Journey to Visby: the Medieval City

Coat of arms of Visby

Something peculiar about travel, is the primacy of moving into a kind of instinctual route, towards the places and spaces where you need to be at certain times, or even just those countries and cities that captivate so much of your imagination that you never forget them. This was the case when I came to visit the medieval city of Visby on the island of Gotland. Few ‘cities’ have cultivated such awe and inspiration in the world as this one, and those few that I hold near to my heart have usually a common bloodline of similarity. I have lived and traveled in some of the globes most historic and popular cities and capitals; Copenhagen, London, Oslo, Seattle, to name a few but these really don’t register in my mind as worth my time. I find them dirty, crowded, loud, busy and distraction, but then there are those which I have entered, sometimes by accident that have left an imprint forever in my memory, places I would love to call home; the blue city of Chefchaouen in Morocco, the Faroese town of Tórshavn, north of the polar circle in Ísafjörður, the hamlet of Aberdaron in the Llyn peninsula of Wales, the maritime of Bonavista, Newfoundland, the eco-village of Christiania in Denmark, and this place, Visby, with both a modern and medieval aesthetic.

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But aesthetic isn’t everything, from the formerly named place marks on the map, a sort of continuity of community and tradition has existed. In Chefchaouen and Christiania for instance, you won’t find any cars, you are more likely to see donkeys passing you on your way up the cobbled walkways in the former, or eclectically clothed homesteaders with their children sitting on the porch of their unique hand-built houses. There is beauty, and calmness here, multi-generational heritage, old history, and thriving subcultures and organic modes of living. When I leave, I always know there will be a return, because I can not become full of these places. Experiencing them is like living in second, third, and fourth homes. A place where I can really put some roots down.

When I came to Visby, and why I feel the impulse to highlight such a place, is for its modalities of society, its architectural magnificence, and its pioneering nature. The city itself is surrounded by a wall, from medieval times, but not an ugly wall, like you would image at a prison or separating old Berlin from their neighbors, but a rather beautiful piece of preserved history. Instead of razing the wall and building entirely modern infrastructure, the city has kept it mostly intact, and even incorporated the building of small entrepreneurial businesses into the existing structure. I was here during the middle ages week, held every year, and perhaps to say I was impressed would be an understatement. Several concerts were being held in the many church ruins, the townsfolk were dressed in period clothing, and traditional markets were set up all over the millennial age streets. There is an abundance of museums housing ancient relics like the Gotlandic picture stones, and remains from the Iron age, and several plaques around town detailing the background information of different sites and landmarks. You can stay in a hostel converted from an old prison! The level of the city is not on even ground, so it affords great views wherever you go of the surrounds, and the vast ocean that links one back to Sweden. The roads are never straight, one can walk forever in the mazelike alleys and pedestrian ways and never get bored, you can always approach a building in a new way, and in traditional fashion of many early European settlements, the central locus of the city is an open square where people can mingle, or take their rounds of the markets, where you can expect to find dealers selling sheep skins, meat, plenty of useful wares, and several artisan cafe’s. I know I am giving Visby free press by publishing this, but maybe someone out there working in the travel industry will make me an attractive job offer?

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From the mainland of Sweden I took a ferry from the port of Nynashamn, where from the same port, one can also choose to go to Poland or Latvia, this time I crossed a 3 hour section of the Baltic Sea by boat which arrives at Visby. Ironically, this was not even my original destination. First spending some time in Stenkyrka, Fårö and Roma. When looping around to Visby, I discovered much of the gems this place had to offer, from the western shore, one can take a hike along the cliffs to a scenic area called Högklint, or in just outside the wall you can walk up to the high point of the land, and get a panoramic view of the sea, and the city in its fullness, with its terracotta tiled roofs, church spires, and crumbling battlements. It also has Scandinavia’s only gallows left standing, though of course not in use. In the nature reserve, there are some wild springs and opportunity for camping in caves, and dense broadleaf forest. Back in the city, and you can wander and see the sites. I found it really easy to forage and scavenge, people often leave their unfinished meals left out in the open air restaurants/cafes, so if you are not interested in spending much money, it is easy to collect some morcels of good food while passing along. From my personal experience, I was also able to forage from a lot, there are several black cherry, pear, apple, and mulberry trees growing that were fully ripened and falling off their branches. During the middle ages week, a food market was set up also selling wild meats from Boar, Moose, Elk and Fish. Though I would not say the average visitor would hold my interest in communication, I found there to be several interesting personalities lingering around, and it was easy enough to strike up a conversation. It’s just places like this that really provide fuel for the fires of my worldly journey, and I have barely touched the core of Europe, let alone the wider vistas of Asia, South America, and the Australian continent. Not even dreams are good enough, I must see and live more!

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