A Norrland Roadtrip – The Northern Swedish Landscape

We first holidayed in Sweden in 1998 – I was five years old, and my sister only a baby. Five years later we had moved there as a family. Despite 15 wonderful years, first living there full time, and then returning every summer and winter, for the last few years I have only been able to go back home for a couple of weeks during the summer, and consequently had little opportunity to explore parts of the country I hadn’t seen before. However, this summer, in the name of research of course, my boyfriend and I took to the roads for a three-day road-trip around Västernorrland and Jämtland, looking for the those landscapes which inspired the landscape painters Helmer Osslund and Oscar Lycke.

The View from Vättaberget. Image: Isabelle Gapp

Day 1: Sundsvall 

Having not driven a manual since passing my test last year, I was grateful that the journey to Sundsvall was straight up the E4 heading north. A brief stop on the way at Gamla Uppsala, accompanied by some serious strain on the handbrake and the occasional stalling of the engine, we arrived in Sundsvall a good while later. It is a lovely town, with imposing turn-of-the-century architecture – the central square features some wonderful buildings, most of which now house different banks. Last year it was even voted Sweden’s most beautiful town.

The Hotel Knaust was perhaps the highlight of our visit here. Having planned the trip before hand, I knew that visiting this hotel was relevant in understanding the local artistic climate at the time. In Christmas 1918, for example, Lycke had exhibited within the hotel, and although I have yet to undertake the archival work pertaining to the artist, it was fantastic to see the town where he was born and those locations that are marked within his career. This hotel, moreover, not only boasts an incredible staircase in its foyer, but also in the entrance hall the walls are unexpectedly adorned with paintings, dating to the early 20th century, by different local artists, including Carl Brandt. All of these depict the local landscape, with the same rich palette that is identifiable in both Lycke and Osslund’s work.

Inside Hotel Knaust. Image: Isabelle Gapp

Day 2: Indalsälven 

Driving along Indalsälven was truly breathtaking. It is one of Sweden’s longest rivers, emerging from the Bothnian Sea and extending over 430 kilometres in length, winding its way through a landscape made of hills and forests, and dramatic vistas. It is a truly picturesque landscape, and instantly evokes the work of both Lycke and Osslund. Fortunately the lay-by’s were few and far between, otherwise this journey would have never ended. Having grown up in a much flatter landscape, the sudden rise of the hills on the horizon never ceased to amaze. However, after navigating a narrow and steep incline, it was the view from Vättaberget which truly put the river, and the landscape as a whole, into perspective. Here, the twists and turns of the river could be seen meandering in between the hills on either side. On either side of this outlook you could trace the river until it disappeared into the horizon. It was this view which reaffirmed my understanding of Lycke’s work in particular. It was the first time I had begun to truly envisage the locations which inspired him to paint – his motifs were no longer alien to me, but right in front of me.


After reluctantly tearing ourselves away from this panoramic splendour, we continued along the river, continuing on north. The remainder of that day’s drive provided us with a whole range of perspectives on this landscape, including a Thai pavilion, constructed to commemorate the centenary of the Thai king, King Chulalongkorn’s, visit to Ragunda in 1897. This was truly bizarre.

Our final stop for the day, however, was Döda Fallet (Dead Falls). It was once one of the most impressive white-water rapids in Sweden, with a total fall height of approx. 35 metres, however, in 1796 the glacial Ragunda lake and the falls dried up after a flood rerouted Indalsälven through a small canal, first constructed to bypass the falls. They emptied within four hours. Today, this is not only a nature reserve but one of the most popular tourist spots in the area. Constructed walkways guide your around and down the rocky remains. We, however, decided to go the long way round, and instead walked through the woods that run alongside the falls and alongside a beautifully picturesque lake which instantly recalled the similar Canadian landscape. Unlike the dense forests which consume these northern hills, the sparsity of the trees alongside the lake is as a consequence of the flooding which left the ground lacking in those nutrients capable of sustaining a variety of species. Unlike the wooden walkways, taking the trail allowed us to come upon the rocky remains of the rapids from below – it was a monumental view to say the least. From this perspective, you can only imagine what they would have looked like over two centuries ago.

Below Döda Fallet. Image: Isabelle Gapp

The drive to the hotel was equally incredible. I will never not love driving on those wide, empty roads, surrounded by trees on either side, the skies remaining light late into the night.

Day 3: Sollefteå & Nordingrå 

Our final full day started off with us driving back on ourselves (having made a slight detour to our hotel). The first stop of the day was Sollefteå, where Helmer Osslund was born, and later lived and worked. As we approached the outskirts of the town, we attempted to locate Osslund’s home and studio in Granvåg. Instead, we spent most of our time getting lost in the rain. Although there are photos and sparse descriptions available online, unless you’re with someone who knows where to go, no map, sat-nav or signposting will be of much help. Driving in torrential rain definitely didn’t help either! The town of Sollefteå, itself, was like a time warp: where corner cafes remain in place, having existed for over a century, and with the decor to match. After a short, and brisk, walk around the town, we were forced to retreat to the car so as to avoid the inevitable thunderstorms that follow a heatwave. Altering our plans for the afternoon, we instead decided to head over to Höga Kusten, or the High Coast, and seek out the area surrounding Nordingrå.

Considered to be one of the most beautiful areas of Sweden, we definitely chose quite the day for a visit. Dark, grey clouds and heavy rain followed us wherever we went that day. However, with that said, the views remained spectacular. The area of Nordingrå, was not only a place where Osslund at one time had a studio, but also inspired the artist in a number of his works. This view was one of my favourites…

Processed with VSCO with m5 preset
Nordingrå. Image: Isabelle Gapp

However, we were looking for a particular view, that which inspired one of Osslund’s most famous paintings Autumn, Nordingrå. Again, the internet failed me. Despite having been planning this trip since the start of the year, there is little information pertaining to the location of this view. The only blog I could find which actually referenced the hike you had to take, stated they weren’t going to share how to find it so as to keep it secret. This was of no help whatsoever. It was only after we had traipsed through muddy and wet forests for an hour or so, trying to figure out our location, and were in the car driving back that we stopped at a road map – and on there finally found the location we were looking for. How to get there still remained a mystery. I am greatly appreciative, however, for those that have taken photos of the view which inspired this painting – in hindsight, it meant I inadvertently experienced the landscape without any of the academic hassle.

Autumn, Nordingrå (1910) by Helmer Osslund. Oil on paper on canvas mounted on masonite, 66 x 97cm. Image: Collection of the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm

Day 4: Home

It must be one of the only motorway journeys which includes rest-stops by lakes. I don’t think I have ever experienced more picturesque service stations, but they were most definitely a welcome break from the monotony of driving. Driving back I felt disappointed that I hadn’t found many of the exact locations that inspired either Osslund or Lycke. I have come to realise, that ultimately that wasn’t the purpose of the trip. The idea was, like in Canada, to gain insight into those landscapes which the artists surrounded themselves with. Many of Lycke’s works for example are untitled, and yet after having seen the vast panorama’s of Indalsälven, it is most certainly this environment which inspired a significant number of his works. To have experienced Osslund fully would have involved visiting the region during the autumn – the vibrant autumn colours and dramatic skies are what is best typified by the painter. Yet, experiencing the landscape in the summer allowed me at the very least to understand and appreciate what it was about this northern environment that most inspired both artists. It was more importantly a version of Sweden that had until this point remained unknown to me – one which I only knew through paintings. It highlighted, once again, how important it is to understand what the artist paints, not merely study it.

View of Indalsälven from Ragunda Old Church. Photo: Isabelle Gapp


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s