Large modern ferries provide the transportation between Gotland and the Swedish mainland. During the high season from June to mid-August they shuttle throngs of “summer Gotlanders” -as often as twice a day – on the NynashamnVisby route (for central and northern Sweden; 5-6 hours) and OskarshamnVisby (for southern Sweden; 4-6 hours). Approximately 350,000 travelers visit Sweden’s most popular vacation island annually.
The steep western coastline starts becoming discernable during the crossing to the largest Baltic Sea island (3,142 square kilometers in area; 125 kilometers long; 50 kilometers wide; 57,000 inhabitants). Only little forest land is visible, and the countryside is quite flat. It rains little in summer; the subsoil of limestone and sandstone blesses the island with unique vegetation and exotic white beaches, which rank with those of Oland. Unlike Oland, however, Gotland can look back on a brilliant past: bountiful harvests and exceptional trade relations in the Baltic Sea region have determined Gotland’s fortunes since the Bronze Age.
Other destinations in Gotland Island Visby
German settlers and Hanseatic merchants, mainly from Lubeck, first began using Visby as a lucrative trading center. They left their distinctive mark on the culture and politics of the flourishing city. With their favorable relations to central Europe, they gradually drove the Gotlanders out of the island’s back woods. The locals had not only subsisted on farming, sheep raising and fishing, but they were experienced mariners and merchants as well. Their competition, the town dwellers of Visby, recognized envy and unrest developing in the back country; they therefore protected their valuable possessions with the city wall still visible today. The wall had to undergo its first use for defense when the farmers revolted against the townsfolk in 1288. In 1361, Visby citizens had no choice but to passively watch from the battlements while the Danish king Valdemar IV Atterdag laid waste to the farmland.
Afterwards, the city and its surroundings were weakened by attacks from the Swedes, the Danes, Hanseatic merchants and pirates, as well as through the government changing hands. In addition, the European trade routes moved westwards from the Baltic Sea area: Gotland had lost the importance it once enjoyed – that is, until tourists discovered “The Pearl of the Baltic Sea” in the 19th century.
From Visby’s Norderport (North Gate), Route 149 runs north almost parallel to the striking cliffs on the west coast. While on the east side of the road open plains such as the airport grounds, fields and meadows dominate, the view of the sea on the west is often obstructed by the thick forests.
Located in the dense forest near the steep coast five kilometers south of the village, the popular dripstone caves (grottorna) of Lummelunda – 2.6 kilometers in length – are among Sweden’s longest cave systems. Miles of pebble beaches have evolved at the foot of the high cliffs. Sandy beaches, like on the small cove directly adjacent to the harbor of Lickershamn, are more of an exception in the northwestern areas of Gotland. Here, on the other hand, are the dramatic wind- and water-beaten remains of a limestone cliff, the only preserved rank. The Jungfrun rauk is the tallest (27 meters) of these peculiar rock towers and can be reached after a 600-meter walk from the harbor. Hiking trails along the steep coast (klint) lead to beautiful panoramas or additional raukar near Hallshuk, the northern tip of the island.
The villages in the protected inland area are part of the long tradition of the Gotlandic farming community – still visible due to their churches. The houses of worship of Lummelunda and Stenkyrka (Stone Church) are just two examples of approximately 90 churches from Gotland’s heyday prior to the 15th century that are still in use today. Stenkyrka, formally a tingstad (council and court town), presumably had the first wooden church on the island (11th century). The inhabitants built a new church in the 12th century; this time of stone, thus giving the town a new name.
Despite their dissimilar appearances, the rural Gotlandic churches actually do have a similar history. After Christianization – according to legend, Saint Olav converted the inhabitants of Gotland to the new faith during a visit to the island in 1029 – wooden churches were built in the tingstade, or council and court towns; Stenkyrka in the north, Atlingbo in central Gotland and Fardhem in the south. However, the widely traveled and wealthy farmers soon replaced the old wooden constructions with solid Romanesque stone churches exhibiting elaborate furnishings.
The churches were continually undergoing modifications in accordance with the latest style. However, after the demise of the farmers’ culture in the 14th century, the resources for further restoration and additions were lacking dreadfully. For this reason, these beautiful churches have been handed down to us as heirlooms in relatively original Gothic and Romanesque styles.
The murals have been preserved in most of the churches, and in some, even valuable glass windows from the Roman Era still remain. The names of the architects are largely unknown, however, stylistic peculiarities of the artists have inspired art historians to assign names: a “Byzantios,” for example, refers to Byzantine models, or a “Calcarius” used limestone for baptismal fonts instead of the customary sandstone.
In some cases, the community eventually disappeared, whereas the solid stone church endured, at least as a ruin. Five kilometers east of Stenkyrka, the side walls of Elinghems iidekyrka were restored around 1924 so that it could be used for open-air productions. The vaulted ceiling and roof no longer remain. Ganns iidekyrka, four kilometers north of Larbro, has also been preserved in its ruined state.
Routes 147, 148 and 149 converge in Larbro. While constructing their church in the 13th century, the citizens of this town spared neither labor nor expense: the interior decoration and furnishings are of excellent quality, and the church tower has a rather unusual octagonal base. The kastal, or fortified tower, directly adjacent to it is a reminder of the tumultuous times towards the end of the Middle Ages.
Today limestone is quarried on Gotland, mainly for the production of cement. The most important industrial town is Slite, nine kilometers south of Larbro. There are numerous abandoned quarries in the northeastern part of the island. Blase, located about 15 kilometers north of Larbro, is home to the very informative Blase kalkbruksmuseum; the former limestone quarry, in operation until the 20th century, has been converted into a museum.
The Kulturhistoriska museet in Bunge welcomes you to ethnological and archeological expeditions through centuries-old farming culture. In addition to houses, mills and utensils of days past, there is an impressive collection of Gotlandic rune stones (bildstenar) on display – these are unique memorial stones customarily used between the 5th and 12th centuries. The mighty tower and the embrasures in the cemetery wall reveal that the church of Bunge once served as a fortress.
Route 148 ends just three kilometers farther east in the town of Fariisund . Until the bridge to the neighboring island of Faro is completed, you can get there by ferry. If you like lonely beaches and barren sheep pastures, then you will love it here.
The raukar on the peninsula of Langhammer in the far north present a fabulous natural spectacle – as does Digerhuvud, Sweden’s largest rank area with its six-kilometer-long coastline west of here.
Gotska Sandiin is even more remote. After a two-hour ferry voyage from Farosund, this national park welcomes you with dunes, heathland, virgin pine forests and sandy beaches, as well as simple holiday cabins for accommodation.
There are also impressive dunes on Faro, in the nature reserve of Ullahau in the eastern part of the island. The southerly and easterly aligned coastal regions of Faro and Gotland are considerably flatter and more isolated than those in the west, and boast many sandy beaches. The beach town of Aminne, south of Slite, is especially popular.
Returning to Visby on Route 148, you cannot miss the 55-meter-high church tower of Tingstade. Not only did the villagers demonstrate their wealth in the 13th century, but also their appreciation for art with the magnificently decorated Romanesque church portals. The square, wooden defense fortification (Bulverket) from the Viking Age, long submerged in the village lake, still remains indiscernible to the rapidly passing motorists on Route 148.
In Bro, 12 kilometers east of Visby, we are reminded of the grand shipping days of Gotland since the church, repeatedly built in Gothic and Romanesque styles between 1200 and 1300, was considered to be an important offertory church by the mariners. The area is teeming with relics of prehistory, most of which date back to the Bronze Age. The grooved stones at the sacrificial spring from pagan times are rather mysterious (southwest of town en route to Hedeby). Around 2,000 such stones have been found on Gotland; no one has succeeded in solving their puzzle.
Just 17 kilometers after leaving Visby via Osterport (East Gate) on Route 143, you will arrive at the Roma kloster. Built on fertile soil around the middle of the 12th century, this is said to have been an unusually rich Cistercian monastery, but served as a source of stone for a long time after the Reformation in the 16th century. Only the majestic nave remains as a roofless ruin.
In the 19th century Visby and its hinterland were provided with a rail connection for the transportation of sugar beets from central Gotland. The old train, which was taken out of service years ago, can be seen at the Museijarnvag in Dalhem, six kilometers from Roma. The fertile region also displays its wealth by the impressive sacral buildings here. There is, for example, the church in Dalhem, with valuable glass paintings, the pure Gothic church in Ekeby, and the uniquely disproportionate church of Kallunge, which resulted when the elaborate plans for a giant choir were abandoned in the 13th century.
While the region is more densely wooded farther east, the churches of the coastal areas are protected by a kastal. Good examples of this are the church in Gammelgarn, with its splendid sculptures at the south portal and the lavishly painted church in Gothem. But even before the time of Christ, the inhabitants apparently sought protection as well – on the steep limestone plateau of Grogarnsberget located on the coast three kilometers east of Katthammarsvik, or in the forest hidden back behind the twometer-high walls of layered limestone of the Herrgardsklint (commune of Gammelgarn). Also located in the dense woodlands, Sweden’s largest fortress grounds, the Torsburgen, provided lodging and shelter for many in times of threat, from the Roman Iron Age into the 13th century.
Katthammarsvik, on the east coast peninsula of Ostergarnsholm, possesses an ideal harbor for shipping the locally quartied limestone (since the 17th century). Today, the Kalkpatronsgarden, the manor house of a quarry owner, offers accommodations to tourists passing through.
Ljugarn, 48 kilometers southeast of Visby, has been the most popular seaside resort on the east coast since the 19th century. Its harbor played an important role as early as Gotland’s initial seafaring days. A large geographical depression crosses the island between Ljugarn and the west coast. Archeologists built a replica of the Iron Age castle of Lojsta slott at the edge of the swampland on a lake. The radiant, colorful glass windows of the village church of Lojsta, three kilometers west (Route 142), have been gleaming since the 13th century. The depression continues farther west with the forests, willows and swamps of the Lojstahajd region, where the gotlandsruss, a species of semi-wild horse, grazes.
Like a fortress, the 12th-century church of Froje1 is located on a hill and affords a magnificent view of the central west coast of Gotland and the Karl Islands located just offshore. The ruins of a kastal can be found nearby. During the peak season, boats from the little harbor of Klintehamn service the island of Stora Karlso daily. Like its sister island Lilla Karlso (accessible by boat from Djupvik), it appears to rise off the coast like a platform. Day tourists can take walks through opulent flora to the bird cliffs and Stone Age caves.
Many interesting prehistoric findings are located near the coast, for example, Bronze Age stone settings in the form of ships at Gannarve and Gnisvard; or Vallhagar, a large community from the Iron Age with an extensive burial site near Frojel. The settlement, for reasons still unknown, was suddenly abandoned in the 6th century. The present-day harbor of Vastergarn was a significant competitor for Visby during the Viking Age.
Located 20 kilometers from the island’s capital city is Tofta strand, a large sandy beach with an adjacent pine forest – a real magnet for summer vacationers. Closer to Visby, the west coast cliffs become more prominent and reach a peak in Hogklint, with a beautiful view of the city eight kilometers away. Princess Eugenie enjoyed the wooded, hilly landscape and Gotland’s mild climate so much that she had a Swiss-style summer house (Fridhem) built in the area, which is now used as a hotel. The extensive vacation resort of Kneippbyn, with a large amusement park, is particularly suitable for families with children. From here it is only five kilometers to Siiderport (South Gate) from Visby’s city wall.
The island of Gotland, flat – with gently flowing ripples at most – is an ideal landscape for bicycling. The roads are maintained in excellent condition and some bicycle routes are marked. You do, however, need to reckon with strong winds, especially in the south. Here, on the peninsula of Nasudden, the rotors of a wind-power station are in practically continuous operation.
Hemse – where routes 141, 142 and 144 converge – imparts the overall impression of a new town with a modern shopping center. Nevertheless, the wellpreserved remains of a timber church from the first half of the 12th century were found here; so valuable that they were even adopted by Stockholm’s history museum. The stone church from the Middle Ages, on the other hand, remained in the village, as did the Romanesque stone church of the 12th and 13th centuries located in Fardhem four kilometers away. This is the southernmost of the three Gotlandic tingstade (council and court towns) from the beginning of Christianization – and the third one having a church at all, a wooden one, though, that is since long gone.
Route 142 leads to the southern tip of Gotland via Grotlingbo, with its massive church. Relief works of the master stonemason Sigraf (early 13th century) were taken from its Romanesque predecessor and used in the 14th-century Gothic church; he also crafted the baptismal font. Only three kilometers away, the medieval court building of the Kattlunds gard in the center of town reminds us of the island’s significant agricultural and mercantile tradition. Located on the isthmus of the southern peninsula, the church tower of *Oja served as a navigational point until recent years. The community was able to afford a magnificent triumphal crucifix in the second half of the 13th century and built a kastal to protect themselves from pirates.
The giant depiction of The Weighing of the Soul of Emperor Henry II by the Archangel Michael leaves the most lasting impression of all the murals in the church of Vamlingbo.
The village of SundreÂ©, not far from the coast, was also protected by a fortification tower close to the church. The extremely fine sandstone, which has been quarried here for two centuries and processed into whetstones in the Slipstensbrott, comes from the rural commune of Kattelvik located directly on the west coast. Gotland’s sandstone and limestone were important exports as early as the Middle Ages.
Hoburgen, the often storm-buffeted, southwestern tip of Gotland 37 meters above sea level, is personified in its impressive 4.5-meter-high Hoburgsgubben rank, the “Old-timer of Hoburgen:” The expansive view and the various flora of the limestone heath (alvar) continue to fascinate hikers. They also enjoy wandering to the raukar in the cozier bays of Holmhaller on the east side of the southern peninsula or to the numerous small nature reserves in the area. An abundance of orchids and other flowering plants flourish here, especially during May and June. In addition to the alvar areas, the grassy meadows interspersed with light woods have an especially large number of varieties of blossoms.
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