As Helfdane the Fat* put it: “Today was a good day, a very good day!”
[*Helfdane the Fat is one of my favorite characters in my co-favorite movie (it’s tied with The Princess Bride), The 13th Warrior. What?! You haven’t seen The 13th Warrior?! Get thee to a Red Box or Netflix forthwith!]
I left Reine and the island of Moskenesoya behind with some regret–it was simply so beautiful and evocative it was hard to move on. Until I saw what was ahead of me.
I do not know why the Lofotens are not more famous for their beauty (but I kinda hope they stay under the radar). I have been to some of the most beautiful places on planet Earth (New Zealand’s South Island, Iceland, the Faroes and, of course, my beloved Antarctica) and the Lofotens are at least as breath-takingly gorgeous.
Taking the bus from Reine to Borg, on the island of Vestvagoy, I was astounded at almost every turn by the clarity of light, the contrast of silken blue water with hardy yellow-green arctic grasses and, most of all, the impossibly photogenic mountains.
Yes, all of these photos were taken from inside a moving bus. You may see a little window glare in some of them, but I couldn’t stop myself.
At first I was bummed that renting a car and driving myself wasn’t really an option. Then I realized it was a good thing I wasn’t behind the wheel–I never would have gotten anywhere! I’d be pulling off the side of the road every 20 meters to take another photo.
Okay, just one more.
They’re like potato chips…you can’t stop at just one.
Okay, okay, onward…after this one:
When I mentioned yesterday that I had a Hope To-Do list, I kind of lied. While I do have one, I also had an I Will Do This If It Involves Jumping A Fence list, which consisted of one item: visit the Lofotr Viking Museum.
Fortunately for all involved, there was no fence-jumping needed. The museum, in Borg, was in the last days of its summer season (as of Sunday they’ll be open only five hours a day for two days a week). Many of the live demonstrations, such as the smithy, were already closed, as was the lamb stew and mead-serving cafe, but I can’t complain. It was one of the most smartly-designed, entertaining museums I’ve been to, and that it was all about vikings made it even better.
The museum is built beside the excavated remains of the largest Viking house ever found. Not just in the Lofotens, not just in Norway. In the world.
Begun in the sixth century, it was rebuilt and expanded until, in the ninth century, it reached a length of 87 meters, more than 285 feet!
It wasn’t until the 1980s that the site was even found; a farmer using a new and deeper plow to work his field noticed the new plow was turning up more than just dirt.
The museum’s developers left the original remains of the house in place and did a full reconstruction immediately beside it. To get to it, you go through a new three-room exhibit hall where nifty mp3 player-like, remote synced audio tours guide you from one topic to the next. There’s also a 15 minute film that creates a slightly hokey but interesting narrative about the last Viking chieftain to live at the site, Olaf Tvennumbruni. A good deal is known about Olaf because he left Lofotr to settle in Iceland after running afoul of Harald Fair-Haired, and the Icelanders of that era were a bit obsessive-compulsive about recording who settled where in their young country.
All I know is, the actor who played Olaf in the short and rather well-made film was totally hot.
Anyway, after the exhibit hall, I walked up the hill to both the original site and the reconstruction, passing a garden of onions and the muddy home of a wild pig that was supposed to represent the pigs kept by Olaf and friends.
The house commanded incredible views in every direction. I love standing at original sites like this, imagining what the people who lived there thought when they looked out at the same mountains I was seeing.
But, the reconstruction hall…well now. I haven’t had that much fun in a museum since Queen Laura and I ran amok at Warwick Castle.
When I entered, in the area set up to be living quarters, workspace and byre, a diminutive Viking reenactor cheerfully told me “you can touch anything here, don’t be afraid!” and I know that’s what she told me because she said it in English.
[Sidenote I meant to mention in an earlier post: when I wear my Tina Fey-esque glasses, people address me in Norwegian. When I don’t have them on, people address me in English. I find that fascinating. I’m pleased to say that whenever I start a conversation in my marginal Norwegian, the other person replies in Norwegian–as if they think I can actually speak their language! At that point, invariably, I sheepishly say, in Norwegian “excuse me, I’m sorry, do you speak English?” which just about exhausts my knowledge of their tongue and we continue in mine.]
I thought they did a great job showing all the different tasks–cooking, baking, weaving, shoe-making, and so on and so on–and the reenactor was very informative when I asked her my usual pesky questions (which included why the supports were unworked wood but the pillars had an even chipped pattern she called “fish bone” and claimed helped to reduce humidity in the building by channeling condensation down to the ground. I don’t know if I buy that, but I like it enough to repeat it).
I moved next into the meeting hall/throne room area. The one disappointing thing about this room was that it had no informational signage, but on the plus side it had a throne, or at least a really big, important-looking chair, which I promptly sat in. I put on a helmet with chain mail skirt, too, and unsheathed the sword left leaning casually against a table.
Hey, you don’t have to tell me twice that I “can touch anything.”
After my camera’s self-timer failed to take a photo I liked, I commandeered a couple elderly German tourists to take pictures of me in my regalia.
And people say I’m bossy. Sheesh.
The Germans kind of got into it (my German blood understands, totally) and had me posing and even took pictures of me with their cameras. They said they’d email them to me. Stay tuned.
After I set aside my helmet and sword (which felt good, really good, on my head/in my hand), I noticed other tourists taking photos standing next to the chair or beside the helmet.
That got me thinking. But more on that in a bit.
From the reconstructed house you follow a trail about a mile downhill, through meadow and forest, past the now-shuttered smithy and archery field, all the way to the fjord where there’s a reconstruction of a rather smart longboat. In summer you can join other tourists and actually row the boat around the fjord for what sounds like a really fun thing for someone else to do (I like rowing but not with a bunch of other people).
The area around the boat was full of middle school children having lunch during a field trip, but the boat itself was empty, so I climbed aboard (well, no one said I couldn’t!) and set up my camera to take a photo of me steering.
After futzing a bit trying to get a good angle, I asked another German tourist (Germans! They’re everywhere!) to take a photo of me steering. He obliged, but then his Frau told him to pose so she could take a picture of him. And he stood there, hand barely brushing the steering thing (I used to know the term but it has slipped away from me, though thanks to the Vikings I always remember starboard is the right side of the ship and left is port).
That’s when the thoughts teasing at the edges of my mind all day finally coalesced into an epiphany.
The reason I love the Vikings is not because they were badass (although…). My impression of them–which could be totally wrong, I know–is that they were intrepid and unafraid to hop in the longboat to move on to something better. Crops failed? Bummer, dude, let’s go raid a monastery in Northumbria. Killed a guy or stole his sheep and got caught? Hey, it happens, let’s sail over to Greenland and see if it’s as awesome as Erik the Red says on his informercial. Harald Fair-Haired getting in your face? Ah, screw him, get the pigs and the goats and the ducks and move to Iceland.
Again, that may be my completely historically inaccurate and romanticized ideal, but it’s the Viking as explorer rather than thug that appeals to me most. Although, as Dr. Virago and I learned when we toured a Viking exhibit on the Isle of Man, “a Viking is a pirate until he arrives someplace that he wants to be.”
True dat, homes.
And I realized too that, while the Vikings had rules and societal conventions, they were also probably the kind of guys who put the museum helmet on their heads and hammed it up for photos and grabbed the steering thingy and actually moved it around to see and feel how it worked rather than just rested their hands on it as if it might bite.
As I contemplated how some people seem so afraid to try something new, even if it’s grabbing the steering thingy of a replica long boat and giving it a turn, I noticed the sky had gone dark. I headed back up the hill as the rain hit, about ten minutes of sideways sheeting that felt wonderful.
On the way back to the museum proper, I met a guy walking his two dogs. I’m pretty sure he thought I was insane because I started staring at the dogs from quite a long distance away, thinking…can it be?
“Excuse me,” I said in Norwegian. “Are those Lundehunds?”
He nodded warily.
OMG LUNDEHUNDS! I asked him (in English, because I do not know how to be creepy in Norwegian. Yet.) if I could pet them and take their picture and ohmygawdLUNDEHUNDS!
Okay, okay, so, let me explain. One of the many reasons I’ve been a little obsessed with coming to the Lofotens for more than 20 years is because I am fascinated by Lundehunds. They’re a breed that originated here in the islands and were used to climb cliffs to harvest sea bird eggs and hunt puffins.
Let me repeat. The dogs were bred to climb sea cliffs. There are a few around here.
Given their specialized use, the Lundehunds are some pretty freaky puppies. They are polydactyl, with two extra toes on each foot to give them better grip. They are extremely flexible (I’ve seen it sometimes described as being double-jointed) and can put their front legs out 90 degrees from their body in a way that, when demonstrated on YouTube, makes them look like oddly symbolic Christ figures. They can also bend their heads all the way back onto their spines. All of the flexibility helped them climb the sea cliffs and scramble in and out of tight places.
Have I mentioned the dogs were bred to climb sea cliffs???
The Lundehund (literally “puffin dog”) was on the verge of extinction after World War II but fanciers have brought them back from the brink. It was so exciting to finally see them and pet them, though the Lundehunds kept looking at their owner like “please make the crazy lady leave us now.”
They were smaller than I thought, about like a smallish Beagle, and alert but not at all yappy.
I want one more than ever.
If the pit bull I plan to adopt from the shelter gets out of line with him, my Lundehund can just seek shelter by climbing a bookcase or something till I get there to break up any trouble.
Still squeeing over my Lundehund encounter, I got out of the strengthening rain by ducking back into the reconstructed house, where a bespectacled and altogether unconvincing Viking reenactor was getting ready to do a bread demonstration for the field trip kids straggling up the hill behind me. I watched him get ready and tasted the dough (he didn’t know the words in English, but I definitely tasted rye and maybe barley) and then headed down to the bus stop, with only the briefest of detours through the gift shop.
No, really…I love me some museum gift shops, but Norway is so expensive that I knew there would be nothing in my budget. Then I found the coolest souvenir ever–a hand-forged fire starter, a piece of steel that you strike against a stone, holding it over tinder to get a spark.
Oddly enough, I’d been researching ways people started fires pre-Bic because I wanted to make a couple fire-starting scenes in The War’s End more realistic. At a mere $18 (a bargain in Norway, trust me), it had to come home with me.
Back on the bus, I took a few more photos during the hour-plus ride to Svolvaer, the biggest town in the Lofotens, with a population of–whoa!–nearly 5,000! Hold the phone! As the bus rumbled through the suburbs, the numbers aboard dwindled till it was just me and an old man. The driver parked in the middle of an industrial wasteland and opened the door. It was the end of the route. Time to get out.
I looked around and though hmm, I thought the bus took us into the Sentrum, the city’s downtown. I compared a street sign with my mental map of Svolvaer and realized…this was downtown.
The bus drove off and the old man shuffled away and I was alone with my bag in a dead zone. That would be downtown Svolvaer at 4:30 pm on a Wednesday afternoon.
Sidenote: if you’re ever interested in making a zombie apocalypse movie in a Nordic setting, might I suggest shooting it in downtown Svolvaer during the evening rush hour, when not a soul is stirring.
I had booked a hotel online the night before after realizing, sadly, all the budget places had closed for the season in August, and the rooms on offer this time of year catered to businessfolks, or at least people willing to pay $300 a night to sleep. I’d searched around and found what sounded like a great deal on Expedia of all places: my own room and bathroom, free wifi, breakfast included, $77 a night. That is a dirt-cheap bargain in Norway.
The hotel was on Fiskegata–Fish Street, I believe–and my mental map told me it would be down the street I was aleady on, which, standing there, I found difficult to believe, since the street seemed to lead between two abandoned warehouses to a dock.
Then I saw a sign for my hotel, promising it was 150 meters down the road–which would put it, strictly speaking, past the dock and in the water.
I set off, thinking maybe I could find a non-zombie to ask directions.
The road came up to the dock and veered right. I turned the corner and this is what I saw:
Because, yes, it is perfectly reasonable to expect to see a Viking longboat at full sail, with a cluster of cod racks in the background. I love my crazy life.
I took the longboat as a good sign and continued on, turning another corner to find my hotel was a converted fish warehouse. Reception was only open 9 am-1 pm, rather odd hours, if you ask me, but another guest was arriving and already knew the door code and let me in, where I found an envelope with my name and a key inside waiting for me.
The hotel itself is basic but very clean and with all mod cons, as they say, including the much-valued free wifi. Oh, and you can’t beat the view out my window:
After walking around Zombie Apocalypse Town and finding one grocery store still open, I bought some blueberries and skyr and settled in to watch the sun set.
Check out the cool cloud:
All in all, a good day. A very good day!