All the pretty horses    

To many visitors – and quite a few Swedes – Dalarna is something like the soul of Sweden.

For more than a century the county has been a magnet for artists and writers, both Swedish and European, drawn to its dreamy landscape of hazy mountains and trademark picturesque red cottages, and to its rich cultural tradition.

The Stockholm-born painter, interior designer and author Carl Larsson, who settled with his young family at Sundborn in Falun municipality in 1888, is probably the best known of these creative incomers. Open to visitors during the summer, his house, Carl Larsson Gården, is one of the most popular tourist attractions of its kind.

Decorated and furnished in quintessential Larsson style, by his wife Karin and the setting for many of Carl Larsson best-loved works, the property has remained in the Larsson family for generations and is now managed by a family trust. Sundborn church also contains interior paintings by Larsson, and the parsonage houses a portrait collection.

Larsson, who had lived and worked for over a decade in Paris, found that Sundborn – which is part of the Falun World Heritage Site – reminded him of a French village, and many visitors share that view. In the 16th and 17th centuries there were numerous copper smelteries along the Sundborn river, which meanders through the village, and the area is still lively.

The history of Falun, the cultural and administrative centre of Dalarna, is the history of its copper mine. According to legend, more than a thousand years ago a billy goat by the name of Kåre came home with his horns stained red after having grazed on copper-rich soil in the woods – evidence of an enormous deposit which became in due course a huge company known as Stora Kopparberg ("the Great Copper Mountain").

By the 17th and 18th centuries, Stora Kopparberg was operating Falun Mine, one of the world's largest copper mines and one of Sweden's largest workplaces, employing more than 1200 miners; and Falun was, at the time, second largest city in Sweden after Stockholm.

Kopparberg's profits made Sweden a major political power, financing the nation's part in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) which established Swedish supremacy in Europe for nearly a century. When Queen Christina visited the mine in 1646, she was reported to have said: "The greatness of the realm stands and falls with the copper mountain." Now merged with a Finnish corporation and known as Stora Enso, the company has a compelling claim to be the oldest in the world.

World Heritage Site
A millennium of industrial activity has naturally left its mark on Falun – hence the designation in 2001 of the spectacular Falun Mine works and its associated industrial landscape as a World Heritage Site. Stora Stöten ("the Great Pit"), the guided tour of the historical mine, and the Mining Museum are among the highlights. A very different experience is on offer at the Dalarna Museum in the centre of town, one of the most visited county museums, featuring traditional costumes, folk art and folk music.

On a culinary note, Falun is also famous for its traditional sausage, falukorv. Containing beef, veal and lean pork, it is ubiquitous in Sweden and much appreciated in the other Nordic countries.

Wildlife enthusiasts should head for Orsa Bear Park, in the heart of the county: a fenced-in wilderness with a series of ramps and wooden walkways enabling visitors to observe brown bears, lynx, wolves, wolverines, Arctic foxes and even eagle owls at close hand.

Elvis was here
However, no first-time visitor should leave Dalarna without making the acquaintance of one indigenous species: the Dala Horse, or Dalahästen. Carved out of a single block of wood and brightly painted, about 400,000 are produced every year. Proud owners of this most tasteful souvenir of Sweden have included Bob Hope and Elvis Presley; then Prime Minister Göran Persson presented one to Bill Clinton, and Carl Bildt gave away 400 wooden horses at the end of his peacemaking mission in Bosnia.

The biggest specimen, near the town of Avesta, is 13 metres high and weighs almost seven tonnes. Perhaps coincidentally, Avesta is also known for its herd of wisent, an ancient and endangered breed of European bison and the heaviest surviving land animal in Europe....

Falun mine

 Photo: Bo Lind, Visit Sweden 
Great skiing, too Just plain folk Indigenous species