Visby is a small, walled seaside city on the gorgeous Swedish island of Gotland. It has the most amazing series of intact, walled fortifications anywhere in the Baltic, with the possible exception of Tallinn.
The difference here is that these amazing, ramparts flank a string of beautiful beaches, thronged with bars and waterfront cafes, and enclose a stunning, wondrous swathe of glorious botanical gardens. The ghosts of the past stand guards on the battlements, while brightly coloured butterflies flit skittishly through the ramparts once designed to accommodate archers of old. The place has a stance and a serenity that make it quite unlike anywhere else in the region.
The fortifications date from the thirteenth century, when the island was a member of the ancient Hanseatic League. Visby was walled in, garrisoned and gifted with a series of gaunt, great grey watch towers from where any marauding pirates could hopefully be seen.
In the event, no attack ever materialised. Hence, all dressed up and with nowhere to go, the fortifications survived, tried and tested by nothing more pressing than time. The remarkable state and scale of their preservation led to the whole complex being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
These walls, turrets and towers seemed to preserve everything within them, too. There’s a wonderful church in wedding cake white, with twin, gracefully tapering spires in black wrought iron that loom against the sky. Houses, shops and restaurants have a cookie cutter, gingerbread look and feel. Set amongst bubbling streams and dark, silent lakes, it all looks like a theme park designed by the Brothers Grimm. if the makes of Kodak film had ever designed a perfect stage setting for their products, I think it would have looked a lot like Visby.
The gardens themselves are lush, tranquil and expansive. A technicolor tour de force that showcases a tidal wave of amazing colours, sights and scents within an easily traversed, difficult to forget few kilometres. Bars, cafes and open air tea houses dot the rolling expanse of vibrant, multi coloured rose beds- the island is famous for its roses-to create a singular, distinctive environment that is quite unlike anything you might expect to find in the region. Though only three hours’ sailing by ferry from the Swedish coast, Visby enjoys a surreal sense of detachment that makes it seem a million miles removed from anywhere else on earth.
Best of all, the island is relatively small, and inaccessible to larger cruise ships. That obviously means smaller crowds, which in turn equates to a more intimate, personalised experience. The locals are friendly and welcoming and, while the island is not cheap, it is an experience that you are never likely to forget.
Of course, these perceptions of Visby are ones formed in the long, warm nights of a stunning Baltic summer. Winter would make the island a very different proposition; with the early nights and the eerie mists of that season, it would probably look like something more out of the pages of Hamlet.
But, walls and all, Visby is an enchanting, endearing little proposition. if you’re lucky enough to be on a cruise or shore itinerary that stops here, then do yourself a favour, and enjoy every possible moment of it.