Sun, Oct 07, 2007 - Page 9 News List

An island reflecting on the heavens

Faro is most famous as the hideaway of Ingmar Bergman, but even this land, seemingly lost in time, is catching up

By Danielle Pergament  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

When Ingmar Bergman died on July 30, he left behind three Academy Awards, a legacy as one of the greatest filmmakers of all time -- and his home on the tiny island of Faro, Sweden. Population: 572, now 571.

Like Bergman, Faro is remote. Getting to the island, off the east coast of Sweden, requires a plane, a train or a bus, a car and two ferries. Which is exactly what made it so appealing to the reclusive Bergman.

If Caprona is the land that time forgot, Faro is the land that time never knew existed. The island has no bank, post office, ATM, ambulance, doctor or police force.

"We have one school, but it will close," said Kerstin Kalstrom, a schoolteacher for 38 years. "We just don't have enough children here."

On a map, Faro looks as though it snapped off the northern tip of Gotland and is poised to float off to sea. But from my vantage point, over the handlebars of a bicycle, Faro looked more like Storybook Hollow. The land is flat and verdant. It is windswept and rocky along the western edge, soft and sandy on the eastern coastline, with black-and-white cows grazing in lush meadows along the Baltic Sea.

There are very few roads in Faro, and most of them are dirt -- the kind with tall grass growing down the middle like a Mohawk. Rocky fields of yellow and purple wildflowers give way to cool, dank pine forests that creak in the wind. The ground is covered in a soft, mossy carpet dotted with mushrooms the size of dinner plates, anthills 1m tall and endless patches of wild strawberries.

The whole place feels enchanted. After all, this is the country that dreamed up gnomes with fat cheeks and pointy red hats -- and biking around for an afternoon, I thought I could see the squat little guys waddling behind the birch trees.

"We have our own special dialect here -- people say it's the oldest language in Sweden," said Kalstrom, when we met over a dinner of spicy crayfish bisque and buttery new potatoes at Friggars Krog, one of the island's few restaurants.

"But the young people are moving out and the language is disappearing," she said. "I don't think the next generation will even know it."

As Faro's agricultural industry has weakened, its tourism has exploded.

"There are about 250 residential homes on Faro and over 1,000 summer homes," said Thomas Soderlund, owner of Stora Gasemora, the closest thing to a hotel on Faro. What was once a 300-year-old farmhouse with a cow barn and windmill has been converted into 15 modern apartment-style rooms, a sunny common area and a romantic stone dining room.

"Stora Gasemora means `big goose swamp,' but I think it sounds better in Swedish," Soderlund said. "It used to be the largest farm on Faro, but we had to close because there were no workers. I couldn't work the farm because I am allergic to the cows. You can't be a very good farmer if you're allergic to cows."

Switching from farming to innkeeping was a wise move.

"Every tourist in Sweden comes here in the summer," he said. "This summer there was even an Italian a few kilometers down the road."

To extend the tourist season, the community started Faronatta, or Faro Nights, an islandwide party held during the full moon each September.

"All the restaurants and bars stay open all night," said Anna Maria Hagerfors, a retired journalist from Stockholm and part-time resident. "They serve all kinds of food -- smoked fish, cakes, coffee, liquor. There are craft stands all over the island, the church holds a midnight Mass, and the road is lit up by candles."

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