What a cul­tured lot those Vik­ings were

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year, we liked it so much, we stayed. We started a fam­ily and I em­barked on a sec­ond ca­reer as an au­thor.

For my lat­est book, I delved into tra­di­tional nav­i­ga­tion tech­niques, tried Vik­ing hand­i­crafts, and learned axe-throw­ing while six months preg­nant with twins. But I’ve never ven­tured east, fol­low­ing the Norse­men’s route to the Arab world, nor seen a pic­ture stone. These carved im­ages show Vik­ing life as it re­ally was, and Got­land in Swe­den boasts the great­est num­ber of them in the world. So to truly go Vik­ing, I have to go to Got­land.

An is­land off the coast of Stock­holm, Got­land was a trad­ing hub be­tween east and west in the Vik­ing era and is lit­tered with cul­tural trea­sures from the pe­riod. But the Swedes, as with ev­ery­thing else, play down their at­trac­tions. “So what brings you here?” asks the taxi driver who picks me up from Visby air­port to drive me to the town’s spec­tac­u­lar walled city and Got­land’s Unesco World Her­itage Site. “All this..?” I ges­ture around, as we pass dra­matic raukar – pil­lars of lime­stone carved by the cur­rent that seem to surge up and out of the sea of their own ac­cord. Or the fine white­sand beaches backed by pine forests that the re­gion is fa­mous for. Or the cen­turies of his­tory dis­tilled into four in­sanely In­sta­grammable square miles of spires and gabled roofs pok­ing out from be­tween tightly packed trees, shrubs and bushes that earn Visby its nick­name: City of Roses.

But my cab driver re­mains unim­pressed as we bump along nar­row, cob­bled streets and weave be­tween me­dieval houses. The air is crisp and clear; the sky punc­tured by the steeples of a stun­ning 12th-cen­tury cathe­dral – built to ap­pease Ger­man mer­chants and now the only sur­viv­ing me­dieval church in Visby.

“And then there’s the Vik­ings!” I protest, just as we come to a stop and I am un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously turfed out. Swedes are famed for their lagom but I’m be­gin­ning to won­der whether I’ve over­hyped Got­land’s Vik­ing cre­den­tials. I needn’t have wor­ried.

Lars Kruthof, the last clean-shaven man in Swe­den, wel­comes me into Got­lands Mu­seum (got­landsmu­seum. se) for my in­tro­duc­tion to the is­land’s his­tory. He’s wear­ing an im­pres­sive pom­padour, cuffed blue jeans and what looks like a Vik­ing brooch with in­ter­lock­ing cir­cles, and I’m im­pressed with his ded­i­ca­tion to the theme.

“Is that an orig­i­nal de­sign?” I ask. “This? No, I got it in Es­to­nia.” “Oh.”

It turns out Lars is a mu­seum cu­ra­tor by day and rock­a­billy fan by night, so trav­els a lot. “But we do have a lot of unique Vik­ing finds in Got­land!” he prom­ises, hur­ry­ing me through the chilly me­dieval mu­seum to a room con­tain­ing a 1,000-year-old skele­ton of a woman from Vik­ing times; her (au­then­tic) brooches and box pen­dant beau­ti­fully pre­served.

“Got­land’s Vik­ings were traders,” ex­plains Lars. “They weren’t ‘blood­thirsty’: they were about buy­ing and sell­ing things.”

Like what? “Honey,” is his an­swer. Less “Fu­ri­ous Norse­men”, ”, more Win­nie-the-Pooh. Still, it t proved lu­cra­tive. Eighty per cent t of all Vik­ing sil­ver hoards in Swe­den have been found d in Got­land’s flat farm­land, and there’s still likely to be a lot ot left un­der­ground.

Lars tells me about a farmer who struck sil­ver r un­der old floor­boards, and nd a group of schoolkids who ho got lucky pok­ing around a rab­bit hole. “Can we try?” ?” I ask in spite of my­self. I’ve seen De­tec­torists! I know the drill!

His “no” is firm. He tells ls me that these days, ex­ca­va­tion is the pre­serve ve of pro­fes­sion­als: “Metal de­tec­tors are banned and we even got a guy in jail re­cently – we caught him sell­ing coins on eBay.” Lar Lars tells me about Got­land’s unique folklo folk­lore, and how some older peo­ple still be be­lieve in myth­i­cal un­der­ground creatu crea­tures: “Even now, Got­landers stamp three times to warn the trolls b be­fore they pour wa­ter in their g gar­den.” At this pre­cise mo­ment, a class of schoo school­child­ren thun­ders in, mak­ing the g glass cab­i­nets shake. “Trolls,” Lars gives a know­ing nod. He grew up with these sto­ries on Faro Faro, the is­land off the north­ern­most tip of Got­land where Ing­mar Ber Bergman made his home after film film­ing Through a Glass Darkly th there in 1961. I ask Lars if he’s a fan an and he says ca­su­ally: “Oh yes, he w was good to us, grow­ing up.” Bergman ap­par­ently taught the lo lo­cal chil­dren pho­tog­ra­phy, put the them in his films and even built them a com­mu­nity cen­tre. He stayed on Faro un­til he died and there’s now a mu­seum there ded­i­cated to his work (bergman­cen­ter.se/in-english).

“We still get a lot of tourists on Faro, and in Visby, but they of­ten want to see Vik­ings,” says Lars. Here he cra­dles his bare chin, and adds: “When that hap­pens, I send them Per’s way.”

Per Wider­strom is a bearded gi­ant with long hair and sea-blue eyes who’s one of only two ar­chae­ol­o­gists on the is­land. As such, he’s some­thing of a celebrity. “There is a real re­spect for ar­chae­ol­ogy in Got­land be­cause of our her­itage,” he says. TV shows like Vik­ings and Game of Thrones have reignited an in­ter­est in all things an­cient Norse, so that for Got­landers, “ar­chae­ol­o­gist” is akin to “rock star”.

Per agrees to show me some of the Vik­ing high­lights in Got­land’s coun­try­side, but sug­gests a sar­to­rial re­jig first. In his mud­died four-wheel drive, we pass bu­colic scenery punc­tu­ated by col­lec­tions of stones in the shape of ships – graves in­tended to help Vik­ings sail to an af­ter­life in

Lime­stone pil­lars rise from the sea on Got­land

The town of Visby; be­low, stones tell of the ex­ploits of the an­cient Norse

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