Gotland in Wintertime
Calm has settled over the island. The landscape has changed from leafy green to bare, wild, and enchanting. The magical Gotland light is transformed into something more watchful and poetic than the summer holiday idyll.
In Västergarn, Karin Cedergren, who created Hotel Stelor, takes a long morning walk along the shoreline, properly wrapped up against the biting sea winds. The 18th century farmhouse awaits her return, the fire in the open hearth crackles and the scent of newly baked bread snakes along the stone walls. Indoors, you are sheltered from the storms, just as during every winter for 300 years.
“Experiencing the Ekstakusten coastal nature reserve during a storm is a sight to behold,” Cedergren says. “Generally speaking, the weather is far more absorbing at this time of year. In all honesty, I think Gotland is at its best during the winter months.”
The small, privately owned hotels that are scattered across the island also change character in winter. Like many other hotels here, Hotel Stelor scales down to a simpler lifestyle. This is the time for groups of friends to take over the entire hotel, to prepare their own breakfast in the kitchen and, for a few moments, imagine this beautiful Gotland farmhouse and gardens as their own. Cedergren likes to get to know all of her guests, so the chef serves dinner at a set hour, and everyone comes to the table at the same time like a big family.
“In high summer, everything is a bit more mechanized,” Cedergren says. “There are just such an incredible number of people around then. We do our best to remember the names of all of our guests, but in winter we really can do what we try to do – namely, have the time to speak to everyone to ensure their time with us offers more than what the island itself can offer. Being here in winter is a totally different feeling.”
As we head from Hotel Stelor toward the main town of Visby, we enjoy one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline on the island. A few kilometers south of Visby’s frost-covered city walls, Leva Kungslador is serving brunch, as it does every weekend during the off-peak season. In summer, diners spread out all over the grounds among the apple trees, on the lawn, and even in the greenhouse. At this time of year, the grounds are empty except for a few small birds, while the insulated barn restaurant is packed with hungry guests. The bakery ovens are hot, and Leva supplies meringues and biscuits to the mainland these days. One of the founders, Susanne Liljenberg Norberg who hails from southern Sweden, went native after nine years on the island, and she never wants to leave.
“I love all the contrasts here,” she says. “How the streets are packed in summer and virtually empty in the winter. And I love it when spring arrives, the outdoor restaurants start preparing for summer, and you can hear the sound of hammers and nails. When fall arrives, everyone disappears, everything slows down, and calmness prevails.”
Friends from Stockholm who come to visit usually ask what Liljenberg Norberg and her family actually do in winter.
“I usually say we socialize,” she says. “People are social here. We socialize much more than we ever did on the mainland. And the best thing of all is that you do not actually plan activities, as it were – they simply happen.”
On the drive north, the edge of the road glitters with frost, and here and there we spy small damp paw prints of animals that have passed in the night. On the horizon, a sliver of sky can be seen behind the granite-gray cloud cover.
Just before the ferry terminal at Fårösund is another old Gotland farm that has enjoyed a renaissance over the past three years. Prima was owned by the same family for more than 350 years before it finally went up for sale. Emma Ahlström and Martin Hultman bit the bullet and bought it, swapping big city life in the far south of Sweden for Gotland, in the hopes of giving family life top priority.
“It was a long-standing dream of ours to live in a place like this,” Ahlström says. “To be able to grow organic food, to be self-sufficient and create a new lifestyle together, and to engage in craftsmanship in wood, ceramics, and food. Even so, we probably still feel as though we do not really own Prima, that we just have a temporary lease and that it is part of the cultural heritage of the island that we would like to share with others.”
‘You do not actually plan activities – they simply happen’
During the off-season, they open when the occasion arises. They are still feeling their way forward, just as they did when they opened for business three years ago.
“We started on a tiny scale, selling interior design products, craftwork, and ice cream to children,” Ahlström says. “But then their parents started asking if we could serve them coffee, and before the end of the summer season we had opened a bakery and café.”
Ahlström and Hultman’s dream of spending more time with their family has come true. Hultman is building a greenhouse in the garden from old windows he has been accumulating since they moved here, their big project for this off-season. Ahlström is giving him a hand while the children play in the garden. When they tire of that, it is her turn today to go inside with them. In the kitchen, the smell of fresh marmalade wafts from a pan simmering on the stove. When you work from home there is always something that needs to be done. When the family feels the need to give mind and body a rest, they head out into the countryside. The summer lines for the Fårö ferry are a distant memory, and the children play on a deserted beach where towels and ice cream vendors have given way to silence, birds, and frosty jetsam.
“It is so easy to forget about consumer society here on Gotland,” Ahlström says. “As a parent, when you are in a city you automatically think of playgrounds or shopping malls when you have your children with you. Remove that and a whole new world opens up to you. We pack a picnic basket and usually a Primus stove – the children love the idea of cooking food outdoors. They’re involved in everything now. Alice is already talking about when she takes over Prima.”
The family spent last winter renovating the old barn and installing seats in order to expand their café business. Ahlström explains how doubts start to creep in when they’re hammering nails on a cold March day – what on earth are they doing, and will anyone really want to sit here and have a coffee? Then summer arrives, and both Ahlström and Hultman get to chat with curious café guests and talk about their life’s journey, time after time.
“Working together is great fun,” Ahlström says. “Naturally, it is hard to put Prima out of your thoughts. When we’re sitting with a glass of wine in the evening, it’s always Prima we talk about. At the same time, it is fantastic that we are both equally passionate about it, and it doesn’t feel like work when we are building an indoor café. What we are building is our life together here on the island.”
By: Emma Aspelin and Maria Soxbo
Published: May 20, 2017