Fantasy Meets Reality at Sweden's Crystal Kingdom

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Reed Travel Features executive editor Joe Rosen recently toured Sweden's Crystal Kingdom. His report follows:

VAXJO, Sweden - The opportunity to visit Sweden's famous Crystal Kingdom filled my mind with Oz-like premonitions of a shimmering glass palace protected by fluted turrets and a mirrored moat, and within a glittering royal couple shooing away the peasants with disdainful spritzes of Windex.

Well, reality meet fantasy.

The kingdom exists, all right, but it is a pine-forested domain cut out of hard-scrabble, boulder-strewn soil that remains the bane of farmers.

It is a place where high-minded artists and hard-working artisans collaborate in furnace-hot foundries to produce singular works of crystalline beauty for connoisseurs and consumers alike.

The Crystal Kingdom is found in Sweden's southern province of Smaland, the home of 15 glassworks. You probably know the names. Kosta Boda, Orrefors, Bergdala, among others. I visited those three. I bought a few things there and now wish I had bought more.

My trip started with an hour-and-40-minute flight aboard an SAS Fokker 50 turboprop commuter from Copenhagen, Denmark, by way of the Baltic coastal town of Kalmar, Sweden, to Vaxjo.

Vaxjo (pronounced vek-sheh) is a town with enough to recommend it for overnight guests about to follow the yellow glass road to the Crystal Kingdom an hour away by car.

I was put up at the Hotel Royal Corner (rack rate: single room, $130; double, $160), an unremarkable Best Western smack in the heart of Vaxjo and a short walk to the town's most notable institutions: the Emigrants House and the Swedish Glass Museum.

The Utvandrarnas Hus, or Emigrants House, tells the tale of "America Fever," when more than a million Swedes, most of them from Smaland, abandoned their homeland to escape famine starting in the 1840s.

"It is said that by the turn of the century, one of every six Swedes lived in the U.S.," Agneta Skoglund, who conducts a lively and informative tour of the facility, said. "Not surprisingly, U.S. travel agents might find a number of clients with Swedish blood who want to return here to discover their roots."

In addition to housing Europe's largest archive and library of emigration, the museum offers two floors of fascinating exhibits, including several that are interactive. Key among them are the reconstructed cottage in which Wilhelm Moberg wrote the trilogy "The Emigrants," "Onto a Good Land" and "The Last Letter Home," and personal effects such as a good-luck charm and a watch recovered from "Body No. 72," a 31-year-old Swedish carpenter on the maiden voyage of the Titanic.

Adjacent to the Emigrants House is the Swedish Glass Museum, some of whose displays date to 1792. Renovated and extended two years ago - the oldest part of the facility was erected in 1885 - the museum traces five centuries of Swedish glassmaking, including examples of historical and contemporary stemware, bowls and works of art.

Also on display here are textiles, archaeological finds, a numismatic collection and an exhibit called "Industrious Smaland," which details how the serendipitous supply of raw materials such as coal, wood, ore and water led to the establishment of iron and, later, glass foundries in southern Sweden.

As for Vaxjo itself, it makes for a pleasant walk-around, with plenty of shopping, a few old churches and a quaint cemetery with a somber and imposing burial bell.

To reach the glassmaking factories from Vaxjo, I motored east 20 or so miles on roads that cut through pine forests, unforgiving farm country and past lakes and streams that are a fisherman's dream.

The glassworks in Bergdala are set in a clearing in a spruce forest. Here, craftsmen working around a centrally placed oven heated to 2066 F, create a varied assortment of stemware, bowls and tableware best known for their decorative cobalt-blue edging or accents.

The time-honored production system here turns out to be typical: First an artisan called a gatherer shapes a blob of molten, lava-like glass formed at the end of a metal blowpipe (the mouthpiece of which remains remarkably cool to the touch, I discovered in a vain attempt to blow a blob into a beer glass).

Next, the gatherer blows the glowing mass into a mold to form, say, a glass goblet.

At that point, a gaffer shapes the glass's stem with a device called a pucella. Now, it's time for the stem maker, who attaches his own blob of molten glass to the goblet and shapes the object's foot. When the glass has cooled, it is polished and then cut, engraved, painted or otherwise decorated to meet the conception of the artist who designed it.

All of the glassworks employ their own small army of designers - some of whom, like those who design for Kosta Boda, live and work near the factory - and it is they who give each factory's output its indelible stamp.

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Playing the Numbers Game...
VAXJO -- Both museums I visited charge a nominal sum for admission and are happy to arrange guided tours for groups. For general information, rates and hours:

Emigrants House
Phone: (011) 46-470 201-20
Fax: (011) 46-470 394-16

Swedish Glass Museum
Phone: (011) 46-470 451-45

The three glassworks are visitor-friendly, featuring museums in which their proudest works are displayed; outlet stores, and guided factory tours. For more information on hours and tours:

Bergdala
Phone: (011) 46-478 316-50
Fax: (011) 46-478 180-80

Kosta Boda
Phone: (011) 46-478 345-29
Fax: (011) 46-478 345-01

Orrefors
Phone: (011) 46-481 341-95
For information on operators to the south of Sweden:

The Swedish Tour & Tourism Council
Phone: (212) 885-9700
Fax: (212) 885-9764

--JR

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