This article was first published in the November 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine
There is a moment, just as you come up through the car park, with the solid stone squares of St Olav’s Church on your left, when your breath is taken away by the view. It’s an unspoilt long sweeping slope down to the sparkling sea of a typical Norwegian fjord of bleak beauty, where the gulls shatter a pewter sky with cries akin to those of lost children.
This is Avaldsnes on the west coast of Norway, seat of Norway’s Viking kings and a powerhouse of politics and warriors in the time when I would most like to have visited it – the 10th century. It is an era that Norwegians still treat with reverence.
Today, the area’s history is celebrated at the Nordvegen History Centre, an ultra-modern and high-tech facility that is mostly based underground, so that it does not mar the landscape. Visitors descend by a spiralled sweep of stairs, and a walk through the centre is like a dip into a dark, mysterious world, taking in some 3,500 years of history. It is almost a relief to emerge, blinking, into the light of the gift shop and cafe.
A replica Viking farm is located about a 10-minute walk from the history centre – Avaldsnes is, after all, where King Harald Fairhair, the man who unified Norway into the first true Viking kingdom, sited his main farm and royal settlement in c870. Today, the place is accessible via a short, narrow stretch of footbridge across to the island of Karmøy.
The word ‘farm’ makes the settlement seem a cosy proposition, but there is nothing cosy about the beautifully constructed and maintained buildings, hand-crafted in the authentic style. The boatshed is huge and there is also an 82ft longhouse, a lovingly reconstructed oven for bread, a forge, a shrine to the gods… and all of it used by people who have learned the necessary skills.
I am sometimes one of those re-enacting Vikings you’ll see cooking, making bread and forging metal for days at a time, getting ready for the annual festival which takes place in June. The event is a highlight of the year, attracting thousands of Norwegian visitors as well as tourists from overseas.
Avaldsnes was the seat of royal power in Norway for generations. The name was originally Ogvaldsnes, derived from King Augvald, a semi-legendary ruler whose daughters fought by his side as shield maidens and who had a sacred cow he believed provided the magic milk that secured his victories.
Later, King Olaf Tryggvason sat on the throne here and forced out the last of the old Norse gods in favour of Christianity.
Proof of that is the stone St Olav’s Church, built in the 13th century by King Hakon Hakonsson on the site of other, older structures.
Next to it is a huge standing-stone obelisk, once one of several that surrounded the church. Legend has it that the stone is a sewing needle dropped from heaven by the Virgin Mary. Another legend, older and darker, says that the obelisk is the magician who built the church in a night. Tricked by the priest out of his promised payment, he was turned to stone just as he rushed to destroy vengefully what he had built.
At 24ft high, the obelisk is Norway’s second tallest; no one knows how deep into the ground it goes. It leans sideways, almost touching the main building, and it isn’t hard to see that magician, frozen to a stone needle, mere inches from falling on the church in a rage. Legend has it that if the needle ever actually touches the church, the building will fall – and the world will end.
Someone clearly thought so. The top of the needle has been chiselled away in ancient times, preventing it touching the wall. It used to move a centimetre every year but has, mercifully for us all, now stopped and remains stationary – albeit at just a small distance from the church wall.
In the summer of 2010, the inheritors of the Vikings’ skills gathered to build a ship – the largest and most authentic longship ever to be built since 1200. At 115ft long, 26ft wide and boasting some 70 tonnes of seasoned oak, it needs 100 people to row it. When the newly christened Dragon Harald Fairhair arrived in Avaldsnes some three years later, I was fortunate to be one of those crewing it. It is now on tour.
Sailing the boat was an unforgettable experience – but just the brilliant highlight to a gem of a place. If you want to feel history up through the soles of your feet, go to Avaldsnes, stand next to St Olav’s Church and look out onto the windswept grandeur of island and sea.
Once, perhaps a thousand years or more ago, a Norseman would have stood exactly there, wrapped in a wool cloak and drinking in the same beauty.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
The highlight of the year is the Viking Festival, which takes place in June and is not to be missed. Remember, though, that this is the north: summers can be scorching hot but they can also get windy and damp, so be warned. Winter is not the time to be anywhere near a Norwegian fjord, unless of course, you like the grandeur of ice and snow.
The annual summer solstice is celebrated in Avaldsnes with concerts, seminars, pilgrim wanderings and a midsummer service at the historic St Olav’s Church.
If you’re feeling brave, you could opt for the 25-hour road trip across the Channel to Belgium and Holland, up to Denmark and across from there. Flying is the easier option. Haugesund airport is just over three miles from Avaldsnes – you can fly there direct from London Stansted.
What to pack
Waterproofs and suntan lotion – and a taste for seafood. It is a Norwegian speciality.
What to bring back
A sense of having touched something from the past.
What to see nearby
Haugesund is famous for its international film and jazz festivals. You can stay in a lighthouse, or a fisherman’s cabin on the coast and enjoy waterfalls and white, sandy beaches.
Robert Low is a journalist and historical novelist. His Oathsworn series of novels is set in the Viking age. robert-low.com
Read more about Robert’s experiences in Avaldsnes at historyextra.com/avaldsnes