Gotland and Medieval Week

Gotland och medaltidsveckan

Collage of photos from Gotland

Gotland is an ancient Baltic island off the east coast of Sweden. It is possible to fly there from several Swedish airports, but most people arrive by ferry. The trip between Gotland and the mainland takes about 3 hours, with ferries departing from Nynäshamn and Oskarshamn. Ticket prices vary a lot, so if you can be flexible on your date and departure time it is worth shopping around. All ferries dock at the same terminal just outside the city walls. Flights to Gotland land at Visby airport, 3 km from the town.

Visby

The capital of the island is Visby, which is the only large town on the island. The name Visby is made of two very old words: vi (the sacred place) and by (the settlement) and was originally a Stone Age sacrificial site.

The Gotlanders were once wealthy traders. In the twelfth century Visby was one the richest cities in Europe, part of the Hanseatic League. The city was important to the League because of its proximity to Russia and this led to a trading agreement with the Germans which strenghtened the city's prosperity and led to the majority of trade in the Baltic being centred on Visby. The Germans also helped to shape the architecture of the town's buildings, for instance churches and large six-storey warehouse with hoists facing the street, still visible today.

In 1350 the Black Death swept through Gotland, creating ghost towns and leaving more than eight thousand people dead. Eleven years later the Danes invaded and after a very bitter seige the Gotlanders eventually surrendered. The final straw, to end Visby's great trading era, was the introduction of big ships capable of travelling longer distances. This, together with continued hostilities and piracy, led to the gradual decline of Visby. Eventually Gotlanders had to settle for being a community of farmers and fishermen, rather than being a city of international traders.

UNESCO World Heritage Site

Visby

Today Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is an attractive town of cobbled streets, picturesque rose-covered cottages, medieval ruins and a multitude of cafés and bars.

Visby is also known as a party town, especially with young Stockholmers, who tend to migrate to Gotland for several weeks in the summer. Many end up lazing around next to the town's rocky beach, which is only a short walk from the centre. Although under-aged drinking is rarer in Sweden than in the UK, there is plenty of evidence of it next to the beach. Some guide books describe the youths as too boisterous, but I found them very relaxed and non-threatening: just young Swedes soaking up the evening sun, strumming their guitars and generally chilling.

The flower-power era still lingers on Gotland in the summer. An usually high percentage of hippy-looking middle-aged Swedes, perhaps reliving memories from their youth, hang around the town and give it a slightly eccentric feel. There is a smattering of elderly VW camper vans, but the vast majority of visitors turn up in shiny Volvos.

The Town Wall

The medieval inner town of Visby is shaped by its mighty town wall, almost 3.5 km (2 miles) in length. It looks most impressive at night or when Visby is approached from the sea.

The wall, which was built at the end of the 13th century, was originally 5.5 m (18 ft) high and designed to protect the city from attack from the sea. UNESCO described the town as the "best fortified commercial city in northern Europe".

Strandgatan and Hästgatan tend to be the main focus of evening dining, but for good cheap food all day try Saluhallen, the market opposite the old harbour. There you can buy freshly baked bread, fish and fruit, and eat at tables overlooking the water.

The Medieval Festival

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Many Swedes enjoy solitude on their holidays. When I suggested going to Gotland one summer, Swedish friends advised us to avoid Gotland during week 32 because of Medieval Week. Swedes confuse me by referring to dates by week numbers. I only have the haziest notion of week numbers, so I usually end up scrabbling around, going through my diary counting out the weeks and hoping not to lose count. To a non-Swede, week 32 is usually the second week in August. Better check before booking.

In the UK we have some medieval festivals, so we thought we knew what to expect: big kids and traders dressing up to entertain tourists. From the moment we boarded the ferry we knew the Visby Medieval Week was a bit different. Everyone on the ferry seemed to be busying themselves putting the finishing touches to their costumes. We felt left out: voyeurs amidst serious Swedes dressing up properly. It is ok to turn up dressed like a regular dressed tourist, but it is better to be like the natives. There are outlets on the island that will hire you costumes or, better still if you are a creative type, get some sacking and set to work.

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There are the normal medieval festival activities: jousting, games, food, music, theatre and markets. Many events sell out, so order tickets online in advance. There are lots of stalls to accessorise your costume. Medieval street food sellers will tempt you with food of varying degrees of authenticity. Restaurants will try to  tempt you with sumptuous banquets at long communal tables. Food can be washed down with strong beverages, based on dubious medieval recipes. It all adds to Visby's famous party atmosphere.

The climax of the festival is a pageant: a vaguely accurate re-enactment which is supposedly something to do with 1361, but more reminiscent of British pantomime. There are good guys, blond Swedes of course, to cheer. There are bad guys to boo. To help you know when to boo, the baddies carry ultra big Danish flags. The pageant concludes on the beach with what appears to be two maidens drowning. I can't remember why, but it probably doesn't matter.

Of course, the whole show is really about extracting kronors from tourists. That's life. It's a pretty good way of disposing of kronors though. IAlthough not everyone's cup of tea, for us it was better than the solitude option.

Exploring the rest of Gotland

Fishing-harbour-Gotland-280

Visby has a magnetic pull, but it is worth seeing something of the rest of the island. Gotland has some lovely rolling countryside, fine beaches and small fishing villages. Everywhere the skyline is dominated by churches. Amazingly, for such a small island, there are still 93 unspoilt medieval country churches in use.

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Away from Visby are also some of Gotland's natural gems. Among the best are the rauker, unique limestone formations rising up from the sea—often with humanlike features—found on Gotland's coast and on Fårö, Gotland’s sister island.

John Duxbury

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