Posted by: nmancini04 | August 26, 2011

Day 8: Go West

Before I left New York for this trip, someone asked me why our trip to Iceland was going to be almost two weeks. “Aren’t you going to run out of things to do?” The answer, of course, is no. We could spend six months just touring around the country and we wouldn’t run out of things to do. In fact, tonight at dinner, with our week on the road coming to an end, we started listing all things that we’re really sorry we had to miss out on.

A 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 Iceland. Well, we missed it again today. It doesn’t open until 10 am and we wanted to get an early start, so we figured we’d get back to Borgarnes early and see it in the evening. Bad plan. We came back too late, again, because there was so much to see and do on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, where we spent most of the day. And we didn’t even scratch the surface.

 

In which a man dresses like a viking
The staff at Eiríksstaðir dress like vikings. We knew this before we went there, and frankly, I was dreading it a little. I was dreading it even more after we arrived at about a quarter after 9 am and saw that we were the only people there. The staff member in the visitor center was a young, very thickly bearded Icelandic man with reddish brown hair. He looked like he’d just woken up and he was dressed like he was going out to a metal show. Incongruously, running around the office was a tiny, yappy puppy that looked like it would be more at home in an old lady’s handbag than with this metal viking. “This is Dragon,” he told us. We paid our entry fee and he asked us to take a look at the informational panel “while I get ready.”

Oh no, I thought. It’s barely 9 in the morning and this poor guy is going to have to dress in some absurd viking costume and put on a show for two stupid Americans. This is embarrassing. I feel like an asshole.

We beefed up on our history while we waited. Eiríksstaðir sits in an odd no man’s land between the more picturesque regions of the north, the Westfjords and the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and the hustle and bustle of the Greater Reykjavík area. But it’s notable because it’s the best guess we have for the location of Eirík the Red’s homestead and possibly the birthplace of his son, Leifur Eiríksson. Its location is mentioned vaguely and generally in medieval Icelandic writing. The name started showing up on Icelandic maps in about the 18th century. And they’ve conducted three archaeological excavations at the site: one in the last decade of the 19th century, one in the 1930s and a more thorough, modern one from 1997-2000.

In the excavations, they uncovered the ruins and remains of a longhouse. Was it Eirík the Red’s? Probably not. But it’s also probably as close as we’ll come. On the site today, they have reconstructed a turfed viking longhouse which, since the ruins are pretty much all gone, is the primary attraction of the site.

The reconstructed tufed viking longhouse at Eiríksstaðir

When our resident staff member/viking emerged, Dragon trotting at his heels, I was extremely relieved. His costume was technically viking, I guess, but it was very understated. He wore a simple tunic, a wool covering over his shoulders, canvas breeches, no silly hat or helmet and — I was amused to see — his sandals were crocs.  He opened up the longhouse, lit the fire in the center of the floor and urged us to make ourselves at home.

The longhouse is filled with items that would have been found in a longhouse of the period (late 10th or early 11th centuries): swords and shields, animal pelts, a loom, etc. As the items are all reconstructed, you can walk around inside the house touching things, picking them up and reclining in the sleeping nooks. Our Metal Viking seemed a little reserved at first, but he soon opened up as we asked him about the excavations, the reconstruction and stories of Eirík, who supposedly discovered Greenland, and Leifur, who supposedly was the first European to set foot in North America in the 11th century.

Maggie gazes into the fire in the longhouse at Eiríksstaðir

Among other things, he told us that the reconstruction had been built entirely authentically, using only period tools and that all the wood was driftwood. He told us about how the sleeping areas were so small because there had been a superstition about lying down, which was supposed to be a position only dead men assumed. He told us that, in the reconstructed building, they originally used wood for the fire in the center of the room (now a gas fire) but that the smoke made the room unbearable. We discussed the loom and how wool and woven garments had been used as currency in trade with other nations. “It’s said that before Iceland was a fishing nation, it was a weaving nation,” he said. And he told us a funny story about the “Elf Woman” and her husband who had visited the day before. She was an Icelandic woman who claimed she could see spirits around the fire. “I wanted to say to her, ‘This building is only 11 years old,'” Metal Viking chuckled. “Most people live in houses older than this.”

A shield and a needlework cloth in the longhouse

The door to the longhouse

A carving inside the longhouse

We spent almost an hour talking to him and looking around the small house (“longhouse” is a bit of a misnomer). It was a highly enjoyable time and I ended up being very, very glad we had been the only ones there. After that, he excused himself to look for Dragon, who had run off somewhere, while we stayed inside looking around, taking picture and listening to his piercingly loud whistles echoing across the landscape.

“He goes further every day, marking his territory,” Metal Viking told us when Dragon had returned. “Every day I have to call for him a little longer.”

Dragon exits the longhouse

After that we walked up the hill to what’s left of the excavation. It’s mainly just a grassy rectangle now, but the stones leading up to the front step are still there. When we returned to our car, we found that Dragon had marked his territory on our back wheel.

Maggie sits in the excavated longhouse

A small statue of Leifur Eiríksson at Eiríksstaðir, with the reconstructed longhouse in the background

 

A case of the Snæfellsnes

From  Eiríksstaðir, we drove west along a dirt and gravel road and out onto the Snæfellsnes peninsula, a beautiful area with great views of the sea on the north and south sides and an impressive range of mountains down the center, the most prominent of which is the glacier-topped Snæfellsjökull near the western tip. We got some beautiful views along the way, particularly in the tiny fjord of Álftafjörðiur, where there was also a huge colony of birds.

Álftafjörðiur

Our first stop in Snæfellsnes was to see the ruins of a sacrificial altar to the god Þor (Thor) and it was there we suffered a defeat for the second straight day. We turned off for the site and went down a long gravel track which ended at what was pretty clearly someone’s private home. Not sure what that was about, but we both felt too uncomfortable to park and start looking around.

Instead we just headed into the nearby town of Stykkishólmur, one of the great towns we’ve visited. Stykkishólmur sits on a tiny jut of land which sticks out into the bay of Breiðafjörðiur, surrounded by tiny islands. The houses are sweet and pretty, the harbor is fantastic and there’s an island, connected to the town by a bridge, with a big rocky hill that provides fantastic views of the town and its picturesque surroundings. The town also has the most bizarre church I think we’ve seen, weirder even than the “volcano church” in Blönduós.

The harbor at Stykkishólmur, with the island at the back left

The islands around Stykkishólmur

The church in Stykkishólmur

Stykkishólmur, from above

But the highlight of Stykkishólmur was our lunch at the magnificent restaurant Narfeyrarstofa. I knew we were in good shape when we walked in and the place was packed with locals. Two things on the menu jumped out at us both: the mussels and the lamb goulash, both made with local foods (and by local, I mean from right in or around the town). We decided to order both and share and…my god. The mussels tasted like they had been taken out of the ocean that morning — and they might have been: Stykkishólmur is a fishing village known for its shellfish — and the goulash was equally delightful, the perfect hot and hearty soup for what was easily the coldest day since we’ve been here. With our meals they brought us ceramic mugs of iced beer. The trip to Snæfellsnes was worth it for this meal alone, one of the few times we have been blown away by the food here.

After we’d walked off our lunch, we drove to the western end of the peninsula to walk around the point at Skarðsvík. There was nominally a hiking trail, which was even partly visible in places, but mostly we just walked along the rocky coast. It started at a grey sanded beach which gradually gave way to grassy hillocks, but everywhere was covered in jagged, black volcanic rock. We walked for about an hour, clambering over the rocks and admiring the coastline, before making the long drive back to our base for the second straight night, Borgarnes.

The coastline at Skarðsvík

Me walking at Skarðsvík

The lava fields of Skarðsvík

Volcanic rock at Skarðsvík

Maggie on the rocks at Skarðsvík

Skarðsvík

And with that, our week long road trip comes to an end. Seven days and more than 2,000 kilometers later, we will be returning to Reykjavík tomorrow morning and moving into an apartment for the next four nights. We’re sad that our tour is over, but we’re looking forward to exploring the city more fully. And of course, I’ll be posting about it.

P.S. You may have noticed that the main image for the page has changed. The original image was a stock, non copyright photo of an Icelandic glacier. It was nice enough, but the new one is actually a photo from our trip. Maggie now has stitched together some of the panoramic photos she’s been taking and some of them are really spectacular. The one on the top of the page now is of Þingeyrakirkja at Þingeyrar, from yesterday, and its surrounding views. I’m hoping to post a series of her panoramas together in the next few days, if the files aren’t too big.

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Responses

  1. Great pic, Maggie.

  2. […] up high or on the coast, when the wind can be phenomenal, like on the tall, rocky island over Stykkishólmur yesterday or on the drive along the southern coast of Snæfellsnes, when we felt like we were getting blown […]


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