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.
From the mid-1960s until his death in 2007, Sweden’s best-known film director and screenwriter, Ingmar Bergman lived for much of the time on the island of Fårö, off northernmost Gotland. He was born in Uppsala in 1918, the son of a Lutheran pastor. The combination of his harsh upbringing, his interest in the religious art of old churches and the works of August Strindberg inspired Bergman to constantly consider the spiritual and psychological conflicts of life in his films. The results – he made forty feature films between 1946 and 1983 – are certainly dark, and for many, deeply distressing and/or depressing.
Bergman made his first breakthrough at the Cannes Film Festival in 1944, winning the Grand Prix for his film Hets (Persecution), based on his school life. Among his best-known movies are The Seventh Seal (1957), starring Max von Sydow, and Wild Strawberries (also 1957). The two most prevalent themes in his films were marriage and the motives for marital infidelity, and the divide between sanity and madness. One of his finest films, Fanny and Alexander (1982), portrays bourgeois life in Scandinavia at the turn of the twentieth century; it’s actually based on the lives of his own maternal grandparents and is the last major film he made. Bergman married five times, divorcing all but the last of his wives, who died in 1995.
The lively and charming town of LJUGARN makes a good base for Sjaustrehammaren, Gotland’s best beach, and is the nearest thing the island has to a resort. You can get here from Roma by heading straight down Route 143 for around 30km. Ljugarn is famous for its raukar – tall limestone stacks rising up from the sea. From the main street, it’s only 100m to the town beach. Alternatively, a delightful cycle or stroll down Strandvägen follows the coastline northeast through woods and clearings carpeted in blåelden (viper’s bugloss), the electric-blue flowers for which the area is known. The raukar along the route stand like ancient hunched men, their feet lapped by the waves.
Gotland is renowned throughout Sweden for its fine sandy beaches, The coast between Sjaustrehammaren and Ljugarn on the east coast, backed by pine forest, is the best beach on the entire island, a vast, unsullied stretch of golden sand; the southern section in front of Mullvalds strandskog forest and nature reserve is popular with naturists. Get here on bus #41 to Gammelgarn from where it’s a fifteen-minute cycle ride along the road towards Ljugarn, and then follow one of the narrow forest tracks which lead off down left to the shore.
The best of the rest are detailed below.
is a 5km cycle ride north of Visby and popular with families who appreciate the gently sloping sands which make paddling particularly easy and safe for kids.
(take bus #10 south from Visby) is also suited to families with children, since the water is relatively shallow and warm.
on Fårö is a perfectly formed sandy bay; take bus #20 from Visby to the ferry at Fårösund, then a taxi to the beach itself; book on t 0498 20 20 00.
in the far south is surrounded by wild, unspoilt countryside and limestone raukar; take bus #11 from Visby.
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. Strolling around the twisting streets and atmospheric walls is not something that palls quickly, but if you need a focus, aim for Norra Murgatan, above the cathedral, once one of Visby’s quietest areas. The end of the street nearest Norderport enjoys the best view of the walls and city rooftops.
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.
During the second week of August, Visby becomes the backdrop for a boisterous re-enactment of the conquest of the island by the Danes in 1361. Medieval Week (w medeltidsveckan.se) sees music in the streets, medieval food on sale in the restaurants (no potatoes – they hadn’t yet been brought to Europe) and on the Sunday a procession re-enacting Valdemar’s triumphant entry through Söderport to Storatorget. Here, people in the role of burghers are stripped of their wealth, and the procession then moves on to the Maiden’s Tower. Locals and visitors alike really get into the spirit of this festival, with a good fifty percent of people dressed up and on the streets. There are weekly jousting tournaments throughout July and early August.