Christina here and once again I’m going to take you all armchair travelling! A couple of weeks ago I was lucky enough to go to Norway on a research trip. My older daughter and I drove around the southern part of the country covering 1230 km in five days! Exhausting, but very rewarding.
We began our trip in the capital, Oslo, a beautiful town situated next to the Oslo fjord. In the city centre old houses mixed with new, overlooked by the royal castle up on a hill at one end of the famous Karl Johan Gate (street). Everything was within walking distance, including the cathedral, the harbour and Akershus, a medieval castle.
As I was there to research Vikings, we headed to the Historical Museum, which was built in 1904 and is a stunning example of Art Nouveau architecture. They had two relevant exhibitions – VIKINGR and FABULOUS ANIMALS from the Iron Age to the Vikings.
The VIKINGR exhibition contained some of the most exquisite objects ever found from the Norwegian Viking era. There were beautiful brooches, a silver hoard, the famous Gjermundbu Helmet – the best-preserved Viking helmet in the world, together with chain mail that was found with it – a gold spur and lots of swords.
For me, the highlight was one particular sword. Throughout Europe, swords marked with the inscription VLFBERHT have been found and these were supposedly the best ever made. They are thought to have come from workshops in southern Germany and presumably made by a smith called Ulfbehrt as the inscription is like a trademark. I had read about these but never seen one in real life, so this was a dream come true for me.
The other exhibition, FABULOUS ANIMALS, was all about the fantastic beasts and mythical animals used in Viking decoration and during the preceding centuries. There were some truly stunning pieces of jewellery, sword hilts and much more, a lot of it made of gold. This was an added bonus I hadn’t expected. The beasts were not just for decoration, but were thought to give protection and strength to those who wore them.
After that, I went to THE VIKING PLANET, a digital Viking museum with a VR experience of a Viking raid where you feel as though you are in a Viking ship being attacked by fire arrows. There were enemies boarding the ship and fighting right in front of you – scary! Other interesting films were about all aspects of Viking life, so it was well worth a visit.
After picking up our rental car, our first stop was THE VIKING SHIP MUSEUM on a small island just outside Oslo called Bygdøy. This contained the famous Oseberg and Gokstad ships, found in ship burials in the south-eastern part of Norway, as well as the less well-preserved ones from Tune and Borre. The museum has just closed its doors for the next five years as it undergoes a transformation, so we were very lucky to get there before the cut-off date. A brand new Viking Age museum is going to be built to exhibit all these treasures and I hope to go back one day to see that.
I have wanted to see the Oseberg ship ever since I first heard about it as a little girl and it didn’t disappoint. Excavated in 1904, it was found almost completely intact, although the pieces were crushed by the mound above it. The bits were all preserved and restored before being pieced together. The result is quite simply stunning! Built around 820 AD, it was used in 834 AD as the final resting place for two very high-status ladies. No one knows who they were, but they must have been incredibly rich as the grave goods they were buried with included 3 sleighs, 5 beds, a cart, food and drink, as well as sacrificial animals – 15 horses, 6 dogs and two cows. Things like jewellery and weapons had been looted, but there were still loads of other objects. Luckily everything was well preserved because the ground around the ship was moist. The ship itself is beautifully sleek and decorated with the most amazing carvings. I could have studied them for hours!
The Gokstad ship (built in 890 AD and used for burial around 900 AD) was not embellished in the same way, but nonetheless very impressive. As I mentioned in a previous post, it was used as the basis for the reconstructed longship Íslendingur which sailed all the way to New York without any problems. The Gokstad was used to bury an important chieftain whose skeleton showed that he had been killed in combat. He too had grave goods like beds, boats, a tent, a sleigh and various animals including two peacocks – very exotic!
Next door to the ship museum was an outdoor museum – THE FOLKEMUSEUM. Lots of old Norwegian houses had been moved and rebuilt here to show the various architectural styles through the ages. These included anything from a 1950s petrol station to medieval farm buildings on stilts and a stave church. There were also exhibitions about folk costume (including Saami ones).
The following day we drove to BORREHAUGENE at Borre, a sort of Viking graveyard with 50 burial mounds of various sizes built between the years 600 – 1000 AD. Some of them are huge and we were able to climb on top of them. All have depressions in the middle, showing that they were plundered long ago. Archaeologists have also found traces of large hall buildings and a longhouse nearby so this area was an important site.
The MIDGARD VIKING SENTER, next to the mounds, is a small museum all about Vikings, and nearby a huge replica chieftain’s hall has been built – the GILDEHALLE. I wasn’t able to go inside as there was a private function going on, but the outside was seriously impressive. With its gorgeous decorations, lofty roof and slightly curved walls, it is definitely a hall fit for a king!
An hour south of Borre we stopped at KAUPANG, a site that used to be a trading town in Viking times. It was on a par with Birka in Sweden and Hedeby in Denmark. There is nothing left to see nowadays, but archaeological excavations have shown the layout of it along the coastline. I wanted to look at the surrounding area and get a feel for the scenery since the characters in my next book stop here. Luckily I have some books about it too, so I’ll be able to imagine what it was like in its heyday.
After an overnight stop in Kristiansand, a port on Norway’s south coast, we continued on to Stavanger in the west. The drive was very scenic, through forests, valleys and lots of tunnels underneath the mountains. This was a recurring feature during our time in Norway and they varied in length from just 100 metres to 24.5km – the Laerdal tunnel which is apparently the longest road tunnel in the world. Seriously creepy!
In Stavanger, our first stop was the SVERD I FJELL monument – a sculpture featuring three enormous Viking swords made of bronze and stuck into a rocky outcropping by the sea shore. It was awe-inspiring and for me symbolized everything the Vikings achieved, and their courage and fearlessness in going out to get what they wanted. The three swords are 10 meters tall so I felt very small standing next to them. Officially, they celebrate a historic battle which took place in nearby Hafrsfjord some time in the early 870s AD when a king called Harald supposedly united Norway. A nearby sign told us it also “represents peace as the swords are planted into solid rock and may never be removed”.
Stavanger itself is a lovely place with an Old Town consisting of quaint clapboard houses painted in all the colours of the rainbow. There is a harbour too and it was a joy to just walk around and soak up the atmosphere.
The following day, we took a ferry north – it was the fastest way to go because if you drive around the fjords it takes forever! We visited the NORDVEGEN HISTORY CENTRE in Avaldsnes, which is the site where kings used to have their halls. Located on the island of Karmøy it overlooks a narrow strait – Karmsundet. In days gone by, ships had to pass through there on their way to and from the north of the country (the so called Nordvegen or “the north way”), and that made it the ideal place for a king to stop them and demand a toll payment.
The History Centre is cunningly situated mostly underground and can only be seen from the strait outside. The exhibition is all about the royal site at Avaldsnes, and the kings who fought to own it – mainly Harald Fairhair and the king before him, Hjør. Interestingly, king Hjør was married to a princess of Mongolian descent called Ljufvina. Her tribe, the Sikhirtya, lived along the northern coast of present-day Russia, an area the Vikings called Bjarmeland. They were experts in catching marine mammals, especially the walrus which was so sought after for its tusks, and Hjør wanted exclusive access to their trade goods.
We paid a brief visit to the city of Haugesund on the nearby mainland, and went into a cute little bookshop that only sells books in English! Den Lille Bokbutikken. Then we continued driving north-east inland, along numerous fjords and valleys, and around and through mountains (yes, more tunnels!). The roads were sometimes rather narrow and a bit scary, but the views more than made up for it – they are simply breath-taking!
GUDVANGEN, our next stop, was a tiny village in an extremely deep valley next to the innermost part of a fjord. The mountainsides rose steeply all around us, towering so that you felt completely hemmed in. It was as though we were isolated from the rest of the world. It took the sun until midday to reach the bottom of the valley the following day.
We stayed in a cute Viking-themed hotel, where the décor was just a little OTT, ate in a ‘Viking Diner’, and then visited a reconstructed living history Viking village called Njardarheimr, where a guide told us amusing facts and stories. He also allowed us to try our hand at archery as well as throwing a Viking axe at a tree stump. To my utter surprise I managed to hit the targets on both counts! (Beginner’s luck?).
Our final stop was at the BORGUND stave church. It is called that because it has staves – load-bearing corner posts – with vertical wall planks joined by the tongue and groove method. The church was built ca 1180 AD and is one of the best examples in Norway. I had seen lots of photos of it, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. Despite being quite tiny – which was a surprise – it had enormous presence and is exquisitely built. There are carvings around the doors and dragon’s heads on the roofs, and although it is made out of wood, it is mostly black because it’s been covered in pine tar to protect it from the elements.
The inside was very dark and a guide had to shine a torch on the main features – carved posts with human and animal heads at the top, a square stone altar that might have been a leftover from Viking sacrificial rituals, and a baptismal font made out of soapstone. I was thrilled to see rune graffiti on some of the walls, presumably carved by bored members of the congregation.
All in all, an amazing journey!
Have you ever been to Norway? If not, what would you most like to see?