VISBY is a city made for wandering and lingering over coffees and slices of cake. Whether climbing the ramparts of the surrounding walls, or meandering up and down the warren of cobbled, sloping streets, there’s plenty to tease the eye. Pretty Packhusplan, the oldest square in the city, is bisected by curving Strandgatan, which runs southwards to the fragmentary ruins of Visborgs Slott, overlooking the harbour. Built in the fifteenth century by Erik of Pomerania, the castle was blown up by the Danes in the seventeenth century. In the opposite direction, Strandgatan runs northwest towards the sea and the Jungfrutornet (Maiden’s Tower), where a local goldsmith’s daughter was walled up alive – reputedly for betraying the city to the Danes.
Visby is much older than its medieval trappings suggest: its name comes from vi, “the sacred place”, and by, “the settlement”, a derivation that reflects its status as a Stone Age sacrificial site. After the Gotlanders had founded their trading houses in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Hansa or Hanseatic League was created, comprising a group of towns that formed a federation to assert their interests and protect their seaborne commerce. Following the foundation of Lübeck in the 1150s, German merchants began to expand into the eastern Baltic area in order to gain access to the coveted Russian market. A trading agreement between Gotlanders and the League in 1161 gave the islanders the right to trade freely throughout the whole Saxon area, while Germans were able to settle in Visby, which became the League’s principal centre and the place where all lines of Baltic trade met. As Visby metamorphosed from Gotlandic village to international city, it was the Germans who led the way in form and architecture, building warehouses up to six storeys high with hoists facing the street, still apparent today.
In 1350, the Black Death swept through Gotland, creating ghost towns of whole parishes and leaving more than eight thousand people dead. Eleven years later, during the power struggle between Denmark and Sweden, the Danish king Valdemar III took Gotland by force and advanced on Visby. The burghers and traders of the city, well aware of the wealth here, shut the gates and sat through the slaughter which was taking place outside, only surrendering when it was over. Hostilities and piracy were the hallmarks of the following two centuries. In 1525, an army from Lübeck stormed the much-weakened Visby, torching the northern parts of the town. With the arrival of the Reformation and the weakness of the local economy, the churches could no longer be maintained, and Visby’s era of greatness clanged to a close.