Interest in the exploits of the Vikings has surged since the History Channel’s TV series attracted an average 4.3 million viewers.
The saga of these raiders turned traders had its genesis on Norway’s west coast where Bergen was the cradle of Viking culture.
This preposterously pretty city rests in the bosom of seven hills like a forested amphitheatre festooned with vividly painted houses.
There’s a harbourside seafood market brimming with flapping fresh fish, whale meat, caviar, salt-dried cod (a Viking staple) and other piscatorial exotica and there’s Bryggen, an ancient harbour with rows of UNESCO listed Hanseatic warehouses that are now restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and arts and crafts studios.
Bergen is also the homeport of cruise ship, Viking Star, now tethered at Bryggen where it’s loading fuel, regional food, Nordic beer, me and other mostly ancient mariners, bleary-eyed after hours in the air, for a voyage across the North Atlantic and up the St Lawrence River in Canada to visit Saguenay and Quebec City before disembarking in Montreal.
Even in my catatonic state, first impressions count and the quiet, soothing elegance of the Viking Lounge, a three-deck atrium with a bar in one corner, a Steinway grand piano at the foot of a broad staircase and a homely expanse of cosy lounge settings makes aircraft squeeze-seats and soulless airports seem a distant distraction.
There are no casinos, no blaring music, no boozathons, no kids. I sink into a yawning armchair framed by a thoughtfully chosen library and, sipping a Warsteiner Premium Pilsener, I get that this is a ship designed for grownups.
Christened in Bergen in April, 2015, Viking Cruises’ first ocean vessel accommodates 930 guests in 465 staterooms, each with a private veranda, king sized bed, 24-hour room service, the Nordic Spa, quality toiletries, 42-inch flat-screen LCD-3D interactive TV system with movies on demand, minibar, safe, hairdryer, direct-dial satellite phone and free but often snail-paced Wi-Fi.
And then there’s the food, the buffet-style World Cafe, The Restaurant, Manfredi’s (possibly the best Italian restaurant afloat) and Chef’s Table where the emphasis is inspired set menus paired with equally inspiring wines. Meals and most drinks at these eateries are included.
Viking Star’s culture curriculum includes lectures, performances and shore excursions concentrating on local music, arts, cooking, dance and history.
Tonight we sail west in the wake of the Vikings, retracing the heroic voyages they undertook more than twelve centuries ago plunging into the unknown in open longboats, a diaspora that created enduring Norse settlements on islands scattered across the North Atlantic where they ultimately swapped plunder for ploughshares.
The first leg of the ‘In the Wake of the Vikings’ cruise is a 368km journey to Scotland’s Shetland Islands where Viking trailblazers arrived about 850AD.
From the forward Explorers Lounge we watch the dawn unfold around the main town, Lerwick, a small city of brooding, heavy-stone architecture mixed with practical modern buildings rising above a harbour already busy with fishing boats and ferries.
After bussing south across Shetland, past its craggy coastline, peat bogs, scattered communities and lots of sheep and short ponies we come to Jarlshof on the island’s southern tip, one of the most complex archaeological sites ever excavated in Britain.
In one place we see the remains of Bronze Age, Iron Age and Viking settlements, including the remnants of a Viking longhouse and it’s difficult to grasp that before our eyes is 4,000 years of human history.
Leaving Lerwick, Viking Star heads north. Resident musicians entertain throughout the ship, the Viking Classical Trio in the atrium, young Russian pianist Olga in the Explorer’s Lounge and guitarist Laszlo in the Wintergarden, soft musical interludes that segue between the dash of daytime and the nurture of the night.
Dinner in The Restaurant highlights a Shetland regional tasting menu with cullen skink (creamy Scottish smoked haddock with wheat bread), slow-roasted pork belly and fudge cheesecake flavoured with Scotch whisky.
In the morning a slit of sunlight peeks over the horizon only to fade behind worsening weather after we arrive at the Faroe Islands, as the Vikings did 12 centuries before us. A tugboat from tiny Torshavn city escorts the ship toward harbour before turning us back at the breakwater.
The wind has whipped into a frenzy making docking too dangerous and as our day in Torshavn disappears into a sodden North Atlantic gale, we set course for Iceland through conditions that are forecast to deteriorate.
In the Explorers Lounge I pick through a selection of pickled herring from nearby Mamsen’s deli-cafe and watch the bow plough into 4m waves. It’s about 8°C outside and an occasional pelagic seabird, a fulmar here, a petrel there, flies sorties across the lifting whitecaps.
There’s a line of storms between Iceland and us and from the comfort of the gently rolling ship I marvel at how the Vikings must have dealt with this kind of swell in open longboats carrying people, food, livestock, water and everything else they needed to survive in the great unknown ahead of them.
Ahead of us, morning sunshine envelops Reykjavík where Viking boss, Erik the Red, once called the shots and where shore excursions today include whale watching, the steamy, sulphurous Blue Lagoon and the historic first Viking parliament site at Þingvellir. Having been to Iceland before, I spend the day rediscovering Reykjavík.
Along the shopping streets, Bankastræti and Laugavegur, are multi-coloured Scandi-chic boutiques, galleries, cafes and pubs leading up to Skólavörðuholtið Hill where the spectacular concrete ‘space shuttle’ Lutheran cathedral, Hallgrímskirkja, lords it over the city.
On Aðalstraeti, archaeologists have uncovered Reykjavík’s oldest relics of human habitation dating back to 871AD including a 10th century Viking longhouse, all now part of the fascinating Settlement Exhibition about life here in the Viking era.
I stop by the Public House-Gastropub for a Viking Lager, a chèz hip restaurant doing epicurean mini-meals with a Japanese touch.
Think cured puffin breast with liquorice, cherries and blue cheese sauce; beef tataki and quail egg nigiri with truffle ponzu and garlic crisps or smoked duck thigh served in a pancake with ginger hollandaise and avocado.
Erik the Red was particularly dangerous, even for a Viking, who fled to Iceland after a killing spree in Norway. He later fled Iceland after another killing, headed west and discovered Greenland.
In Erik’s wake, we wile away a day at sea. I settle into the Wintergarden for high tea served alongside three-tiered cake trays decked with cucumber sandwiches and freshly-made pâtisserie.
At dawn we enter Prins Christianssund (Prince Christian Sound) and cruise through the magnificent fjord sandwiched between ice-streaked mountains where the cold smooth water is littered with beautiful little icebergs.
We emerge in the Labrador Sea and anchor off Nanortalik, the southernmost village in Greenland, where 10th century Vikings had scrabbled out a living.
Sunday in Nanortalik (pop: 1,000) is a quiet affair, there’s a church service underway, an open-air museum, a dodgy pub and houses resembling colourful licorice allsorts lollies. Here the Inuit people cling to traditions of fishing, crabbing and hunting musk ox and hooded seals.
Further west, Qaqortoq (pop: 3,000) is a more modern town with a supermarket, cafes and a fish market where I taste raw minke whale and tough seal blubber with skin attached. It eventually softens into tasty, salty mush and it’s surprisingly moreish.
Around 999AD, Erik the Red’s son, Leifur Eriksson (Leifur the Lucky), sailed south from Greenland and landed at what is now L’Anse aux Meadows at the northern tip of Newfoundland, Canada, beating Columbus to the Americas by almost 500 years.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the remains were discovered in 1960, a place where gritty settlers erected buildings with sod walls and sod and timber roofs, eight of which have been accurately reconstructed and costumed actors added to enhance the authenticity.
I’m in a cavernous longhouse breathing the fragrances of damp earth, straw and old timber. Shields decorate the walls and there’s not a weapon in sight. A ‘farmer’ with a fluffy beard strums a replica ancient lute as his ‘wife’ tends a flickering pit fire.
“Here, try some seed bread,” she says, offering bits of bland bread daubed with tart wild partridgeberry jam. “It’s a Viking snack.” Other ‘Vikings’ fiddle with fabrics, furs and weaving looms, spinning Norse tales as if the centuries haven’t passed.
For me, for a moment, the Viking past feels eerily present.