vikings

York: Yorkshire Museum

The Yorkshire Museum wasn’t on my must-visit list, but we ended up going to see it anyway because we had to kill some time before our train on our last day in York. Along with York Castle Museum and York Art Gallery it is part of the York Museums Trust, so if you plan on visiting all three, it is probably worth getting the YMT card to save a bit of money, but we got free admission to the Yorkshire Museum with our National Art Pass anyway, so we didn’t bother (admission is otherwise £8).

 

The Yorkshire Museum has three main sections: Jurassic World, Roman York, and Medieval York (I guess you need to visit the York Castle Museum and Jorvik Viking Centre as well to get a more comprehensive version of York’s history), and we started with Jurassic World, which was a fairly standard dinosaur gallery with a few touchy bits, as you can see above. This is apparently a temporary but “long-term” exhibition, and we had seen it advertised all over town, with the tagline, “Now Open!” but aside from a VR dinosaur-feeding game (I desperately wanted to play, but it wasn’t clear whether we could without staff supervision, and there was no staff to be found), nothing here felt particularly state of the art. It was more the kind of thing you’d find in any local history museum with a decent-sized prehistoric section.

 

We quickly moved on to Roman York, which was a more extensive series of galleries that took up the rest of the ground floor. I was initially apprehensive about entering the museum because of the large group of school children just outside armed with wooden swords and shields who seemed to be making an awful lot of noise, and it was in Roman York that we encountered them. The museum I work at only has school groups in on days the museum is closed to the public to avoid situations like this one, and larger museums with dedicated education rooms tend to steer school groups mainly to those, but I guess in a museum that is open to the public every weekday but without extensive special facilities, they have no choice but to stick school kids in with the general public. Honestly, it would have been fine if they hadn’t been so damn loud, but they were! They also just barged in front of us as we were trying to look at things, including the skeleton above. Some kid kept telling his friends it was the skeleton of a gladiator despite the case clearly stating it was a woman. You’d think eight year olds would be able to at least read the word “woman,” but apparently not these ones, and no one was bothering to correct them.

 

In an effort to get away from them, we basically skipped the last room of Roman York, and headed downstairs for Medieval York (where we were granted an all too brief reprieve before they followed, but at least it was a reprieve). This was definitely the best of the main galleries, and was a bit more Viking and early medieval than late Middle Ages (which is the period I know more about), so it was nice to see some unusual artefacts and learn more about this period in York’s history.

 

Even though there were some lovely things on display, like the York Helmet, one of only three intact Anglian helmets found in Britain, and lots of hilarious stained glass cross-eyed kings, my favourite things were definitely the signs for children containing historical facts illustrated with funny cartoons, like the one above (I think it’s probably just a coincidence that he looks a bit like a thin Trump, though the bumbling idiocy and complete lack of consideration for other people seems to fit)!

 

I also liked the fun game (one of the few interactive things in this museum not solely aimed at children) where you could determine how Viking you were based on your interests. The Viking in the game actually looked a bit like Marcus, so I wasn’t surprised that he was 30% more Viking than I am (in terms of actual ancestry, I don’t think either of us are particularly Viking, since neither of us has any Scandinavian ancestry. At least none we know about).

 

The final section of the museum that we saw was probably Marcus’s favourite part, as it contained “The Map that Changed the World,” a 200 year old geological map drawn by the “father of English geology” William “Strata” Smith (good nickname). The label said that the map was covered by a roller blind, but as you can see, it was just sitting out in the open during our visit, though there was another map with a cloth over the top that you were allowed to lift to look at it. Not being a geology enthusiast, my favourite part was the poor taxidermed bear in one corner of the library.

 

Although it contained some interesting things, I don’t think I would have bothered seeing this museum if hadn’t got in for free. It wasn’t anything out of the ordinary from the average local history museum (though it is undoubtedly bigger than many, including the one I work at), and although I fully understand the importance of museum visits for the younger generations, the school children were quite loud and disruptive and I think they probably could have been encouraged to walk through the museum in a more orderly manner. 2.5/5 for the Yorkshire Museum, but our visit to York overall (intruder in our hotel room notwithstanding) was lovely. I’m definitely a fan of the potato scallop, which we don’t see down south (just a battered slice of potato – the veggie alternative to fish, at least at places too old school to have battered halloumi or tofu) and the cheap cheap Northern prices (60p for a giant potato scallop and free scraps? Yes please!) so I will undoubtedly return!

York: Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre was the only museum in York that I remember seeing on my first trip there (frankly, I’m not sure what we did the rest of the time, other than eat fudge), and given that I had it listed as one of my Favourite Places for quite a while, I was keen to return. But also a bit apprehensive, as they had apparently undergone a major redevelopment since my first visit, and typically that means a change for the worse. Apologies for the poor photos throughout this post, as the whole bloody museum was too dark.

 

Admission is £12.50 for adults, and they recommend booking a Fast Pass in advance, which is an extra £1. We did this, but if you’re visiting at an off time, it really isn’t necessary. We were there on a Sunday morning, which was pretty dead, but weekdays look to be very busy, so it might be worth getting the Fast Pass if that’s the only time you can visit. All this talk of Fast Passes probably makes it sound a bit like an amusement park, and well, it does have a ride, which is the reason I loved it so much on my first visit. Upon entering, you go into a gallery that has the ruins of a Viking house under the floor, with a guy dressed as a Viking giving a short talk about it. The Vikings invaded York in 866 CE and renamed the city Jorvik, and then proceeded to settle and live there for over a century, though the people who settled there were not the warriors most people picture when they hear the word Viking, but were ordinary farmers and craftspeople (of which more shortly). This first gallery also had a fairly fun interactive game where you could virtually dig up an artefact and then choose the best way to clean and preserve it.

 

After playing the game, we headed straight for the thing I was most looking forward to: the ride! Now, this is a very sedate ride, so if like me, you suffer from motion sickness, there’s no need to worry! I would say it’s most akin to one of the more boring rides in EPCOT where you sit in a vehicle of the future learning about the year 2000 from the perspective of people in 1970. You climb into a little car thing (they have two rows of seats, and you’ll be seated next to whomever you come with, so you don’t have to worry about sitting next to a random person (I assume if you come alone, you get a bench to yourself)). There might be strangers in the other row of seats, but because they are tiered, you won’t have to really see or interact with them throughout the ride. Then you select your language (there are different English audio guides for adults and children, and having listened to them both, I would say the children’s one is much more interesting and informative), and the tour will play from speakers next to your head (I was told to mind my head on the speakers on the way in, so of course I immediately whacked my head against them. Maybe padded headrests would be a better idea?).

 

The car is then propelled through the Viking town of Jorvik, where you’ll meet some of its inhabitants. The children’s tour actually tells you their names and gives more of a back story, as it is told from the perspective of a child living in the town. The adult one is just a commentary describing the village, and is rather boring. The guy drones on and on and won’t shut up. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of Jorvik, who are animatronic figures, are moving around doing whatever their assigned task is (trying to pull a slave off a boat, making cups (the street the museum is on is named Coppergate because of all the cup makers. I assume cop meant cup), pooping – there’s a wide range!) and speaking Norse, which you can really only hear on the children’s tour, because the dry boring adult tour guide just blathers on without pause.

 

Obviously, I am all about these animatronic figures, especially the animals (there’s a dog, cats, pigs, and even rats), particularly my favourite, the pooping man (you don’t actually see him poop, you just see his upper half as he sits in an outhouse). Now, here is an example of where the tour has changed for the worse. I’m pretty sure that the first time we visited, the audio tour actually translated whatever the townspeople were saying, and when it got to the pooping man, it said something like, “Leave me alone! Can’t you see I am pooping?” Clearly this was the best thing ever, and I was dying to get to the pooper to hear it. But now, you either get boring man just talking right through it and basically ignoring pooping man, or the little kid going, “oh, he seems busy, so let’s leave him alone.” Lame! Why would you get rid of a poop joke?

 

Other than that disappointment, the figures seemed more or less the same, and I still enjoyed myself, so much so that after we got off the ride, we got right back on and did it again! I’m not sure if this is officially allowed, but if you follow the signs through the museum to the toilets, it takes you back to the start of the ride, and the people ahead of us also rode twice and the guy working there recognised them and seemed totally OK with it, so if they’re not busy, I don’t think they really care. This is how I was able to listen to both tours, and learned I preferred the children’s version. I would also recommend sitting in a different tier of seats if you ride twice, because we were able to see things from the front row of seats that we couldn’t from the back, and vice versa.

 

Having got the ride out of my system, we then proceeded through the museum, which seemed a bit more high tech than our first visit, and with a different layout, but otherwise more or less the same as I remembered. Since you’re probably not sick of hearing about poop yet, you should know that there is an actual Viking turd in the museum, and that is fortunately still proudly on show! There are also various other Viking artefacts and some skeletons, along with a brief explanation of Viking culture, but it all seems rather bland compared to the ride. I think this is their attempt to make it a serious historical attraction, but it feels half-assed at best (also all staff members have to wear Viking clothing, which makes me feel a bit bad for them. It would be fun to do it once in a while, but not every day!).

 

So I’m sorry to report that the ride is no longer quite the hilarious experience I fondly remembered, but it is still entertaining…as long as you opt for the children’s audio guide! I think they should give up on selling a museum that is essentially a ride with a gallery tacked on as serious history, and go back to a more whimsical audio tour, as more befits the animatronics. On my first visit, I would definitely have given it 4/5 (had I had a blog with a ratings system at the time) but now I think it’s at best 3/5. Just embrace the cheese, Jorvik!

 

Oslo: The Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum

The other museum on Museum Peninsula (properly called Bygdøy) that was keeping me from my much-needed dinner was the Viking Ship Museum (actually, there are even more museums on the peninsula, including the Maritime Museum, but three ship museums was probably enough for one day). To be honest, I wasn’t that bothered about seeing the Viking Ship Museum, having already seen Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, and not being super interested in the Vikings at the best of times, and certainly not when I was tired, hangry, and pissed off about missing lefse, but Marcus wanted to see it, and I thought we might as well go when we were already on Museum Peninsula rather than having to make a special trip back.

 

Admission to the museum is 100 kr (or free with the Oslo Pass), and includes a ticket to the Historical Museum that is valid for 48 hours (confusingly, both the Viking Ship Museum and the Historical Museum are run by the Cultural History Museum, which is apparently not the same thing as the Norwegian Cultural History Museum, aka the Folkemuseum). Like almost every museum in Oslo, the Viking Ship Museum will eventually be moving to a new site, but that isn’t happening until 2025, and the museum is still fully open at its current site. It looks like the new museum will try to give a comprehensive history of the Viking Age, whilst the current museum is pretty much just about the ships. And despite the singular in the name, it is ships plural – three of them.

 

I was so past being done at this point that I basically walked around all the ships, and then sat down whilst Marcus took photos (as seen above). Other than the ships, the museum had some Viking artefacts in it, and it looked nicely laid out and labelled in English, albeit not terribly interactive. Although the ships here are in a much better state of preservation than the ones in Roskilde, Roskilde’s Vikingeskibsmuseet was definitely more fun, what with the dressing up and ship rides on offer. Since I only gave Roskilde 2.5/5, the Viking Ship Museum will have to be 2/5.

  

We also went (on a different day, thankfully!) to the Historical Museum, which is (you guessed it!) currently undergoing renovations (as you might be able to tell from the false façade stuck on the front), so only a small portion is currently open to the public. This included a temporary exhibition called “Collapse: Human Beings in an Unpredictable World,” a gallery on the Sami, and another on the Vikings, called VIKINGR.  From its name, I assumed “Collapse” would be mainly about climate change and ecological collapse, and there was some of that, but it seemed more like a general ethnographic exhibit, with a lot of artefacts from Oceania.

 

The Sami gallery was interesting, but fairly similar to what we’d seen at the Folkemuseum. At least everything here had an English translation, unlike the other ethnographic gallery about the native peoples of the Americas. However, I could see this sort of thing any time at the British Museum, so I wasn’t all that put out by not being able to read it.

 

Finally, there was VIKINGR, which was clearly redone relatively recently, and had a rather spartan feel, with loads of plain glass cases stuck in the middle of a somewhat bare room. The Cultural History Museum is known for having the only intact Viking helmet in the world, as seen above, which I guess is cool, but it’s just a helmet much like other helmets I’ve seen. The rest of the exhibition mainly consisted of swords and jewellery, with a skull or two thrown in. Eventually, this collection will be moved over to the new Viking Age Museum along with the Viking ships, which is perhaps why they didn’t appear to have spent much money doing up the space it’s in now.

 

In conjunction with VIKINGR, there was a small display of contemporary art inspired by the Vikings, primarily using the theme of migration (not so much the raping and pillaging). This was probably the most enjoyable part of the museum for me – I really liked all those silhouetted heads (sil-you-ette, as Bert the chimney sweep would say), which you were encouraged to move back and forth by their wooden dowels. There was also a collage, and the mysterious upside-down “Visas and Green Cards” neon sign (there was definitely more of an explanation on the label, but I can’t remember what it was).

 

I would not have paid to see this museum in its current, much downgraded state (the building is clearly huge and gorgeous, but only a fraction of it is currently being utilised due to the renovations), but it was free with the Oslo Pass and included with the Viking Ship Museum ticket, and it helped us to escape a torrential downpour (and had lockers to put our bags in, since we were headed to the bus station immediately after. Yes, bus. The train lines to Gothenburg were all down, so we had the fun of a four hour bus ride there instead. Not ideal for someone who gets motion sickness as badly as I do, since all I could do was stare out the window trying not to puke. In retrospect, we probably should have researched this trip better). 1.5/5 in its current state. By the way, please don’t think this is the end of Oslo – I’m skipping around a bit because both these museums had a Viking theme, so it made sense to combine them – there’s still lots more to come!

Roskilde, Denmark: Viking Ship Museum (Vikingeskibsmuseet)

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Even though the Vikings aren’t really my thing, I couldn’t leave Denmark without visiting at least one Viking-related attraction.  Enter the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, with its collection of (you guessed it!) Viking ships, both originals and re-creations.  Like every other museum (and everything else) in Denmark, it is eye-wateringly expensive at DKK 115 (I mean really, 14 quid to look at a handful of ships?!) but we were so accustomed to high prices at this point that we didn’t even question it.  In fairness to them, the paper wristband was a lovely shade of blue that complemented my eyes, so I did get something for my money.

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The Vikingeskibsmuseet (the Danish sounds way cooler than Viking Ship Museum) is mostly outside, which I suppose is why they offer a discount during the long Scandinavian winter months. They seemed to offer a lot of outdoor activities for children, but for adults, there wasn’t much to do other than wander around looking at the workshops and reading the signs explaining how the ships were constructed.  Regular readers will know that I love a pun, but I’m also partial to a good simile.  Therefore, I was happy as a sandboy to learn the expression “like larch on oak” which is apparently so commonly used in Denmark that they didn’t bother to offer an English equivalent, so I simply throw it into conversation whenever it seems appropriate (example: macaroni and cheese go together like larch on oak).  Anyway, I discovered larch on oak via a sign attached to an oak tree, one of many small potted trees sitting around to demonstrate the types of wood used in Viking ship construction.

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I did clamber aboard one of the ships in the harbour, which was no easy task as there were no steps, and the edge was quite high.  From May-September, you can actually ride aboard one, but it costs DKK 80 more, and I think they only offer one trip a day.  I got my fill of pretending to be a Viking simply by sitting on the boat, and at least that way, I didn’t have to help row (as you do on the boat trips) which is probably for the best as I am rubbish at that sort of thing (I reached this conclusion after spending an afternoon at camp constantly bumping into the side of the lake in my canoe.  This was the same three day camp where I realised I hated horse riding.).

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We’d killed all the time we could outside, so it was time to head into the building where the five original ships were kept.  The Skuldelev ships date back to the 11th century, when they were used to form a blockade in a channel of Roskilde Fjord (Roskilde was then the capital of Denmark).  They were excavated in 1962, and have been preserved and re-assembled in the museum; by studying them, historians have been able to reproduce the modern versions of them that are found in the museum’s harbour.

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All this is very well, and the history behind them is interesting, but when you get down to it, you are just staring at the skeletons of ships.  This is probably why I could never get into ancient history – I like stuff that still looks like something.  Though once again, my lack of cultural appreciation is not really the Viking Ship Museum’s fault.  The hall they’re displayed in is slightly too spartan and barrack-like for my tastes, but I was fascinated by the posters at the back of the museum, which included an incredibly brutal description of human sacrifice and gang rape (basically, you did NOT want to be a slave girl in Viking culture).  A gallery downstairs told the story of reconstructing the ships, but it was so packed with people that there was scarcely room to look around.

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I am, however, inclined to invest in a Viking cape, which I found in a room at the end of the ship hall, as I think I looked rather fetching (and ’twas very warm, so could provide a stylish alternative to my ratty old bathrobe). In addition to trying on Viking clothing, you could also practice writing your name in runes, or watch an interminable video of ship life, seemingly guaranteed to induce sea sickness (hey, maybe that’s the secret of the sea sickness you can experience at the Grimsby Fishing Heritage Centre!).  They had some cute Vikingy knick-knacks in the shop, but alas, no suitable capes.

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Though I wasn’t completely enamoured with the Viking Ship Museum, it did do what it said on the tin – albeit at an inflated admission price.  I think it may be slightly more entertaining for children (assuming they’re fluent in Danish) as they did seem to have a lot of interactive things going for them.  Probably best for people who are into the Vikings, or ships, obviously.  2.5/5

Copenhagen, Denmark: National Museum of Denmark (Nationalmuseet)

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I think the National Museum of Denmark was way too big for me to thoroughly review it without stretching into 5000+ words, so I’m going to do my best to give an overview, and some highlights (and still go way over 1000 words, nuts to brevity!).  The Nationalmuseet is on a scale similar to that of the National Museum of Scotland, and probably most other national museums in countries where the collections aren’t divided up into individual museums for art, antiquities, social history, etc.  Really we should have allowed two days for it, but all the museums in Denmark are closed on Mondays, and Tuesday was our last day in Copenhagen, so we had no choice but to cram it all into one exhausting afternoon.

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The first thing we noticed, thanks to the banners hanging outside, was that there was a temporary viking exhibition on (they always have viking stuff, but this particular exhibit is only on until November).  Entrance to the museum, and Viking (as the exhibition is so eloquently called, which makes me want to insert an exclamation mark after it) is free, but admittance to is by timed ticket, so be sure to pick one at the admissions desk when you arrive to ensure you get a slot. We had about 45 minutes to kill before Viking(!) so thought we’d pop into the Middle Ages and Renaissance collections, not realising that the gallery just went on and on and on, and once you got sucked in, it was a long way back to the exit.

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Most of it was the sort of stuff you’d expect: religious art (see Sad Jesus being sad above), suits of armour, and fancy furniture, but a few things stood out.  The tiny coffin above was pretty awesome; there was even a wax worm crawling out of the corpse’s nose!  I really liked the replicas of typical rooms in various kinds of early modern households.  They also had a few remaining artefacts from the Kunstkammer belonging to one of the King Christians (I have no recollection of which one it was, sorry!) which the catalyst for the foundation of the Nationalmuseet.

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Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to give most of the galleries more than a cursory glance, as it was past time to enter Viking(!), which was in an extremely dark room on the second floor.  I didn’t get to play the Viking(!) game, as the guide was taking forever to explain it to the people in front of me, and I got sick of waiting, so I don’t know whether that would have enhanced my experience, but I wasn’t that impressed.  It was basically just a random scattering of objects with descriptions that I didn’t really get to read, as the other people in there were hogging the touchscreens (and I always get slightly annoyed when signs are all on a special screen, instead of having a plaque on each object). The best part was writing a message on a special “rock” with runes (it is my Viking name, which I have decided is Jessica the Surly.  You’ll probably agree it’s apt), but I still much preferred the permanent collections, and ended up wishing we had skipped Viking(!) and devoted more time to them.  Oh well.

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The Nationalmuseet had a tonne of ethnographic collections, but it seemed similar to stuff I could see at the British Museum, and my feet were killing me, so we skipped it in favour of Danish history.  “Stories of Denmark,” which dominates the second floor, seemingly contains something on every aspect of post-1600 Danish history.  It was another giant gallery, with maze-like hallways that wound off in random directions, so I’m  not convinced we saw the entire thing, but that didn’t seem possible without backtracking.  I don’t know much about Danish history, but this exhibit made it seem similar to much of the rest of Northern Europe, except most of the kings were called Christian, and one of them seemed to have abnormally huge eyes, or a terrible portraitist.

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There was a small collection of torture implements hidden in one corner, and other interesting bits strewn throughout, though as I said, I was genuinely quite glad to have the opportunity to learn more about Danish history anyway.  For example, I learned that they had a revolution of sorts in 1848, which led to the creation of their first constitution, and also influenced the production the excellent chamberpot shown below.  Not that I condone violence against the nobility, but the verse under the picture translates to, “Both traitors to be sure, so on you Danish piss we pour.” Ok, it’s not the most amazing rhyme (it probably sounds better in Danish), but it’s funny nonetheless.

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It was quite gratifying to see an Aebleskiver pan amongst the collections.  I know they’re a big thing in certain parts of America (not Cleveland though, we’re not really known for our Danish population), but Americans have a knack for taking the best, most fattening dishes from other countries, that are only eaten on special occasions in their country of origin, and turning them into everyday things (I’m not knocking it, it is what it is, and American paczki are FAR superior to Polish ones), so it was nice to see that Danish people do actually eat aebleskiver, even just at Christmas.  Wasn’t really helpful on my quest to eat some, but still.

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Though they’re best known as the inventors of Lego, the Danes do seem to love all toys, and the museum had a special toy gallery, with a rather good dollhouse collection. They were all open at the back, so you could peek behind to see the interiors.  The toys only took up two rooms, and then we found ourselves back into Danish social history, this time 20th century.  I put some Elvis on the jukebox as a nice soundtrack for walking around the rest of the gallery, which included a mock hashish hut like the ones you’ll find in Christiania (with authentic smells!).  I’m pretty positive we took a picture of it, but now I can’t find it.  Sorry.

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I was incredibly hungry and cranky at this point, as I’d only had two small cinnamon rolls for breakfast, but my boyfriend had heard they had a noteworthy longship in the permanent Viking collections, so we trudged through the entire ground floor to get to it (turns out we could have gone in from the opposite direction, but we didn’t realise that until after).  I saw a lot of Viking ships on this trip, so I don’t think it particularly stood out, but I was SUPER cranky.  (In fairness to me, it was my birthday, so I think I was entitled to be a bit of a brat.  I don’t know what my excuse is the rest of the time.)  We totally skipped over Danish pre-history and classical antiquities, so I can’t comment on them.

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I think the moral of the story here may be that if you want to take advantage of all the Nationalmuseet has to offer, give yourself at least two afternoons there, and take snack breaks!  Even though I wasn’t in the best mood, it was undeniably a very nice museum, and everything had an English caption in addition to the Danish one.  If you only have a short time to spend there, I think “Stories of Denmark” or the Renaissance galleries are the way to go, depending on your interests (I’m sure the Viking gallery is good as well, but there are loads of Viking museums all throughout Denmark, so I preferred to devote my time to lesser known eras of Danish history).  4/5

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Kali…Kali Ma!!!!