by McKay Jenkins
My family and I were just a few kilometers into our bike tour up the west coast of Sweden when we pulled off for lunch beside a two-window shack in the tiny fishing village of Domsten. It was there, biting into a piece of smoked mackerel—caught by the proprietor’s husband in that very bay—that we knew were in for a special week.
My wife’s maternal family has lived in western Sweden for hundreds of years, and this bike trip would take us 400 kilometers (250 miles) from the city of Helsingborg north to Gothenburg, her family’s hometown. Riding a bike into her ancestral city was something Katherine had wanted to do for years, and now that our kids were 18 and 15, we were finally doing it.
The ride followed the Kattegattleden route, named for the enormous bay it rims. It began just across the water from Helsingør, Denmark, site of the castle in which Shakespeare set his play Hamlet. The route runs almost entirely on paved (and dedicated) bike trails, along wooded gravel paths through nature preserves, or along virtually untraveled country roads.
I have done a lot of bike touring over the years. I’ve ridden 800 miles down the Pacific Coast, along the Icefields Parkway in the Canadian Rockies, across New England from Maine to New York, across Virginia and Montana, and at length in both France and Quebec. Never in all my bike-touring career have I seen such a magnificently laid-out bike route. Only once or twice a day would we find ourselves pedaling beside a busy road, and this was always with a concrete barrier between us and the cars, and never for more than a few hundred yards.
The eight-day route followed the west coast of Sweden, weaving between tiny fishing villages; small-scale farms growing potatoes, wheat, and Swiss chard; and at least 400-year-old towns with cobblestone streets and outdoor cafes. The distances between inns ranged from about 40 to about 65 kilometers—roughly 25–40 miles—per day. Given the terrain’s nearly entirely flat profile, these distances never seemed too long, with one exception: one of the longer days featured a strong northerly wind, which we battled for about five hours.
The east coast of Denmark was visible off to the west for the first day but then gave way to the vast Kattegat Sea separating the two Nordic countries. Along the way we happened upon an array of surprises.
- In Bastad, we rode straight onto the grounds of the Swedish Open tennis tournament, which offers free admission.
- In Gothenburg, we took in the Gothia Cup, the largest youth soccer tournament in the world, featuring some 1,700 teams from around the world. Admission here was free as well.
- In between we happened upon a Mackerel Festival in the town of Bua, lining up with hundreds of others to sample local fish and (apparently famous) Bua pudding.
Truth be told, we seemed to spend as much time eating as we did biking. The Swedes are known not just for their love of fish but for their seemingly bottomless appetite for caffeine and sweets during their daily “fika,” or late-afternoon coffee breaks. Our photo album has as many images of cardamom buns and chocolate cakes as it does tidy red cottages or village harbors.
Even in the cities, bikes and bike paths were everywhere. Scandinavia, like much of Europe, has been far more ambitious that the United States in its creation of bicycle infrastructure.
Part of this has been made easier by European land-use planning. Most cities are far older than cars, after all, and (at least as importantly) much of the countryside never suburbanized. Many older cities were initially designed to accommodate foot- and horse paths, which (as many American drivers have discovered) have always felt too narrow for car traffic.
Visit Copenhagen, as we did before setting off on this journey, and you will be astonished at the numberless thousands of bicycles jammed together near the city’s central train station. In town, biking is simply the most sensible way to get around.
Out in the country, small farms still dominate the landscape, and country roads, while built for cars, are not (with the exception of thruways) built for suburban commuter traffic. Out on our bikes, we passed the occasional tractor, but never did we feel threatened by angry commuters. Even in the country, bikes are the rule rather than the exception.
The bike tour was simple to set up. We organized the trip through a company called Gyllene Turer (gylleneturer.se), run by the very helpful Jesper and Britt-Marie Rothstein, who also provided an excellent book of maps. Gyllene Turer set up the whole trip for us. They secured bikes for us, arranged luggage transport, and arranged bookings in all of the hotels. The bike path has its own website kattegattleden.se, through which one can find a link for luggage transport and links for organized bike tours, one of which is Gyllene Turer.
The route was incredibly well marked, with signs at every crossroads or important turn. This was a “supported” tour, meaning that drivers from the company picked up our backpacks at our inn each morning and drove them to our next stop, saving us the struggle of carrying 30 extra pounds of food and gear.
Staying in inns and bed-and-breakfasts also saved us the trouble of carrying tents, sleeping bags, and cooking gear. As someone who has carried his own gear on a number of long bike trips, I have come to appreciate the beauty of a warm bed, a hot meal, and a light bike. The fact that I am in my 50s and not my 30s may also have something to do with this. And I think it’s safe to say that telling my teenage kids that there was a hot tub waiting for them at the end of most days didn’t hurt!