If you have lived in Sweden for a while, you have probably noticed the typical Swedish red houses and cabins. They are everywhere, from north to south, by a lake, by the sea, on an island, or in the middle of the forest. They are cozy and inviting, but why are they red? Dalarna is the answer to this question. And it is also the answer and the source of so many other Swedish things.
Dalarna is the heart of Sweden, both geographically and historically, and there’s just so much to see, do and learn about it. Let’s go through some of those things.
Ok, the Swedish red houses then. Why are they red? Was there a king who liked red and decided that everything in his kingdom should be of that colour? Not really, but there’s a king involved in the story, and he did indeed like red.
King Johan III saw how other kings throughout Europe were using copper on the construction of their castles and decided to do something similar. It was 1573 and his castle in Stockholm was being built. To buy enough copper for the whole roof would be too expensive, so he wanted something more local and economic, but that would still look like copper. He asked for a paint in “rust red”. The solution was to produce a copper-based paint containing a unique red pigment from Falu Gruva (a copper mine just outside Falun). The paint is up to these days called Falu red or Falu röd in Swedish. The unique pigment is composed of a mixture of 20 different minerals only found in Dalarna. It is not only impossible to copy, but it is also natural and very resistant to light, which makes it perfect to use in outdoor paint.
An ancient influencer
The king was an influencer in his own time, and his red-roofed castle started a trend. Other buildings with red roofs or red walls started popping up, with the intention of looking ostentatious. The trend spread even more throughout the 1600s when nobles started using Faluröd (falu red) to mark their status in society. The church took notice as well and soon enough started painting churches in the same colour. The military didn’t want to fall behind and so they also started painting their buildings red and soon enough even the soldiers quarters were red.
At the beginning of the 1700s, the red paint was still quite exclusive and luxurious, but by the end of the century, Falu Gruva industrialized the production process increasing the amount of paint produced. The paint became affordable to the lower classes, and the trend spread throughout the whole country. People also understood that the red paint was not only beautiful, but it was also of high quality, as it protected the wood against all kinds of weather. Win-win!
Long story short, the king wanted a rich-looking paint and he not only got that but also a quality paint that everyone could use, leading to one of the most well-preserved trends of all times. A visionary some may say.
Did you know?
That you can visit Falu Gruva? There you can see the giant hole where copper is extracted and even buy your own red souvenirs. Paint? Books? Red tea?
How could we talk about Dalarna without talking about another great Swedish piece of culture – the Dalahäst or Dalarna horse in English.
People started making tree horses already in the 1700s, as a pastime in the winter evenings spent at home. They were simple tree horses, not painted and a bit rough around the edges, good enough to entertain the children who used them as toys. Later, travelers and merchants start taking them around and selling them. To make them more appealing, the craftsmen started to paint them in red (of course!) with an iconic pattern on top.
In 1939 the Dalarna horse had its international breakthrough, as a giant horse was standing at the door of the Swedish pavilion in the world exhibition in New York. It was then the Dalarna horse got its reputation as not only the symbol of Dalarna, but also the symbol of Sweden. Nowadays, it is also in New York that you can find the largest mural of a Dalarna horse, painted by Shai Dahan in 2019.
Do it yourself
If you want to see how a Dalarna horse is made, you can do it in the village of Nusnäs, not too far from Mora. You can, for instance, visit the Dalarna horse factory Nils Olsson Dalahästar which has produced them since 1928, and follow its production one step at a time. Each horse is sculptured by hand, made, and painted individually, just like in the old times. In the factory, you can make or paint your own horse and in the shop, you can buy Dalarna horses in various colours and sizes.
If what you want is to visit the largest collection of Dalarna horses in the world, then you should head to Falun and visit the Dalarnas Museum (free entry). The museum has of course much more to see from Dalarna, both historic and modern.
To complete your Dalarna horse tour, you should visit Avesta and the world’s largest Dalahäst. It has an impressive size, 13 meters tall by 12,8 meters in length, weighing about 66,7 tons. It is made of steel, not wood, but it is painted in red with the traditional pattern on it.
Did you know?
That there are other traditional Dalarna horses, originally made in other parts of the region? The Rättvik horse and the Siljan horse are made in a slightly different shape. The Leksand horse is painted with a local pattern, inspired by a traditional carpet pattern. The Ludvika horse has a traditional shape but painted in white or blue, with a pattern of flowers on top. Among others.
Dalälven is the river that flows across Dalarna. It is made of the junction of the West and the East Dalälven, which meet in Djurås, and then runs into the sea in northern Uppland. Its 520 kilometers of length make it the second longest river in Sweden and an essential part of Dalarna. There are 41 active hydropower stations connected to the river, producing enough energy for a large part of Sweden.
Along the banks of the river, there’s also a high biodiversity, with the river acting as a clear border between the northern and southern flora and fauna of Northern Europe, also called Limes Norrlandicus. A great place to explore and learn more about it is Färnebofjärden national park.
Did you know?
That some believe that the Dalälven flows the wrong way, and the river mouth should be in the lake Mälaren. There’s an unnatural bend in the course near Avesta, that might have been caused during the ice age, changing its course.
Vasaloppet is the world’s largest cross-country skiing race and its 90 kilometers have challenged many people. However, this is not just another crazy long race. There’s history behind this course and the whole experience breathes culture and tradition.
The beginning of everything
Sweden was in union with Denmark, but the Danish were not treating the Swedes very well. Gustav Eriksson was not happy about that and was fighting the Danes, but they arrested him. He escaped and fled through Sweden, trying to get more people to fight with him against the Danes. In Mora he talked to the masses trying to get their support without much success. Thus, he continued his journey headed for Norway. In the meantime, news reached Mora on how the Danes had killed Gustav’s brother and father, and now were after him.
The locals understood then that they should have been more supportive. They immediately sent their two best skiers after Gustav, hoping to reach him before he left the country. They caught up to him in Lima, not far from Sälen. There he turned around and skied back to fight and get Sweden back. Slowly he regained the kingdom and became the king of Sweden, under the name of Gustav Vasa. Therefore, Sälen is not only the start of the world’s largest skiing race, but even the start line of a Swedish royal history!
In the modern era
In 1922, this route became a traditional skiing race and has been held almost every year since then. The slogan of the race says it all I Fäders Spår För Framtids Segrar – In [our] fathers’ tracks for future victories. These words are also written on the portal which works as a finish line.
Not able to ski? No worries, besides the most traditional winter week, with different ski races, Vasaloppet has a summer week as well, with a mountain bike race and an ultra-running race. Yes, you read correctly, running from Sälen to Mora, the same 90km.
A personal experience
The race goes from the village of Berga, near Sälen, to Mora, passing 7 iconic stations along the way: Smågan, Mångsbodarna, Risberg, Evertsberg, Oxberg, Hökberg and Eldris.
What for Newbies might sound like a bunch of random names that rhyme, for Swedes these are names they have heard all their lives. Many because they have attempted the race, while others because they have seen it on TV. I’ve spent some Sundays in Sweden watching Vasaloppet on TV but I could not memorize these names at all, let alone in the right order. Until the day I found myself on the start line in Berga. It was 5 am and August and together with almost 1300 other people I made the whole thing on foot. The emotion one feels crossing that iconic portal in Mora is indescribable even for me who did not grow up with it. I can only recommend it!
Choose the sport that suits you best: skiing, cycling, or running – but do it! Do it and join the already 1,8 million people who have crossed that same portal. 1,7 million with tearful eyes, but that’s just my guess.
Did you know?
How many liters of blueberry soup is drunk on average during Vasaloppet? About 34,000 liters!
If Dalarna is the heart of Sweden, Idrefjäll must be the heart of Dalarna.
Städjan is a mountain that looks like a volcano, with its top at 1131m above sea level. It is said that this mountain and its surroundings inspired Rickard Dybeck to write one of the verses of the Swedish national song in 1844. The line goes “Du gamla du fria, du fjällhöga nord” (Thou ancient, Thou free, Thou mountainous north). He had just visited Dalarna and the mountains around Idre, when he wrote the song, that later on became the national anthem. Some say no other place in Sweden made them feel more Swedish than Idrefjäll. Especially when standing in front of Städjan. The views are pretty amazing and if you are lucky, you might even see a reindeer chewing his lunch. It is indeed a very inspiring place to visit.
With so much interesting history and so many interesting places to visit, it’s not surprising that Dalarna is the heart of Sweden and one of the most popular areas in the country. It is also a great place to go on a family vacation.
You haven’t really lived in Sweden until you have met a Swede who dreams of living in a cosy little red cabin in the woods in Dalarna. Or that has done Vasaloppet. Or maybe you have become one of those?
And if you have taken part in Vasaloppet – either version, we’d love to hear your story in the comments!