Catherine from the local tourist board had already heard all those bad bog jokes so I decided not to quip about being “flushed with pride” when I stepped off the train in Vaxjo, second city of the southern Swedish region of Smaland. Its locals recently launched a wry tourist slogan: “Welcome to Bolmen, more than an Ikea toilet brush”.
“Bolmen is just one of Smaland’s 5,000 lakes. Ikea’s founder Ingvar Kamprad gave his furniture and furnishings names of things and places rather than numbers because he was dyslexic and it was easier for him to remember them,” Catherine explained as we drove along pine-fringed roads to Mockelsnas, a 1920s manor house.
Later, as we lunched on reindeer chunks in a rich lingonberry sauce in the manor’s dining room, she added: “Of course we are very proud of Ikea – it was founded here. But we want the world to see that there’s a bit more to Smaland than a €2 toilet accessory.”
The company certainly looms large in this remote region, which has not only the world’s only Ikea Museum, but also its first Ikea hotel.
“It all started here in Almhut. This was where Ingvar Kamprad opened his first store selling affordable Swedish design in 1958,” the museum guide said, as we wandered hallways lined with photos of the store’s founder. His career started when he was five, selling matches and later fish that he’d caught to help his parents during the Great Depression. He named what would become his home furnishing empire after his initials, IK, Elmtaryd – the farm he grew up on – and Agunnaryd, the parish.
Interactive exhibits and room sets furnished with Ikea items – Klippan sofas; Lampan table lamps; Billy bookcases – provided an insight into the company’s production, but less successful ventures are also showcased, including a kitchen composting sofa (discontinued because of the smell and maggots) and a line of inflatable furnishings that leaked.
A sleek paean to the company’s design ethos, Ikea’s hotel stands opposite: there’s even a restaurant dishing up a dozen different takes on the tasty and affordable meatballs that have been served in stores since the 1980s.
We then drove along loping roads lined with brightly painted wood frame houses to Huseby Bruk. Florence Stephens, the last owner of this 19th-century manor house in the hamlet of Grimslov, is as well-known as Ikea in Sweden. This is because Stephens was at the centre of the Huseby affair, a scandalous court case in the 1950s and 1960s, explained curator Sophie Magnusson.
Leading us inside, Sophie said that Florence’s father, Joseph Stephens, who made his fortune in India when he was a young man, returned to Smaland in 1867 to buy Huseby Bruk from the previous incumbents, including the glum portraits of their aristocratic ancestors lining the walls. Florence, better known to Swedes as Froken (the Lady), inherited the house from her father in the 1940s. When she died in 1979, she left Huseby Bruk to the state, stipulating that the 20 spooky rooms crammed with period furnishings, elaborate costumes and curios should stay exactly as they were when she died.
Sophie led us into a chandelier-lit lounge gleaming with mahogany furniture. “You can have Florence’s chair,” Sophie said, amused, as she seated me at the head of the table next to a headless tailor’s dummy clad in the costume of Froken’s faithful butler.
As we enjoyed some smorgastorta, a cream cheese, smoked fish, and mustard sandwich cake, Sophie regaled us with tales of the Huseby affair. They involved racy royalty and swindling rogues who siphoned off Florence’s money, leaving her almost penniless. Showing us the narrow bed where Florence died, Sophie confided that she often felt the previous owner’s presence in this room. I asked her if she’d ever spent the night here. “Inte för allt smör i Småland!’ (not for all the butter in Smaland!),” she cried.
Back in Vaxjo, I slept sweetly at Michelin star-awarded PM & Vanner, Sweden’s first gastro hotel. The next morning, I drove past snow-sodden fields dotted with wild geese to the Kingdom of Crystal.
Checking into the Kosta Boda hotel, a glass-themed wonderland with crystal art works buried like sunken treasure in the bottom of its lagoon-like spa pool, I headed out to explore the home of Sweden’s oldest glassworks.
Here, I watched as skilled workers spun sugar strands of molten glass to make long stemmed glasses and chunky vases as they have done here since 1747.
Then it was my turn. Feeling the force of the furnace’s 1,500°C heat, I gently breathed life into a hot gob of glass, polished it with a handful of damp newspapers and then blew the growing bubble to make a vase. “Most people can’t do it because the heat freaks them out,” the supervisor, Erik, said.
Smaland might be best known as Ikea ground zero, but it was also the home town of one of Sweden’s most cherished writers, Astrid Lindgren. With its old-fashioned kitchen range, creaking wooden floors and “lemonade tree” in the garden, Lindgren’s delightful childhood home in Näs is a shrine to the Pippi Longstocking author who was born in the pretty town of Vimmerby in 1907.
Just next door is Astrid Lindgren’s World, a theme park dedicated to Pippi Longstocking and other characters from Lindgren’s children’s books. Dotted with cobbled streets and castles and miniature houses complete with child-sized furniture, the sprawling park is a wonderland where children run wild while their parents relax in restaurants serving dishes such as potato and pork kroppkakor dumplings and ostkaka, an almond and cream cake.
“Now you know the real Smaland,” Catherine said that evening. “Lakes, spooks, good food and fun museums – and not a toilet brush in sight.”
Fly London Stansted to Vaxjo with Ryanair from £17. Car hire from Sixt near Vaxjo train station, from £34.50 per day, sixt.com
Mockelsnas manor in Herregard has doubles from £90, destinationmockelsnas.se. Vanner Hotel has doubles from £201, pmrestauranger.se. Kosta Boda Art hotel has doubles from £205 kostabodaarthotel.se.