Scandinavia, Day 9: Borgund

Travel by Adam on 2009-02-27 02:03

The viking age ended when the Norse people became part of Christendom. Since they no longer could build intimidating warships to go on raids of Christian monasteries, they turned to building churches. In this period they built in a style known as the stave church.

Like their other works, stave churches were built entirely of wood (a plentiful resource in the northlands). Some survive to this day - since they were in active use for the past 800 years, they were maintained against the damaging effects of age. Today I visited perhaps the most visually interesting one, the Borgund stave church.

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Borgund Stave Church

This is a very striking structure, to say the least. It is clearly a Christian church, and yet, closer examination reveals the same style of Scandinavian animal art found on all the viking artifacts I’ve seen on my trip. The doorframes are carved with woven serpents:

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…and the roof has ornaments that look like, without exactly being, dragon heads:

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Finally, the sharply pointed shingles look much like reptilian scales. Taken all together, the entire building has a very serpentine feel - which is rather funny considering that the serpent is a symbol of evil in the northlander’s new religion. In fact, I’d say the church has a pretty evil look to it in general. Maybe the they hadn’t quite caught on to the vibe of their new god.

The roof ornaments, combined with the long narrow construction, also give the church a marked resemblance to the longships I saw in Roskilde and Oslo. I guess you can take the northman out of the dragonship, but you can’t take the dragonship out of the northman.

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This stave church was built in 1180, about 100 years after the end of the viking age. Other stave churches are slightly older, but this one hasn’t had any significant restoration done (except for the freestanding bellfry, which is nearby, and not nearly as interesting as the main structure). So the structure you see is essentially unchanged since 800 years ago.

Stave churches are a symbol of Norway and Scandinvia in general, second only perhaps to the viking. Replicas of the Borgund church in particular have been built all over the world, including one in Epcot at Disneyworld. There was even one in Flåm, but it couldn’t hold a candle to the real thing:

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The weathering on one side is very attractive - the light-to-dark gradient makes it look a bit as if it is glowing, a rather magical effect.

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The other side is dark, nearly black - deeply weathered, but probably closer to what the building looked like when it was younger. My theory on this is that the darker side faces a nearby peak which keeps it in shade most of the day, whereas the lighter side gets a few hours of afternoon sun every day.

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Ice and Rocks

I wandered down the road the church was on - which I later learned was Vindhella, one of the old fjord roads prior to the construction of the E16. Here I got the chance to see an up-close view of some of the frozen waterfall-like structures that I had seen throughout the fjord valley.

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One of them had a different color, blueish instead of white. When I took a closer look I realized that this was because it was several feet thick - enough to give it the glacial tinge of blue.

Glacial blue

Lærdalstunnelen

On the way to Borgund, I encountered a sign which said something about a tunnel coming up in 24 km. “That’s odd,” I thought. “Why would they tell me about a tunnel in 24 kilometers? Especially when there’s one right here?” After entering the tunnel and driving for a while, it dawned on me: the sign was saying that this tunnel was going to be 24 km long. I had just entered Lærdalstunnelen, the longest road tunnel in the world.

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The tunnel can be trance-inducing with the unchanging uniformity of rock walls speeding past, so the builders included three equally-spaced chambers with interesting blue lights and ceiling trussing. I stopped at the one in the absolute center, to ponder the significance of being in the center of a moutain. (”Journey to the Center of the Earth” was one of my favorite books as a kid.)


Once out of the car, I felt and heard a deep thrum that filled the cavern. I assumed at the time that it was the accumulated sound of all the vehicles traveling down its length, like a giant sonic canon. That may be it, but this page talks about the numerous heavy-duty fans necessary to keep the shaft ventilated, so it may be that that was what I was hearing. In any case, it was a surprisingly surreal experience, standing in this blue-lit cavern beneath a mountain and feeling this mysterious deep vibration.

Expenses: $330. $130 hotel, $100 car rental, $20 gas, $80 food.

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One comment per 'Scandinavia, Day 9: Borgund'

  1. Jedi Wright says:

    Simply amazing: from the stave church, to their ships, to their origin, the countryside…everything is simply breathtaking there. What an amazing trip that must be.

    It’s been great following your journey. Thanks for sharing!

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