Out of the Wilderness

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August 22nd 2008
Published: January 19th 2009
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We left our lovely hotel in Myvatn and continued on to Akureyrí. The Norse Viking Helgi magri (the slim) Eyvindarson originally settled the area in the 9th century. The first mention of Akureyrí dates back to 1562 when a woman was sentenced there for adultery! Permanent settlement at Akureyrí started in 1778 and the town was granted its municipal charter by the king of Denmark (and at the time Iceland as well) eight years later in 1786 along with five other towns in Iceland. The king hoped to improve the living conditions of Icelanders by this action because at the time, urban areas were virtually non-existent in Iceland. As far as the king was concerned Akureyrí was unsuccessful, as it did not grow from its population of 12. In 1836 Akureyri lost its municipal status but gained it back in 1862. From that point, Akureyrí started to grow because of the excellent port conditions and the productive agricultural region around it. Industries processing agricultural products became the backbone of the city and spurred its further growth.
We paused on the opposite side of the lake to the city which gave us a splendid view of the whole city. Akureyrí is now the fourth biggest city of Iceland and the only metropolis outside Greater Reykjavík. The ”Capital of the North”, as it is often called, is the administration and service centre of Northern Iceland, situated near the bottom of the long fjord of Eyjafjordur. The population is only around 16,000, yet the city boasts its own theatre, symphony orchestra, University and one of the biggest hospitals in the country that also serves the Eastern side of Greenland.
We arrived in town and were pointed in the general direction of 'places of interest'. Most of us headed directly to the botanical gardens. The gardens act both as a public park and a botanical gardens and have a large collection of Icelandic flora as well as some 4,000 specimins of imported plants, trees and shrubs. The garden first opened as a public park in 1912, and was opened as a botanical garden in 1957. It was intially set up by a Danish lady and has traditionally been in the care of the women of Akureyrí.
We enjoyed walking around the garden. After so much barren wilderness it was very pleasant to stroll through the cultivated gardens. Best of all there were trees! Despite being a nature lover's paradise the one thing Iceland really lacks is trees. Iceland used to be covered in forests, much like the rest of Europe. However Viking settlers cleared the forest for their pastures and burned the trees to make charcoal. The forests have never recovered and it is estimated that 90 percent of Iceland's pre-settlement forest is gone. There are new projects now trying to replant Iceland's forests but as yet there are very few mature trees. Our tour guide even said the standing joke in Iceland is 'What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic wood? .... Stand up!'
Needless to say, I enjoyed the change of scenery and felt much more at home with a few trees towering over me. We explored the gardens, enjoyed the different flowers, the ponds and wooden bridges and basically enjoying nature that was slightly less stark and uninviting than a lot of what we had seen previously.
We continued on into town and stopped to visit Akureyrarkirkja (The Church of Akureyrí). The Lutheran Church was designed by Guðjón Samúelsson, and completed in 1940. It houses a notably large 3200-pipe organ, a unique interpretation of the crucifixion and a suspended ship hanging from the ceiling which reflects an old Nordic tradition of giving offerings for the protection of loved ones at sea. The opaque central window in the chancel, once belonged to Coventry Cathedral in England.
We spent some time exploring the local shops and I finally bought a new CD of Icelandic folk songs, thankfully a bit cheaper than the ones I've notice previously. We met a large hairy Viking (a model thankfully) outside the shop and also bumped into a pixie holding a big sword and wearing a Viking helmet over his eyes. In addition to our new friends we also had the luck to view a very traditional Icelandic restaurant.... an Indian curry hut! We found a lovely blue painted cafe and indulged our Englishness by ordering tea... only to find at least half our tour group had made it there ahead of us!!
We finally made it back to the coach and were just pulling away from the town when someone saw a sight that made us all yell at the tops of our voices and demand to be let off the coach. A mother and baby whale had just breached in the lake! Our tour guide looked quite terrified at the excitable tourists who no sooner did the coach stop then they leapt out and started running at breakneck speed towards the shore. We all arrived determinedly sticking our cameras out in front of us and scanned the now still water. We met a pair of Icelandic photographers who were set up on the bank with all their equipment. They were trying to film some footage of the pair of whales who had swum too far and had been in the fjord for the past two days. We waited for another 10 minutes or so but the whales didn't reappear and the Icelandic pair, who seemed to know what they were talking about, said the whales could easily swim completely our of sight without needing to resurface again. We finally trudged back to the coach and drove on to Glaumbaer; the Skagafjordur Folk Museum. We walked around the outside of the traditional farm houses for a while until someone could be persuaded to give us a guided tour. The poor members of staff were crowded into a tiny room watching the Olympics (Iceland seemed set on winning their first gold medal) and so obviously didn't want to take a tour group around the museum. I think they actually drew lots in the end. The guy who took us around was very dedicated and gave a very informative lecture, but he did keep ducking his head in to look at the TV and ask how it was going!
The tour was really interesting, although it highlighted just how incredibly harsh life was in Iceland, even just a hundred years ago. The buildings of the farm group date from different periods of the 19th century and all were built in the turf construction style, which was universal in rural Iceland until about the turn of the 19th century. Then it was gradually replaced by reinforced concrete, which is typical of most contemporary Icelandic construction. The Nordic ancestors of the Icelanders had built for the most part of wood. Extensive turf construction evolved in Iceland owing to acute shortage of large trees. Hence, the buildings at Glaumbaer are the thin shells of wood, all imported, separated from each other and insulated by thick walls of turf, and roofed with a thick layer of sod. The Icelandic grass grows very thickly making this turf and sod strong intertextures of roots and soil. Such buildings in areas of moderate precipitation can last a century. The roof’s slope must be sloped at the right angle. If it is too steep, the sods crack during dry spells and the grass drains too quickly and withers and water will get through. The same happens if the roofs are too flat and the sods get saturated with water. It is too difficult to erect large structures of turf and sod. Therefore the Icelandic farm was a complex of small, separate buildings. The most used of those were united by a central corridor, but tool and storehouses could only be accessed from outside. The corridor at Glaumbaer is about 21 metres long and provides access to 9 of the 13 houses of the farm.
Glaumber is famous for the exploits of its settlers many of whom are the heros found in the Icelandic sagas. The first known inhabitants of Glaumbaer lived there in the 11th century. They are mentioned in the Saga of the Greenlanders and the Saga of Eirikur the Red, which tell of the explorers Leifur Eriksson and his brother Thorsteinn, sons of Eirikur the Red, of Thorsteinn’s wife Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir, her second husband Thorfinnur karlsefni and their son, Snorri. Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir is mentioned both in the Saga of the Greenlanders and in the Saga of Erik the Red. Gudridur, a granddaughter of an Irish freedman, was born in the 10th century in Snaefellsnes in western Iceland. She emigrated to the Icelandic settlement in Greenland founded by Erik the Red, and married his son Thorsteinn, who soon died. The young widow then married Thorfinnur karlsefni, a merchant and a farmer from Stadur in Reynines (now Reynistadur), Skagafiord District.
Gudridur and Thorfinnur explored Vinland (thought most likely to be Newfoundland), already discovered by Leifur Eriksson, Gudridur ’s former brother-in-law. They spent the winter there, and planned to settle permanently. Their son, Snorri, was born in the New World. Due to conflicts with the Native tribes or the “Skaelings” as they were, they did not stay there long, and returned to Iceland. Initially they lived at Thorfinnur’s old home at Reynines, but then purchased the estate of Glaumbaer, probably shortly after 1010, and settled there.
After his father's death Snorri took over the estate, and Gudridur decided to make a pilgrimage to the Pope in Rome, to be absolved of her sins. She promised to errect a church in Glaumber upon her safe return. Snorri built a church in her absence and when she returned she saw the first church ever to stand in Glaumber. From then on Gudridur lived the rest of her life in solitary worship.
Gudridur Thorbjarnardottir has been called “the greatest female explorer of all time” by the president of Iceland and is certainly the most well travelled woman of her time, exploring Iceland and Greenland, being one of the first Europeans to set foot on American soil, and making her pilgrammage across Europe.
We explored the rest of the farmstead which despite having links to such incredible figures from Icelandic history and saga is still a small, dark, cramped building smelling of damp peat!
We went into the tiny tea rooms to warm up and then had our picnic lunch outside enjoying the views of the surrounding hills and fields.
We continued our drive, made a brief petrol stop where we found a TV playing in the restaurant and all got hooked watching Iceland play in the Olympics. We had one last proper stop before heading to our next hotel. We visited the springs at Deildatunguhver, more geothermal springs that produce 198 litres of boiling water every second. We enjoyed standing near in the steam rising from the pools... I think too much of our time here has been spent looking for the next place we can warm up in!! We saw several Icelandic horses in a nearby field, obviously like us enjoying the warm mist surrounding the area.
We continued to our next hotel in Reykholt which is really lovely. All the corridors have themes from the Icelandic sagas and Norse mythology and I enjoyed wandering up and down the corridors reading about the gods and goddesses, runes and history. There is also a 'Moon Lounge' which is a lovely public seating area with a complete moon theme, and even the dining hall is full of large art prints and carvings of the Norse Gods. Outside we discovered Snorri's Pool. Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) is a famous Icelandic poet and author of the celebrated Norse Sagas; The Prose Edda (tales from Norse mythology), Heimskringla (Orb of the World), St. Olaf’s Saga, and Egil’s Saga. He himself built the geothermal hot pool and it is one of a few constructions preserved from Iceland’s mediæval period. The hot tub is constructed of hand-hewn lava, cut and tooled to exact measurements, so precise that the blade of a knife cannot be thrust between the stones. The hot water in the pool comes from Skrifla Spring through a canal, another of Reykholt’s oldest structures. A few years ago, next to the hot tub, a secret tunnel was unearthed. The walls of the passageway are made of stone and lead north-west, and were at one time connected to Snorri’s farm house. It was here on 11th September 1241 that Snorri was brutally assassinated with a battle-axe, on the order of King Haakon IV of Norway. “Don’t strike!” were, apparently, Snorri’s last words. The poet’s final utterance was initially taken as cowardice (as Vikings were supposed to await a death by the sword in order to enter Valhalla). Later, it was reinterpreted as a bit of Christian moralising, inasmuch as Snorri was obviously quoting the Fifth Commandment, “Though shalt not kill” (Exodus 20: 13).
I also visited the nearby church on the hill, and unfortunate grey colour that looked very foreboding and matched the dark clouds overhead very well. I managed to return to the hotel before the rain started and we all changed for dinner... and celebrated having en suite bathrooms for the first time since arriving!!

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