Stepping Into a Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time in a faraway land, there was a beautiful city on an enchanted island. Surrounded by a high stone wall it was cut off from the rest of the beauty around it: the rolling green pastures filled with wildflowers, the rocky sea shores with towering stones, the claustrophobic jungle swamps, and the magically calm forests. The only links to the outside world were the defended carriage gates, thin doorways, and archery windows through which few could come in and out.

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One such doorway looked straight out onto the Baltic Sea which created the sandy beach of the islands northern west coast. Built late, in the 1870’s, it was part of a wall rebuilding project after a partial collapse. This doorway is known as The Love Gate or Kärleksporten in the original Swedish. It is traditional for couples who walk through the gate to kiss, bringing them good luck. If you are single, however, you are not supposed to walk through at all because that would bring you bad luck in love. At the time I was single and slighly weird about good and bad luck shit so I didn’t walk through alone. One weekend I had a friend giving me the grand tour and we walked through together (without the kiss, of course), don’t know if or how that eventually affected anything, but whatever.

Continuing around the oldest sections of the 13th-century wall, higher gates and defensive towers cast shadows on the cobblestones below. Various towers were used as storage facilities for coins and military hardware, manufacturing tar, grinding malt and grain, production of fish oil, lodging for guests, and even a prison/torture chamber. Digging through time, you can always find the dark underbelly of anyplace you visit. For Gotland that dark history is no clearer than in the medieval-themed rooms of the Gotland Museum. To learn the abridged version of Gotland’s history the museum is a perfect place to go, you’ll also be able to see what the locals thought about what happened. The slightly biased influence can be read in the plaques next to various artifacts.

In its shortest description, King Valdemar IV of Denmark sailed his army over the Baltic Sea to conquer Visby and the island of Gotland in 1361. The wealthier citizens within the guarded city called upon every able-bodied man to come and fight to protect the islands freedom from Danish rule. Though the local militia fought hard, they were getting soundly beaten, and while the people living inside the city promised that, if that were to happen, they would open the gates to let the army inside, but they didn’t. As a result over 1,800 of Gotland’s male yeomen and peasants were killed pretty much right outside the city’s North gate and the citizens of Visby decided to surrender anyway. The people living outside the gates were furious, and rightfully so, as most families had lost at least one member.

It’s pretty crazy to think about, but there are still descendants of the army members’ families who hate the descendants of the citizens who would not let them through the gates. I can’t personally understand that sort of loss playing such a large cultural influence, but as I walked through the now open gates I could kind of feel it. The terror and the pleas for help must echo throughout time, especially for those of whom grew up hearing the tales passed from generation to generation.

Even inside the colorful city there are dark memories. While the city continued to expand, the richer citizens lived closer to the ocean and castle and the poor were forced to build their small houses in the surrounding hills. Eventually, they got tired of living in this small dirty area so they started an uprising, capturing many of the upper class and either executing them via beheading or burning them at the stake, there is still a memorial standing in the middle of a crossroads in the upper section of Visby. This area, which did used to house the poorest citizens, living in their squalor, is now the most desired area with the most expensive houses. The times, they sure have changed.

Getting passed Visby’s dark past, you can really see the beauty in it, the gray cobblestone streets, differentiating from the vibrantly painted cottages. In the summer of 2015, while attending the archaeological field school, Gotland was unusually wet. This meant that when the sun finally came out the rain-slicked cobbles glistened and reflected the colors of the flowers that lined every building, making the entire scene an impressionistic painting.

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The architecture of the buildings, the many ruins scattered around the city and even more so during the annual medieval festival, transports you to another era. Medieval Week or Medeltidsveckan is when hundreds of people, from all over come to this historic place dressed in all sorts of elaborate costumes. This weeklong festival, which started in 1984 runs over a week and its surrounding two weekends contains constant tournaments, really old fashion music, day drinking, delicious food, and basically larping (live action role playing). Unless you go for 3 or more days it would be difficult to try every food and drink stall without getting a terrible stomachache or drunk out of your mind since the beer, wine, and mead were flowing freely, both within the festival itself and at every other open bar in the city. The day we were taken to the festival (which was the first time I went) we were given a meal ticket and most of our group decided to try some wild boar that had been roasting over an open flame at the Boar’s Head stand. We took a short lunch fika in the heart of the festival while joyful people were laughing, dancing, eating, and playing all around us. This time I didn’t have as much time to explore on my own since I wanted to continue on with our private archaeological tour so I returned for the second weekend, this time in a semi-correct period costume.

This time the lot of us rode the public bus from Hemse on the other side of the island and were able to re-re-re-explore of our own volition, as this was my fourth time to the city. For “lunch” a fellow explorer and I stopped at a café called Brödboden Södertorg that located inside a medieval church. We rested our weary feet while drinking tea and taste testing a few different pastries while surrounded by partially buried stone monuments that are hundreds of years old. This time I didn’t eat much at the festival itself because we had a group dinner reservation at Kapitelhusgarden (which I could do a whole blog post on), an underground restaurant that does everything as if you were actually in medieval times. But before dinner, we continued to wander the streets and shops, inside and out of the festival, attempting to find all the hidden secrets as we had already done the typical “tourist thing” on previous visits.

One such visit was the third I took when we were led by a couple friends, the two graduate students who worked on the site with us. We hit up most of the churches, as there are sooooo many, pretty much one on every corner, just like a Starbucks chain. All of these ruins are free to walk around in and in most you can even walk up to the second or third floors, depending on the stability of the stones. One medieval church that is still in still in use is the Visby Cathedral or St. Mary’s Church and it has some crazy relics inside, including whalebones which were venerated for centuries as the bones of a giant. And if you look at the stain glass windows you will find one that shows the burning of the city. How fun.

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Later in the day we stopped in a legit Irish pub called the Black Sheep Arms, started by a man from England (which made some of us giggle) and I ordered an Irish coffee. Before we finally left for the day on the bus back to Hemse we were taken to one of the most popular ice cream shops on Gotland, Visby Glass, which is right next to Glass Magasinet, both of which are facing Visby harbor on the Baltic Sea.

If you are exploring Visby searching for a  direct line to the past or present day normal life you might be slightly confused or maybe even a little disappointed. Visby seems to be in its own time, a mythical area where past and present combine and create a true fairy tale world where magic can become real.

More Historical Information:

Visby: City Wall

Battle of Visby

Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence

Gotland’s Vikings

http://www.gotland.net/en/discover-visby-under-your-own-steam

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