Last week I got back from Denmark, Sweden, and Germany, and had a great trip. Enjoying Copenhagen and Stockholm was no surprise; they’re awesome cities, especially Stockholm, clean and lively and friendly, teeming with history. The big surprise came between all those big cities. Before we left, my travel partner Carolyn suggested we make a detour to the island of Gotland, located off Sweden in the middle of the Baltic Sea. Gotland is not exactly a legendary tourist destination, so I agreed without having any idea what to expect. Answer: happiness.
To get there, you must take a car ferry full of Swedish people – I only saw one family of English-speaking tourists. The ferry boat is not exactly small.
The boats all go to Visby, the island’s capital. Visby traces its roots back to the medieval trading networks, and in the 1200s the local government built walls around town. The walls weren’t to keep Vikings out. They were to keep out foreign traders, who were consigned to a ghetto while the locals got to live inside. The walls are still standing, incredibly enough, and a few parts are walkable, although not many. Inside of them, the old town is relatively intact: our hotel was built in the 1600s, although I’m happy to report it has been remodeled since. There are also numerous ruins, including quite a few gigantic ruined old churches.
In the summertime, Visby becomes Sweden’s unlikely party capital, but in May, it’s merely adorable, a town of cobblestone streets, al fresco cafes, and narrow passageways. The competent local brewery, Gotlands Bryggeri, is in an old house. And the food is excellent: fresh fish and lamb, since Gotland is full of sheep. (Got does not translate to “goat”; it has more to do with “Goth”.) I had an incredible plate of fried fish – not battered and deep fried until stiff, but lightly battered and almost red, the way (coincidence?) my mom would do it. I also had a delicious ox steak. Ox tastes a lot like beef; it’s comparable to a good New York strip. And then there’s the dessert I’ll be raving about for years: a creamy, toasty “blueberry sandwich”.
Another delight of Gotland is simply renting a bicycle and biking around. You don’t need to be much of a fit, practiced biker to do this. I hadn’t ridden a bicycle in 8 years.
Most of the island is, if not flat as a pancake, still pretty darn flat. Most of it is covered in gorgeous fields, forests, lakes, and medieval churches. And even if you don’t go far, you will find rewards. My plan was to bike out to Roma, a good 11 miles, and see some ruins there, catching a few sites on the way. I didn’t even make it half the distance. For one thing, not biking for 8 years turns out to be a bad decision. For another, I kept turning off every side road and dirt path, and they kept leading to cool stuff. A series of houses with mailboxes painted in detailed farm scenes; enormous fields of yellow flowers; some kind of top-secret installation with a sign that clearly said “No Traffic” but whatever, nobody stopped me.
The church at Follingbo has been there for nearly 800 years, and nowadays it’s still an active church, but a quiet one. When I reached it, nobody else was on or even near the premises.
Down the road a ways, a dirt track wound back into a nature preserve, so I decided to follow it. Eventually the trail ran out the back and dead-ended at an active rock quarry, but not before passing an abandoned quarry which had been turned into a very dramatic pond.
Another path took me, or so it promised, to a “scenic overlook,” which I never found. Not that it mattered, because everything was gorgeous. I can’t say anything beat that nature preserve, though. To get to the pond, you have to pass through some spectacular forest scenery, such as this:
In other words, Gotland is one of those unappreciated places where everything is wonderful, even the wrong turns. It’s not famous because it doesn’t have any marquee attractions: no spectacular lakes, or spectacular ruins, or sprawling cathedrals, although it is well-known in Scandinavia for its beaches. Gotland isn’t always stunning; it’s just always really cool, always charming. I only saw about 1% of it, probably, and while at some point there’d be diminishing returns as you witnessed more identical scenery, there is certainly tons left for me to explore. It’s not often you stumble on something so cool and so far off the tourist industry path. Tell all your friends! Or maybe don’t tell them, and just go see it for yourself.