Guide to Gotland
Patricia Cleveland Peck finds paradise on the popular Swedish island of Gotland – famed for its sheep and long hours of sunshine
How does this sound for a holiday destination? An unspoiled island covered with pine and spruce forests, hay meadows full of wildflowers, wide deserted beaches, charming wooden houses painted ox-blood red and ochre, a profusion of old country churches, a city with tiny winding streets full of rose covered houses, picture-book cafes with pretty gardens, bars and antique shops selling not tourist tat but tasteful handicrafts and clothing?
Well, all this is found on Gotland, one of my favourite islands. Almost a little country in itself, it is situated in the Baltic, 90 kms from Stockholm. It can be reached in half an hour by air from Stockholms’s Arlanda airport or a three hour ferry journey from Nynäshamn, south of Stockholm or from Oskarshamn on the east coast of Sweden.
The largest Baltic island, around three times the size of the Isle of Wight, with a population of 520,00, it has only been Swedish since 1645. Earlier it was, firstly a centre of world trade during the Viking period, then for a while an independent republic of seafaring farmers who amassed great wealth – hence its 92 medieval parish churches – and lastly a rich centre of the Hanseatic League. I say lastly, because Gotland’s golden age was brought to an abrupt end in 1361 when the Danes conquered the island.
Now the year 1361 is remembered in the annual Medieval Week which takes place in the capital, Visby, every August. The whole city becomes a theatre with tournaments, jousting, stalls, jugglers, dancers and singers – all, of course in medieval costume. This is a lively and boisterous affair but one taken very seriously by the locals, many of whom attend night classes given by historians throughout the winter in order to bone up on the niceties of medieval dress, sports and food – there is even a class for making medieval shoes. During the event three big camps attended by people form all over the world prepare for the tournaments.
During Medieval Week, Visby is full of people but at other times it is blissfully peaceful and one of the most enjoyable pursuits is just to wander. It is an exquisite little city contained by one of the best preserved ring-walls in Europe. Some 200 buildings within these walls date from its period of prosperity, there are others from the 17th and 18th century. On Strandgatan, Medieval stone warehouses with their hoist beams tucked under corbie stepped gables include the old Apotecary and the Burgmeisterska. On this street too is the fine museum, Gotlands Fornstal, which is well worth a visit. At the Chapter House those who miss the Medieval Week can sample medieval food made from herbs and vegetables grown in the garden and join in activities such as tin button making and archery, attended of course by guides in medieval costume.
Visby is known as the city of ruins and roses – ruins because many churches and towers from the time when the city was sacked remain and roses because everyone grows red roses, underlying the pride which the inhabitants take in beautifying their city. The life size sculptures of sitting sheep (wool was one of the foundations of Gotland’s wealth) which the council place at strategic points on street corners and in squares is another.
A sense of Goltand’s ancient past permeates many of the crime novels of Mari Jungstedt, Gotland’s own exponent of the Scandinavian novel noir. The 10th book featuring Detective Inspector Ander Knutas, The Last Act, has just been published in Sweden. In Unknown, the Viking heritage is used to particularly macabre ends.
Although its origins are ancient, Visby has moved smoothly into the 21st century. There is a range of accommodation from luxury to budget (which incidentally, is always sparkling clean). There are plenty of clubs and pubs and pizzerias for the young, mainly in the harbour area. In Visby alone there are 62 restaurants open during the season, some serving the trendy Nordic cuisine, others the lamb and fish for which Gotland is famous. In the narrow streets amongst the pretty little cottages – and sometimes within them – there are little cafes where a cup of coffee and a delicious Saffranspannkaka (ground rice-and-saffron pancake) served with cream and Gotland’s own salmberry jam, must be sampled.
There are also tempting designer boutiques, my favourite being Yllet (meaning wool) which sells very sophisticated (and expensive) linen, wool and sheepskin clothing for men and women based on traditional Gotlandish patterns. Antique and curio shops abound but Akatus on St Hansplan is one of the best, combining antiques and old farmstead artefacts with modern craft items of the highest quality. The island is in fact home to many artists including painters, sculptors, potters and weavers who live there all year attracted by the glorious light.
Many visitors never get beyond Visby which is a pity as the rest of the island is incredibly beautiful. Just to the north at Brissund is Krusmyntagården (The Mint Garden) a tranquil herb garden, overlooking the sea where dozens of culinary and medicinal herbs are set out in formal beds. Gotland is famous for its wildflowers. Swathes of brilliant blue viper’s bugloss line the roads to be replaced a little later by the paler blue of wild chicory. Farmers are paid extra to include poppy seeds when they sow their crops so fields of scarlet poppies abound. Pride of place however must go to wild orchids: the island boasts over 30 species.
Just when I thought nothing could be more ravishing than these flowery meads, I took the ferry across to the northernmost islet of Fårö and was equally enchanted by a totally different landscape. Ingmar Bergman who is buried at Visby, lived and set several of his films here. He described his first encounter thus: “This is your landscape Bergman. It corresponds to your innermost imaginings of forms, proportions, colours, horizons, silences, lights and reflections.”
It is in fact like nowhere else, a barren landscape of wide beaches and ancient limestone cliffs interspersed with the strange sea stacks which stand at the water’s edge like huge primeval creatures. I walked along the beach picking up fossils, some apparently 400 million years old, and as the day drew to a close the legendary silver light was charged with gold from the setting sun. On the way back at Helgummanen, I passed a row of simple fishing cabins with boats pulled up on the foreshore which could easily have passed for the crafts of the Gotlandish sea-faring farmers of the Middle Ages.
Just before catching the ferry back I spotted a notice, ‘The English Cemetery’ and made my way to a glade at the edge of the sea where 20 English sailors who died of cholera during the Crimean war are buried. Their graves beneath the trees with the wide sea beyond form a fitting last resting place.
Also in this area, on the tiny islet of Furillen, another rather unusual activity takes place: truffle hunting. Gotland’s limestone favours the black truffle and the island and the only place so far north in which these treasures grow.
It was however, to the south east, at Ljugarn on a warm autumn day, that I participated in a weekend truffle safari organised by Gottlandstryffel. Just a few minutes after the delightful pair of Lagotto Romagnolo dogs were released into the oak and hazel woods they ‘found’ and within an hour and a half we had a basket full of the ‘black gold’, some of which we enjoyed al fresco shaved on bread, soaked with olive oil. The real treat however, came in the evening at Smakrike, a restaurant with (very good) rooms where a delicious six course truffle-inspired gourmet meal prepared by master chef Rickard Hasselblad was thoroughly enjoyed by all on the safari. Like Gotland itself, it was something very unusual and quite unforgettable.
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