The Borre Viking Mounds, Mead Hall, & More

June 5, 2017.  For our anniversary this year, we decided to get out of town and into the countryside for a long weekend.  A Norwegian friend of ours had recommended that we travel south towards the mouth of the Oslo Fjord, where Viking burial grounds and art galleries proliferate.  Yeah, a weird combo, I know.  But with all of the area’s postcard-perfect beaches, farmland, and forests, I can totally see its appeal to both conquerors and creative types.

Moss is one of Norway’s oldest industrial centers and was once one of its largest, too.  The historic building complex of Møllebyen (The Mill Town) has been redeveloped into a charming shopping and dining destination that won the Award for Building Excellence in 2003.

A one-hour drive from Oslo brought us to our exploration launch-point — Moss, a quaint industrial town.  That sounds like an oxymoron, but our ramblings during that first afternoon showed us how picturesque old paper mills and ironworks can be.  Adaptive reuse of these turn-of-the-century factories had culled much of the eyesore elements, leaving behind mellowed brick buildings housing pubs, restaurants, galleries, museums, and shops.  Even the little workers’ cottages had been refurbished to hold artisan studios and apartments, all waving Norwegian banners and lining the main street as if expecting a parade to break out at any moment.  Too cute for words.

According to the placard, the colorful Bankgården (loosely translated as “The BankYard”) has an equally colorful history.  Built in 1808 but repeatedly remodeled after numerous fires, it has served as a tobacco factory, brewery, liquor store, bakery, school, and bank. Too bad we never got to peek inside, due to the holiday closures.

The town itself is made for strolling; we spent several hours meandering the streets and gawking at the many gorgeous historic buildings — all from the outside only.  Unfortunately, we’d totally forgotten about the fact that June 4 was Pentecost (Whit Sunday). Norwegians are serious about the term “holiday.”  First of all, EVERYBODY gets the day off, which means museums, shops, grocery stores, banks, libraries, restaurants,  and you-name-it, are closed.  Secondly, it’s rarely just a single day.  Any “Holy Day” worth its salt gets padded on either end by still more vacation time, and before you know it, it’s at least three full days of nothing much to do except hang out with the family.

Love the names of metal bands — who wouldn’t wanna hear Five Finger Death Punch on Pentecost? The “speaking in tongues” associated with the original holiday suddenly takes on a whole new meaning.

In this instance, it turns out that Whit Sunday was followed by Whit Monday and prefaced by “no-special-name-but-day-off-anyway-just-cuz” Saturday.  Our discovery meant that the streets of Moss were virtually empty most of the time — kinda fitting, when you think about the holiday hinging on the Ascension of Christ and the visitation of the Holy Spirit ten days later.  It felt as if the entire population must’ve joined the heavenly hosts.  But then, the music festival started.  That first afternoon, after a nap during a rainstorm, we were awoken by a children’s brass band passing below our window.  And the next day on Pentecost itself, a Death Metal festival commenced bright and early right outside our room.  Again, rather appropriate for the season, considering screaming, howling metal-heads might genuinely be mistaken for having been “filled with the spirit” (of Aquavit, I’d say).

Møllebyen Mikrobryggeri (Mill City Micro Brewery) also has outdoor seating with a view of Moss’s river and waterfall.

In any case, the end result was that the only establishments open during the holiday were the pubs and coffee houses, which are virtually sacred spaces in Norway, so it kinda made sense.  Most every meal we had was either at Møllebyen Mikrobryggeri or Riis Café, but I’m not complaining. The ambience was koselig (“cozy”), the food was tasty, and the local beers were fabulous.  Saturday night proved to be especially fun, as the brewery hosted a piano man who played lots of great American oldies.  The evening turned into a lively sing-along (Norwegians love to sing — as do Matthew and I), an event made even more entertaining after a couple … or maybe a dozen … beers.

Bastø Fosen operates five ferries that travel between the cities of Moss and Horten, which sit on opposite sides of the Oslo Fjord. With an average daily ridership of around 9,300+ people and 4,700+ vehicles, Moss-Horten is the most trafficked car-ferry line in Norway. (For scale, click to view the semi trailers on board.)

On Sunday, we decided to chance a trip to Borre Park in hopes that, since the Viking mounds were outdoors, the site itself might be open.  Getting there required crossing the Oslo Fjord aboard one of Norway’s sleek ferries.  For someone like me, who grew up smack dab in the middle of the United States and nowhere near an ocean, the idea of commuting via ferry is endlessly fascinating.  I just can’t get over the concept of regularly driving your car, bus, or 18-wheeler onto a big boat to hopscotch back and forth between islands and across the fjord.

Heading into the belly of the whale. The guy on the right assigns where each vehicle will park so that the weight is properly balanced aboard the boat.

Every time we travel on a ferry, I get a little thrill, even though I’m prone to seasickness.  It’s just such an unusual experience.  When the prow opens up like a giant trap jaw and you scuttle aboard in your car alongside dozens of other vehicles, you really feel like you’re part of a school of tiny fish getting sucked into the massive maw of a whale.  Once inside, you’ve got everything you need — cushy seating, a cafeteria stocked with food and liquor, a playroom for the kiddies, and a piddle spot for the doggies.  Maybe I’m easily amused, but I think it’s a cool way to travel.

For those of you interested in following the Vestfold Viking Trail, here’s a map to show you its rough proximity to Oslo. Click on the image to go directly to the navigable map with popups describing each site.

After arriving in the city of Horten on the other side of the fjord, we took a ten-minute jaunt straight down I-19 to Midgard Historical Center.  You can’t pass up this place if you’re into Viking history; it provides a great primer before exploring any of the fascinating sites on the Vestfold Viking Trail.  The path itself stretches for about 37 miles (60 kilometers) along the west coastline of the Oslo Fjord and includes the Oseberg and Gokstad mounds, which once held the incredible vessels and artifacts now on display in Oslo’s Viking Ship Museum.  (For more about other must-see trail stops, check out my earlier post, Whalers, Vikings, Stone Circles … and Porcelain).

The entrance to Midgard History Center has been cleverly designed to resemble the hull of a Viking ship.  The building sits nestled in amongst the Borre (BOO-reh) Mounds.

Midgard itself acts as a sort of visitor center to the Borre Burial Mounds and gives a decent introduction to the Viking culture overall.  A small collection of artifacts tells the story of the very first discovery of a Viking ship mound — at Borre back in 1852.  Construction workers looking for roadbuilding gravel tunneled into the mound and found boat nails, a few boards, and the soil imprint left behind by a decayed ship that would have measured between 50 to 65 feet long (15 to 20 meters).  At the heart of the mound, an iron cauldron held the burnt bones of a man and woman.  The cauldron itself was surrounded by grave goods that included the skeletons of a dog and three horses, plus riding gear, men’s weaponry, a spinning wheel, and a lady’s knife.  Take a look at the gallery below for more fun facts.

In Norwegian, the site is known as “Borrehaugene” (Borre mounds). Some of the monuments are almost 150 feet (45 meters) in diameter and about 20 feet (6 meters) high.

But Borre holds more than just a single ship mound.  In fact, it’s the largest Viking burial complex in Northern Europe.  Originally there were nine huge earthen mounds and two giant stone cairns, plus at least 40 smaller cairns, although more may have once been visible. (At least two mounds and one cairn were destroyed in modern times.)  Their tremendous size and proximity to the sea tells us that they were meant to be seen by passing ships and probably acted as landmarks pointing to Borre as the center of power in these parts.

On the left is a stone cairn and on the right is an earthen mound.  Charcoal dating has revealed that each generation built one mound, with new graves being installed in old mounds during the 10th century.

Archaeologists initially assumed that such a large cemetery must have been reserved for one ancestral family — possibly the famous Yngling royal line written of in the Norse sagas.  (You might remember the name from a high-school reading of Beowulf.)  However, recent DNA surveys of cremations found in the smaller cairns tell us that several different families were interred here over time, between 600 and 1000 A.D.  Clearly, Borre was the place to be buried, especially if you wanted to associate yourself with earlier rulers and demonstrate that you’d inherited their right to reign.

Officially called the Gildehallen (Guild Hall), Midgard’s reconstructed “Royal Mead Hall” can be reached via a nature trail that threads its way past the mounds.

But wait, there’s more.  In 2007, archaeologists using ground-penetrating radar discovered the remnants of two large structures thought to have been Viking “Great Halls.”  Evidence of another similar longhouse was discovered in 2013, and together, such sizable communal gathering places confirmed that Borre had indeed held a prominent position in Viking society.  That same year, Midgard opened a new public attraction — a reconstruction of a “Royal Mead Hall” based on findings at the site.  So you can guess where our next stop took us.

Norway hosts 40 different Viking reenactment groups, more than any other European country. Active Norwegian participants hover between 2,000 – 4,000, but there are ten times as many Viking reenactors worldwide.

We arrived at the hall just in time to catch a training session of modern-day Vikings, all decked out in battle gear.  We watched them skirmish for awhile, and when they’d finished, we asked what they were practicing for.  “Well, we’ve got a big battle with the Danes next weekend.  But we’re not worried, we’re gonna kick their asses,” replied one berserker.  As it turns out, many of the ladies and gents who serve as docents at Midgard’s Viking Hall also participate in various reenactments all over Scandinavia and throughout central Europe.

Midgard itself hosts a Viking Festival every year in early July, where visitors can unleash their inner Norseman by learning traditional fighting techniques, listening to ancient legends and music, shopping at a Medieval market, partaking of historic food and drink, and watching metalworkers, woodcarvers, and other craftsmen and women at work.  So if you’re touring Norway in the summertime, put this or any of the many other Viking events, on your agenda.  (Check out the 2017 list here, provided by blogger “Sól, The Viking Queen.”  P.S., her blog will give you an idea of just how dedicated some folks are to exploring their ancestral roots.)

I’m feeling a little bit like Smaug the dragon is slinking past me in the background.  Click for a bigger view.

But back to Midgard’s Royal Mead Hall.  From the outside, the thing’s quite impressive, even a little bit imposing.  Its shingled roof has the look of a dragon’s spine, scaly and sinuously curved.  Up close, the Celtic vibe kicks in, with an interlocking pattern of vines and animals inspired by carvings found on the Oseberg Viking ship, as well as various stave churches throughout Norway (see my post: “Stegastein & Stave Churches.”)  Inside the structure, it feels like you’ve entered into a stage set from Lord of the Rings … as well it should.  When imagining the Golden Hall for King Théoden of Rohan, J.R.R. Tolkien referenced Viking mead halls described in the Icelandic Norse sagas and in the Old English poem Beowulf, which takes place in Scandinavia.

Note the traditional interior layout for a Viking longhouse.  Doesn’t it look like Peter Jackson’s rendering of Théoden’s court, Meduseld?  Tolkien’s name for the place comes from the Anglo-Saxon Maeduselde, which literally means “mead hall.”  The word “selde” comes from the Norse word “sal,” which is where our words “saloon” and “salon” originate.

So what is a mead hall, anyway?  Basically, it’s a traditional Viking långhus (“longhouse”) on steroids.  Viking families lived in narrow homes supported by two rows of pillars that divided the building lengthwise into three aisles.  The taller and wider center aisle held a stone hearth for cooking, while the skinnier side aisles accommodated benches and sleeping platforms.  Mead halls were bloated versions of these residences, super-sized to host community feasts and house local big shots and their entourages.  Mead — fermented honey and water that tastes a bit like a sweet, yeasty beer — formed the key component in most gatherings, large or small.

Entering into Midgard’s hall, we were enveloped in a warm, dimly lit, and somewhat smoky environment.  A Viking “thrall” (slave) tended the hearth and waited on her lord, who reclined arrogantly upon a lambskin-covered throne in front of the fire.  Tables scattered around the room told of regular banquets held here for groups interested in hosting their own private feasts.  The thrall herself paused long enough in her labors to tell us a bit about the history of the mead hall and invite us to a Viking Jul celebration held each year around Christmastime.  Yep, already got it on my calendar.

Although slugs are known as garden pests because they devour plants, certain species are omnivorous, eating carrion and even poop. Hey, when you’re hungry, you’re hungry.

After leaving Midgard, we decided to spend a bit more time in nature, and so we headed out on a nearby hiking trail.  It turned out to be a real slugfest — literally and metaphorically.  Not only was the path ankle deep in mud, but it seems as if we’d interrupted a parade of slimy critters intent on cleaning up forest debris.  For the first time ever, I saw a slug dining on a dead mouse that almost matched it in size.  But the lovely views of wooded ponds and sunlight making its way through breaks in the tree canopy more than made up for all the muck.

To the right of the tiny Løvøy Chapel, you can see St. Olaf’s well. No, we did not try to drink the water.  Click for a bigger view.

On our ride back to our hotel, we made a slight detour to investigate signs pointing to Løvøy Chapel, the smallest of Borre’s three Medieval churches.  Built in the 1200s, it stands next to St. Olaf’s Well, a holy site visited for centuries by Scandinavians looking to drink of its waters and be healed of whatever ailed them.  The Reformation in 1536 put a period on Catholic pilgrimages and eventually reduced the tiny stone church to ruins, but people still continued to drink the spring’s supposedly miraculous waters.  Restoration efforts began in 1882, but the church didn’t reopen to the public until the 1950s.

Refsnes Gods is not only famous for its twin towers and its art collection, but also for its wine cellar and topnotch cuisine. (It was fully booked, so we didn’t get to see if the kitchen lived up to its reputation.)

The morning of our last day, we decide to check out the local art scene, so we crossed the bridge to Jeløya, the largest island in Oslo’s fjord.  It boasts several sunny beaches, working farms, and nine historic manor homes.  Our first stop was Refsnes Gods (“Reef Manor”) an old chalet surrounded by its own park.  Now converted into a hotel, the place has five original works by Edvard Munch (he of “The Scream” paintings), plus an incredible collection of pieces from other famous Norwegian artists.

Roed Gård acts a combined Arts and Cultural Center. The main house (painted yellow on the left) was built in 1723.

Our next stop brought us to Røed Gård, a farm that dates back to the Middle Ages and possess an assemblage of adorable outbuildings from different periods.  The main floor of the barn houses studios and shops by potters, textile designers, chocolatiers, and other artisans, while the second floor has a lovely cafe that serves up one helluva terrific Norwegian buffet.  Also upstairs is Galleri Røed Jeløy, which regularly features fabulous works by up-and-coming Norwegian artists.  We fell in love with several pieces, but the one that came home with us is “Into My,” by Stian Borgen.  It now sits pride-of-place in our Oslo kitchen.

Our appetites whetted for more art, we headed to Gallery F15 — one of Norway’s most famous art institutions — but alas, holiday hours struck again, and it was closed.  So we took a brief walk along the nearby windy beach to enjoy the sunshine that had finally decided to make an appearance.  And on that note, I’ll end my post with a gallery of the vista.

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