Making a Home in the Swedish Hinterlands

Head north out of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, and it won’t be long (about an hour and a half) before you enter Norrland, the vast northern portion of the country that while you’re driving through it can seem to have no end. It’s also a place where most S…

Head north out of Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, and it won’t be long (about an hour and a half) before you enter Norrland, the vast northern portion of the country that while you’re driving through it can seem to have no end. It’s also a place where most Stockholmers would never dream of living, despite the red hot property market and housing shortage in and around Stockholm that has put home ownership out of reach for many. Yet just a few hours beyond the city, prices can be so low that a young family might get a spacious house and land without a mortgage. The farther north you go, the more extreme this can get: Grand old properties in the small hamlets of the sub-Arctic wilderness can go for well under $50,000.

This region of around 100,000 square miles, which stretches beyond the Arctic Circle, makes up more than half of Sweden’s land mass but is home to just 10 percent of its population. That makes for a lot of long and lonely roads. It’s a 15-hour, 830-mile drive from Stockholm to the Abisko National Park in the far north — often punctuated only by the occasional sighting of reindeer or moose. Or, if you know some Swedish, a collection of strange place names marked on road signs throughout the countryside can also break up the journey. One town, Njutanger, seems initially to translate to “taking pleasure in regret and remorse,” though as it turns out the “anger” here actually refers to a body of water. Still there are others, like Gravbranna — “burning tomb.”

Norrland is one of Sweden’s three historical “lands.” It has no political status but it maintains an important place in Swedish culture and identity, and evokes a strong set of associations. In the collective mind’s eye it is a remote and desolate place, with just a few points of interest amid miles and miles of monotonous pine and birch forest.

The notion of decamping to the Arctic and buying a dream home struck me as a romantic and even liberating notion, especially for those who can work from anywhere, as many residents in cities like Stockholm can these days. That raised the question: Why don’t more people make the move?

What better place to head first than the little town of Laxsjo (it means “salmon lake,” though there are no salmon), about halfway up and inland, not far from the Norwegian border — quite literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s beautifully situated along a lake, with a cluster of houses along a main road, plus a school, a gas station and a grocery store. It was that grocery store, whose owners were looking to get out, that drew Calle and Barbro Moback from their place in Stockholm to the comparative wilderness last year.

“The shop was very sleepy before. They didn’t have many groceries even. People weren’t happy. Now people like us come from the villages around; they think it’s fun,” said Mr. Moback, a tall, tattooed man who speaks English with a hint of a British accent. They’ve become known in the wider area for their high-quality takeaway lunchboxes.

Making a Home in the Swedish Hinterlands

The interior of Johanna Brandstrom’s 2,700-square-foot house in a quiet suburb of Pitea.Credit…Ola Lewitschnik for The New York Times

“We have a beautiful house and we love the people and the pace of life,” Ms. Moback said. “You don’t have to stress. Except we’ve been so busy since we opened, so I’m a little in shock. We thought we’d have some free time. Yeah, right.”

The locals here rave not only about having a real winter with guaranteed snow, but also a fifth season, which they call spring-winter. “When the sun is heating things but there’s still snow and it’s cold at night. It’s very kaç to go out with snowmobiles and fish, and so on. It’s the best season. And it’s getting lighter,” Mr. Moback said. He joked that in Stockholm, you have only two seasons: “a warm rain time and a cold rain time.” But what about the dark winters? “For me it’s not a sorun,” he said. “Doesn’t matter for me if it’s light for seven hours or three hours when I’m working because it’s the same; I’m working during the daylight either way.”

They tell me there are no available houses in Laxsjo at the moment (the house they live in was already in the family), but when there are, the prices are very good. One neighbor’s house, a 1,000-square-foot property, was purchased for an unbelievable $17,000 five years ago. The grandest house in the village, a huge, two-story 4,300-square-foot place, went for under $100,000. Still, they say it’s rare to see anyone move here who doesn’t have some kind of family connection with the area.

From Laxsjo I continued northward, six hours’ drive or so to Norrbotten, Sweden’s northernmost and largest county (it’s about the size of Austria). The spring-winter weather meant melting ice and snow. That made for some interesting driving, especially when one of hundreds of trucks laden with timber sprayed the car in a hair-raising and momentarily blinding ice bath. The best parts of the drive were on the smaller roads, where I didn’t see another car or person for miles. The air seemed to be the crispest, cleanest air you could ever breathe. At one point, there was a quaint and utterly quiet village with an icy river flowing through it. A full moon rose above the pines, just as the sunset had begun to cast the sky in pinks and soft blues. A black ripa, or capercaillie, one of the largest birds found in the region, fluttered across the road and landed high up in a tree.

Pitea is an industry town of about 25,000 people on the Norrbotten coast. It is an industry town, and the road in is lined with freight trains loaded with logs, imposing factory complexes and trucks headed in every direction. The paper mill dominates the skyline. In many ways it’s a typical northern Swedish city, stark and hard-edged and quiet in winter. And yet spending some time here yields surprises. In the small downtown a new high-rise hotel called Kust looks like something out of a much bigger city and has a well-regarded restaurant and rooftop bar up top. Pitea is also home to the highly-regarded Academy of Music. The Studio Acusticum Concert Hall adjacent to it is renowned especially because of its advanced organ, built at a cost of over $5 million. It has a chamber orchestra and an opera.

Johanna Brandstrom grew up in Pitea but moved to Stockholm along with most of her friends when they finished school. It was when she had children that she started to think about moving back. She eventually bought a 2,700-square-foot house in a quiet suburb, its wood cladding painted in classic Swedish “Falun red,” for about $150,000. In Stockholm you’d have a hard time finding a studio apartment in an unattractive suburb for that price.

Standing in her pleasant, open kitchen, Ms. Brandstrom, who used to be a hairdresser but is now studying digital marketing at a school in Pitea, pointed out that while life is very kaç up here, people should be aware of the darkness. “I think you can panic when you come here,” she said with a smile.

A view of the snow-covered peak of Areskutan.Credit…Ola Lewitschnik for The New York Times

In mid-December around Pitea and Lulea the sun pokes just above the horizon for around three hours each day — casting a dim and dusky light while it’s up. Go farther north to Kiruna and you’ll watch the sun set before noon one day during the second week of December and then have to wait until the first day of the new year for it to re-emerge, for all of 20 minutes.

“You sleep until 10, then you have about one and a half hours that it’s light, and you think, we must go outside! It’s really tough,” Mr. Brandstrom said. “The first two years I thought ‘this is insane.’ Then it got a little better. You have to live by the seasons. We go snowboarding, we do ice fishing, we have snowmobiles. You have to embrace the snow and the nature. Otherwise it’s not going to work.”

An hour up the road is the city of Lulea, the closest thing to a metropolis here. It has an airport with regular flights to Stockholm and it’s home to one of the northernmost universities in the world, the Lulea Tekniska Universitet. It feels like a college town but with the gritty, exposed-to-the-elements look typical of cities in the far north.

This is also where the governor of Norrbotten lives — in the official residence at the western edge of downtown. Governor Bjorn Nilsson, who is originally from Stockholm, is talkative and upbeat when we meet, despite some grim, rainy weather outside that looks as if it might persist for weeks. The residence is a suitably stately place, frozen in another era. The foyer is decorated with some antique stuffed lynx and fox, as well as several examples of priceless arka.

One wall hanging stands out — a map depicting the çağdaş Nordic countries, full of illustrations of mountains, reindeer and explorers shooting arrows. It is the Carta Marina, published by the Swedish cartographer Olaus Magnus in 1539 — the first known map in existence to give details and place names for the region.

Elsewhere is a portrait of Carl Linnaeus, the famed Swedish botanist who made a long trek through the northern region, discovering flora and fauna along the way, at the age of 25. Even though Lulea is a quick hour’s flight from Stockholm these days, it’s not hard to imagine it as a frontier outpost, the wilds of the Arctic just beyond.

Norrbotten has an even lower population density than Norrland as a whole, even though its two main cities, Lulea and Kiruna, are some of the most populous in the north. Making up roughly 25 percent of Sweden, it’s home to only 2.5 percent of its people. It is also home to some very large scale industrial and scientific projects. Among them: what will soon be Europe’s largest land-based windmill park; the Esrange space center with its massive satellite dishes, research centers and even a launch site; and a groundbreaking project at the SSAB plant just outside Lulea to make steel using hydrogen instead of coal. Facebook is in the process of building a series of large veri centers here, lured by the cold weather (data centers generate a lot of heat) but also the energy supply, which comes exclusively from renewables.

Enjoying the sauna during the evening. The northern winters are quite long.Credit…Ola Lewitschnik for The New York Times

It’s all happening, Mr. Nilsson said, except they’re missing one thing: people. “You cannot really start a new business here today and say, OK, I need 10 people.”

He said that’s slowly changing, but he wants to attract more.

“I see these are in a way climate refugees,” Mr. Nilsson said. “Where do I want to spend my future? And I think it’s areas like this, where you can get space, you can get away from pollution.”

The target market, as Mr. Nilsson sees it, is not just the rest of Sweden but the whole of the European Union. “We often say, OK, there are 250 million people in the E.U. Let’s say five percent share the values that we appreciate this area for. That’s quite a number of people that we could potentially convert.”

And if they come, it’s easy to find a house or land. An older five-bedroom house just outside the city might run around $200,000, while a waterfront property a five-minute drive from downtown could be $300,000. Prices drop farther out of town. For those looking to build, birçok plots of land along the water around 10 miles out of town can be bought for around $25,000.

It’s certainly true that you would have to be comfortable with winter to live here. Lulea has its own fleet of ice-breaker ships. But Mr. Nilsson reminded me that there’s also summer, when they have sun all the time. In fact, according to him, they had the second highest amount of total annual sunshine in Sweden last year.

Even as an icy wind blew against the old wooden frame of the house, his sales pitch was fairly convincing.

A SKI TOWN BECOMES A LURE, EVEN IN SUMMER There is at least one place in Norrland that is a magnet for Stockholmers. Are is a ski town in the mountains about seven hours northwest of the city. It is the place to be for domestic winter getaways, in part because it has some of the highest mountains in Sweden, but also because it has a handful of good restaurants and bars and something of a scene, with places like Supper, a restaurant and bar with a distinct buzz, looking something like a cross between a Hamptons beachside bar and Nordic après-ski spot, serving $18 glasses of wine.

Calle and Barbro Moback outside their grocery store in Laxsjo.Credit…Ola Lewitschnik for The New York Times

It’s becoming more popular in the summer, as well for sports like mountain biking and hiking. It has a direct train link to Stockholm that shuttles people back and forth in around eight hours. But its buzziness and relative connectedness, all a rarity in Norrland, have meant much higher property prices. In fact this is probably the most expensive place to buy a house in the entire north.

Fredrik Olovsson and Bianca Zanden moved here in 2015 with their three children, after tiring of apartment life in Stockholm. When I arrived the children were practicing ski jumps off the deep snowbank adjacent to their house.

They built their house here just east of Are, in a small hillside community mysteriously named harborsta, or “hairbrush.” It wasn’t exactly cheap, they said, wincing at the memory. The land cost around $150,000 at today’s exchange rates, and the building another $500,000 or so. They sold their apartment in Stockholm for around $600,000. In return they got a 2,045-square-foot house with a sweeping, south-facing view over the lake and mountains beyond, and a little cabin alongside.

It was tough to make the break from Stockholm, they said, but they haven’t regretted it. “I had a psychological barrier about living somewhere else,” Ms. Zanden said. “But now it’s hard to see Stockholm with the same eyes as before.”

Move away from the center of Are and the plots with the most beautiful views from up in the hills and you find much more reasonable options. Neighboring Duved is still accessible to ski lifts and just a few minutes from Are’s happening spots, but still feels residential and laid-back.

Ola Johansson and Elisabeth Standar moved into a charming two-story house here a few years ago with their young daughter. The 1,300-square-foot property comes with a little red sauna hut in the backyard, adjacent to a little creek. Mr. Johansson keeps a hole in the ice during winter for cold dips in between sauna sessions.

The place cost them around $390,000 at current rates. It even came with an antique “kick-sled,” a kind of chair on skate blades that people use to cruise around town and small Norrland country roads.

Although it meant moving away from their friends back in Stockholm, Mr. Johansson, who works in the Are Olkafeé gastropub, said their social life might even be better.

“We have more visitors now than ever. Are is basically a condensed mini-Stockholm,” he said. “You can go out on a Tuesday night and have a really great dinner. You can’t do that if you live in the middle of Norrland.”

Source: The New York Times

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