Bring on Valhalla: on the Viking trail in Denmark | Travel


The longhouse is warm and dark. Embers smoulder in a fire-pit in the centre of the hall; above it hang blackened joints of meat. The air is thick with wood smoke. As our eyes adjust to the gloom, we make out the wide seating platforms, strewn with sheepskins on one side, and heavy chairs on the other. Shields and tapestries line the walls and carved wooden figures stand guard.

West Jutland map.

My daughter Nell and I have come to West Jutland to join a “Viking trail” and to visit some of the area’s historic sites and new attractions. In this place, a poster tells us, “the fields smell of seaweed and the salty wind from the sea scratches girls’ cheeks like rough, bristly kisses”. It is a reminder that the Danes are experts in the art of storytelling.

I cannot smell the seaweed, but here at the Ribe Viking Centre, it is as though we have been transported back to 980 AD, when this was a thriving manor. Beyond the longhouse there are barns, workshops and pit-houses. There are grazing areas for heritage breeds of cattle, pigs and sheep; there are well-kept kitchen gardens staked out by plaited willow hedges. There’s even a small harbour with longboats.

As re-enactment attractions go, it appears comfortably authentic: there are no warriors in horned helmets to be found here today. Instead, we meet craftsmen and women, who show visitors how to grind flour, bake Viking-style flatbread or carve hair combs from deer antlers. Children can dress up and be “fostered” by the chief, who gives them tasks such as fetching water or food, as any Viking child would have been expected to do.



The kitchen at the Ribe Viking Centre

A young woman invites Nell to help her groom an Icelandic pony. Another chats about her Viking life. “I was born a servant,” she tells us. “My mother was born one, too. Broddi over there is now a free man; he bought his freedom.” My six-year-old listens agog to the stories. “I thought Vikings just liked killing people,” she whispers as we pass the weaver, who is busy sewing sails for the longboat, “but they’re really nice.”

Her opinion changes dramatically when we visit the new Royal Jelling Experience Centre 45 miles away. The Unesco world heritage site is where kings Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth erected two famous rune stones and built the largest structures of the period.

Royal Jelling Experience Centre



Royal Jelling Experience Centre. Photograph: Mads Hansen

Compared with the earthy, bucolic atmosphere at the manor, this ultra-modern museum takes the Viking experience to another level. A fire blazes on a screen in the centre of a darkened room in which a voice narrates ancient legends. Animated etchings move across the walls, sketching tales of Viking life, from hearthside to battleground. Nell turns pale as kids touch broadswords, axes and knives protruding from a cut-out figure – each weapon emitting its own stomach-churning sound of metal meeting flesh with red LED blood seeping from the “wounds”.

The holographic journey of a warrior’s afterlife makes her shudder all the more, as we step on trigger points, and watch as our own bodies are killed, burned and transformed as we ascend Bifröst (the Rainbow Bridge connecting the human world to the home of the gods) and enter Valhalla. Less gruesome are fragments of artefacts, cleverly transformed in 3D to show how they once would have looked. It is a marvellous, sensory playground.

Trapholt Museum of Modern Art



Trapholt Museum of Modern Art

Outside in the graveyard is the main attraction: two ancient rune stones encased in glass: on one, the inscription bears the oldest reference to the name Denmark and so is regarded as the country’s “birth certificate”. On the other, Harald Bluetooth boasts of having brought Christianity to the Danes. (A great communicator, Bluetooth wireless technology is named for him.)

With these new museums at Ribe and Jelling, Jutland is leading the way in modern, immersive visitor experiences. Cities and towns such as Aarhus – the current European Capital of Culture – and Kolding are also keen to prove their worth. “People from Copenhagen have long regarded Jutland as a cultural backwater,” confides our guide Lisa at the Trapholt Museum of Modern Art in Kolding, which houses superb modern art and furniture collections. “But they are blown away when they see what we have to offer.”

We end our adventure at the Wadden Sea, Denmark’s newest national park. As the largest unbroken system of intertidal sand and mud flats in the world, this area is home to countless plant and animal species and some 12 million birds that pass through the region every year. All thrive in the diverse habitats; mussel beds, mudflats, salt marshes, beaches and sand dunes.

The Wadden Sea Centre, Denmark



The Wadden Sea Centre. Photograph: Adam Mørk

The new jewel in the crown here is the Wadden Sea Centre. Opened in February, it is a creative and aesthetic gateway to the area. The building alone is striking: a glass, wood and reed-finished structure rising from the marshland. Inside, carved wooden birds mounted on plinths come to life when observed through binoculars; interactive displays introduce you to the powerful effect of tides on animal behaviour; a large rock pool is alive with all manner of species, and art installations take you on a migratory journey.

During our few days in Jutland we’ve explored ruins, discovered quaint cobbled streets and helped create modern art installations; we’ve stayed in a converted prison and even journeyed to Valhalla. It has been inspiring and great fun yet, of course, being outside frees the imagination as much as any high-tech installation. We gaze at the seagrass meadows rippling like an echo of the ocean and imagine this place when the Vikings were here. And yes, the tang of seaweed is in the air and a salty wind scratches our cheeks, like rough, bristly kisses.

Car hire and accommodation at converted-prison hotel Den Gamle Arrest (doubles from £89 B&B, dengamlearrest.dk) was provided by Visit Denmark. Ryanair flies from Stansted to Billund and Aarhus



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