The Iron Kingdom    

In The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, Selma Lagerlöf had this to say about Gästrikland: "This country is clad in a spruce skirt and a grey stone jacket. But around its waist it wears a girdle which has not its match in value, for it is embroidered with blue lakes and green woods. The great ironworks adorn it like a row of precious stones, and its buckle is a whole city with castles and cathedrals and great clusters of houses."

Gästrikland rejoices in the label "gateway to the north" thanks to its location on a notional dividing line where the fertile fields of southern Sweden give way to the vast boreal forests billowing north towards the Arctic – a boundary that is at least as much cultural as geographic.

The province is also known as Järnriket ("the Iron Kingdom"), a reference to its industrial history. Ironworks and their associated communities have been features of Gästrikland for as long as 2000 years; modern smelters and refineries carry on the metallurgical tradition in the iron and steel towns of Sandviken and Hofors, and historical sites include the foundry at Edsken, the first in the world to produce malleable steel using the Bessemer process.

Sweet smell of success
After iron and steel, forestry has always been the most important industry in Gästrikland, and it still employs thousands of people. A favourite story in the province, possibly apocryphal, concerns a visit by the Prince of Wales to a pulp mill during the 1930s. When he complained about the smell, the provincial governor replied: "Yes, it might smell bad – but it is the scent of export!"

Happily, the industrial history of the region has had no impact on the overall beauty of the landscape or the huge stretches of virgin forest dotted with gemlike little lakes, perfect for hiking, fishing or swimming.

Gästrikland is also one of Sweden's snowiest regions, supporting a host of winter sports centres. The ski resort at Kungsberget is the obvious choice for the downhill skier, and the trails around Högbo Bruk for cross-country. Both are in the municipality of Sandviken, headquarters of the engineering multinational, and a handsome town in its own right.

On the east coast, the modern provincial capital of Gävle is beautifully laid out with wide boulevards, lush parks and an Old Town of cobbled alleys and well preserved 18th century houses.

Monkey business
Furuviksparken, a nearby amusement park by the sea and jumping-off point for Limön, an idyllic island resort just 40 minutes away by boat, is home to the only permanent circus in the country, one of the largest wooden circus arenas in Europe, and a zoo specializing in primates.

The zoo made headlines around the world in 2009, when a resident chimp was found to have collected and carefully positioned piles of stones to throw at visiting humans....

From Gävle it is a short hop to Wij Gardens in Ockelbo municipality, an increasingly important centre of horticultural design and innovation and a venue for art exhibitions and concerts in season. Lars Krantz, the driving force behind the project, describes his vision of Wij Gardens as "a huge workshop with life as material"... not a bad description of Gästrikland itself!

Photo: Mikael Nordgren, Sandvikens Kommun
Ånghammaren steam forge at Sandviken

 Photo: Furuviksparken Photo:
A host of winter sports centres Primates dominate at Furuviksparken zoo Horticultural design at Wij Gardens