Uppsala & Sigtuna
During my stay in Stockholm, I took a day long “Viking tour” to visit some locations of historical significance outside of the city. Although I can’t claim any Swedish heritage that I know of, the area of Minnesota where I grew up was populated primarily by Scandinavian immigrants. Combined with the fact that my name is spelled the Swedish way and that appearance-wise I’m a spot-on match for a Swede, and I felt compelled to learn more about a heritage that is at least partly my own, even if not by blood.
I seldom do group tours when I travel because I’d rather do things on my own schedule. I made an exception in this case because I’d read a lot of praise for this particular tour and guide. It turned out to be a good way to learn about Swedish history, a great way to visit some places that I otherwise wouldn’t have gone.
Led by an enthusiastic Swedish gentleman named Urban, our small group of 8 piled in a Eurovan and drove north out of Stockholm. We made several stops to visit places where Vikings (yes, real Vkings!) lived. Because most of the things that Vikings made were out of wood or leather, there really isn’t much to see aside from rune stones.
I won’t bore you with an in-depth Viking history lesson. Instead, here are a few interesting things to take away: first, the Viking “period” lasted from about AD 800 to 1100. They were pagans; one of the last outposts of Europe not to be Christianized. They were principally a trading people driven by their abundant supply of copper and iron. They reached as far as Istanbul and Baghdad using a system of rivers & lakes in modern-day Russia that led to the Volga and the Black Sea.
They used their famous longboats to explore Iceland and Greenland, and reached Newfoundland, Canada 500 years before Columbus reached North America (although “finding” and “settling” are two different things).
In the English-speaking world, they have a reputation of being fierce, barbaric warriors because they frequently pillaged settlements in the British Isles. Nowadays it’s considered a bit of an undeserved reputation, since they weren’t any more or less violent than any other group of people at the time. The English were weak and disorganized in those days, though, so the Vikings must have seemed like a pretty nasty bunch.
I was a little disappointed to learn that Vikings didn’t actually wear horned helmets. That image was probably invented by English monks to equate these pagan looters with the devil himself.
Anyway, the Vikings as a people didn’t disappear; they converted to Christianity and power was consolidated into the 3 kingdoms that eventually became the nations of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden.
During our tour, we stopped in the pleasant little town of Sigtuna. It was founded in 980 AD and has been there ever since, which makes it the oldest continually-inhabited town in Sweden. Most of the cute wooden buildings on the main street date from the 1700’s. It’s on the shore of Lake Mälaren, a 120 km-long lake that stretches all the way to Stockholm. The land in this entire area is rising as it continues to rebound from being squished under a kilometer of ice in the last Ice Age. In Sigtuna’s heydey, Lake Mälaren was part of the sea and Sigtuna an important Viking port.
Lastly we visited the city of Uppsala (oop-SA-la). As near as I can tell, the Nordic countries maintain a friendly rivalry with each other for which of them has the oldest, or biggest, or most famous example of this or that. Uppsala scores two points in Sweden’s column with the oldest University and the largest cathedral- and a very impressive Gothic one at that. Designed as a Catholic cathedral by a French architect, it became the seat of the Swedish Lutheran Church after the Reformation (although it’s got to be one of the most Catholic-looking Lutheran churches out there).
At the end of the day I was glad I did the tour. I feel like I got a deeper understanding of Sweden and its history by leaving Stockholm, and I saw some places that are off the beaten track. It wasn’t enough to convert me into a “guided-tour” type of traveler, but in this case it was worth my time.