Sweden’s largest island, Gotland is a popular holiday destination, favored for its mild climate, sandy beaches, distinctive landscape and beautiful walled town of Visby. It is known as the “Pearl of the Baltic”. The island’s strategic position made it an important trading center, especially in the Middle Ages. Gotland celebrates its heritage with enthusiasm in the annual Visby Medieval Week.
POINTS OF INTEREST
A summer paradise for visitors from the mainland and further afield, Fårö appears exotic even to a Gotlander from the main island. Lying at the northern tip of Gotland, the little island of Fårö has a language and traditions all of its own. During the summer car ferries shuttle back and forth on the 15-minute trip from Fårösund to Broa. At other times of the year, the service is more limited. Sparse, low pine forest and moorland with swamp and marshland cover the island. There are sheep everywhere. Off the main road between Broa and Fårö lighthouse, there are plenty of cattle grids, which prevent the sheep from straying. Off the northwest coast are the spectacular limestone stacks, known as raukar, of Langham-mars and Digerhuvud. The sand dune of Ullahau is at the northern end of the island, and Sudersand’s long sandy beach is popular with holidaymakers. The easternmost cape of Holmudden is topped by the 30-m (98-ft) high lighthouse, Fårö Fyr. Roughly in the center of the island, Fårö Kyrka offers views over the inlet of Kyrkviken. The church contains votive paintings dating from 1618 and 1767, depicting seal hunters being rescued from the sea.
The village of Bunge is renowned for its 14th-century church Bunge Kyrka, built in Gothic style. Its tower was constructed in the 13th century to defend an earlier church – holes from pikes and arrows in the north wall bear witness to past battles. Inside are beautiful limestone paintings dating from around 1400, which are thought to depict the Teutonic Knights fighting the Vitalien brothers, pirates of Mecklenburg who occupied Gotland in the 1390s. In the chancel is a poor box in limestone signed by stonemason Lafrans Botvidarson. Like the font, it dates from the 13th century. Next to the church is Bungemuseet, one of Sweden’s largest rural museums. It was created in 1917 by Bunge schoolteacher Theodor Erlandsson, who wanted to show how the people of Gotland used to live. In the fields next to the school he gathered together cottages, buildings and cultural objects from different parts of Gotland covering the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries as well as four carved stones from the 8th century. The museum hosts many events in the summer, including medieval tournaments, markets, and handicraft festivals. In Snäckersstugan cottage, with the date 1700 carved into the gable, visitors can enjoy a cup of coffee and attempt to make out the Gotland proverbs painted on the ceiling. Just north of Bunge is the busy Fårösund, one of the larger towns in northern Gotland with around 1,000 inhabitants. For many years the area was dominated by the military and countless young men were drilled here in defense of the island. Since the coastal artillery unit was disbanded in 2000 with the loss of many jobs, the area risks going into decline.
Occupying a stunning setting in a bay facing its own archipelago is the town of Slite. It is the second-largest community in Gotland. Slite had a long and troubled history from the Viking period onwards, and development only really took off in the late 19th century with an upturn in seafaring. Today the town is dominated by a cement factory. In summer, the fine sandy beaches, harbor, tennis courts, stunning stone stacks and lime kiln attract holiday-makers. The islands offshore are perfect for short trips, including Enholmen with Karlsvärd fortress, which dates from 1853–6.
On the opposite side of the bay is Hellvi, with the delightful old harbor of Kyllaj. The quiet beach is in a beautiful setting overlooking weathered sea stacks. Strandridaregården, the 18th-century coastguard’s house, now belongs to Bungemuseet. Northwest of Slite is Lärbro Kyrka, a mid-13th century church with an 11th-century watchtower next to it. In the churchyard are buried 44 of the former prisoners of war who came from the German concentration camps to the hospital at Lärbro in 1945. St Olofsholm, nearby, is dedicated to Olav the Holy who visited Gotland in 1029 to convert the island to Christianity. In medieval times it was a place of pilgrimage. This is also the site of Ytterholmen’s large group of limestone stacks and a glorious pebble beach.
Halfway between Visby and Fårösund on road 148 lies Tingstäde, a community best known for its sea rescue radio station and its marsh. The church dating from the 13th and 14th centuries has one of the highest towers on the island. Tingstäde marsh is, in fact, a shallow lake and popular, child-friendly bathing spot. Submerged in the center of the lake is Bulverket, a 10th–11thcentury fortress surrounded by a palisade of 1,500 stakes.
In 1948 two local schoolboys discovered an opening in the ground in Martebo marsh and crawled in. They had chanced upon the entrance to a network of caves and passageways, now Gotland’s main tourist attraction. Today the entrance is at Lummelundas Bruk. Exploration of the caves continues, but the part which is open for viewing provides a fantastic show of stalactites and stalagmites, magic mirrors of water and spine-tinglingly tight openings. Hour-long tours are organized for young children aged 4 to 6 years. Immediately to the south of the caves is Krusmyntagården, a herb garden designed in traditional monastic style with wonderful views over the sea.
Tradition has it that Bro Kyrka is built over a votive well and in medieval times it was a famous votive church, particularly among sailors. The building dates from the 13th and 14th centuries. Inside, the prayer chamber contains 5th-century picture stones. About 1 km (half a mile) north of Bro Kyrka, on road 148, are two picture stones known as “Bro Stajnkällingar”. According to legend, two elderly women were turned to stone for arguing on the way to the Christmas Mass. From Bro, a turning leads to Fole church on road 147, and a short detour takes you to Vatlings Gård. The estate has Gotland’s best-preserved medieval stone house outside Visby and is well worth a visit.
Cistercian monks from Nydala monastery in Småland founded Roma Kloster in 1164. The monastery was built on the pattern of the French mother monastery and became a religious center for the entire Baltic region. The three-aisle church in the Fontenay style was completed in the 13th century. The monastery was abandoned during the Reformation in 1530 and ended up in the ownership of the Danish crown as a royal manor under Visborg Castle. When Gotland came under Swedish rule in 1645, the monastery was practically in ruins. The county governor used materials from the site to build his residence, Roma Kungsgård, in 1733. Only the church remained intact, and that was used as a stable. In 1822, Roma Kungsgård was rented to the crown and served as an army store. The ruins of Roma monastery are a popular tourist attraction. Even today they bear witness to the monks’ skill in construction techniques. The beautiful vaulted ceilings are reminiscent of Roman aqueducts. In the summer, Romateatern performs Shakespearian plays on an open-air stage set among the ruins.
A town of roses and ruins, the walled city of Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as a popular party town in summer when it fills up with holiday-makers from the mainland. Its cobbled streets are lined with picturesque cottages, haunting medieval ruins and a multitude of cafés and bars. Away from the busy, more touristy parts of Strandgatan, Stora Torget and around the pleasure boat harbor, the evocative ambiance recalls the town’s medieval history. This is also evident from the imposing town wall and its many towers, including Kruttornet (the Gunpowder Tower).
Within the walls, Visby is relatively small and all the sights are within easy walking distance. The main streets run north to south: Strandgatan with historic sights and nightlife spots, St Hansgatan with its many churches, and Adelsgatan, the shopping street leading from Söderport (South Gate) to Stora Torget, the main square. North of here are quieter residential streets and alleyways, making for a lovely stroll. Near Norderport (North Gate) it is possible to climb up on the ramparts and admire the magnificent wall.
This cheerful resort was Gotland’s first and makes a good center for touring the southeast of the island. There was a harbor here long before Russian forces raided Ljugarn on their way to laying waste to the east coast of Sweden in 1714–18. By 1900, the small community, with its long sandy beach, limestone sea stacks and guesthouse, had become a popular bathing spot. South of Ljugarn is the 13th–14th century Lau Kyrka. One of Gotland’s largest churches, it has a triumphal crucifix from the 13th century and excellent acoustics for the concerts held there. Northwest of Ljugarn, Torsburgen fortress was built in the 3rd or 4th century and is one of the largest of its kind in Scandinavia. It is protected by naturally steep slopes and a wall 7 m (23 ft) high and up to 24 m (79 ft) wide. To reach it, take the forest road from the 146 towards Östergarn, 2 km (1 mile) east of Kräklingbo church. About 6 km (4 miles) south of Ljugarn, at Guffride, are seven Bronze Age stone-settings, in the form of ships, and are the largest on Gotland. Open to tourists is the 11th Century Church of Garde, southwest of Ljugarn. The Church features paintings in the Byzantine style. The idyllic Katthammarsvik, north of Ljugarn, was once a flourishing port and lime works. In the early 1800s lime baron Axel Hägg bought Katthamra manor, which he had rebuilt and decorated in Empire style. Today there is a hotel and youth hostel here, but the manor house itself is a private home.
Like so many of Gotland’s churches, Lojsta Kyrka dates from the mid-13th century. The choir and the nave have ornamental paintings and the figures above the triumphal arch are by the master known as “Egypticus” in the mid- 14th century. On Lojsta Hed, an area of forest and heath north of the church, lives a herd of semiwild Gotland ponies (russ), the stubborn little horse native to the island. The animals are owned by local farmers and by Gotlands Läns Hushållningssällskap. Several annual events are organized, such as the release of the stallion in early June, and the high point of the year, the Gotland pony judging at the end of July. About 2.5 km (2 miles) from Lojsta towards Etelhem is a large building with a sedge roof, Lojstahallen. This is an excellent reconstruction of a late-Iron Age hall building. Next to it is a medieval fortress, Lojsta Slott.
In a stunning location, high up overlooking the sea, is the saddle-roof church of Fröjel Kyrka, built in the 12th and 13th centuries. Inside is an impressive triumphal crucifix by the craftsman who created the rood screen of Öja church. The churchyard has an ancient maze which shows that the site was used long before the arrival of Christianity. North of the church lies the magnificent Gannarve Skeppssättning (Gannarve Ship Barrow), which is considered to be one of the best in Gotland. This has been dated to the late Bronze Age (1000–300 BC) and is 30 m (98 ft) long and 5 m (16 ft) wide.
Many myths have been spun around Stora and Lilla Karlsö, the rocky islands 6.5 km (4 miles) off the west coast of Gotland. Stora Karlsö covers 2.5 sq km (1 sq mile) and is a nature reserve with steep cliffs, caves such as “Stora Förvar”, moorland, leafy groves, and rare flowers and birds. Here, between the bare rocks in May and June, the orchids Adam och Eva (Dactylorhiza sambucina) and Sankt Pers nycklar (Orchis mascula) form carpets of blooms. Sea birds such as auks, gulls and eider duck can be seen. Razorbills lay their eggs among the stones on the beach, while guillemots prefer the shelves of the steep cliffs. A guided tour takes a couple of hours and is included in the price of the boat crossing. There is also a museum in Norderhamn. Like Stora Karlsö, Lilla Karlsö is also a nature reserve. The island has been grazed by sheep since the Bronze Age. It is home to guillemots, razorbills, cormorants and gulls. Eider duck, little terns, Sandwich terns and velvet scoters nest on the flat land. The Swedish Society for Nature Conservation organizes guided tours. There is a youth hostel on the island – book in advance.
To the southwest of Gotland, just before Hablingbo church on coastal road 140, there is a turning to the seaside community of Petes. Here, the well-preserved houses show Gotland’s architecture from the 18th and 19th centuries. For younger visitors, Barnens Petes displays classic toys such as stilts, hobby horses, hoops, wooden rifles and wooden dolls.
Far to the south lies Hoburgen, a 35-m (115-ft) high steep cliff of fossil-rich limestone with seams of the local red Hoburgen marble. On the clifftop is a lighthouse built in 1846. From here it is 176 km (97 miles) to the northernmost lighthouse on the island of Fårö. Below the lighthouse is Sweden’s most famous sea stack, Hoburgsgubben (the Old Man of Hoburg), guarding the caves of Skattkammaren (the Treasure Chamber) and Sängkammaren (the Bed Chamber). Hoburgen is a favorite spot for ornithologists who come to study the multitude of birds that swoop over Gotland’s southernmost outpost all year round. In summer there is a restaurant nearby.
Just 40 km (25 miles) north of Fårö lies the most isolated island in the Baltic, Gotska Sandön. It is one of Sweden’s national parks and features a unique landscape of deserted, constantly changing sandy beaches and dunes, pine forests and rich flora. There are migratory birds, unusual beetles, but only one mammal, the hare. The island became a national park in 1909. Gotska Sandön has been inhabited since the dawn of civilization, although the population has never been large. Colonies of grey seals led seal hunters to settle on the island and the dangerous waters offshore attracted wreck plunderers. In the 17th and 18th centuries sheep were grazed here and later crops were grown. As recently as the 1950s a few lighthouse keepers and their families (and one female teacher) lived here, but now the lighthouse is automated and the only permanent resident is a caretaker. There is no harbor and boat traffic from Fårösund or Nynäshamn is infrequent and dependent on the weather. It is possible to camp or stay in a shared sleeping hut or cottage. Accommodation must be booked before arrival.