The land with two faces

The Baltic island of Gotland is a borderland. Its meadows separate east from west, nourish both Lutheran and Orthodox, and conceal a bloody history by Marcus Tanner
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The Independent Travel

''We should have gone by ship," I thought, as the tiny 18-seater aircraft, as fragile-looking as a paper dart, took off from Stockholm for the Baltic island of Gotland. But the islanders sitting with their shopping bags beside me looked reassuringly unfazed. We roared off. Buffeting the sharp winds, the little plane soared low over the rocky archipelago that surrounds Stockholm like an earthenware necklace, before - much to my relief - arching up into the blue for the hour-long flight.

''We should have gone by ship," I thought, as the tiny 18-seater aircraft, as fragile-looking as a paper dart, took off from Stockholm for the Baltic island of Gotland. But the islanders sitting with their shopping bags beside me looked reassuringly unfazed. We roared off. Buffeting the sharp winds, the little plane soared low over the rocky archipelago that surrounds Stockholm like an earthenware necklace, before - much to my relief - arching up into the blue for the hour-long flight.

Through the portal, the passenger ships chugging across the choppy, blue-grey waters of the Baltic shrank to the size of bath-time toys. Some were bound like us for Gotland's capital, Visby. But others were clearly heading in different directions, perhaps to the Latvian port of Riga, round the Gulf of Finland to Helsinki, or further on to St Petersburg.

Gotland was Sweden's sunny south, to be sure. Since the 1860s, when an ailing Swedish princess popularised the island as a "cure", Swedes have been migrating there annually. Nature is the draw: sandy beaches, haunted by bunny-hunting eagles; grass meadows thick with wild orchids, poppies and honeysuckle. Then, there are the bizarre, giant, lichen-covered granite pillars that dot the coast like the relics of a forgotten civilisation.

But only a decade ago, the Baltic Sea was a front line. After Stalin annexed the Baltic states in the Forties, Gotland found itself uncomfortably close to the unfriendly shores of the Soviet Union. The island found itself in a Cold War borderland, parked between the almost hermetically sealed worlds of east and west, communism and capitalism, Nato and the Warsaw Pact. The sight from my plane of those tourist boats fanning out over the Baltic reminded me that history has come full circle. Once again the Baltic draws many lands together. Visby too has been restored to its old place at the hub of a network linking the ports of Denmark, Sweden, Germany, the Baltic states and Russia.

The ruined churches of Visby are now a setting for plays, while the city's medieval walls have been artfully planted with climbing roses. In a charming week of tomfoolery each summer, the 50,000 or so islanders re-enact an invasion by the king of Denmark in the 1360s by strolling around in medieval costumes and fighting the Danes in mock battles.

And so, with roses, with dancing and with music, are the marks of history's wounds charmingly disguised. For the Baltic has always been a rough neighbourhood, and Visby's ruins are the legacy of the disasters that hit the region one after another in the 1360s - invasions, plague and a succession of freezing winters.

Before then, Visby was a key player in the Hanseatic League, a kind of Baltic Common Market composed of semi-independent city states. The island's flag - a proud lamb with a cross - recalls a time when Gotland's grass meadows, now given over to wild flowers, fed vast flocks of sheep. The islanders became rich on their wool and meat. And what riches they amassed, before catastrophe struck. Across the island they built a hundred stone churches, some the size of small cathedrals. After the Danes arrived, this frantic building activity stopped dead. Gotland's churches have Romanesque bits and Gothic bits, but that is it. After the 1370s, the churches' exteriors were untouched.

Swedes joke that the Baltic is a Swedish lake, and in truth it once was. By the 17th century, Stockholm had become the centre of a maritime empire that embraced Finland, Latvia and Lithuania. Its legacy survives in the chilly grandeur of the capital's palaces and churches. But Visby's skyline recalls an older balance of power, when Swedes, Germans and Russians traded on equal terms and drank deep of each other's culture.

Some of the tall, gabled merchant houses echo the sea fronts of Rostock and Hamburg. Others imitate the black and white, half-timbered houses of Danish Jutland. Then there is Russia, the lurking colossus in the east. In the Middle Ages, merchants from the once great Russian city of Novgorod built their own place of worship in Visby, and many of the island's churches seem to have inherited a Byzantine touch. In some, the frescos might have been lifted straight from a Russian monastery. In others, the eastern influence is more subtle. A high, narrow doorway, perhaps; a bank of lighted candles, or a richly coloured wall painting.

It is a strange amalgam, Orthodoxy and Lutheranism, the sensuous east meeting bracing Nordic sunlight. But Sweden has always been Janus-faced, with only one half turned towards the west. Centuries before the Swedes' rise to great-power status, their Viking forbears penetrated deep into the dark forests of the Russian interior along waterways that thread down from the Baltic to the Caspian.

Swedes and Russians do not just share the same backyard. The same elemental forces have sculpted them both. They know the same savage winters and short burning summers. They both have that feeling of emptiness and silence that comes from dark and endless-seeming tracts of pine forest, home not just to foxes and badgers, but also to wolves and bears.

Of course, Russia is only one influence. In the 16th century, Gotland's Danish rulers, like the English, embraced the Reformation. But whereas the English fell under Calvin's influence, and cleansed our churches of "idolatry", the Lutherans took another path. They continued to value church art. The result is that, in comparison to the "bare, ruined choirs" that Shakespeare lamented in England, much of Gotland's medieval religious culture survives.

At the village of Oja, on the island's southern tip, we gazed at a huge and elaborate rood screen that dates from the 13th century. Not one of the delicate, spindly figures of Adam and Eve, or the Christ figure, or the Virgin Mary and St John has been so much as scratched over those 600 years.

The Oja crucifix is deservedly well-known in Sweden - an astonishingly elaborate treasure for a remote village church. But many of the island's 92 parish churches boast their pre-Reformation crucifixes and wall paintings depicting saints and demons, as well as richly painted Baroque altarpieces and pulpits.

A welcome surprise for a British visitor was the discovery that most of these old churches are open all day and free of charge. Perhaps the petty thieves who have forced most English vicars to lock their church doors on weekdays will some day reach Gotland and spoil the show.

We could have hired a car to make a tour of all the churches, but preferred to see a selection by bike. And so we sailed past the grass meadows, stopping for coffee and traditional cinnamon-rich apple cake, and pausing for the odd swim - for nowhere on the island are you far from the ever-present Baltic Sea.

To my English eye, the holy places of the Swedes had a lonely feel about them. On a summer's day there is not a sound to be heard in the churchyard except the whoops and whistles of the martins nesting in the tower and the rustle of a Baltic breeze coursing through the poppy-studded grass meadows nearby.

True, our ancestors in Britain chose lonely places in which to found their monasteries. But I always think of the archetypal British parish church as standing squat in the bustling heart of the village, a place for gossip and kissing behind the gravestones, as well as for worship.

The Swedish soul moves to a different rhythm, and again, I felt a faint breath of the Orthodox east here. Like the Russians, the Swedes often planted their churches well away from the hurly-burly of village life, seeking God in the lonely place, in the spiritual desert. Maybe it was just coincidence that they built them like that. But perhaps it was something that the Gotlanders had learned from the merchants of Novgorod, or from their own explorations of Russia and beyond that, Byzantium. Anyway, that is where they stand today, ice-white relics of medieval Christendom, solitary sentinels on the horizon, ringed only by trees.

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