Seeking Family Roots in Gränna, Sweden

When I began to help my husband plan a family pilgrimage to a small village in Sweden 300 miles south of Stockholm, I wasn’t sure what we would do beyond a visit to the local cemetery to make rubbings of his grandparents’ graves. What I soon learned is that Gränna, Sweden, is a quaint holiday destination with plenty to entertain. 

It turns out that this hamlet sits on the shores of Lake Vättern and is only a 25-minute ferry ride from Visingsö Island. Legend says that the giant, Vist, created the island by throwing a tuft of grass into the lake for his wife to step upon. Now, this island bustles with tourism in the summer months and offers rich history, too. We came in the off-season, so we missed the traditional horse-drawn carriage tours that have run since the late 19th century, taking sightseers past Iron Age burial mounds, 2,000-year-old stone grave circles and to the ruins of Sweden’s first royal castle Visingsöborgen in the village of Näs. Abandoned and burned by 1318, the fortress ruins still perch on the southern coast of Vinsingsö.

Instead, our group rented bikes for the afternoon. My husband and I teetered around on a tandem until we got our rhythm and were able to pedal up to the local market for picnic supplies and then north to the island’s original ferry landing where tables and toilets invite such lunches. The first ferry, a weekly rowboat, was started in 1783 and ran almost four miles between Visingsö and the mainland. In 1863 steamboats took over the chore, and pleasure-seekers began to enjoy the island’s shops, oak forests and history more frequently. 

Back on the mainland, we learned about Amalia Eriksson, an enterprising young widow who made a business of peppermint candy sticks in 1859 and became known around the country for what she called her polkagrisar. These peppermint sticks are Gränna’s biggest draw, and up to 800,000 visitors come to the town each year to enjoy them. We took it one step further and booked a lesson to make them ourselves, tugging warm sugar into long white ropes that we twisted together with smaller ropes of red sugar. We rolled and rolled them under the guidance of an experienced polkagrisar maker. These thick sticks are not curved into canes as they are in the United States. Instead, they are kept straight and wrapped in paper that is twisted on both ends as they have been for more than 150 years.

The main street of town is full of restaurants and candy shops that all have polkagrisar in their windows. The sticks come in a variety of flavors now that include whiskey, licorice, cloudberry and violet among other more traditional choices. Each shop also has souvenirs of Gränna – including model hot air balloons. This is the other symbol of the town, and the locals are very proud of it. 

To find out more, we visited the Gränna Museum where a video and exhibits are dedicated to Salomon August Andrée’s 1897 balloon expedition to be the first man to the North Pole for Sweden. He joined with two other explorers and gained the financial backing of Sweden’s King Oscar II and Alfred Nobel, of the Nobel Peace Prize. After much planning and an enthusiastic sendoff from Danes Island in the Arctic Ocean, the three explorers launched in a basket loaded with supplies under a balloon filled with helium. They expected the adventure to take less than two weeks. Unfortunately, in their 65-hour journey, they made it only halfway to the North Pole, and from this they never returned. 

It was on takeoff that they initially ran into trouble. The balloon bumped something and was not able to maintain its altitude as they went along. They jettisoned necessary sandbags and lost steering mechanisms they had planned upon to take them to safety; they were at the mercy of prevailing winds. Eventually the explorers came to rest on the ice and planned to walk back to civilization, but ice floes broke up, winter set in, and they all died before they could be saved. It was 34 years before a sealing vessel stopped on White Island and came upon their remains. Now diaries, clothes and equipment from Andrée and his two companions are on display in this museum. 

Back at our hotel, we learned about a waterfall just down a rustic path through the woods toward Lake Vättern near a much smaller village called Röttle. We could hear the rattling falls before we saw them beside an old stone mill. The building had been built by Gränna’s founder, Count Per Brahe the Younger, in the 1650s to make muskets, but by the 1700s, it had been converted to a flour mill like others that had operated on this stream since the 13th century. The Gränna Museum works this mill in summer months and sells the flour it makes in its gift shop along with replicas of Andrée’s ill-fated balloon. 

Our trip to Gränna was quiet and peaceful. The off season meant we had the streets, shops, museums and restaurants mostly to ourselves. But we could feel the bustle that fills the streets of this vacation town in the summer and appreciated the depths of our family roots there. From the stone circles on Visingsö to the flour mills, balloons and peppermint sticks, we felt pride in being a part of Gränna’s rich history in some small way. 


Where to Stay: the Hotel Gyllene Uttern website is in Swedish, but English is used by hotel staff by email at

Make Polkagrisar: Have hotel staff book a lesson at Gränna För Gott

Gränna Museum:

Visit Visingsö:

Get There: Airline into Stockholm or Jonkoping and rent a car 

Lesley Frederikson is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at