Newfoundland’s viking connection: recreated villages and re-enactors heat up history
By Patricia Maunder, The Gazette
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This boggy landscape of Newfoundland’s northern tip does not seem an auspicious spot for a momentous event in human history. The sullen sky hangs low, and icy Arctic winds send shivers through stunted conifers; the tallest, though a century old, are barely above eye level. Just beyond the trees is the slate-grey Atlantic, from which a group of Greenland Vikings emerged around AD 1000 to establish a settlement.
It is not merely the fact that Vikings (probably including Leif Ericsson) lived here that makes L’Anse aux Meadows historically remarkable. This is also where the two epic thrusts of human migration, east and west from Africa, finally met, when Greenlanders and Newfoundland’s indigenous people locked eyes.
But on a damp, chilly, windswept day in late September (the tourist season’s last gasp), it is a struggle to get excited about these important facts — until I see the prominent undulations in a grassy meadow.
History just got real: These are the remnants of eight Viking buildings, forgotten for nearly a millennium until Helge and Anne Ingstad’s archeological dig began in 1960. Here was a fireplace, a doorway, the forge where local bog iron was smelted.
Later, at this UNESCO World Heritage Site’s interpretation centre, I see the humble but significant artifacts unearthed here, including nails, bone sewing needles and a cloak pin. I also learn that Viking is the term for Norse raider. My imagination really warms up inside a grass-covered sod building, one of several recreated Norse structures grouped a short distance from the ruins.
“It’s real Viking weather!” a bushy-bearded re-enactor declares with a grin, as we thaw out by the pit fire. Other re-enactors join us, settling among handcrafted items such as wooden shields, furs and simply embroidered fabric. They tell old Norse tales or sew, but they also welcome questions from their 21st-century visitors.
Recreating such scenes is nothing new, as Vikings have long been prominent in popular culture, but there is currently a resurgence: Season 2 of the drama series Vikings is screening on the History Channel; there are at least two Viking films in the works (not including the Thor franchise’s dubious interpretation of Norse mythology); and the Royal BC Museum’s Vikings exhibition opens on May 16.
Since 2000, Norse culture has also come alive at Norstead, a short drive away. There, a Viking village has been recreated on a larger scale than Parks Canada’s at L’Anse aux Meadows. There are more, and larger, traditional grass-covered buildings, a petting zoo of domestic animals, and up to a dozen costumed re-enactors. They weave, work metal, fight mock battles, and help visitors get hands-on with everything from making candles and pottery to runestone fortune-telling.
It’s quiet when I visit but, rain or shine, a highlight of this attraction is Snorri, the ship named after the first European child known to have been born in North America — perhaps just along the beach at L’Anse aux Meadows. This 16-metre-long handcrafted beauty of wood and iron rivets is modelled on Norse merchant ships called knarr, and was brought from Greenland by a crew of nine.
Norstead and L’Anse aux Meadows are at the end of the 489-kilometre Viking Trail and, unless you count canny businesses such as Viking Recycling, there is little else along the route with a compelling connection.
However, nestling beside Valhalla Lodge’s combustion wood heater, with one of the sitting room’s many Viking-related books, is a splendid way to prepare for or recover from a day’s exploring. As is a meal at the Norseman Restaurant, which serves quality local fare including elk, lobster and cod, with the option of drinks sporting iceberg chunks.
Visit in late spring and watch icebergs floating by while you dine, perhaps against a dramatic sunset.
According to locals, this year promises to deliver an exceptional iceberg season.
The Viking Trail is not simply a route to and from the Norse attractions and a fresh-fish supper, however. It mostly hugs the western coast of Newfoundland’s northern peninsula, offering vast views all the way to Labrador, past countless stacks of firewood and old-school lobster traps, and clusters of colourful clapboard houses.
Indeed, this trail is a fascinating parade of history and nature. Port au Choix National Historic Site reveals cultures much older than the Norsemen’s. I marvel at exquisitely crafted stone artifacts discovered in a 4,000-year-old burial site. On a beach of coloured, patterned rocks of astonishing variety, I explore the SS Ethie’s rusty remains nearly a century after she ran aground. In Gros Morne National Park, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, I barely begin to experience its 1,800 square kilometres of dramatic landscapes and ancient geological wonders before it’s time to head home.
The writer was a guest of Go Western Newfoundland, which did not review or approve this story.
IF YOU GO:
Air Canada (aircanada.com) flies daily from Montreal to Deer Lake, via Halifax. The Viking Trail begins in Deer Lake, where five rental-car companies operate. If you want to focus on the scenery and get lots of local insights, Gros Morne VIP Tours (grosmorneviptours.com) offers friendly, personalized service.
Parks Canada’s Viking Trail Pass ($44.10 adult; pc.gc.ca) provides seven consecutive days’ access to L’Anse aux Meadows, and other attractions including Gros Morne National Park, Port au Choix National Historic Site and another UNESCO World Heritage Site, Red Bay Basque Whaling Station.
Valhalla Lodge and the associated Norseman Restaurant (valhalla-lodge.com) are both a short drive from the Viking attractions. Other good places to pause along the Viking Trail include Deer Lake’s comfortable new Holiday Inn Express (hiedeerlakehotel.com), and Gunners Cove restaurants The Daily Catch and Northern Delight.
The tourist season is around June to September. Outside this period, attractions are closed and dining options limited. For more information, visit gowesternnewfoundland.com and newfoundlandlabrador.com.