HJO, Sweden — The folks here in Hjo tell of a nearby town called Gronkoping where the people are all charming, with a good sense of humor. There's no crime, no illness, low taxes and the citizens, at least the women, never age.
Hjobos (as the people of Hjo are known) will even tell you how to reach Gronkoping, although they've never been there.
You, too, may never get to Gronkoping, which means "Green Village." The "green" refers not to the beautiful forests surrounding this area in south-central Sweden, but to the naivete of Gronkoping's residents whom less charitable Swedes look upon as country bumpkins.
If you can't find Gronkoping, return to Hjo on the shore of Vattern, Sweden's second largest lake. Chances are that you won't be disappointed because Hjo is right out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale.
Its stately Victorian villas recall the days when Hjo was a famous health spa. The 19th-Century combination bathhouse and ballroom is an aquarium with individual tanks for the 30 varieties of fish found in Lake Vattern. Upstairs are a beehive behind glass, mounted and live butterflies, and microscopes for visitors to examine seeds and insects.
Here Rests Peace
Hjo claims about 5,000 residents but really doesn't seem that large. It took its name from initials of the Latin saying, Hic jacet otium (here rests peace). Folks used to come here for the cold mineral baths. Now they just come because they love Hjo (pronounced "You"). Bumper stickers here proclaim "I LOVE HJO."
Midway on Vattern's western shore, Hjo serves as a takeoff point for daylong drives to some of Sweden's most picturesque countryside. Within a few hours are an archipelago of small pine-covered islands, huge Ice Age boulders, prehistoric ruins and medieval churches.
At Karlsborg, 20 miles north, we interrupted our dinner in a small hotel overlooking the Gota Canal to shoot photos of the locks opening for barges and excursion boats. Impressive Karlsborg fortress with its endless walls, one of the world's great construction projects in its day, took 90 years to complete.
Across the lake at Hastholmen are Bronze Age carvings made from 1,500 to 400 years before Christ. Also along the eastern shore lie idyllic towns with narrow cobblestone streets, a 9th-Century fortress, a castle, and beginning at Huskvarna a stretch of highway considered one of the most beautiful in Europe.
At the bottom of this long lake lies one of Sweden's oldest cities, Jonkoping, amid wooded highlands with a park where wild animals graze.
Living National Treasure
A few miles south at Riddersberg in the park surrounding the home of Calle Ornemark, a living national treasure, stand the huge wooden caricatures he's sculpted out of old barn sidings and railroad ties. Ornemark has produced such statues as his more than 300-foot high "Indian Rope Trick," said to be the world's tallest sculpture, the "Pop Musicians," "the Demonstrators," and a full-size re-creation of Capt. Bligh's ship Bounty.
During our visit he was working on a 260-ton interpretation of the creation of the world called "The Goosecamp." Based on an American Indian legend, the sculpture will have 24 mobile eagles gliding nearly 200 feet above it. Already this remarkable man has composed a ballad for this monument scheduled for completion early next year. Ornemark also writes books and music, and permits visitors to roam the grounds and view his giant originations.
Between Hjo and Jonkoping at Habo a timbered church built in 1723 was the scene of a wedding rehearsal for four attractive sisters and their fiances who were to be married in a single ceremony. As we were looking at baroque wall paintings done in 1741-42, the vibrant young vicar took time from the rehearsal to explain how in Sweden, where nearly everyone is a Lutheran, all residents of an area are church members. "In my parish there are 7,000," he smiled, "but that doesn't mean they all attend. Only 200 came to church this morning."
After three months in the region, Mark Twain wrote to a friend, "I have seen about 60 sunsets here . . . and at least 40 of them have surpassed anything I could have imagined."
Weekly Comes Out Monthly
Twain did not mention Gronkoping, or even Hjo, in his letter, because Gronkoping may seem mythical to outsiders. But the town is very real to Swedes, especially those in Hjo. Gronkoping represents every and any small town in Sweden. The residents, Hjobos insist, operate businesses, pay taxes and even publish a newspaper, The Gronkoping Weekly, which comes out monthly.
Because newspaper editors are such Doubting Thomases, we bought a copy of the weekly ($1) and will take it home. Its stories are a bit tongue-in-cheek, but so is Gronkoping. The monthly weekly lampoons everything from bureaucrats' control of the town to crooks who sell army boots as health shoes for persons with foot problems.