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medieval fishing town

Crime? It's fiction


It is dusk in Ystad. An eerie autumnal orange is settling over the quiet street that ends in the woods and I am not happy about the fact that the only other soul on Eliassons Vag is a walker who is fast striding out of my vision. I start as I hear a muffled sound behind me - it is a little girl whooshing down the road on her bicycle, cheerily humming to herself, pigtails flying in the wind.
By day, Ystad, close to a 100-odd kilometres from Stockholm, is a safe, peaceful, law abiding town. By night, it is a safe, peaceful, law abiding town. So where are all the nasties of Ystad? The serial killers, the molesters, the rapists, the deviants and assorted nuts who inhabit the town in Henning Mankell's Wallander series? Turns out they only live out their twisted lives in the mind of the author.

Here in the pretty little medieval fishing town, full of gabled streets, half-timbered old houses, windows with flower boxes, old churches, and two neat squares (one main square and one small) if you are trying to relive the delicious chill of stories about brutal murders and gory revenge, you are going to have a tough time firing your imagination.

Ten years ago, when it found itself the setting of some of the most graphic crime fiction to come out of the Scandinavian literary frightfest, this picture postcard pretty town in southern Sweden blinked hard. Where amidst these gabled streets, those lovely old churches, the squares with flower boxes, the quiet lakes and seaside were old people being strangled, birds being set on fire and teenagers on picnics massacred?

"The first time we read about Ystad in Wallander, we looked at each other and said: 'Dark? Where? Here in Ystad? Our Lilla Norregatan? This same Mariagatan? When? How? This is the safest place on earth!' But then as Mankell pointed out his intention was to point out precisely that - that crime dwells in the darkness of the mind and can happen anywhere, even the most peaceful place on earth, " says Elinor Engman of the Ystad tourist bureau.

Ystad is bemusedly resigned to its literary image. And besides, Mankell pretty heartlessly gave his inspector Alzheimer's in the last book, The Troubled Man. And the detective's home in Mariagatan, the Hotel Continental where he supped often and the station at Kristianstadv�gen - will go under dust covers. But the Wallander series by BBC with Kenneth Brannagh playing the sleuth has rekindled interest in Ystad. And the local tourist trade is thrilled that British, French, Norwegian, German, Dutch and American crime nuts are thronging the town in its lovely summer months. The Germans are the most fanatical of the lot, opting to visit Ystad during its freezing winters. That way the town fits in better with the bleak, barren, cold landscape of the books and they can find the precise spot by the grey lake where a maniac shoots a passing innocent and read the precise chapter, shivering in delectable fear.

The Wallander trail stretches in an arc over the Ystad coast, out of the town and into the achingly beautiful countryside of the Skane district. And even if you don't connect with the books, drive into this vast hinterland - by Swedish standards - for its scenic villages. There are rolling meadows and fields here, yellow and green, dappled with gentle sunlight filtering through apple, plum and maple trees and willow, white cottages with black roofs set miles apart (so that is how an old couple can be bludgeoned to death in Faceless Killers and not have the whole gaon not know instanter. )

"The great thing Mankell did was to point the world towards Ystad. This has always been a summer getaway for the Swedes. But foreign travelers knew little about it till Wallander came on the scene, " says Bradley, who along with wife Annika runs Ystad's best known B&B.

Up the shady road rolling off Ystad's coastline is Marvinsholm with its cheery medieval manor and open-air theatre. It is in summers awash with yellow rapeseed flowers (where of all horrors, a young victim of sex trafficking sets herself on fire in Sidetracked. ) Drive further into the winding roads of Skane's innards to the shores of the wild Krageholmsen lake overhung with ferns to locate the site where a tortured soul dies in the waters in One Step Behind.

But perhaps the most dramatic and riveting of Ystad's offerings is the Ales Stenar, the Swedish Stonehenge. Up on a hill, off the popular coastal village of Kaserberga, sits this stone ship that dates back around 1, 400 years. The cold, biting wind and the damp were probably a great place for Wallander's daughter, Linda, to brood in Before The Frost. In summers, the place is overrun with picnickers.

This is where the Wallander trail wins hands down over the Millenium Trilogy walk in urban Stockholm. With a map in hand, all you can do really is stare up at 18th century buildings of Bellmansgatan and Sodermalm in the hope of conjuring up some of Steig Larsson's Stockholm. And if the magic doesn't work, it doesn't.

But with or without the wondrous Wallander and the stories of his great detection, Ystad is a paisa vasool destination. It is hard to pick the most gruesome of Mankellian plots but it could well be the pointed stakes planted beneath a loose plank which will of course snap and take Holger Ericsson to a ghastly death in The Fifth Woman. I skip Fyledalen - after a point there is only so much a brain can absorb of vast rural stretches with imagined horrors.

I am sorry to let go of Hagestad Nature Reserve, the setting for the story that probably distressed me the most. Here, in One Step Behind, three young teens are killed as they celebrate a Nordic Midsummer and by the end of the book you are gasping for breath from all the bloodletting. Maybe, if I saw Hagestad in sensible morning light, I could think back on the book without a shudder. And count in another miss, Loderup, where Wallander's father paints grouse (and only grouse) in the last years of his life before he is hit by Alzheimer's.

If you have time, which I didn't, make sure to take a detour to Dag Hammarskjold's Backakra, a home the UN chief set up but sadly couldn't drop anchor at. It is difficult to hit the Scanian countryside without a vehicle but you could also opt for long walks punctured by nights at the B&B farm houses that dot the route. I run into travellers on bicycles circling remote Wallander sites, map in hand, looking as bewildered as me at the harmless pictures of bucolic bliss.

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