Visby: The Floating City

Visby by the Baltic Sea.

Visby by the Baltic Sea.

You are on a rock- and sand-covered beach. Behind you, there are trees with hammocks strung up between them and a small seawall. In front of you, there is only endless sea stretching to the sunset. Nearby, there is a grassy plain dotted with flowers centered on a small pond and a colony of ducks. Surrounding the greenery is a centuries-old, weathered stone wall punctuated by gates and studded with arches and turrets. Beyond the wall, a cluster of red tile roofs and pale yellow and orange walls climb the hill toward an ancient, gray-and-black cathedral and a small cliff crowned with pastel-colored houses. Rose vines climb the walls of its houses, the air perfumed with their scent. Like some Miyazaki dreamscape emerging from the Baltic Sea, this is Visby.

There’s something invigorating about traveling to a place you’ve never heard of. As a kid, I’d asked for guidebooks, so much so that by the time I graduated high school – after dozens of birthdays and holidays and visiting family friends had come and gone – scores of them lined my shelves, their spines cracked from being read again and again. My collection spanned the globe. I had memorized their contents, devoured their every word, etched each photograph into my mind. But here I was, in a tiny propeller jet, hurtling through the clouds towards Visby, its name like some English country butler, to a place I’d never heard of. Without expectations, travel began to feel more like an adventure and less like a checklist.

The flight from Stockholm is a quick one – less than an hour – and takes you from Bromma, the capital’s tiny domestic airport, to an even tinier one, the kind where you walk across the tarmac into a terminal barely the size of a small town bus station. The island is known among Scandinavians for its sunny days, but descending into Visby through the fog is spectacular: a steely sea, the rocky beach, emerald agricultural blocks stretching a vast patchwork into the distance, the red roofs of the medieval city climbing their hill.

Gotland, the island province of which Visby is capital, stretches about 100 miles north-to-south and 30 miles east-to-west at a point smack dab in the south central Baltic Sea, about 100 miles south of Stockholm and the same distance west of the Latvian coast. It is the largest island in the sea and in Sweden, with a strange dialect and an archaic language all its own. Some historians theorize Gotland was the homeland of the Goths, but today it is primarily the haunt of tourists from the mainland.

Visby, the only real city on the island, is an ancient place with a history stretching back to at least the Stone Age. You can feel its antiquity in the quiet, narrow alleys of its old town, in its ruins, and in its nearly intact, 800 year-old wall. The city is primarily medieval, a provenance memorialized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a tradition celebrated during Medieval Week (Medeltidsveckan) at the height of the tourist season in early August.

Visby and the cathedral from the upper town.

Visby and the cathedral from the upper town.

For much of the last millennium, the city bustled with commerce, its wealth buying it ring fortifications, several grand churches, and a place in the Hanseatic League by the thirteenth century. The city later passed to the Danes and then to the Victual Brothers, a notorious band of pirates who nearly destroyed maritime trade in the Baltic Sea, until their overthrow by the Teutonic Knights in 1398. The city was later sold to the Kalmar Union and, after a coup, became its last holdout and, ultimately, a pirates’ nest once more. In the early sixteenth century, after a trade war, merchants from Lübeck destroyed most of the town’s grand churches, leaving only the Cathedral intact, and the city was forced out of the Hanseatic League. Finally, in the seventeenth century, the city passed to Swedish hands where it has remained to this day, save for a few-month Russian interlude in the nineteenth century.

Visby entered modernity in 1859, when Sweden’s Princess Eugenie began vacationing near Visby. Eugenie, with ill health from birth, was never allowed to marry. But in 1858, she became the first woman, or at least one of the first women, to request and receive legal majority, and occupied herself with the arts, composing music and poetry, sculpting, and painting. She used the money from her creative pursuits to further her social ones, supposedly freely giving her money away.

Visby is for tourism.

Visby is for tourism.

Ever since, the city has been something of a tourist mecca for Swedes, known for having the most sunny days of any place in the country. During the long days of summer, planes and ships ply the seas and skies between the mainland and Gotland ferrying Swedes on week-long holidays to the island’s beaches and cottages. Foreign cruise ships have (unfortunately) begun to discover Visby, but (mercifully) its tiny port is still unable to fully accommodate them.

Among those who summered on Gotland after Eugenie are Ingmar Bergman and Olaf Palme. Bergman made his home in the far north of Gotland, on the nearby island of Fårö, its shore crowded with karstic pillars called rauks, where he produced Through a Glass Darkly and Scenes from a Marriage from his cottage by the sea. Every June brings Bergman Week, a celebration of the director’s life and work, to Fårö.

Less known outside Sweden, but perhaps more important to the country’s modern history, Palme is the man who has probably most transformed contemporary Visby. Palme served as Prime Minister from 1969 through 1976 and again from 1982 until his assassination in February 1986, a murder which, to this day, remains unsolved and has given rise to theories involving Yugoslav security forces, Kurdish separatists, and South African pro-apartheid forces. He was the head of the center-left Social Democrats, the country’s oldest and largest political party, and under his terms, the nation revolutionized its childcare, eldercare, social security, housing, and public health systems and significantly expanded its welfare net. Internationally, he continued a tradition of neutrality, refusing to align Sweden with any world superpower, frequently criticizing both American and Soviet foreign policy, and becoming the first Western head of government to visit Cuba after the revolution.

The streets of Visby during Almedalen.

The streets of Visby during Almedalen.

In the summer of 1968, before he became prime minister, Olof Palme began giving annual speeches in the city’s main park, Almedalen, the “Valley of Elms,” during his summers on Gotland. As his star rose, party leaders began joining Palme at Almedalen in the early 1970s, but it was not until 1982 that the first official Almedalen Week, then a Social Democratic economic seminar, took place. But with the party’s success, other parties and outside groups began to get involved. Over the years, and really in the last decade or so, Almedalen has solidified into the to-do it is today. In 1998, there were six seminars, which became 50 in 2001, 250 in 2005, and 2,000 in 2013. In 2014, there were an estimated 3,400 planned talks, seminars, panels, and other activities from over 1,000 organizers. Each of the major parties – those with representation in the Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament – are given a day of the week. At 7:00 in the evening, the sun still as bright as an early afternoon back elsewhere, a leader of that day’s assigned party delivers a speech to the masses assembled in a corner of the park.

By the standards of American politics, the masses are small: in 2014, Almedalen reportedly claimed 25,000 participants, 50,000 visitors, and 700 journalists. But, along with the permanent population of the town (about 25,000), this accounts for nearly 1% of Sweden’s 10 million people. Even Dennis Kucinich was there.

And the tens of thousands of people at Almedalen need places to sleep. Most want to be in the center of the action, in the postage stamp of the old city, and so they cram inside the walls as if in some late chapter of Camus’s The Plague. But aside from a Clarion and a smattering of others – a Best Western, some independent ones – this is not a city of large hotels. Instead, like locusts, the throngs devour every building they come across. Every room in the city is rented out a year or more in advance, with the rental income providing Visby’s permanent residents a healthy percentage of their annual income. The houses becomes dormitories, with multiple people crowded into each bedroom and mattresses and cots laid out in kitchens and hallways.

To American eyes, Almedalen is dazzling and alien. Picture the Democratic and Republican parties holding their conventions together, along with every third party and non-profit and lobbying group under the sun, on Martha’s Vineyard or Key West. The final scene of Dr. Strangelove comes to mind. But, for the Swedes, it all seems to work. The only truly dark moment came the day before Almedalen began, when the Swedish Neo-Nazi Party held a counter-picnic just outside Visby. But the picnic was drowned out by a demonstration “for compassion,” a multicultural counter-counter-picnic, and the loud clanging of the town’s church bells warning of danger for the first time since World War II.

But while Almedalen is all about politics and discourse, the atmosphere is more carnival-like than stodgily intellectual. The streets are jammed with people at all hours of the day and night. Backyards are filled with people talking policy over korv (Swedish hot dogs) topped with fried onions. You can’t walk ten feet through the town’s main squares without being bombarded with pamphlets from people in brightly-colored t-shirts. An enormous bee roams the streets handing out copies of Expressen, the tabloid “with a sting.” Every Swede has a campaign button over her heart. Two women dressed all in black make a solemn processional through town carrying a mock-up of a missile. A dildo used as a political prop, and an entire table in a nice restaurant chanting “camel toe” to the tune of bar mitzvah-classic “Siman Tov u’Mazal Tov” to prove that Swedes have no hang-ups about sex. Some enormous, misshapen vision of Big Bird wanders around outside the hotel where the Prime Minister stays. (A Clarion, by the way – a chain that is basically a motel in the United States but quite posh in Scandinavia.) Swedish chanteuse Miss Li warms up the crowd before the Social Democrats’ speech in the park. Groups of people march with flags in matching t-shirts: “Stoppa Lexbase” (“Stop Lexbase,” a website which tracks individuals who have been involved in criminal trials) and “Crip is Hip” (disability activists). Toward the end of the week, 20,000 kronor showered down over the plaza outside the hotel in a statement about spending.

A protest march through the streets of the old town.

A protest march through the streets of the old town.

There are receptions amid the ruins of the town’s Romanesque and Gothic churches. Those who wish to see and be seen hold court over bottles of champagne at Vinäger, a trendy, open-air, white-washed bar a block up the hill from the gate to the park. Toward the end of the week, the political parties’ youth wings coordinate a frenzied DJ Battle at the Miami-inspired Kallis Beach Club. And every evening, a man in an orange t-shirt gets up on a haphazard stage in that plaza, strums his guitar, and sings folksongs on behalf of a fledgling party no one seems to have heard of. He wears a wig: the horizontal, bright orange pigtails of Pippi Longstocking.

Pippi, called Pippi Långstrump (or more fully Pippilotta Viktualia Rullgardina Kursmynta Efraimsdotter Långstrump) in the original, is Sweden’s answer to Peter Pan or Anne of Green Gables – the steadfast child dragged kicking and screaming into adulthood. The creation of Astrid Lindgren, one of the country’s most beloved writers, Pippi lived at the Villa Villekulla with her horse and her monkey and a tree that grew a citrus-flavored soda called sockerdricka.

In the Swedish television and film adaptations, the Villa Villekulla was a bright yellow house with a green roof and white picket fence in the town of Vibble, a suburb about three kilometers south of Visby. The house has since been moved to nearby Kneippbyn, where it now stands at the center of a theme park. The many trinket shops of Visby sell Pippi wigs and Pippi postcards and other assorted Pippi paraphernalia. And if you watch closely, you might even spy some small child wandering the streets of the town decked out in the entire Pippi ensemble – blue dress with patches and red-and-white striped stockings. Pippi is big business, and, like a Baltic Disneyland, vacationing Swedes are obligated to take their young children to the Villa Villekulla. Mention Pippi to any adult Swede, and you’ll see a wave of childhood nostalgia wash over their faces as if you’d sung a mother’s sweetest lullaby.

The medieval city wall.

The medieval city wall.

To visit Visby is to visit modern Sweden. Despite its medieval architecture and heritage, it’s not a quaint picture-book town out in the countryside. It’s not a place for high-brow museums or a place to taste traditional Swedish cuisine. It’s a tourist town, with all the kitsch and garishness that comes with that. Its streets are lined with pizza and hot dog joints, souvenir tchotchkes, and stores hawking summer tack. But, in its way, it’s a more authentic place. Unlike in Stockholm, the voices here are all in Swedish. During Almedalen, it’s where the entire country comes together to celebrate its identity and debate its future. It’s a town where Swedes go to enjoy themselves and each other’s company, to revel in long summer days before the eventual descent into cold winter darkness. For me, an American, visiting Visby during Almedalen was to dive headfirst into another culture, a place to feel blissfully far from home, a place where my foreigner’s inquisitiveness about smörgåstårta was met with joy, laughter, debate, and the memory of an Israeli in India who devoured a Swede’s treasured tube of Kalles kaviar. It’s a place without expectations, of pure adventure, without destinations, of small streets to wander endlessly and get lost in. These are the moments I search for when I travel, the moments I recall most fondly years later, of being thrust into a place I know little about, seated at a table enjoying life with people I would otherwise have never met, those moments where you discover more about the world around you, about the soul of a place, and, in the process, so much more about yourself.

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