Friday, September 28, 2012

Birka - Where the Swedish Vikings Began

Last year, for Jon's 30th birthday, I planned a nice weekend getaway to the mountains in Chattanooga.  We went hiking, ate steak and potatoes and had a relaxing time with 4 month old Calvin.  This year, I wanted to "Viking-it-up" a bit and give Jon a complete viking experience.  I baked a not-so-attractive Viking cake (nothing on Pinterest or Google was of any help), gave him a book that promises details on the "violent history of the vikings" and planned a day trip to Birka, Sweden's original Viking city (700-900 AD).

Like Swedes do, we watched the weather and tried to pick the best day possible for this trip.  We had heard that "there isn't much to Birka..." so we weren't expecting
any great infrastructure and brought a picnic lunch and a variety of clothing.  The trip includes a 2 hour ferry boat ride and then a 3 hour stay on the island.  With a 2 hour ferry ride back, we were looking at a FULL 8 hour day (1 hour roundtrip train ride to get to the ferry).  Taking a 1+ year old out and about for a full day is risky business but we were up to the challenge.  After all, you only turn 31 once so let's live large...and spend a ton of family time together!

Calvin absolutely LOVED the ferry ride.  Mostly because he got to run around and get all sweaty with the 8 other kids on the boat.  He befriended a blonde Russian girl, Alexandra, and consequently, we befriended her parents.  She was giving him tons of hugs and he was loving all of the attention.  All of the kids would lie down and put their faces to the floor of the boat so they could feel the vibrations from the motor.  It was so adorable.  At one point, they all had their faces down and little rumps in the air.  Just feeling the calming vibrations.

She's hugging me!
Now I'm hugging her!
Oooooh, vibrations on my face!
Once the ferry landed on Birka, we were told that the English tour would be held in an hour and a half. Perfect! That was plenty of time for us to wander around the recreated village with wooden houses and longships and eat our picnic lunch.  The wooden houses were interesting and it felt very much like Williamsburg, VA.  You can get a sense of what life was like (and how cold it was) in wooden houses with reindeer skins for rugs.  They essentially all lived communally under one roof and had a fire in the center of the house.  Calvin wandered around and stumbled in and out of the houses.  I'm sure he was imagining what it was like to be a viking warrior here. Apparently the garrison warriors and craftsmen lived in Birka year round.

Here's a little Birka history -- complimentary from Robert Ferguson's fascinating historical book, The Hammer and the Cross: A New History of the Vikings, (click the link if you are interested).

Birka's location on the island of Björko made it an attractively safe harbour, but its developing importance and wealth rapidly made it a natural target for pirates. A hill-fort and a semi-circular rampart 350 meters long and 3 meters wide was built, crowned by a wooden walkway and turrets that gave a commanding view of the surrounding waters.  Adam tells us that among its other defences was an enormous underwater stone wall and archeologists have found the remains of a barrier of wooden stakes anchored in the clay bed of the lake that forced ships into a narrow approach lane and made it hard to approach the town unseen.

Did you read that?!? How cool is that?  We were in not only a superiorly wealthy and important city but also one that was targeted by pirates!  Not only were the vikings smart in choosing an ideal location that was sailable from Russia to Europe but they created an underwater channel to force ships into a certain pattern of approach.  Super cool!  These vikings were crafty and always keeping an eye on their 6.

Since not much is left of Birka except for burial mounds, which I'll get to, we just wanted to relax and wander through the beautiful island with nothing but our imaginations running wild.
Flowers inside the Birka recreation village
Calvin fell asleep in his stroller as we walked to lunch so he missed the gazillion sheep that inhabit the island.  They baa'ed so loudly that I was sure they would wake him up, but he was out cold.


Only agriculture allowed near Birka

So Viking!
We didn't get a picture of some random viking awesomeness but as we were wandering past these farms, there was a burly Swede speaking English to some other tourists ahead of us.  As we approached, the fellow tourists turned to us and offered us little nips of mixed drinks.  They asked if we wanted to join them in a toast.  Umm, sure?? The burly Swede behind his farm's fence told us that he was a "true viking" and that we should take a picture of him instead of these hills if we wanted something for our photo albums.  We all took the shots, shouted "skål!" and laughed as we moved down the road.  We later found out on our tour, that there is only one farm allowed near Birka and that's because it has been owned by the same family for hundreds of years. So, our burly friend was right.  He was a "true viking" and was a direct descendant from those on the island.  Even cooler than we had thought!

Jon and I found the best lunch spot ever -- a large rock overlooking the fields with the hill-top in the distance -- and sat and had our picnic lunch. We wondered exactly how many people had sat in our same position and imagined people plowing the fields and living life in the year 800.  It wasn't tough to imagine because the land remains unspoiled (thanks to UNESCO World Heritage Centre).

View from our rock!

Gorgeous day

Historical Birka city
Calvin continued to nap throughout our lunch and through our 1 hour tour of Birka.  We learned a few disappointing facts about vikings:

  1. Their helmets did not have horns. Hollywood had it wrong. Go figure.
  2. Vikings did not bury their dead at sea by lighting fire to a small boat as it floats away.  They buried their dead in boats but then buried them into the ground.  The larger the burial mound, the more important the person.  It was as if they wanted to project their power to everyone who was still around.  The bigger and more numerous the mounds, the more awesome the family.
So, somewhat disappointing.  We chose to pretend that those two facts were never told to us and that all of our viking-horn helmets are completely historically accurate. 

We hung around to catch the ferry home and Calvin had plenty of time to run around and get tired out before hopping on the train home.  For being a historical landmark with "not much to offer" as the guidebooks had warned, we thought it was the perfect location to relax and spend some good quality time together.

Historical Birka is in the background...buried

To mark the conversion to Christianity

Post-nap snuggles in the field
Playing with kids on the way home

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