Rally with the raiders
In the wake of the Vikings in the North Atlantic
Curiosity about some of the world’s most bloodthirsty pillagers has surged since The History Channel launched The Vikings television series, attracting multiple Emmy Award nominations and 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, caviar, salt-dried cod (a Viking staple) and other 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 home port of our 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 squeezeseats and soulless airports seem a distant distraction.
There are no casinos, no blaring music, no booze binges, 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 grown-ups.
Christened in Bergen in April, 2015, Viking Cruises’ first ocean vessel accommodates 930 passengers in 465 staterooms, each with private veranda, kingsize bed, 24hour room service, 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.
Then there’s the food, the buffet-style World Cafe, The Restaurant, Manfredi’s (perhaps the best Italian restaurant afloat) and Chef’s Table where the emphasis is on set menus paired with 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.
So tonight we sail west, retracing the heroic voyages those Vikings undertook more than 12 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 in about 850AD. From the forward Explorers Lounge we watch the dawn around 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 going by bus south across Shetland, beside 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 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 4000 years of human history.
Leaving Lerwick, Viking Star heads north. Resident musicians entertain throughout the ship, including the Viking Classical Trio in the atrium, young Russian pianist Olga in the Explorers Lounge and guitarist Laszlo in the Wintergarden; soft musical interludes 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.
Next morning, a slit of sunlight peeks over the horizon only to fade behind worsening weather after we arrive at the Faroe Islands. A tugboat from tiny Torshavn escorts the ship to 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 8C outside and an occasional pelagic seabird, a fulmar here, a petrel there, flies 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 us, morning sunshine envelops Reykjavik where Viking boss, Erik the Red, once called the shots and where shore excursions today include whale-watching, a visit to the steamy and sulfurous Blue Lagoon and the historic first Viking parliament site at Thingvellir. I spend the day rediscovering Reykjavik where along the shopping streets Bankastraeti and Laugavegur are multicoloured Scandi-chic boutiques, galleries, cafes and pubs leading up to Skolavorouholtio Hill where the spectacular concrete “space shuttle’’ Lutheran cathedral, Hallgrimskirkja, lords it over the city. On Aoalstraeti, archaeologists have uncovered Reykjavik’s oldest relics of human habitation dating to 871AD including a 10thcentury Viking longhouse, all now part of the fascinating Settlement Exhibition about life here in the Viking era.
I stop for a Viking Lager by the Public House-Gastropub, a hip restaurant serving epicurean mini-meals with a Japanese touch. Think cured puffin breast with licorice, 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; he fled to Iceland after a killing spree in Norway and then left Iceland after another killing, heading west and discovering Greenland. In Erik’s wake, we while away a day at sea. I settle into the Wintergarden for high tea served alongside three-tiered cake stands decked with cucumber sandwiches and fresh patisserie.
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 10thcentury Vikings scrabbled out a living. Sunday in Nanortalik (population 1000) 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 (population 3000) is a more
Nanortalik fishing village, Greenland, top; colourful houses in Qaqortoq, above; Viking Star, above right; reconstructed Viking longhouse at L’Anse aux Meadows, below