As I navigate a mish-mash of eras inside Visby’s city walls, past church ruins, tar-painted timber houses, turreted roofs, Hanseatic houses and foliage-covered dwellings, a shop sign in an age-old doorway stops me in my tracks: “Franchells: Art, Design & Sardines”.
Sure enough, the shop serves the interior and piscine needs of its island’s 60,000 residents, plus the 400,000 holidaymakers (most of whom are Swedish) – just not this sardine-fearer.
Fans of England’s largest island might consider this Sweden’s answer to the Isle of Wight. Gotland, at around 112 miles long and 31 miles wide, is the largest island in Sweden. Both offer the promise of a microclimate, and a town with an independent spirt (Visby in Gotland; Ventnor in the Isle of Wight).
Gotland lies southeast of Stockholm, within the Baltic Sea. It is strategically important for shipping and, now, for keeping an eye on Russia. A window sign in Franchells stating “F**k Putin” indicates what Gotlanders think of that situation.
Yet it is a desirable place to live. Gotland features high in the league of its country’s sunny spots, and sure enough, there is blue-sky beach weather during my September visit.
“It is confirmation of why 2,600 people relocated to Gotland last year, and why the island is a magnet for second homeowners (40 per cent of houses here are second homes), holidaymakers, retirees, and – increasingly – residents working in the creative industries.”
At Manti Manti, a sparse shop bearing prototypes of furniture made from recycled construction material, I meet furniture-making husband and wife Annica and David Doms. They moved here from Stockholm in 2018 and found their tribe almost immediately.
In their eldest child’s class of 15, five had parents who were designers, furniture makers or architects. They all set up in Visby for similar reasons: access to nature, an affordable lifestyle, better work-life balance, a relaxed pace – and, in turn, like-minded neighbours.
“When people choose to live in a place [because of its character], rather than move there for convenience, that means you’re more interested in doing something new. It makes for a creative community,” says Annica.
Nearby, in Konst + Form, a co-operative of female artists whose works decorate the shop, I meet illustrator Miranda Abrahamsson. She sees Gotland as a source of inspiration. “I grew up in the mid-90s, and feel like things are moving way too fast,” she explains. “But Gotland feels more analogue. And the nature here is just so striking, it’s like paradise.”
Indeed, it is almost as if Visby’s ancient city walls, a Unesco World Heritage Site, are there to contain its bustling urban element. Outside the catchment, Gotland is an antidote to modern life. It has miles upon miles of flat, sparse countryside dotted with relics of Viking history, fishing communities and the island’s unofficial emblem, Gotland sheep.
I feel it most at Folhammars Nature Reserve, where, at low-tide, I amble among the sea stacks – remnants of eroded coral reef dating back 430 million years – where the history of the centuries dances in the sea breeze.
Further south at Muskmyr Nature Reserve, hoping to spot Gotland’s golden eagles and white-tailed eagles, I strike lucky when my guide, Sebastian Nilsson, also points out a visiting greater spotted eagle. “That’s three out of our two eagles you’ve seen,” he says.
As we clamber up a birdwatching tower, he says that on Sweden’s mainland, “if there’s a rare bird, it’s like a rock concert – there are 400 people, and you can barely see it properly. We’ve got this rare sighting – and look.”
He gestures over to the huddle of 10 men and one woman, all with their spotting scopes out.
Happily, new residents respect Gotland’s nature as much as its life-long natives.
At Långmyre vineyard (yes, really), Emma Serner and her Italian husband Andrea Guerra planted vines in response to climate change. They trained in Italy and their Gotland farm is organic and sustainable, growing new hybrid grapes that can weather the snowy winters.
Meanwhile, at Hotel Stelor, chef Linus Ström gave up his Michelin-dappled career in Gothenburg to set up a farm-to-table concept in south-east Gotland with his wife, My Wrethagen. They moved partly because of the better produce grown in Gotland (thanks again to the microclimate), and mainly due to the better life it offered for raising their three children.
In 2018, after two years of renovating the 1820s stone farmhouse, the pair opened it as rustic-chic accommodation. It now features a small gallery, an events space, and homely, yet upscale restaurant. “We don’t usually have much of a menu,” Linus explains. “It’s about what we can get from our kitchen garden on the day, and what our suppliers around the island have.”
“There is a network of producers and 20 restaurants – working with them is so valuable. We’re ready to help each other out, and we’ve formed friendships too,” My adds.
As I crunch into a freshly harvested yellow bean tempura, I confirm that I too have developed a taste for Gotland life – sardines notwithstanding.
SAS flies from the UK to Visby via Stockholm,
Destination Gotland operates a direct ferry from Stockholm Nynasham to Visby five times a day, destinationgotland.se/en/
Hotel Stelor has doubles from £170 a night, stelor.se
Villa Alskog has doubles from £146 in summer, villaalskog.com
Kalk Hotel in Visby has doubles from £73, kalkhotel.se/en-gb