Pulling off the two-lane main road, I followed the even narrower route past dairy farms and open fields until I found it: an old stone blacksmith’s shed retrofitted with a wood-fired bread oven and surrounded by happy Swedes at picnic tables kibitzing over their fika, the national coffee-snack ritual cherished by all. Free-range Swedish children frolicked in an orderly manner through a stone maze.
The air itself was intoxicating: fragrant waves of cardamom and saffron, butter, cinnamon, and rye. Someone was ably pulling shots on an outdoor espresso machine. A young boy followed his mother toward a glass-roofed pavilion with open doors and comfortable chairs and a large stone hearth.
Kardemummabullar are beloved Swedish sweet buns that often can taste more of cardboard than cardamom. These, however, were pungent, gooey, and perfect. Just about everything was perfect. At night, the bakers tossed pizzas with dough made from local grains in the same stone oven. I’d happily have taken all my meals there and stayed until the extended night of winter descended and chased the summer Swedes back to the mainland, taking the good pastries with them.
It was all sort of too dreamy to be believed. Not credible in the sense that remote islands of rusticity do not typically harbor chill outposts of casually impeccable style and good espresso. And where the bakeries are photo-shoot-ready, something of the dreamy, untamed charm of the place has too often been spoiled in the process. In this way, Gotland defies the math of the holiday isle. It’s a gentle, soul-becalming place of pretty somewhere-ness and lazy summer-haze nowhere-ness. It really does defy expectations, if not belief.
Except that, having been on the island for some time, and having thus acclimated to the ways that Gotland dependably dazzles, and how it regularly leaves you gesticulating into the wind through the window of your rented Volvo wagon as it sails past a flock of disinterested shaggy sheep or a wild pony loitering by the edge of some impossibly sparkly beach, while ordering your children in the back seat to “Look at how beautiful this all is!”—in this way, we’d been conditioned to believe.
By the time we met Maurice Dekkers—part-time Gotlander, journalist, filmmaker, crusading chocolatier (more on that later) and friend of a friend—my kids were inured to the spectacle of my shouting compliments at sheep. This is why we’d come: to pilot the Volvo in circles around the island—at roughly 100 miles long by 30 across at its widest, the island is Sweden’s biggest, but not so big that you can’t get around it in a long day’s drive; to swim in the bracing Baltic; to inhale the loveliness of its wild-lavender- scented air; to admire the sedge-thatched stone houses and ailing old windmills; and to mangle the musical names of the sleepy hamlets as we passed their striking church spires—the farm towns of Fröjel and Sproge, Hemse, När, Boge, and the moonscape of Furillen, an island in the far north.
In Holmhällar, we had the wide sand beach nearly to ourselves. South of Västergarn, we parked on a patch of grass by the coastal highway and took our shoes off by the shallow water’s edge. Wading in, we jumped from rock to rock, which had been scattered like stepping-stones under a domed blue sky, empty but for streaks of cotton-candy-ish cirrus clouds.
“It’s difficult to explain the feeling of this place exactly,” Mau- rice said when we’d met over a beer on the deck at Ljugarns Strandcafé & Restaurang. Still wet from an ocean dip, we were trying to put our fingers on something emotionally self-evident: It’s nice here. But describing precisely how it was nice was hard. “There is something about the way the light is hitting the sea and changing constantly,” Maurice observed. “There is a feeling that you are not part anymore of the rest of the world.” I liked that.
At the next table, a pair of Italian truffle dogs nuzzled their lunching owners. “Gotland truffles are very good, you know,” Maurice said, mentioning a friend in the neighborhood, Ragnar Olofsson, who hunted the elusive delicacy professionally. This lagotti romagnoli seemed to have acclimated to island life. Gray and curly, they looked like small, dozing sheep.
“I love Amsterdam,” Maurice said of the city where he lives and works as a filmmaker and the founder of Tony’s Chocolonely, a chocolate producer committed to excising slavery from a traditionally troubled and exploitative business. “But when I arrive here I feel everything. When I am here the rest of the world doesn’t exist anymore.”
We met through the Danish chef René Redzepi. Maurice had made a documentary, Ants on a Shrimp, about Redzepi’s res-taurant, Noma. Now he and his wife, filmmaker and producing partner Benthe Forrer, are focusing their entrepreneurial and storytelling energies on building something in Gotland with an eye to protecting what’s special there. In addition to a house in Ljugarn, the couple recently bought a house in Fårö, a satellite island just off the northeastern tip of Gotland, that they plan to renovate, and another in Visby.
Visby is Gotland’s main town. It has a well- preserved, walled medieval fortress—and from the 1100s to the 1300s it was a seat of Hanseatic League trading power. It’s now home to an annual medieval festival and what passes for the seasonal tourist crush. In Visby, you’ll find the ramparts and museums with their Stone Age relics, crowded ice cream shops and cobblestoned alleys lined with tiny, colorful wooden houses. But for all of pretty Visby’s UNESCO-protected appeal, the real wonders of Gotland were to be found in its quieter places, where signs of humans and their doings were fewer and farther between.
It’s hard to do nothing. The world conspires to restore diligence. Thoughts, texts, stray bits of news from the world outside interrupt, unbidden. We’re self-trained as travelers to hurry up and check things off our lists even if what a place really asks for, to know it best, is simply to be quietly within it.
Fårö is such a place— rugged, windswept, and wild. In 1960, the great Swedish director Ingmar Bergman arrived in Fårö, more or less by chance, to scout a scene he’d hoped to shoot elsewhere. Smitten, he stayed. In thrall to the landscape, the people, the solitude of an island twice removed from the rest of the nation, he made Fårö his permanent home.
After crossing the Fårö strait—eight minutes by car ferry—you drive north toward the Bergman Center, a museum and cultural center that opened in 2013. An oversized board with chess pieces on the lawn awaits impromptu reenactments of the game between Death and Max von Sydow’s medieval knight in The Seventh Seal. In the lobby, there’s an oddly affecting triptych of photographs showing the auteur buying a newspaper from a local kiosk. On this tiny island, the photos attests, is a citizen, dignified but normal in all ways, performing an utterly pedestrian act. Berg- man lived among the locals as a neighbor and friend.
“I spent an entire winter on Fårö just with my dachshund,” Bergman once told an interviewer. “It’s almost uncanny how nature can be engulfing, how you become friends with the trees on the seashore.”
The beauty is stark and engulfing. The treeless, alvar-covered limestone leads to haunting sea stacks at the beach at Langhammars. Dark, woolly sheep graze meadows that are marked by low, crumbling stone walls. The swimming beach at Sudersand, with its wide tracts of velvety sand and cheesy little waterside yoga offerings and thatched- roof snack shacks, has an end-of-the-world vibe. Gotland’s flag, flapping proudly on poles everywhere, shows a magnificently horned ram with a yellow cross against an endless field of bright Swedish blue. The blues on enchanted Fårö feel moodier. A melancholic, sometimes eerie calm and beauty pervades the place. Here was Bergman’s pure distillation of the elements he’d been seeking: “We found a stony shore facing infinity.” Later, he reported of the pine trees he’d come to know: “They sort of become friends. I’ve become very good friends with the rabbits as well.”
I’d been there only a week but I felt, at least, on speaking terms with the trees and the shore and the rock formations, and I would have liked to have gotten to know the aloof sheep and those freshly baked cardamom buns better.
Wildflowers crowd the roads in Gotland. Near Fröjel, I turned off the highway at an old barn that houses the Scarlett Gallery, a pop-up. Anthony Hill, an English photographer and one of the gallery’s founders, had been coming to Gotland for a while with his Swedish wife when the idea came to him to open a spot for the summer. He showed us prints by Swedish illustrators like Annelie Carlström and a cardboard sculpture by the Montreal artist Laurence Vallières.
Next door, we met Barbro Tryberg Boberg, who’s lived on the island for several decades and has written a small, handy, illustrated guidebook. She also designed a picture book on the movie houses of Got- land. For an island, it has a surprising number of cinemas, including some in barns. One of Boberg’s designs is a tea towel with a cheerful pattern of ships and buoys interspersed with a maritime weather report transcribed from the radio. “They announce the maritime report four times every day on the radio in this monotone way,” she said. “To me, it’s like poetry, these words.”
The poetry of the tides. A book on small-town cinemas in a language I don’t speak. Pretty pictures in an empty barn. I felt myself settling into the slow, sun-baked pace of the place. Boberg wanted me to try gotlandsdricka, a flat beer-like local brew, but then she remembered it was illegal to sell it. She suggested asking around at farm stands, but the ones nearby had nobody in them. So we picked out a couple pints of wild strawberries and cherries, left our coins in the tin box, and went on our way.
On our last night on the island, we had dinner at Krakas Krog, an elegant little restaurant in the village of Kräklingbo. The young chef, Joel Aronsson, I’d met years ago at Fäviken in central Swe- den and again, weirdly, when he’d come to cook with the chef Magnus Nilsson at my house in Brooklyn. It was both nice and strange to see a familiar face so far from home. Joel’s cooking is worth traveling for: whole roasted cauliflower with a sauce made of butter and a seaweed that tastes distinctly of truffles. Last winter, while the restaurant was closed, he found the truffle-scented seaweed in the cold waters off the Lofoten Islands in Norway.
Sometime between the lamb liver with grilled beets and the dessert of local yogurt topped with twin granitas made of blue Gotlandic dewberry and green meadowsweet, my son had had enough. Wrapped in a wool blanket, he fell asleep in a hammock. But the sun itself, mellow and honeyed, wasn’t quite ready to give up yet on another blessedly uneventful Swedish summer day.