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In Sweden, a college town that switches gears to gorgeous countryside

LUND, Sweden - The chanting started early. Not inside the soot-blackened cathedral, where worshipers have spent centuries singing by candlelight, but somewhere out among the maze of cobbled lanes.

The Cathedral in Lund, Sweden. The city, set amid flat farmland in Sweden's far south, boasts a lively arts scene, fresh local food, and acres of serene countryside.
The Cathedral in Lund, Sweden. The city, set amid flat farmland in Sweden's far south, boasts a lively arts scene, fresh local food, and acres of serene countryside.Read more

LUND, Sweden - The chanting started early. Not inside the soot-blackened cathedral, where worshipers have spent centuries singing by candlelight, but somewhere out among the maze of cobbled lanes.

Morning sun spilled onto the brightly painted houses, making them glow in shades of mustard and ketchup, and the chanting - now accompanied by screams, whistles, and what sounded like the angry blow-horns of a Viking raiding party - seemed to echo ever louder.

Soon the crowds arrived: hordes of happy students marching through the historic heart of Lund, Sweden, the girls in white dresses and the guys in black suits. Chalk-white graduation caps clung to their heads at jaunty angles, and bottles of sparkling wine sloshed from hand to hand, fizzing with every swig.

One shirtless student - pink as a crab, and just as good at walking in a straight line - shouted "High five!" at me in English. I lifted my hand to meet his, but he stumbled sideways off the curb and into the path of a passing cyclist.

He was, as the Swedes say, full.

Lund, set amid flat farmland in Sweden's far south, isn't always this lively. It doesn't have the big-city buzz of Stockholm, or even the gritty sprawl of Gothenburg, 160 miles to the north.

But it is older and more charming than those big cities, with medieval buildings that survived the worst of the Swedish government's bulldozing campaigns in the 1950s and '60s, when many historic neighborhoods were pulled down to make way for modern housing.

The city is also home to one of the country's oldest, most prestigious universities. Founded in 1666, it's now a modern research hub that attracts students from all over the world. The city's bars, parks, and cafes are perpetually full of bright young minds, from Ph.D. candidates to high school graduates, like the ones I'd seen celebrating in the streets. This, along with a lively arts scene, fresh local food, and acres of serene farmland on its doorstep, makes Lund one of the most enjoyable Swedish cities to spend time in.

Weeklong party

Taking a break from the sunshine in the cool calm of Lund's history museum, I asked how long the kids would keep the party going. "Hela veckan," the lady behind the front desk said with a resigned smile. The whole week.

Students celebrate the end of high school in this way across Sweden, donning smart clothes, drinking, and partying. In Lund, where it takes days to get through all the celebrations, they're also driven around town on the back of open-topped trucks and tractors that pump out deafening Swedish pop music. For local farmers who spend most of their time plowing and harvesting, it's a nice way to make a little extra money.

I could hear car horns announcing the start of this wild procession as I admired the history museum's newest exhibits. On the northeastern edge of Lund, where a huge, $2 billion supermicroscope is being built to help European scientists see inside tiny atomic structures, archaeologists recently discovered the remnants of Iron Age communities. Among the foundations of old huts and houses, they discovered burial gifts including pearls, ceramic pots, and gold rings, all predating Lund's foundation by hundreds of years.

And that's really saying something. The city was founded about A.D. 990, decades before the Viking Age ended and centuries before the nation of Sweden existed. And even when Sweden's early provinces began to unite, it took hundreds of years to wrestle the southernmost part of the country, known as Skane, from the Danes, who ran the place until 1658.

Across Lund, there are signs that locals still have as much to do with nearby Copenhagen as they do with Stockholm, 400 miles northeast on the edge of the Baltic. Danish as well as Swedish flags flutter outside the town's open-air cultural park; Swedish is spoken with a thick, almost-Danish drawl; and on the flat streets of the center, bicycles - Copenhagen's preferred method of transport - easily outnumber cars and buses.

'Greater Copenhagen'

Tucking into a gooey cardamom bun at a cafe near the cathedral, I spotted a local newspaper. Between the crumbs and coffee stains, it said that Lund and the rest of Skane, an area that's entirely within Sweden, would soon be marketed to the wider world as "Greater Copenhagen."

"It's not about breaking any international borders," the article said, as though trying to reassure Swedish readers, "but about being able to market the Oresund region under one name." (The 15-year-old Oresund Bridge connects Sweden and Denmark.)

Even so, it's safe to assume Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish king credited with founding Lund, would have been pleased with the news. The son of Harald Bluetooth (who later lent his name to the communications technology) and father of Cnut the Great (known as Canute), Forkbeard was by all accounts a murderous land-grabber who went on to rule England.

Hall of dusty ruins

I decided to visit the remains of the church where some say Forkbeard was buried. Finding the place was hard because it's hidden beneath an Italian restaurant in Lund's main shopping district. Spiral stairs led me below street level, and soon I was inside a hall of dusty ruins that had remained hidden until excavation work began in the mid-1980s. The whole place was eerily silent and empty, except for a few museum exhibits at the edge and a golden cross where the nave used to be.

Up in the restaurant, tourists carried on, slurping away at Italian gelato, seemingly oblivious to all the old stuff right below their feet.

By the time I'd found my way back to the cathedral, most of the boozing had died down, or at least moved to other parts of town. The whistling began to fade as I stepped into the cathedral, and then disappeared as I descended into the crypt.

This gloomy vault is home to a statue depicting a giant called Finn, who, according to local legend, built the cathedral. When payment for his work failed to materialize, he set about destroying the entire thing. Somehow, his plan failed, and he was shrunk to the size of a man, turned to stone, and condemned to an eternity of being photographed by tourists in a cold, dark crypt.

Well, I thought, at least he can't hear the students.

My phone buzzed early the next morning. My girlfriend had arrived from Gothenburg and had plans for a driving tour through the countryside. We soon left the noisy cobbles behind and turned on to a smooth main road that snaked away from town, passing golden fields of rapeseed and gently spinning wind turbines.

Although buses regularly dispense crowds of tourists into the center of Lund, the nearby countryside rarely seems to find its way onto visitors' itineraries. But in the Bjornstorp, 12 miles southeast of town, one unusual summer attraction - pedaling odd vehicles along a disused section of railway, for fun - has managed to survive. We decided to try it.

A quick lesson

A wooden hut marked the start point of the 3.5-mile route; lined up next to it were bright-blue bicycle-like contraptions that straddled the rust-red rails and that were once used to check the train line for problems. After a quick briefing - pedal to go forward, stamp on this lever to stop - we set off, gliding past green meadows that were speckled with cornflowers and poppies.

Eagles circled, cows swished their tails, and floating dandelion seeds hung in the air like tiny white umbrellas, backlit by the sun. And as we pedaled through cool copses of beech trees, slugs that had been using the rails as a shortcut across the forest floor met their squidgy end. Twice, we met Swedish families traveling in the opposite direction, which meant everyone had to swap bikes, turn them around to face the right way, and then carry on toward the finish.

Afterward, hungry and sunburned, we drove on to the Lodge, a hotel and restaurant atop one of Skane's rare hills. These days, foodies come to Skane on pricey, organized gourmet tours, stopping to sample local food along the way. So I asked the waiter whether they had any regional items on the menu.

"We can't get local pineapples," he replied. "But almost everything else is local."

Green issues are taken seriously in this part of Sweden, and not just at fancy hotels and restaurants. By 2020, local authorities want all of the food served at schools here to be organic, including the Swedish meatballs. City buses run on biogas, and hair salons boast about their all-natural beauty products.

By the time we'd found our way back to Lund, fat raindrops had begun splattering onto the warm cobbles, filling the air with an earthy summer smell.

The streets were empty, and the city seemed nothing like the chaotic, boozy Lund I'd arrived in. Umbrellas opened. Bike bells went ding-ding. There were no sunburned students in sight.

Then, from deep inside the cathedral - or perhaps somewhere farther away - the chanting began again.

If You Go


Where to stay

The More

Kastanjegatan 18, Lund


Spacious studios south of the city center.

Doubles from about $110.

Check Inn Bed & Breakfast

Hantverksgatan 6, Lund


Comfortable B&B close to the train station.

Doubles from about $81.

Where to eat


Kattesund 8A, Lund


Juicy steaks and burgers in a slick city setting. Entrees start at $20.

Restaurang Bellman

Ostra Martensgatan 6, Lund


Classic Swedish food, from meatballs to herring. Meals start at about $12.

What to do

Romeleasens Dressincykling

Bjornstorp, 12 miles southeast of Lund


Pedal along a disused railway line through gorgeous Swedish scenery. Daily, April-October. Three sessions a day at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Renting a bicycle-like track-inspection contraption (which will hold two adults and a child) costs around $30.