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During the 17th century, Denmark and Sweden fought bitterly over this area -- and with good reason. Now that the wars are over, Sweden's southeast is a sleepy but idyllic place for a holiday. If you're on the most rushed of schedules, we suggest staying at least 1 night in Kalmar and another night in Växjö, especially if you want to buy some Swedish glass. Swedes call the latter town the "King of Crystal," because some of the world's most stunning pieces of glass artworks are produced here.

But the region has a lot more going for it than glass. It has a rich history, evident in its medieval towns with cobblestone streets and so-called "fairy-tale" castles. The province also boasts natural beauty, with abundant elk, large forests, flowering meadows, long stretches of gädesgårdar (the timber fences typical of this region), and some 5,000 lakes teeming with fish. And then there's the nightlife: In July and August, some of the coastal resorts with beaches become hard-partying towns.

Olaus Magnus wrote back in the 16th century, "The forces of nature work in a more secretive and wonderful way on Lake Vättern than they do anywhere else." Indeed the stuff of myth and legend, Lake Vättern (not to be confused with the even larger lake of Vänern) is one of the oldest cultural areas in the north of Europe, and it extends out to four provinces, including Småland. The water here is so pure that some 400,000 people use it as their drinking water supply. Despite the clarity of its water, the lake is notorious for its unpredictability; many a ship now lies at the bottom.

We've found that the towns along Vättern are just as appealing to visitors as Kalmar and the glassworks. The city of Jönköping lies on the southern shores; other more charming centers are Gränna, Vadstena, and Motala, and you should budget time for visits there. If time remains afterward, you can visit Örebro, beyond Motala and 60km (37 miles) north of Lake Vättern. Örebro is Sweden's sixth most populous city, lying on the shores of Lake Hjälmaren, the country's fourth largest lake.