Aboard a Viking ship
Roskilde, the former capital of Denmark, holds on to its legacy of Norse seafarers
It was a wintry day out on the fjord. The captain’s voice cut through the cold silence, giving out orders. Oars were raised, the crew leaned forward as one man and dragged the oars through the water. The wooden vessel slid out of the harbour, and into the North Sea, in search of distant lands to plunder. At least that’s how I imagine the Vikings set sail.
I am at the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, gazing at the five ships excavated from the bottom of Roskilde fjord in 1962. Despite the vagaries of nearly a thousand years spent underwater, these restored ships give a peek into the world of the Vikings—those legendary Norse seafarers who were equally admired and feared, and who built a formidable empire across large parts of modern-day Europe.
The Vikings were not just tradesmen and sea warriors, but remarkable shipbuilders as well. The largest and the most impressive of the five Roskilde ships is a 30m longship, a massive warship built in oak, needing a crew of at least 60 oarsmen to steer it. The smaller warship is made of oak, pine and ash and would have had a crew of about 30. Both the warships are narrow, sleek and built for speed. The other three ships are sturdy cargo vessels, shorter and wider than the two warships, and purpose-built for trading expeditions.
In the museum’s boatyard there are workmen going hammer and tongs, building a replica of one of the Viking ships. Other craftsmen such as a rope maker, a sail maker, a blacksmith and a wood carver are hard at work. Two young boys are trying their hand at “make your own Viking ship”, with odd pieces of wood and a paper sail.
This is an experiential museum, and the biggest attraction is of course going out on the fjord in a reconstructed Viking ship. I don a life jacket and join my group for a lesson on safety from the “captain”, who drily reassures us that “we haven’t had any guests go overboard, yet”. On that note of confidence, I step into the wooden ship while sending a prayer up to Thor (naturally).
I sit in my assigned spot on the starboard side and drag an oar out from the pile at the side of the boat. It’s heavier than I had anticipated. I lower it into the water and then pass it through the rope loop on the edge of the boat, securing the oar in place. There’s a lot of anticipation and hilarity on-board, not to mention incessant selfie-taking.
The first task is to row the boat out of the museum’s harbour. The captain’s orders ring out: “Starboard, lean forward, pull on the oar and row”. Predictably there is much banging of oars into one another and the boat moves forward an inch or two. “Follow the movements of the person in front of you”, says the captain helpfully. After a couple of false starts, there’s some semblance of teamwork and the boat slowly glides out of the harbour and into the fjord.
A slight breeze has picked up and the captain indicates that it’s time to get the sail up. A complicated series of rope manoeuvres later, the sail (which seems to be made of sacking material) goes up, and we can give our arms a rest. I take the chance to look around—it’s a grey morning, and the fjord water reflects that, though it is incredibly calm. The coastline is a swathe of emerald green fields, dotted with houses and small settlements. The Roskilde fjord is a very long branch of the larger Isefjord, which eventually opens out into the Baltic Sea.
After about 30 minutes of sailing around, it’s time to return, and we steer the boat towards the harbour. We leave the sail up, and the gentle breeze guides us along, with a little help from the steering oar at the stern (manned by one of our group).
After pretending to be a Viking for a while (and getting a free upper arm workout), I head over to the Roskilde Cathedral, a 15-minute walk from the museum. Today Roskilde may be a smallish city, known more for hosting one of the largest annual music festivals in Europe. Yet it is one of Denmark’s oldest cities, founded in the 980s by the Viking king Harald Bluetooth, as the hub of sea trade routes. From the 11th century to the mid-15th century, Roskilde was the capital of Denmark.
The imposing 12th-century Roskilde Cathedral, with its three soaring spires, stands on the site of the wooden church built by Harald Bluetooth. The current cathedral was begun by Bishop Absalon (who founded Copenhagen) and was expanded over the years by subsequent bishops and kings. It is the first Gothic cathedral in Europe to be built in brick and is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The cavernous cathedral is the burial site of 39 kings and queens of Denmark, including Harald Bluetooth.
I step outside into the autumn chill to a brisk wind blowing in from the fjord. I think about Harald & Co. setting sail from Roskilde some thousand years ago—not just daring seafarers, they were travellers too.
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