PART II: Heading North


Saturday, June 24

A sunny day and we were off to catch the bus north to Avaldsnes, home of a royal estate from 870 to 1450 c.e.

We played our usual ‘where is the bus stop?’ game; and, after asking three different people, we finally located it down the road apiece. We always assume we’ll be able to find a bus stop easily, and so leave little time for actually doing so. Thus the necessity to play the game since it adds excitement and sweaty bodies when running to the actual location. Then we can relax and strike the pose of a leisurely tourist while quietly wondering if the bus might have already come and gone.

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The bus arrived, we jumped on, then played the next game:  “Can you help me pick out the correct change?’ Luckily all bus drivers know this game because they deftly start selecting the coins from our upturned palms. That settled we had an easy hour ride up to the NE corner of the island.

Five minutes after disembarking from the bus we walked over a rise and spotted St. Olav’s Church constructed by King Hakon Hakonssen around 1250 c.e. This was actually the third church on the site. Previously, King Olav Tryggvason built the first church between 995 and 1000 c.e.  Soon after, King Olav Haraldsson (aka St. Olav) built the second church.

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Standing alone, this impressive site served as a beacon for pilgrims who arrived from the east by foot and from the south by boats. Those with money got rooms in Avaldsnes and those with not so much stayed in a hostel, which, by the way the Hanseatics burnt to the ground in 1368 (more on those guys when we visit Bergen).

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The church, like most from oh so long ago, stands on grounds held sacred by earlier pagan believers. Some of the remnants were standing stone pillars erected in the third century. One standing over 23 ft. and called Virgin Mary’s Sewing Needle (supposedly based on a story that she dropped a needle from heaven…) leans pretty close to the north wall of the St. Olav’s as you can see below:

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And, now me as the pencil for scale…

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Carved on the Needle are runes spelling out ’Michael next after Mary’. The inscription relates to Archangel Michael sounding his trumpet to signal the end of the world, aka Doomsday. King Hakon Hakonsson had great respect for Doomsday so he built his church ensuring that the wall was angled away from that threatening needle.

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Legend has it that doomsday will occur if it touches the church. Considering how close the pillar is (less than 4 in.) it’s said precautions were taken by some priests who cut off some of the stone just in case. There are visible marks on the top, which fits the tale nicely.

It was a beautiful church on the outside. We couldn’t get inside (not for a lack of trying several doors, one with a unique knocker).

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Several excavations around the church have turned up Iron Age artifacts, a Viking coin and in July 2012 an entire royal manor from the Middle Ages, built between 1240 and 1320. They’ve since covered any dig sites back up to protect them.

However, just down the walkway is the Viking Museum cleverly situated underground so as not to detract from the site views surrounding St. Olav’s Church.

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There we met two young people, one extremely knowledgeable about the Viking period (she grew up around here and feels quite a kinship to the history) while the other guide had studied Christianity and its role during Norway’s early history.

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Being the only two people there we attracted all of their attention and they were only too willing to answer questions we had. A short film and an audio guide helped explain most of the displays.

Now bear with me because with the help of other resources I’m going to whip through some of Norway’s early history, and, since it was in Norwegian (no English on the signage) coupled with a lot of kings running around named ‘Hakon’, I may get it a bit mucked up.

Here goes…

8th century

Stone Age and Iron Age artifacts, such as the ones close to the church, point to early settlers in this area of Norway. Where Norway’s history becomes a wee bit familiar to me is when the guys with those horned helmets start showing up, those hunkie Vikings. Their phase of notoriety begins with the documented raid in 793 c.e. on the island of Lindisfarne, home to one of England’s earliest monasteries.

The usual pillaging and slaughtering occurred resulting in no one wanting to see those ships on the horizon other than the Vikings’ wives. Well, most of them I imagine.

Some monks weren’t killed but were brought back as slaves, resulting in a Christian influence on their owners. And, if anyone has seen the HBO series “The Vikings”, that storyline reflects a pretty accurate accounting of those times (I asked the young woman and, trust me, if anyone would know, she would).

In addition to their pillage-and-plunder routine the Norse women seemed to be better off than in other parts of Europe. That’s not saying much as they were still subjegated to men’s authority; so, for some, it must have been a joyous occasion to stand on the shore waving to their men as the latter sailed off to raid, trade, and invade.


9th & 10th centuries

And, the Vikings did sail all over, reaching from the Americas to Greenland to Spain to the Caspian Sea. In short, they got around. Documented evidence shows they overwintered in Dublin (841), sacked Hamburg and Paris (845), colonized Iceland (870), settled in England (876), founded Normandy by Chieftan Rollo (911), and reached the Caspian Sea (912). Not too shabby for guys running around in ships shaped like dragons and wearing horns on their heads.

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During this time the Battle of Hafrsfjord was fought in Stavanger in 872. And, our first Hakon appears:  Hakon Harfagre or Hakon (aka Harold) the Fair-hair. He had been one of the many kings, each having their own little kingdoms. Hakon won the Battle, crushing several kings who opposed him. Thus, Hakon the Fair-Hair is said to have united Norway.

11th century

Back to Norway… All seemed to be fine as Hakon the Good, the younger son of Hakon with the hair, took over. But, boys will be boys, and fighting broke out resulting in the king who, in late 10th ce./early 11th ce., ushered in Christianity, Olav Tryggvason, coming to power. And, it’s this dude who built the initial church on the pagan sites (and also dug up old pagan burials to place Christian symbols in them). He, in the gentle name of Christianity, killed any one who refused to convert.

Just a sidetrack to mention some supposedly dissidents during Olav Tryggvason’s rule: Erik the Red left in a huff and settled in Iceland, then tried his hand at Greenland (995). Exploring ran in the family for his son, Leif Ericsson, landed in America five years later, which is how a Viking settlement was discovered in northern Newfoundland.


After King Olav T.  we get Olav Haraldsson who was declared king in 1015. But, due to his avid Christian beliefs and efforts to convert all of the populace he made enemies, who decided to side with King Canute of Denmark. Long story short, he fled when Canute showed up 1028 only to return in 1030 to fight and lose his life at the Battle of Stiklestad.

However, he had the last laugh for when (and why they did, who knows) they exhumed his body after a year, it wasn’t decayed and, voila, a saint was born. Hence the name of the church on the hill here.

And, another sidetrack:  at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066 the Vikings were defeated by King Harold of England who then had to march from York to Hastings (on the southern coast) to fight William the Bastard who became William the Conqueror. Just think, if the Vikings had won, who knows who’d be sitting on the English throne today?

12th, 13th and 14th centuries

Fast forward to 1130 with civil war resulting in Sverre Sigurdsson winning and whose son, (yes, another Hakon…) Hakon Hakonsson (1217-63) was crowned king in 1247. Fast forward again to 1319 when the death of Hakon V Magnusson (1270-1319) started weakening the lineage. His grandson’s, Hakon VI Magnusson’s, death in 1380 meant the end of Norway as an independent nation (Hakon VI had married the Danish Princess Magrete, and their son Olav became King of Denmakr in 1375 and inherited the Norwegian throne when his dad died.).

I have to mention one really interesting story involving King Hakon Hakonsson. We have friends with the surname of Birkinbine; and, their ancestors, the birkebeiner party or the Birchlegs (they used this bark as part of their stockings) saved this king when, as a baby, the birkebeiners carried him through a winter storm from eastern Norway to safety in the west. Love it.

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During the 14th ce. the Black Death decimated Norway’s population in 1349 by half, which makes it easy for the Hanseatic League (a powerful merchant trading guild originating in Germany) to set up its monopoly over Norway’s stockfish trade (more of that when we’re in Bergen).

From then you have a mix of Norway, Denmark and Sweden until Norway declared its independence on May 17, 1814.


Before I move on from this history another really interesting fact is the similarity between a grave uncovered here (possibly Hjorleif the woman-lover’s, so called due to marring multiple times… god knows what happened to all the wives) and the one in Sutton Hoo in England; however this ship-burial grave is dated around 790-95 while Sutton Hoo’s is thought to be 100 or 200 years earlier.

With that we finished our walk through early Norwegian history and began the pilgrimage to a lunch spot

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and a Viking Village with replicas of Viking structures…

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Monday, June 26

After a rainy Sunday we left for another historical site, Mosterhamm. Passing under the bridge connecting Karmoy to the mainland at Haugesund we spotted another legendary site involving more standing pillars. These were also erected around 300 c.e. forming a star-shaped burial site representing the world tree Yggdrasil.

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The tale here is that five women waved at St. Olav as he was retuning to Avaldsnes from a trip up north. Evidently he wasn’t in the mood and cursed them, crying out ‘Now stand there and turn to stone until I come back again.’ Hence, the ‘Five Foolish Virgins’ who were turned to stone.

Our next destination involved another stone church, this one constructed in 1050 at a site where King Olav Tyrggvason held an assembly in 995 or 998 establishing Christianity as the national religion.

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We made it just in time to have a wonderful guided tour by another young woman.

With a key to unlock the ‘new’ door (from the 1600s),

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We entered the church and Max snapped a photo only to be told no photos allowed.


But, what amazing decor. I did pull one off of the Internet. It was taken looking east towards the altar from the loft, which was added to accommodate more parishoners:

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What really set off our visit here was the young woman who unexpectantly sang a lovely haunting chant as she walked up the aisle to begin our guided tour. Now that would have been spectacular if I could have captured it via video.

In the early 1600s some murals depicting four phases of the bible beginning with Adam and Eve and ending with Christ on the cross were added, and we could still see most of the outlines of the original paintings. These had been covered with chalk, which had been removed with bread (!) when renovating the church.

At the entrance there were two small enclosures on the left-hand side. Our guide explained they were for women who had just given birth and, therefore, considered unclean (of course…) and for baptizing babies, also needing purification before entering the sanctity of the church (goddesses give me strength).

Outdoors she led us to a stone with a hole in it. Because most folk were illiterate, deals were agreed upon verbally and physically when witnessed at this stone.

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After the church we crossed back to the reception area where she then led us through some history of the pagan religion involving Odin, the God of Wisdom and Magic, and ending with Christianity. Finally we descended to an old limestone mine that had been converted to a small outdoor amphitheater.

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One last connection:  another person joined us on mid-tour who turned out to be from Woodbridge. She and a group of her friends had taught in Ipswich, which is where we wintered on JUANONA the past two years. Small, small ball is our world as our friend Steve K. says.

And, with that we were saturated with Hakons and Olavs and were ready for some playing, which we did by heading to Rosendal the next morning :)

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