Magazine article Scandinavian Review

"Living History" in Medieval Visby

Magazine article Scandinavian Review

"Living History" in Medieval Visby

Article excerpt

It was only our first morning on the Swedish island of Gotland, but our seven-year-old son Evan was already breathless with excitement. He had previously taken an overnight ferry from the mainland, sipped tea under the skylight alcove of a medieval street, and climbed the stone walls of two ruined churches. Now he was turning cartwheels down the middle of an empty cobblestone street.

His 11-year-old brother Alex was pondering the construction methods of the builders' of the city walls and musing over why the streets were narrow. If ever they had wondered why their farmor (father's mother) was always "talking up" their Swedish heritage, they were beginning to catch on now.

Visby's History of Splendor

The boys' growing enthusiasm was understandable. Visby, Gotland's capital, packs a lot of "living history" within its walls; in 1995 the city was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Set in the middle of the Baltic Sea, Gotland has been part of Sweden since 1645, although Visby itself is much older. Once a key member of the Hanseatic League of trading cities, Visby reached its apex in the 13th and 14th centuries, when its wealthy burghers built three and four-storey houses to hold the treasures acquired through a trading network that stretched from London and Bergen to Novgorod in Russia. The city was so influential that the Visby Sea Laws held sway as far away as Scotland. The sack of the city in 1361, by King Valdemar Attedag of Denmark, left the town weakened and far less prosperous, but it did not destroy Visby's key position in the cross-Baltic trade routes.

It took the lowly herring to accomplish that. Baltic trade had always been dependent upon the herring catch. When the herring migration abruptly switched to the North Sea, c. 1425, it marked the beginning of a long, slow decline in the League's fortunes. Visby felt this more than other Hansa cities, like Lubeck and Hamburg, whose more central European location kept them actively engaged in trade.

Today, Visby sits like a forgotten jewel of late medieval life, basking in the sun and bejeweled with roses, poppies, and over 30 varieties of orchids. Swedes come here on summer holiday in droves, though it is often the rustic island beyond Visby's walls that attracts them the most. Gotland is Sweden's sunniest spot, with small holiday chalets dotting the coast, beckoning visitors to relax on a Baltic beach, explore Viking remains, or invent new myths surrounding the mysterious raukar, sea-- stacks of chimney stones.

City Walks - and Climbs

The foreign visitor will be forgiven for concentrating on Visby proper. Few places in the world are so evocative of a time long past. Even better for families, Visby provides this sense of history on a scale that children can savor and comprehend. The walls themselves which still feature over 40 towers - encircle the old city like a protective canopy. Their circumference of three kilometers can be walked in a day, or bicycled as a prelude to a seaside bikepath excursion. Within the town, distances are short and businesses are localized to serve a neighborhood function. Many of the houses are so small that even young Evan could reach up and touch the roof. "How tall did people used to be?" wondered Alex, which led into discussion of medieval diets and lifestyles and how the plumbing worked, or did not work.

Several of the city towers remain open to be climbed. Our favorite was the Kruttomet, just along the north edge of the old harbor. While my wife and I looked out over the clustered rooftops, letting our focus soften and the years roll back, our two children fought a pitched battle against raiding barbarians by firing imaginary weapons through the arrow slits. Later, outside the north wall, we came upon a lifesize catapault - complete with instructions - and only narrowly avoided having the elder boy launch the younger one into the Botanical Gardens.

These Gardens were themselves a great source of family joy. …

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