Two miles off the northeast coast of England, close to the border with Scotland, lies the small island of Lindisfarne. The name may sound familiar as it is quite famous, since on June the 8thC, 793, the abbey that stood there was unexpectedly stormed. The attack caught the monks completely off guard, and it horrified all Christendom. Furore Normannorum libera nos, Domine, they said, deliver us, oh Lord, from the fury of Northmen. The Viking Age had begun.
The Viking Age lasted 500 years and left its footprint even in places so remote as America or Bagdad, and, of course, bestowed a vital historic and cultural legacy in Scandinavia and Iceland. Part of this legacy are the epic sagas, like the one telling the story of king Harald Hárfagra (the fair-haired), who on 872 unified the Norwegian clans after winning the battle of the Hafrsfjord, one of the three fjords around the city of Stavanger.
It is here, in Stavanger, where we start our round tour that will take us to explore Rogaland, its breathtaking scenic roads, its magnificent fjords and its Viking legacy. Welcome to Norway. May Odin, the wisest of gods, accompany us.
Located on the Southeast coast of Norway, this city surrounded by five lakes and three fjords is today the third largest in the country and the administrative capital of Rogaland. It is also one of the oldest cities in Norway, which flourished on the 12thC – although archaeological remains show that it had been inhabited since the Iron Age, which sounds about right taking into account its strategic location in a natural harbour and within a trading sailing route close to the entrance of the Lysefjord. Some historians believe that it was already an important centre during the 9th and 10th centuries with the unification of the nation after the Hafrsfjord battle. It became the administrative centre of the church – the irruption of Christianity in the 9thC would shake up the Viking world – and an important market up to the 14thC.
The economy of the city has changed along the years, switching from shipbuilding and fish canning to becoming the centre of the oil industry in Norway after the discovery of the North Sea oilfields in 1969, which was followed by a significant growth.
The old town (Gamle Stavanger) is located around the small harbour of Vågen, and it keeps the best preserved wooden house settlement in Europe, around 173 houses dating from the 18th and 19th C, with their carefully kept white facades decorated with flower pots, lined along the narrow cobbled pedestrian streets on the slope by the harbour. A charming walk that we suggest you take in the evening – in June the sun sets almost at 11pm – when the cruise passengers are gone and the streets are quiet. At that hour we will come across a few tourists, indeed, but also the occasional neighbour walking his dog. Simply delightful.
Here we find the peculiar Canning Museum. Stavanger lived off its fish canneries up to the 60s and this small interpretation centre is located in an old cannery operating between 1916 and 1958. We can see the old machines, a collection of cans and labels, the ovens where the sardines where cooked or we can try to emulate the workers by filling a can of six sardines (fake plastic ones) in 5 or 6 seconds, not as easy as one would think.
The houses by the dock at each side of the narrow harbour are painted in different colours and host bars and restaurants, like Sjøhuset Skagen, a transformed 18thC storehouse. Here by the docks we find the Tourist Office and the Viking House, opened in 2017 to become an interpretation centre of the Viking age. They offer themed guided tours and in June 2019 they were about to start a virtual reality experience which will submerge you into king Harald’s saga and the Hafrsfjord battle.
Around Stavanger we can visit several Viking sites.
Sverd i fjell
6km away from Stavanger, in a low hill by the Hafrsfjord, three large bronze swords – 10m high – embedded on the rocks commemorate the naval battle fought here around 872 that unified Norway. The monument by Fritz Roed represents the three clashing kings. Legend says the combat was so bloody that the fjord waters turned red. It is a very popular spot for photographs, especially at sunset.
Domsteinane, the stone of destiny
On the outskirts of the city, in a clearing in the middle of a forest, we come across this circle of stones – 24 stones arranged around a slab which could have been either a Viking sacrificial altar or an element related to the sun and the stations – take your pick. It undeniably transmits a special energy, with the moss covering the vertical stones… especially if you visit without people around. It feels like a location from a fantasy movie.
This Iron Age farm has been restored from the remains of the original structure from the 5thC and it is unique in Norway. Two long houses recreate the daily life of the Vikings and their ancestors, how they ground cereals, how they made fire, how they kept themselves warm… The adjacent museum exhibits the objects found in the farm.
The Lysefjord cruise
From Stavanger you can take a boat to sail up the Lysefjord, a 42km long inlet carved during the Ice Age. Its name can be translated as “light fjord” and comes from the light coloured granite rocks on the cliffs, falling almost 1000m down over the sea. The star of the fjord is the Preikestolen (the Pulpit), a huge granite 605m high dihedral protruding over the water, one of the most iconic landmarks of Norwegian fjords with an almost 25m flat top that makes it a natural balcony. The boat takes us near the Vagabond Cave, which, according to legend, a bunch of vagrants used as shelter after fleeing from justice, and the Hengjane waterfall. If we are lucky we will be able to spot seals and goats (these last ones not in the water, obviously). The cruise with Rodne departs from Stavanger harbour and takes around 3 hours.
Street Art. Be sure to take a look at the street art in facades all over the city. http://www.nuartfestival.no/profiled-articles—right-column/street-art-tours
Egersund, the road to Jæren and the Magma Geopark
We leave Stavanger and we head South to Egersund, following the Jæren scenic road, one of the 18 official scenic roads in Norway. It follows the shores of the North Sea across an idyllic landscape by the ocean, with farms, wild beaches, lighthouses and stone walls.
We stop on some sites, like the Orre friluftshus, a wooden cultural centre with a traditional organic grass roof amid a landscape of vegetation covered dunes by the spectacular wild and windswept Orrestranda beach, a kite surfers meeting point.
We also stop at Kvasheim lighthouse, in Ognabukten bay. This restored building from 1912 surprises us as it is not the typical round tower that we are used to. It operated until the 90s and now holds a small museum. It stands next to a tiny harbour.
Close to Egersund the road enters the Magma Geopark, a large area of almost 2400km2, declared UNESCO heritage site, where the geological formations steal the limelight. It is a road to drive without a hurry, enjoying the mesmerizing landscape.
Egersund is a small town of wooden houses in the middle of this extraordinary terrain. We find many of the oldest and best preserved houses in Strandgaten. We spend the night in the Grand Hotel Egersund, located in several old houses joined together while preserving the original structure.
From Egersund to Forsand
The road takes us to Gloppedalsura, an ancient glacial moraine formed 10.000 years ago and covered by one of the largest screes in northern Europe, made of huge charnockite boulders – a type of magma solidified 1200 million years ago-, piled up 100 metres thick over lake Vinjavatnet, among some massive rocky forested cliffs, from the top of which thin strings of water slide down. A wonderful show of nature which can be seen in all its magnificence from the col at the far edge of the lake – where we will find a couple of parking spaces and some information signs. It is hard to believe that this peaceful valley was the site of some bloody combats during WWII.
The road takes down towards Byrkjedal. After a quick stop for lunch at Byrkedalstunet, a typical 1920s goat cheese farm turned into hotel, restaurant and tribute to traditional fairy tales’ characters, like trolls – omnipresent around the country- we head for Lauvik, to catch the ferry to Oanes. In this part of Norway ferries are an everyday occurrence, essential to cross the numerous fjords. Most crossings are fast and people are obviously used to them, as we see many passengers just staying in their cars. But for us, a ferry is something exotic and we need to get out of the car to catch the views from the bow. Once on the other side, and back in the car, we’re on our way to Forsand, at the mouth of the Lysefjord.
It is common to find, at the entrances of houses and properties, troll figures carved in tree trunks. They are a very popular character of the Scandinavian folklore and fairy tales, inherited from the Viking pagan beliefs. In the ancient Norse tales they lived in isolated mountains, rocks and caves and they were not really friendly to humans.
A few kilometres away from Forsand we come across the quiet neighbourhood of Haukali, at the shores of the Haukalivatnet lake. There we meet Reidunn, who have converted her grandfather’s farm in a lodging that allows you to experience the quiet lifestyle of the 1850s. At the shore of the lake and surrounded by nature we can disconnect from the world and from contemporary life in a traditional cabin, with no electricity (except for the fridge) and an ecological toilet as a license to modern comfort.
We have dinner with her, deer stew (from an animal hunted on the premises, as it would have been 2 centuries ago) and strawberries grown on the farm. After dinner, we take a walk up the hill to marvel at the fantastic views of the lake and mountains. It is an idyllic place. We enjoy a violin solo by the water at sunset – a suitable end to our day in 1850.
From Forsand to Haugesund by the Ryfylke road
Rocky mountains, forested slopes and deep fjords. The panoramic Ryfylke road runs 260km between Oanes, at the mouth of the Lysefjord, and Hara. It is another trip to take without a hurry, enjoying the magnificent landscape. Non-stop it would take us 4.30 hours to get to Haugesund from Forsand, but that is not our plan. We visit some panoramic spots and historic sites, like the Ardal church, one of the most iconic Renaissance churches in Norway. The beautiful long wooden red structure built in 1620 is mostly used for weddings nowadays. We also stop for lunch on a picnic area overlooking the fjord.
According to Norse sagas Odin came to Avaldness in 998 to visit king Olav Tryggvason. Avaldness was the home of the first king of Norway, Harald, but it had already been a seat of power as early as the Bronze Age and it would stay that way until the 15thC. Its strategic position on the Karmsundet strait navigation route allowed the residents to control all maritime transit on the coast of Norway. The location gave them a defensive advantage as well. Some old poems sign about Thor, god of thunder, crossing the strait here every day to get to Yggdrasil, the tree of life. Fingers crossed.
Here at the tip of the Karmsundet strait we find the Nordvegen Historiesenter, focused on the story of king Harald and his reign with exhibitions, videos, costumes and sets. It is located in a subterranean building fully integrated in the landscape and accessed via a round entrance representing Mimir’s well. Mimir was an exceptionally wise being and counsellor of the gods who guarded a well that was the source of all knowledge. Odin gave one of his eyes to be able to drink from it in order to acquire his wisdom and become the wisest of all gods. Going down the well will not make us the wisest, but will certainly give us some knowledge about the Viking king and his kingdom. And the chance at some cosplay, which is always a bonus.
A path outside the museum leads us into a forested island in the strait, where we find the Vikinbggard, the Viking farm, which reproduces some real 10thC buildings found around the country, like a round house, a long house, a boat house as well as daily elements like a vegetable garden or the granary… There is even a drakkar boat in the tiny harbour. The buildings are part of an experimental archaeological program to study the techniques, tools and materials used by the Vikings… Every year around June, the farm is the centre of a Viking festival. We wander around and come across some Viking impersonators going about their daily tasks before heading back to the mainland through the forest by the waters of the Karmsundet strait. It’s starting to rain and all is extremely quiet. Still, no sign of Thor. Shame.
The city of Haugesund stands along the Smedansundet strait, which acts as natural harbour. It grew at the peak of the herring industry during the 19thC, and the houses by the water were built at that time. The main commercial artery of the city, with restaurants and cafes, runs parallel to the harbour, and so does Haraldsgata, the longest pedestrian street in the country. We come across a statue of Marilyn Monroe that seems out of place but it turns out her father was from Haugesund. The statue that makes sense is King Harald, who stands on top of the Havnabergutsikten viewpoint, beautiful hair in the wind, shield in hand, overlooking the harbour and his domains in a defiant stance.
Haugesund is a lively city, and after dinner we come across groups of teenagers dressed in their traditional clothes celebrating – probably the end of school as it is June.
From Haugesund to Stavanger, stopping at Utstein Monastery
The road back to Stavanger crosses several islands, connected to the mainland by a 25 minutes ferry ride, one of the longest subaquatic tunnels in the world (there’s even a roundabout inside) and several bridges. In the smallest island, Klosteroy, we take a small detour to visit the best preserved Medieval monastery in Norway, Utstein Kloster.
The monastery, a stone building with white plastered walls protected by enormous trees, stands in the middle of a bucolic landscape, among pastures by the shore of the peaceful waters. The current abbey was built in the 13thC and in its zenith it is believed to have been inhabited by around 20-30 monks and double the number of peasants, who took care of the farm and domestic tasks as work was forbidden for monks. The abbey was rich enough to feed 250 people the whole year round. It witnessed curious events, like a catapult attack ordered by the bishop after the abbot denied him entry when he came to investigate rumours of a pregnant woman locked in the basement – that sort of curious.
After the Reformation monks were allowed to stay but a pirate attack drove them out and the building was abandoned until the 18thC, when it became the residence of the Ryfylke tax officer Christopher Garmann. He refurbished part of the monastery to make it his home. His wife Cecilie is buried in the chapel, and apparently her ghost still wanders around.
At some point one of its caretakers sold the stone cloister arcs, which have not been restored. The church is unique in Norway for its central tower. A part of the monastery was converted into a hotel, which is very popular for weddings and business stages (at least they keep poor Cecilie entertained). Ask the guide to show you the runes engraved in one of the outside walls.
We end our road trip where we started, in Stavanger. We say goodbye, in a symbolic way, to the Norse gods and the Vikings at the small church of Ruin, in Sola. Although historically, it is the Stamford Bridge battle, which took place in England in 1066, what is considered the milestone marking the end of the Viking Era, what really killed the Viking culture was their conversion to Christianity. Luckily for us, the gods, the giants, the trolls, the dwarfs and the spirits were kept alive both in sagas and epic poems which the Icelandic descendants of the Vikings saved from oblivion.