Why Sweden's answer to Tuscany is a cyclist's dream
WITH a bump, my bike jolts from the smoothness of the asphalt to the loose gravel of the forest track, as the endless rows of tall pine trees throw a cooling shade over the track in front of me.
But the rougher surface doesn't deter my guide, one of Sweden's leading professional sports cyclists Eric Sjogren, as he stands up on his pedals and picks up the pace, his back wheel spinning, sending up a puff of dust in his wake.
Clearly delighted at leaving the roads behind, he calls over to me: "Are you alright with a bit of gravel?"
A bit of gravel turns out to be kilometre after kilometre of tracks taking us deep into the endless forests of Smaland, which are punctuated with small isolated farming communities made up of traditional deep red wooden cottages, occasionally flying the sky blue and sunshine yellow of the Swedish flag.
Vast areas of forest, open meadows and barely any crowds have attracted both road and mountain cyclists to the area, where many new bike routes have been set out. Guided cycle tours can be booked and an app containing digital maps is soon to be launched.
The peace that envelops these traditional villages is briefly disrupted as our tyres grind along tracks, skidding on the gravel as we round a corner at a speed more suited to the smooth country roads we have left far behind.
Outside one house, an older couple are sunbathing in the late summer sun on loungers set up on their front lawn; the man, wearing only a pair of swimming trunks looks up, waves and calls out "Hej hej" – the succinct Swedish phrase for "Hello, goodbye". We wave back before concentrating on the short but sharp incline that takes us out of the village.
We slow down for a railway crossing and break out of the shadow of the forest into the bright late-summer sunshine, and return to the roads as we turn a corner to find another of the many lakes that dot the region.
Thankfully, overlooking the sparkling water is our half-way lunch stop in Bunn, where I happily devour a club sandwich – followed by waffles – to refuel for the afternoon's riding.
We had set off from the historic castle hotel Vastana Manor in Granna, heading along the edge of the vast Lake Vattern – the scene of the world's largest bike event, which sees 23,000 people taking on the challenge of cycling the 300km around its shores.
But during our four-hour ride to the regional capital of Jonkoping, we only see a handful of cyclists and cars.
This leaves us free to enjoy the roads which sweep over the undulating hills in peace. Eric tells me: "We call this area Sweden's Tuscany," and he's right – it feels just like that, only without the Italian drivers...
As we begin a fine descent into Huskvarna, a small city absorbed by Jonkoping, Eric signals for us to turn left and back up yet another not so undulating hill. "We can't have too much fun," he shouts, as I shift into an easier gear, my legs complaining at this latest insult.
But after this final climb, we join an enjoyable curving corkscrew of a road, which takes us all the way to the foot of the driveway of my hotel for the night – the grand but quirky Slottsvillan, the former director's home of the Husqvarna lawnmower company.
As I clunk up the grand staircase in my cycling shoes, everywhere I look a fun design touch has been added, from a frog on the stairs to a swan above my door to a floating vinyl player in the lounge surrounded by a sea of colourful record sleeves.
After a welcome night's sleep and a hearty breakfast, Eric joins me but he's not so fresh; he arrives red-eyed after celebrating a friend's birthday into the early hours, not that this affects his pace on the pedals a single bit.
For our ride, Eric has carefully plotted a route once again traversing the pine forests to find the shortest path to our destination, the homely Wallby Sateri hotel in Vetlanda.
By the afternoon, the September sun has deserted us and we are pushing against a headwind as we race the clouds, which are building up on the horizon. I gratefully take up position in Eric's slipstream as he powers us, despite any remnant of his hangover, through the final 20km home.
We arrive at Wallby just as the rest of my group are heading to the lake to catch crayfish for the traditional crayfish party our host is holding for us later that night.
After a shower and a change into warmer clothing, I climb into the rowing boat and we fetch nets used to collect small fish for bait.
Unceremoniously, these are chopped with an axe and placed inside lobster-pot-style cages, and we return to the water to drop them along the rocky edges of the lake where the crayfish hang out.
This leaves us one last Swedish experience: the sauna. Having just rowed out on the lake, the last thing I imagine doing is swimming in it. But after 10 minutes of steadily getting hotter and hotter, redder and redder in the 80-degree sauna with a window overlooking the lake, I'm ready to run along the short pier and dive-bomb into its chilly waters.
The shock of the cold is only momentary and gives way to a deep feeling of relaxation. But when I do climb up the ladder on to the jetty, I start to shiver and quickly get back in the sauna to warm up again, beginning a cycle of hot and cold extremes which continues until it's time for dinner.
Our host, Magnus, hands us a paper bib and party hat as we sit down at a table laden with delicacies for our crayfish party, a popular celebration in the late summer months which, from all accounts, involves lots of drinking and singing.
Magnus gives us a lesson on how to dissect the mini lobsters; first we pull off the claws and use a tiny knife to pluck out a minuscule bit of flesh before we suck the juice from the body and break it into two.
The edible bit is in the tail and after removing the final sharp-edged piece of shell, I'm left with a thumb-sized piece of tasty seafood – a small prize for a lot of work. Magnus leads the hearty singing to which I "la la la" politely along.
Thanks to all the cycling, my ravenous appetite sends me back for second and third helpings of the glorious cheese pie, before indulging in the rich chocolate mud pie dessert, which all sets me up to surrender gratefully to my bed to recover from my weekend in the saddle.
How to plan your trip
Doubles at Vastana slott (vastanaslott.se) from 1590 SEK/£127 with breakfast; doubles Wallby Sateri (wallby.se/en) from 1795 SEK/£144 with breakfast; doubles at Hestraviken (hestraviken.se/en) from 1980 SEK/£159 with breakfast.
For more information on the destination, go to visitsmaland.se/en
Cycling guides for up to four people cost E300/£259 for a full day from abloc.se/en
Cycling routes and itineraries are available at cyclingjonkoping.com
Norwegian (norwegian.com) flies from London Gatwick to Gothenburg from £30 one way.