Tales of good times on GOTLAND are rife. Wherever you are in Sweden, one mention of this ancient Baltic island 90km from the mainland will elicit a typical Swedish sigh, followed by an anecdote about what a great place it is. You’ll hear that the short summer season is an exciting time to visit; that the place is hot, fun and lively. These claims are largely true: the island has a distinctly youthful feel, with young, mobile Stockholmers deserting the capital in summer for a boisterous time on its beaches. The flower-power era still makes its presence felt with a smattering of elderly VW camper vans lurching off the ferries, but shiny Volvos outnumber them fifty to one. During summer, the bars, restaurants and campsites are packed, the streets swarm with revellers and the sands are awash with bodies. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea: to avoid the hectic summer altogether, travel in late May or September when, depending on your level of bravado, you might still manage to swim in the waters around the island. To experience the setting at its most frenetic, come in August during Medieval Week, when people put a huge effort into dressing the part.
Visby, Gotland’s capital, has always been the scene of frenetic activity of some kind. Its temperate climate and position attracted the Vikings as early as the sixth century, and the lucrative trade routes they opened, from here through to Byzantium and western Asia, guaranteed the island its prosperity. With the ending of Viking domination, a “golden age” followed, with Gotland’s inhabitants maintaining trading posts abroad and signing treaties as equals with European and Asian leaders. However by the late twelfth century, their autonomy had been undermined by the growing power of the Hanseatic League. Under its influence, Visby became one of the great cities of medieval Europe, as important as London or Paris, famed for its wealth and strategic power. A contemporary ballad had it that “The Gotlanders weigh their gold with twenty-pound weights. The pigs eat out of silver troughs and the women spin with golden distaffs.”
Today, all the revelry which keeps Visby buzzing from late June to the end of August takes place against the spectacular backdrop of its medieval architecture; two hundred or so Hanseatic warehouses are dotted among stone and wooden houses, the whole lot nestled within its ancient walls.
There is a real charm to the rest of Gotland – rolling green countryside, forest-lined roads, fine beaches and small fishing villages. Everywhere the rural skyline is dominated by churches, the remnants of medieval settlements destroyed in the Danish invasion. Nowhere else in Scandinavia holds such a concentration of medieval churches, and 93 of them are still in use, displaying a unique Baltic Gothic style and providing the most permanent reminder of Gotland’s ancient wealth. Churches aside, however, very few people bother to explore the island, perhaps because of Visby’s magnetic pull; consequently, the main roads around Gotland are pleasingly free of traffic and minor roads positively deserted – cycling is a joy. As you travel, keep an eye out for the waymarkers erected in the 1780s to indicate the distance from Wisby (the old spelling of the town’s name), calculated in Swedish miles – one of which is equivalent to 10km.