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Meet the Pitebo Family

Landing in Northern Sweden had felt like jumping into the opening scene from Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. A car snaking through a never-ending firtree landscape carries Jack Nicholson to isolation. Heading along a very similar road in Northern Sweden I am destined for my girlfriend’s home town of Piteå and its 40,000 residents, the Pitebor. Lasse and his cheery wife Elisabet (Ulrica’s maternal aunt) met us off our plane and after the brief formalities we had piled our luggage into their car. A proud man with a somewhat tabloid press view of the world, Lasse speaks the local accent Pitemål fluently and can often be difficult to interpret.

He has a sense of humour I had been warned about and I was on my guard. When he had asked if I recognised an area I had only passed through before, on a road walled by nothing but trees, I had assumed he had to be joking.

“Yes of course! That tree over there looks remarkably familiar!” I answer in all seriousness “Though maybe it was shorter the last time I was here?” Judging by the confused expressions of the other people in the car I begin to wonder if maybe I should have left my sarcasm at home!

Ulrica and I had met and fallen in love in cyberspace a year ago. After four months of domestic bliss, picking up eachother’s dirty socks and nagging eachother about whose turn it was to clean up the cat’s vomit we decided it was time to visit a family I hardly knew. I had never imagined that a brief encounter online would some day lead me to a town, which previously had only been a faint name on a map. If Northern Scandinavia had appealed at all it would only have been for the thrill of an Arctic adventure in Lapland’s wilderness. Now after countless tales of midnight sunsets, snow scooters and reindeer my intrigue had built up.

After the longest five minutes I can remember Elisabet breaks the uncomfortable silence which resulted from my wisecrack and proudly announces “there’s Palt at home!” Palt is Piteå’s national dish and according to a leaflet I picked up at the airport is also one of its three meagre claims to fame. The other two being Ronny Eriksson a local bard who unless you speak like Lasse sounds like a load of foodle with accordion accompaniment, and Pite Havsbad, a leisure complex which has grown to being Scandinavia’s largest campsite.

Whilst discussing the place with friends in Stockholm, they had told me of a bizarre event here which this leaflet has chosen not to mention, nookie night, but which brought the community national press coverage just a year before. One cold winter’s night in April 1999 Piteå began to prepare for the new Millennium. The local council invited couples to a romantic evening at Pite Havsbad. As the guests wined and dined they were serenaded by candlelight. But after a while the music stopped and they were encouraged to go to individual rooms for more intimacy. After some hours there was a brief ‘tea-break’ for some dancing before being sent back to work. The event was a success! Nine months later Amanda Davidsson, Sweden’s first child of the new Millennium, was born in Piteå. A proud father is reported to have said on national television “I got it up several times that night!”

In Elisabet’s homely kitchen the family assembles for lunch around a big pine table. Dotto splats the hefty Palts onto our plates from a boiling steel cauldron on the cooker. These dumplings, made from a blood, potato and flour dough are stuffed with strips of bacon and not a pretty sight. They resemble big balls of steaming papier-mâché. Similar in taste to a hot scotch pie though, with lashings of butter and cranberry jam they go down a treat. After the second I am bloated and even though I resist proving my manhood by attempting a third, I am warmly welcomed. When it comes to palt, hospitality is something that the Pitebor are noted for. We discover we’ve arrived just a week too late for the great Paltfest when local traders serve over 5,000 palts in the town centre.

My first evening in Piteå ends somewhere in a red wine stupor. When I wake up the following morning in a completely alien room Ulrica tells me that we are in her father’s house. Kalle is a man at peace with the world who likes to take his time before expressing an opinion of anything. I know he does not suffer fools so I feel a little nervous in his presence. I try hard to remember if we had met last night but hand him a bottle of whisky I’ve brought him and hope for the best. He almost smiles!

Kalle’s home lies in Blåsmark, a tranquil place of freshly painted red wooden box houses with white doors and window-frames. Grandma Moses could have conjured up this image with its luscious green lawns sprinkled with dandelions and bluebells and tall firtrees surrounding a lake. Completely devoid of rubbish, the very thought of dropping a cigarette end makes me feel like I would be committing sacrilege.

A few miles away lies Jävre (from the Lapp word Jawre for sea). As possibly Northern Sweden’s oldest settlement it boasts an impressive array of graves, labyrinths, and sacrificial stones dating back to AD 400-600. Its real treasure is a small 6 centimetre in diameter bit of metal. Some say it’s a buckle others say a jewel, I think it’s more like a misplaced Meccano wheel and wonder if its some kind of April fool. Those more archeologically enlightened maintain that it’s a remnant of the Bronze Age Piano-people who came from Southern Russia and proves that tourists have been living it up here since before the birth of Christ.

With captivating views out across granite rock to the deep blue Gulf of Bothnia, Jävre’s campsite, which originally opened as a salmon farm, has a five- year waiting list. Despite its popularity the place is unspoilt by tourism and has an aura of being close to nature. The 60 caravans have been delicately positioned, almost camouflaged with as little intrusion to the environment as possible. A small visitor centre and nearby conference building have curiously uneven tree-stump walls that remind me of a fairytale goblin’s home. They appear as if they would tumble with the slightest gust of wind. The wood has been varnished until it is a golden brown and one building even has a lone tree growing straight through its centre. Its bushy treetop sticks out almost like an environmentally friendly radio antenna.

We come here not to camp but to take advantage of a generous supply of salmon. Within half an hour we have caught two fish of about 3kgs and at a cost of about £7 there is plenty to feed our hungry party. We make up a fire at one of the several picnic sites and grill the still warm fish. Kalle proudly pulls out the whisky I gave him and gives me a smile and nod of approval. In good company we sit jovially discussing, with the occasional touch of flatulence, the meaning of life until the early hours.

The following morning I follow the tourist guide’s advice “Grab a Pitecycle!” Yellow bicycles are provided free by the tourist office but I wonder about their intention when I have trouble locating anything resembling a brake. Fortunately there is a bell and I am safe in the knowledge that people can be warned when yet another stupid tourist has taken to flying across the road on what I re-name the Pite death-trap. On my fifth attempt at mounting the thing, doing a silly skip and dance into the road trying to steady myself, I realise that there is a pedal-back brake. Steering is a true art. I master it just before reaching a major junction and manage to veer left up onto the pavement, almost causing myself a nasty injury on the crossbar. Apparently these bicycles are hand-me-downs from the Swedish army which makes me realise just how sensible Sweden was to remain neutral during the cold war. While I cycle the town’s quiet streets I have visions of thousands of bicycling Swedish soldiers confronting Soviet artillery.

My Pite death trap does take me where I want to go – eventually! The strangely shaped main hub of town ‘Rådhustorget’ is one of only two main squares in Sweden whose roads intersect its middle and the corners are closed. Entering this timber-panelled courtyard of cobbled paving is almost like passing through a time tunnel and with the exception of a little traffic and hot dog kiosk I soak in the 19th Century ambience.

A short ride away from the square I find myself on a wide avenue with Piteå’s most noted buildings to each side. The town church is one of the oldest churches in Northern Scandinavia thanks to it having served as headquarters for the Russian troops when they burned the rest of the town in 1721. When I walk through its grounds to a big wooden door I learn that this house of God is closed today! A small belfry lies away from the church but built in the same style it’s almost as if it has broken off from the church and is slowly sailing away to pythonesquely conquer the world. I wonder what use Russian troops found for this outhouse!

I cross the avenue to the town’s top hotel, Stadshotellet. With banana-yellow walls and jet-black roof it is an elegant work of art noveau. Its plans were originally drawn for an architectural competition but when it did not win construction went ahead here anyway. This may account for it having been built in this unassuming little town rather than in one of the elegant quarters of Stockholm. It has been the favourite haunt of Norwegians and Finns on bargain breaks ever since opening in 1906 and more recently welcomes guests from further afield. A group of Korean businessmen are staying when I stop by for a nose around.

The sign for the cheaper of the hotel’s two restaurants ‘Cockney’s’ reminds me it’s time for lunch. I park up my Pitecykel and enter what, apart from a few Ikea touches, resembles one of the increasingly popular ‘chain-inns’ springing up around Britain. Jellied eels are not on the menu and the waiter gives me an obscure stare when I jokingly ask which pig they have on draught! At just over £4 I enjoy a very reasonable lunch with as much Swedish low alcohol beer and marinated herrings as I can possibly wish for. Leaving stuffed, I discover that my Pitecycle has disappeared. I try to ignore any conscience for the fate of whoever has it now and make my way home on the lookout for flying Koreans.

On our final night in Northern Sweden, Ulrica and I cycle down to the lake in Blåsmark. At almost midnight the sky is like a great satin sheet of opaque blue and golden hues which merge into one with the reflection in the stillness of the water. A few voices break the silence, where to one side of the lake a small floating hut houses a sauna and ripples the reflection. Sunset is thought provoking and I look back on my time in the area. I realise just how much more there is still to discover without necessarily going further afield but my biggest draw now is to see the place in winter. With a 40 degree drop in temperature and a daylight that lasts just a couple of hours, aurora borealis fills the night sky and the place must definitely be quite different.

Glancing through the Piteå tourist brochure days later I see two people proudly showing off their Pitecycles by the Kremlin. Despite usually being a victim for such lunatic travel ideas, this one does not appeal.

How to get there:

Luleå/Kallax Airport, 60 Minutes by bus north from Piteå, is Sweden’s second most trafficked airport and has regular SAS flights from Stockholm. There are fourteen flights daily Mon-Fri (both directions), three on Saturdays (six from Luleå to Stockholm) and thirteen on Sundays (eleven from Luleå to Stockholm).

Skellefteå to the south also has flights to and from Stockholm/Arlanda. Five daily (Mon-Fri) three on Saturdays and four on Sundays.

The European road E4, running north from Stockholm to the Finnish border passes through Piteå. SJ, Swedish Railways have a comfortable coach service along this route (8 ½ hours from Sundsvall to Luleå) which stops at Piteå 4 times a day. Piteå is 177 km from Haparanda-Tornio, the Swedish border post with Finland.

Where to stay:

Pite Havsbad has a variety of accommodation from hotel rooms to self catering bungalows and cabins. A four-person bungalow with shower, WC and complete kitchen costs £70 per night (Sunday-Thursday), and £100 (Friday/Saturday). The campsite is open from 24th May to 15th September though the hotel is open all the year round.

Stadshotellet has comfortable rooms with en-suite bathrooms & WC, satellite TV and telephone. Singles £46 per night, doubles £61 per night in high season.

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