Richard Tulloch ponders a megalithic monument perched high and dry above the Baltic Sea.
The serious photographers were here at dawn, capturing the silhouettes as the sun rose from the sea beyond. We've missed that moment but there is still plenty of magic hovering around the Ales Stenar. It's the mystery surrounding these prehistoric stone circles that appeals to us. We can imagine they were erected with great difficulty, massive boulders being dragged across country and up a steep hill, then carefully aligned with the heavens and set on end. But the purpose of all that effort remains unknown and even scholars can only make guesses.
A collection of 59 standing stones, each from one to three metres high, the Ales Stenar (or Ale's Stones) rise from a field on a coastal ridge in southern Sweden's Osterlen district, above the arty-crafty town of Kaseberga. They're arranged in the rough shape of a ship, 67-metres long, with taller stones at the prow and stern. Cream-coloured cows graze around them, sometimes pausing to use them as convenient neck scratchers.
The Ales Stenar are thought to date from the time of the Vikings, about AD600-AD1000. They may not be the pyramids, or even Stonehenge, but they're no less intriguing – the largest, most complete and possibly the most beautiful prehistoric monument in northern Europe. At summer solstice the sun sets precisely over the prow stone and at winter solstice rises over the ship's stern. Nobody knows why. Was this the tomb of an ancient chief, a religious meeting place or an astronomical calendar? Or a landing pad for alien spaceships?
Visitors want to touch the stones, rub them, even try to push them over, knowing that others down the centuries have done the same. An excited party of Swedish children on a school excursion plays hide and seek between them. Backpackers spread out a picnic on the grassy slope overlooking the sea, then lean back against the stones to eat.
There is no charge to visit Ales Stenar and surprisingly, given their archaeological importance, no security, only a polite warning notice by the cattle grid asking us to respect and preserve the area for future generations. We're happy to do that.
Maybe the Ales Stenar were put there because artistically inclined Vikings, taking a break from looting and pillaging, simply liked the look of them.
The writer was a guest of the Scandinavian Tourist Board in Australia and Scandinavian Airlines.
Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) has connections from Sydney to Copenhagen. Phone 1300 727 707 or see see flysas.com.au.
A train from Copenhagen to Ystad in Osterlen takes one hour and costs 42 Danish kroner ($10) one way. See dsb.dk.
Bus services operate around Osterlen but private transport is best for reaching the prehistoric sites. The Ales Stenar are a short walk from Kaseberga.
For details on activities and sights in Osterlen, phone 9212 1332 or see visitscandinavia.com.au to order a Scandinavian Essential Guide.