What a cultured lot those Vikings were
year, we liked it so much, we stayed. We started a family and I embarked on a second career as an author.
For my latest book, I delved into traditional navigation techniques, tried Viking handicrafts, and learned axe-throwing while six months pregnant with twins. But I’ve never ventured east, following the Norsemen’s route to the Arab world, nor seen a picture stone. These carved images show Viking life as it really was, and Gotland in Sweden boasts the greatest number of them in the world. So to truly go Viking, I have to go to Gotland.
An island off the coast of Stockholm, Gotland was a trading hub between east and west in the Viking era and is littered with cultural treasures from the period. But the Swedes, as with everything else, play down their attractions. “So what brings you here?” asks the taxi driver who picks me up from Visby airport to drive me to the town’s spectacular walled city and Gotland’s Unesco World Heritage Site. “All this..?” I gesture around, as we pass dramatic raukar – pillars of limestone carved by the current that seem to surge up and out of the sea of their own accord. Or the fine whitesand beaches backed by pine forests that the region is famous for. Or the centuries of history distilled into four insanely Instagrammable square miles of spires and gabled roofs poking out from between tightly packed trees, shrubs and bushes that earn Visby its nickname: City of Roses.
But my cab driver remains unimpressed as we bump along narrow, cobbled streets and weave between medieval houses. The air is crisp and clear; the sky punctured by the steeples of a stunning 12th-century cathedral – built to appease German merchants and now the only surviving medieval church in Visby.
“And then there’s the Vikings!” I protest, just as we come to a stop and I am unceremoniously turfed out. Swedes are famed for their lagom but I’m beginning to wonder whether I’ve overhyped Gotland’s Viking credentials. I needn’t have worried.
Lars Kruthof, the last clean-shaven man in Sweden, welcomes me into Gotlands Museum (gotlandsmuseum. se) for my introduction to the island’s history. He’s wearing an impressive pompadour, cuffed blue jeans and what looks like a Viking brooch with interlocking circles, and I’m impressed with his dedication to the theme.
“Is that an original design?” I ask. “This? No, I got it in Estonia.” “Oh.”
It turns out Lars is a museum curator by day and rockabilly fan by night, so travels a lot. “But we do have a lot of unique Viking finds in Gotland!” he promises, hurrying me through the chilly medieval museum to a room containing a 1,000-year-old skeleton of a woman from Viking times; her (authentic) brooches and box pendant beautifully preserved.
“Gotland’s Vikings were traders,” explains Lars. “They weren’t ‘bloodthirsty’: they were about buying and selling things.”
Like what? “Honey,” is his answer. Less “Furious Norsemen”, ”, more Winnie-the-Pooh. Still, it t proved lucrative. Eighty per cent t of all Viking silver hoards in Sweden have been found d in Gotland’s flat farmland, and there’s still likely to be a lot ot left underground.
Lars tells me about a farmer who struck silver r under old floorboards, and nd a group of schoolkids who ho got lucky poking around a rabbit hole. “Can we try?” ?” I ask in spite of myself. I’ve seen Detectorists! I know the drill!
His “no” is firm. He tells ls me that these days, excavation is the preserve ve of professionals: “Metal detectors are banned and we even got a guy in jail recently – we caught him selling coins on eBay.” Lar Lars tells me about Gotland’s unique folklo folklore, and how some older people still be believe in mythical underground creatu creatures: “Even now, Gotlanders stamp three times to warn the trolls b before they pour water in their g garden.” At this precise moment, a class of schoo schoolchildren thunders in, making the g glass cabinets shake. “Trolls,” Lars gives a knowing nod. He grew up with these stories on Faro Faro, the island off the northernmost tip of Gotland where Ingmar Ber Bergman made his home after film filming Through a Glass Darkly th there in 1961. I ask Lars if he’s a fan an and he says casually: “Oh yes, he w was good to us, growing up.” Bergman apparently taught the lo local children photography, put the them in his films and even built them a community centre. He stayed on Faro until he died and there’s now a museum there dedicated to his work (bergmancenter.se/in-english).
“We still get a lot of tourists on Faro, and in Visby, but they often want to see Vikings,” says Lars. Here he cradles his bare chin, and adds: “When that happens, I send them Per’s way.”
Per Widerstrom is a bearded giant with long hair and sea-blue eyes who’s one of only two archaeologists on the island. As such, he’s something of a celebrity. “There is a real respect for archaeology in Gotland because of our heritage,” he says. TV shows like Vikings and Game of Thrones have reignited an interest in all things ancient Norse, so that for Gotlanders, “archaeologist” is akin to “rock star”.
Per agrees to show me some of the Viking highlights in Gotland’s countryside, but suggests a sartorial rejig first. In his muddied four-wheel drive, we pass bucolic scenery punctuated by collections of stones in the shape of ships – graves intended to help Vikings sail to an afterlife in
Limestone pillars rise from the sea on Gotland
The town of Visby; below, stones tell of the exploits of the ancient Norse