What do we make of Sweden?
More to the point, what makes the Swedes tick? And tick they do, going about their business with a single-mindedness that’s hard to fathom.
Indeed, a friend who lives with his Swedish wife in the countryside near Gothenburg says he is no closer to working them out than he was the day he arrived nearly ten years ago.
Island life: The houses on the archipelago around Stockholm were originally painted red as a sign of status, a tradition which stuck
Are they Germans in Nordic clothing? Well, they do seem to have ordered minds, but they’re too laid-back for many other nods in Germany’s direction.
At a coffee shop in Stavsnas — the last village east of Stockholm before you spill into the Baltic Sea — a beautifully dressed young man at the counter is not the slightest bit bothered that a long queue is forming while two of his colleagues are chatting.
And there aren’t many countries where the right of public access means you can put up a tent anywhere as long as it’s not too conspicuous from someone else’s garden.
Swedes obey the speed limits religiously, recycle obsessively, exercise vigorously and never seem to get into a flap.
They also have some sort of spiritual affinity with woods and water.
But remember that trolls dwell in the forests, giants and dwarfs roam the mountains and elves dance in the meadows and marshlands.
Magnificent: Mark made a stop at Mariefred, where the big attraction is Gripsholm Castle (pictured), also the home of Sweden’s National Portrait Gallery
Then there’s the Skogsra, a beautiful young woman who lures men deeper into the woods. Once they are lost, she turns around and all that is to be seen is a hollow tree.
We’re here on a four-day road trip, avoiding Stockholm itself, but exploring its archipelago — at least, the parts of it accessible by car. Which is a tiny fraction, as there are more than 26,000 islands.
We pick up the car at the airport, and, of course, it’s a Volvo — a sleekly designed V40 Cross Country, which, after a couple of days, seems to epitomise much of what we come across in Sweden. It doesn’t look flash, but it works with quiet efficiency and has a satnav voiceover that’s far less headteachery than the one we have in Britain.
The countryside surrounding the capital is known as the Cotswolds of Sweden — an entirely misleading description, not least because almost every single house is red.
In the old days, they were painted that way to make them look as though they were built from brick; a status thing that is now a national tradition.
One of our stops is the Basenberga hotel, near Vingaker, where there’s a factory outlet store, a pretty church and miles of lakes and inlets with inviting jetties encouraging you to strip off and dive in.
Dreamy: Trosa (pictured) is a tiny town with an adorable canal running through it and a few tempting shops selling the Swedish outdoor lifestyle without slipping into twee-dom, says Mark
I do just that, and a group of twentysomethings picnicking nearby don’t even register this grim spectacle.
At Basenberga there is no choice at dinner, but it’s fresh, wholesome, uncomplicated: Sweden on a plate. And I had not realised how seriously they take breakfast, with an array of cheeses, fish, pate, gherkins, eggs, frankfurters and nuts. Oh, and a bowl of paracetamol. But why are Swedes so crackers about crackers?
One local tells us it began at the end of the last century during a particularly cold winter when innovation was called for. Plain flour, olive oil and seeds are all that’s required — in a hot oven for seven to ten minutes.
Stepping out: Walking is a national hobby in Sweden
Trosa, about an hour on from Basenberga, is a tiny town with an adorable canal running through it and a few tempting shops selling the Swedish outdoor lifestyle without slipping into twee-dom.
Further inland, but still on the water, is gorgeous Mariefred, where the big attraction is Gripsholm Castle, also the home of Sweden’s National Portrait Gallery.
The Hotel J in Nacka Strand is another fine place to stay within easy reach of the capital. Rooms are yachty, with lots of blues and whites, and thrilling views of Stockholm estuary.
Almost 60 per cent of Swedes own or have access to a country house of some kind, even if it’s no bigger than a garden shed.
Thousands of these are due east of Nacka Strand, hidden among trees, down bumpy tracks. Everywhere we go there are people walking, many of them elderly, supported by ski poles.
Perhaps it’s just fresh air, crispbread and daylight lasting until midnight that make the Swedes tick in summer. It’s a simple formula — and immeasurably refreshing.