Sunday, October 25, 2009
By the Hammer of Thor – A Viking Trail through the North Atlantic
If you were a Viking in the Middle Ages of European history, chances are you were not much of a diplomat or humanitarian. Roderick Eime reflects on the Nordic influence.
The fearsome Viking reputation is not without substance. Beginning around the ninth century until well into the eleventh, the Norse mariners went on an aggressive land grab that often resulted in bloodshed, abduction and pillaging. Today’s mild-mannered and infinitely cultured Scandinavians have countered this unfriendly perception somewhat by reminding us that the Vikings were also skilled seafarers, advanced agriculturalists and energetic traders who advanced the culture and civilization of Europe generally.
No matter which angle you embrace, Vikings still evoke a powerful mystique with their bold and robust architecture and design as well as pagan worship. Just like the Greeks and Romans, Norse mythology is chock-a-block with mighty deities and gods like, Thor (god of thunder), Odin (god of war) and Freyr (goddess of love and fertility). Our days of the week are still named after Norse gods. True.
Vikings and Norse culture has experienced several periods of renaissance over the years with the 1870 Wagnerian opera, The Valkyrie, perhaps the most memorable. A notoriously long and arduous production, the phrase “it’s not over until the fat lady sings” refers to the final act of the buxom Norse queen, Brünnhilde.
Away from the grand opera and comic books, it’s out on the water that the Vikings had their biggest influence. Their penchant for raiding, trading and colonizing spread the Norse culture and genes deep into Russia, North Africa and as far as modern Canada. Great explorers like Erik the Red and his son Leif Ericson, took the Norse influence west of Iceland to Greenland and North America and even created settlements as far away as L'Anse aux Meadows on the tip of Newfoundland. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it is believed the Vikings lived there around 1000AD.
Passionate historians or even just the curious can recreate their own “Viking trail” by interconnecting the various Norse settlements with modern cruise ships, enjoying a form of sea travel Erik and his crew would never have dreamed of.
Iceland from where Erik & Son fled in the late 10th Century. Far from being constrained by its name, Iceland is far more than frozen water. Visits to ports like Djupivogur, Isafjord, Seydisfjordur and Akureyri aboard vessels from MSC, P&O and even the smaller boutique and adventure lines such as Seaborne and Cruise West will reveal a land rich in natural and cultural treasure. One of the most popular excursions is the geothermal lake, The Blue Lagoon, where you can swim in 40 degree, mineral rich waters just 40km from the capital.
Greenland, the world’s largest island, nearly 300km west of Iceland, was also visited and colonised by Erik and Ericson but these villages only existed until the early 15th century, when the Norse were either evicted by the Inuit or died out. Not limited to small expedition vessels, Nanortalik and Qaqortoq are two ports visited by the larger liners including Princess, Holland America and Saga. Visits to Greenland are becoming increasing popular and even a little urgent, as the massive glaciers disintegrate in the planet’s warming climate. The destination provides both a natural and cultural feast when combined with the rich and colourful Inuit who ultimately prevailed over the Viking invaders.
If you were sailing toward Iceland from the northern tip of Scotland, it would be hard not to stumble across the remote Faroe Islands. Still a domain of Denmark, the first Vikings are thought have arrived in there in the 7th century, not by boat but from a migration north from the Orkneys and Shetlands, which themselves experienced centuries of Scandinavian influence that persists to this day.
Look for itineraries that include ports of Torshavn (Faroes), Kirkwall (Orkneys) or Portree (Hebrides) to fully experience the Norse influence of Northern Britain.
As an Arctic destination, most ports are only visited during the northern summer cruise season, typically May to September. The ideal months are June to August when the weather is warmest.
MSC, Saga, Hurtigruten, HAL, Oceania, Silversea, Seaborne, Cruise West, Costa