Christina here. I should have been in Norway right now on a research holiday, but for obvious reasons I’ve had to postpone. It’s a shame, as I was really looking forward to exploring that country, but hopefully I will get there next year. I had planned to tell you all about my journey too – hopefully with lots of wonderful photos – but I will have to take you along on last year’s trip to Denmark instead. As we’re all stuck at home, I hope you’ll enjoy a little bit of armchair travel!
For an author, seeing or experiencing things first hand is always the best way of doing research, and it’s a great excuse for going places. Of course it’s not always possible to find exactly what you need, especially when like me you’re writing about Viking times, but there are ways and means. With the whole of Scandinavia steeped in Viking history, one can definitely get a feel for the setting as a whole. And fortunately there are also quite a few museums where the curators have tried to recreate the past to really give visitors a taste of what it was like a thousand years ago. Two of the best ones are in Denmark and I came up with the idea of taking my mother (who lives in Sweden) on a little road trip, thereby killing two birds with one stone – she would get a mini holiday and I’d get to do some vital research while spending quality time with her!
For the purposes of our journey, the great thing about Denmark is that it’s connected to Sweden by the Öresund bridge (made famous in a Swedish crime series called simply The Bridge which some of you might have seen). This is nearly 8 kilometers long, followed by a 4 kilometer tunnel to the Danish mainland, so you can drive there without the need for a ferry. It’s quick and easy, and made Denmark the ideal road trip destination. (And as a little claim to fame, one of my mother’s cousins helped project manage the construction of the bridge!)
My mother is elderly and I didn’t want to tire her out too much, so I’d planned a leisurely holiday, driving short distances each day, stopping at a museum, then spending the night at a hotel nearby. We started off in the south of Sweden, staying in one of the ‘longhouse’ buildings typical for that part of the country (the county of Skåne). At nearby Foteviken was an outdoor museum with reconstructed Viking houses and craftsmen plying their ancient trades. While my mother enjoyed sitting in the sunshine, I chatted to a blacksmith – who let me hold a Viking axe, very exciting! – and a man carving beautiful objects out of bone. I tried my hand at using a quern stone – incredibly heavy – and took copious notes. It was the perfect start! But although I found lots of useful information, the houses were quite small and I really needed something much bigger for my story. It was time to cross over to Denmark in search of a proper Viking hall.
I was a bit nervous about driving across that bridge to be honest – it seemed very long, precarious and high up, and you feel decidedly small! But we made it and the helpful SatNav/GPS lady guided us to our next destination, Roskilde. This is a town in the northern part of the Danish island of Zealand and it was a very important stop on our journey because it’s where the Viking Ship Museum is located. Naturally, you can’t write a Viking story without mentioning their famous longships – fast, sleek and feared by all their enemies – and I couldn’t wait to see one close up.
The museum features five ships that had been deliberately scuttled in a nearby harbour for defence purposes, but which were rescued from the seabed and put on display. They are all different, but I could hardly believe the size of the largest one, it was absolutely massive and built for 70 rowers! There was also an ocean-going trader big enough to fit a large cargo, including cattle. Although how the poor animals coped out on the open sea, I have no idea. They must have been terrified … The museum had built a mock-up of the deck which you could stand on and image yourself sailing away – excellent.
There was lots of information about the various types of ship, a display of different kinds of rope (did you know Viking rope was made of things like seal and elk hide?), and there is boat building on site. Craftsmen use ancient techniques to make replicas of the Viking longships, and the best thing of all is that you can go on a short trip in one of those around the harbour. Of course I had to try that!
Being the kind of person who turns green at the mere sight of a boat, I was very apprehensive about this, but as it turned out I need not have worried. The bay outside the museum was calm and the ship glided through the water extremely smoothly. I didn’t feel the slightest bit sick and even enjoyed the rowing. (You can’t participate in the trip unless you are able to help with rowing and hoisting the sail, which meant my mother had to stay behind, but luckily she didn’t mind). In fact, it was an exhilarating experience and I was sorry when it was over. I learned so much – what it felt like to row such a large ship, how the oars and sail were fastened, and also what happened when one of the rowers was useless at it. The man behind me was out of sync the entire time and repeatedly banged his oar into my back – irritating, but very useful to know!
Denmark is not a massive country; it only takes about four hours to drive all the way across. It is made up of lots of islands and it’s very pretty! The landscape is mostly flat and rural, with a stunning coastline whenever you go from one island to the next. We continued our journey with a three-hour drive to the city of Ribe on the country’s westernmost coast. This involved a trip across yet another long bridge, although thankfully not as scary as the first one.
Ribe, a beautiful old town, is situated on the island of Jutland and this was the stop I’d been looking forward to the most. Here they have another museum, the Ribe Viking Centre, where there are lots of reconstructed buildings from the 8th – 9th centuries – several longhouses, workshops and even a little Christian church. (Missionaries like a man called Ansgar tried to bring Christianity to the northern heathens for quite a while). This place was, quite simply, paradise for me in terms of research. My mother and I wandered round for hours, sat in a Viking hall, tried out the chieftain’s chair, and took in the smell and feel of each house, and all the artefacts inside. I even tried lying down on a sleeping bench, to my mother’s horror – she was afraid I’d catch fleas or something! (The benches were covered with a collection of rather moth-eaten furs, it has to be said, but I was fine).
There were reenactors dressed in Viking outfits, and again, craftsmen plying their trades. I took photos, made notes and just generally soaked up the atmosphere. Of course it is possible to find most of the information about Viking life in books and online, but actually experiencing the scents and sounds of the place is invaluable. Those are the little details that add real flavour to a story, and sitting inside a Viking longhouse with my eyes closed I was really able to imagine myself going back in time. It was truly a wrench to leave!
On the way back to Sweden, we went looking for amber on a southern beach, and visited a very strange amber museum, but that’s a tale for another day as it belongs to my second book …
I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip vicariously! Please tell me about your most memorable journey, whether good or bad – what made it special?