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.
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.
Check out these adorable ironworkers homes that are still in use today as galleries, art studios, and apartments. Skilled tradesmen from Denmark and Sweden lived in this community, independent from the town of Moss itself, which supplied unskilled labor. The people of Moss weren’t always so keen on the arrangement because those who lived in the ironworker cottages received certain “benefits,” like duty-free imported food.
The town’s many erstwhile mills cluster around the Moss River and waterfall, perfect spots for tranquil outdoor cafés.
Moss Jernverk (Moss Ironworks) opened in 1701 and was the largest employer in Moss for many years. The foundry’s main administrative building, called the Konvensjonsgården (Convention Yard), is famous for being the spot where the peace treaty that unified Norway and Sweden was ratified in 1814.
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.
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. 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).
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.
Loved the woodsy interior of Møllebyen Mikrobryggeri and the decent selection of beer.
Inside offered a ringside seat at the waterfall and two beers from Ego Brewery, located in nearby Fredrikstad. Yum!
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.
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 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.
To me, this model of our ferry makes it look a little like a baleen whale.
All the little fishies wait for their chance to dart out from the mouth of the metal whale when its jaw hinges open.
The crossing between Moss and Horton is 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers) and takes about 30 minutes. Just enough time for a nice picnic on deck (provided it isn’t raining.)
The ferry’s cafeteria comes stocked with hot and cold meals and beverages, reading materials so you can catch up on your daily dose of celebrity smut, and Norwegian waffles. What more could you hope for?
Note the “Lekerom” (playroom) where kids can blow off steam, and the “Dyrerom” (Animal Room) for four legged friends who need a pit stop.
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).
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 couple, 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.
Stirrups didn’t become common for Scandinavian men until after the Viking Age. Because of its small size, this Viking stirrup (left) could only have been used by a woman. Other female equestrian gear, such as a wooden saddle equipped with a stuffed riding pillow, was also found with a horse skeleton in the gravesite.
Pictured are gilded bronze pieces from a Hackamore — a bridle that guides a horse via pressure points rather than by a bit placed in the mouth. In total, there was enough riding gear found in the mound to equip at least three horses.
Outside the ship, the body of one horse was found hitched to a cart. The riding gear included a rare find — a gilded harness mount that would have been used to hold the reins for driving the cart. There’s a Norwegian saying, “Nobles are known by the harness on their horses.” In other words, such a fancy harness mount tells us that the people buried in the ship mound would have been high-ranking aristocrats.
Here’s a pic to show you exactly how the harness mount in the previous photo would have been used. (It’s the gray piece of metal sitting atop the wooden part of the harness.) By the way, the horse pictured is a Norwegian Fjord, one of the world’s oldest and purest breeds. And yep, it’s really more of a pony, but it’s sturdy and unusually quick and agile for its size. A Norwegian Fjord is what the Vikings would have ridden and used to pull their carts; the bones of the breed are frequently found in Viking ship burial mounds. The horse is still bred in Norway today.
Pictured is a silver “mystery object” about the size of a button. It has an almost Celtic design that has since come to be known as the Borre Knot. This motif, along with the braided rope and animal head patterns seen in the harness pieces, has been labeled “Borre Style” and is used to date other Viking sites that have grave goods with similar designs. The pieces all date from around 900 A.D.
Viking swords and knives are typically found twisted in this position. It’s thought that a blacksmith heated and then ceremoniously bent a weapon to remove its power before it was placed in a grave.
Vikings weren’t big potters, preferring to make their bowls and cups from metal, horn, and stone, like the soapstone piece pictured here.
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.
An aerial photo shows you where the excavated ship mound once stood. Several of the mounds have been destroyed over time due to farming and road-building practices.
Notice all of the other much smaller mounds scattered around the landscape. I’m standing atop once of the biggest mounds — from here you can see the ocean inlet that comes close to the Viking cemetery. Archaeologists have recently found evidence of a Viking harbor at this site.
A short nature walk takes you past the mounds to the ocean inlet just beyond the trees. This wall reminds me so much of the rock fences in Ireland and my home State of Kentucky.
Behind me, you can see the sea lanes that signal the entrance to the Oslo Fjord. From the deck of a Viking ship, the mounds would have been clearly visible sticking up from these lowlands.
The nature walk takes you past a beautiful section of shoreline where breeding boxes for birds perch on poles out in the water. The area is a birdwatching mecca.
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.
How many mounds can you see from here?
A map gives you a better idea of the number of small and large mounds and their proximity to the water.
If you look closely, you can see that the mound in the distance has a big slash in its side. Archeologists think that this may be evidence of the ancient practice of “haugbrott” (mound-breaking): the ritual removal of the dead, which was common during Viking times. Claiming the sword, ring, or even leg bone of a long-dead king symbolized a transfer of power. Bodies were also removed for the purpose of necromancy (forecasting the future by communing with the dead), or as a way of preventing the souls of the dead from haunting the living. Norse sagas often tell tales about troublesome spirits hanging out around burial mounds like these.
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.
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 the2017 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.)
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.
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.
The only way to vent the cooking hearth was through trap doors in the roof. How apt is Tolkien’s description?: “The travelers entered. Inside it seemed dark and warm after the clear air upon the hill. The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof. But here and there bright sunbeams fell in glimmering shafts from the eastern windows, high under the deep eaves. Through the louver in the roof, above the thin wisps of issuing smoke, the sky showed pale and blue.”
Okay, no actual gold here, but how ’bout some yellow paint? Much of Midgard’s Mead Hall was made by hand using traditional tools. Themes for carvings on the “staves” (pillars) come from tales of the Nordic gods. Local artisans are still working to complete all the interior finishes.
A schematic of the GPR findings shows the impressions of two Viking halls. Note the linear layout and postholes left behind by the wooden pillars that supported the roof. The rows of posts in the center are more deeply planted, indicating that they supported a taller, heavier section of the roof.
Tolkien continues, “Now the four companions went forward, past the clear wood-fire burning upon the long hearth in the midst of the hall. Then they halted. At the far end of the house, beyond the hearth and facing north towards the doors, was a dais with three steps; and in the middle of the dais was a great gilded chair.” Tolkien’s vision of Théoden’s gilded hall came from descriptions of the great hall Heorot in the 10th-century poem Beowulf, which reads: “The men did not dally; they strode inland in a group, Until they were able to discern the timbered hall, Splendid and ornamented with gold. The building in which that powerful man held court, Was the foremost of halls under heaven; Its radiance shone over many lands.”
Norwegian Vikings had converted to Christianity by the mid 11th century. But they took the basic construction of their mead halls and longhouses and transferred them to their churches. Note the central aisle and side aisles of Borgund Church, supported by tall wooden pillars, called stafr (“staffs”). That’s why these structures are called Stavkirker (“Stave/Staff Churches.”) For more about this church, check out my post, “Stegastein & Stave Churches.”
Details of dragon-headed vines outside the door are similar to those found on the Oseberg ship and on Borgund Stave Church.
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.
Pictured is an adult European Black Slug (Arion ater). The light-colored ones are juveniles. These guys can usually be found only on cloudy days, since the sunshine dries them out. They’re particularly active after a rainstorm, and it had rained all weekend.
Just for size, here’s my hand next to some juvenile slugs munching on a dead tree. Like mushrooms, slugs can break down the cellulose in woody matter. They’re one of the “garbage men” of the forest, helping to decompose and recycle dead plants (and animals).
Dark pools look bottomless due to tannins from fallen leaves that stain the water dark brown. This is the perfect spot to read one of the many Norwegian fairytales that warn of “nøkks” (water spirits) that live in these ponds and lure men to their deaths by drowning.
The sun finally breaks through the clouds!
Lovely forests cover much of Jeløya, and nature trails abound. Luckily, the clearing afforded us a dry spot to appreciate the momentary sunshine.
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.
By the 18th century, nothing was left the but the exterior stone walls of the church. We weren’t able to get in, but from photos on the badly faded signboard, it showed a single interior room without any sort of partition separating the altar from the congregation. Supposedly services are held here every other weekend. Of course, we came on the off weekend.
A modern reproduction of a Medieval bell tower sits next to the church, adding a little gravitas to the ambience.
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.
Check out all the amazing art in one of the sitting rooms. We spent about an hour just wandering around drooling over all the pieces. The hotel didn’t mind our browsing, even though we weren’t staying there. (We asked before we went snooping.)
Andy Warhol did these takes on Edvard Munch’s “Madonna” and “Self Portrait.”
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.
While we were visiting, Galleri Røed had a wonderful exhibition of works by textile artist Grete Riseng. Really stunning pieces, but a little too big for our tiny place and limited wall space, and a bit too dear for our pocketbook.
Looking out the gallery windows gave us a view across the working part of the farm.
At home, our piece by Stian Borgen awaits a hook strong enough to support it, but I still think it looks awesome even sitting on the floor. His work has that same playful graffiti feel similar to Jean-Michele Basquiat’s.
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.
How’s this for a beautiful day after a seriously rainy weekend?
In truth, Jeløya was once a peninsula, not an island. But in 1855, the 65-foot (20-meter) wide Moss Canal severed the low isthmus, permanently separating the promontory’s link to the mainland (although a bridge still connects the two.)
Jeløya is known for its unusual plant life. I love how nature paints its own artistic pictures with lichen and wildflowers.
In the distance, you can see one of the ferries traveling from Moss to Horten on the opposite side of the Oslo fjord.
Yet another slimy friend, this one brought along his own house. He’s the kind you can eat, by the way — the Burgundy Snail (Helix pomatia) used in the French dish of escargot. He’s so cute, I feel bad about having eaten buckets of his relatives during our travels through France.