Denmark, Day Ten: Which Is Pretty Badass

Monday, June 13

So I had become, as far as I know, the first family member in a few generations to make it back to one of our native lands. What then? What would serve as a suitable encore to that visit? After all, this was only about a third of the way through the trip; I didn’t want to peak too soon.

Fortunately Monday immediately provided an answer to that question, because Monday was the day we went to Roskilde.

Once upon a time, Roskilde was one of the most important cities in Denmark; it was founded in the 980s by Harald Bluetooth (first king of Denmark, and yes that was named after him),  and was the capital of Denmark until 1443, during which it served as an important hub of commerce and assorted traffic for the Vikings, before they finally settled down a bit. It got hit pretty hard by the Reformation, though, since a lot of its significance at that point was religious. The cathedral stuck around as the burial place for most Danish monarchs, but the multitude of smaller churches and monasteries dwindled out. And of course, there weren’t a lot of Vikings using the harbor anymore, plus it was no longer the capital, so Roskilde mostly switched from being politically important to historically important (no slight against Roskilde intended). Also, grain of salt, I totally just pulled most of that from Wikipedia.

In regards to Monday’s expedition, there were two specifically relevant things in Roskilde: the aforementioned cathedral and the Viking Ships Museum. If you carefully examine the clues scattered throughout this series so far, you should be able to cleverly deduce which one of these I was more interested in.

Very much in the vein of our other excursions so far, getting there involved first a train ride and then a walk (a bit over a mile in this case, but about half of it was under the trees on the edge of a nice park with a stream, which I quite liked). We went to the Viking Ships Museum first, because our visit there involved a very special event that required scheduling ahead of time. It turned out the opening for a group our size would be around 2:00, so the plan for the day became as follows: we would tour the museum, everyone would get lunch on their own, and we would meet back at the cathedral afterwards and go through it before returning to the museum. Once everyone was equipped with a wristband to let us in and out of the museum we were free to explore.

I’m sure you can guess what general subject the Viking Ships Museum was dedicated to, but in the particular it was focused on some specific Viking ships. Five of them, to be precise, which were purposefully sunk in the eleventh century to create a defensive barrier in one of the sailing channels near Roskilde. 900 years later they were finally excavated and dubbed the Skuldelev ships, a name which I kept wanting to mis-remember as Skuldafn.

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There were, as I said, five ships, but they were named Skuldelev 1, Skuldelev 2, Skuldelev 3, Skuldelev 5, and Skuldelev 6, which confused me to no end. It turns out that this is because when they were excavating they initially thought there were six ships, but what they thought was Skuldelev 4 was actually part of Skuldelev 2, and for some reason they never fixed their naming scheme. I had to go online to figure that one out, by the way.

Immediately after entering the museum there was a little room off to the side with a short documentary playing about the excavation of the ships. I walked in at the half-way point, so I had to watch that and then the first half of the next showing to get the whole thing (which is, incidentally, the exact same way I first watched Blazing Saddles). It was quite interesting, going over all the difficulties of pulling 900-year-old wooden ships out of the sea without them instantly disintegrating. Then I walked out of the room and there those 900-year-old ships were, right in front of me.

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The ships were a mix of types: a couple of cargo ships, a couple of warships, and one that’s apparently a bit ambiguous. As cool as they all were, the show-stealer was Skuldelev 2, aka the one so big they initially thought it was two ships. Seriously, look at this thing.  Don’t tell me you wouldn’t wig out if this showed up on your coast in the 1000’s.

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Each one of the ships had a corresponding reconstruction, built using techniques and materials as authentic as possible. The reconstructions each had proper names. not to be confused with the ships they were based on, which are properly called Skuldelev 1, Skuldelev 2, etc (It took me a while to figure this out.). These were Ottar (1); The Sea Stallion from Glendalough (2; Skuldelev 2 was actually built in Dublin using wood from Glendalough, Ireland, hence the name); Roar Ege (3; I initially read that one as Roar Edge and thought it sounded both awesome and kind of like a Pokemon move*); Helge Ask (5, which actually had another, earlier reconstruction called Sebbe Als) and Kraka Fyr (6). There were little models of the reconstructions next to the originals since the actual reconstructions were all out being used as, y’know, ships, and also presumably because fitting them in next to the old ships would have required a pretty dang big building.

*Or possibly a rare item in Path of Exile.

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I did get to see The Sea Stallion From Glendalough later, though, since it was actually out in the harbor. I wouldn’t want this one showing up on my coast either.

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Aside from the big room with the ships, there were a couple side areas. One had displays describing how the barricade might have functioned in practice. There was also this bit of jaw-dropping irony:

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So after all that painstaking and exhaustive work getting the ships out of the water, and preserving them so they could survive in dry conditions, the museum floods. If I worked there I think I would have to put some serious thought into whether a sea god had been accidentally and terribly angered.

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GONDOR CALLS FOR AID!

Then there was this area.

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This was a bit more interactive, with mock ships that could be explored, some period board games and crayons to write things out in runes, and a whole row of Viking clothes you could try on and pose in the convenient nearby mirror in. As I was contemplating this last one, a few of my groupmates came through and one asked if I’d like a picture taken in Viking regalia.

I’m not usually much inclined toward being photographed, by myself or anyone else, but there are some things you just don’t say no to.

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This later caused a minor explosion on my Facebook page. But anyway.

After that, the only things left were a wall with some information about Nordic life, and the gift shop, because when you’ve got five 900-year-old Viking ships in your museum you don’t need much else. Unfortunately, as should be pretty much expected by this point in our story, the gift shop proved problematic to me.

I was specifically looking for something for my Viking-loving grandfather, who prior to my trip had actually gone on about how cool it would be if I could see the huge Viking ship from Dublin. In the process I uncovered something for my dad, who, when I asked my family what kind of souvenirs they wanted from Denmark, asked for a knife (you know, the perfect gift to have to bring back past the TSA, thanks Dad). So far I hadn’t had any luck finding one, but in this gift shop there were some small penknives that I could afford, so I was pretty gleeful about that. Naturally, I got up to the register and found out my card was missing again. Except this time it was way, way worse because I didn’t have enough cash to cover it and by the time I had worked all this out the clerk had already neatly wrapped everything up, and I had no choice but to apologize profusely. She was very kind and said it was really no problem, but I still slunk away feeling like the most wretched human being alive.

And yes, my card eventually turned out to be in the exact same place it had been the last time. I’d say I learned some valuable lessons about managing money on this trip, but I think it just made my phobias about it worse. Or maybe it actually helped, in an exposure therapy kind of way.

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Still, things weren’t as bad as they could have been; at least we had a program stipend for lunch, so I could still eat. I walked back up toward the cathedral, starting to feel that low-blood-sugar-induced anxiety again, but this time I managed to find a bakery and get a sandwich before the situation became irreversible. It was a really good sandwich, too. Seriously, Denmark has amazing sandwiches.

I sat out in front of the cathedral to eat, and got a bit concerned about whether I was in the spot we were supposed to be meeting in; I wasn’t quite sure about the instructions we were left with. But then other group members started showing up, and I went to join them with the reassuring feeling that if we were lost, we were all lost together.

We weren’t, though (and granted we were a group of some fourteen people sitting right in front of the cathedral, so a bit hard to miss in any case). Dr. Dupont met up with us about the time I was starting to get pretty sore on my stone bench and took us in to the cathedral. Like in the Viking Ships Museum we were pretty much left to our own devices, except the history class had to meet in one of the chapels briefly to talk about some history.

As the booklet they gave us at the front desk (and let us keep, somewhat to my surprise; it’s fairly hefty) says, there have been churches on the site of the cathedral for over a thousand years; about 1056 years, actually, if my math is correct, and it probably isn’t. Harald Bluetooth (yeah, him again) built the first one there sometime after making Roskilde his capital in 960, and was buried there after he died in 985. Then that sank into the swamp got torn down, and a cathedral was built there instead. Or maybe it was two cathedrals. No one seems to be quite sure. Then in the 1170s another cathedral was built around/on top of that, and that’s the one we have today. Very historic.

Unsurprisingly for a place that was having people buried in it before it even existed, modern-day Roskilde Cathedral turned out to be rather crypt-crowded. Ordinarily I probably would have taken some more interest in this, but I was still thinking about Vikings. Nonetheless, I dutifully took pictures of everything I could see.

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There was a small museum upstairs as well, and a somewhat strange art exhibit. There definitely was a lot of history packed in there, more than I could take in. I felt rather out of place, on the whole, almost like an intruder, being neither an inheritor of that history or a participant in that or any other religion. The only religious services I’ve been to were one day going to Sunday School with my great-grandparents, attended purely out of curiosity; one wedding; and a couple times sitting in on a Quaker meeting with my uncle’s family because I happened to be around at the time and why not. (Which makes the fact that I go to a Christian college kind of weird now that I think about it.) I found myself thinking mostly about my 310 class on Christian art, and feeling guilty that I had pretty much forgotten the names for different parts of a church because I did actually like that class.

We were supposed to reconvene back at the museum at a certain time, but were otherwise free to take our time with the cathedral. I happened to take a bit less time with the cathedral and went on back to the museum while everyone else was still milling around. On the way out I stopped and spent my last bit of money on some bottled water being sold at the entrance, since I was pretty thirsty and also it would presumably come in handy if I were to meet any vampires. I actually kept that water bottle all the way until the next to last day of the trip, when it mysteriously disappeared, much to my sadness.

Since I had the time, I walked back through the park instead of beside it. It was a melancholy sort of day, which suited me just fine, and walking by the stream was a nice bit of calm.

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what why not

what why not

Outside the main building of the Viking Ships Museum were several stations for hands-on demonstrations or activities about various aspects of Viking life; there was one on rope-making, one on shields, one where you could make your own model Viking ship, etc. They weren’t really being manned at the time, but I spent a while looking at them and the nearby ships. I could afford to take my time; no one else was even there yet.

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The...larch.

The…larch.

By the time two o’clock rolled around, though, we were all assembled and ready to embark. Literally. We were embarking onto a reconstructed Viking ship to go sail out into the Baltic.

First, though, we were met by the captain, a tall blond craggy guy who spoke English with a strong British accent. I instantly liked him, though I’m not sure anyone else in the group did; he had a rather blunt sense of humor that reminded me of family. We got a safety talk, and were shown some bins where we could store our stuff for the duration; he did warn us that they weren’t going to be locked or anything, although on the other hand they’d never had anything stolen. This being Denmark, not to mention being the edge of a fairly deserted harbor, I figured the risk of theft was preferable to the risk of my stuff falling into the Baltic (or getting pine sap on it. Either way.) and took nothing with me but my raincoat. On the downside this did mean that I couldn’t take any photos of me sailing a Viking ship, which I got no end of grief about when I got home, but I still maintain that my decision not to take my phone and/or camera out onto open water was the correct one.

Once everyone was lifejacketed up (we were reassured that no one had ever actually gone overboard on these trips; I found myself thinking of how I’d been told somewhere that Vikings didn’t bother to learn to swim because if you fell in the North Sea you were going to die anyway, but figured that since it was June we were probably alright), we went out to the ship and got a crash course on how to use the oars, and what the various commands from the captain meant in that context, and then it was finally time to board. There followed a brief struggle as starboard side tried to get our oars into position (no small task; those things were huge and quite heavy, and it was very easy to accidentally whack the person behind you with them), and then edged the ship away from the dock so that port side had room to get theirs out as well.

And then we rowed out of the harbor. Or at least, we did a good imitation of rowing out of the harbor. The hardest part-for me, at least-was keeping in sync; it sounds simple to row at the same time everyone in front of you is rowing but in practice it was very easy for a momentary slip-up to throw you off, or to get tangled up with the oar of the person in front of you. We did get chastised by the captain for this one, along with not putting enough weight into it. (“Up until now you have been merely tickling the waters of the Baltic with your oars…”). Also we had to stop for a swan. Dang swans.

Fortunately our somewhat crazed attempts at rowing could stop once we were out of the harbor and the sail went up, predominantly done by the captain and the two crewmen (he could instantly switch from talking to us in English to talking to them in Danish, which I found fascinating to listen to), although we got to hold some ropes. It was a bit daunting, having this massive sail suddenly inflate right behind your head, but once it was out we started going fast.

My experience with sailing up to that point had been going out with my dad on the Barren River Lake, and we’d usually go at a pretty sedate pace, maybe a decent clip if the wind really picked up. This ship practically zoomed across the water. I suddenly found it very easy to understand how the Vikings got as far around the world as they did. Heck, I was feeling ready to go pillage the British Isles right then and there, but sadly our voyage only led us back to the harbor. Still, we got pretty far out before we had to turn back, and, true to what we’d been told, no one fell out. (Although someone did get whacked on the head with the yardarm. The captain was extremely apologetic.)

We did somewhat better sailing back into the harbor (no swans this time). I was quite sad to go, especially since now we had to walk all the way back to the train station. But none of our stuff had been stolen, and the captain complimented us on being a good crew. I was a bit suspicious as to whether we actually were or if he just said that to everyone, but then he told us a story about the struggles of having to take a group out who spoke neither English nor Danish and I had to conclude that we probably had something going for us.

I got to do a lot of incredible things on this trip, but later, when I got back home and people asked me what the best part was, ‘sailing a Viking ship out into the Baltic’ was always at the top of the list. There was only one other thing that seriously competed with it…but we’ll get to that.

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