Land of the Viking

 

Ireland's relationship with the Vikings may have been strained at Clontarf in 1014, but Ryanair has now made it possible for us to visit the Viking home place - and to explore our common heritage, writes Mark Rodden

ONE OF THE advantages of Ryanair's increased presence in the market has been the opening up of previously unthought-of destinations to the Irish tourist. Lübeck, outside Hamburg, and Girona, near Barcelona, are notable examples and another recent addition is the Vestfold area of Norway in which Torp airport is situated.

A military airport until 15 years ago, the number of passengers using Torp each year has steadily increased to more than 1.5 million since it was opened to commercial airlines. Many Irish tourists flying into the airport will travel on to Oslo, which is an hour and a half's drive north and two hours by train. However, the Vestfold county has long been a summer holiday destination for residents of Oslo and its tourist agencies are now working hard to promote the area to overseas visitors.

One selling point is the shared Viking heritage between Ireland and Norway, which they hope can entice Irish visitors to this part of eastern Norway. The Viking name is said to originate from the region and it is also thought to be home to Norway's first town at Kaupang, which dates from the eighth century. The oldest remaining settlement, Tønsberg, still overlooks the Oslofjord.

The Vestfold has a mild climate and when schools close in mid-June many of its towns are swamped by visitors from Oslo. The town of Sandefjord, where Torp airport is located, can see its population of 42,000 swell by up to 50 per cent during summer.

As in other parts of the region, whaling was an important source of employment in Sandefjord until the 1960s and at its peak as many as 2,800 men from the district earned a living from it. The history of the industry in the area is commemorated at the town's whaling museum and by an impressive monument near the harbour.

A Viking longship, the Gaia, which sailed to Ireland in 2005, can also be found by the harbour. A replica of the ninth-century Gokstad ship that was excavated in 1880, it can fit 32 rowers and it takes at least 10-12 people to hoist its huge 110sq m sail.

Nearby Larvik, the home of innovative 19th-century Norwegian shipbuilder Colin Archer, is another town that is teeming with visitors during summer. The extent of the ongoing development in the region is perhaps best highlighted by the fact that eight billion Norwegian kroner (roughly €1 billion) is being invested in renewing the town over the next few years. A new "Superspeed" ferry to Denmark has been launched and a revamped ferry terminal was opened in May. A cultural centre and a spa-hotel are among projects planned for next year.

At Kaupang, just outside Larvik, aspects of Viking life are recreated for schoolchildren and visitors can sample Viking food and drink. Materials that were found during excavations at Kilmainham and Islandbridge were also found at this excavation site, perhaps hinting at trade links between the settlement and Ireland. While there is not much of the settlement left to be seen today, plans are in place to further develop its information centre to create a picture of what life was like.

The county's capital, Tønsberg, was a centre of power and shipping town in Viking times. It remains a lively place today and plenty of young people frequent the numerous bars that look out on to the fjord. From here you can take a taxi boat to the island of Bolaerne, which was recently opened to the public.

You don't have to travel far to find further evidence of the region's Viking history. Just north of Tønsberg is the Oseberg burial mound, where in 1904 one of Norway's most treasured Viking finds was uncovered. A 21.5m longship was discovered containing the skeletal remains of two women, who were buried with a wooden carriage, sleighs, horses, oxen and dogs.

The find dates from AD 834 and the women's bones were well-preserved thanks to the clay soil that prevented air or water from damaging them. It was the second major discovery in the area, as the remains of a man, along with a number of tools and other artefacts, were found at the Gokstad mound near Sandefjord.

The remains from both mounds were reburied but the sites were reopened in September 2007. The re-examinations of the Oseberg women that followed revealed some staggering information about them. The older of the two could have been 80 or more and it is thought she suffered from breast or abdominal cancer. This makes her - by quite some distance - the oldest registered cancer case in Norway. Images of the bones show that the disease had spread to the skeleton and she is likely to have died as a result of it.

The few bones remaining of the Gokstad skeleton are massive and are twice the weight of their corresponding bones today. The man, who was in his 40s, suffered from a rare growth disease and was a giant. Evidence of knife wounds suggest he met his end in violent circumstances.

Both sets of remains are on show at the Midgard Historical Centre in Horten, but in September they will be returned to the University of Oslo. Midgard is adjacent to Borre Park, where a number of burial grounds have been excavated and more are waiting to be examined. Here you can admire Viking craftwork and try out swords, axe-throwing and archery.

Apart from its Viking heritage, the Vestfold has a number of other attractions. The holiday home of Edvard Munch, which dates from 1624, is found in Asgardstrand. The painter best known for The Scream spent close to 50 summers in the small tourist town and created some of his most famous works there. Some of the rooms are preserved as Munch left them, with his clothes still hanging by his bed. A small gallery showcases and sells reproductions of his work.

A car may be needed to best explore the Vestfold, but between April and September it is perfect for cycling. Much of the landscape is flat and cycle-friendly and plenty of routes are marked out. The county also offers ample opportunity for walks along the coast. Golf, watersports and fishing in the Numedalslagen River are other outdoor activities practiced during summer in the Vestfold's relaxed surroundings.

While it's probable that Norway's capital will be foremost in the thoughts of Irish visitors passing through Torp airport, if the Vestfold continues to develop and puts the necessary funds into promoting its Viking heritage, it could certainly become a welcome stopover for history buffs.

Mark Rodden travelled to Norway as a guest of Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) and Visit East Norway (www.visiteastnorway.com)

Go there

Ryanair flies from Dublin to Oslo (Torp) in Norway four times weekly. Fares start at €23.27