After realizing that four days had been too long for Gothenburg, we were leery about the five days we’d planned on Gotland, a Swedish island in the Baltic Sea. We needn’t have worried: Gotland is a wonderful place to spend time.Visby is the main town on Gotland with about half the island’s 50,000 population living there. It was once an important part of the Germanic Hanseatic League, a defensive confederation of towns that came to dominate the Baltic area from the 13th century into the 18th century. In the early part of that period Visby built massive walls around the town and a surprisingly large number of big churches. Due to a combination of the Black Death and war in the mid-14th century, though, Visby fell on hard times. Churches were abandoned and, particularly after the Protestant Reformation, fell into ruin. Not good for them but great for us.
Today the city walls still stand, some of the most complete and enduring Medieval walls – over two miles in length – in Europe. Moreover, the city is studded with grand church ruins giving it a great feel and look along with a UNESCO World Heritage designation. On top of that, we were there for Visby’s annual Medieval Week, when people come from all over to dress up and sing and dance and eat and pretend that Visby is, well, still a medieval powerhouse. With all those church ruins and the city walls it felt a lot more authentic than any Renaissance Festival I’ve ever seen in the U.S.
Getting to Gotland was a bit of a hassle: a train from Gothenburg to Stockholm, a bus from Stockholm to some small town on the coast, and then a boat to Visby. And to make matters worse the train was 25 minutes late, so we missed our bus which meant we missed the boat too. And the boat tickets were non-refundable. Mark called from the train, explained that the train was late and we would miss the boat. Could we just switch tickets to the next boat? “No,” we were told, we would have to buy new tickets. At something like $70 each that was no small deal, so finally Mark got someone on the phone who agreed that, if the problem was the train they would waive the rules and let us on the next boat.
Once we got there it was easy to fall in love with the area. On our first full day we rented really nice bikes (with no helmets; the rental company never so much as asked if we wanted them) and headed north up the island maybe 25 miles to a beach. The beach was nothing special – just a cold, rocky place – but the bike ride was spectacular. Along one stretch when we were surrounded by beautiful wheat fields on a cool, sunny day I found myself thinking that this was pretty much perfect biking. When we got to the beach Mark thought it was odd that there was a big pile of trash and junk not far at all from the outdoor eating area. On closer inspection we discovered that that heap had been the restaurant not long ago; there had been some catastrophic fire recently that destroyed the building. Not to be defeated, though, the owners had set up a temporary kitchen and outdoor tables so they could still serve … chili con carne, which seemed like a strange dish to have on the beach. It was good, though.
Another day we rented a car to drive to the northern tip of the island where we took a ferry to the smaller island of Farö, which had been described as the most beautiful part of the island. It lived up to its billing, with a great drive around the coast and views of the rock stacks that wind and sea have created. All very cool.
The best part of Gotland, though, was just walking around Visby with its church ruins and narrow medieval streets. There was a great walking trail out along the coast that occupied hours of my time. And there were even great restaurants: a Lebanese restaurant that was as good as any we’ve ever been to and even a remarkably creative Szechuan restaurant. All told it was easy to understand why Gotland is such a popular vacation spot for Swedes; it was definitely the highlight of our Swedish trip so far, at least.