A stout man with an enormous beard tends to a cooking pot over a wood fire. Grunting with satisfaction, he reaches for a bone-handled sword and carves slivers from a huge haunch of cured meat.
I could be watching a scene from Vikings – the History Channel drama that chronicles the brutal exploits of Norse legend Ragnar Lothbrok – if this were not all taking place outside the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. In fact, it’s a cookery demonstration and the chap dressed head-to-toe in leather is Viking chef Jesper Lynge.
Eating like a Viking in Roskilde
“It’s experiential archaeology,” Jesper explains as he pours ale into wooden goblets and – noticing my blue fingers – swaddles me in a sheepskin. “I take their raw materials and I make stories with them.”
The pot contains a delicious parsnip soup – “Ragnar was a fertile guy and at that time they felt parsnips symbolised you-know-what” – fortified with hot smoked salmon and what turns out to be smoked venison. As I gobble it from my wooden bowl, Jesper tells me he’s a fan of the TV drama but not the fussy costumes – “The Vikings were cooler”.
Jesper has a Viking-themed restaurant in Lindholm Høje, a Dark Ages settlement, but this clearly isn’t just a day job. He tells me about his pagan wedding ceremony – which are on the increase in Denmark – and how he met his wife at a re-enactment of a medieval fair.
But the most surprising thing about Jesper Lynge is that he’s not all that surprising. Not in Denmark. Okay, so most Danes don’t walk around in leather tunics all day, but they do love – and I mean love – the Vikings.
Dressing like a Viking in Lejre
20 minutes’ drive down the road is Lejre, which was a seat of power in the Dark Ages and boasts the remains of the great feasting hall immortalised in the story of Beowulf.
Lejre is also home to Land of Legends, which is a sort of historical Center Parcs where Danes dress up like their forefathers and learn bygone crafts in replicas of Stone Age, Iron Age, 19th century and Viking dwellings.
My guide Tania (who has a touch of Katniss Everdeen about her thanks to the longbow slung casually over one shoulder) has been coming here since she was a child. As I don the long-sleeved linen dress that women wore instead of knickers, I’m told that Englishwomen often ran off with the Nordic warriors because they were cleaner.
It’s breezy down there; Georgia Hirst as Torvi in Vikings
Tania produces a Viking toiletry bag: bone comb, metal tweezers, wooden toothpicks, even an ear-pick shaped like a teeny ladle. Although there’s no evidence that they wore makeup as the character Floki does in the TV drama, they could have picked up the habit from Asian traders.
Living like a Viking in Trelleborg
On day two, I start to smell like a Viking: eau de wood smoke.
I’m in Trelleborg – the best preserved of the seven Viking ring fortresses found in Scandinavia. Archaeologists believe it was constructed around 980 AD on the order of King Harald Bluetooth (more on him later) who at the time was fighting rebellious chieftains led by his son, Swen Forkbeard.
Built to last; Viking ring fortress, Trelleborg
Trelleborg also has an imitation Viking settlement – Slagløse – where visitors can try their hand at carving runes, casting metal coins, making jewellery and wool belts. And if they like, they can also stay there and live like Vikings for days and weeks at a time.
“Why do they do it?” I ask. “Why not?” beams Teddy my guide.
Teddy (who is of course dressed as a Viking) has a theory that the Danes’ fierce pride in their ancestors dates back to 1864, when they suffered humiliating defeat at the hands of the Prussians. They found solace remembering an age when they were Europe’s most fearsome conquerors.
As we sit on sheepskins around a fire in one of the huts, sipping potent mead from dinky cups, Teddy shares another pet theory: smoke was the biggest killer of the Vikings because their longhouses lacked ventilation.
Ascending to Viking heaven in Jelling
No Viking voyage would be complete without a trip to Jelling, the sacred home of King Harald Bluetooth and his father, King Gorm. Its most famous sights are two mighty rune stones.
“Denmark” is written for the first time on the stone carved by Gorm, while Harald’s declares that he has converted the Danes to Christianity. (Fun fact: The Swedish mobile phone company Ericsson named Bluetooth technology after Harald.)
After Land of Legends and Trelleborg, Jelling’s visitor centre is a shock: no wooden huts, no tunics, no longbows. Instead it houses a state-of-the-art exhibition, which turns out to be even more fun than sitting round a fire knocking back mead.
You can pull levers from a body and see fake blood splatter it (illustrating the damage inflicted by an axe or a bow), you can peer into miniature longhouses, you can ascend to Viking heaven, Valhalla.
Towards the end, an interactive family tree explains how 19 pretenders to the Danish throne were killed by family members in almost as many years. “Game of Thrones is nothing compared to Danish royalty,” grins the museum’s curator.
Drinking distilled Viking in Munkebo
My final stop is a burial mound on the island of Funen. Inside, visitors can marvel at the remnants of the Ladby ship: a warship belonging to a Viking king who must have been important because he was buried with 11 horses and four dogs.
Here, too, history is being remade: for the last four years, local volunteers have been lovingly building an exact replica that will sail the fjord 1,100 years after the original was buried.
Doing it the old-fashioned way; locals build a Viking warship
But perhaps the most ingenious example of the Danes’ insatiable appetite for the Vikings is a thoroughly modern beer.
In an old mill down the road from the burial mound is Munkebo microbrewery. Like Britain, Denmark has discovered a thirst for craft beer in the last decade and Munkebo is one of the many microbreweries that have popped up as a result. Its master brewer, Klaus, has gone to unusual lengths in his quest for the perfect ale.
Reasoning that the yeast used by his forefathers must still be out there somewhere, Klaus borrowed 10 bees from his beekeeper neighbour and shook them over a petri dish. He succeeded in isolating a unique strain of yeast, which might once have been used by Viking brewers, or so Klaus likes to believe.
The result is Hjemstavn Ale, a light beer with notes of peach and apricot. Klaus has also invented a porter with essence of toasted warship in honour of the Ladby grave, and a beer inspired by a figurine of a valkyrie, a female warrior in Norse mythology.
There’s no need to be partial to essence of Viking to appreciate Klaus’ tasty beers – but I can think of one chef who would surely be a fan.
Season 4 of Vikings begins on Amazon from 19th February 2016. Box sets of seasons 1-3 are available on Amazon or DVD.
For more information on the museums and sights, head to www.visitdenmark.com
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