Gotland is an island of rock and sand southeast of Stockholm, just off the coast of Sweden. It has been an active place since Viking days, meaning it has has a good variety of things I love – fascinating vernacular architecture, ancient ruins, nearly forgotten churches (92 in all, some ruined and some still functioning), ancient graves, fish shacks, tiny harbors filled with boats, artists working in their studios and galleries showing their work, desolate scenery, weird rocks, sandy beaches, and interesting flora and fauna.
I spent a few days here in the fall of 2001, but that visit was much too brief.
We visited in the fall, when the medieval city of Visby, once a Hanseatic stronghold, was settling in for a winter. (Despite relatively mild weather, this is a summer-only destination and is often inundated with college students when the school term ends.) Visiby is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with an imposing city wall and ruined churches that peek around nearly every corner and above every rooftop. There are many handsome Hanseatic-style homes and businesses, but there are also even older ones, like the one we were gawking at when the owner appeared, stopping to answer our questions about life in a structure that was hundreds of years old. Many of these venerable buildings have been repurposed as restaurants, bars, galleries, and other shops, making for a fun and lively place, even in fall.
Summer brings a popular medieval festival, but I want to explore the city during a quieter time when it is easier to hear the whispers of the city’s long history.
Beyond Visby lies a fascinating opportunity to step back in time in a rural landscape that is easily traversed by bike or car. I want to spend much, much more time here.
When I was here last, we quickly traveled the length of the island, taking in a variety of traditional structures, a few beautiful old churches (including one where we were greeted by the haunting sound of a flute), a stone ship grave, beaches, and harbor side fishing camps (closed for the season). We even tracked down a few of the island’s “two-toed” horses as we roamed around the countryside.
Everywhere we went, there was a sense of peaceful isolation – or perhaps it was just the steady breathing of history, amplified by the ever-present sound of wind and sea, calling to me, urging me to slow down and explore. It’s a call I’m eager to answer.