Friday, October 11, 2013

Medeltidsveckan på Gotland (Medieval Week on Gotland)
View out over the beautiful skyline of Visby, Gotland
Step into the city of Visby, on the western coast of the Swedish island of Gotland, and you're stepping into the past. This town of 22,000 is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and with good reason, as it is arguably the best-preserved medieval town in all of Scandinavia. Much of the city's defensive ring wall, built in 1300, still stands, along with towers dating from 1300 - circa 1500. Visby is nestled into a hill, so you can climb up to the eastern side and gaze out over the city's narrow, winding cobblestone streets, her many ruined medieval churches, and out to the Baltic Sea on the horizon.

Though this experience would be a real treat at any time of the year, you'll get an even greater deal if you plan your trip (and you should!) for a whole week in August each year, when Visby comes to life as her 14th-century self once again for the Medeltidsveckan, or Medieval Week.
Visby's ring wall

The idea started in the winter of 1983, when the Gotlanders decided that they wanted to plan a week of festivities for themselves to enjoy, after the end of the typical summer tourist season. They hatched a plan to hold seminars and classes throughout the quiet winter on various Medieval subjects and skills such as blacksmithing, Gotland's medieval history, clothing, architecture, and traditional music. Then, at the end of the following summer, they'd hold a big party to celebrate and show off their new knowledge and skills. Thus, the Medieval Week was born.

Before long, news began to spread of Gotland's annual medieval party, circa 1361, and other Swedes and Scandinavians wanted in on the fun. Thus, the Medeltidsveckan has grown over the years into one of Northern Europe's largest and most authentic Medieval Fairs, with thousands of visitors enjoying both intelligent academic affairs and merry reenacting exploits.

Medieval Market:
The largest ongoing portion of the Medeldtidsveckan is the fantastic Medieval Market, spread throughout the beautiful landscape in the northwest corner of Visby's ring wall. Hundreds of vendors set up shop in the colorful market, filling it with the sights, sounds, and smells of an authentic medieval market in a trade city, like Visby was in 1361. You'll find delicious food and drink, clothing from realistic to fanciful, beautiful wools, furriers, blacksmiths and silversmiths, and nearly anything else you could imagine. Even if you're not in the market to buy anything, it's well worth a browse just for the experience.
Patrask, performing in the medieval market

Music and Entertainment: 
At three different stage areas scattered in the market performed a full line up of [free] entertainers, magicians, musicians, and acting troupes, just like there would have been in a real medieval trade fair. Even though I can't understand very much Swedish, the performances I sat on the grass to enjoy were lots of fun. My absolute favorite was the concert by the medieval "glamrock" band, Patrask, whose fast piping and lively drumming would set anyone's feet to dancing.

The organizers of the Medieval Week put together a great schedule of lectures and guided tours. The lectures cover topics from Viking archaeology to women's roles in medieval Scandinavia and more. The guided tours highlight the medieval history of Visby and the buildings and houses therein which date to the middle ages.
Archers prepare for battle
Real Tournament, Archery, and Combat:
This is one of the coolest parts of the whole event, as there is an ongoing jousting tournament - and I mean real jousting with knights in armor on horses, in an actual competition, not just lame actors like at many American renaissance festivals - which culminates in a fantastic final tournament by torchlight at the end of the week. They also hold archery, hand-to-hand combat, crossbow, fencing, and even medieval sports tournaments for both children and adults.Their traditional archery tournament is one of the largest, if not THE largest, in Northern Europe.

Battle Reenactment:
near the end of the Battle of Visby
I don't know how often they'll do this, as the Battle of Visby Reenactment put on as a part of the Medieval Week in 2013 was only the second one they've done, but if you go when they're doing a battle reenactment, don't miss it. I've seen a few battle reenactments before, and this was by far the best I've ever had the pleasure to see, even if I could only understand about 2% of the Swedish narration. It wasn't too difficult to decipher what was going on from a good vantage point. The whole show lasted about an hour and included some very realistic combat, field nurses, clergy, and even looters.

If you go:
So here's the rub, most of the events are in Swedish, such as the tours of the city, lectures, tournaments, reenactments, and nearly every other organized part of the Medeltidsveckan, BUT don't let the language barrier stop you. Nearly everyone there speaks English. I'd say skipping lectures because of the language barrier is reasonable, but don't let it stop you from bargaining with the merchants in the market, cheering in the crowd at the jousting or archery tournaments, or enjoying the musicians and other performances. You may not be able to get quite the "complete" experience of the Medieval Week, but you can still get a great feel for what Visby was like in 1361, haggle for some fantastic handmade and authentic medieval style goods, and have a smashing good time!

Please feel free to leave any questions or corrections in the comments, and learn more about the Medeltidsveckan på Gotland at their official website.
(All images are copyright Deanna Leiber, please don't use them without my permission.)

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