Three weeks ago, I set off with my adventure bag in one hand, suite case in the other, and my husband by my side. We traveled across the ocean to visit our daughter in Germany, to see places we had never seen before. We toured castles, climbing steps worn smooth from centuries of use. We traveled by train and bus to quaint villages, and walled cities, climbing steep steps to beautiful old cathedrals. And we floated along the Rhine River, passing villages tucked in along the river bank, steep slopes behind them covered in grape vines. We hiked through vineyards by day, and sampled wine by night. It was all so different from my mountain top home in Vermont.
The last stop on our journey brought us to a small island in the Baltic Sea – Gotland, Sweden. In an article about the native sheep of Gotland, Judith MacKenzie McCuin describes Gotland island as:
…a Swedish island of pristine medieval beauty. Set like a green jewel in the center of the Baltic Sea….
Time has nearly stood still on this little island. Saved from modern day development, this haven looks much the same as it did centuries ago. Gotland’s history is steeped in Viking stories, trading routes, stone walls, and warfare among neighbors. There is much to explore on the island. To this day, archaeological ruins and ancient picture stones tell stories dating to 100 AD. Picture stones, containing runic letters, reveal the lives and journeys of the early people of Gotland during the Viking era. Many of these picture stones have been preserved and are housed in the Gotland Museum in Visby.
Old stone foundations of entire villages remain in the countryside with sheep grazing in and among the timeworn fragments. Vallhagar, one of Gotland’s earliest settlements, dates back to 200 BC-500 AD. Today, a foot path leads you through the center of the what use to be the village, where all that remains are stone foundations, a burial mound, and your imagination.
Norse religion, brought to the island by Vikings, was practiced until Christianity reached Gotland in the 11th century. Evident of the fortunes made through the trade and exchange of goods with foreign countries by merchants in the German Hanseatic League, stone churches were constructed. In Visby, the center of trade and commerce on the island, the exact number of churches is unknown, but there are at least 10 ancient church sites within its walls. Ninety-two stone churches still fill the island’s countryside, and are still in use. Many churches appeared in Visby during the 12th and 13th centuries. Some of these churches served specific nationalities which used Gotland as a trading center, and others were used by abbeys. Within the walls of Visby, several sites reveal the massive cathedrals which once served the people living there.
This is home to the sheep and shepherds I came to see on this island vacation, “Pälsfår”, the Swedish pelt sheep. Many of these farmers were born and raised in the very houses that they now live in. Their roots run deep in the soil of this “green jewel”. Their neat and orderly farms reveal the love and pride they have in their homeland and life profession-raising Gotland sheep. We were welcomed with open arms into their homes, farm stores, and pastures to learn and to ask. We shared meals together, stories, and our passions. I had to hold back the tears when I boarded the airplane for home-I had made friends, and we were united by our love of sheep.
I will introduce you to some of these special people in future posts.
Read more about our trip to Gotland, Sweden:
(Facts on the history of Gotland were gleaned while visiting the Museum in Visby.)