, and the seats were packed with people shivering in the cold. He wondered aloud if people were not mad to sit outdoors in freezing weather, to listen to music. Dalhalla gets its name from Dalarna and Valhalla (Wagner’s opera) DAL+ HALLA. Concerts are pretty expensive, with tickets costing from 150-480 kroners. But a lady working there, gave us an idea of the acoustics, by singing a few snatches from “Rigoletto.”

From here, we motored down to Rattivik. Sommerrodel was a great attraction, where one could go up to the top of a mountain in a chair lift, and pedal down through a tortuous metal gutter, at break-neck speed. Accidents were comparatively few, with people toppling off the edges of the gutter. The Langbryggan beach was another attraction, as the water was shallow and safe for bathing. It is 625 metres long, and the poet Bo Bregman said it was “almost as long as eternity.” Pedal boats were on hire for those who wanted to test their skills. Tours by steamship, across the lake, were also possible.

Mora is another interesting town at the northern end of Lake Siljan. It is famous for several reasons. Vasaloppet – a skiing competition is held on the first Sunday in March, between Mora and a town called Salen, to celebrate the return of Gustav Eriksson Vasa to Mora. He later became King of Sweden.

Mora is also famous for Mora clocks fitted into wooden frames and decorated in ‘kurbit.’ It was a man from this town called Sticka Erik Hansson who first introduced the technique of painting two colours with the same brush.

There are Mora knives too, which make good souvenirs. But Mora is best known for its Santa World. On one of his trips from Iceland, Santa Claus fell in love with Mora’s mountains of magical dust, and decided to live in Mount Gesunda with his elves, his reindeer, the Snow Man, the Queen of Winter and others. This commercial enterprise is open summer or winter, and is a fairy tale world for children of all ages.

Dalarna is Nature’s wonderland. Skiing, Ice hockey, Sleighing in winter, Boating, mountain climbing, cycling or enjoying Nature in Summer, are some of the things to do. There was much more to see, but we had run out of time and money, and sadly bid adieu to the Valley of Toys.

Dalarna can be reached by road or by train, from Stockholm. There are affordable Youth Hostels in most of the towns around the lake. After a sumptuous breakfast, one can get by the entire day, with a light picnic lunch packed by the hostel kitchen, for an extra fee. But the Swedish “smorgasbord” is something to sample, before leaving the area. It is built around the herring, and eaten with potatoes, chives, onions, sour cream and home-made cheese.

As we returned to Stockholm carrying within us the peace and tranquility of Dalarna, I knew I would come back again very soon for my tryst with the Siljan Lake.

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