On the cusp of the Arctic Circle lies an area rich in Swedish history, culture, art, and design.
How many times have you heard that something is about the journey, not the destination? When it comes to Northern Sweden, none of the usual travel cliches apply and this is one region where the journeys and the destinations are equally memorable. We experienced this first hand as we set out on a journey towards Sweden's Arctic Circle. We had the opportunity to discover the municipality of Boden, which serves as an incredible gateway to Swedish Lapland as well as being an amazing place to explore all on its own.
Boden is a remarkable blend of history, modernity, religion, military might, tranquil nature, and edgy design. And it's just waiting for more people to discover it! This is our journey as we made our way north to Sweden's Arctic Circle.
Cutting edge modern art in a dramatically re-purposed building just shy of the Arctic circle? Welcome to Boden, one of Sweden's most unexpected and utterly delightful destinations, and the Havremagasinet. Boden is a critical area for northern Sweden's national defense operations, and the "Havremagasinet" building translates into the oat magazine or the oat depot. This where oat and grain were stored from the building's construction in 1911 until 1950 in order to feed the "troops" -aka the horses of the Swedish army!
With garrisons of horses at low demand in these modern times, this incredibly striking building is now home to equally striking art. Boden is famous in art circles for the "Boden School", a group of artists who flourished in the area in the 1950s and 1960s and their legacy lingers at Havremagasinet. Exhibits, which focus on local, Nordic, and international contemporary art, change frequently, but the schedule of guided tours is steady. The tours - included with the price of admission - are offered every Wednesday to Sunday at 1:00pm and I can highly recommend them. If you need time to digest all that you've seen, the gift shop has a nice little cafe that's perfect for mulling over artistic opinions with some Swedish fika (a coffee break with a yummy treat on the side).
The Church of Överluleå
The Church of Överluleå, the oldest in Boden, dates back to 1831. The name translates to Upper Luleå. Luleå is the name of the church parish, as well as a nearby city, and is home to the original "church village", a model replicated for Boden's parishioners as well.
Swedish law used to mandate compulsory church attendance and these charming tiny red cabins were built around remote churches in the harder-to-reach parishes such as Luleå in order to accommodate those who traveled from far distances to worship. The striking red color originated from a stain made from copper mineral run off. Some of these humble small cottages, most without indoor washrooms, are available to rent, while others are in private hands and still others are subject to heritage regulations. But regardless of status, they're all beautiful to look at and it makes for a pleasant excursion to walk around the grid of delightful wee homes.
Can we also all take a moment to appreciate the glorious vintage pink Cadillac? Our tour guide confirmed that it belongs to the village priest!
Across from the church there is a large park containing a number of historical buildings, including the town archives and genealogical research office in a house that dates back to 1741! During the time of our visit in July, there was a special exhibit which included adorable piglets and other traditional farm animals, demonstration of bread baking in old fashioned hearth ovens, as well as other displays of traditional Northern Swedish life. My understanding is that the special events and demonstrations are limited to once a year but with a bit of luck you can wander around any time and perhaps poke your head into the archival office should they be open.
Even if you had never before heard of Boden or the community of Harads (about an hour up the road) you're probably already acquainted with their most famous attraction, the MirrorCube tree house at The TreeHotel. It's graced countless calendars and posters and coffee table books in addition to being the backdrop for photo shots and modelling gigs.
The MirrorCube is just one of 7 incredible structures suspended from the trees. A floating cabin, a gigantic bird's nest, as well as a UFO comprise some of the neighboring tree houses that serve as ultra private hotel room retreats, complete with spectacular views, powder rooms, and sometimes even lounges and balcony spaces. The contrast between the unnatural structures and the unspoiled beauty of the area blend together perfectly. The MirrorCube disappears into the trees, while the Bird's Nest evokes organic coziness, and the Blue Cone (which is actually red!) reminds me of the unexpected splashes of red you always discover in nature, like the flash of a cardinal or woodpecker.
The out-of-this-world designs of The TreeHotel structures come with some out-of-this-world prices which might not make them suitable for all guests. And the 10 minute plus walk through the woods to reach the captivating but somewhat minimalist accommodations may not be for everyone.
The site's other property, Britta's Pensionat, is much more down to earth in both design and prices. Decorated with mismatched odds and ends from the 1940s to 1970s, the rooms are more spacious and convenient, if decidedly less chic, than the small pods of The TreeHotel. To get the best of both worlds, guided tours of The TreeHotel are available for Pensionat guests.
Arctic Circle Gateway Center
Arctic Circle Gateway is an absolutely wonderful interpretive center and archaeological space just shy of the Arctic Circle (and about 45 minutes north of The TreeHotel). Completely run by dedicated volunteers, the center pays tribute to the indigenous people who settled in the area some 6,000 years ago. A theater showcases the imaginative film 'Björnkvinnans Folk' ("People of the Bear Woman") which offers an interpretation of what life may have been like for the people of the region. A creative display of early clothing and tools lets visitors step into the shoes (quite literally) of people who lives thousands of years earlier. A moving drum ceremony brings the past and present together and pays tribute to the elements of the sky, earth, and water. And with a little luck, delicious non-alcoholic gluhwein will be served!
A long list of programs and authentic Arctic cultural experiences are offered by the Arctic Circle Gateway but, given the changing nature of special events and the volunteer led schedule, it's smart to inquire ahead of time to make sure your desired experience will be available. Taking this small extra step was well worth it - this was one of my favourite places to explore in the area.
Crossing the Arctic Circle
What does a line on a map really mean, anyway? If you're geeks like us and that line is the Arctic Circle, it means everything! A few signs, flags, and interpretive panels are all that greet you as you cross into the Arctic but it's one of those moments and locations that every traveler will want to cross off their bucket list. Enjoy it!
Your transportation: The overnight train.
While you'll almost certainly need a car to get around Boden and the surrounding area, getting to Boden itself presents a number of options, including flying into the nearby Lulea airport, taking a very long overnight bus (often the cheapest option), making a road trip of it with a car, or taking the overnight train from Stockholm.
The train seems to bridge the gap between the inexpensive appeal of the bus and the greater comfort of a flight, provided you have a sleeping berth. Having never taken an overnight train in Europe, I was extremely excited for what I saw as a traveling rite of passage.
Unlike crossing the Arctic Circle, riding the overnight train is a bucket list experience I'm happy to do just the once. Remember what I said at the beginning about the journey and the destination being equally important? Admittedly, recollecting the train journey makes me think twice about that! On the plus side, the train was very fast, fairly clean, and I'm sure was a much better option than sitting upright on a bus all night. Some amenities seemed to go above and beyond, such as the very nice shower compartment with plenty of clean, fluffy towels.
On the downside, other services seemed to be completely lacking. We saw no attendant for the entirety of our trip and, fortunately, Ryan was able to figure out the tricky maneuver for transforming the bench seat into the bottom bunk (other friends weren't so lucky and basically slept on the bench seat itself). And, of course, I was horribly queasy with motion sickness the entire time. Let's just say I was thrilled to return to Stockholm by air!
Boden is beckoning
Traveling up to Boden and experiencing the gateway to Swedish Lapland, being on the cusp of the Arctic Circle, was a travel dream come true. It's an experience I'll never forget and one I can recommend wholeheartedly and without reservation. I'll choose the Boden path over the beaten path any day!
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Our trip to Boden was facilitated by the local tourism board and we thank them for their support.