The Sunny Isles of Sweden

29 August 2013


Gotland 4

Stockholm, as I noted previously, has been called the “Summer City,” and its enviable position on the coast, extending out into the Baltic by way of a chain of islands . In so far as the Stockholm archipelago is an extension of Stockholm, we might call the Stockholm archipelago the “summer islands.” Certainly for me the Stockholm archipelago turned out to be the “summer islands,” as my time here consisted of bright, clear, sunny skies without a cloud in sight — pleasantly warm, but not hot, even during high summer in mid-August. That is weather than I can appreciate, as anything hotter than Stockholm would probably be uncomfortable for me.

Gotland 6

When my sister and I initially planned this trip we had another itinerary in mind, but plans change, as they tend to do, and we opted for islands, as neither of us had visited the Stockholm archipelago but had heard of it throughout our lives. Our travel in the Stocholm archipelago took us to islands as small as that of the Kasallet, off Vaxholm, and the small island where we ate lunch when we rented a boat (either of which could be walked around in ten minutes), to the mid-sized Sandhamn, which it took two or three hours to walk the circumference, and lastly to Gotland, which would probably take days to circumambulate. Interestingly, diminutive Sandhamn also had a tiny town, which was more like a village. Larger Gotland has Visby, which is a good sized town which could perhaps be called a city. And Stockholm, which is on the mainland, is much larger than these others. It is almost as though the familiar principle of island biogeography, that species confined to an island tend to evolve into smaller sizes, also holds for cities.

Tennyson would have recognized this flower in the crannied wall of Visby's ruins.

Tennyson would have recognized this flower in the crannied wall of Visby’s ruins.

Visby is large enough and old enough to have had an eventful and colorful history. I would compare it to the role of Cyprus or Malta in the Mediterranean: it is a strategic crossroads of the Baltic that has tempted many invaders and occupiers over time. And the usually peaceful Hanseatic League, which was primarily interested in trade, here got entangled in an urban/rural conflict that led to open battle for control of the island.

Gotland 5

I have mentioned several times that Visby is sometimes called “the city of roses and ruins.” Of course, there are cities all over Europe with picturesque ruins of town walls and great buildings. After a certain time in history, town walls were no longer relevant to defense, and later still became an impediment to growth. This explains the ruined town walls throughout Europe. Usually, when we see a large number of ruined buildings in a concentrated area, there is a good reason for it, even if we don’t know the reason. Many people who travel to England view the many ruined abbeys and monasteries there, without realizing that their number is the direct result of Henry VIII dissolving the monasteries and expropriating their lands and revenues for the crown. Elsewhere, where there are entire ruined towns or cities, there is a traumatic story behind how an entire urban area fell into ruin.

A ruined carving from a ruined gravestone in a ruined church in Visby.

A ruined carving from a ruined gravestone in a ruined church in Visby.

In Visby, I was unable to discover any single, unified reason for the large number of large ruins in with the old walled city itself. Each ruin has a plaque in both Swedish and English that describes the building, and a little about its history and had it came to be abandoned. While the stories were similar, they did not point to a single historical cause.

...and more ruins...

…and more ruins…

It is almost as though the Gotlanders had simply lost interest and allowed these great churches to decay and fall into disrepair, then ruin — much as contemporary Europe has largely lost interest in its religious tradition and is, for all intents and purposes, secularized (an historical category now held in low esteem, but one that I would like to rehabilitate). Europe remains today a post-Christian remnant of Christendom. Did the Gotlanders get there first? Was Visby an (unexpected) glimpse of the secular future of Europe? The displays in the Gotlands Museum emphasized the wealth and prosperity of Visby during the middle ages, and wealth is often if not always an occasion for the development of high culture and advanced ideas. Now, I am not seriously suggesting this as an historical interpretation, but it is an interesting idea to play with.

Gotland 10

Below is a picture of me in one of Visby’s ruins, looking for all the world like a Caspar David Friedrich painting. It is also interesting to play with the idea of ruins in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich, in which ruined churches in particular play a prominent role. Many art critics have seen romanticist symbolism in this portrayal, but perhaps Friedrich was simply fascinated by ruins. (And was Albert Speer influenced by Friedrich in his Ruinenwerttheorie?) Perhaps the Gotlanders allowed their ruins to stand rather than clearing them away because they found them to be beautiful in their ruined state.

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Gotland 7

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Caspar David Friedrich, Klosterfriedhof im Schnee

Caspar David Friedrich, Klosterfriedhof im Schnee

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Grand Strategy Annex

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4 Responses to “The Sunny Isles of Sweden”

  1. Robg said

    I like the idea of deliberately leaving ruins for their ascetic value. English aristocrats where known to have fake ruins of churches and Abbeys built in the grounds of their country houses during the 18th and 19th centuries.

    • geopolicraticus said

      Indeed yes. This has also been cited as a precedent for Speer’s “theory of ruin value.” Romanticism still continues to affect our tastes today more than we realize — for example, steampunk could be considered a Victorian form of romanticism.

      Best wishes,


  2. me again said

    Nice, these castle ruins remind me of my country (minus the cathedral) 🙂

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