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700 Years of Silence: Discovering the Spirit of Gotland

by Nicky Gardner

Picture above: The urban fabric of Visby, the largest town on Gotland, recalls the heyday of the Hanseatic League (photo © hidden europe).


The Swedish island of Gotland has a rich variety of rural landscapes ranging from luxuriant hay meadows through ancient woodlands to parched limestone terraces. In Gotland, and also in neighbouring Fårö, the landscape is at its most performative when it reaches the sea.

The bishop leans back in his chair, looks over towards us and remarks that there is much more to Gotland than just Visby. Sven-Bernhard Fast should know. He presides over an island diocese which has an extraordinary abundance of ancient churches. From Hall and Hangvar in the north to Havdhem and Hamra towards the southern end of Gotland, there are dozens of churches which attest to the wealth of the island in the late mediaeval period.

“This surely wasn’t a bad place to be a peasant,” says Bishop Sven-Bernhard, reflecting on the lot of agricultural workers in Gotland in the 13th and early 14th centuries. “But things changed suddenly with the Danish invasion in 1361. That, and the ensuing plague, led to a downturn in the rural economy of the island.”

“The cathedral here in Visby is by far the most popular tourist attraction in Gotland,” explains the bishop. “Visitors get off the boat and make straight for the cathedral which, along with Visby’s other churches and the fine city wall, help define this place.”

It’s a cue for Bishop Sven-Bernhard to return to one of his favourite themes. “But that wall is a real symbol of historic division on our island. It’s a reminder that Visby was a Hanseatic city with such power and commercial influence that the merchants built a wall to keep rural Gotlanders out of their city.”

“Make time for some of the village churches on Gotland. That’s where you’ll find the spirit of the island,” says the bishop. “Just sit in a pew and listen to seven hundred years of silence.”

Gotland and its near neighbour to the north, the much smaller island of Fårö, are certainly places to savour silence — all the more so outside the brief summer season when, for a few busy weeks, the island is a popular holiday destination for Swedish families from the mainland.

The Bergman link

It’s only early September, but Fårö is already slipping into winter. Kerstin Kalström is shifting into low-season mode. “No-one understood the value of silence more than Ingmar Bergman,” she observes. The accomplished Swedish filmmaker found a peace in Fårö which had elided his early years. “He first came here in 1960,” explains Kerstin, “while he was looking for a budget location for shooting Through a Glass Darkly.”

“Now that’s a film where silence really speaks volumes,” adds Kerstin, a one-time school teacher turned Bergman-expert who now manages the visitor centre on Fårö dedicated to the island’s close links with Bergman. It’s based in a former school, the very same building where Kerstin once taught.

“We are lucky to have a lot of Bergman memorabilia here,” says Kerstin, leading us through displays which celebrate Bergman’s life and Fårö’s cinematic appeal. “Of course you should go down to the stone beach which featured so centrally in Persona,” suggests Kerstin. “That’s another film with plenty of silence.”

For five decades Ingmar Bergman was a central figure in Fårö life. “He was a reserved man, quiet, but if you bumped into him on the beach, he’d always have a word for you,” says Kerstin. “He was sometimes mischievous,” she adds, recalling the day when the Bishop of Visby came up to Fårö to address a conference of film buffs. “We heard he planned to speak in the church about Bergman’s theology,” says Kerstin. “The bishop was a little surprised to find Ingmar sitting right there in the front pew,” she recalls. “It turned into a good-natured debate between the two men,” she adds. “I’m sure the bishop enjoyed it as much as Ingmar.”

Silence and the landscapes of Fårö may be the defining elements in Bergman’s later films, but there is also a haunting off-screen persona in his movies: God. Religious metaphor in Bergman’s work is still hotly debated by scholars and film critics, but Kerstin makes her own judgment of the man: “After his wife Ingrid died in 1995, Ingmar would just sit for hours by himself in the church.”

A strong local identity

Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic proper — although Sjælland, the Danish island on which lies Copenhagen, is larger but these days has few vestiges of island character. Inger Harlevi knows a thing or two about Balticness and about islands. Inger lives in Visby and serves as Vice-President of the HANSE, a modern association of more than 150 communities, spread over a dozen countries; the common thread is that in every participating city culture, economy and society were shaped by involvement in the Hanseatic League. “Of course the League spread way beyond the Baltic, but many of the key Hanseatic cities had strong Baltic ties,” Inger says. “And Visby was the pre-eminent trading community on key shipping routes across the Baltic,” she explains. “Visby jealously protected its position, not only within the wider Hanseatic League, but also locally. Hence the strong defensive wall around the city.”

Inger Harlevi, Vice-President of the HANSE, keenly promotes her home city of Visby (photo © hidden europe).

Inger notes that despite its substantial size — it is over 130 kilometres from Fårösund in the north to the bare whaleback ridge known as Husrygg at the southern tip of Gotland — there is still a very real sense of island identity on Gotland. “We are sufficiently far offshore, three hours on one of the modern fast ferries, that Gotland is a kind of Sweden abroad. Even Swedes who come here are surprised to find a place that looks and feels different from the mainland.”

“That’s not just true of Visby,” adds Inger. “The countryside of Gotland is striking in its variety, and doesn’t merely replicate what you might find on the mainland,” she explains.

The following day, walking over the heathland at Bräntings, we begin to understand just what Inger means. Gotland has some extraordinary rural landscapes, among them the alvar habitats which have developed on parched limestone pavements. With porous rock at the surface, supporting at best only a few millimetres of soil, only the hardiest plants can survive. There are rock roses, wormwood, mosses and lichens. Here and there heathers struggle to secure a hold in clefts and cracks in the rock while in a few protected spots birch and pine survive — mere straggly apologies for trees which cast bewitched shadows over the land. The fauna of the alvar has adapted to the dry and rocky habitat. There are rare butterflies, the odd black-and-red firebug — surely Gotland’s signature insect — and a fine variety of small birds ranging from yellowhammers and skylarks to wagtails and wheatears.

The great Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (Linnaeus) spent five weeks on Gotland and Fårö in summer 1741, as part of a longer journey that also took in the island of Öland. He was not merely in search of rare plants but also hunting for sources of china clay to support the then nascent porcelain industry in Sweden. He found no china clay, but he did discover over a hundred hitherto unrecorded species of plants, many of them unique to the alvar habitats of Gotland and Öland. Linnaeus was also struck by the sheer number of fossils on the beaches of Gotland and Fårö.

The spirit of the landscape

The Gotland landscape is often at its most performative when it reaches the sea. The island’s rough and stony coastline, sometimes fringed by low cliffs, is a noisy contrast to the silence of the countryside. Baltic tides are not aggressive, but the sea floor shelves away steeply from Gotland’s beaches. As each wave retreats, it pulls a noisy hoard of pebbles back into the sea. There is a rhythmic charm to this undulating soundscape, with eerie silence (inviting comparison with Ingmar Bergman’s iconic beach scenes) alternating with a ghostly rattle that sounds like a celestial fruit machine dispensing a vast hoard of coins.

The Gotlandic rural economy has reinvented itself dozens of times over the centuries. And each round of innovation has left its imprint on the landscape.

There are shadows on the shore. For many of the beaches of Gotland and Fårö are populated by ancient silhouettes. Waves and wind have shaped sea stacks in the intertidal zone into extraordinary petrified designs. Known locally as raukar, these liminal limestone sculptures stand sentinel around the shores of Gotland, like shadowy ghosts determined to protect the secrets of the island.

Accounts of journeys through Gotland often focus on the cinematic and seemingly timeless aspects of the landscape. The tangled trees in the woodland at Bosarve look as though they date back to antiquity, unchanged through centuries, though perhaps the black woodpecker is not heard here as often as in the past. The hay meadows at Laxare, fringed by hazel bushes and bursting with rich orchids, suggest a landscape left untouched.

The reality is rather different. The Gotlandic rural economy has reinvented itself dozens of times over the centuries. And each round of innovation has left its imprint on the landscape. Lime kilns and tar production both required wood for fuel and that demand took its toll on the forests. The rowan and the blackthorn which thrive at Bosarve, and help give that woodland such a varied demeanour, are the beneficiaries of forest clearance. Just as the hay meadows at Laxare have been immeasurably improved by seasonal grazing of livestock. The imprint of human activity is everywhere in Gotland. The draining of mires in the 19th century, mainly by outsiders who presumed they knew what was best for the peasantry, wrecked the domestic economy by depriving many of the fish, fodder and game which they required for survival.

Yet, for all that change, there is a rare thread of continuity in the Gotland landscape. That is provided by the island’s magnificent rural churches. Those who know the terrain well can navigate the entire length of the island, merely using church spires for orientation. Some of the churches, like those at Sundre and Gammelgarn, have standing alongside them large defensive towers where the local community might gather at times of threat, as when the Danes invaded in the 14th century. Some of the towers are crumbling, but not the churches. And it is into those churches that the visitor must repair if she or he wishes to feel the real spirit of Gotland — a spirit shaped by seven hundred years of silence.

The location of Visby on the Swedish island of Gotland.


Visiting Gotland

There are year-round ferry services to Gotland from Oskarshamn and Nynäshamn. Sailing schedules and prices are on www.destinationgotland.se. Both mainland ports have rail connections, though train services to Nynäshamn are much more frequent than to Oskarshamn. At Nynäshamn ferries connect with frequent trains to central Stockholm, just over an hour away.

The only commercial airport on Gotland is at Visby; it is served by direct flights from Stockholm, Göteborg and Malmö. Gotland has struggled to attract and retain international air links, but over the past ten years there have been short-lived summer-season routes from Riga, Helsinki and even Berlin.

There are decent bus services connecting communities across Gotland, although the network preVisiting Gotland supposes that all journeys start or end in Visby. Crosscountry journeys thus invariably route through Visby. There are direct buses from Visby to the island of Fårö, which use the ferry over the Fårösund. That ferry is completely free, even for travellers with cars. The Bergman Center on Fårö is open daily in June, July, and August and from Thursdays to Sundays for two or three weeks either side of that summer season. Check details on www.bergmancenter.se.

For more information on Gotland see www.gotland.com. Central Baltic Incoming (www.hansaincoming.com) can be relied upon for sound advice. We stayed at NOVI Resort in Visby, where there is a good range of accommodation options, from regular hotel rooms to studios and bungalows (www.noviresort.se).

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