Visby – Gotland, Sweden

An Island Retreat Rich in Medieval History

It takes very little time to fall in love with Gotland, a mysterious sea-swept island in the middle of the stony gray Baltic off the southeast coast of Stockholm. The largest of Sweden’s islands (78 miles long), it is definitely not typically Swedish, although it officially became part of the nation in 1679. Once a strategic hub of Hanseatic trade in the Baltic Sea, Gotland today offers serenity and a landscape of lush meadows that are tapestries of orchids (thirty-five different varieties thrive here), poppies, and wildflowers.

You’ll also find desolate moorlands, stone walls, close to 100 unspoiled medieval country churches, and pristine farmlands that date back to the 6th-century Vikings (nowhere else in Sweden have so many Viking or medieval treasures been discovered).

Dramatic stone pillars, the island’s monumental “sea stacks” carved out of soft limestone by the wind and waves, dot a coastline marked by long empty beaches, tiny fishing villages, and steep cliffs. Gotland’s highlight is the once prominent Hanseatic town of Visby, a living shrine to the island’s 14th-century heyday when it was a country all its own and Visby boasted sixteen churches. Its defen­sive walls, more than 2 miles long with forty-four lookout towers, are some of the best preserved in Europe, often compared to those in Ávila, Spain, and Carcassonne, France.

During the summer, festivals come thick and fast, and Gotland finds itself at the forefront of Sweden’s artistic and cultural life (Ingmar Bergman lives and filmed here, on Gotland’s ancillary island of Farö in the north).

Book much in advance (preferably into the restored 19th-century Wisby Hotell, the nicest place on the island, located in the his­toric center) for August’s annual Medieval Week, when the townspeople go about their business in colorful gowns and velvet dou­blets, and minstrels and street theater bring the city back to its Hanseatic trading days when it was as vibrant, rich, and powerful as London or Paris.

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