The drive towards Avaldsnes Norway took us past emerald-green pine trees intermingled with alluring glimpses of glass-topped lakes. It seemed no wonder the Viking Kings had claimed this as their home… but the real power lay just beyond our view.
Avaldsnes Norway: Discovering the Real Viking Kings
Our travels had brought us to Norway. More specifically, to Karmøy Island on Norway’s coast, otherwise known as the ‘Homeland of the Viking Kings’. Having been infected with enthusiasm for Viking history after watching the hit series, Vikings, this seemed the ideal place to be. And Avaldsnes Norway was where the Viking Kings held their seats of power and wandered the very ground we were to stand on.
It appears we were not the only ones eager to learn more about the beguiling Vikings and their intriguing lifestyle. In an interview with Vikings creator, Michael Hirst, the BBC History Magazine reported that when he had visited the Oslo Viking Ship Museum, the curator had informed him that admissions had doubled since the Vikings show had begun.
This article takes you through the Nordvegen History Centre, the Viking Farm with its annual Viking Festival and explores the grounds and history around St.Olavs Church of Avaldsnes and its needlelike predictor of the World’s Day of Judgement.
So, let us walk in the footsteps of the Viking Kings themselves. Let’s immerse ourselves in the real history, culture and lifestyles of the Vikings here at Avaldsnes.
Bukkoy Island, Avaldsnes Norway
Avaldsnes Norway Map
Avaldsnes Norway, Karmoy: The Homeland of the Viking Kings
Avaldsnes lies to the north of Karmøy Island, about a 25-minute drive north from the historic fishing town of Skudeneshavn, or a 10-minute drive south from Haugesund. It is the oldest Royal seat in Norway. Avaldsnes was the seat of power, not only for the Norwegian Vikings in the Viking Age but for chieftains and kings for over 3000 years.
Overlooking the Karmsund Strait from St Olav’s Church, Avaldsnes
But why did Avaldsnes become the home of the Viking Kings?
Avaldsnes lies on the narrowest point of the Karmsund Strait, the main shipping channel to the North and was the only safe passage for ships along the Norwegian Coast. It was known as the Nordvegen – the ‘North Way’ – eventuating in the country’s name, Norway. Ships had to wait at Avaldsnes for the right currents and winds. As such, it was the perfect place to strategically control the shipping traffic and to impose trading taxes. Thus the Vikings were able to build a powerful base here.
The picture below shows an artist’s impression of the sight that would greet ships as they looked across to the Royal Manor from the Karsmund Strait at Avaldsnes around the year 1300.
Artist impression of Royal Manor Avaldsnes Norway
Nordvegen History Centre, Avaldsnes
The best place for us to start our journey back in time is at the Nordvegen History Centre in Avaldsnes.
The Centre itself is built underground so as not to compromise the surrounding historical buildings and landscape. Its circular shape represents Mimir’s ‘Well of Wisdom’. Norse legend tells us that Odin sacrificed one of his eyes to drink from the well in order to gain its wisdom.
On the right, you can see the circular entrance to the History centre, Avaldsnes
Thousands of visitors come to the Nordvegen Centre each year to learn more about the infamous Vikings and the history of Avaldsnes. Our guide, Mette Brinchmann, tells us that since the growth in popularity of the tv show Vikings, visitor numbers have increased here too.
An introductory film weaves the stories of the gods, Vikings and Norse legends together narrated by the main Viking King himself, Harald Fairhair.
There is an ambience of magic and mystery as you wander through the artefacts and displays at the Nordvegen History Centre, learning more about Norse mythology, the ancient language of runes and the traditions and culture of days gone by.
Avaldsnes Nordvegen History Centre
The tree branches within the centre represent the roots of Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life in Norse Mythology.
Harald Fairhair (Hårfagre)
One of the most renowned of the Viking Kings, King Harald Fairhair, united Norway into one kingdom. Legend tells us that he did so to gain the hand in marriage of Gyda, who would only marry a worthy king of all Norway. He swore not to cut his hair until he had control of all the smaller counties. That doesn’t sound too onerous for a Viking to me but maybe there is more to the saga.
Visitors to Nordvegen History Centre, can dress like a Viking warrior and Viking king alongside the most famous of Viking Kings, King Harald Fairhair and his Queen Gyda
It is believed that Harald Fairhair is buried in a huge burial mound in Haugesund, just North of Avaldsnes. A National monument, erected on that spot in 1872, overlooks the sea and commemorates the unity of Norway by Fairhair, around one thousand years before.
The central granite obelisk represents a unified Norway and the 27 stones surrounding it, the old Norwegian counties.
The National Monument in honour of Harald Fairhair at Haugesund
Norway’s Viking Age
Did you know there was an actual ‘Viking Age’? It was a limited era just like the Stone Age, Middle Ages and so forth. The Viking Age lasted for about 300 years; beginning from the first recorded Viking attack of the Lindisfarne Monastery, Northern England in 793AD, to their terrible defeat in the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066.
Learning more about the way of life of the Vikings, you cannot fail to recognise that perhaps they have got a bad rap in terms of their historical reputation of barbaric, axe-wielding murderers.
It is clear that they were actually incredibly talented; excellent seafarers, skilled craftsmen, avid storytellers and fierce, relentless warriors. The Vikings have left lasting imprints through their trade (furs, iron, amber and timber), and establishment and colonisation of old and new territories.
Re-enactment Viking Battle at the Viking Farm, Avaldsnes
Viking Society viewed women as valuable members of society. They had much more power than their equivalent European counterparts of the time. Viking women could divorce their husbands, own property and sell their handiwork. Viking culture taught that it was shameful for a man to harm a woman.
Parts of their culture were, therefore, more in line with our values of today, than compared to the Christian way of life at that time. For more facts about Norway itself, check out these 25 interesting facts about Norway.
Avaldsnes Viking Farm
Avaldsnes Viking Farm Map
Just a 10-minute walk from the Avaldsnes Nordvegen History Centre is the small Island of Bukkøy, which houses an authentic reconstruction of a Viking Farm.
In the Summer, it’s open to tourists and you can learn about the daily life of a Viking. Here you’ll find an authentic reproduction of a Viking longhouse and boathouses.
The Viking Farm at Avalsdnes is alo used as a historical school camp. Eager students come here to experience life as a Viking; making cream, butter, bread and porridge. They catch fish for their dinner and after an exhausting day, without all the home comforts, they go to sleep laying on reindeer fur.
Avaldsnes Viking Farm
We were lucky enough to visit the farm during the 4 day annual Viking Festival, so it was alive with festivities, tradition and Viking culture.
The Viking Festival, Avaldsnes Norway
The largest annual Viking Festival in Western Norway is held on Bukkøy Island, Avaldsnes. It is normally held in the second week of June and around two hundred ‘Vikings’, come together from Europe and the Baltic States.
The island is filled with traditional music, Viking battles, jesters and sword fighting demonstrations. Vikings display their crafts and sell their wares in the Viking Markets. Many are members of Viking groups who meet to share stories, skills and a common love of the ancient Viking traditions.
The festival organiser, Monica Dimitrova, told us that over the four days, the festival attracts some 15,000-18,000 people. She said the most popular events were the musicians, sword fighting, re-enacted battles, and the jesters.
Traditional Viking Music fills the air at Avaldsnes Viking Festival
A member of the local Viking club, Jan, was displaying his hand-carved wooden bows. I asked what it was that attracted him to his craft. He had a quiet, calm way about him as he explained that his main trade was carpentry. Although he uses modern tools for his day-to-day work, he enjoys a special connection with the wood when working by hand. “You feel closer to the material,” he said. “You can even hear how sharp the blade is; it’s relaxing.”
Further along a row of tents, I came across a striking woman with long, white hair. She sat, intensely spinning wool into yarn by hand. When she spoke, her zeal and passion for her craft were palpable.
This captivating woman, named Henny, explained that she was using a ‘drop spindle’ to spin the wool. The wool is only collected from wild sheep as they don’t smell – unlike domestic sheep apparently.
Once spun into yarn, she makes hats and mittens using the traditional Viking art of needle binding. Enthusiastically she reaches for one of her handmade hats and explains that the more you wear it, the warmer it gets due to the binding getting tighter over time.
Amongst the Viking Markets there were plenty of traditional wares and craft demonstrations enabling visitors to capture a glimpse of Viking life. From animal skin drums painted with pigmented tar to chicken leg necklaces, there were interesting wares for every taste.
Animal skin drums for sale at the Avalsdnes Viking Festival
Chicken leg pendants – a Viking taste in jewellery
St. Olav’s Church of Avaldsnes Norway
Just beside the Nordvegen History Centre, on the hill overlooking Karmsund Strait, sits St. Olav’s Church of Avaldsnes. The stone church we see today was built in 1250, but it is believed that it replaced a wooden church built by King Olav Tryggvason in around 1000AD.
It was at that time that the Viking kings started to favour Christianity. It is likely that the wooden church was built on an old pagan temple site. In fact, one of the original temple stones is still present to this day.
Emerging from the ground is a seven-metre high stone monument, now called the Virgin Mary’s Needle. This ancient stone dates from around 200AD.
St Olav’s Alvadsnes Church with the Stone ‘Needle’ 9.2cm away from the church wall
The story passed down through the ages is that if the stone touches the Viking church then Doomsday will descend upon us. Legend suggests that priests would climb up the pillar at night and chip away pieces to make sure it did not touch the church. Hence, we are apparently now 9.2 centimetres away from the end of the world!
St Olav’s Church Avaldsnes Norway
Avaldsnes Norway: Viking Filming Location
Surprisingly, the filming of the hit show, Vikings mainly takes place in Ireland. Some visuals were originally shot in Norway, but the competitive tax incentives offered in Ireland made it the country of choice to film the show.
However, the majority of the new hit Netflix show, Norsemen, a kind of Monty Python meets Vikings, is filmed onsite at the Viking Farm in Avaldsnes. Watching that series, you can get an idea of the real landscape our Norwegian Viking Kings were treading.
Walking across towards the Viking Farm on Bukkoy Island, Avaldsnes
Vikings inspiration at Avaldsnes
There is something quite visceral about standing in a place where history has been so powerful. Here in Avaldsnes, overlooking the Karmsund Strait, in Western Norway, you sense the commanding and important forces that were once at play here.
At Avaldsnes you get a glimpse into the craftsmanship and spiritual side of the Vikings as well as their ruthlessness and fighting abilities.
By visiting Avaldsnes, you can experience their way of life and you can walk in the mighty Viking Kings’ footsteps yourself.
Avaldsnes Norway: Good To Know
Admission Prices (Includes History Centre and Viking Farm):
- Adult NOK 170
- Child NOK 60
- Student/Senior NOK 140
Opening times vary – you can check them here
Avaldsnes is about a 25-minute drive from the beautiful historic town Skudeneshavn, which is a must-see town if you are in the area. In fact, there are so many marvellous things to do and see in Skudeneshavn and Karmøy.
We would love to hear about any of your Viking experiences and also if you enjoyed this article please leave a comment below.
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We would like to give a special thank you to Mette Brinchmann, at the Nordvegen History Centre, who spent a lot of her valuable time explaining the history of the area and showing us around.
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