Turns out, the Vikings had a soft side

Nyhavn, Copenhagen
Nyhavn, Copenhagen

During dinner in the Danish village of Ærøskøbing, the restaurant chef stopped by the table. “How is your fish?” he asked.

“”Very good,” I said. “Delicious.”

“I killed it,” he admitted sadly.

“You mean you caught it?”

“No, I killed it,” he said. “It was delivered alive and I had to kill it. I don’t like killing.”

Have the Vikings come to this?

Every Danish museum strains to clarify that the Nordic marauders were really good kids at heart. Misunderstood guys looking to settle down and raise families.

The raping and pillaging? Youthful indiscretions. Who didn’t burn down a few abbeys when they were growing up?

Bishop of Absalon, Copenhagen
Bishop of Absalon, Copenhagen

The Vikings raided and traded between 800 and 1100 CE across Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and even North America. Today, the descendants of these warriors, er, colonists, are the most contented people in the world.

According to a recent U.S. News & World Report list of the happiest countries, Iceland is ranked second, Norway third, Denmark fourth, Finland sixth, and Sweden eighth. Five of the top ten.

Denmark consists of the Jutland peninsula, 443 islands (around seventy of which are inhabited), plus Greenland and the Faroe Islands. The country is almost twice the size of Massachusetts. Its population is nearly six million. Internationally, Denmark ranks high in education, health care, civil liberties, per capita income, and taxes.

Viking helmets

Hats without horns

Only one Viking helmet has ever been found. It had no horns.

Archaeologists believe Viking helmets were conical in shape and typically made of leather. The chieftains wore iron helmets.

If you think about it, horns would have been awkward while swinging swords, the Viking style of close-quarters combat.

Still, hats with horns would have looked cool.

In Copenhagen I visited the National Museum, which covers fourteen-thousand years of Danish history from the reindeer hunters of the Stone Age to the hippies on the island of Christianshavn.

In the Paleolithic section are primitive tools and still-clothed skeletons of Scandinavia’s ancient hunters. Upon death, they were buried in barrows (mounds) along with valuable items, such as amber jewelry, ceremonial axes, and folding chairs. (Folding chairs were status symbols.)

Børsen, Copenhagen
Børsen, Copenhagen

Other rooms display the remains of a Viking warship and a history of the Norse settlers of Greenland.

One section focuses on Denmark’s colonization of what were once the Dutch West Indies, now the United States Virgin Islands.

In one of the royal reception rooms of nearby Christiansborg Palace is furniture that used to decorate the Governor’s Palace in St. Croix, presumably shipped back after the United States bought the island in 1917.

(For more on St. Croix and its Danish period, please see “Rose, Hurricane Roger and the 11,000 virgins.”)

Spokes and spires

Copenhagen is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. The city is intent on becoming carbon-neutral in the near future and so discourages car ownership through taxation. Many streets are unavailable to cars or torn up for the expansion of the metro system.

Hans Christian Andersen
Hans Christian Andersen

Piles of bikes are stacked everywhere. The bike lanes aren’t just marked—they’re landscaped, built up inches about the car lanes and inches below the sidewalks. Cyclists have their own traffic lights. Within public stairways are special metal tracks for controlling bikes while rolling them up or down. During rush hour, the cyclists outnumber the cars.

Once a Viking village, Copenhagen grew into a medieval powerhouse with an island fortress protected by walls and moats.

Today, it is the trendy capital of Denmark, a beautiful university town of palaces, canals, cafés, fountains, and pedestrian-only shopping drags. Its population is over one million.

The city seems to have a fascination with screw-topped spires. Børsen, the merchants exchange building constructed by King Christian IV in the 1600s, features a green copper tower created by the long tails of four dragons, intertwined to a height of 185 feet.

Our Savior’s Church in Christianshavn also has a famous spiral steeple. The tower stairway makes four complete twists, requiring four-hundred steps to climb it. The last 150 are on the outside of the steeple.

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen

The second-oldest amusement park in the world, Tivoli Gardens, operates in downtown Copenhagen. The park opened in 1843 and is the fourth most-visited theme park in Europe. Walt Disney was once a visitor.

North along the canal, The Little Mermaid sits sunbathing in the nude. The statue was a gift to Copenhagen in 1909 from Carl Jacobsen, brewer of Carlsberg beer. He was inspired by a ballet performance of Hans Christian Andersen’s story and hired a sculptor to immortalize the mermaid. The sculptor used his wife, Eline, as the model.

Birthday with the Queen

I joined a walking tour of Copenhagen with guide Dorothy, some Brits, Swedes, Belgians, and a Romanian. She provided a brief historical overview with stops at:

  • Statue of Hans Christian Andersen, Denmark’s favorite son
  • Statue of lur blowers. Lurs are curvy horns used to call soldiers to battle.
  • Cathedral of Our Lady, the Lutheran church rebuilt in 1807 to look like a Greek temple, lined with statues of the twelve apostles dressed as Greek gods
  • Christiansborg Palace, the only building in the world housing all three of a country’s branches of government. After a fire in 1794 devastated it, the royal family moved out and never moved back. The fancy Royal Reception Rooms are used for official functions.
  • Nyhavn (New Harbor) was once the rowdy sailors’ quarter. Now, it is lined with cafés, tattoo shops, and sailboats.
  • Charity Fountain, a source of drinking water since the 1600s. It features a pregnant woman squirting water from her breasts and a boy urinating. On this day, golden ornaments bobbed in the fountain in celebration of the queen’s birthday.
Lur Blowers, Copenhagen
Lur Blowers, Copenhagen

Denmark is Europe’s oldest monarchy. The current queen, Margrethe II, is a direct descendant of the family that has ruled Denmark since 1448. She became queen in 1972.

She lives in Amalienborg, where four look-alike palaces face a broad octagonal courtyard. One of her sons, Crown Prince Frederik, and his family live in the palace next to hers.

Our tour group followed a crowd of tens of thousands into the square. The Royal Life Guards arrived, dressed in red and wearing tall bearskin hats. The guards are a combat infantry regiment of the Danish Army, founded in 1658.

At noon, church bells rang and Queen Margrethe II emerged onto her balcony, dressed in blue and waving at the crowd. She is 75 years old. A band played, cheers erupted, and flags waved. Her husband joined her and eventually her two sons and their families. She left and returned three or four times with different combinations of her children and grandchildren.

Amalienborg Square, Copenhagen
Amalienborg Square

Eventually the crowd thinned. One of the palaces on the square, the Amalienborg Museum, has recreated the private studies of the four kings who ruled from 1863-1972 (the immediate predecessors of Margrethe). They are cluttered with books, pipes, guns, and family photos.

The earliest study belonged to King Christian IX. He and his wife were known as “Europe’s parents-in-law” because four of their children, through marriage, ascended to the thrones of Denmark, England, Greece, and Russia.

I stayed to watch the changing of the guards. As I was leaving the square, the birthday girl’s motorcade suddenly emerged from a garage. The guards gave a shout and snapped to attention. Teenage girls screamed in delight as the caravan roared away to the next party.

Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen
Rosenborg Castle, Copenhagen

Amber and incense

Rosenborg Castle was built in 1606 as a summer home for King Christian IV. Now, its primary use is to store Denmark’s royal treasures. The crown jewels, regalia, and coronation chair are protected by the Life Guards. The thrones in the great hall are made of silver and spirally narwhal tusks. Christian IV’s jewel-covered crown from 1596 weighs seven pounds. On display are treasures carved of ivory and amber, “the gold of the North.” The coast of the Baltic Sea is rich in amber.

On the connected island of Christianshavn, I strolled through Christiana, a commune of about five-hundred residents founded by squatters. In 1971 Christiana (Freetown) became a haven for free spirits. It’s Woodstock in Scandinavia.

Our Savior's Church, Christianhavn
Our Savior’s Church

After numerous run-ins with Copenhagen’s civic authorities, often over the open sale and use of marijuana, the residents of Christiana pooled their resources and bought the land. Now, the community owns the property; the citizens rent it. All residents are required to contribute to the sustainability of the commune.

Tourists are welcome, because they help the economy. I walked through the Green Light District, where pot is available for sale. The entrance sign said there are three rules: 1) Have fun, 2) No photos, and 3) No running. (Cameras and running make the residents nervous.)

All was mellow, much like ComFest in Columbus. A ramshackle collection of shacks, parks, coffee shops, health-food restaurants, bars, and psychedelic graphics. Lots of tie-dye commerce. The 1970s live on in Christiana.

Ugly duckling

En route by train to Ærøskøbing I stopped for a couple of hours in Odense and toured Hans Christian Andersen’s museum and birthplace.

Andersen's birthplace, Odense
H.C. Andersen’s birthplace, Odense

Andersen was born into poverty. His dad died young and his mom was an alcoholic washerwoman. He didn’t live at his birthplace long and claimed to have no memory of it. Yet he achieved international success as a writer in his own time.

He is best remembered for his fairy tales, which have been translated into more than 150 languages. Some of his most famous include “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” “The Princess and the Pea,” and “The Little Mermaid.” Andersen was tall for his day and ungainly, causing many to wonder if “The Ugly Duckling” was autobiographical.

Island sanctuary

I caught the train to Svendborg then boarded the ferry to the island of Ærø. From the top deck I enjoyed the crossing, easing into island life surrounded by cyclists and dogs.

Ærø is a place where visitors must accept that it is okay to relax and do nothing. Hard for me.


The island is twenty-two by six miles, mostly rolling farm country. Its population is seven thousand. I don’t know where they were. During the week I was there, I saw less than fifty of them. The big industries are farming (wheat and dairy) and tourism. Half of the island’s energy is provided by renewable sources, wind and solar.

The ferry docked in Ærøskøbing, a village of impossibly cute, brightly colored, one-story cottages on cobblestone streets. The oldest ones date to 1645. The houses’ walls are buckling with age and so they appear to lean upon each other for support. No two doors or paint schemes are alike.

Many of the windows have attached mirrors so those inside can see what’s going on down the street. Baskets of garden produce, eggs, jams, and used books sit on front porches, for sale on the honor system.

Bregninge Church, Ærø
Bregninge Church, Ærø

In front of the tourist information office, which was closed, I picked up a restaurant schedule. The eight available eateries take turns being open. (I was about a month ahead of tourist season.) Shops keep limited hours and place Danish flags on their doorsteps when they are open. The grocery store is open on alternate days. The streets are empty.

Gunnar, the owner of the hotel, explained that residents have self-imposed building and renovation codes in order to preserve the character of their tiny village, somewhat like German Village in Columbus. During the summer, he said, hundreds of thousands visit. Yet Ærø seems unspoiled.

The next morning the H.E. Hensen bakery was open. (All names end in -sen.) What we call danish, the Danes call wienerbrød, which translates to Viennese bread. A variety of pastries are made using wienerbrød dough, including spandauers, round and flat with jam or cream in their centers.

Farmhouse, Ærø
Farmhouse on Ærø

I bought a cycling map at the TI and rented a bike from Pilebækkens Cykler. The friendly clerk showed me how to use the unusual lock, which seems to work on a version of the binary code. She loaned me a tire pump.

I was off to explore the island, heading northwest out of town along the coast. Everywhere I saw gårds (U-shaped farm buildings) with the homes on one side, the barns on the other and the outbuildings on the third. The three sides protect people and livestock in the middle. Most of the houses and barns have thatched roofs.

I visited Bregninge Church, built in the 1100s. Its famous paintings include a fool’s head on the ceiling with the a bell rope dangling from his mouth. Model ships hang from the rafters, a common practice in Lutheran churches in Denmark. The ships honor the country’s close connection to the sea.

I biked to Vodrup Klint, where pastureland stair-steps down to the pebbly beach. Germany was visible across the water. Just past Tranderup I found the memorial stone commemorating the return of the island to Denmark from Germany in 1750.


At Store Rise I visited a six-thousand-year-old tomb in a field. Though Ærø once had over two-hundred prehistoric tombs, only thirteen survive. The tomb is surrounded by a mound in the shape of a small ship. Archaeologists have found evidence that suggests a Viking ship may have been burned and buried on the site.

Back in Æroskøbing, I returned the bike and asked the woman who rented it about life on Ærø.

“We like winter best,” she said. “It’s quiet, peaceful. We see our family and friends and spend time with each other. We make money in the summer but we like winter best.”

Bodies in the bog

Via ferry and train I arrived in Århus, the second largest city in Denmark with a population of over three-hundred thousand. Århus began as a Viking settlement in the 700s.

Order of the Elephant
Order of the Elephant

The Viking Museum is situated on top of an excavation of the original village, which is now in the basement of a bank. The excavation revealed several stone-hut foundations, household items, and parts of a human skeleton.

During World War II, Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. I visited the Museum of the Occupation, which is located in the former police station of Århus. During the war, the building served as Gestapo headquarters. Holding cells on the first floor and in the basement were used to interrogate and torture those suspected of helping the Allies.

The museum tells the story of everyday life during the occupation, the terror perpetrated upon the town’s citizens, and the hope offered by its resistance movement. The exhibition features typewriters used to publish underground newspapers and implements used for torture. Being in rooms where people were brutally abused was haunting.

ARoS Art Museum, Århus
ARoS Art Museum, Århus

I caught a bus to Moesgård Museum, which presents Denmark’s ancient past. Much of it has been excavated from bogs.

Thousands of years ago, people made sacrifices to their gods to appease them or ensure prosperity for their community.

Prehistoric Danes sacrificed stone tools, amber jewelry, food, and, sometimes, each other.

The peat bogs of Denmark have effectively preserved some of the human sacrifices. Many bodies have been found, some with strangling nooses still around their necks.

Grauballe Man at Moesgård Museum is the world’s best-preserved bog body. He lived during the early 200s BCE. The bog protected his body for over two-thousand years until it was discovered in 1952 near the village of Grauballe in Jutland. His skin looks like tanned leather. His hands are so well-preserved fingerprints have been taken.

Weapon hoard, Battle of Ådal
Weapon hoard, Battle of Ådal

Near Skanderborg a huge cache of bones and weapons were found. Most of the skeletons belong to the slain of the Iron Age battle of Ådal in 205 BCE. More than fifteen-thousand items, mostly swords and military equipment have been pulled from the bog. The victors thanked the gods by tossing the losers, plus their possessions, into the muck, thus preserving them for eternity.

Today’s Vikings

Almost two years ago while touring Scotland, I visited Maeshowe, a five-thousand-year-old tomb. Vikings broke into the tomb one-thousand years ago and left graffiti for us to read.

The messages are written in runes and amount to boasts about how much treasure they stole and who slept with Helga. Really.

I imagine the Vikings as teenage street gangs, roving, vandalizing, and bragging.

However, their ancestors are quite reserved. The Danes are known to be orderly, punctual, and courteous. They do everything by the book. According to Transparency International, Denmark is the least corrupt country in the world.

Queen Margrethe II's birthday
Queen Margrethe II’s birthday

I noticed that today’s Vikings are even restrained with their graffiti. In Naples, Italy, every square inch of every surface is covered. In Copenhagen only symbols of the establishment, such as utility boxes and trash dumpsters, are scrawled upon. Any more would be, well, inappropriate.

Early in my stay, I was reprimanded by a stranger for crossing a narrow street against the light while no traffic was approaching. I learned my lesson.

A couple of weeks later in Århus, as I and a group of pedestrians dutifully waited in the rain for a traffic light to change, the sky suddenly began pummeling us with hailstones. The wind scattered pellets of ice across the sidewalk, stinging our faces.

Not a car was in the street. Surely, I thought, red or not, they will run for cover.

No one moved.

The ice storm raged. Moments later, the light changed and we crossed the street in an orderly fashion with our propriety intact.

3 thoughts on “Turns out, the Vikings had a soft side

  1. Hi, Kirk,
    Ever since we were on a cruise of cities on the Baltic Sea I’ve wanted to travel more within Scandinavia. In addition to Copenhagen,I was particularly fond of Oslo and Stockholm. If you are planning to visit Oslo, do take time in Frogner Park, the most astonishing sculpture garden I’ve ever seen.

  2. Hi Kirk, It must be fifteen years now since I’ve been to the Baltic countries but it seems that nothing much has changed. I find the civility so refreshing. Your detailed descriptions were most enjoyable. If in Stockholm, don’t miss the large–but not quite wide enough to keep it from falling into the sea–ship that is a museum in itself.

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