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Gotland steps back in time

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12:12 CEST+02:00
Fiona Basile dons her tunic and watches Gotland turn back the clock hundreds of years for Visby's Medieval Week.

I can only stand and watch as, shrieking and terrified, the residents of the Gotland countryside desperately run toward and bang at the towering southern gate of Visby, in a bid to escape the Danish forces.

This was the scene that greeted me in the usually peaceful capital of the Swedish Baltic Sea island. The apparently terrified rural residents were, of course, only acting, but they were playing out events that really took place in Gotland hundreds of years ago.

They are among thousands of medieval-clad visitors to have been converging on Visby for the 24th Annual Medieval Week (Medeltidsveckan) Festival, which reaches its climax this weekend.

Medieval Week Secretary General Marie Flemström says the festival focuses on the era starting in 1050 and stretching right through to the 16th century.

“We want to awaken people's imaginations and their interest in history,” she says.

“We don't just focus on the entertainment; we also provide educational and historical courses throughout the week. This is what sets us apart from the rest."

Standing in the middle of historic Visby, it doesn't require too much imagination to think yourself back in Medieval times. The 3.4 kilometre stone wall that surrounds the inner city was built during the 12th and 13th centuries; the wall and its 36 towers still exist today and are integrated daily into the festival's activities.

The shrieking rural inhabitants are taking part in a powerful re-enactment of the Danish Invasion. On the 27th July 1361, Danish King Valdemar Atterdag and his professional army slaughtered 1,800 Gotlandic people in the country-side before entering the city through its southern-wall gate.

This date is one of the most important dates in Gotland's History.

“It's known as the Battle of Wisby,” says Flemström. (Wisby is the old Gotlandic spelling for Visby). “It's a tragic and true story that is re-enacted each year during Medeltidsveckan so that you can get an understanding of what happened”.

Various events in the history of medieval Gotland are portrayed at different points in the week.

At the heart of Medieval Week lies the daily market. Set within the city walls, by the sea, the scents, colours, sounds and tastes are a feast to the senses.

Dressed in my own medieval wear, I join the thousands of others who've donned colourful fabrics of a time gone by: tunics, dresses, scarves, flowing shirts, trousers and accessories galore.

The stalls sell products linked to the medieval era: armour, jewellery, clothes, crafts, furniture, and even swords and knives.

We listen to the musicians, laugh at the jesters and gaze at the flexible acrobats and brave fire-eaters. Even the food is medieval: roasting meats, warm melting toffees and honey-coated nuts.

Visby's numerous medieval church ruins host Medieval musical acts such as Patrask, Hildegards, Gemma and Ulven, Räven and Haren. Jousting Tournaments are also a popular element of the week's entertainment, with modern visitors entertained by dashing knights on horseback fighting for the honour of their fair maidens.

The festival is a big draw for tourists to Gotland. About 150,000 visitors attended the festival last year, according to official estimates. About 8,000 people passed through the market gates alone each day the previous year.

“We attract visitors who are already interested in history and medieval times, as well as sparking interest in those who didn't know anything about it before. We really want our visitors and participants to feel like they are traveling back through time,” says Flemström.

Fiona Basile

Further information:

Medieval Week Website: www.medeltidsveckan.se.

Practical information:

Gotland can be reached by ferry from Nynäshamn, near Stockholm, and Oskarshamn. It can also be reached by air from Stockholm Arlanda and Stockholm Bromma (services operate year round). Summer air services operate from Gothenburg, Ronneby, Ängelholm, Norrköping, Linköping, Sundsvall, Copenhagen, Hamburg, Oslo and Helsinki.

For information about flights, ferries and accommodation on Gotland, visit www.destinationgotland.se

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