In which our heroines take the Highway to Hell, and learn why the bishop carved onto the facade of Nidaros Cathedral is cradling a basket full of heads.
(Come on, you know you want to know about the heads in a basket…)
Thursday, August 14th, Ersgard, Hell and Trondheim
Today started with a leisurely breakfast and a strong disinclination to get back onto our bicycles. Ouch, ouch, ouch. Let’s just say that suddenly it was very appealing to ride standing up, and move on!
There is, as it happens, a small town about 6 km from Ersgard called Hell. Over breakfast, we attempted to ascertain from Greta, our hostess, just what Hell meant in Norwegian, since it evidently does not mean what it means in English. My friend suggested that it might mean bright or pale (thinking of ‘helle’ in German), but evidently not. Alas, while Greta’s English is excellent, on this occasion the language barrier was too much for us, so the origin of the town’s name remained, for the time being, shrouded in mystery.
[Later Catherine: Wikipedia has unveiled the mystery! Apparently, Hell comes from the old Norse word hellir, meaning ‘overhang’ or ‘cliff cave’. None of which prevents the locals for milking the similarity with the English name for all it’s worth.]
The residents of Hell are well aware of what Hell means in English, and make the most of it – there is even a festival called Blues in Hell, and if you look into the stationmaster’s window at Hell Station, you will see a little devil looking back at you…
My friend and I agreed that if we were going on the highway to Hell, we needed photographic evidence above all things! So we decided that we would stop at the very first road sign indicating Hell’s approach.
Alas, there was no sign. Possibly because a previous tourist had stolen it. But there were, at least, dark woods surrounding the village, so if we couldn’t have our Rock and Roll association, we could at least content ourselves with a reference to the start of Dante’s Inferno and the knowledge that we were cultured enough to appreciate this!
In the midst of our life’s journey, I found myself wandering in the dark woods, where the straight road was lost…
There are, we were informed, Stone Age inscriptions in the area of Hell, but although we looked, we couldn’t find them – perhaps our non-existent Norwegian betrayed us – so we locked up our bicycles at Hell Station, and took the train to Trondheim for the day.
The train trip is spectacular.
Taking the train to Trondheim, one follows the fjord, which just goes on and on.
It’s silvery in the sunlight and you can see mountains in all directions.
In Trondheim, we walked rather at random into the town…
Since we are both fans of pretty churches, we stopped to visit the Church of Our Lady. I really loved this church – its style was very unfamiliar to me, with lots of bright paintings that looked like oils around the alter and walls and ceiling.
In the centre of the church was a cross made out of rocks carved into rough cubes on which people had placed tea light candles – there was a little basket of candles next to the cross, so that you could light one in prayer. The benches were arranged so that this cross, rather than the altar, was the centre of focus, and at the back of the church there were tables and chairs and people drinking tea and quietly chatting. It really was a wonderfully welcoming place, and reminded me of a Taizé sort of service, only with more blue and green and less orange.
We left the church, and went into a local art and craft gallery and shop, featuring the work of 30 local artists, mostly in glass and textiles. Very gorgeous – and so many beautiful things that were never, ever going to travel on a bicycle. I am still haunted by the beautiful and completely un-packable glass cats with glowing golden eyes, supported by curled wire tails. And there was a glass platter that had the sun and the sea and floating angels that was simply sublime. But not bicycle friendly!
Next was a salady lunch, attended by wasps who were almost as excited as I was about the Norwegian raspberries, and then crossed the road to the Nidaros cathedral, former coronation site, and Bishop’s palace, which also hosts the crown jewels and an exhibition about the kings of Norway. Much of it was in Norwegian without translation. It’s so odd looking at coronation regalia – everything is so very sparkly and the stones are so large that my mind simply can’t comprehend that it isn’t costume jewelry! And it must have been so heavy to wear.
We learned a bit about Saint Olaf (he whose Pilgrim’s Way goes past our farm and all the way to Steinvikholm, where his relics once lay), but did not manage to establish exactly how a Viking gets to be a Saint. Apparently, Olaf is still viewed as Norway’s eternal King, and the current King of Norway reigns only on his behalf.
The cathedral itself is hard to describe. The outside is carved all over with saints and bishops – very reminiscent of Nôtre Dame – lined up in rows and rows and rows and…
… wait a minute, why does that guy have three heads in a basket?
A and I spent several minutes speculating on this one. It isn’t so uncommon to find a saint carrying one head – his own – but we are not aware of any saints who had three heads. Perhaps he was beheaded and his head grew back three times? Even by saint standards, this was a bit much. And it didn’t seem likely, really, that he was a Viking who had been beheading Pagans, because this sort of thing is generally not celebrated in saints, even Viking saints. We think.
We remained baffled, and entered the cathedral to see what we could see. I must admit, while it was very beautiful and very high Gothic (and had two pipe organs), I didn’t really like this church, especially after the lovely, welcoming atmosphere of the previous one. I did find myself drawn rather to the side chapel, though, which turned out to be dedicated to fallen soldiers in World War II.
We went back outside to admire the gargoyles, and then went into the gift shop, where I button-holed the nearest salesperson and begged him to tell me what on earth the story was with the three heads in a basket. To my delight, he actually knew about it! Apparently, this was a Bishop, Saint Sigfried, to be precise (and you will be glad to hear, a friend of Saint Olaf), whose three nephews were martyred by being beheaded and the heads and bodies flung into the fjord. This being a Saint story, the heads later popped out of the fjord again, the better to speak with the bishop, and possibly warn him of the things he needed to know. Because that is what all the best disembodied heads do! So then he put the heads in a basket (as you do) and carried them with him wherever he went. Which must have been quite the conversation starter, really.
We walked back across the old bridge, where we found a group of students wearing purple T-shirts and black felt moustaches, singing. We have absolutely no idea what that was about, but we liked it.
And then we took the train back to Hell, and rode our bicycles home to Ersgard, for our much-anticipated moose dinner.
Apparently, our bedroom overlooks a local moose migration path, and we did keep an eye out the window for any passing moose (meese?), but alas, our only contact with the moose was internal. And I have to say, it was really tasty – it had been slow cooked in a creamy, peppery sauce, and tasted somewhere between venison, beef and lamb. The meese have no natural predators now that the wolves are largely gone, so there are a lot in the area, and not really enough food or space for them, which is rather sad. But it does mean our moose was locally-grown Eco-moose!
And now we are nearly at the end of our stay. All that is left is to pack, sleep, and eat one last breakfast before we take the plane to Bergen.
I will miss it here. Esrgard is truly a beautiful place, and feels very much out of the world. Idyllic.
But I must confess… I will not miss that too-tall bicycle, even though I did enjoy getting to ride with the wind in my hair.
Again, most of the photographs in this post (and the previous one) are by my friend, who does not wish to be credited by name, but who is, nonetheless, a far better photographer than I am. You can tell which photographs mine are, because they always seem to turn out very brightly coloured! Anything even slightly subtle, and definitely all the good gargoyles, are by my friend. Though I was responsible for the photograph of the heads in the basket…