It’s doubtful that the Vikings chose Gotland as a key centre for its good looks, but seven centuries later the island’s outstanding beauty is a major attraction. And that’s just the beginning. Gotland (yes, it does sound a lot like a small child trying to say ‘Scotland’) is a relatively well-kept secret outside Sweden, but it is one spot you’re going to want to get to know.
The island is a smörgåsbord of eras – at times you’ll feel like you’ve travelled back 50 years, living the simple life amongst the locals, then contemporary Swedish design will pull you back to the present day before you’re transported back in time again in one of the island’s medieval churches (there are over 90 to choose from).
If you like a little culture (and I’m guessing, since you’re reading The Flaneur, you do) you’ll be spoilt for choice on Gotland. Plays and concerts feature regularly in the various ruins in and around Visby, the Island’s capital, which also happens to be a UNESCO world heritage site. Seeing Shakespeare played out amongst the ruins of a monastery is atmospheric to say the least. Speaking of atmosphere, wandering along the cobbled streets lined with chocolate-box cottages inside Visby’s walls can feel very much like being in a Grimm fairy-tale. In fact it’s not unusual to meet a knight in shining armour, or indeed a fair maiden, on these historic laneways during Medeltidsveckan, a medieval festival that consumes the island in August each year. Jesters, fire shows and jousting tournaments are commonplace and the island’s rich, dramatic history is celebrated and re-enacted with passion, complete with teenagers rocking out to Gregorian chant. (Yes, really.)
Sweden’s reputation for great design very much extends to Gotland and it has long been a haven for artists thanks to its special light. Take a road trip around the island and you’ll see signs highlighting workshops selling artwork and crafts made from the materials available locally, from limestone and glass to lambskin and wool. Gotland sheep, a breed first established by the Vikings, have an incredibly soft, long and dense fleece in beautiful shades of grey from silver to charcoal, which is well utilised by the island’s artists. Gotland also has over 100 nature reserves, perfect for getting away from it all – and you can go even further. On the tiny island of Fårö, just five minutes across the Fårösund to the North of Gotland, the fields are dotted with farm buildings that have stood for hundreds of years on a landscape that’s starker than Gotland itself, but equally as beautiful. Fårö is proud to have provided the locations of many of Ingmar Bergman’s movies, as well as a home for the director, which it celebrates with the Bergman centre, a museum dedicated to unique artist and his work. It’s very hard not to fall in love with an island that offers so many juxtaposed delights and blends new and old in a way that manages to bring out the best of both. That said, locals tell the tale of James Brown landing on the island for a concert only to demand to leave again immediately, seeing it as a backwater unworthy of his status. Which is a shame, ‘cause Gotland’s got a whole lotta soul.
by Cat McCabe