Ísland

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In September 2016 I spent almost two weeks in Iceland. This holiday destination was not just a random country. Since I think that more people with ‘heathen interest’ play with the idea of visiting the country where the Eddas and sagas were written, I wrote this text. On one hand I want to give some information that I had quite a hard time gathering myself. On the other hand I want to give you an idea of the country so you may know what to expect. Of course the story is personal and based on just two weeks in late summer.

Heathen interest

Let me start with the part that just may be most interesting for you. If you go to Iceland with a ‘heathen interest’ there are things to consider visiting. I had to search high and low for information about some of these things, so when you read this before you go, you may not have to (or less so).

As you may know, in Iceland the prechristian faith is an acknowledged religion. There is one organisation: Ásatrúarfélagið (‘Asatru association’), and it has around 3000 members. This may not sound much, but when you realise that the whole of Iceland has 300.000 inhabitants, that gives a bit of perspective. Also, in my own 18 milion inhabitants country, we do not come anywhere near the Icelandic figure.
For some reason the Icelanders managed to stay in one organisation without splitting up, people starting their own groups, etc. They find that perfectly logical themselves. The Ásatrúarfélagið is not a very ‘strict’ organisation. Its members include people who just like to walk around in Viking cloths to “Goðar” (around 30) and everything in between.

The Ásatrúarfélagið has a few ‘visit worthy’ sites in Reykjavik. They have a burial ground and a temple under construction. The burial ground is a part of the Gufunes cemetery (plot H1, recognisable by the circular layout). When you drive to the main entrance of the cemetery a little to the left. There are a ship-formed stonecircle with a Rowan tree in the middle and a little hill with graves.

Work is done to a large temple building on the Öskjuhlið hill on the other side of town (where also the famous Perlan building can be found). Once there was talk of it being finished in the fall of 2016, but there was just a hole in the ground when I was there. On the same site the Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson (1924-1993) monument can be found. Sveinbjörn was the founder of the Ásatrúarfélagið in 1973. As of now, there is a fence around the site, including the monument.
The site can be reached fairly easily. When coming from the town center, drive up to the Flugvallarvegur and then left to the Nauthölsvegur (alongside the Reykjavik airport). Drive away all the way to the last parking places (near a restaurant) and talk the walking / cycling path further in the direction you were driving (into ‘the forest’). Fairly quickly you will find the site on your left.

 Gufunes map Gufunes zoom Gufunes cemetary Gufunes cemetary

Asatru temple overview Asatru temple close up future Asatru temple dsc04476-small

Of course, when you are in Reykjavik you have to visit the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands, the National Museum of Iceland where the famous little þór statue is on display (which they suggest may also be Christ!) that has been the example of so many þór statues, the þór hammer with the dogs-head and a few other famous items. The museum is not big. The exhibition is alright. There are some heathen symbols that get sold out to tourists. The þór statue is one of them, the Aegishalmar another.

þór Thor for tourists

Reykjavik has the habit of splitting things over different museums. There is the Árni Magnússon Institute with different locations, including a museum with manuscripts, but currently not the Codex Regius, which was quite a disappointment. I heard that the “Settlement Exhibition” has some manuscripts (but did not get to visit it) and only on our way out of the country, my girlfriend found a leaflet of “The Settlement Saga” with a new exhibition of manuscripts. Damn! Be sure to try and find more information about that when you go.

Reykjavik also has an open air museum (which I did not visit) with old houses and old items. Many villages have similar museums. They can be interesting since they contain objects with runes from well after the conversion to Christianity and just to get a feel of the old houses, etc.

Leaving Reykjavik then. I did a little digging into the man Sveinbjörn Beinteinsson, the founder of the Ásatrúarfélagið. Sveinbjörn (no need to refer to him by his ‘last name’, Icelanders do not have last names. Sveinbjörn was the son of Beintein, but his nephew (whose father has another surname) will have another ‘last name’. Names cannot tell you who are related.) used to have a farm named “Draghals” laying North of a small town called Saurbær. Be warned, there are more places with this name. The Saurbær I mean lays halfway Akranes and Reykholt, a little North of Reykjavik. The farm that Sveinbjörn had and where he created his famous þór statue did not survive, nor did the statue. For many years the Ásatrúarfélagið has tried to get a monument to the place where the farm was, but so far without success. Drághals can still be found on ja.is, a better online map of Iceland than Google Maps. From the little town follow the Dragavegur Northerly. Turn right on the road running parallel to the stream called Draghálsá. See below for a map.
But like I said, currently there is nothing to see there.

Sveinbjörn probably moved to the village (Hilðarbaer 4) when he got older and sold his farm. When Sveinbjörn passed away, he was buried near his family on the burial ground near the Saurbaer church (as he requested). The church is alternately called Hallgrimmskirkja and Saurbaerjarkirkja. It is a white church outside and South of the village (and well indicated from the road). I guess Sveinbjörn lays between his brothers, because another stone with “Beinteinsson” on it drew my attention and then I found Sveinbjörn’s simple gravestone. When you walk up to the terrain, go to the left hand part of the burial ground. Sveinbjörn’s grave is in the middle of a few rows from the end.

Draghals Hallgrimmskirkja Sveinbjörn stone Sveinbjörn church

From Saurbaer you can drive to Reykholt, a relatively big place where Snorri Sturlusson used to live. There you can visit the “Snorrastofa”, Snorri’s warm bath and a nice exhibition about the man and his work. Inside is a nice image of the Yggdrasil.

Snorrastofa Yggdrasil

The next interesting site is again a contemporary heathen one. When I was looking for information about the Asatru temple in Reykjavik, I found out that this building is not going to be the first modern heathen temple in the country. There is another one in the North of the country: Ásheimur Hof. A local farmer, who is also a Goði, built a Viking style building on his property in Sauðárkrókur (near Hólar, do note that the name Sauðárkrókur does not really refer to a village, but to an area). Ásheimur Hof has a Facebook page that you can use to contact them, the site is private property, so… You can find the Hof by driving to Hólar either using the Hólavegur (road 767) or the Ásavegur (!!) (769) until you see an arrow pointing towards “Efri-Ás”, which is the name of the farm where the construction was built (all farms are pointed to from the road). The building is not exactly a temple, it is more like a drinking hall with a stream outside, but rituals are performed there regularly. You can even get married there! It is work in progress, but already looks nice and it is also nice to talk to a fellow heathen from another country.

Efri-As map Efri-As detail Efri As Asheimur Hof

Then of course there is the famous þingvellir. This is the place where the American and the European earthplates drive apart. The valley was used for law-speaking in Viking times. It was also the place where was decided that Iceland would be a Christian country in the year 1.000. Nowadays it is a national park where you can walk around, look down from (or up to) the ‘law rock’, etc. There are visitor centers at both ends and even paid parking. Yep, þingvellir is part of the “Golden Circle” that many tourists who only visit Reykjavik and the direct surroundings. It is very touristic, but still worth a visit. There are also smaller such sites, used for local law speaking.

þingvelir local lawspeaking

That is basically all that I found of ‘heathen’ interest. A few more things though.

“Borgarvirki” (in the North-West) make the only ruins of a fortress in Iceland. I am not sure who used to live there. It is quite a drive over a gravel road, but it has a nice view.

Hafnarfjörður is a place just South of Reykjavik. It has a “Viking village” with a Stavechurch like hotel. When driving from the airport to Reykjavik, I gave in the place name in the navigation system, but that did not lead me to the village. It proves to be on both sides of the 41 road. It is easier to navigate to “Hotel Viking”, or “Fjorukrain” to use the Icelandic name. There are a few buildings in ‘Viking style’, rune-stones and it looks like that sometimes there is some sort of market. Obviously this is built for tourists, but it is fun to walk around it nonetheless.

There is this statue of Thor and his goats by Haukur Halldórsson, but I have not been able to find the location. The best information I have is that can be found at “Straumur” which is (among other things) a gravel road bending off the road between Keflavik and Reykjavik. We have walked the whole road, but have not found the statue. I was told that I was almost right with the location. When you drive from Reykjavik to Keflavik it can be seen on the left side of the road… Put this photo (that I stole from the web) on your phone and just ask somebody where it is when you are near where it is supposed to be. If somebody has more details, please let us know.

Keflavik is a small town some 45 kilometers from Reykjavik, most famous for harboring Iceland’s largest airport. Besides an airport, the town also has Viking world (or Víkingaheimar). This is a not too big museum with a replica of the ship that sailed to America. It also has a few exhibitions, including an amusing cartoon-like part with Northern mythology.

Borgarvirki Fjorukrain Thor Viking World

Iceland is proud about its sagas, and rightly so. A couple of cities have “Saga centers”, saga trails and what not. Around Borgarnes there is one of them, since “Borg” was one of the farms of Egil Skallagrimmson. In the area you can also find statues put on places that are mentioned in the saga. I had no time to visit all of that (…).

A saga center that I did visit can be found in Hvolsvöllur in the South-West (easy to include if you only do “the Golden Circle”). It is nothing more (or nothing less) than the retelling of the Njals-saga on bit plaques, but it also has a nice drinking hall and some extra exhibitions. See sagatrail.is for some (more) inspiration.

Then a bit of a doubtful closer off. One of the famous waterfalls is called “Godafoss”, ‘waterfall of the Gods’, because, as the story goes, a local lawspeaker threw in his heathen statues in this waterfall when he came back from the Alþing that decided that Iceland would be Christian.

Well, this is what I came up with for ‘heathen interest’. Most of it is situated in the Western part of the island, so plan your trip better than we did if you are interested to visit all these things. There is probably more, but I did not find it, nor would it have fitted in my ‘scheme’. Even though Iceland is ‘only’ some 500 by 300 kilometers, driving “the circle” is not a 1600 kilometer drive, rather twice that. Also the maximum speed is 90 kilometers per hour and often you will come nowhere near to that. It took more time than I expected to go from A to B and I had to plan the things I wanted to see with the drive from one cabin to the next.

Maybe it is nice to have to extra information that can be helpful when you consider to make an attempt to visit the things above.

Traffic

Let me start by saying that driving in Iceland is quite different from driving in many other countries. It often reminds of driving in Scotland, but there are other things to consider.

There are different ‘classes’ of roads. Between Keflavik and Reykjavik there is the only road that resembles a highway. Most roads are simple two lane roads that have a maximum speed of 90 kilometers per hour. A “principle” road is usually good to drive on. They have a 1 or 2 digit number. The “1” is usually called the “ring”, but in fact the 1 does not go all the way around. No worries though, other roads will take you where you need to be.

“Secondary roads” are usually also paved well enough for smooth driving.

Both the earlier mentioned roads can be, or partly contain, a gravel road. That is as bad as it sounds: an unpaved road full of holes, flying dirt and mud. Even the 1 has a gravel part in the South-East and some signs to places direct you over a gravel road. It is (close to?) impossible to drive around Iceland without experiencing a gravel road. Your car will look like it had a mud-bath, stones will constantly hammer the paint, your luggage will be shaken to bits. When a paved road goes over in gravel, a traffic sign will say to. Just let go off the gas and be prepared for a bumpy ride.

Besides “primary” and “secondary” roads, there are also “F-roads”. I have seen some nasty gravel with steep hills. I can hardly imagine an F-road to be even worse. One thing is for sure: F-roads are forbidden for normal cars. When you get caught driving an F-road in a Ford Mondeo, you will be fined. Not to worry though, I not once had to pass an F-road to get somewhere I needed to be. My guess is, that this is mostly for the rough inlands. Another guess of mine is that “F” may not say anything about the condition of the road, but it gets ‘rated’ F because a river has to be crossed for example.

As you can see on the “Reference” photo below, different types of ‘unnormal’ vehicles are distinguished. I saw many Suzuki Jimnies, but even though this is a 4×4 car, you are not allowed (or even can) just drive anywhere. You can also rent something more serious, but believe me when I say that the Icelanders themselves sometimes drive meaner (and weirder) cars that made me wonder what kind of places they need to be. We have monster trucks for shows. In Iceland they actually just drive around.

Well then, let us assume that you are going to do nothing in the wild midlands, there is no reason to rent a big-ass car. You will see many tiny cars (probably tourists), which get as dirty as the big ones. I drove a “class B” car (the second smallest) and only on one road had I wished to have driven something a little more stable, but even there I did not have to turn back. There are parts that you will have to go slowly, but I think you also would when you would drive a big car.

More laughs. Even when you are driving the 1, you will have many, many “Einbreid Brú”s. That is a single lane bridge. When somebody comes from the other direction, you have to make out who goes first. There are even very long bridges with passing places every few hundred meters.
Speaking of passing places, when I was driving the coastal road in the North, I suddenly drove into a single lane tunnel (!). That is quite a strange sight I can tell you. Longer such tunnels have passing places, just like some long bridges do.

There are many long and straight roads with a 90 km/h speed limit. Both locals and tourists think that they can save some time by going faster. Many times I was overtaken driving 100 on a 90 road, one time even by a public transport bus! It is not like people drive like madmen, but I do often wonder if they realise that a sheep can just jump on the road before them. I saw only one accident. Two youngsters parked their Audi in the swamp next to the road.

The bottom line is, driving in Iceland is not like driving on the European continent or the USA. Just think about when you drove in Scotland or some island.

traffic Icelandic car

Landscape

When you see photos of Iceland, you will see the beautiful waterfalls, the amazing fjords and the magnificent Aurora Borealis. What you do not hear so often, is that large parts of Iceland are boring and ugly (but there is also a charm to that and sometimes it is just wonderfully weird). The landscape often differs though, but especially a bit away from the coast, but not yet among the mountains, you can drive in the middle of a monotonous, flat and brown landscape with dried grass and here and there a rock. At another time you will be crossing a black nomansland with Iceland’s typical black sand (dark grey actually) on which nothing grows. There are also parts that make you wonder if you landed on the moon. Vast brown plains with many rocks on them. There are also black varieties of this.

Especially the North, when you are not driving near to the coast, has these bleak landscapes. Endless fields flattened by lava with little to no vegetation, not even sheep or wildlife.

Then again, the Northern coast reminds of Scandinavia with magnificent fjords and curly roads. The South is more like Scotland with green hills with many waterfalls. As you drive from the East to the West along the South coast, at some point you will start seeing something un-Scottish: glaciers (or “jökull” as the Icelanders call them), many, many glaciers. Some even reach as far as the sea, resulting in awe-inspiring glacier lakes where huge chunks of ice drift towards the sea only to be pushed back to the beach by the waves.

What is also odd is that a walk over a flat piece of land can lead to humongous waterfalls.

Yep, Iceland’s landscape is weird, not always beautiful, but it often is. Odd, small, green hills by the bulk, brown hills, small and big rocks, lava-fields, large parts of ‘nothing’, huge lands with nothing but moss and (unexpected or not), trees, forests even, especially in the South. Here and there smoke will come out of the ground. These are “geothermal sites” which are definitely worth a visit.

landscape landscape landscape landscape

landscape landscape landscape geothermal

The touristic spots

Basically you can say that when a lot of tourists flock somewhere, it is bound to be worth the effort. Even in early September there proved to be quite a lot of tourists. Driving around there are not a whole lot of cars, but when we came to a site, there was a big and full parking place. Make sure to visit some of the famous waterfalls, the glacier lake Jökulsárlón, some geothermal site (the Geysir for example, or see the last photo above), there are places where you can walk up to a glacier without needing a special car or an expensive glacier hiking tour (for example from the Vatnajökull visit center you can take an easy 1.6 kilometer walk to the glacier and a somewhat steeper walk of the same length to the Skaftafell waterfall in the other direction).

Skógafoss vatnajokul Jökulsarlon

Accommodations

Spend a little time in finding out what you want. Roughly you can say that in Iceland you can go camping (also in September or later); there are ‘sleeping bag facilities’ (hostels or other minimalistic places where you have to bring your own stuff); cabins (little wooden houses); hostels and cheap hotels and more expensive hotels. We had cabins. They can either be on some farmer’s land or the ground of a hotel, or they are more like holiday parks with many cabins and other facilities. Some were nothing more than a bed and a ‘kitchen’, others could house an entire family.

Eating

In a country that (according to some) lives on rotten shark and boiled sheep’s head, how difficult is it for a difficult person who prefers to eat no meat or fish? Frankly? Not very difficult! Of course in Reykjavik it is no problem at all, but I have not been in any restaurant, not even a tiny restaurant in the middle of nowhere, where I had nothing to choose. It may not be much more than a burger or a pizza, but almost nowhere did I have to ‘negotiate’ about the food. At a few places there were even some remarkably original vegetarian options. For lunch there are often prepared sandwiches with ham and cheese, but pie is sold everywhere.

Pricing

If you want to get rid off your money fast, Iceland can help you. Do one of those ‘inside the volcano’, ice cave, glacier or helicopter tours and you will be a couple of hundred of dollars / euros lighter. For the rest, Iceland is more expensive than the European continent, but only in a few cases very much so. Eating is somewhat more expensive, but supermarkets did not scare me. Drinking is more expensive, especially when you opt for alcoholic beverages. To give you an idea. A low-alcohol beer in a restaurant will be priced equal to softdrink, say 400 ISK, but when you want a pilsener (or ‘real beer’), the price will to up to 1200 ISK. Alcoholic drinks are (almost) only sold in restaurants and the special state-regulated chain “Vínbúðin” (I guess it means ‘wine shop’). There are not too many of them, but their range is well enough. There proves to be quite some Icelandic beer too, some even fairly good.
Gas, car rental, incoming fees for musea, etc. are mostly comparable to European countries, the ‘upper ones’ perhaps, but certainly not twice as expensive. Things like books (mad!) and touristic things like t-shirts have pretty steep prices though.

Weather

Ever changing! Especially when driving, you go from one valley to the next and since the mountains can be fairly high, rain will remain on one side of them. But also on a vast plain we had sun in the morning, drizzle in the afternoon, sun again early in the evening and heavy storms at night. Besides around Myvatn with serious rain, we only had drizzle and sometimes a lot of wind. I heard about people also driving around in the same period who got completely soaked. I guess the tip is: be prepared for changing conditions.
We had temperatures usually around 12 degrees Celsius, sometimes less, sometimes more.

Daylight is funny. Around the Autumn equinox I expected daylight to be about the same as on other places (day and night are equally long around the equinoxes), but Iceland had a couple of hours more daylight than my own country, both in the morning and in the evening.

And indeed, even in September it proved to be possible to see the Northern Lights. We had one good, clear-skied, evening with nice Northern Lights and various nights on which the Aurora Borealis was faint and almost only to see with a photo camera (which makes the colour more visible than the eye does!).

Wrapping  up

For a person with ‘heathen interest’ it is funny to drive around seeing places written like I know them from texts with all the crazy characters (þ, ð, etc.). There are many references to the old faith and the sagas. Farms are called Breidabliki, streets Glaðsheimum. It is not like that there are many very old things to see though. On many places of the European continent, the British isles, Scandinavia, etc., you can find prehistoric sites. Not so on Iceland.
Iceland was settled from around 800, but even from this time not much remains. Earthquakes, volcano eruptions, but (I think) simple inadvertence too, costed a lot of history. Indeed, there are turf-houses in many places, but there are no old churches. There supposedly used to be Stave churches on Iceland (on Snorri’s estate for example), but not one has survived or has even been rebuilt. Most churches are these small and simple (and private!) corrugated buildings (like many houses) in a typical Scandinavian style. The insides are often colorful with old artifacts though. There are a few places where sage-age farms have been rebuild.

There are not a whole lot of old houses. Many villages and towns are industrial-looking, practical places, built around a harbor or something. Here and there apartment buildings are put down. The old city of Reykjavik and the center of Akureyri are the most visit-worthy places to get the feel of an old town, the villages and other towns are mostly not much to look at.

Iceland will give you a wealth of musea and cultural places, way too much to visit in two weeks. Culture houses, open air musea, saga centers, small local musea about writers, poets or just the surroundings, information about glaciers and volcanoes and all that has to be combined with the countless possibilities to talk a short or (very) long walk in stunning natural surroundings. Certainly, two weeks is only enough for a very brief introduction to Iceland. The above may give you an idea of how much (or little) you can cram into such a short time.

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