Reykjavík

Laugardalur Tjaldsvæði (campsite) in Reykjavík is a bit of a hike from the centre, but it has two things going for its location, and I knocked them both off the list the same afternoon I arrived.  There is the massive public swimming pool Laugardalslaug, where a soak in the hot pools and a swim are a great way to recover after a hard day’s travelling.  And there is the Reykjavik Botanical Garden, which I had also visited on my previous visit, but which was on much better form now in mid August than it had been in late April.

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Laugardalur

It is a beautiful spot, and the perfect antidote to a day spent among the barren lava flows and mud pools of Reykjanes Peninsula or the busy streets of Reykjavík.  In the outer area flowery bushes line the perimeter fence, and little groves of trees line paths that run either side of a series of duck ponds, ending in a rockery.  Through another fence the garden gets serious, with more trees, shrubs and flowers of every kind organised by family and geographical origin, and in the farthest corner more rockeries and an extensive area of raised beds full of flowers.  The flowers were at their best on that sunny afternoon, and there were just enough families out enjoying the garden to give it a holiday atmosphere without it feeling crowded.  Tucked away behind a wooden office building I was particularly pleased to find a very extensive rhubarb collection – somebody obviously had good taste.

Reykjavik Botanical Garden

Reykjavik Botanical Garden

It is interesting how desirable a place the partially wooded valley around the Botanical Garden has become in the artificial world of modern Reykjavík, though I didn’t appreciate the tragic poignancy of this until I visited the museum ‘871±2’ the next day.  The name 871±2 is a reference to a thin archaeological layer of volcanic ash from a large eruption at some time in that five-year window.  It is known as the settlement layer because it is simultaneous with the earliest archaeological signs of human inhabitation on Iceland.  It can therefore be used to date the first buildings in Iceland fairly accurately, depending on whether the ash traces of the layer are found below or above the structure being excavated.  The museum is entirely below modern street level and has been carefully constructed around an excavation of a real longhouse built in about the year 930 AD, the remains of which are actually fairly comparable with its less celebrated uncle in Hafnir.

871±2

871±2

The longhouse, or rather its stone foundation wall, forms the centrepiece of the museum, brought to life by a clever optical trick that makes it looks like there are actual flames burning in the central hearth.  To one side a section of wall that just predates the ash layer demonstrates that it was a site in occupation for several generations at the very least.  Panels in the museum wall set the scene of the original settlement with descriptions and illustrations of landscape, nature, and the human activities of the settlers.  Particularly interesting is the assertion that the hills around Reykjavík were originally covered with birch woods.  The woods were all destroyed in the first hundred years of occupation for grazing, burning, and charcoal production, which must have been devastating to the local economy – a lesson we now seem to insist on learning all over again on a global scale.  And in Reykjavík of course it means our instinctive gravitation towards more natural environments has required the artificial recreation of an ancient wooded landscape around the lake Tjörnin, and around and in the Botanical Garden.

I spent my time in Reykjavík wandering the streets and visiting the other saga-related museums, and was left with a more favourable impression of the city than my first visit had given me – though I was still horrified that streets like these could be named for some of the greatest heroes of Iceland’s literary golden age:

Skarphédinsgata

Skarphédinsgata

 

... and Skarpheðin as depicted outside the lively Saga Museum at Perlan.

… and Skarpheðin as depicted outside the lively Saga Museum at Perlan.

After a night at the campsite, two nights in a youth hostel in the centre gave me a chance to reread the sagas from the areas I would be travelling to next.  I also found a solution to the eternal problem of hearing any Icelandic in a city where you are always identified as a tourist and addressed in English before the shop or café door has even closed.  This is the 11am Sunday service at the magnificent Hallgrimskirkja, where an hour of flowing spoken and sung Icelandic seems too short a time, even if you don’t understand a word of it!  It is a beautiful language to read and to listen to, and all the more interesting for its antiquity.  It must be one of the least changed modern languages in the last thousand years, at least in Europe.  Though the pronunciation has no doubt changed greatly, much of the vocabulary is the same the Vikings used, and one can readily imagine the settlers of the ninth century, and indeed the Anglo-Saxons in England, speaking in much the same way, with liberal scatterings of ‘eth’ and ‘thuh’ sounds.

Hallgrimskirkja

Hallgrimskirkja

After two days of museums, saga reading, another swim (this time in my preferred Vesturbæjarlaug west of the centre) and two nights of good sleep, on the Tuesday morning after my arrival I was finally both ready and eager to begin my journey proper; my first destination was Kjalarnes and the dramatic mountain range of Esja.

Kjalarnes and Esja beyond Reykjavík's most iconic statue.

Kjalarnes and Esja beyond Reykjavík’s most iconic statue.

... and the same view 18 months earlier in April sunshine.

… and the same view 18 months earlier in April sunshine.

Reykjanes Peninsula

It was with a determination to find this mysterious Iceland of the sagas that I landed at Keflavík airport late one Friday night in mid August.  My head was full of Laxdæla saga after reading it on the flight, and my rucksack was full of more sagas, a copy of Lonely Planet, a road atlas, a bird guide, a few changes of clothes, some emergency food, and a warm but bulky sleeping bag.  Strapped to the outside was my tent, and I was going to need it very soon, because I knew all the hostels in Reykjavík were fully booked until Sunday.  So I ignored the buses outside the airport and set off on foot into the night.

With hard walking and a very lucky lift I arrived not too long after midnight at a campsite on the very northwesternmost tip of Reykjanes Peninsula, outside the little town of Garður.  The campsite lay right up against the sea, between the old and the current lighthouse, and the few other tents on the site were mostly positioned along a thick sea wall of large rocks for shelter.  It was windy and cold, and I wondered how my limited wardrobe would cope in several weeks time in the north of the country, with conditions this bad here in the south in mid August.  It was still very cold the next morning when I got up at six, but as the sun came up the temperature improved and the clouds rolled away, leaving a beautiful day behind them.

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Garður Campsite – mountains of west coast in distance

I walked several kilometres back through Garður and along the road towards Keflavík; there was no traffic except for jeeps with golf buggies on trailers heading the other way.  A couple of hundred metres over the bare moorland to the northeast the coastline ran parallel to the road, while on the other side the moor stretched away to the horizon.  It was punctuated by occasional low ridges and patches of some thriving green plant that looked suspiciously like an invasive weed, but was for the most part bleak and bare except for moss and a thin scattering of struggling grass.  My attention was caught by a large number of wooden frames standing a short distance away on my right, which I guessed were for drying fish on.

Fish drying along Krysuvík - Reykjavík road

Fish drying along Krysuvík – Reykjavík road

This was the first indication of a traditional industry that could have supported life on this peninsula before the Modern Age.  The fields around Garður, such as they were, all had horses in rather than cows or sheep or pigs, and the Icelander who drove me to Hafnir on the west coast of Reykjanes pointed out his dozen horses in a field on the edge of Hafnir.  What did he use them for? “Riding,” he replied.  In the rest of Europe this might seem pretty excessive, but in Iceland keeping horses has little to do with post-industrial prosperity; for many it is a natural part of life.  Reference to almost any medieval saga reveals that despite the strong association we have with vikings and the sea, the early Icelanders were effectively a horse culture.

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Horses outside Garður

Horses were used all the time for travel and shepherding, for popular entertainment by making stallions fight at prearranged gatherings, and sometimes they fulfilled a spiritual or religious role as well.  In the saga named for him the chieftain Hrafnkel is set on a dramatic course of ups and downs after killing a servant boy who had ridden without permission his prize stallion, which he had dedicated to the god Frey.  This obsession with horses seems to have survived ever since, and in fields and on hillsides all over Iceland you will see countless Icelandic horses, a breed they protect fiercely, and which as a result is more or less unchanged from its early medieval ancestors.

Hafnir has a more tangible survival from the settlement period in the form of a partially excavated longhouse from about the year 900.  It is one of a few pieces of evidence for medieval occupation of this bleak corner of the countryside, another being a reference to a journey around Reykjanes taken by a family of beggars in the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm.  However, the poor land quality and exposed coastline must have meant that it was always a region where few people lived, and the land becomes even less hospitable beyond Hafnir, where I headed next.

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Partially excavated longhouse, Hafnir

In the world of tourism Reykjanes Peninsula is famous (apart from the Blue Lagoon) for its bubbling mud pools and steaming springs, the most dramatic of which are at Gunnuhver in the far southwestern corner, and Krysuvík, where a turning off the coastal road eventually leads cross country back to the main road into Reykjavík.  I spent the next few hours visiting these sites and the sea cliffs beyond Gunnuhver, and arrived footsore, tired, and happy, in Reykjavík late that afternoon.  I will let photos describe that journey, and you will have to imagine the sulphurous reek and ferocious steaming and bubbling sounds of the mud pools.

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Meeting of European and American continental plates, south of Hafnir.

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Cliffs at southwestern tip of Iceland.

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Cratre, Valahnúkur

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Boiling mud pools at Gunnuhver

South coast of Reykjanes, outside Grindavík

South coast of Reykjanes, outside Grindavík

Boiling mud, Séltún (Krysuvík).

Boiling mud, Séltún (Krysuvík).

Steaming stream, Séltún

Steaming stream, Séltún

Icelandic horses in upland meadow, Krysuvík

Icelandic horses in upland meadow, Krysuvík

Searching for Iceland

The first time I travelled to Iceland I flew in over the Reykjanes peninsula during the day, so that my first impression from the plane window was of a terribly bleak and desolate landscape, an impression that the bus journey from the airport to Reykjavík seemed to confirm.  I was mistaken, however, to think that these vast lava flows and barren moorland were the essence of Iceland.  But how many visitors come to Iceland and never see anything more than this, stopping over for an afternoon to visit the Blue Lagoon, or perhaps for a night or two in Reykjavík?  How many tourists leave thinking Iceland is a wasteland punctuated only by the occasional stunning tourist attraction and by the sprawling city of Reykjavík?

I would guess that the single greatest category of foreign visitors is the visitor who is in the country for three or four days, and spends it in Reykjavík, leaving the city only to do a mandatory Golden Circle tour: a coach trip round Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss.  There is nothing wrong with this.  They will have a great time, and some of them may resolve to come back, because even on such a short visit the natural features make quite an impression.  But this is no more the essence of Iceland than the lava fields between Keflavík and the Blue Lagoon, though many of these visitors will undoubtedly make the mistake of thinking they have ‘seen Iceland’.  I know, because I made the same mistake, and I had a whole week to make it in.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss – the essence of Iceland?

I had two days in Reykjavík, and then spent a day hitchhiking round the Golden Circle, before continuing along the south coast.  I had three more days to race to Jökulsárlón, a spectacular glacier lake, in the southeast of the country, and back to Reykjavík.  They were three truly incredible days, and a major factor in my decision to return to Iceland just over a year later for a longer visit.  This journey along the south coast is probably the most common route for tourists going beyond the Golden Circle, and with good reason, as the waterfalls, cliffs, and glaciers it passes are truly stunning.  It is also a route which seems to confirm a first impression of Iceland as an exceptionally bleak country.  While the road first crosses the extensive grasslands of the Rangár district, these soon give way to hundreds of miles of washed out black sand, regularly reshaped by glacial floods and supporting a little grass only in those places that have for some time escaped these catastrophic interludes.  Just when the traveller thinks the landscape can get no bleaker or more inhospitable, the road hits a series of tremendous lava flows, mile after mile of twisted and lumpy rock supporting no life except a thick layer of moss.

Lava flow on south coast.

Lava flow on south coast.

When I left after my week’s visit I was amazed and appalled in equal measure.  I knew I would have to come back to explore more of the natural features of the landscape, but I could not understand how or why a people had come to settle this desolation in the first place.  Bleak as it seemed to me, how much worse must it have looked to settlers who knew their lives depended on making a living out of this harsh land?  To me it seemed a landscape divorced from its inhabitants – an easy conclusion to reach on the south coast, where there are in any case large areas with very few people living there at all.  I thought this alternately and often simultaneously beautiful but bleak landscape was essentially Iceland, but I was wrong.

Actually I did come closer to the real heart of the country when I walked out along a long dirt road to a tiny youth hostel in a narrowing lowland valley to the northwest of the famous glacier called Eyjafjallajökull.  On this little croft, with only a single staff member for company, the croft itself in the company of a single farm, there was a sense of peace, and of harmony with the landscape.  But I had to get back to Reykjavík the nest day, and so this brief experience of a human place in peaceful coexistence with the landscape was overwritten by more sandscapes, lava flows, and by the bustle of the Blue Lagoon, where I rounded off my trip that afternoon.  Iceland, I could declare on my return to Britain, is an unbelievably bleak place – beautiful, but no place to live.

However, as a student of the medieval Icelandic sagas, I could not escape the fact that for over eleven hundred years people had been living on this island.  And more than that, they had created, told, and written stories of all kinds that demonstrated their interactions with the landscape, showing that these people existed not in spite of the land, but with it and because of it.  My experience of Iceland made this difficult to understand, but there it was, demonstrated in forty medieval sagas and numerous other stories and folk tales, taking place in real locations all over Iceland, and all crying out that there was more to this country than waterfalls and lava.  So when I went back this summer I carried with me two kinds of guidebook.  I had an up to date Lonely Planet to lead me to more of the natural features that had so impressed me on my first visit, and in my rucksack I had a five-volume collection of the Icelandic family sagas, or Íslendingasögur.  These would be my guide to the landscape behind the landscape, the Iceland the settlers saw and lived in, visible now to foreigners only with the aid of these stories, but preserved also in the memories and national consciousness of the Icelanders themselves.  It is an Iceland that takes time and effort to discover, but it is an Iceland worth making the effort for.  It is the nature and the people, the history, and the literature of Iceland.  It is Iceland.

Gisli rock

Geirþjófsfjörður – a landscape with a story.