In the fall of 2017, I did my first solo backpacking trip. I spent nearly four weeks touring England, Scotland and Scandinavia as a Masters graduation gift to myself.
Now that summer is fading and my favourite season is around the corner, I started reminiscing on my autumn adventures. It took months to craft an itinerary suitable for an aesthetic experience of October’s fall colours. Although Scandinavia has similar geographic attributes to Canada, I was also drawn to its cultural and historic traits. I hoped to meet others from around the world, and quite frankly, go somewhere far away for a while. I hope within the next two months to share some more images I took of autumn in Scandinavia.
Today, I recount my special getaway within a getaway. After two busy weeks of cities, planes, trains and automobiles (or tour buses), I ventured off the mainland by ferry for a quiet two nights on the island of Gotland and the medieval town of Visby.¹
Gotland is the largest island in the Baltic Sea, a major Viking settlement and an archaeological playground of rune stones and burial sites. With summer being high season, Gotland offers local Swedes an escape to the beaches, cycle through green meadows and along the coast, bird-watch or go back nearly 1000 years in time.
Visby, Gotland’s biggest town, was the epicentre of the Baltic’s Hanseatic League between the 12th and 14th centuries and currently a Unesco World Heritage Site. A remarkably preserved medieval wall encloses the city. Once designed to protect a trading metropolis, the wall fueled tension, leading to civil war in 1288. Even afterward, Visby faced invasions from both the Danish army and pirates leading up to its decline of power by 1525. The town later grew beyond its walls again by the 19th century. Many of the limestone buildings, especially dwellings, warehouses and churches in Romanesque and Gothic style, remain intact. Overall, Visby appealed to me with its historical authenticity and relative isolation.²
I woke up early on the morning of October 17, departing Stockholm after four nights. It was an hour by train to the port of Nynäshamn, followed by a three-hour ferry to Gotland. Often erring on the side of caution, I showed up much too early. The trip at sea was calm and smooth-sailing, with ample room to sprawl out and nap.
After docking, I hauled my backpack over my shoulders for the hundredth time and looked up my guesthouse on my phone. It was supposedly a small cottage in the centre of town, uphill and easy to miss.
The sky looked hazy with the sun poking through like an orb from a magnifying glass. The air filled with the whooshing sound of crashing waves, feeling fresh on my skin. I knew instantly this was where I needed to go.
In the meantime, I was beginning to regret my choice of accommodation, because of how long it took me to find it. 45 minutes in, I was triple checking my map and starting to sweat (and cry a little). When I found the guesthouse, there was hardly any sign. As seen in pictures, it was tucked away off the main street. I punched in the front door’s passcode and entered a white cottage with two floors, a front porch and a separate little red shack.
My regret disappeared once I stepped inside. There was no reception, except for a welcome sign with an email and phone number and a kitchen at the end of the hallway. I was sure I had the entire place to myself, except for one other woman who occupied the room beside me.
My room was adjacent to the living room, separated by the door. It was decorated in a perfect Scandinavian fashion of comfort, simplicity and functionality.
I knew this weekend in Visby would be an ideal retreat from the city. Yet I found myself missing Stockholm like crazy and this was the perfect antidote.
It was getting close to the evening as I took another nap and gathered my bearings. I briefly met the woman staying next door on her way to meet friends. She was a recurring visitor once a year and this was always her place of choice.
Around 7 pm, I left to find the city centre – called Stora Torget – to get some groceries. By this point, I was accustomed to Scandinavia’s exorbitant food prices and lived off of free hostel pasta. I was still wary of my budget and year-long savings for this trip.
On a Tuesday night, there was hardly a single soul outside until I reached Stora Torget. Occasionally, ephemeral harmonies of chatter from a pub or restaurant filled my ears as I walked past, then faltered. The streetlights illuminated narrow cobblestone streets, limestone walls and red-roofed houses. It felt like midnight in a storybook setting. I was the main character, an alien observer from the outside looking in.
I purchased bread, cream cheese and smoked salmon for dinner and some snacks for afterward. The guesthouse was empty, and I capped off the night on the couch with a book until it was bedtime.
After my first night, I only had one day to explore Visby. Despite the trouble I had locating my guesthouse, the town was quite simple to navigate once I got accustomed. I observed Visby’s colourful layout of yellow, white and orange enclosed by grey medieval walls. The autumn hues added even more personality to this antiquated city. The sky was still overcast, bringing a chill to the air, the road glistening from overnight rainfall.
As I walked through Stora Torget in daylight, I examined the ruins of Sankta Karin. Dilapidated on the inside, the monastery was built by the Franciscan Order around roughly 1250. Its exterior was mostly intact but hollowed out in the middle, with the roof missing entirely. When I stood by the entrance, I peered through the interior and its narrow arches and adjacent pillars. What used to be ornate stone floors and stained glass windows are now tufts of moss and empty window slits.
While checking my map, I noticed the Visby Cathedral marked uphill, about a 10-minute walk from Stora Torget. The cathedral, built for German traders in the 13th century, is still in service today. The inside was beautifully preserved with altars, organs and pipes all in quality shape – a stark contrast to its more derelict counterpart.
I wandered through the church courtyard, observing aged tombstones about four-feet high, casually leaning against a wall. It looked like the groundskeepers simply left them there many years ago and promptly forgot about them.
Along the wall was a narrow stairwell leading upwards to a hilltop vantage point. Once I reached the top, I was treated to a complete panorama of the city in its compact and medieval form with bright red and orange trees poking out from the streets. I scanned beyond the coast which enveloped the island. I could even see my ride docked at the harbour and the giant “G” painted on top.
A light breeze from the water rustled the trees, simultaneous with the chiming of church bells. Taking in all visual and aural senses, I felt truly in the right place at the right moment.
Lunchtime was approaching, and I found a nearby cafe by my guesthouse. I splurged on a cappuccino and ate an entire crêpe filled with crème fraîche, beans, pickled onions and arugula.
Forgetting that I had less than 24 hours left in Visby, I moved on with my afternoon itinerary. Because this was shoulder season, museums and other attractions closed quite early, so I spent the next two hours enlivening my taste for Viking history at the Gotland Museum.
I perused collections of Viking and medieval icons, burial trinkets, jewelry and even skeletons. The main hall had enough archaeological curiosities to stroke the fantasies of both hardcore Viking and medieval enthusiasts. I thought about the time I volunteered at the Canadian Museum of History’s exhibition on Vikings. I remembered its peculiar objects, including a remnant of preserved fecal matter which determined Vikings’ dietary habits. I recalled teaching kids about why they drank mead out of their horns. And no, they did not go on helmets.
There were also picture stones held upright behind wires, towering almost seven feet high. These decorative stones were memorials, which epitomized Viking burial culture. They honoured powerful people and their deeds, their inscriptions telling stories about one’s travels and oftentimes, their fateful end. These decorative stones can be found everywhere across Sweden. They’re as common as a backyard garden stone.
Some were in different shapes for different purposes. The ones that stood out to me were the so-called “mushroom” stone. To my amusement, the museum wasn’t afraid to admit what we were all thinking it was shaped like:
After the museum, I still had about two more hours left of daylight. My ferry would depart at 7 am tomorrow, so I needed an early night.
I stopped at my guesthouse to pick up some postcards I’ve been waiting to mail. Hoping it was still open, I found a post office north of the city. I crossed through the gates of the old walls, temporarily leaving medieval Visby for its modern version. It was odd to suddenly see plazas, gas stations and fast-food restaurants on the outside. It felt like I stepped out of a time warp back into reality.
After mailing my postcards, I re-entered the time bubble back into old town. I traced my footsteps along the base of the wall, stopping to read plaques on the footpath. The round towers and window slits resembled a Monty Python set, and it reignited my appreciation for the Holy Grail. I pictured the French taunter poking his head out from the wall, hurling insults at his enemies. Two weeks prior, I visited Doune Castle in Scotland, where this scene was actually filmed.
As I approached the shore, the clouds scattered, revealing an evening sun and blue sky. I noticed the Catherdral’s spires and the monastery’s arches sticking out over the roofs.
At dusk I embarked on my final trek. This was the perfect time to see the waterfront one last time before morning. The ships were all docked at the harbour. Even the ferry was saddling up for its morning voyage.
I watched the sun approach the water closer and closer and then disappear, emitting a golden glow over the Baltic.
I felt lucky to have chosen this place as my vacation away from vacation. This was my first solo adventure since I studied abroad in England back in 2014. I was in search of a balance between being a sightseer and a traveler. Although I wanted to sightsee, I also yearned to belong. To go beyond the tourist attractions. Simply walk around, meet and interact with locals, find some unique place and try a new dish on the outskirts of town. At this point, I’ve achieved this balance and gotten closer to discovering what kind of traveler I am.
The act of seeking comfort and solitude is harmonious with Scandinavian culture. I remembered learning about the word “hygge” in Copenhagen – the feeling of coziness, warmth and wellness. I found such sentiment in a place like Visby.
I took this thought with me on the ferry back to the mainland. I stood outside at the top deck, feeling the chilly wind against my face as I watched Gotland, like a magical isle, disappear from the horizon.
¹Visby is in fact pronounced “Vis-bu”
²Historical information from UNESCO’s website