The most beautiful town in the world you’ve never heard of

Travel News from Stuff - 11-12-2023
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I’d travel to the for another saffranspannkaka.It’s a kind of pancake that’s more like a creamy baked rice pudding, flavoured with saffron and almonds – and you need to go to the ends of the earth to try it.

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It is a speciality of Gotland, s largest island, which sits off the Swedish coast in the Baltic Sea. Its main town, Visby, with a population of less than 40,000, is a popular cruise port in summer.

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That’s how I first came to discover saffranspannkaka and Visby itself, which must be the most beautiful town in the world that you’ve never heard of.

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Known as the “city of roses” for its preserved medieval houses covered with climbing roses in summer, it’s surrounded by a mostly intact 12th century ringed wall and fortifications and sits high on limestone cliffs overlooking a deep harbour.

You can get there by ferry from the mainland but most tourists who aren’t Swedish or German arrive on cruise ships. In summer, where the weather is a little cooler than in Stockholm, the narrow cobblestoned lanes are full of visitors admiring the pretty houses, the ruins of ancient churches, the botanic gardens and the spectacular sea views from the many hilltop lookouts.

They’re also sitting in the sun in Visby’s many charming cafés, eating saffron and honey ice-cream on the ramparts and shopping for chic homewares and Swedish-design clothing in its upscale boutiques.

When I first visited in 2019, I became instantly smitten with the town. Not only is it picture-book gorgeous, it also has a fascinating history. If you’re mad about Vikings, as I am, this is the place.

There’s a greater density of Viking hoards on the island than anywhere else on earth. More than 350 Viking graves were found in a burial ground south of Visby harbour and treasure dating back to AD 870 has been found buried in schoolyards and under the wooden floors of warehouses.

The small but wonderful contains archaeological finds, including Viking graves, skeletons and armour, and the museum’s Treasury boasts the largest silver treasure in Europe – 67 kilograms of bangles, bracelets and 14,000 coins.

Visby was also the leading centre of trade in the Hanseatic era (13th-15th centuries.) Among the lovely stone houses, often covered in stucco and painted white, yellow or blue, there are preserved medieval warehouses that have been turned into inns, shops and artist’s studios. The town still feels prosperous, and its Unesco World Heritage listing ensures its architecture will be preserved for centuries to come.

I thought I would never see Visby again after that visit, so I’m pinching myself that my latest cruise takes me once more to this port. It happens to be the birthday of Ingmar Bergman, one of Sweden’s most famous artists, who lived on the neighbouring island of Faro and shot a film in Visby in 1971. I think this is a lovely coincidence.

It’s possible to walk from the port to town, but I take a bus to the top of the hill, where there are food trucks selling cardamom buns and sausage wraps. From the bus station it’s also possible to buy a cheap ticket to take you anywhere on the island. There are bicycle rentals at the port as well.

Most tourists head for Stora Torget, the main square, which is surrounded by outdoor cafés. But I’m on a mission to find, at Hansgatan 15, the little outdoor-indoor café where I’d eaten my first saffranspannkaka.

I find it completely by instinct, as the narrow streets curve and dip up and down the hills. I line up at the counter to order and then take a seat inside.

When the cake arrives, it’s as sumptuous as I remember – thick, creamy, unctuous, smothered in extra cream and topped with an oozy syrup of salmbar, which are like blackberries.

I tell the café owner that I’ve come all the way from Australia to have his pancakes. He’s shocked. It’s not quite true, of course.

But I’m already plotting my third visit to this magical summer place.

Visit Visby on Regent Seven Seas Mariner on its North Sea Odyssey itinerary from July 5 to July 23, 2024. The cruise begins in London Southahmpton and concludes in Copenhagen. See:

Ocean and river cruising have an impact on the Earth's waterways. To reduce your impact, consider offsetting carbon emissions and booking with cruise lines that use cleaner fuels and adopt recycling practices.


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