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Sunday, June 10, 2007, in Visby, on the island of Gotland, Sweden

Hi everyone. Today we’re in Visby, the main town on the otherwise sparsely populated island of Gotland, working our way up the eastern cost of Sweden.

We left Karlskrona on Monday, expecting to motor in the morning because the winds weren’t expected to be high enough to sail. But the forecast was for good winds in the afternoon. We were happy to see that we could sail almost immediately and for most of the day. In the afternoon, though, the winds moved around to the wrong direction, and we found ourselves tacking, really slowly, between the mainland and the island of Öland for hours. Eventually, Art gave up and began to motor. Or, as he put it, “We’re going really slowly and in the wrong direction.” You never have to ask me twice to motor, so off we went.

The horizon of the city of Kalmar is dominated by a large, beautiful castle. We didn’t arrive in town until about 5:30, and our berth alongside the dock was steps away from a shopping center that included a McDonald’s and a movie theater. The pedestrian shopping streets were within view, and the architecture was appealing. We knew we’d like this place, and that was some good thing, because the weather didn’t look promising for leaving any time soon.

In the morning, we went over our options with the tourist office. We could see the castle that day, but the next day was a Swedish holiday (yikes) and all the shops would be closed, but the castle would be a center of activity. Or, we could rent a car, the only way to visit the “Kingdom of Crystal”, home to glassmakers such as Kosta, Boda, and Orrefors. But the car would be expensive to rent, and there was the distinct possibility that the visit would be short of learning and long on shopping opportunities, a mall disguised as a workplace.

Instead, we got a booklet that contained a detailed walk around the town. We combined the walk with any errands that had cropped up, though there weren’t many. By this time, we’re pretty well-stocked with food, spares, and any boat or household needs.

Our walk took us around the fortifications surrounding the town, and showed us historic houses, like the one that had belonged to Judge Palme, the great-grandfather of former Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.

The area that the town occupies is the shape of a splayed-out cat skin with its tail pointing east. There’s actually a neighborhood called Kattrumpan, or “cat’s behind”. Yes, Swedish is much easier to de-crypt than, say, Turkish. And when I hear people talk, I can’t stop thinking about the conversation in the Mary Tyler Moore show, between Mary and Phyllis, when Phyllis’s in-laws from Sweden come to visit. I recall it went something like this:

Phyllis: They just sit around all day, rocking back and forth, saying things to each other in Swedish. Lunga Dunga Hunga. I dont think they like me.

Mary: Why do you think that?

Phyllis: Because one of the things they say is “God helpen Lars.”

The National Day in Sweden is like our July 4, and there were festivities in the castle and in the main square in town. Since nothing else was open, we visited the castle in the morning and the square in the afternoon. The castle was lovely, and there was a play, primarily for the children, in the courtyard. But after watching a few minutes of it, it became kind of “lunga, dunga, hunga” for us, and we ventured back to town, the long way, through a little square. In that square, people were dressed in traditional costumes and doing activities such as cooking, writing and forging metal in traditional ways.

The next day was my birthday, and it was actually hot outside. We contemplated wearing shorts. We went to a restaurant by the harbor, recommended by Lonely Planet as the best food in town, and it probably was. The fixed-price meal was affordable and included lots of little courses of delightful Swedish dishes. We began with bread and a little cup of an asparagus puree, and moved on to a mixed appetizer which included a terrine of matjes herring and potatoes, shrimp salad, and a soup of nettles and lightly smoked salmon. Our meal was a sautéed fish served with spring vegetables and passionfruit, and dessert (which we shared) was a trio of lemon mousse, raspberry sorbet and a little éclair served with chocolate sauce. Yum.

Friday, we motored most of the way here to Visby. This island, Gotland, is surrounded by coral reefs. Seems pretty strange until you learn that Gotland started out near the equator 400 million years ago and has been moving north (and still is) at a rate of about 15 centimeters (six inches) a year. Visby was a very important trading port in the 10th and 11th centuries. Because of its strategic location and its wealth, Gotland was constantly being attacked by surrounding powers, and spent much of its history being a part of Denmark, or Sweden, or even Russia, which controlled it until as late as the 19th century.

We were a little early for the Visby season (which is probably the reason we found any kind of space in the small harbor), so few of the island’s tourist attractions were in the state that they should be. The archaeological museum, undergoing renovation, would be closed until mid-June. The exhibits that had temporarily been housed in the art museum were already back in their normal home, so we were shut out. The walking tour booklet in English was still at the printer. So yesterday, our first day in town, we set out on our own.

Our coffee on the main square included the local specialty saffranspannkaka. It isn’t really a pancake in the crèpe sense; it’s cooked in a pan. It became popular as a statement of wealth during the spice trading days (and even recently in the US, if you wanted saffron in the supermarket, you had to go to the customer service desk, where they had it locked up.) The cake is served with whipped cream and a jam made from a local berry from a bramble bush, similar to a mulberry.

We spent the day exploring the narrow, winding shopping streets of the old town. Visby is a UNESCO World Heritage site, because of its well-preserved medieval buildings and ruined immense Gothic churches, and its surrounding wall with more than forty towers. We’ll walk around the wall today, as even in this Epcot-like tourist haven, all of the shops are closed on Sunday. We didn’t really miss having the walking tour booklet, because most of the historic sites are marked in Swedish and English.

We’ll leave here tomorrow or Tuesday, depending on the weather. Our next stop is back on Sweden’s mainland.

Love, Karen (and Art)