It comes as no surprise that many Swedes holiday in the folkloric provinces of Värmland and Dalarna. Dalarna and Värmland are said to be the soul of Sweden; native Swedes particularly cherish the sun-dappled Lake Siljan in Dalarna and Lake Vänern (third largest inland sea in Europe) in Värmland.

In one of her most famous works, The Saga of Gösta Berling, Nobel Prize winner Selma Lagerlöf lyrically described Värmland life in the early 19th century. Today parts of the province remain much as she saw it. Forests still cover a large part, and the 274km-long (170-mile) Klarälven River carries logs to the industrial areas around Lake Vänern. Sometimes described as "Sweden in miniature," Värmland not only is a land of mountains, rolling hill country, islands, and rivers, but also has its own festivals, music, art, literature, and handicrafts. Karlstad, on the shores of Lake Vänern, makes an ideal stopover for exploring the province. Among its chief waterways are the Göta River and the Göta Canal. A smaller body of water, Lake Vättern, lies to the east of Vänern.

Dalarna, the more traditional province, is known for its maypole dancing, fiddlers' music, folk costumes, and handicrafts (including the Dala horse, Sweden's most popular souvenir). Dalarna means "valleys," and sometimes you'll see it referred to as Dalecarlia, the Anglicized form of the name. Any time is good for a visit to Dalarna, but to catch the Dalecarlians celebrating the custom of maypole dancing, go from June 23 to June 26. The locals race through the forest gathering birch boughs and nosegays of wildflowers with which they cover the maypole. Then the pole is raised and, under the midsummer sky, they dance around it until dawn.

There's more to Dalarna, though: Lake Siljan is arguably the most beautiful lake in Europe. It's ringed with resort villages and towns. Leksand, Tällberg, and Rättvik attract visitors during summer with sports, folklore, and music events. In winter, people come for skiing.

It was from Dalarna that Gustava Vasa recruited an army that freed the country from the Danish yoke back in the 1500s. Alfred Nobel, who immortalized himself by creating the Nobel Prize, came from Värmland, and the land has produced some of the country's greatest artists and leaders, including prime minister Tage Erlander, poet Gustaf Fröding, and the aforementioned Nobel Prize-winning novelist Selma Lagerlöf.

The quickest and easiest way to reach these provinces is by train from the Central Station in Stockholm, a 4 1/2-hour trip. (All the towns in this chapter have good rail connections with each other.) Motorists from Oslo can stop over in Dalarna before venturing on to the Swedish capital. Similarly, visitors to Gothenburg can head north to both Värmland and Dalarna before seeing Stockholm.

If you drive, you can enjoy more scenery, including a spectacular section between Vadstena and Jönköping, where the road winds along the eastern shore of Lake Vättern. On the other hand, if you want to see the area in a hurry and are dependent on public transportation, you can fly to Mora and use it as a center for exploring Dalarna, or fly from Stockholm to Karlstad and use that city as a base for exploring the Värmland district. Both Karlstad and Mora also have good rail connections from Stockholm. Many visitors also take in the "nutshell" version of central Sweden by sailing on a Göta Canal cruise.