Tossed into the Baltic like a wooden shoe, the island of Gotland is considered by many to be one of Northern Europe’s most lovely. A mere 55 miles from the Swedish mainland, Gotland is richly forested, dotted with medieval towers, and blessed with a climate that is the envy of its neighbors.
And the tiny town of Visby is Gotland’s jewel in the crown.
Vikings and Merchants
The island’s main city of Visby is a built-in-stone testimonial to the important strategic location Gotland once held. As long ago as the 12th century, the fledgling city was an important partner of the influential German Hanseatic League of merchants. As business flourished, Visby’s citizens grew more and more wealthy and their power base reached far across the Baltic. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, they established governmental departments and built buildings from which to administer. They constructed lovely homes and many fine churches (seventeen, in fact), then surrounded their city with an imposing crenellated wall to protect themselves from invaders.
This protection, however, proved to be inadequate for, over time, Visby was ultimately occupied by the Danish and Swedish forces, as well as by Teutonic Knights. Many treasures were plundered, buildings were set afire, and Visby lapsed into a period of decline. Piracy was rampant. Visby no longer enjoyed its position of importance as a major link in the trade route between Northern Europe, the Black Sea, and cities of the Arab world.
“The City of Ruins...
Visitors interested in history and ruins can wander among Visby’s timbered and red-roofed homes, scale many of the thirty-eight towers scattered about, stand silently in one of the Gothic or Romanesque churches, or ramble along portions of the ancient stone wall that surrounds much of the city.
Visby itself is laid out on three rather distinct levels. At sea level, there is a road that skirts the perimeter of the town, with small park-like areas along the way. Higher up is the town center with its many attractions, shops, and cafés. Still higher is what one would consider to be the newest section.
Sporting a pair of good walking shoes, you can stroll through one of the many tiny-but-wonderful squares. One called Donnerplats boasts many fine period houses, including some that date back to the 17th century. From this point, you can continue along the Strandgaten, which has long served as Visby’s principal area for trade and commerce. Along this road are small museums and ancient establishments including the city’s oldest apothecary, as well as other unique buildings which house handicraft centers and galleries.
Visby is proud to declare itself “the city of ruins and roses.” Nature lovers will probably prefer to visit the Botanical Gardens, which serve as a home for a remarkable collection of native plants. Visby enjoys a mild climate and a soil type that stays relatively warm, allowing plants to flourish. Several trees in the gardens are centuries old. And the delightful rose gardens offer a wide variety of extraordinary roses, most quite unique and rare.
But roses aren’t found only in the Botanical Gardens; they decorate windowsills, cling to stone walls, and form colorful borders for buildings throughout Visby. Rose fanciers will not be disappointed by the spectacular floral array offered by the good citizens of Visby.
Among the many churches worthy of a visit are St. Nicolai’s (now in ruin) and Sty. Mary’s Cathedral. Though St. Nicolai’s is but a shell of its former glorious self, it is almost mystical. It dates back to the early days of the 13th century and is the work of Dominican monks. Today it serves as the backdrop for summer music festivals.
St. Mary’s Cathedral, recently restored, was built by German traders in 1225. It was thankfully spared when much of the rest of the city was torched by invaders. St. Olaf’s Church, another interesting highlight, stands in the shadows of the city’s imposing wall.
Remembrances of Visby
While the vision of powerful medieval buildings and the scent of colorful roses may serve as a sensory souvenir of Visby, you might wish to add to these great memories with something more tangible. Throughout the city, you’ll amble past stores and shops offering such specialties as hand-thrown ceramic pots, traskor shoes (typical clogs of this region), magnificent glassware which is world famous, and more. But should you wish to pass up these temptations, you should seriously consider savoring others such as the absolutely delicious saffron pancakes which are served with a drizzle of mulberry sauce and a dollop of sour cream. You’re likely to find this specialty at a typical smorgasbord-type luncheon where an array of dishes is laid out for your buffet-style sampling.
As your Visby visit draws to an inevitable end, you’ll be hard-pressed to disagree with proud Swedes, adventurous Europeans, and globe-trotting travelers who pronounce Visby a rare treat on a short list of extraordinary sights. Visby is, quite simply, picture-perfect.