One of Lapland’s top sights, Gammelstad, 11km northwest of Luleå, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1996. It is an outstanding example of what’s known in Swedish as a kyrkstad, a ‘church town’ consisting of over 400 timber cottages, which were used on Sundays and during religious festivals by people attending services in the spectacular late medieval stone church, Nederluleå kyrka, around which they are grouped. The cottages provided overnight accommodation for parishioners who lived too far away to make the journey to the church and back in one day.
Of Sweden’s 71 church towns, only 16 remain today, the largest and best preserved of which is Gammelstad, which consists of 408 gnarled wooden cottages. The combination of a strongly felt duty to attend church and the long distances involved in getting here, led to the construction of the church town in the mid 1500s. The ad hoc placing of the cottages suggests that the church town grew successively over the years, with cottages being added as and when they were needed. Miraculously, the kyrkstad has never been subject to fire. Traditions live on in Gammelstad and the cottages are used by parishioners three to four times every year when special ‘church weekends’ are held, or when confirmations take place shortly before midsummer.
What to see and do
Hägnan Open-Air Museum
Just down the hill from the cottages, Friluftsmuséet Hägnan is a rustic collection of old farmstead buildings spanning three centuries. They come from farms across Lapland and have been rebuilt in their original form to accurately portray country life from the 1700s onwards. Rural skills such as sheep shearing and flatbread making are also occasionally displayed.
Bus #9 runs roughly once an hour (timetable available at LLT) to Gammelstad from Smedjegatan in the centre of Luleå and takes about 35 minutes; alight at the stop called Kyrktorget.
The city of Luleå originally grew up around Nederluleå kyrka, which was built during the 15th century and inaugurated in 1492. The opulence of the building is a clear sign of the economic prosperity of the town at the time, which was based on fur trading in the Lapland interior and salmon fishing on the coast. Originally intended as a cathedral, this is the largest church in Sweden north of Uppsala. Indeed, the lookout slit in the eastern gable suggests it was a useful fortification during periods of unrest, allowing boiling oil to be poured over unexpected visitors.
The interior is ornate in the extreme. The altar screen with its finely carved wooden figures was made in Antwerp around 1520 at great cost to the local farmers who were presented with the bill. The ornate pulpit, replete with dashes of gilt, dates from 1712 and is the work of local carpenter, Nils Jacobsson Fluur.
The tourist office in Gammelstad is located in the heart of things at Kyrktorget 1 (visitgammelstad.se). In addition to a wealth of information about the church town, it also runs guided tours in English during the summer months (book online; 80SEK).