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Norway’s Maritime Heritage: Viking Ships, Arctic Exploration Ship, and the "Kon Tiki"

Oslo, Norway

Norway’s seafaring prowess is on display in Oslo at three museums: viking ships, which shows off sleek 9th-century ships; the Fram, housing the ship explorers took to both polar caps; and the Kon Tiki, the raft Heyerdahl sailed across the Pacific.

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Oslo's harborfront provides an inviting place to simply enjoy the urban scene between sightseeing stops. From there, a ferry shuttles visitors across the harbor to Bygdøy, a peninsula with several museums highlighting the nation's maritime history.

The Viking Ship Museum shows off ninth-century Viking ships — icons from those days of pillage and plunder. Norwegian marauders terrorized Europe for generations. Gazing up at the prow of one of these sleek vessels, you can imagine the horror peasants in France or England or Russia felt when those redheads on the rampage sailed up their river.

Over a thousand years ago, three things drove Vikings on their far-flung raids: hard economic times in their bleak homeland; the lure of prosperous and vulnerable communities to the south; and a mastery of the sea.

In a boat like this — finely crafted of oak — the Vikings ranged far and wide. They settled over a thousand miles away in the west of France, which became Normandy — named for those Norsemen. And they hop-scotched across the Atlantic from Iceland to Greenland and on to the east coast of Canada, which they called Vinland. Imagine 30 men hauling on long oars, muscling through the sea for weeks and months on end.

In 1892, a replica of this ship sailed to America in 44 days — to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus not discovering America.

This ship, with its well-designed rudder and intricate carving, was probably a ceremonial pleasure craft for royalty to promenade on calm waters.

Viking chieftains were buried in their ships with their possessions. In fact, that's why these particular ships survived. Excavations turned up artifacts of leather and finely carved wood like these ornate sleighs. This horse cart is decorated with fanciful scenes from old Viking sagas.

An adjacent museum houses another Norwegian ship, the Fram. A thousand years after the Vikings, the steam- and sail-powered Fram took modern-day explorers Amundsen and Nansen deep into both polar regions. This tough ship ventured both farther north and south than any ship had gone before. Exhibits help you imagine life in these extremes, so far from the safety and comforts of civilization. For three years, this boat — especially designed to survive the pressure of a frozen sea — was locked in the grip of the Arctic ice.

The Fram was well equipped with instruments for scientific research. State-of-the-art in the early 1900s, these tools enabled the explorers to bring back important new data from the polar frontiers.

Next to the Fram is another example of Norway's seafaring heritage: the Kon-Tiki. In 1947, the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl and his crew constructed the Kon-Tiki raft out of bamboo and balsa wood. They set sail from Peru on the crude and fragile craft, surviving for 101 days on fish, coconuts, and sweet potatoes. About 4,300 miles later, they landed in Polynesia.

The point of this expedition was to show that early South Americans could have settled Polynesia. While Heyerdahl proved they could have, anthropologists doubt they actually did.