It takes three hours on the ferry Destination Gotland to cross the Baltic Sea from Oskarshamn on the southeast coast of Sweden, or Nynäshamn 60 km south of Stockholm, to one of the most popular holiday destinations in Scandinavia.
These ferries are impressively equipped to transport vast numbers of people with their cars, bicycles, motorbikes, or simply a backpack. The cars board and disembark with swift efficiency, guided along lanes in and out of the belly of the craft.
There is a central buffet which is immediately invaded by queues of hungry tourists soon after departure, and a smaller café with sandwiches, beverages, magazines, sweets and toys. There’s a play area for the children, with climbing frames and a mini-theatre showing cartoons. Sweden, now without a “nanny” culture like most of Europe, has well-equipped facilities in restaurants, every mode of public transport, museums, resorts and stores – a boon for parents who have no option but to take their offspring everywhere with them. These child-friendly infrastructures, and robust philosophy around the importance of the family, make Sweden an attractive option for immigrants wishing to start a new life. Brochures everywhere inform tourists that there are activities and facilities for every sector of this egalitarian society – for the aged and the disabled, but especially for the young.
Gotland lies 90 km from Sweden’s southeastern shore, almost halfway to Latvia, and enjoys more sunshine, warmth and fine weather than anywhere else in the country. It also has a rich history, as can be seen in the many prehistoric sites, Viking treasure-hoards and burial mounds, and hilltop fortress remains. The Gotlandic Vikings were seafaring farmers who raised their stock and grew their crops on the fertile land. There are also over a hundred medieval churches dotted all over the island, some now only picturesque ruins.
There are sandy white beaches, crowded with sun-seeking holiday-makers during the summer, interesting geological formations, excellent restaurants, and cycling tours. There is also plenty of accommodation: from campsites, youth hostels and simple stugor (cottages), to apartments, villas and expensive hotels. We rented a well-equipped cottage at Lullyhill, 5 km north of Visby – a perfect location from which to watch the sun set over the Baltic Sea and the scent of wild lavender.
Tallstugan (Pine Cottage ) is concealed in a grove of stocky pines and a delightfully disheveled garden. It’s close enough to the capital, Visby, with its supermarkets and historical sights, without the bustle and noise, and close to the airport.
Snäckgårdsbaden is a holiday resort below Lullyhill consisting of serried ranks of wooden “wagons” (bungalows), and caravan sites, with a communal ablution block and a café. Here we spotted a tabby cat playfully chasing some white-tailed rabbits. This popular place has a small beach, and around the corner rocks and a shingle beach encrusted with sea grasses and sedge. Here swans can sometimes be seen, gliding serenely at sundown or dabbling in the pungent shallows. This quiet corner of the Baltic is remarkably tranquil when the wind drops, with little or no surf. No wonder the Swedes call it the Östersjön – “Eastern Lake”.
The name Visby (formerly Wisby) – the “City of Roses” – derives from Vi, meaning “the sacred place” and by “settlement”, signifying its long-ago status as a Stone Age sacrificial site.Towards the end of the Viking era, during the 11th and 12th centuries, a “Golden Age” ensued. The inhabitants maintained trading posts abroad, selling wax, lime, furs, honey and tar, and signed treaties with European and Asian rulers.
But by the late 12th century, their autonomy had become undermined by the growing strength of the Hanseatic League. This powerful federation comprised several cities which banded together to protect their interests and seaborne commerce. Following the foundation of its headquarters at Lübeck in the 1150’s, German merchants, eager to gain access to the coveted Russian markets, began expanding into the eastern Baltic. Visby became the League’s principal Baltic trade centre, and one of the great cities of medieval Europe equal in importance to London or Paris. This prosperous era, which continued into the 14th century, is still visible today in some of the city’s medieval architecture, such as the tall six-storey storehouses.
There are also many old leaning wooden houses and barns, and picturesque stone cottages with climbing roses, and pear and apple trees laden with fruit.
The old town, with is stone churches, church ruins, and narrow winding cobbled streets is surrounded by extremely well-preserved stone walls.
These are interrupted at regular intervals by turrets and towers with quaint names such as Jungfrutornet (the Maiden Tower), Kruttornet (the Powder Tower), Kvarntornet (the Mill Tower), Mynthuset (the Coin House) and Långa Lisa (Tall Lisa). The gates are named after people and saints, and for their function: Brunnsporten (the Well Gate), Fiskarporten (the Fish Gate), St. Göransporten (from the medieval hospital for lepers and the sick), Norderport, Söderport, Österport, Kajserporten and Dalmansporten.
In 1350 the Black Death swept through Gotland, wiping out some eight thousand inhabitants, and entire parishes became ghost towns. Soon after, in 1361, the Danish King Valdemar IV invaded and took the island by force. During the Battle of Visby, all those left outside the city gates, which had been locked in an attempt to protect the city’s wealth, were slaughtered.
The next two centuries were a turbulent time of further hostilities and plunder, and in 1525 an army from Lübeck stormed the much-weakened city, and burned the northern districts to the ground. With the arrival of the Reformation soon after, the numerous churches and some of the monasteries on the island could no longer be maintained, and, coupled with the vandalism of the Danish invasions, many fell into ruin.
The Old Town is a delightful area best explored on foot. The numerous cafés are festooned with hanging flower baskets,
and there are restaurants and boutiques, pretty parks, hotels, museums and galleries, as well as a working harbour.
Bakfickan is a seafood brasserie on Visby’s Stortorget (main square.) A tiny, atmospheric little place decorated with objects reminiscent of the fishing trade, it is popular with locals and visitors alike. Most delicious is the fish soup, a rich beefy broth flavoured with slivers of carrots, celery and onions, and chunks of cod, and topped with a dollop of garlic-flavoured crème fraîche. Slices of warm bread and knackerbrod (flat crisp bread) were brought to our table in a brown paper bag with a bowl of butter. Lunch can be a particularly novel experience: a plump cheese and ham baguette in a garden café, St. Hans, located in the ruined nave of a large crumbling stone church of the same name.
Many of the city’s churches are ruins today; after the ravages of the Reformation, the 17th and 18th century builders and decorators used them as a source of free limestone, tiles and fittings. St. Nicholas was destroyed in 1525, and today its part-Gothic, part-Romanesque shell is the venue for the chamber music and festivals during the summer.
The Gothic ruins of St. Katarina on Stora torget (Main Square) are beautiful, especially when illuminated at night, with its glorious golden arches glowing against the blue-black sky.
This church, dating from 1250, belonged to one of the first Franciscan monasteries to be founded on Gotland, in 1233.
The Botaniska Trädgården (Botanical Gardens) were founded in 1855 by the DBW (De Badande Vännerna – the Bathing Friends’ Society) – people who enjoyed bathing in the sea and who shared a common interest in botany. There are trees and shrubs from all over the world, laid out in different sections, and a variety of roses which thrive in the sunshine and calcareous soil. These, and the herb garden, the pond garden, rockery, and hedged garden with wild flowers and bee hives, fill the air with aromatic scents to delight and calm the visitors.
In 2005, the 150th anniversary of the Gardens was celebrated with the special cultivation of a beautiful pink rose, “Wisby”.
A large and well-organised tourist office down near the Visby harbour provides visitors with useful maps and brochures as well as a shop with souvenirs.
The Fornsal Museum, housed in an 18th century distillery, is a fascinating place displaying an excellent overview of the eight thousand years of Gotland’s history, from pre-historic times (the Silurian Sea), through the Stone Age, Viking, Medieval, Hanseatic and Reformation eras. There is a particularly lively display featuring the Battle of Visby in 1361 against the Danish King Valdemar IV, complete with sound-effects, chain-mailed skeletons, and bones and skulls with grisly wounds.
The “Hall of Picture Stones”, which date from the 5th – 7th centuries, displays large monoliths richly decorated with runic inscriptions and vivid depictions of people, animals, ships and houses.
The Viking Treasury is sealed within one level, and contains hordes of silver and gold coins and trinkets, jewelry and ornaments. The “Spillings Hoard”, the largest trove of Viking-age treasure in the world, found by a farmer whilst ploughing his field in northern Gotland in 1999, is proudly exhibited in a large glass cabinet. This breathtaking horde lay buried for 1130 years!
The Art Museum has a small permanent collection of paintings.
Peak season on Gotland is from mid-June to mid-August, and culminates in Medeltidsveckan (Medieval Week) during the second week of August, in Visby. There we enjoyed a bustling market with dozens of stalls selling “medieval” goods, from wooden and leather items to armoury, musical instruments, sweets and clothing. Several small forges demonstrated the work of blacksmiths, crafting horse-shoes, swords, locks and many other useful items.
There were also many medieval food stalls, including sheep-on-a-spit, wild boar burgers, mead, and grilled pork kebabs. We were spoiled for choice wandering between the stalls and savouring the delicious aromas of roasting meat, chicken and fish.
There was dancing for the onlookers, as well as music and drama festivals, miracle and mystery plays, fire shows and jousting tournaments.
This popular annual event is well-attended, with around 40,000 visitors flocking to the island every summer, and a merry festive atmosphere, the streets full of revelers in period garb.
There is so much to see in the medieval city of Visby:
St. Mary’s Cathedral was built between 1190 and 1225 with funds collected from the German ships anchored in Visby harbour. It became a German parish church when a number of German merchants settled in the city.
The loft was originally used as a storehouse, and a hoist beam is still visible on the eastern gable. Most striking are its towers, a square one at the western front, and two slimmer eastern ones which stand sentry over the surrounding buildings. They each had spires originally, but after destruction by fire during the 18th century they were crowned with ornate wooden Baroque cupolas. Inside is a barnenhornet (children’s corner; in Swedish hörnet means “the corner” – hence Little Jack Horner.) This is the cathedral of Visby diocese – the smallest diocese in Sweden.
We spent much time driving around the countryside, admiring the pretty, peaceful summer landscapes and visiting many interesting sights.
On the northern shores the tallest raukar can be seen, marching along the shoreline like bent old men. These giant monolithic stacks are the remnants of limestone reefs formed over 400 million years ago, and worn away by the sea.
Their height above the tideline is proof that sea levels were once much higher. One particular stack (11.5 m) at Lickershamn (hamn means “harbour”), called Jungfruklint (Maiden Cliff) is associated with the 11th century legend of Öllegard, who was murdered along with her lover by her father. Gazing out towards the horizon, she was sculpted by the Littorina Sea – a predecessor of the Baltic.
Irevik has a pebbly beach where bathers can enjoy the gentle, barely salty waters of the Baltic, or a fish and new potatoes meal at the tented restaurant and pub at the water’s edge.
Gotland is well-known for its many medieval churches, each of which carries an intriguing story, legend or interesting art works. In the village of Lärbro, in the east, there is a church with an octagonal steeple, curious wall paintings that include a dragon, and a magnificent reredos. The oldest part of the church is the defensive tower, which was built in five storeys towards the end of the 12th century, and is still intact. In the cemetery lie the graves of 45 patients who died in the wartime hospital at Lärbro during the World War II. The roughly 500 patients treated there were refugees with tuberculosis, mostly from Poland, as well as those from the Soviet-occupied Baltic States, former concentration camp prisoners from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and even fleeing soldiers from the Whermacht.
Rute church has exquisite ochre-and-green 13th and 15th century frescoes, including a depiction of the Descent from the Cross.
Bunge church contains a large 13th century limestone alms box, with the runic inscription Lafrans made this stone, and has a defense tower. In times of war churches were part of the defense system. Holes made by pike blows and crossbow arrows are still visible in the outer steeple door of this church. The north wall of the nave bears a battle scene with horsemen.
Fårösund lies to the north, and the ferry across to Fårö, an island at the northern tip of Gotland where Sweden’s most famous film director, Ingmar Bergman (1918-1995), spent much time. His grave and that of Ingrid Bergman lie in the cemetery of the Fårö parish church, which dates from the early 14th century, and was extensively renovated in 1858.
Inside we found the usual beautifully carved wooden pulpit, with plum-cheeked cherubs, a couple of organs, a carved altarpiece, and family portraits. These always feature a disconcerting number of children, from eight to sometimes as many as sixteen, arranged in neat rows according to age, boys on one side, girls on the other. But most noteworthy are the oil paintings, Käutatavlorna, (käute is old Swedish for seal) depicting seal hunting. The large painting depicts an event that took place in 1603 in which an ice floe cracked, taking the hunters who were standing on it out to sea, and who were apparently rescued two weeks later. The small Käutatavla also depicts a dramatic seal hunt, that experienced by Jöns Langhammar and his son Lars in 1767. They also drifted out to sea on an ice floe, but were soon rescued by neighbours. Lars promised his daughter’s hand in marriage to the son of one of his rescuers. One hopes that she was also happy with this arrangement.
In the tiny fishing harbour at Lauter, situated south of the large nature reserve Digerhuvud on Fårö, a mermaid weather vane decorates one of the little wooden storage sheds.
This place, comprising the former “lime baron’s grange”, was once a hive of activity. Here fishing and lime-burning provided the source of income, and the 18th century lime kilns still stand beside Lauterhorn harbour.
On the perimeter of Fårö Island there are a lighthouse and shingle beaches.
Roma is a larger town lying in the centre of the island. It derives its name from “room” or “open space”, signifying the venue for the Vikings’ “Things” (meetings), and courthouse. The pretty 13th century church here is remarkable for its triple-isled nave, for which reason it is known as the “False Basilica”. It, too, has a medieval (13th C) baptismal font, and a quirky wooden wall cupboard in the chancel, and a beautiful little rose window (1880’s) shining forth from behind the organ pipes.
This church has a separate bell tower containing bells brought from the Ukraine, and five entrances, instead of the usual three. It is thought that it was used by the Dominicans, who preached for crusades against the non-Christians in what are today the Baltic States.
The main attraction of Roma are the Cistercian cloister ruins of Romakloster, approached through a long avenue of beech trees, and where Shakespeare plays are staged during the summer. The area includes a large manor house, called Kungsgården (the King’s Garden), which was built during the 1730’s for the county governor. Part of the monastery was destroyed during the Danish invasion in the 16th century, and materials were taken from the ruin for the construction of the governor’s mansion.
The church at Vall, near Roma, is another typical Gotlandish medieval place of worship, adorned with the usual 12th – 14th century trappings: beautifully carved reredos, Holy Rood, pulpit and pews, glistening brass chandeliers and an impressive organ. Most notable is the hagioscope there (from the Greek “holy” and σκοπός to see) or squint – an opening through the wall of a church in an oblique direction, which enabled worshipers in the transepts or other parts of the church, from which the altar was not visible, to witness the mass. Hagioscopes were also sometimes known as “leper windows”, wherein a squint was made in an external wall so that lepers and other “non-desirables” could observe the mass without coming into contact with the rest of the congregation. The carved stone font dates from the 12th century, and while we were there a baptism was about to take place.
Ljugarn, on the east coast, boasts a number of limestone stacks, and one of Gotland’s finest beaches. (Garn is an Old Norse word meaning a small fishing harbour). Shakespeare’s Macbeth was performed here a few years ago, to great effect, among the stacks.
Katthamarsvik, a small fishing settlement just north of Ljugarn, claims to have the “best restaurant on Gotland” – with which I heartily agree. There is a rökeri (smokehouse), which delivers their wares to eight outlets in Stockholm: hot- and cold-smoked salmon and shrimps, patés and spreads, and a delicious seafood terrine.
There is a stone jetty, from which one can fish and swim, or enjoy the sight of numerous tiny jellyfish floating like graceful underwater ballerinas through the blue-green water.
Gammalgarn nearby also has an interesting church, with a 12th century defense tower intended to protect the congregation, and beautiful 14th century limestone sculptures above the portal depicting the stories of Adam and Eve from the Old Testament: the Garden of Eden, The Fall of Man, Banishment from Paradise, Adam and Eve at Work, Cain and Abel and Noah’s Ark. This High Gothic structure has a spacious nave but no apse. Instead, the eastern end is adorned with three Gothic windows. There is a gravestone set into the floor of the choir, inscribed with runes.
Many old wooden windmills, now no longer in use, appear here and there in the meadows of Gotland, and old stone milestones line the main roads. These were erected during the 1780’s to indicate the distance from Visby, and are calculated in Swedish miles. (One Swedish mile = 10 km.)
Havdhem, to the south, holds a market on the first Saturday of the month. Here the goods offered include smoked meats – elk, pork and beef, homemade cinnamon and saffron buns, nut pies and brownies, knitted woolen goods and sheepskin-lined mittens and shoes, jars of preserves, jams and honey, homemade jewelry, and second-hand books.
Hemse, en route to Havdhem, is regarded as the “capital” of southern Gotland. The countryside in this area is a mixture of ancient farms with leaning barns and windmills, dark, fairy-tale forests, and lush meadows filled with grazing cows and sheep. One such meadow has the 2000-year-old stone foundations of an Iron Age dwelling, a not uncommon phenomenon on Gotland. Many of the plants here were used for medicinal purposes, such as “herb Paris”, a remedy for eye diseases, and “sanicle”, for sores. Orchids thrive in this rich habitat of meadow grass, hazel, oak and ash, where the ground is slightly moister.
Klintehamn, on the west coast, is a beautiful area, and the haunt of pirates during the 1390’s. They used Gotland as their base, ravaging the area at will, and disrupting important trade across the Baltic. A redoubt was built here during the 18th century, called Stålhatt (Steel Hat), which protected Klintehamn from further attacks. Today the area is rich in bird life, and there is a sanctuary with bird hides.
At the southern tip of Gotland, on the Storsudret peninsular, lies Hoburgen, and the Husryggs Nature Reserve. This is a sea stack area with one of the island’s best-known stacks, Hoburgsgubben – Old Man Hoburg (after which an asteroid is named.) Hoburgen is also one of the permanent weather stations on the Swedish coast, and is used in the Swedish Shipping Forecast.
There are hikes and cliff walks, with fantastic views over the sea, and a surprise find: Restaurang Majstregården ( https://www.majstregarden.se/ ), where we enjoyed a last indulgence before heading back to Visby: Gotland’s signature saffron pannkaka (pan cake).
Gotland is a magical place, and warrants many rewarding and pleasurable return trips. There is so much to see and do, visitors are never in danger of running out of interesting surprises.
Saffranspannkaka – en Gotlandsk delikatess (Saffron Pan Cake – a Gotlandish delicacy) (Serves 6)
300 ml cream
200 ml milk
½ tsp salt
2 dessert spoons sugar
a pinch of ground saffron
Mix all together well and bake in a greased oven pan at 225˚ C for about 30 minutes.
Allow to cool and cut into squares.
Serve with Salmberry jam and whipped cream
Recommended reading: See Gotland, Wildlife and Culture from Fårö to Hoburgen, edited by Anki Dahlin, Lennart Edlund, Birgitta Radhe, Gun Wetsholm and Majvor Östergren ISBN 978-91-88036-64-3.
This book is rich in topographical, historical, geological, paleontological and botanical information.