Ingmar's islands

Bergman comes alive as Oliver Bennett discovers the colour and medieval magic of Sweden's best-kept

There are islands that are prisons, islands that are paradises. Then there are the islands that are magical playgrounds. The Isle of Wight is one; there are also the Scillies, Rottnest in western Australia, the Île de Ré - and Gotland.

This 80-mile-long lozenge in the Baltic Sea has a place deep in the Swedish soul. "It's a state of mind," said my Swedish friend Sussi, "a place for our own Enid Blyton fantasy." Rocky foreshores, beaches, cycling with rucksacks, the first taste of bottled beer in a tent: these are some of the reasons Swedes love Gotland. Stockholmers go there to downshift and absorb the Baltic spirit in all ways imaginable.

One has to make an extra effort from the UK. Although Ryanair has made Stockholm accessible, Gotland is an extra three-hour sail. But once I put the ill-fated MS Estonia out of my mind, I enjoyed the watercolour beauty of the Baltic sky: a shifting palette of silvers, greys and duck-egg blues, set off by the odd smear of Nordic pink.

As we shuddered towards shore, Gotland's capital, Visby, came into view: Hanseatic spires surrounded by well-kept town walls - the very same image as a visitor would have seen from the prow of a Baltic cog in the 12th century. It was like sailing into an old engraving.

Back then, Visby was one of the most im portant cities in Europe, and Gotland ("good land") was rich, as its 92 soaring white churches testify. Both these and its landscape recall East Anglia. Mainland Sweden has an endless, sometimes monotonous background of pine forests, lakes and red-wood farmsteads, but Gotland has flat fields, heathland, fens and pebble beaches. It's more Norfolk than Norway.

I walked into Visby through the arches of its old walls, feeling the Grimm's Tales vibe in its cobbled squares and alleys. Around one ochre-painted corner, I bumped into an American couple from one of the cruise ships that criss-cross the Baltic. "We've just been in Tallinn," said the man, swinging his digicam. "This is just as good. Maybe nicer."

The cathedral sits in an exquisite corner full of steep-eaved burghers' houses, one of which has been turned into the new Medieval Hotel, where the staff dress in tabards. Dressing in ancient garb is quite the Visby fetish, and every August during Medieval Week, the locals run around in chain mail and baldrics. The Middle Ages were one of Gotland's several high water marks; the era is still visible in the great charismatic hulks of Visby's ten ruined Gothic churches.

Gotland is also about deep nature, so I set out northwards from Visby, passing several young people on bicycles, and plentiful sheep. Gotland sheep are an attraction in their own right - a deep charcoal grey. The sight of a flock against the grass was terrifically chic: the countryside redesigned by Paul Smith. Even the puffball Baltic clouds had a smart uniformity, as if conforming to egalitarian Scandinavian principles.

Windmills, maypoles, steep-gabled houses and those whitewashed churches flashed by, all vaguely familiar. Possibly that's because they appear in the films of Ingmar Bergman. The venerable director has a place on Fårö, off the northernmost tip of Gotland, and has set many films around the island. Could I see where he lived? "No," said a local tourism official. "Even if you get close, the locals will send you the wrong way. They're very protective."

Bergman, 88, is not a Paul Bowles type, happy to host fans. But a debut film award, recently inaugurated in his name, rewards the winner with a week's stay on Fårö. Then there is Bergman Week, three years old last summer, with screenings, seminars and location outings. Last year Ang Lee came, apparently dumbfounded to see these scenes in colour. (Real film buffs also go to southern Gotland to see the place where the burning-house scene from Andrei Tarkovsky's The Sacrifice was shot.)

Some of the screenings took place at the Furillen, one of the more bizarre hotels I've stayed in. Finding it involved a drive on to a peninsula bordered by a rocky coast replete with raukar, the strange limestone outcrops that appear, mute and numinous, in many Bergman films. Weirder still, one then drives into what looks like a dust bowl, as the hotel is a refurbished factory set within an old limestone quarry. It was created by the fashion photographer Johan Hellström, and is now a fashionable place to spend weekends. Bergman himself visited during Bergman Week. "As if a saint had walked in," said Hellström.

I walked up a slag heap that the photographer has turned into a viewing point, and, from a minimalist pergola, looked down on the building and its guest bicycles, self-contained like a post-industrial Portmeirion, yet with a vaguely paranoid edge. Indeed, Furillen used to have a watching station to keep an eye on the Soviet Union, roughly 90 miles away in Latvia.

I nosed around, taking snaps of the decrepit pier as the hotel guests mustered with vodka-and-cranberries before their truffle-oil-drizzled dinners. A better mind can explain the Swedish bourgeoisie enjoying the high life in a disused factory; I joined them.

The next morning, I cycled into the wilderness, past ancient stones bearing a gallery of lichens, and scrubland leeching the thin lime soil. Rock platforms - alvar - emphasised the lunar landscape. Then, after a breakfast of croissants, cloudberry jam and coffee, I set off for Fårö.

After a five-minute ferry crossing, I was deposited on this island, even more remote, ovine-stocked and windswept than northern Gotland, but with a seasoned tourist track. I stopped at a café run by old rockers which had a marvellous sculpture garden made of rusty 1950s Volvos, and then followed the trail of Saabs to some particularly impressive raukar on the north coast of the island. There, I got talking to a Swedish man. "I live in Switzerland where they can't see very far and have closed minds," he said. "Here, you can see very far, and it makes an open mind."

There was a certain patriotic vanity at work, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt.