My story, A Tucked-Away Town – Gammelstad, has appeared in October 2016 issue of JetWings International – the in-flight magazine of Jet Airways.
Exploring Sweden’s best-preserved church town, Gammelstad
As we approached Gammelstad, the imposing Nederluleå Church filled the horizon. Our guide, a summer volunteer, pointed at the imposing structure and said, “This church was built by the Swedish to stake a claim on the territory rather than with the intention to propagate religion.”
We had driven from Luleå, a city on the coast of northern Sweden, to Gammelstad to see its deep-red cottages, over 400 in number. The church town became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1996.
In 1323, a peace treaty was signed between Sweden and Novgorod Republic, a medieval Slavic state that extended from Baltic Sea to regions of modern Russia. In those days, the boundaries of the two countries were not clearly defined, thus resulting in attempts of colonisation. The first move to assert its lien on the territory was made by Sweden in 1492 when the stone church was inaugurated.
Across the road from the church is the Visitor Centre, a good place to start a tour of the town. The Centre regales the town’s history with an exhibition, slideshows, and brochures. Our guide took us through the architectural model of the town, complementing it with stories from the medieval times – the narration was nothing short of a period drama!
The church town tradition
Nederluleå Church was the pivot of community life for villages within a radius of 15 kilometres. Though privately owned, the cottages were not meant for permanent residence – the pilgrims resided in these wooden cottages during religious festivals, when owing to the distance, travelling to and fro from their village was difficult.
These cottages had no water supply, no heating facility, and no provision for cooking. Even today, these church cottages are used in the traditional way – there is no running water, no open flames are allowed, and the cottages can be used for not more than one night. This spartan lifestyle continues to define the church town, even today.
Things changed in 1621 when the town got its city rights. Luleå was initially founded here and it transformed from being a temporary church town to a town of residents. That worked well for a few years but, in 1649, Luleå was moved to its current location, 10 km away from Gammelstad, to meet the growing demands of an expanding maritime trade. This development led to Gammelstad re-assuming its church town role. A beached ship that we discovered during our walk through the town is a telltale of the times when Gammelstad was a harbour.
Around the town
The construction of the Nederluleå Church started in the 15th century and continued into the early 16th century. The church has a huge organ that was inaugurated in 1971.
During our visit, we engaged in baking bread using a flat stone oven and making butter. The pilgrims, during their stay, made their own bread here. Making butter entailed churning buttermilk in a tall wooden barrel – a rhythmic process emitting sounds akin to a traditional percussion instrument.
At one of the eateries, you are served the bread you have baked with evening tea – a tradition practiced in Gammelstad for the last 400 years. Interestingly, it is said that while all pilgrims baked bread, making butter was restricted to the well-heeled as butter was used as currency in those days.
We had another culinary surprise in store for us. In the heart of the town, we savoured a seven-course exotic meal at Kaptensgården. A fine dining restaurant, Kaptensgården serves preparations made from local meats and ingredients. The menu ranged from ptarmigan to quail, white fish to salmon, reindeer to chicken and much more.
After lunch, we visited the Hägnan Open Air Museum – a town cottage converted into a museum. A walk through Hägnan, along with its large vintage key, takes you closer to the lifestyle of the town. Amidst the small red cottages, stands a fairly sizeable farmhouse, which is Gammelstad’s mayor’s house.
Gammelstad, with its humble cottages, is a remarkable example of the traditional church town of northern Scandinavia. Instantly allowing you to travel back in time, this is indeed a travel experience not to be missed!