VAXJIO, Sweden, October 20, 2011 – There’s a marvelous fairytale land that lies along the pristine southeast coast of Sweden. It is a land of broad, unspoiled beaches and thick fragrant forests: just the perfect place for imagination to leap to life.
This is the rustic Swedish province of Smaland where each morning brings forth a new day of creation. For centuries now, it begins in the same timeless way, with the mixing of sand with the elements of salt peter, arsenic and red lead.
The mixture of these odd ingredients then undergoes a spectacular baptism by fire: in hell-hot kilns whose temperatures reach 2,552 degrees Fahrenheit. Transformed here into a new molten state, the liquid glass meets its legendary creator face to face: a renowned glass blower from Glasriket, Sweden’s venerable “Crystal Kingdom.”
In a matter of minutes, the master artisan gathers the molten mass at the end of his blowpipe. Swiftly and skillfully he sculpts it into an exquisite drinking glass or bowl or vase. He culminates his artistry by separating the glass creation from his blower with a single calculated stroke. It has taken him a minimum of ten years to attain his recognition as a master glass or crystal maker.
The question most often posed to such a creative artisan is, “What is the difference between crystal and glass?” Answer: “Genuine crystal contains 24 percent lead; glass contains none.” Therefore, crystal is easily recognizable by its weight, and has superior brilliance and resonance over glass as well.
Today, Smaland glass makers also produce a semi-crystal glass which contains five percent lead to provide buyers with a crystal-like product at an attractive price.
The traditional art of glass and crystal making has been passed down from father to son in the Crystal Kingdom for generations. Surprisingly, Sweden’s first glass blowers were not Swedes at all, but migrant workers from Bohemia which was the center of Europe’s glass making industry since the Middle Ages.
The Bohemian glass blowers were nomadic and seldom stayed long in one place. However, some of the craftsmen did fall under the delightful spell of Smaland, so their descendants today continue to practice the art of glass and crystal blowing in the same time-honored manner of their ancestors.
Sweden’s very first glass foundry was established by King Gustav Vasa in the 16th Century. In time, the art of glassmaking spread across the realm thanks to the nomadic Bohemians, and by 1742, the first glass foundry was opened. It was named “Kosta” by its founders, two generals in the army of Charles XII, Sweden’s legendary “Warrior King.”
Today, 16 famous glass factories operate in Smaland with familiar names like Boda, Orrefors, Afors and, of course, Boda. For a great many connoisseurs of fine crystal and glassware, Smaland is acknowledged to be the site of the finest glass design center in the world as well.
The Crystal Kingdom is an unique, intimate place where visitors can view master craftsmen and designers working together side by side in all stages of production from the drawing board to the kiln to the finishing shop.
Watching the creation of renowned Swedish art glass and crystal and practical tableware take shape in the heat of the burning ovens provides a memorable travel experience. In recent years, this love of crystal and glass has attracted more than half a million tourists a year to Smaland’s crystal and glass works.
Visitors may enjoy a special Swedish feast called “Hyttsill” inside a number of the glass works. The popular regional meal consists of grilled herring and baked potatoes which may be enjoyed in eye-shot of the glow of a fiery kiln. To conclude the treat, local Smaland Curd cake is served for dessert along with a selection of sour-cherry preserves and local lingonberries picked fresh from bushes nearby.
Exploring the Crystal Kingdom is best done by car. Besides the fascinating visits to the crystal works where their handsome, handmade creations “sell for a song,” there are many natural and historic treasures to discover as well.
The kingdom is conveniently contained across a diverse landscape just 45 miles from east to west. Its westernmost extremity is Vaxjo, the largest town in southern Smaland. Its cathedral dates to the 12th century. Its glass museum contains Northern Europe’s largest collection of crystal and glass.
East from Vaxjo the drive leads through a beautiful land of lakes and forests to the shores of the Baltic Sea coast and the old Hanseatic trading post of Kalmar. It is one of Sweden’s oldest settlements and has a well-preserved 17th century Old Town.
But Kalmar’s most spectacular site is its massive castle set upon an island all its own, just off shore. Surrounded on all sides by water it has protected the fine ancient harbor and town for more than eight centuries. The present castle dates to the 16th Century when King Gustav Vasa and his sons rebuilt the fortification in a renaissance palace. Here visitors are welcomed to inspect the state apartments with their paneled and inlaid walls and vaulted ceilings.
For centuries Kalmar Castle has been considered Sweden’s most important stronghold and was called “The Lock and Key of Sweden.”
From Kalmar, you can drive over Europe’s longest bridge to the holiday island of Oland leaving Sweden’s legendary “Crystal Kingdom” behind only to return again.
California-based Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has traveled to more than ninety countries.
Join Dave Bartruff on his journeys to near and middle earth through his award-winning photography.
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- A pristine pond reflects billowing summer clouds in the wooded countryside of the province of Smaland on Sweden's southeast coast (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- The baptism of fire of an exquisite crystal piece begins in hell-hot kilns whose temperatures reach 1,400 Centigrade. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Under a summer moon and a string of decorative lights reflecting in the water, a classic riverboat readies for a dining cruise in Sweden's Smaland Province, famed as Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- A retired couple at the unique front gate to their quaint home in Smaland's fragrant forestland. Pride in workmanship has always been an honored tradition in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Kalmar Castle reflected in the surrounding waters of Kalmar Sound on the southeast coast of Sweden. The island fortification has protected the Hanseatic trading port here for 800 years. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Modern decorative handmade creations in crystal and glass show the fantastic range of work produced in the Crystal Kingdom's 16 renowned kilns. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Orrefors is one of the most famous names in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." Founded in 1898, its hallmark is heavy cut crystal and its logo, the seal. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Sign outside a country inn near Vaxjo depicts what Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom" is famous for: its crystal work shops, abundant wildlife of field and stream and fragrant forest lands. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- A white grand piano adds grace to the dining room of Villa Gransholm, an historic country inn outside Vaxjo in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Historic 16th Century Kalmar Castle on an island off the Baltic shoreline of Smaland Province known as Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Road sign for Afors, a small village in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom" and also home to the glassworks of the same name, established in 1876 and world-famous for its unique glassware. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- An early morning walk through a Smaland forest in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom" reveals due still on the leaves of fresh foliage. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Smiling face of a "Crystal Kingdom" son in retirement who now enjoys putting his craftsman's skills to work by knitting lace decorations for the home. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Colorful shoreline grasses and quaint windmills surround the Island of Oland across the Baltic coast fromSweden's famed "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- A classic crystal wine glass reflects a tower of famed Kalmar Castle on the southeast coast of Sweden. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Magical hands of a master artisan gathers the molten mass of crystal at the end of his blowpipe. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- A summer lunch on a picnic lunch graced with a bowl of local glassware. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Smaland-style Swedish waffles served at a local cafe is a popular way to begin a day touring Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Mirror reflection of historic Kalmar Castle in the waters of the Baltic. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Craftsmanship of all kinds abound in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom." (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- A glass blower at a famed Smaland crystal works prepares to shape a molten mass. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom" has always relied on the ability of its designers to exploit all the potential of crystal and glass. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- In the heavily-forested "Crystal Kingdom" a common roadside warning is for motorists to be on the outlook for wild moose. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- The venerable Kosta Crystal works displays the date of its founding in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom" in its architecture. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Sweden's most popular crystal stemware design is called "Chateau" created by one of the preeminent designers Bertil Hydman-Vallien. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- A delightful summer day at an outdoor cafe in the well-perserved 17th Century quarter of Kalmar. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Quaint windmills like these are a landmark of the little Island of Oland. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Mouth of a hell: red-hot kiln (Image: Dave Bartruff)
- Stained glass window produced in Sweden's "Crystal Kingdom" for its Vaxjo Cathedral. (Image: Dave Bartruff)
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