My Fairy Tale Week in Visby

Posted on April 14th, 2013 by

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When most people think about college kids on spring break, they think about warm destination spots, beach side resorts, youthful excess, and incessant noise.  Besides the beach part my spring break could not be further from Hollywood’s gaudy stereotype of spring break.  I spent most of my spring break in Visby, the best preserved medieval town in Sweden, located on the island Gotland in the middle of the Baltic Sea.  I must give credit to Nate Dexter and Rob Holder- veterans of Semester in Sweden 2011- for giving me the idea  to go to Visby and help me  plan my trip; they had me convinced at “Best Medieval Town in Sweden.”  But I wasn’t going to Visby alone- Ryan, a fellow history major, would be joining me for spring break.  Leaving our Stockholm hostel early in the morning on March 28th, we took a bus to Nynäshamn where we boarded our ferry that took us to Visby.  When I think of a ferry I think of a small boat, perhaps not even mechanized.  The giant boat I boarded seemed a lot more like the Titanic than a raft for crossing a river- there was even a movie theater aboard.  I was quite impressed by the sheer size and efficacy of the ferry: it got us to Gotland in a little more than three hours, an impressive feat given the distance.

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We got off our ferry and stepped into the most remarkable place I’ve ever been to.  It would be one thing if Visby had one ruined church, a couple old storefronts still open, and maybe a section- perhaps no more than a dozen meters at best- of an old defensive wall standing.  But Visby has to one up every other town I’ve been to, and it does so in spectacular fashion.  Visby has eight ruined churches inside the walls, one renovated cathedral still in use, numerous homes and storefronts dating back many centuries, and a breathtaking wall circling the town that’s in implausibly good condition.  I want to say that Visby is one giant open air museum, but that’s not entirely fair- a museum is something artificial  while this was the genuine article.  There’s no part of Visby that’s bland or boring- there’s always something amazing right around the corner.  It was a fairy tale city, seemingly made more from imagination than limestone.  There are some parts of Visby where the only sounds you can hear are the gentle rhythm of the waves and the chirping of birds.  My days were long, relaxed, blissful things.  For most of my time there I had no concrete schedule on a day to day basis- simply being in this place was good enough.  My words will fail to do justice to the place- the best I can do to share the place is through the pictures I took.

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Inside the Cathedral

Inside the Cathedral

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Evidence of spring

Evidence of spring

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There were a few noteworthy things Ryan and I did together besides wander, awestruck, through Visby.  Without planning it at all, we were able to catch Visby’s Easter parade.  It wasn’t on Easter itself, but the Thursday before.  In Sweden, the tradition is that kids dress up like witches, but in modern times it seems parents have taken a liking to join in the fun.  There were an impressive number of people on parade; we watched it go by for perhaps half an hour before it was over.  We also paid a visit to the Gotland History Museum, which of course had a marvelous selection of viking and medieval artifacts.  Gotland is quite lucky with its medieval heritage: it is home to some of the most striking Old Norse picture stones, has numerous old churches scattered throughout the landscape, and is home to several viking burial hoards, full of treasure from around the world.  My favorite exhibition in the museum was about the battle fought outside the city walls in 1361 against the Danish King.  Though the battle went quite poorly for the Gotlanders, with half of the island’s male population perishing, it was a good event for archaeologists, as the dead were put into a large mass grave, giving us a veritable treasure trove of evidence for what war was like in the 14th century.  And of course, we had to try some lamb, seeing as sheep are the symbol for Gotland.  I thought it was quite delicious.  And on Easter morning I attended the service at the cathedral- I’m not particularly religious, but I was not going to miss the opportunity to see Easter Mass in a medieval cathedral.  The liturgy itself was actually quite similar to what one would find in an American Lutheran church- though I’m not so sure they would have a Bishop, complete with miter and crozier.

The Easter parade was led by a knight because, as far I can tell, knights are cool.

The Easter parade was led by a knight for no other reason than, as far I can tell, because knights are cool.

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Some of the less fortunate soldiers from 1361

Some of the less fortunate soldiers from 1361

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The highlight of my time in Visby was hanging out with my friend Hedvig, who I met back in Mora.  She’s one of Lesley’s (fellow Gustie and Swedish House Resident) housemates at Skattungbyn who just happens to live on Gotland, and also happened to be going back over Spring Break.  Talk about a happy coincidence.  She lives in the country, just 20 minutes or so outside of Visby, so it was really cool to see the countryside in addition to the city.  We started off by going to her aunt’s birthday party, where I got to explain to her family where I came from, why I was studying in Sweden, how I knew Hedvig, and what the Semester in Sweden program is- all in Swedish.  Most of these things are reasonably difficult to explain in English, so it was a nice challenge to do it all in Swedish.  Afterwards we had a relaxed day, eating lunch by an open fire by her house and grabbing Fika back in Visby.  I spent the night at her house, and the next morning she took me to a picturesque Gotlandish beach, complete with an old fishing village.  We even got to visit a viking grave- several large stones placed in the shape of a boat- still standing where it had been for centuries.  This was a great experience, and sums up the best study abroad has to offer: meeting awesome new people and going to exciting places.

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Tack så mycket för den jätteskönt Gotlandsresan,  Hedvig!

Tack så mycket för en jätteskönt Gotlandsresan, Hedvig!

Alas, my time at Visby was coming to an end, and it was time to go to our next destination: Uppsala.  Ryan and I decided to get to Uppsala a few days before class began, as we wanted extra time to see Gamla Uppsala and the city’s magnificent cathedral.  I bid Gotland farewell, but I do hope not for the last time.  That dreamy world, with its ocean side serenity and medieval beauty, found a very special place in my heart.  Visby was my special retreat into the past, into a realm of myth and magic, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be there, even if it  was but a week- I wouldn’t trade this Spring Break for any sort of loud, shallow MTV-style travesty.

I’ll leave you with a few pictures of Uppsala, as I know I have written quite a tale as it is, and even though I spent extra time at Uppsala, I did nothing special that will not be covered by another exceptionally competent classmate of mine in the near future.  Thanks for your valued attention dear reader, I look forward to the next time.

Uppsala's cathedral truly stands alone- it is hands down the most impressive edifice I've seen in years

Uppsala’s cathedral truly stands alone- it is hands down the most impressive edifice I’ve seen in years

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Seeing those painted ceilings is for a medievalist like seeing mounds of presents under the Christmas tree

Seeing those painted ceilings is for a medievalist like a child seeing piles of presents under the Christmas tree

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The burial mounds of the proud pagan kings of old at Gamla Uppsala.

The burial mounds of the proud pagan kings of old at Gamla Uppsala.

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