Sweden, Norway Part VI

Visby, Gotland, was a Hanseatic trade center

Posted: Friday, December 28, 2007

Long before my husband, Don, and I left Juneau for Sweden and Norway, we knew that Visby, Gotland, was a must see.

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According to Lonely Planet, "Gotland, the largest of the Baltic islands, is also one of the most historical regions in Sweden, with almost 100 medieval churches and untold number of prehistoric sites."

The walled, medieval trading town of Visby was a Hanseatic trade center and is now a UNESCO World Heritage-listed town.

From the Reisen Hotel in Stockholm, we took a taxi to bus central. A 45-minute bus ride took us to Nynashamm Harbor. Don had the challenge of walking up three flights of stairs with his cane to get to the deck level of the ferry.

The Visby ferry is much larger than any of the Alaska's state ferries. We had seat assignments next to the windows and the ferry seats were plush and comfortable with legroom. The ferry had the capacity to hold 2,000 passengers, but because of Easter only 240 were on board.

The cafeteria food was quite good and reasonable. The wine was the cheapest we had purchased on our trip. I soon learned why. When I paid, the clerk took the cap off and threw it in the trash can. In international waters, alcohol is not taxed; therefore, passengers can't take beer or wine off the ship. The sailing took 3¼ hours.

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From Visby's port, we pulled our suitcases about a kilometer and over cobbles to the Best Western Strand Hotel. The sun shone, the sky was blue, the Baltic Sea was a deep blue, the trees were green and the spring flowers were blooming.

We spent 2½ hours walking around the outside of the old walled part of Visby. We stopped often to read the historic placards and learned the history of the 40 towers, gates, walls and medieval houses.

Most of the 13th century walls are at least partially intact. Now instead of wooden gates to keep enemies out, concrete rams and ewes block vehicles from entering inside the walls except at designated gateways. The ram is the symbol for the ancient town of Visby.

After our wall walk, we returned to our hotel and asked the desk clerk for a recommendation for dinner. The Lindgarden was only 100 meters from the hotel. Our waiter had to ask the waitress to translate the menu for us, which was good, because it meant that the restaurant catered to the locals.

Don ordered steak, and I ordered lamb tenderloin. Our waiter also brought us a tasty starter of thinly sliced lamb and good bread. We enjoyed our gourmet dinner on the eve of Easter.

Finally Easter Sunday arrived. The Easter holiday had complicated our lives a number of times. Church bells rang. Our gourmet Easter Sunday breakfast included fruit, coffee cake and Brie. Don pronounced his cappuccino from a machine as quite good.

We spent the rest of the morning doing a photo shoot. We took many pictures of the old buildings inside of the walled town. We walked uphill from our hotel to the 10 medieval church ruins that are part of Visby's UNESCO World Heritage listed town. The 10 ruined churches were within a mile of each other.

We walked up to the Dom, the Cathedral of St. Maria (A.D. 1225). The Easter services had begun, and we stepped inside the porch and admired the sanctuary. The church was beautiful with the chandeliers lit and the candles burning. The choir was excellent.

After a delicious lunch in a deli, we returned to the cathedral to take photos of the exterior and the Dom's wonderful towers. The tower roofs are shingled with dark wood that provides a photogenic contrast to the white stone cathedral with red tiled roof.

After the Easter service, the cathedral's doors remained open. The assistant pastor stopped what he was doing and gave us a wonderful tour of the cathedral as well as the history of the Dom. He was especially proud of the five new bright stained glass windows that were installed in 1987.

He discussed the history of the Dom that was originally Catholic until Martin Luther's Reformation. In Germany, Norway and Sweden, the Lutheran churches have maintained many Catholic rituals such as the lighting of prayer candles. The Dom's oldest artifact is a carved wooden Jesus on a cross that was used in medieval church processions.

On our third day in Visby, we walked inside the walls. We took pictures of small old houses with carved out wood gutters. Don and I were able to reach the gutters; the shorter the house, the older the house. We admired the small gardens blooming with crocus, daffodils, blue bells and snowbells.

The Scandinavians use colorful dyed feathers for Easter decorations. They hang large yellow, red, blue, purple, pink, white and green feathers on trees and scrubs. They also hang feather wreaths on their doors and windows.

In the early evening, we found O'Leary's Irish Pub that was as close to a museum as we found open in Visby. The walls of the rather large pub are covered with Boston, Mass., sports teams' collectibles - posters, uniforms, signed photos and even awards.

Don reported that the walls in the men's room also were covered with memorabilia. One of the small side rooms was dedicated to the Kennedy family.

Visby is a must-see.

• Alma Harris is a retired Juneau-Douglas High School English teacher who loves to travel and write.

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