From Visby’s cobbled streets, to the fig trees and butterflies of the botanical garden, there are plenty of reasons to visit the island of Gotland, says SEAN DODSON…
In the summer of 1862, Horace Marryat set sail from Stockholm for the Baltic island of Gotland. He’d set off to finish his book, One Year in Sweden, which would become one of England’s earliest foreign guidebooks and help pioneer the informal style of travel writing we know today. But when Marryat wrote that the limestone cliffs of Gotland were “as wild and romantic as the winds and waves can fashion them,” his chatty prose turned into pure poetry.
Gotland can do that to you. Lying halfway between Sweden and Estonia, it’s easy to become poetic about the ‘Queen of the Baltic’. Roughly the size of Lincolnshire, Gotland has a gentle climate and they say the roses still bloom as late as December. But then, they say the harbour is icebound one winter in seven, too.
To get there you have to fly to Stockholm and then take another plane – or better, a ferry – to the main city, Visby. Old history books tell of a fabulously wealthy walled city where window frames were made of silver and church windows encrusted with gems so bright that they could be seen at sea. The many legends of Gotland come steeped in poetry, but it is a little known fact that more Anglo-Saxon coins have been unearthed on the island than in the whole of the UK and Europe put together.
Made up of a haphazard network of narrow, cobbled streets, Visby is an extremely well-preserved medieval city. The old town is largely empty of cars – although it teems with Swedish teens scooting through its narrow lanes on hired motorcycles. The second week in August sees thousands of enthusiasts invade the island for medieval week. The islanders serve up themed food, organise jousting tournaments and hire jesters to entertain the throng. Most seem to have a jolly enough time, although locals snigger at the knights-in-armour struggling with their carrier bags outside the supermarket. You don’t need a helmet to enjoy Visby’s history. Littered with the ruins of twenty-three churches and abbeys, many architectural historians consider Visby to be the finest example of early gothic architecture in the northern Europe. The old town remains so halted in time that the only break in the ramparts – which you can still walk around – was made by the invading Danish army in 1361.
The old town also houses a beautiful botanical garden. Built in 1865, it is a splendid place to relax after a day exploring the old town. To lie at sunset by the beck that flows beneath the tiny wooden bridge is pure heaven. Figs and mulberry trees grow wild, as white butterflies and wasps swoop between the rows of roses of every hue. Parents wheel pushchairs up the garden’s steep path past terraces beautiful with sundials and statues. In the north-west corner you can explore the ruined basilica of St Olaf’s church or simply watch an old couple play draughts by the water lily pond. At the kissing gate, young lovers canoodle as the setting sun stains the western sky as red as a blushing cheek.
While it can get rowdy once the lager has kicked in, a large community of artists also populate Visby in the summer, lending a bohemian undercurrent to parts of the old town. Most weekends see renowned Swedish musicians perform acoustic sets in the old town’s cafes and bars, such as Schenholms or the Roxy. There’s a variety of good restaurants, and food is inexpensive at places such as the fish restaurant Bakfickan, where the excellent service is only bettered by the pan-fried mackerel. GA Masters is another bar and restaurant popular with locals: it’s a little more pricey but serves wonderful lamb and can be great place to hang out until the small hours. They come sooner than you think in Visby. In the high summer months it never really gets dark. There’s no midnight sun, but an elongated evening adds to the sense that it’s always much later than you think. Be careful: it works the same the morning after too. English visitors to Visby speak of the sun streaming into their window at half past three in the morning.
For all the natural beauty a trip to the island of Gotland presents, the sea is not the selling point it once was. Sadly, a poisonous alga is despoiling much of the Baltic, leaving dirty brown waves to lap against Visby’s shore. Thankfully, better beaches lie within cycling distance and the ride along the cliffs, past small villages with evocative names like Sanda and Sommertown, is easily worth the negligible cost of bike hire. Weaving through the pine trees and the cliff tops, you might admire the bevy of swans swimming at sea. Rest a while in the garden of one of the little summerhouses selling ice cream and coffee. Each has a Swedish flag, a maypole, and communal singing after dinner. If you get really tired, you can even take your bike on the bus. It’s not just historians and hedonists that rave about Gotland: geologists get excited too. The island has a number of unique geological features, most notable of which are the rauker: a collection of limestone stacks that stand as tall as giants guarding the coast near the northern island of Faro. In his book, Visby and the Glory that was Gotland, Hans Wahlin likened the rauker to “shivered, weather-worn statues of primitive age… petrified in the midst of an ungainly and fantastic dance.”
Gotland and poetry are never far apart. Other stacks of stone climb out of the sea and into the meadows and pine woods that lie above. Gotland has an abundance of ancient stone circles and you have them to yourself, with the exception of the company of black goats. Travel long enough and you will finally reach Faro Sound, from where you can travel to the isolated island where Ingmar Bergman lived. But all routes eventually wind back to Visby. Seeing from a distance the walled old town, with its red roofs and the three black spires of St Maria’s cathedral, it’s hard to imagine that five hundred years ago it was the centre of the Hanseatic League – a mighty trade network of thirty independent cities, of which Stockholm was a very junior partner. All that commerce may have long gone, but the glory of Gotland still lingers.
SEAN DODSON is a former journalist.
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The article was first published in The Guardian. It has been republished with permission of the author.