travel

Discovering Northern Sweden

2016-09-13
Apart from the Frozen fantasies at the special ICEHOTEL and the majestic Tree Hotel, much of Swedish Lapland is yet uncharted by the gay traveler. The vast expanse of paralysingly beautiful wilderness isn’t necessarily a Gran Caneria-style gay mecca, but here you can experience Northern Scandinavian culture and the midnight sun in a gay-friendly country. Plus, you can immerse yourself in the world of the open-minded Swedes and native Sami people. We arrive after a drive straddling the Arctic Circle, at a town called Jokkmokk. An area the size of London with a population of 5,000 — though it swells to 50,000 during the famous Christmas markets — it's open in all senses of the word. We're based in a clearing atop a mountain surrounded by new friends – both two legged and four. Everywhere around me is covered by the vertical green slash of pine trees in impossibly geometric uniformity. 1 It’s our first night here, not that you’d know it was night, as countries in the Article Circle don't experience sunset during the summer months. It’s as exhilarating as the strongest coffee, and as discombobulating as jetlag. It's almost perfectly silent, and the smell of reindeer meat cooking, while we chase  beautiful huskies over the hilltops, adds to the otherworldly atmosphere. We talk into the day-lit night. Swedes are civic minded types, interested in politics and how best to run this lovely country of theirs. They tell me of the Sami people, the indigenous group sometimes called Lapps in English, whom we have until now been completely ignorant of. The next morning, we arrive at the Sami museum at midday where Tomas, himself a Sami, proudly introduces us to his history and culture. We wander through a museum packed with traditional Sami craftsmanship, tents similar to Native American teepees, and traditional clothing that wouldn’t be out of place at Santa’s grotto. But to us the most interesting part is the joiking. 3 “When the talking stops, the joiking begins,” says Tomas. Joiking is a type of traditional singing where the lyrics don’t matter so much as the sound and the feeling they instill. The inherent sound and accompanying actions place the image in your head even if the syllables are meaningless. “So for example, if we was to joik about a moose,” says Tomas, and he produces a rhythmic, lolloping sound that coupled with his body language; swelling himself up and imitating a dumb, plodding gait, conjures up the animal perfectly. He morphs into it before our eyes. Then suddenly he is a rabbit — darting, cunning, cute little sounds — and then a crow, a fox. It is magical and shows, more than any museum could, the intense connection the Sami have with nature. “When something is too sad or too complex to process, you joik about it.” It is beautiful, but also functional. Sweden in a nutshell. We drive on to Storforsen, and spend a day by a raging waterfall. The majestic falls run diagonally and the roar of the rocks churning beneath, paired with the sheer magnitude of the frothing, raging waters is genuinely hypnotic. We find ourselves going in and out of a trance, while our guide lists off the statistics and metrics and history - as well as some mythical stories of nymphs in the woods that have fallen prey to the mighty waters. Here, we learn Swedish fairy tales were designed as coded warnings: take care by the river. Beauty from function, once again. 4 Our last stop is Pitea, a small town (well, they all are up here), where a church market sells reindeer meat and smoked herring, which smells better than it sounds. The most magical aspect though is the cottages that surround the church. Wooden, two story buildings on blocks. Hundreds of years old, relics of a time when church attendance was mandatory. Families would stay overnight to be near the church and have lunch. We meet a group of elderly ladies, magnificently dressed and raucously drunk, and they drag us into their cottage and pose for photos with their new found gay friends in their immaculately kept front room. 5 The cottages, built in accordance with law, now a beautiful monument; Joiking, done to communicate unsayable thoughts but haunting and lovely in their own right.; and of course the coded warnings in the fairy tales, these things impress upon me a beauty derived from function. And that, to me, is Sweden. For more information on the less charted territories of Swedish Lapland, visit www.SwedishLapland.com. For gay travel inspiration to Sweden, check out the #SwedenYoureWelcome blog at www.visitswedenlgbt.com or follow them on Facebook www.facebook.com/visitswedenlgbt and Twitter www.twitter.com/visitswedenlgbt. More stories: The stunning moment a 12-year-old boy stood up to thousands of anti-gay demonstrators Nyle DiMarco discusses sexuality and changing deaf lives in Attitude’s October issue