Since we were only spending one day in Reykjavik, and since jet lag makes a hotel more utilitarian than luxury, we opted to stay at the Reykjavik City Hostel. It’s a little outside of town (about 30 minutes walking), but the bus comes by every 10 minutes, and as previously mentioned, a really wonderful city swimming pool is right next-door.

Let me say that the Reykjavik Hostel is simply one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed in. It’s a little out of the way as far as the local action goes, but it’s well run, immaculate, has great facilities, and affordable.

So let’s just get this all out right now: Iceland is a very expensive country. Off season, in the winter, in the middle of nowhere-it’s still really expensive. When you enter the country, just be prepared to hand over not only your passport, but the number of your bank account. Don’t worry, you receive very nice things and services for your cash, but just be prepared is all I’m saying.

We awoke the next day to what would mark our daily breakfast routine for the rest of the trip. In an American hotel, you get what is called a “Continental Breakfast” which usually amounts to stale, sticky, too-sweet pastries, bad coffee, questionable fruit and juice. The complimentary spread at the hostel was a sight to behold: 4 varieties of local breads, pots of jam and preserves, muesli and other types of cereals, hard-boiled eggs, varieties of cold cuts of meat, pickled herring, creamed herring, and some other fish treatment I am at a lost to describe. The coffee comes out a vended type machine, the likes of which you will see all over the country in many makes and models, and if you prefer cream with your cup of joe, you better get used to milk. But if there is one thing you simply must experience in the breakfast routine, it is this: the butter. It’s incredible. It’s like crack, or what I assume crack would be like with its purported addictive properties. I couldn’t get enough of it the entire trip. So aside from the a well-ordered city, great museums, and insanely good butter, you must also give due to the Icelanders for their breakfast spread. Seriously good stuff.

We rented a car for our western adventure and while Iceland seems to be land of the Toyota Yaris, which we actually tried to rent since we own one, we instead received a manual Ford Focus sedan with a serious set of snow tires. This means Sailor Man drives the entire trip because I suck at driving a stick.

We headed north out of Reykjavik, around Mt. Esja and on to a town called Borganes. The weather wasn’t looking promising so we got under way as soon as a possible. A fairly uneventful car ride, notable only for the terrifically cool 6 kilometer long tunnel we drove through under a fjord, and the fact the road we were driving on is considered the most dangerous road in Iceland. This was not a fact known to me before we commenced upon it. We encountered driving winds and white out conditions. So white, in fact, that we didn’t know there was the damn ocean not a hundred yards away until our return trip a few days later.

dragon.jpgWe were planning on stopping in Borganes, an hour north of Reykjavik that has an excellent Settlement Center and a number of sites relating to “Egil’s Saga”. There’s not much to Borganes except some service stations, hotels, and nondescript buildings of unknown purpose. But the town itself extends out on a neck land into the fjord and is in possession of some dramatic and gorgeous views. The highest point in town has a another wonderful and random public art installation of what we thought was probably a dragon overlooking the fjord and mountains across the water.

**note: double-clicking the pictures will expand them.

The Center also serves as a local cornucopia of tourist information and a gift shop. You have the option of three activities: the settlement exhibit, an artistic presentation of Egil’s Saga, or a theatrical interpretation of some matter on the upper most floor. We opted for the settlement exhibit and Egil’s Saga. We were issued an iPod shuffle set to English and headphones for guiding us through. It’s a little dry but contains some very interesting information about Iceland nonetheless. The second exhibit down in the basement is hands down one of the coolest darn things I’ve ever experienced. Sadly, no photography was allowed in the exhibit. You are guided through about 30 individual stations that retell the story of Egil and his family who actually lived in Borganes during the settlement period. Each station was designed and crafted by an Icelandic artist and I was simply enthralled. Aside from the story of Egil which is fascinating for its celebration of an ugly, foul-tempered, violent man prone to feats of the supernatural who happens to also be charming in his gift for the gab. Seriously, Egil needed a time out. A lot of them. But if you read the saga, Egil also composes some of the most beautiful poetry, particularly that poem he wrote regarding the loss of his two young sons. Overall, the exhibit is excellent, the individual pieces designed for the visual aspect of the exhibit are incredible. Go. Go. Go. Go…that is, if you happen to be in the area.

bracht-2.jpgWhat makes Egil’s Saga come to life so fully is the town of Borganes itself. You walk out and behind the Center and right there is where Egil’s Irish nanny, Bracht, was murdered in the fjord by Egil’s father, and further down the road is the cairn marking the tomb of Egil’s two sons, and over there is the tomb of Skalla-Grimur, Egil’s mean old man. The history is everywhere and pretty much in your face. I find it admirable and with great gratitude that the Icelander’s had the Dog-good sense not to mow their history down, pave it over, and build Disneyland on top of it. In such a small and isolated town, it’s easy to become very close to Egil’s story. Overall though, it’s hard to know how to define the sagas. Are they folk-tales? Myths? Histories? While they contain obvious acts of the fantastical, the sagas also contain a very real history of very real people.

We finished with the exhibits, had a great lunch at the center and then started out of town. Just before you encounter the main entrance road into Borganes, there stands a small park with dwarf birches and more cairns marking points of saga interest. I made Sailor Man pull over so we could walk through park as it had just snowed and we would be leaving the only footprints as we had the park to ourselves.

park.jpgA note about trees: you will not see many of them during your trip through Iceland. Iceland was completely deforested during the settlement period and the Vikings had no idea the environmental havoc they were creating. 1200 years later, and Iceland still only has 1% of tree cover (imagine this, a land mass the size of Pennsylvania with only 1% of that land having trees? damn.) and deals with the very serious environmental issue of soil erosion due to the lack of vegetation. Iceland on average plants 14 trees per person annually throughout the country, but trees grow more slowly than they do in the States and the success rate is small. So when you see a grove of trees there, do root them on, I’m sure they appreciate the encouragement.

Despite the weather not being particularly favorable, we headed an hour east from Borganes toward the village of Reykholt “smokey woods”. Reyholt is home to Snorrastofa, a center devoted to the medieval studies of Iceland and the history of Snorri Sturlson. Snorri is a truly a remarkable character in Icelandic history. A poet, a statesman, and reknowned historian, Snorri is credited compiling and writing down many of Iceland’s sagas which until such time had been passed down orally generation to generation. Poor Snorri, however, fell out of favor with the King of Norway and was assasinated in his fortress at Reykholt.

A magnificent church and center stands where Snorri’s fortress once stood. The church is located in one wing, the library is located in the opposing wing, and the exhibit for Snorri and medieval Iceland lives in the basement. We arrived one hour prior to closing in the middle of a snow storm and you can not imagine the surprise of the staff to see a young couple specifically arrive at Reykholt on a Friday afternoon, in the middle of winter, in the middle of a snow storm and American to boot. While roaming the exhibit in the basement, the priest of the Church happened upon us and we struck up a conversation.

Geir (forgive me, I didn’t get your last name and I hope I am spelling your first name correctly) is simply a lovely human being who was kind enough to take us on a tour of the entire facility: exhibit, church, and library. Geir is knowledgeable of all things Snorri. Additionally, he is wealth of information regarding medieval Iceland and told us stories and history you’d be hard-pressed to find on the walls of the exhibit, his knowledge is that deep. Plus, he is in possession of an elegant little snuffbox, the likes I haven’t seen since I was a little girl, which reminded instantly of one my mother’s cousins who used to tell my sibs and I stories of the Old Sod. I became oddly fixated on the snuffbox.

New fact I’ve learned about Icelanders: they can be as good at holding a grudge as the Irish. I like this immensely. Wrongs committed against ancestors nearly a millennia before is reason enough not to wish certain neighbors a good day should these deeds come up in polite conversation. I think this has something to do with how far Icelanders can trace back to their ancestors. One Icelander informed us he was 27 generations removed from one of Snorri Sturluson’s wives. And this was would be going back to the the 1200’s. I’m hard pressed to go back 400 years on just the maternal side of my family.

I gather Geir likes to talk and is deeply passionate about the center and his small parish, but that is okay, because Sailor Man and I like to listen. The tour of the church was particularly impressive as it is shamefully not mentioned in any tour book we have read and should be in its own right. There are four stain glass windows in each of the four walls and the artist’s layering of heathen Norse culture, early Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Icelandic culture is an eloquent piece of work. The fact that these magnificent windows were created by a painter and first time stain glass artist says a lot unto itself. The stain glass windows, which I am sorry to say were not able to be photographed due to time of day and the light.

But the entire center sums up another point I truly respect about a historic culture such as Iceland. They do not disregard their Viking past, just as they do not disregard their heathen or Catholic past, they remember all and incorporate all with great respect and effortlessness. And Geir, a priest no less, has an astounding intellect I could probe all day and in fact we almost did. 500 kronur was a small price for such a wonderful and enlightening afternoon.

snoris-pool.jpgWe parted with Geir and went in search of Snorri’s pool. The only remaining evidence of Snorri’s fortress 800+ years ago, is the tunnel from which he tried to escape his assassins and the geothermal pool he used to entertain. So past the school and down the hill and there you are. A door that leads to a tunnel that now leads nowhere, and the stone lined pool that appear terribly welcoming except for the fact that you know a former inhabitant was murdered just beyond the door.

As we stayed well beyond any reasonable time to set off and travel and further, we opted to stay the night in Reykholt. The Foss Hotel is “themed” hotel which by the mere sound of it should be cheesey as all get out and oddly, is not. The hotel is former boarding school and is a maze unto itself which is also a part of its charm. There’s a spa in the hotel and an emphasis on meditation with any number of rooms set aside for the purpose of reading, talking, chilling out, and or gazing into a fire. All with yummy chocolate colored leather furniture and heavy wood accouterments.

middle-earth.jpgSo here’s the fun part: each hallway in the hotel as “theme”. One hallway is dedicated to Old Norse Gods and Goddesses, another is dedicated to the intricate explanations of Old Norse planes of existence, another hallway is contains framed copies of viking comic books (dig it, it was cool) and the another to stamps featuring Old Norse figures. You get the idea. There was only two other rooms in the entire hotel booked for the evening and pretty much all of us spent the time wandering each of the halls examining the hangings.

Okay, odd fact confession: if you visit Iceland as a couple, be prepared that you will be entering Ricky & Lucy land. Ward & June’s abode. Mike and Carol’s tavern. By this, I mean separate, twin beds. No joke. We requested a “double” everywhere we went and that still meant twins beds. Sometimes pushed together, sometimes not. Any Icelander who comes across this, do please explain. I am most confused.

So we ended our night in Reykholt. The weather cleared, and the moon, just off full, came out around midnight. Sailor Man went out onto the grounds where the old church at Reykholt still stands and is now preserved. The graveyard was alight with crosses and and other luminous ornaments on the graves. It was explained to us later in the trip that it is a way of honoring and remembering the dead, that hey, winter is long and dark, have a little light…

churchmoon.jpg

Next Chapter: Valley of the Lax(Dolls)

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