Saturday, August 23, 2014

In which I discover that I am, in fact, a Viking...

No, I don't possess a helmet with horns, nor do I partake of looting, pillage or any of the other stuff that Scandinavian tourists used to get up to in less enlightened times, although I do enjoy the occasional beer... but where on Earth has the idea come from that I might be a Viking? Let's go back to the beginning, shall we?...

Tuesday morning dawned a bit grey, it had to be said, but Ros and I had a boat to catch. And as it made its way west from the city, we began to realise just how close to Stockholm the great outdoors starts. The islands are dotted with cottages near the water, with their own mooring and a small boat, and it is all very tranquil.

Our destination, however, was Birka, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an important trading centre in the eighth, ninth and early tenth centuries. It was a place where the world came for wood, furs and iron, bringing silks and silver, amongst other things. And, from there, Swedes brought drama, albeit very brief drama, into the lives of others.

As our guide explained, the people who went off on expeditions were called vikings - it was a job description, as in he's a plumber, she's a brain surgeon, they're vikings. The use of the term Vikings only really developed during the eighteenth century cultural revival, when the concept became romanticised - and let's be honest, the romanticised version is always rather more positive than the truth.

There isn't much in the way of visible evidence of the thriving town that was Birka. It was made of wood, after all, and the town went into decline as early as 950 AD, but archeologists have gradually unearthed its secrets, some of which can be seen in the on site museum.

And, even on a rather grey day, with the aid of our excellent guide, it is an evocative place to hear stories of adventure and exploration, of trade and of kingship - an excellent place for Ros and I to have visited on our expedition.

I think that we won't be wearing helmets though, as we head further east...

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