If you’re driving on the E16 from Oslo to Bergen, before you cross the mountains, you’ll drive through Vang. At first, it seems like it’s a convenient roadside stop, with cafes, shops and a petrol station. But there’s so much history here! As you approach the town, you’ll start seeing signs to “Vangsteinen” – the Vang Stone – a roadside attraction with a fascinating backstory. Park across the street from it, walk over the road and marvel at this ancient rune-stone.
This is exactly what we did on our road-trip through Norway in September 2020. I had heard about the stone before and had wanted to see it, and finally, I got my chance. It doesn’t disappoint, as doesn’t Vang. When I went online to learn a little about Vang, it surprised me just how much there is to see here. So, in this article, I’ve provided an overview of what you can see in Vang that’s historical. If you need somewhere to stretch your legs on the long drive, this is the place.
A Small Town with a Big Story
The word ‘vang’ comes from an old farm that stood here; this farm is also where the first church stood. Vang, like the rest of the Valdres Valley, was populated by migrants from Western Norway. People have lived in this valley (Vangr means meadow or field) for thousands of years. This is likely due to its proximity between east and west Norway. Vang is by a lake just before the mountain pass to Western Norway and thus made for a good rest stop.
When Norway was being Christianised, it was Olav the Holy who travelled and converted the villages. For example, in other towns in Valdres, he took the villagers boats and said he wouldn’t give them back until they became Christians. In other towns, he told the villagers: “You’ll become Christian, or I’ll kill you.” Nice guy! Today Olav the Holy is the Saint of Norway, so this method worked for him.
Vang became the site of a legal court (ting in Norwegian), and the ancient stave church was next to the site. The site was famously used by King Haakon VI in 1368 when he was settling a boundary dispute.
Vang became part of the ancient royal road between Bergen and Oslo. In the 16th century, it was the postal road, and from the 18th century, it was Kongevegen. Kongevegen was the first road for horse and cart between East and West, and I’ve covered it on my page for the E16. Today, the highway follows the same path as Kongevegen. Still, the town and nearby area became a place where travellers would seek refuge at some point on their journey. Vang also had many churches that proved useful to travellers, which we’ll get to soon.
The Vang Stone (Vangsteinen)
Okay, so let’s get to the most famous monument in Vang: the Vang Stone. It’s a runestone from sometime around the year 1000. The consensus is that it was erected to signify early Christianity in the region. The Vang Stave Church (I’ll get to it below) stood next to the Vang stone, which further indicates religious importance. On top of the stone is a lion. Some think it represents Norway’s coat of arms, while others think it represents one of the creatures in the pagan religion.
On the side of the stone it says: “Gåses søner reiste denne steinen etter Gunnar, brorsonen sin”, or “Gåse’s sons erected this stone after Gunnar, his nephew”.
Fun fact: In Norway, students learn to read runes.
Who was Gåse? No one knows. Some think it may be the church or king’s representative, or maybe Gunnar’s death is significant in Norway’s religious history? Maybe Olav got to him? There is a farm further down the E16 called Steinsvoll; it used to be called Gåsedelen. Some think the name came from there, and that the farm may have been a church estate.
The story of Christianity in Valdres is well-known for being violent and dramatic and is in Snorre’s sagas. Yet, Snorre doesn’t mention any names or places. The Vang stone is the most important object that tells us something about Christianity in Valdres. Sadly, research is lacking in the subject. In 2019, the Valdres newspaper commented on this, pushing for a renewed interest in understanding the stone.
A Healing Church in the Mountains
There are many churches in Valdres. Close to Nystua, one of the old Kongevegen lodges is St. Thomas på Filefjell. The name comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett, who was killed in 1170 and declared a saint.
This church was a stave church, and the travellers between east and west would stop there. Once a year, on the 2nd of July, the priest would preach there. People came from all over to attend this service. After all, it was believed they could get cures for their ailments as the splinters from the church timber had miraculous powers. Eventually, a market took place near the church. At this market horses were traded, races took place, there was a lot of drinking and a lot of fighting. The market gained such a bad reputation that the church was torn down in 1808. A new church now stands on the site – it’s from 1971 – but it is nowhere near as charismatic as a stave church.
Where is the Vang Stave Church?
As mentioned above, a stave church stood next to the Vang Stone. The church may be from around the same time as Høre and Lomen (1170-1190), but others think it is from around 1300. The site was religiously important, as indicated by the stone. The stave church may have been rebuilt after the Black Death.
We know very little about the stave church while it was in use, but we know about the drama it caused in the 19th century. The locals didn’t want it anymore. It was small and falling apart, and they wanted a much larger and grander church. The painter Johan Christian Dahl, considered one of the most important national romantic painters of Norway, loved the stave church and did everything in his power to save it.
First, he tried to get it preserved as a cultural monument in Christiania (Oslo) or Bergen, but they didn’t want it. At this time, around 1840, stave churches were not cool or important. Dahl had a friend, Crown Prince (later King) Frederick William IV of Prussia, and he knew he’d want the church. So, after the exchange of several letters, Dahl convinced Frederick to buy the stave church.
They dismantled Vang Stave Church around 1842 and transferred to Silesia, now Karpacz in the Karkonosze mountains of Poland. It’s still standing, though heavily renovated to look more like a stave church. If you ever find yourself in Poland you can visit it.
The church looked like the other stave churches in Valdres. But, the Høre and Lomen stave churches had a raised roof above the central part of the nave, while the stave churches in Vang and Øye had ordinary saddle roofs.
Behind the Vang Stone is the Vang Church. It is from 1840 and stood immediately next to the unloved stave church. After the stave church was torn down, the Vang Stone was moved from its original place to stand in front of the Vang Church, where you can see it today.
The Practical Bits
Vang is on the European Highway 16 between Bergen and Oslo, just before/after the mountains depending on the direction you’re going. It’s at the top of the Valdres Valley, a beautiful region known for its stave churches and old farms.
Where to Go
To the north of Vang is the Jotunheimen National Park, a famous park for hiking or skiing. To the west of Vang is the Filefjellet mountains, which you cross between east and west Norway. Filefjellet isn’t as dramatic as Jotunheimen, but it’s more accessible year-round. The highway through it means there are many places to stop to eat or spend the night.
The European Highway 16 is open year-round unless there’s a massive storm or blizzard.
Where to Stay
There are some campgrounds in Vang, and in the mountains, you’ll find hotels or AirBNB cabins. I recommend spending the night in Fagernes. They have a huge hotel and fantastic open-air museum you need to visit.
There is a huge petrol station, Yx, with bathroom facilities and hot and cold food options. You’ll find a grocery store (Coop Prix) in town.
If you want to park your car and walk around, there’s a large parking lot across the highway from the Vang Stone.
Tell me what you think!
As you can see, Vang is more than a town to fill up the petrol before crossing the mountains. It has a story, a unique history, and some great monuments to see. Take the time to explore this cute little town before continuing your journey.
If you have done this drive or have any questions for me, let me know in the comments.