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The Viking legacy is strong in Norway, with many fascinating artefacts, museums, tours, and living villages throughout the country.

What would have been the equivalent of today's cutting edge technology a thousand years ago? The fast-moving Viking ships, perhaps? These advanced vessels helped build cultural coherence in Europe, and were crucial to unifying the Norse tribes into a state.

The Vikings put their mark on Northern Europe forever, and the many remnants of their culture can transform your holiday into an adventure.

Viking history and culture

The Viking Age began in the year of 793 with an attack on the Lindisfarne monastery in England, which is the first known Viking raid. The event that marks the end of their glory days is the slaying of King Harald Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.

Raids, looting, colonisation, and trade brought the Vikings to many destinations in the known world and beyond. In the beginning, only a few seafaring Vikings survived the rough voyages, but the fleets grew over time, and there were soon hundreds of vessels known as longships. They sailed across the Baltic Sea and down Russian rivers as far as the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea to Byzantium and the Caliphate of Baghdad. Vikings were also the first Europeans to reach Greenland and North America. In fact, the Viking explorer Leiv Eiriksson arrived on the shores of North America around the year 1000, 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

Viking colonisation

The Vikings founded many cities and colonies, including Dublin in Ireland and the region of Normandy in France. Dublin was held as a significant settlement for more than three centuries. Between the years 879 and 920, Vikings colonised Iceland, which in turn became the springboard for the colonisation of Greenland. Remains of a Viking settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland have been carbon dated to around the year 1000.

How could a small and scattered people conquer so much territory? The Norwegian Vikings are characterized by their courageous, fatalistic outlook which made them naturally born risk takers. The raiding groups seem to have had a fantastic ability to shrug off losses, whether in land battles or in dangerous sea expeditions. The number of deaths caused by war was sometimes shockingly high in relation to the total Viking population, but it did not satisfy their hunger for conquest and exploration for around 250 years.

Peaceful tradesmen and mead drinkers

The Vikings are mostly known for their relentless pillaging, and rightly so. At the same time, many of them lived peacefully as traders and farmers, and many expeditions were based on barter deals. Those who stayed home supported their families through simple farming activities. Their daily life might have been tough and demanding, but was not without joy. The most well-known Viking drink is mead (mjød in Norwegian), an alcoholic beer-like brew sweetened with honey.

The end of the Viking Age

The explorers brought their cultural identity to continental Europe, while importing foreign culture, languages and knowledge. By the 1100s, the Vikings were in decline due to a combination of domestic disputes and resistance from other European countries, which had learnt the painful lesson that they needed to defend themselves against attacks by building fortifications.

Viking ships

On a good day, the rowers could move as quickly as 15 to 17 knots.

The swiftness of the Viking ships is key to understanding how these warriors could gain such sudden and surprising momentum. Their maritime innovations provided a link between the north and southern Europe, which had a strong impact on the continent.

Innovative ship design

The design of the Vikings’ iconic vessels, called longships, was adopted by several other cultures and influenced shipbuilding for centuries. Briefly described, the method involves overlapping planks of oak that are nailed together and protected by layers of tarred wool and sometimes animal hair.

The secret behind the fast-moving longship is its long, narrow hull, kept stable by a keel. Light enough to be carried, it was designed for speed and easy navigation in shallow waters. The longship was double-ended, allowing it to reverse direction without the need to turn. This was a significant advantage in a sea filled with concealed icebergs and sea ice.

Longships had oars along almost the entire length of the vessel, with later versions adding sails.

Multipurpose vessels

The ships were used for plundering and other attacks, as well as for peaceful trade. Many Vikings died in battles in continental Europe. In 876, around 4,000 men and 120 ships were lost in a massive storm off the south coast of England. When prominent Vikings died, they were laid to rest in a burial ship along with their clothes, jewellery, and even their horses and livestock.

One of the most significant graves found in Scandinavia is the Oseberg burial mound. In the year 834, the Oseberg queen was buried in an impressive ship together with her precious belongings. The grave also contained the remains of a second female of unknown origin.

Female power

What role did women play in Viking history?

Women are said to have had a stronger position in Viking society than in most other parts of Europe. They usually had the right to divorce, and if their spouse passed away, they would inherit his estate and retain ownership of his belongings. They had partial legal protection against sexual harassment. A woman was respected as the head of the farm when her husband was away, which he could be for a long time. Today’s fascination with Viking culture is not only based on their image as relentless seafaring warriors, but also a result of their way of life and role in developing a new and more modern society.

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Visit historical sites, take a sea voyage in a Viking ship, or go all in and be a Viking for a day.

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