Posted by: nmancini04 | August 25, 2011

Day 7: Welcome to Saga Country

One of the first things that drew me to Iceland was its literature. In college, I took a memorable course on Icelandic viking sagas — sweeping tales of heroes, rogues, kings, berserkers, vengeance and war. The west and northwest of Iceland is often called “Saga Country” and contains the sites of many of the most famous exploits from tales like Grettir’s Saga and Egil’s Saga. Hell, the hotel we’re staying in tonight is on a street called Egilsgata in the town of Borgarnes, which is steeped in tenuous saga “history.”

But the region is rich in historical significance of a firmer kind, as well. We had a long drive today, but we broke it up with a few stops at historic sites. At the last minute, Maggie and I decided to spend two nights in Borgarnes. There aren’t a lot of towns between Akureyri and Borgarnes that are good to stay in overnight, but it’s also an easier drive than to some of the places on the Snæfellsness peninsula. It’s close enough that we can still check out Snæfellsness tomorrow, but also close enough to Reykjavík that we can make it into the city early Friday morning to return our rental car. But that means we had to sacrifice more of the day than perhaps we’d wanted to the car. And we didn’t help ourselves either…

A morning in the gardens and the gas stations
I got up extra early this morning and headed to the Akureyri culture house to load photos and post yesterday’s entry. Once that was done, we decided to walk around Akureyri’s botanical garden. It was a pleasant way to spend the early morning, walking among many hued flowers and some of the first fully grown trees we’ve seen since we’ve been here. It was an extremely serene atmosphere…until someone fired up a weedwhacker on the nearby hospital lawn. But not before we had enjoyed the restful, plaintive surroundings for almost an hour and Maggie got her customary load of flower closeups.

A path in the Akureyri Botanical Garden...with actual trees

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

After that, it felt like we just could not get out of Akureyri. What was supposed to be a quick chat in the car to figure out which sites we wanted to hit and which town we wanted to stay in turned into 45 minutes of poring over the guidebook and the map. Once that was done, we botched filling up the gas tank. Then we got lost down by the docks of Akureyri after a wrong turn. Then we stopped to try (successfully this time) to fill up our tank once again. By the time we pulled out of Akureyri, it was 11 am. We had to give up one of our tentative sites and the cathedral at Hólar was voted out.


History Tour (and many churches)
After a long drive through the mountains west of Akureyri, our first stop on the road was at Glaumbær, the site of another set of historic turf houses. The site itself was originally settled in the Icelandic Settlement Period (roughly 870-930 AD) and the current buildings date back as far as 1750. It was another pretty homestead and in a beautiful location on a hill overlooking a lovely valley, although we didn’t go inside the buildings time.

The turf houses of Glaumbær

Me at Glaumbær



From Glaumbær, we headed north to the town of Sauðárkrókur to see the renowned stained-glass windows of the local church and because we’d read the town had some good lunch options. The lunch part was reasonably successful (Sauðárkrókur is known for its shrimp, but oddly our restaurant only had a few shrimp dishes — I had the shrimp pasta), but the church ended up being our first failure in Iceland. The door was locked, so we asked at the local tourist information center, where, strangely, we had our first real communication problem.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that everyone speaks English here. Icelandic is so difficult that they just assume nobody speaks it and tourism is so prevalent that practically every major sign — and certainly every restaurant menu we’ve seen — is written in both Icelandic and English. But the funny thing is that only a minority of the other tourists we’ve encountered are from English-speaking countries. We’ve seen far more French, German and Italian tourists than we have Americans or Brits. It’s an odd thing to hear a French couple ordering food or an Italian man asking for directions in English in a tiny town in Iceland, but those are daily occurrences here. So one would think that the fellow staffing a tourist information office would have a firm grasp of the language. Apparently not. But we gathered the church was closed. Why and for how long, we don’t know, but we couldn’t go inside to see the stained glass. It was fairly attractive from the outside, but we were pretty disappointed.

The locked church in Sauðárkrókur

On the way, we passed through the town of Blönduós, which was purported to have a pretty ugly church that was designed to look like a volcano. We didn’t stop to see it, but I did photograph it from the road. Both Maggie and I pronounced it “Not as terrible as advertised.”

The "volcano" church at Blönduós

We then passed close to Reykir, the site of Grettir’s Swim and the hot spring of Grettislaug, both sites from a prominent incident in Grettir’s Saga. But our destination was the historic site of Þingeyrar, which is notable for a number of reasons. First it was the site of a legislative assembly during Iceland’s Commonwealth Period (roughly 930-1264). Then it was the site of Iceland’s first monastery, founded in 1133 and lasting until the Reformation in 1550.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so many of Iceland’s historic sites, the older buildings and relics were gone long ago. Thankfully, a remarkable basalt stone church currently stands on the site. The Þingeyrakirkja was completed in 1877 and is interesting both outside and in, where it houses, among other items, a 15th century altarpiece with alabaster reliefs, a carved pulpit and a octagonal wooden baptismal, both from the late 17th century, and creepy, carved figurines of Christ and the Apostles. It ceiling was also done in an odd sky-and-stars motif, painted dark blue with yellow stars stuck on.

Þingeyrakirkja at Þingeyrar

Inside Þingeyrakirkja

The altarpiece in Þingeyrakirkja

The pulpit in Þingeyrakirkja

The baptismal in Þingeyrakirkja

From Þingeyrar, it was a long drive southwest to Borgarnes. The town has a prominent connection to Egil’s Saga (my personal favorite of the Icelandic sagas I’ve read) and was allegedly settled by Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, Egil’s father, who is also purportedly buried here. Maggie and I also saw a marker commemorating the site where Skallagrímur murdered Egil’s friend when Egil was a boy. It’s cheerful stuff.

The town itself is unimpressive so far, with a mostly charmless, nondescript, modern suburban feel (although the church is okay). We’d hoped to check out the well regarded local museum, the Settlement Centre of Iceland, which includes a whole wing dedicated to Egil’s Saga, but we were too late to have enough time to really check it out. That’s part of the plan for tomorrow. But so far the highlight of Borgarnes was an all-time fantastic snafu when, after a long, tiring day of driving,  Maggie couldn’t remember how to spell my name as she was checking us into the hotel. We’ve been together five years. And I don’t even have any accents or a Þ in my name…


The church in Borgarnes

A street (with a view) in Borgarnes

I’ll just finish by saying that I’ve read a lot of these sagas — Egil’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga, Njal’s Saga, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki and The Saga of the Volsungs — but none was ever so violent and bloody as the Saga of My Cuticles on this trip. As Mike might say, pass the moisturizer.



  1. […] perfect example from today: In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how much we wanted to see the museum here in Borgarnes, the Settlement Centre of […]

  2. Great travel blog. I think you will love having this all recorded. BTW, there was an earthquake in New York.

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