Saturday-Thursday, May 19-24, 2018
A beautiful sail landed us in Visby, the largest town on Sweden’s largest island. This medieval port perfectly portrays a European medieval walled trading town, which is why it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We’d heard about the throng of tourists – Swedes and foreigners – who crowd the cobbled-stone streets and overflow into the quaint shops and eateries, so we felt fortunate to be cruising here before the summer season began.
As we hopped off JUANONA to search for the closest grocery store we immediately understood why this island draws such a huge number of visitors. The town could be a medieval prop for a Disney movie. And, not just due to the age of its buildings but also its lovely setting. Bracketed by the sea on the west and encircled by a stone wall (indicated by the red line below), Visby combines lovely parks begging for strollers and loungers with a vibrant history.
Located in the middle of the Baltic Sea, Gotland provided an excellent trading stop for ships sailing from the Russian town of Novgorod to thriving commercial centers such as Norway’s Bergen and England’s London.
For this reason Visby served as a key port for the Hanseatic League and its traders headquartered in Lübeck, Germany. As the League’s political and economical power grew, so did their regulations. In 1287 Lübeck instituted a rule disallowing any international trade by those living in the Gotland countryside. What had been a vibrant trade by the farmers now came under control of the merchants and German traders residing in Visby. Adding insult to injury, the farmers now had to pay a toll just to enter the city gates with their goods.
Some surmise the reason for the wall, started in the 13th century, arose from the Visby merchants and Hanseatic traders anticipating the farmers’ growing resentment. Which, as it turned out, did erupt in a civil war in the year 1288.*
* The Visby merchants and its Hanseatic League traders won; but, the victory didn’t come without a price: the Swedish King Magnus Ladulás assessed Visby a fine for starting a war and building a rampart without his permission.
Yet, it wasn’t always smooth sailing for the town residents. In 1342 they got caught in the Swedish King Magnus Ericksson’s war with Lübeck. The king demanded taxes from all of Sweden’s towns, Visby being one of them. Not wanting to piss off their Hanse-member residents, the German mayor, the Gotlandic mayor and council paid the taxes in secret. When the Hanseatic traders discovered this behind-the-scenes payment they saw it as a betrayal of their organization. Bad news for the mayors and several of the council members whose attempt to placate both sides cost them their heads.
However, it was another historical event which had piqued our curiosity: the brutal battle of 1361. Yes, another MDT (Max Disaster Tour). We added this one to our list from our 2017 visit to Stockholm. At the Swedish History Museum we had come upon a haunting display of skulls, many with obvious battle wounds–you can see the three holes a mace made in the one below–which occurred during the invasion of Visby by the Danish King Valdemar IV.
During that battle almost almost half of Gotland’s male population from its 1500 farms were butchered. Over 1,000 skeletons from that battle have been excavated from several mass graves,
some of which were staring at us, and we at them (the head is covered in his helmet chain-link mail). GROSS.
The slaughter came about because the town locked its gates, leaving the peasant army, composed of ill-equipped and trained farmers, outside and on their own to fight the professional Danish army. With their backs literally against the wall, the Gotlanders didn’t have a chance against the invaders. On July 27 the bloodbath began, finally ending when the town opened its gates to let Valdemar in.
Some historians wonder if the Visby merchants negotiated a deal with the Danish King prior to the battle, hoping for more favorable trading rules. If they did secure such an agreement, what may have prompted it was a pending marriage between Valdemar’s daughter and a Hanseatic trader’s son. I’m smelling some stink here…
Yet, the Hanseatic traders, the Visby merchants and Gotland farmers had a history of mistrust and dislike prior to this battle. Gotlanders had an independent streak. Although part of Sweden, the island inhabitants followed their own law, the Gute Law, with origins most likely from their Viking heritage.
The Gotland Museum covers this medieval history in addition to showcasing large Rune stones from the island’s early Viking inhabitants
and the region’s geology.
This museum delivered a good overview of Gotland (and offered a lunch my husband labels a ‘value’). Plus, it provided an opportunity for Max to try out some new gear. Although, I doubt this would work out well on JUANONA.
Visby represents only part of Gotland’s draw. The others center on the 92 medieval churches and the geological formations at the northern tip on the small island of Fårö.
To explore the island we rented a car and headed out one afternoon. First, we drove south stopping at one of the first churches we saw, only to park, look at one another, say ‘I don’t think I can do another old church’, and back out.
But, in perusing our LONELY PLANET guidebook we did end up stopping at four, which definitely proved worthwhile:
Lojsta Church with frescoes, the earliest from the middle of the 13th century with those from the 15th century depicting the Passion of Christ by an artist appropriately called the ‘Master of the Passion of Christ’
Öja Church with an elaborate wooden crucifixion:
and some truly bizarre frescoes:
Not being church-cified enough we saw two more during our drive north the next day:
Fårö Church, not the best example of a medieval church due to its being reconstructed over the centuries, but whose graveyard hosts the island’s famous son, film director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007)
and Bunga Church, our favorite (probably because we actually knew what we were looking at thanks to an available leaflet) with its 13th-century limestone alms box with a rune inscription “Lafrans made this stone”.
Interesting side note: we recently learned most people at the time could read runes and so were literate compared to subsequent generations when runes were replaced with Latin.
One of our planned destination for the day revealed itself on Fårö Island, a five-minute free ferry ride across from Gotland’s northern tip. We had hoped to tour the Bergman Center; however, the site wasn’t open.
Reading about a lighthouse and its limestone beach we did a quick drop-in. Noticing a man taking a photo of two friends I asked if I could take it for him. A conversation started and within a few moments he had given us his phone number and invited us to his home for coffee and sandwiches! Having to drop his friends at the ferry he said he’d be there in an hour, so we left for Fårö’s west coast where we posed next to Mom Nature’s impressive statues: sea stacks of limestone called raukarna.
(no comment on the overhang…)
Further down the coast stood a small clutch of fishing huts.
Once abandoned, they now appeared to host summer residents, although we couldn’t see much peeking through the windows…
We spent five full days on Gotland, touring during the day and socializing at night with new friends…
Jens & Tune from southern Norway
Sam & Mags from Great Britain
while catching up with friends from previous times…
Judy & James, Brits whom we first met in Skudneshavn, Norway in 2016 and who happened to dock r alongside us and recognized JUANONA
and, Nicholas from north of Portsmouth, England, who also knew Sam and Mags and whose birthday we celebrated. By now, I believe if you’re from Great Britain and are in the Baltic, Nicholas will know you.
ISLAND HOPPING to Saltsjöbaden
Thursday-Monday, May 24-June 4, 2016
Wanting to take advantage of the glorious blue sky-warm sun weather we left Visby with our chart augmented by others’ suggestions. This exchange of information occurs frequently between cruisers. Everyone we’ve had the good fortune to meet enthusiastically shares their favorite spots as well as alerts fellow sailors to potential hazards.
For ten days we cruised the Stockholm Archipelago with its 30,000 islands, islets and skerries. Anchoring in coves whose shorelines resemble Maine’s could make one homesick. Except, no ten-foot tides or dodging of lobster pot buoys provide delightfully easy sailing as long as one looks out for any uncharted rocks.
From Harstensa, where we met Gywneth and Paul, who raised the US flag when they hosted us and who also happen to know Nicholas,
to Ringsön with its nature walks,
including Max’s need to always poke an ants’ nest
and the ants poking back…
to Rano… to Utö, which offered a small town for showers, a laundry stop, ice cream treats (we’ve read that Swedes are the world’s number one consumers of this heavenly sweet),
and bike rentals allowing us to see where chickens cross the road…
and, where we used one of our shower towels to help us ‘sail’ the dinghy downwind the one mile back to JUANONA, saying it’s a good thing no one’s seeing us do this!
only to see Nicholas’ boat moored behind us (visiting with him for a glass of wine he said he didn’t see our endeavor)…
to Hudvuskar and yoga’ing on the rocks
and amidst trapped pools…
to Biskopsen offering a perch to gaze around the bay…
to Napoleonviken, the most crowded of the anchorages we’ve seen to-date due to being only five miles from Stockholm
and where we christened our bathing suits in the Baltic for the first time (not including my episode in Laboe, Germany)…
ending at a mooring rental at the KSSS Boat Club in Saltsjöbaden.
Remember my noting the exchange of information? Well, we switched marinas from Nynashamn to Saltsjöbaden due to Judy and James’ recommendation, followed by more glowing reviews from some fellow Maine cruisers.
And, we’re so thankful we did! Greeted by another wonderfully welcoming harbor master we’ve been taking advantage of the half-hour train-bus ride into Stockholm’s center, treating ourselves to a dinner at the highly recommended dockside cafe with friendly staff, washing loads of laundry (five times with one more this Sunday),
and what really makes Max smile: seeing shapely nude women jumping off a high dive platform at the bathing club conveniently located next to our mooring…
And, as usual, we’ve met some wonderful and interesting people, Elisabeth with whom we shared a train ride into Stockholm… Sandy and his daughter Casandra whom we met at Stockholm’s airport. All with interesting lives and stories to tell.
As we approach Summer Solstice the longer days make for beautiful cruising, as this 3:20 A.M. photo snapped at our Utö anchorage reflects.
Life can offer some pretty spectacular moments including, of course, Max’s sighting of the bathing beauties mentioned above… :)