Gotland, Sweden has everything a traveler could want: a vibrant medieval city filled with dramatic ruins, timeless country churches, Viking graves in windswept meadows, and sprawling beaches. And lots of arts, music, and good food. What more could one want?
I spent a few days here in the fall of 2001, but that visit was much too brief.
Dreaming of Gotland
Gotland, Sweden, is an island of rock and sand southeast of Stockholm. It has been an active place since Viking days, meaning it 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.
Oh, to wander the streets of Visby again
We visited Gotland in 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. A popular one at that, and it is often inundated with college students when the school term ends.) It was a peaceful, moody time to visit the city.
Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage site, with an imposing city wall and ruined churches that peek around nearly every corner and above every rooftop.
It has many handsome Hanseatic-era homes and businesses, but there are also even older ones.
We were gawking at one of these ancient-looking structures when the owner appeared and stopped to answer our questions about life in a house that is hundreds of years old.
Many of these venerable buildings are still homes. However, others have been re-purposed as restaurants, bars, galleries, and shops. All these businesses make the city a fun and lively place, even in fall.
Summer brings a popular medieval festival, but I want to explore the city again during a quiet time when it is easier to hear the whispers of the city’s long history.
The countryside beckons
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 in 2001, we quickly traveled the length of the island. Along the way, we saw a variety of traditional structures, including a few beautiful old churches (at one 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 the countryside.
Everywhere we went, there was a sense of peaceful isolation – or perhaps just the steady breath of history, amplified by the ever-present sound of wind and sea. It calls to me, urging me to slow down and explore. It’s a call I’m eager to answer.