It was a bright sunny day with a nip in the air. The gentle ripples in the blue waters of the Danish fjord sparkled like diamonds while plenty of jellyfish floated by our side. My heart, however, was pounding like it was about to break out of my ribcage every time the massive sail, propelled by strong winds, tipped the huge boat to one side. It was hard to imagine these sleek warships could reach speeds up to 15knots (28kmph) and navigate entire oceans, withstanding fierce storms and gigantic waves. I was reliving only a fraction of the action by sailing a reconstruction of a traditional Viking boat in Roskilde Fjord.
“People often ask us what happened to the Vikings. They didn’t disappear; they just changed their lifestyle. We are the descendants of Vikings,” said Mette, our guide in the Viking Ship Museum. I was in Roskilde, an old Viking settlement 35 km west of Copenhagen, where five Viking boats were deliberately sunk in the navigable channel in the 11th century to protect the Skuldelev area from enemy attack. Today, the boats have been recovered and are displayed at the Viking Ship Museum at Roskilde, which is the Danish national museum for ships, seafaring and boatbuilding in the prehistoric and medieval period.
One of the longest Viking longships ever found, Skuldelev 2, as the recovered sunken ships are named, is over 30 m long and is estimated to have carried a crew of over 60 people. The museum houses three cargo ships and two warships from the 11th century, including Skuldelev 2. The recovered ship fragments are now fitted on a beautifully done steel skeleton to give a complete picture of the scale and shape of the vessels. One of the biggest attractions, however, happens to be the opportunity to sail one of these reconstructed longships under the guidance of a skipper. Depending on how windy the day is, the experience can vastly differ from being a pleasant day on the fjord to a hair-raising adventure.
For those who are not big on sailing, there are workshops in the buildings adjacent to the ship museum where one can make imitations of Viking crafts and jewellery. After making myself an imitation of Thor’s hammer, Mjölnir, the Marvel universe fan in me just couldn’t stop smiling at the souvenir from the Nordic land. Those wishing to indulge in a bit more of the Viking history can also extend their visit to Lejre open-air museum, just 10 km from Roskilde. It is an experimental archaeology centre where Iron Age and Viking age dwellings have been duplicated to understand how their ancestors lived in the past.
Few kilometers away from Roskilde town on the banks of the same fjord, is the Viking village of Frederickssund. Arriving here, unaware of the scale of preparations and the gusto of the locals, I was slightly perplexed as I entered the open-air setting. It looked like a huge cosplay gathering, the only difference being everyone was dressed up as characters from days of yore as opposed to modern anime or comic book characters. Walking past a caped man in a light-brown tunic, worn over a pair of dark trousers, and a lady in a flowing white robe, I was beginning to get a sense of the Danes’ seriousness about the tradition of staging Viking plays. Since the 1950s, every year, more than 250 volunteers have donned capes and held swords to bring their colourful, yet violent, past to life through dramatic plays.
Wooden benches between lush groves of oak and birch on that late summer evening was a perfect setting to temporarily travel to another era. Given nothing but a rough script to follow the storyline, the play in an unfamiliar tongue felt similar to an opera in the beginning. However, the spectacular performance with excellent production values drew us in no time. Watching the caped warriors clashing swords on a stage in front of me, I found it hard to imagine the warm and friendly Danes as descendants of the fierce Norsemen who most of us know as brutal, pillaging and sea-faring Vikings.
Every summer, a different play is staged at this Viking festival. The play that we watched followed the life of two young brothers Hroar and Helge, whose father, the king, had been murdered by their uncle, who is now after their lives so he can claim the throne for himself. The characters ranged from evil witches to loyal friends, and the entire crowd cheered the small victories and clenched fists at each of the conflicts faced by the brothers. Despite not understanding a single word, it was hard not to get caught up in the story.
As the last of the sun rays kissed the top of the trees around us, the play ended to a huge applause. Afterwards, the entire cast came onto the dais holding aloft flaming torches. It felt surreal to be a part of a spectacular community effort, where both the actors and the audience were so actively involved in reliving a part of their shared history. Walking past tiny children to aged men and women in character, I found my fascination with all things Viking being rekindled. Luckily, I had just spent a whole day immersing myself in the ways of the Vikings.
Neelima Vallangi is a Bangalore-based travel writer and photographer