A road trip around lake Siljan in Dalarna

I guess it is not possible for me to start this blog post without mentioning Corona. Since the pandemic made travelling uncertain, our strategy for planning a trip over Midsummer was to be able to cancel our bookings up until the last moment, in case we would not be allowed to travel. Another source of uncertainty was the weather – my friends usually say that the traditional Midsummer weather is 12 degrees Celsius and rain – and we wanted to have the option of cancelling the trip in case of an unfavorable forecast. As the destination we were considering Gotland, which we had visited before and loved (read more about it here) or Dalarna, which many say is the most Swedish of all Swedish provinces. Our previous exposure to Dalarna was quite limited – I skied several times at Romme Alpin. We soon ruled out Gotland – the ferry failed the “must be possible to cancel until the last moment” requirement. For Dalarna it was much easier – we needed accommodation and a rental car (we are still car-free, read about it here), both of which could easily be booked with no up front payments that will not be refunded in the case of cancellation.

The next decision was which parts of Dalarna to visit, as Dalarna is quite big and distinct. For me Dalarna is comprised of three distinct areas (this is not an official division of the province): the cities of Borlänge and Falun, lake Siljan, and finally the mountains (with places like Sälen and Idre). Only the latter two are generally considered to be worthy of a visit, with one exception in Falun which I will get back to soon. Visiting both the area around Siljan and the mountains would be too much for the four days that we had at our disposal, so we had to chose one – and we went for the lake. I made a skeleton of the trip, and booked a rental car and found accommodation in Tällberg and Orsa. Later I got a tip that Mora was more interesting, so I booked a hotel there instead of the one in Orsa. When it comes to the two aforementioned uncertainties, we were lucky on both fronts – the Swedish authorities announced at the beginning of June that trips within Sweden would be allowed, and the weather forecast was great – over 25 degrees and sunny. During the last week before the trip I started reading a bit more about the sights around Siljan and made a very rough itinerary – which we ended up adjusting on the fly. This was our first family trip since coming back home to Stockholm from Croatia in January. For us this was an unusually long period without travelling, I think the longest one since I moved to Sweden twelve years ago. It has even been tough on Emili who is an avid traveler (to illustrate this I can mention that she reached her 100th flight before she turned five). She kept asking when the bad virus would be gone so that dad can plan a trip for us. She was very excited the night before the trip, and so were Aneta and I. I do admit that taking the trip, although not breaking any rules, can be considered controversial due to the ongoing pandemic. To our defense – we were healthy and we continued to apply the usual distancing measures that we have been keeping all this time in Stockholm.

So what did we think of Dalarna? In short, it is very much visit-worthy. For the long version, keep on reading. I divided our experience of Dalarna into three groups – the highlights, the low points and finally the aspects that we probably did not experience in their true light due to the Corona pandemic.

The highlights

I will start with the exception that I mentioned above, which also happens to be the first sight we visited during the trip – the Falun mine (Falu gruva in Swedish). The mine is a UNESCO world heritage site. It operated as a mine for around a thousand years before closing in 1992. During its golden age in the 17th century, it stood for two thirds of Europe’s consumption of copper and financed much of Sweden’s war endeavors of the time. We took a guided tour both underground and above ground and visited the museum. We were there for more than three hours and I did not feel it was enough, but it was getting a bit too long for Emili. All in all, we had a great time and we learned a lot, and I can highly recommend a visit.

We asked the personell in the mine to recommend a good place for a swim, which made the lake Stora Vällan our next stop. Interestingly, the lake supplied the mine with water back in the day. We had a nice swim and the water was warmer than expected, I would guess it was around 23 degrees Celsius. During the trip we swam in four different lakes (Stora Vällan, Styrsjön, Opplimen and Pålsbenningsjön). One thing they had in common is that they were all relatively small, which meant that they were pleasantly warm. Growing up in Croatia, I got spoiled by warmer waters and it took me a while to dare to swim in Sweden’s lakes. I wish I had realized earlier that I was scared for no reason, and that it is not unusual for the smaller lakes to warm up to comfortable temperatures. This was one of the learning outcomes of the trip. And with almost 100 000 lakes on offer, a nice small lake is never far away in Sweden.

The next highlight, a restaurant called Bistro apan, started of as a disappointment. In our brief preparations for the trip we had checked out the restaurant offer around Siljan. Bistro apan stood out as a quirky place set in a former workshop that offers modern small dishes – the kind of place that would fit well with the trends in Stockholm, but in Dalarna it was an odd bird. I have to give credit to Aneta for discovering the restaurant, because I did not find it on either White Guide or Tripadvisor. Typically one has to book a table, but we wanted to be spontaneous and see when a visit would fit our itinerary the most. On Midsummer eve I sent them an e-mail asking if they had an available table in a couple of hours (in hindsight, I admit that this was quite optimistic from our side). We did not get a reply so we drove to the village of Vikarbyn where the restaurant is located hoping we could still secure a table. After all, having a five year old with us, we aimed for the opening time, 17 o’clock, which is quite early for dinner. Aneta and Emili were waiting for me in the car while I talked to the owner. She said that they were fully booked both on that and the next day, so I went back. Having entered the car I realized that I never mentioned that we wanted to eat immediately, and chances were high that the owner interpreted my question as a desire to come back for dinner later during the evening. I felt too embarrassed to go back so I gave them a phone call instead. No reply. Now it was Aneta’s turn to talk to them. She was clear about eating immediately. But the response was the same, this time from one of the waiters. We felt disappointed and were partly blaming ourselves for not booking beforehand, but we could not shake the feeling that it possibly also was a case of the staff’s unwillingness to serve us, for whatever reason. There were plenty of free tables. Did the restaurant’s quirkiness that is common in Stockholm also come with the arrogance that you often encounter in Stockholm’s restaurants? The owners were from Stockholm, so it would not be impossible, at least that was our reasoning at that moment.

How the evening continued, you can read about in the next section. Here I will fast forward to the next day because that is where the Bistro apan story continues. Around noon I got an e-mail response to my booking request from the day before, apologizing that they did not reply in time. I decided to give it another chance and replied asking if they had an available table in the evening. To my surprise this time the answer was positive, securing us a booking. The arrogance that we had perceived the day before was nowhere to be seen during our dinner. Quite the contrary, we felt very welcomed by the staff, including their pet dog which made Emili especially happy. At one point I got into a conversation with the other half of the owner pair, who works as the cook. After talking to him about Dalarna, Stockholm, Corona, restaurants, food and what not, I realized that half an hour had gone and that Aneta might be wondering where I was. We were also delaying the food. I also realized during the evening that my impression from the day before that we were turned down despite available tables was misleading – it was not the number of tables that was limiting the restaurant’s capacity, but rather how many dishes they could prepare. I understand now that it must be tough for them to turn customers down, but in the long run this is a much more honest strategy than trying to cram in more people and risking the quality of the food. The food, as mentioned previously comprised of modern small dishes. Not Michelin star level, but very tasty and clearly prepared with love. Their tikka masala stood out – it was on par with the best Indian dishes I have ever tasted. The desert, a very sour lemon ice cream served in a liquorice sauce was the strangest dishes of the evening – quite heavy and overwhelming but I commend the innovative combination. The only disappointment was the espresso, but here my criteria is extremely tough. Over the last three months I have been nerding out on espresso at home, upgrading my equipment, perfecting my skills, and testing many many different coffee beans. But that is a topic for a separate blog post. Anyway, the dinner was enjoyable and fun, and a great value for the money. So over the course of one day, Bistro apan elegantly went from being a disappointment to a highlight of the trip.

Moving on from intake of calories (food) to spending them (sports). In the town of Rättvik we tried the summer version of luge (called sommarrodel in Swedish). Instead of sledding down an icy track as one does in the original winter version of luge, we did so on a metal track. Emili liked it so much that she made us come back for more rides on another day. She also seems to be a speed junkie – for most of the time she was yelling “No breaks, no breaks”. Here are some photos and a video to better describe what summer luge is like.

When it comes to accommodation, apart from a bad episode involving a hotel (read about it in the next section), we had two very charming experiences. The first one was just outside of Tällberg, in the village of Kullsbjörken. We had a small cottage (stuga in Swedish). Typically if you rent a cottage, you are supposed to bring your own towels and bed linen, and you are supposed to clean up before you check out. However, here all of this was included, as was breakfast. This in my opinion provides the best from the hotel world – amenities that allow you to relax (who wants to clean during their vacation?), and the best from the cottage world – a charming accommodation and a personal contact with the owners (in this case also with their dog Doris, to Emili’s delight). I hope that this hybrid of hotel and cottage becomes a quickly expanding trend.

The second accommodation was in the town of Rättvik – it was a converted farm. This time we did not have a cottage, but a cozy bright room. The most prominent feature here was the secluded yard with a stunning view of lake Siljan, where we spent several relaxing hours. Even here we had some nice conversations with the owner, something that for me usually does not happen at a hotel.

Last but not least in my list of the highlights of the trip we have Dalarna’s nature and villages. The hilly landscape makes sure stunning views of Siljan are aplenty. Siljan’s water is much more transparent than typical Swedish lakes, and the strong sun added a golden glimmer to the vast blueness. If I wanted to be cheesy I could say that the blue and gold makes one think of the colors of the Swedish flag. But I don’t want to be cheesy, so I will not mention this :-). The meadows and forests surrounding the lake provide a green background to the blue and gold. To round up the symphony of colors, we have the picturesque villages with their red and white cottages. This red color is called Falu red and is is produced from the by-products of mining at the Falun mine. The villages that I found to be most mesmerizing were Almo and Alvik. There is also the famous Tällberg which is equally stunning but it adds a strange component of non-authenticity with its countless hotels and small shops. In that aspect it reminded me a lot of Flachau in Austria, which was equally hotel-dense (we visited Flachau during a road trip through the Alps back in 2017 which I wrote about here). Regarding the views, make sure not to miss the Vidablick observation tower for a panorama of Siljan, or the view of the village of Siljansnäs from the parking lot of Naturum Dalarna. Another place that is popular for its views is Gesundaberget.

The low points

Not everything was stellar during the trip. Day two turned out to be quite of a bummer. It started with us wanting to swim in Siljan. The lake is big so we expected it to be colder, but it is also quite shallow which kept our hopes up of having a pleasant swimming temperature. As we were walking the 600 meter long pier in Rättvik (called Långbryggan) to reach the point where we planned to jump in, the sky turned cloudy and the wind picked up. It was by no means cold, but the wind and clouds in combination with Siljan’s chilly water were just enough to scare us away from swimming. Had the sun continued to burn like it was doing just before we reached the pier (and also right after we left it), it might have been enough for us to dare to jump in. Not swimming in Siljan is my biggest regret from the trip. But it was only Aneta and I who were chicken, Emili did swim for a minute of two. I guess it is all about your reference point – she was born in Sweden as is not as spoiled as I am when it comes to what is a pleasant temperature for swimming.

After the semi-failed swimming episode, we drove to Nusnäs to check out a factory where they make the famous Dala horses (Dalahäst in Swedish). The staff was mostly absent, and the few that were present were quite uninterested and non-engaging. So we did not learn anything about the history of the Dala horse. Emili on the other hand had some fun painting a Dala horse. But even that was short lived because after a few hours the paint started to wash away making her very sad.

After the disappointing visit to Nusnäs, we drove to Dalhala – an impressive outdoor concert venue in a former quarry. We wanted to get a guided tour, but they, as many other businesses, were laying low and would only start to offer tours a week after our visit. But one could take a peak of the venue anyway, or so we thought – we were met by a high wooden fence obstructing any decent view.

To present the next disappointment, I will pick up the story where I stopped in the previous section – after we failed to get a table at Bistro apan. Since we had a booking in Mora, we drove there and checked into the hotel (which I will get back to as it deserves its own paragraph, or two). The town was dead. The one interesting restaurant we could find online was closed. The alternatives were three pubs and a fancy hotel restaurant offering a three course Midsummer dinner. This would have been the preferred choice had the included courses not been dull. But we ended up eating there anyway because the pubs that we had checked out seemed quite depressing and way too expensive for what they offered. The dinner at Mora hotel was, well, interesting. The waiter was very friendly, and he even made sure Emili would get a special meal that was not being served that evening (meatballs). But our dishes were really nothing special, they tasted as dull as they sounded when reading the menu. We wanted to end the dinner with coffee, but we could not get the attention of any of the three waiters on service for half an hour. When we finally managed, we just asked for the bill, paid and left. It turned out to be an expensive and disappointing dinner. But we were aware that this is a classic first world problem and we tried to laugh it off. After all, we were still on vacation and essentially nothing bad happened.

Public art in Leksand, Dalarna, Sweden
This has nothing to do with the low points of the trip, but I needed to break the text with an image – a Corona-secured sculpture in Leksand

We made our way back to our hotel. It had a pool, so we had that to look forward to. But the water in the pool turned out to be really cold. We went for the jacuzzi instead, despite the fact that there was an age limit to enter the spa meaning that Emili was not allowed. But the hotel was both deprived of guests and staff, and we needed some consolation after a day that kept on disappointing. The jacuzzi was nice. But that was not the end of our woes. The ventilation in the room was really bad which in combination with the heat made it impossible to sleep. I opened the window and instead of fresh air in came mosquitos. We killed seven of them but we still got bitten during the night. Since the hotel was almost empty (I think that in total four rooms were occupied), I opened the door to create a draft, which finally lowered the temperature in the room so we could fall asleep. The hotel had one more chance to improve our impression – the breakfast. It did not make use of the chance and this was the last straw – we decided to leave despite having booked two nights. I was even ready to pay for the second night if necessary, that is how much I wanted to leave. But the receptionist was very reasonable, she accepted our arguments and charged us for the one night. It felt like with the act of leaving the hotel we shook of all the bad karma from the previous day and we got the trip back into our control, resulting with many of the highlights described in the previous section.

The strange Midsummer, and other aspects of Dalarna that were not their usual self

I was told that the best Midsummer celebrations are held in Dalarna. Not only on Midsummer eve or Midsummer day as is tradition, but even throughout the whole of July. But because of the Corona pandemic this was not a usual year, and most celebrations were cancelled. We did see many maypoles though, but no celebrations. It felt surreal to look over Gropen in Leksand (the site of the biggest Midsummer party in Sweden which typically hosts more than 20 000 visitors) with no people and only a very lonely maypole.

Since this was our first visit to Siljan, I do not have a reference point but I heard from several friends that the area is normally packed during the summer. For us there were no signs of crowding anywhere. It felt like we came in the pre-season while having weather that is better than during most of the high-season. Lots of businesses were closed and advertised opening some time in July. There was plenty of available accommodation, but I cannot say that I felt that the prices were shockingly low (this is a very unscientific observation though as I have no data to back it up). Two of the three accommodations we stayed at were operating under a different regime because of Corona – for example there was no staff on site during most of the day and the breakfast was changed for a buffet to table service.

The wrap up

The four day trip cost us 12000 SEK which is quite a lot, but your mileage may vary. The rental car was roughly 2000 SEK, the accommodation just under 3000 SEK. The rest was fun, food (including the unnecessarily expensive dinner in Mora) and fuel. So the trip should be doable for under 10000 SEK. Still not cheap, but Sweden is an expensive country. Anyway, cheap and expensive are vague terms, I prefer value for money as the metric here. And in my opinion, Dalarna is clearly worth the money. The question that remains is how much Corona skewed our impression – we missed out on the traditional Midsummer celebrations and a lot of businesses were closed, but this also meant that we had no problem with crowds or changing our accommodation and the itinerary on the fly.

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