Finding Hawai’i in Sweden

The label catches my attention: the silhouette of a twisted tree on a pale blue background, with the name of the local brew scrawled in whimsical letters below – Kalkenstenshawaii (”Limestone Hawai’i”). ’Not the comparison that comes to mind,’ I think as I proceed to the checkout counter, ’but it’s too intriguing to pass up’. My impression of this island so far has been one of churches and sheep rather than of leis and lū‘aus.

Because of the mild weather and long days during the Swedish summer, many Swedes prefer to spend their summer vacations domestically rather than abroad (better to escape the Swedish winter than miss out on the Swedish summer!). Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea, is one of their favorite destinations. It’s far enough removed from the mainland to feel like a proper getaway, but being only three hours away on the ferry, it’s still close enough to be convenient. So, I had done as the locals do and said hej då to Stockholm for a week to take it easy on Gotland.

With my three-gear bike, I huff and puff up the undulating roads through the heart of the island. This is not the leisurely ride I had expected, and I’ve been questioning my decision to rent the bike ever since I hit the first hill outside of Visby. However, I’m determined to visit as many raukar as I can, so I shed my jacket, put on some music, and keep peddling.

Church on Gotland, Sweden
Gotland is home to nearly one hundred intact Medieval churches (the highest concentration in Sweden), all of which are still in use.

As the name of the craft beer bottle I picked up suggests, Gotland is predominately made of limestone. Ever since the glaciers from the last ice age receded, Gotland has been rising slowly out of the sea and being battered by the waves. The wave action has created a unique coastline decorated with columns of rock known as raukar (singular: rauk). The raukar are a symbol of Gotland and Sweden, even featuring in the lyrics to the Swedish version of the song ”This land is your land”.

After several hours, I reach the tiny fishing hamlet of Lickershamn. A few boats bob in the harbour, and a line of tiny red huts points toward a promontory at the end of the bay. There, the largest rauk in Sweden stands guard like a lighthouse. This one is named ”Jungfrun” (”The Virgin”) after the ill-fated love interest in a tragic legend that takes place on the rauk.

The rauk Jungfrun on Gotland, Sweden
The rauk Jungfrun, standing alone at the end of the cape, is the tallest rauk in Gotland, standing over twenty-five meters above the sea.

Gotland gets its name from an ancient culture called the Goths, a Germanic tribe that presumably originated somewhere in northern Europe. As far back as the days of the Roman Empire (which they helped bring an end to), the Goths had connections and influence throughout the continent. Many centuries later, several unrelated phenomena would appropriate the Goths’ name for themselves – Gothic architecture, Gothic music, Goth fashion, and so on. In the meantime, though, Gotland carried on being a crossroads of maritime trade and transportation in the Baltic region.

My visit to Gotland would therefore feel incomplete without spending some time on the adjacent island of Fårö. Just across a blustery sound at the northern tip of the main island, Fårö gets its name from the Old Norse words for ”travel island”, testimony to Gotland’s long history as a seafaring nation. As I load my bike onto the bus, the cheerful old driver asks me if the bike is broken. ”No”, I reply, a little confused. ”Then why don’t you ride it?” ’Well for one thing, the bus has free wi-fi,’ I think to myself as I settle in for the hour-long ride to Fårö Sound.

I’m relieved to find that Fårö’s smaller size and lower profile than the main island make it a much more pleasant biking experience. Before long, I’m cruising along the barren cliffs of the Digerhuvud coastline and dodging dive-bombing seagulls on the windswept Langhammars headland, discovering raukar at every turn. As I pedal back toward the ferry crossing, I pass pasture after pasture of grazing sheep – coincidentally, the modern Swedish spelling of ”Fårö” actually means ”sheep island”!

Raukar on Fårö, Gotland, Sweden
Enjoying a walk among the raukar of Fårö
The rauk Hunden on Fårö, Gotland, Sweden
This rauk on Fårö, known as S:t Oles Port (St. Ole’s Door), or simply Hunden (the Dog), is one of the most iconic landmarks in Gotland.

During the Middle Ages, the Goths in Scandinavia set out as Vikings on trade and plundering expeditions throughout the known world. Many Viking treasures remain in Gotland to this day. The Spillings Hoard, for example, was discovered only recently and is the largest Viking silver collection ever found, consisting mostly of coins from the Middle East.

I cycle past the site of the Spillings Hoard discovery as I approach the town of Slite on the northeast coast of Gotland. The location of this town, on a large sheltered bay, made it a natural port for the Vikings to base themselves and safeguard their treasures. Nowadays, ships call at Slite harbour to load up with cement manufactured from the gaping limestone quarry nearby. When I arrive at the opposite side of the bay, having succeeded in navigating a maze of backroads not designed with bikes in mind, I enjoy a picnic amid the isolated and tranquil Asunden rauk field.

Raukar at Asunden, Gotland, Sweden
A field of raukar at Asunden, the peninsula that protects the harbour of Slite

Even after the Viking era had ended, the people of Gotland continued to trade actively, and the town of Visby grew into a major Baltic hub of the German trade organization called the Hanseatic League. When its importance and power finally began to wane, Gotland incorporated itself into Sweden in the seventeenth century. The old language used by the Goths has long been extinct, but even today, some people in Gotland speak Swedish with a particular local dialect.

The town of Visby, now listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, is the capital of the Gotland region and a picturesque mix of Medieval ruins and classic Swedish pastel houses. Narrow cobbled streets lined with colorful roses form a tight network around the main square, and the whole town is enclosed by a high stone wall that remains almost completely intact. As I wander around, taking in the ambiance, I stop to enjoy a few songs by a concert band (complete with bassoons and baritones) that has set up stage just outside the main city gate tower to entertain the summer crowds.

Visby Ringmur, Gotland, Sweden
The ringmur (city wall) around Visby remains almost completely intact, with 27 of its 29 large guard towers still standing.

With its glory days behind it and a higher population of sheep than people, Gotland may seem like an out-of-the-way destination on the periphery of a small country. But, the island manages to stay relevant in other ways, at least among Swedes. Every summer, fans of director Ingmar Bergman’s films arrive to celebrate Bergmanveckan (vecka means ”week”) on Fårö, where he did much of his work, and also where he is buried. The following week, politicians from across the political spectrum arrive for Almedalsveckan, a week-long political forum held at Almedalen Park in Visby. Stockholmers notoriously like to vacation on Gotland in mid-July, a week known as Stockholmsveckan. And in the first week of August, Visby hosts a Medieval-themed festival, appropriately called Medeltidsveckan.

Visby, Gotland, Sweden
Evening sky over the Medieval walled town of Visby

As for the Kalkenstenshawaii beer, well, it turns out to be pretty good. And I suppose Gotland and Hawai’i do have one thing in common: each has a history of being an independent trade and transport hub in its respective sea, only to eventually end up as the vacation destination of its larger neighbor. The label was certainly right about two things, though: there is no risk of falling coconuts in Gotland, and no need to say ”Aloha”.


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