When in Roma . . .

Leonard Lea Frazer

The official flag of Gotland, Sweden.
The official flag of Gotland, Sweden.
Leonard Lea Frazer photo
The Swedish island of Gotland can be reached by ferry boat from the mainland or small aeroplane from Stockholm’s Domestic Airport and is located in the Baltic Sea. When I arrived I rented a car, and hired a guide for the day, left Visby, the capital of Gotland, and headed inland to Roma, a small farming community. The first stop was the ruined Roma Abbey.
That’s when I switched on my tape recorder to capture what my guide, Lars Nolgren, had to say.

Map of northern Europe showing the location of Gotland.
Map of northern Europe showing the location of Gotland.
Leonard Lea Frazer
Lars’s English was better than my Swedish and it was amusing at times to hear his accent and see him struggling to remember or how to pronounce certain words.

“We are exactly in the middle of Gotland, now. Gotland is 112 Swedish Mil. That means 75 miles from North and South,” began Lars with his outstretched arms like a weather vane. “And, here is the biggest way,” he continued, “It’s 30 miles that way, West/East. And, here we’re standing in Roma. Here is a monastery build up in the last part of the 12th Century. They came here in 1164, the Cistercians, and they were yust dealing with agriculture and, of course, studying people. They had the working brothers and other monks that would study… ora et labore (Latin for ‘pray and toil’) what they say, pray and work. And the monks were praying and the working brothers were working. And, they learned the people here lots about agriculture.”

I found out later, that the Cistercian Order had its origin in Cîteaux, a French monastery founded in 1098, by a group of monks under the leadership of St. Robert of Molesme. Concretely, St. Robert and his monks embraced a set of ideals popular among contemporary monastic reformers: among them were the desire for an effective balance between prayer and serious work, an emphasis on evangelical poverty and a detachment from worldly affairs, and a style of community life modeled on the apostles and first Christians. The Cistercians established eight monasteries and four nunneries in Sweden between 1100 and 1527.

Swedish tour guide Lars Nolgren, at the Roma Abbey.
Swedish tour guide Lars Nolgren, at the Roma Abbey.
Leonard Lea Frazer
A Shakespearean play at the evening summertime theatre held in the Abbey.
A Shakespearean play at the evening summertime theatre held in the Abbey.
Leonard Lea Frazer

Lars continued with the walking tour of the Roma Abbey. “They worked here from 1164 till Reformation in 1630, when they had to leave Gotland.”

We continued to stroll inside the great stone walls. “And, here we are in the middle of the church…  a Romanesque style build in the end of the 12th century. It’s a free-arch Basilica with small side-aisles.” The stonework by the monks is amazing and most of the walls are still standing after all these years. The Cistercian order used the same floor plan for all its abbeys, which made it possible to easily locate the different rooms and halls regardless of the building site.

The entire floor of the Roma Abbey has been replaced with a level wooden platform, making it safe for visitors to walk freely in the interior rooms. We walked across the floor and viewed portable bleachers that had been erected against the far wall.

“But, as you can see,” continued Lars, “they got a Renaissance again, for here we are playing Shakespeare. And, can you find a better scene for Shakespeare? It’s starting in the evening…  people sitting up here. It’s a little temporary, but we shall sooner or later build up a place of more permanent for the public. They start at half past seven when the darkness is coming and you can see perfect yust for Shakespeare. We’ve had a lot of comedies from Shakespeare here. And, the young actors, they are really playing very, very good. It’s been very popular, this theatre, in the summertime on Gotland.”

We continued exploring the rest of the abbey and the foundation ruins of a large capital house next door which included sleeping quarters, dining room and a library. This had been a two story building at one time. Lars explained that there are archaeological excavations happening all the time on Gotland due to its diverse human history. He said that, “They have recently excavated a period that dated back to 2500 BC. There was 30 settlements around Gotland (at that time). It was a warm climate. It was a very good time to live. There were lots of fish and to hunt. That excavation produced many interesting artefacts.”

We took one more walk through the Abbey, before departing on our driving tour of South Gotland. The island has a total of 94 medieval churches and 91 are still in use today. I spent an enjoyable week on Gotland camping at costal Baltic campsites. Gotland also provides a very popular summer escape destination for Swedes from the mainland. When in Scandinavia, you too can do as the Swedes do.

An outer wall of the Roma Abbey featuring the free-arch Basilica design.
An outer wall of the Roma Abbey featuring the free-arch Basilica design.
Leonard Lea Frazer

The Romanesque style architecture of the Roma Abbey.
The Romanesque style architecture of the Roma Abbey.
Leonard Lea Frazer