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North Americas unexpected neon jungle

Surprisingly, Vancouver – not Shanghai, Hong Kong or Las Vegas – was once the neon capital of the planet.

Wide shot: a city’s majestic backdrop of sea and sky, skirted by folds of Douglas fir, and deep, zigzagging fjords. Zoom in: a downtown core on the rise, a mixture of newly built condominiums, theatres and red-brick saloons. Close-up: in the middle, a hodgepodge of advertising signs and overhead utility lines rearing out of the darkness. And the big picture: the sky electrified in a glow of red, yellow and green as 19,000 neon lights switch on.

Step back in time to 1950s Vancouver, and this is what would have greeted you after sailing across the Georgia Strait to the city’s historical district of Gastown. From here to the suburbs, the streets hummed with transporters and Frankenstein-like glass insulators. Logging agencies, lumberjack recruiters – even churches – advertised with neon lettering, while residents amped up their houses with neon door numbers. Harder to believe still, the city produced more strip neon than anywhere else on the planet, with one sign for every 18 residents, and 12 factories, including the world’s largest.

Vancouver, Canada, was one of the first capitals of neon, with one sign for every 18 residents (Credit: Credit: Michael robertharding/Alamy)

Vancouver, Canada, was one of the first capitals of neon, with one sign for every 18 residents (Credit: Michael robertharding/Alamy)

Stories like this aren’t supposed to happen in the middle of the Pacific Northwest’s beautiful temperate rainforests. Maybe in Hong Kong, Las Vegas or Shanghai, cities where streets besieged with neon are part of downtown lore. But Vancouver, Canada’s great-outdoors capital? The sheer volume of neon colour juxtaposed with its beautiful natural setting seems alien. Yet the truth that it was one of the world’s first capitals of neon is unlike anything stereotypes of the city might lead you to expect.

To learn more, I contacted John Atkin, a Vancouver-born civic historian, heritage consultant and neon expert. “Neon and rain are made for each other – it makes the colour diffuse and come alive – and that really helps explain why there was such a boom here,” he said as we toured the Museum of Vancouver’s permanent neon gallery on an overcast afternoon. “Vancouver has more grey days than anywhere else in North America, but it was also a streetcar city, which advertising neon is perfect for. Add the weather to the transport system, then factor in the low cost of leasing the signs as manufacturers began competing with each other, and neon boomed. It workedhere.”

The museum’s rich collection of aged and weathered signage comes from the groundwork of Atkin, who first curated an exhibition on the city’s neon history back in 2000. Two stand-outs are a gigantic pink-striped ‘R’ from Regent Tailors, first hung on West Hastings Street in 1960; and a buzzing red and green headstone designed for S Bowell & Sons Ltd Funeral Directors from the previous decade.

Even Vancouver’s churches advertised with neon signs (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Even Vancouver’s churches advertised with neon signs (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

According to Atkin, the key thing that set Vancouver apart was the majority of sign makers here were art-school graduates. That meant there was a real consideration for design, and streets became canvases of typography, colour and action. The definition between where the building finished and art began started to blur.

“The artists had fun with it,” said Atkin, as we looked upon one-sided mounts advertising a beauty salon, a dry cleaner, a garage, a dairy and a pool hall. “In the 1940s and 1950s, Vancouver wasn’t just lit by neon – it was illuminated with stories.”

Vancouver wasn’t just lit by neon – it was illuminated with stories

Atkin clearly remembers the tales that illuminated his childhood. When he was a boy, he used to cycle through the inner city on his way to swimming practice. He was an early riser, and somehow felt drawn to the rainbow-coloured signs on downtown Granville Street in the pre-dawn light, particularly vibrant around 05:00.

Share such stories with Vancouverites today and many will be puzzled. Tell them trees were covertly planted beneath well-known signs to blot out the visual noise and they’ll scarcely believe you. But there’s a good reason: the signs have all but gone, with most consigned to the scrapheap.

For history hasn’t been kind to Vancouver’s neon. Did it signal glamour and big-city living – or was it a vulgar display that vandalised a city? From the 1950s to 1970s, this was the question that divided the city, with neon becoming a symbol of a deep civic controversy and a lightning rod for critics.

By the 1960s, a growing suburbia meant neon had become demonised and associated with urban blight. “You can have civilisation, or you can have neon,” said one detractor, the criticism ironically lit up as a display at the museum. “It is vital to Vancouver’s reputation as a beautiful city… that these proposed sign controls be implemented before any more visual squalor is added to our most attractive streets,” said another at the height of the backlash.

To the city’s lawmakers, the signage frustrated people’s expectations of what Vancouver – surrounded by a northern cape of mountains and forests – should be. The throbbing glow was seen as an ugly, seedy distraction. So by 1974, the city adopted its first comprehensive sign control bylaw, restricting new neon signage beyond measure.

As Atkin sees it, the distaste came from a misguided realisation of just how corrosive to society neon was. “The bylaws made it damn difficult to do anything,” he said. “Everything that made neon cool – you couldn’t do it anymore. And with it the craft started to disappear.”

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s neon became a symbol of deep civic controversy

By the 1960s, Vancouver’s neon became a symbol of deep civic controversy (Credit: Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Today, examples of vintage neon still dot Vancouver, although you need to know where to look. For maximum impact, a walk through the city should take in The Orpheum and Vogue Theatre, two typographic verticals on Granville Street trimmed with bulbs. On nearby Hastings Street, a quick succession of marvels then spreads farther east, including signs such as those at Save On Meats, The Balmoral and The Pennsylvania (hotels turned social housing projects) and Ovaltine Cafe, a city fixture dating to the early 1940s.

We’re bringing the neon back

However, thanks to newly tempered bylaws keen to curtail downtown’s commercial decline, change is gathering pace, particularly in Chinatown, an area intrinsically tied to neon’s rise and fall because of the propensity of restaurants to embrace the advertising. Walk along East Pender Street and you’ll come to Sai Woo, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant, restored and reopened in 2015 as part of the area’s ongoing gentrification. Here, the unmissable 3x2m neon cockerel advertising chop suey – paid for by a community-supported C$19,000 Kickstarter campaign – is just the start of a welcome revival.

“We’re bringing the neon back,” owner Salli Pateman told me, while staring out at the two-sided gold-and-green cockerel sign. “It’s happening again, and a year from now there’ll be five or so more places with signs like this. We’re salvaging the heritage of this neighbourhood.”

The message is clear: there’s a new generation willing to embrace the visual noise.

Owner Salli Pateman raised nearly C$20,000 to locate and restore the Sai Woo restaurant’s original neon sign (Credit: Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Owner Salli Pateman raised nearly C$20,000 to locate and restore the Sai Woo restaurant’s original neon sign (Credit: Mike MacEacheran)

Next for Chinatown is the return of Foo’s Ho Ho, Vancouver’s oldest Chinese restaurant and a place famous for a once-notorious neon artwork. It was the address for an incredibly complex four-storey sign depicting a two-sided bowl of steaming noodles with flashing, alternating English and Cantonese words. The campaign to restore it has been masterminded by restaurant owner Carol Lee. Designed from scratch by Atkin using a more streamlined design, and paid for through heritage grants and donations, the C$80,000 signboard will be unveiled later next year.

It creates a sense of nostalgia, but also community

But while such visual ambition forms part of a wider lighting strategy to revitalise downtown Vancouver, it’s about more than just adding drama to the cityscape for locals. “It creates a sense of nostalgia, but also community,” said Pateman, looking up and down the street with a look of marked confidence. “When these signs are switched on, people will know Chinatown is back.”

The ultimate symbol of Vancouver’s transition from west coast logging town to vibrant metropolis, neon was once the city’s hallmark. Tomorrow’s Vancouver – shining bright – will be as much a reaction to its past as it is a celebration of the future.

By Mike MacEacheran 4 May 2018

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Canada’s vital role in the communications revolution

I carefully framed the iceberg over my left shoulder and snapped the perfect selfie. A few taps of my phone later, the image was soaring through cyberspace from my location in St John’s, Newfoundland, to my various social media channels and followers around the world.

I smiled, wondering if, when Guglielmo Marconi stood on this spot in December 1901 to receive the world’s first wireless transatlantic transmission, he had any idea of where his success would lead. Would Marconi have taken a selfie on this spot?

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

Signal Hill in St John’s, Newfoundland, is where the first wireless transatlantic transmission was received (Credit: Wayne Barrett & Anne MacKay/Getty Images)

I was on Signal Hill, a massive piece of bedrock about 140m above the Atlantic Ocean on Canada’s eastern shore. It’s a dramatic spot where the ocean merges into St John’s Harbour, creating a waterway appropriately called The Narrows. Fishing boats and trawlers pass through each morning just as the sun begins to illuminate the route, and again in the early evening hours to bring seafood to the local restaurants and canneries.

They, too, make vivid images to share on social media.

A paved trail from downtown St John’s follows the harbour shoreline to the bottom of the hill before winding around and up via a series of switchbacks and steps that make the hike an energetic workout. When I explored on a Saturday afternoon, the hillside was dotted with picnickers, dog walkers and people enjoying the beauty of the day. Two wedding parties with photographers in tow were taking advantage of this exceptional setting as a backdrop for their special day.

But its popularity was not what brought Marconi to Signal Hill. Indeed, the number of visitors was a concern as he considered the needs for his experiment.

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic storms (Credit: Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America, but it’s protected from North Atlantic (Credit: Wolfgang Kaehler/Contributor/Getty Images)

The child of a wealthy family in Bologna, Italy, Marconi was well-educated, and from an early age was fascinated with science, specifically the transmission of electromagnetic waves through the air. He was the first to discover that by grounding a transmitter and receiver, and raising the height of an antenna, he could extend a signal’s range.

That was big news in 1894. But few in Italy were impressed, so Marconi moved to Great Britain where he patented the invention and found investors to continue his work. The big question of the day was whether a long-distance radio wave could follow the curvature of the Earth or whether it just shot out into space.

Marconi scoured several locations on North America’s eastern seaboard for this experimental, transatlantic transmission. His first choice was a rocky outcropping in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, but a series of storms on both sides of the ocean that battered antennae and other equipment eventually led him further north.

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Marconi needed to use balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright (Credit: Hulton Deutsch/Contributor/Getty Images)

Signal Hill is not the most eastern point in North America; that would be Cape Spear, a little further south. But Signal Hill is slightly more protected from the North Atlantic’s furious storms by a natural recess in the coastline. On a clear day, you feel as though you could shout a greeting to someone on England’s rocky coast, about 3,500km to the east.

Marconi had already chosen his ideal location on the other side of the Atlantic: Poldhu on the Lizard Peninsula in South Cornwall. Although the original transmission station is gone, a monument and visitors centre today marks the spot and interprets what was going on here while Marconi and team worked on the other side of the ocean.

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

The transmission was sent from Poldhu, South Cornwall, where a monument to Marconi now stands (Credit: incamerastock/Alamy)

Those in England worked in isolation, struggling with weather conditions of their own, not knowing at all what was transpiring in Newfoundland. It had been weeks since they had communicated with Marconi and team.

For several days, at an appointed time each day, the scientists at Poldhu transmitted three simple dots – the Morse code signal for the letter ‘s’. Marconi was battling against the violently cold and windy winter up here, and needed to use a series of balloons and kites to help keep his antennae upright. But each day, at the designated time, he donned headsets and listened.

Finally, on 12 December 1901, it happened. Dot-dot-dot.

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

It was one of Marconi’s radios that received wireless transmissions from the sinking RMS Titanic (Credit: Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world, comparable today perhaps to Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs. He made millions from his inventions and received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1909.

Marconi was instantly a name known around the world

Signal Hill is now a National Historic Site. And about 64km south is Cape Race, the first permanent Marconi station in North America. It was here on a cold night in April 1912 that wireless transmissions from the RMS Titanic were received and shared with the rest of the world.

Both places are worthy of a selfie, thanks to Guglielmo Marconi.

By Diana Lambdin Meyer  2 September 2017

 

The first European settlement in the New World

I sat stranded along the stretch of roadway in northern Newfoundland known as the Viking Trail, which leads to L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site, the only authenticated Norse settlement in North America.

As I waited for him to carry on his way, I noticed that the tree branches in the forest lining this section of road all pointed east, angled by the force of the wind blowing inland off the Strait of Belle Isle, the narrow strip of water separating Newfoundland from Labrador.

L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland was the site of the first European settlement in the New World (Credit: Credit: Interfoto/Alamy)

L’Anse Aux Meadows in Newfoundland was the site of the first European settlement in the New World (Credit: Interfoto/Alamy)

Twenty minutes later, I continued on my journey; it was another 80km to L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site. Stepping out of the car, my nostrils filled with the crisp, briny sea air carried in by a breeze that rippled across the grassy landscape.

It is here that a significant moment in human migration and exploration took place

It is here, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, that a significant moment in human migration and exploration took place.

In the year 1000, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus set sail, a Viking longboat, skippered by Leif Erikson, brought 90 men and women from Iceland to establish a new settlement – the first European settlement in the New World.

In the year 1000, a Viking longboat captained by Leif Erikson landed near L’Anse Aux Meadows with 90 men and women (Credit: Credit: Parks Canada)

In the year 1000, a Viking longboat captained by Leif Erikson landed near L’Anse Aux Meadows with 90 men and women (Credit: Parks Canada)

Erikson’s party arrived at low tide and found themselves stranded in the misty shallows of what historians believe was Epaves Bay. When the tide returned, they moved further inland, navigating up Black Duck Brook to the place where they would establish their stronghold in their new-found land.

By modern sensibilities, Newfoundland can seem a harsh place, with fierce coastal winds whipping across the remote landscape. But for people who just travelled across the unforgiving North Atlantic in open boats, it would have been perfect. The forests were rich in game; the rivers teemed with salmon larger than the Norse had ever seen; the grasslands provided a bounty of food for livestock; and, in some places, wild grapes grew, prompting the Vikings to name this land ‘Vinland’.

The settlement didn’t last long, however; the community abandoned the settlement after less than a decade after repeated clashes with the island’s native tribes, known to the Vikings as ‘Skraelings’.

In some places wild grapes grew, prompting the Viking name this area ‘Vinland’ (Credit: Credit: Michael Runkel/Alamy)

In some places wild grapes grew, prompting the Viking name this area ‘Vinland’ (Credit: Michael Runkel/Alamy)

For more than 100 years, archaeologists in Finland, Denmark and Norway used ancient Norse sagas to guide their search for Erikson’s lost settlement, scouring the coast of North America from Rhode Island to Labrador.

We didn’t know anything about the Vikings being here

In 1960, a husband-and-wife team of Norwegian archaeologists, Helge and Anne Stine Ingstad, heard from locals of L’Anse Aux Meadows – the town for which the site was named – speak of what they believed to be an old Indian camp. The initial excavation of the site’s mysterious seaside mounds revealed a layout similar to longhouses found in confirmed Viking settlements in Iceland and Greenland. Then, the discovery of a 1,000-year-old nail indicated that ship building had taken place here, leading them to believe that they had discovered the long lost Vineland settlement.

“As kids we played on the curious mounds,” said Clayton Colbourne, a former Parks Canada guide at L’Anse Aux Meadows. “We didn’t know anything about the Vikings being here.”

In 1960, two Norwegian archaeologists discovered that what was thought to be an old native village was the Viking settlement (Credit: Credit: Parks Canada)

In 1960, two Norwegian archaeologists discovered that what was thought to be an old native village was the Viking settlement (Credit: Parks Canada)

From the entrance of the L’Anse Aux Meadows National Historic Site, a narrow path crosses a landscape that has changed very little over the centuries. Mossy partridgeberry and bakeapple vines cover a boggy shelf along the rocky shoreline. Cow parsnip stands as tall as centuries-old dwarf trees, its clusters of tiny, white flowers blooming at shoulder level. The only noticeable sounds are the cry of seabirds, the rustling of grass in the wind, and the slapping of waves on the pebble-strewn shore. In the shallows, rows of jagged rocks jut out of the calm, clear water like teeth waiting to bite a boat’s bottom.

The path leads to the grassy outlines of the settlement’s original three large lodges and five workshops. Parks Canada has recreated a sod lodge and two more workshops near the original mounds. There, guides and animators dressed as Vikings explain the Norse architecture and lifestyle and demonstrate ancient crafts. The recreated lodge is entered through a Hobbit-high doorway built into 6ft-thick walls. Thanks to the sturdiness of the construction, the winds may howl outside, but inside is silent. If L’Anse Aux Meadows is indeed where Erikson’s party settled, it would have been in one of these huts that Erikson’s nephew, Snorri, became the first European baby born in the New World.

Costumed reenactors illustrate Viking life at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Credit: Credit: Parks Canada)

Costumed reenactors illustrate Viking life at L’Anse Aux Meadows (Credit: Parks Canada)

Nearly 1,000 years later, this unassuming collection of mounds experienced another first. In 1978, Unesco announced the creation of the now lauded World Heritage List; L’Anse Aux Meadows was the first cultural site in the world to receive Unesco World Heritage status.

L’Anse Aux Meadows was the first cultural site in the world to receive Unesco World Heritage status

I spent two hours at L’Anse Aux Meadows, listening to the costumed reenactors and studying exhibits in the visitors centre. Before I left, I lingered on the shore washed in salty breezes that had travelled thousands of kilometres across the same seas that Erikson and his party did.

Leaving the Viking site was a type of instant, extreme time travel. I drove my rental car south along rocky coast, then inland towards the small St Anthony airport ‒ all the while keeping my eyes out for wandering moose.

By Allan Lynch

 

Tintin, the subject of 200 million comics sold, was likely based on a real 15-year-old …

 

In the overcrowded world of fictional characters, there are few faces as adorable as Tintin’s. Unlike Batman, Superman, or Wonder Woman, Tintin, the young investigative reporter, is not a household name in America, but he is definitely one of the most beloved figures in Europe.

With no specific magic powers, he is the antithesis of a superhero, but that didn’t prevent him from being widely admired by both children and adults. Charles de Gaulle once declared that Tintin is his only international rival, saying that “nobody notices, because of my height. We are both little fellows who won’t be got at by big fellows.”

Tintin and his fox terrier, Snowy, appeared for the first time on January 10, 1929, in the children’s supplement of the Belgian newspaper Le Vingtième Siecle. What started as the subject of a supplement went on to become a symbol of the 20th century, appearing in an inde­pen­dent comic book, on television, and even on the big screen in Steven Spiel­berg’s animated movie The Adven­tures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn.

Tintin is one of the most beloved figures in the comic book world.Author: Joi/Flickr-CC By 2.0

Georges Prosper Remi, known by the pen name Hergé, is the man behind the creation of Tintin. With almost no formal training, Hergé began drawing the legendary comic-book character in 1929, but little did he know that by doing so he would give birth to an entire European comics publishing industry.

Tintin and his fox terrier Snowy appeared for the first time in 1929. Author: karrikas/Flickr CC By 2.0

Since 1929, Tintin comics have sold more than 200 million copies, and over the years, this beloved character served as an inspiration for many people and influenced the ways comic book readers perceive the world around them. But what actually inspired Hergé to create the iconic character?

Debate still exists on what exactly inspired Hergé to come up with the snub-nosed teenage reporter, but most people agree that it was a real life person known by the name Palle Huld. It is one of the most original of origin stories in the comic book world.

Less than a year before Tintin made his first appearance, in the children’s supplement of  Le Vingtième Siecle, a 15-year-old Danish Boy Scout named Palle Huld won a competition organized by a Danish newspaper to mark the centennial of Jules Verne.

 

Palle Huld, during his trip around the world in 1928, almost certainly influenced Hergé to create Tintin.

The winner of the competition would re-enact Phileas Fogg’s voyage from Verne’s famous novel Around the World in Eighty Days. Strangely enough, only teenage boys were allowed to take part in the competition, and the 15-year-old was the perfect match. There was another twist: The winner had to complete the journey within 46 days, without any company and without using planes.

Hundreds of Danish teenagers applied to participate in the competition, and Palle was lucky enough to be chosen. He started his journey on March 1, 1928, from Copenhagen and traveled by rail and steamship through England, Scotland, Canada, Japan, the Soviet Union, Poland, and Germany.

His journey made the headlines at the time and when he arrived in Denmark, he was already a celebrity. Over 20,000 admirers greeted their hero when he came back home.

The next thing he did was write a book about his journey, which was quite popular among his admirers, and published in several languages. That book also came into the hands of a Belgian cartoonist known by the name of Hergé and that same year, when Huld’s book was published, Tintin made his debut.

Huld himself suggested on several occasions that he was the inspiration for Tintin. However, others believe that the inspiration behind the character was actually the French travel photojournalist Robert Sexe, whose journeys were exactly in the same order as Tintin’s first three books.

With no specific superpowers, Tintin is the antithesis of a superhero. Author: Hicham Souilmi CC By 2.0

Nonetheless, true Tintin fans couldn’t care less. For them it is all about the character, a hero they all know and love, representing something that others don’t have: uncompromising vigilance and the need to succeed no matter what the cost.

Tintin proves that a hero doesn’t need to be big or strong, he or she just needs to be tenacious and stubborn enough to do what needs to be done.

By Goran Blazeski

Follow the Paths of Viking Raiders from Norway to North America

Viking ruins, Jarslhof, Shetland, Scotland
(nyiragongo / iStock)
From 793 to 1066 CE, hearing the words “Viking” or “Norsemen” would put just about anyone on edge. The group was notorious for sailing their longboats into harbors and viciously attacking the people there—stealing all the available loot, taking slaves and killing just about everyone else. But this bad behavior tells only part of the Viking story. “All Vikings were Norsemen, but not all Norsemen were Vikings,” historian and Viking Cruises lecturer Patrick Goodness told Smithsonian.com. “They became Vikings when they went out plundering; they went viking, as a verb.” Eventually, the term morphed into a classification for the entire community.

Both sides of the population, though, were inspired by the same sentiment: to go out and find new land. Some wanted to explore and plunder, but others simply wanted to discover more fertile lands to farm and settle peacefully, moving ever westward from Europe toward North America in search of the perfect spot. They traveled by longboat as the crow flied, settling in several distinct paths we can still track today.

So grab your helmet and shield and hop on a boat—now you can follow one of those paths of Viking Norsemen, from their original settlement in Norway across the Atlantic to their first settlement in North America.

Norway

The Oseberg Ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.
The Oseberg Ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo. (Creative Commons)

Since the beginning of the Viking age, the group of settlers and raiders ruled the western coast of Norway and much of Scandinavia. The Norwegian Vikings were among the most adventurous, sailing and plundering along their path to North America long before Columbus arrived at the continent’s shores. Here, in seaside towns like Bergen and Stavanger, once a major Hanseatic League trading port, the Vikings built their longships that would take them around the world.

What to see: The Bergen Maritime Museum has a selection of Viking longship models, but to see the real thing, head to the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, which has the three best-preserved ships that have been found to date. For a decidedly more modern sight, head a bit south of Stavanger to see three gigantic metal Viking swords sticking up from the shoreline. The monument, unveiled in 1983 by King Olav, commemorates Viking King Harald Fair Hair’s success at uniting the three kingdoms of Norway into one unit.

Shetland Islands, Scotland

Part of the Jarlshof settlement. (Creative Commons)

The Vikings arrived in Shetland around 850, and the Norse influence can still be seen today throughout the area; in fact, 95 percent of the place names in the Shetland Isles are still the original Old Norse names. More than 30 archeological sites on Unst Island alone hold evidence of Viking homes and settlements. Even the dialect of present-day Shetland residents has a healthy sprinkling of Old Norse words leftover from Viking rule. And, depending on who you ask, you may be able to get a ride out to Tingwall Valley, where the Vikings held their parliamentary sessions on a small peninsula in a lake.

For the next 600 years after arrival, Vikings and Norsemen ruled the Shetland Islands. But in the late 1400s (after many Vikings had already sailed on to greener pastures in different countries), Norse rule abruptly ended; the Shetland Islands became officially Scottish as part of a marriage treaty between a Scottish prince and a Danish princess.

What to see: Jarlshof on Mainland Shetland is one of Scotland’s biggest archeological sites, a huge complex documenting more than 4,000 years of settlement on the islands. Not only will visitors find ruins of a Viking longhouse, but they’ll also explore Neolithic homes, Bronze and Iron Age settlements, medieval farmsteads, and a laird’s house from the 1500s. And don’t miss Up Helly Aa in Lerwick, among the largest fire festivals in Europe. Viking descendants follow a Viking longship in a huge procession, all carrying torches, and at the end of the route, the boat is set on fire.

Faroe Islands

The Viking settlement at Kvivik.
The Viking settlement at Kvivik. (Jennifer Billock)

Even though the name for the Faroe Islands themselves, Føroyar, is derived from the Viking Old Norse language, they actually weren’t the first to find the region. “The Islands were founded by Irish monks,” Gunnar, a tour guide on the main island Streymoy, told Smithsonian.com. “Then the Vikings came and suddenly there were no more monks.” The Vikings arrived in the 9th century and quickly established a parliamentary meeting site at the tip of what is now the capital city, Tórshavn.

That spot in the city is now known as Old Town, known worldwide for its red buildings with turf roofs and cobblestone streets. Coincidentally, the Faroese parliament still meets in these buildings, giving Tórshavn the distinction of being the oldest functioning parliament in the world. Don’t miss the Viking-carved compass rose and runes at the end of Old Town’s rocky peninsula, right by the flag pole.

What to see: From the Faroe Islands’ capital Tórshavn, it’s an easy drive to seaside Kvívík, where you can find a 10th-century Viking settlement. The ruins are right in the middle of the village—also one of the oldest villages in the Islands—and contain longhouse and barn foundations. The southern end of the site has been washed away by the sea.

Iceland

“Sun Voyager,” a sculpture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, in Reykjavík, Iceland. (tailiwei / iStock)

Vikings settled in Iceland’s capital city, Reykjavik, in the 800s. They let the gods decide exactly where they should settle by floating a wooden chair across the water from one of the longboats: wherever the chair landed, the city should be. By 900 AD, Goodness said, more than 24,000 people lived there. It was a time of peace for the plundering Vikings.

“Iceland was considered a paradise for the settlers,” Goodness said. “Because of the pillaging and raiding, they started to be met with resistance. You can only maraud a place so many times before people [start] fighting back. The Vikings saw that and thought, people are dying, this isn’t fun anymore. They weren’t really interested in fighting anymore. It was time for them to live peacefully. This was a great period of transition for them in Iceland.”

Today, more than 60 percent of Icelanders are Norse, and the rest are mostly of Scottish or Irish heritage, many of their ancestors having been brought to Iceland as slaves by the Vikings.

What to see: Traces of Viking heritage are all over Iceland—the country even has a Viking trail you can follow—but for a good look, head to the Settlement Museum in downtown Reykjavik. Here, ruins of a Viking settlement are preserved in an underground exhibit. And across the hall from the longhouse, ancient saga manuscripts are also on display.

Greenland

Hvalsey Church.
Hvalsey Church. (Creative Commons)

In 982, Erik the Red committed a murder in Iceland and was exiled for three years as a result. He sailed off to the west, finding Greenland and spending his time in exile there. During that time, Goodness says, Greenland may actually have been green, covered with forests and vegetation, as the Viking would have landed during the Medieval Warm Period (believed to be about 900 to 1300) when sea ice decreased and crops had longer to grow. After his sentence ended, Erik the Red sailed back to Iceland to convince other settlers to follow him to this new promised land. In 985, he and a fleet of 14 longships arrived to settle the southern and western coasts.

The Vikings continued to live on Greenland for about 500 years. Remains of Erik the Red’s settlement date back to about the year 1000, along with ruins of around 620 farms. At peak population, the Norse numbered around 10,000 people in the country. And then, suddenly, the community vanished with no explanation and no written record explaining why. However, historians have ultimately been able to explain it: “It was too hard to live in Greenland and they got tired of it,” Goodness said. “They thought it was better to leave than stay in such a harsh climate.” Over time, the temperature was getting colder so farms were no longer workable, and the Vikings never learned to effectively hunt the region. The Inuit were inhospitable; fights broke out frequently. At the same time, Norway had been stricken by the plague, so many farmsteads there were left abandoned. A group of the Greenland settlers was known to have headed back to Norway to take over the land, and another sailed onward to Canada.

What to see: Hvalsey Church is the best-preserved Viking ruin in Greenland. Most people choose Qaqortoq as their base for trips to see the church. It appears to have been built around 1300, and only the stone walls remain. Hvalsey has a unique history itself, as well—in 1408, a wedding was held at the church, with many Norse attendees. The written account of that event is the last word that ever came from Greenland’s Viking population.

Canada

A workshop at the L'Anse Aux Meadows Viking settlement.
A workshop at the L’Anse Aux Meadows Viking settlement. (Jennifer Billock)

To see the first Viking settlements in North America—found 500 years before Christopher Columbus set foot there—head to L’Anse Aux Meadows. The Vikings first arrived here from Greenland in the late 10th century, led by Leif Erikson. He initially called the land Vinland (though the exact location of Vinland is disputed), because when the Vikings arrived they found grapes and vines. Spurred by Erikson’s success, more than 100 Vikings followed to settle at this spot. Prior to its discovery in the 1960s, this North American settlement was only referenced in two ancient sagas.

What to see: The archaeological site at L’Anse Aux Meadows has two main components: the actual ruins (visitors can stand inside the foundation of Leif Erikson’s own house) and a recreated Viking trading port nearby called Norstead. Here, you’ll see a unique juxtaposition of what life was believed to have been like for the Vikings and what rubble remains today.

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