by Nancy Marie Brown
Iceland is the hot place to go these days (pun intended). Every week, it seems, I hear from someone who just “did” the land of fire and ice.
Well, I’ve got news for you. You can’t “do” Iceland in one trip. I’ve been going to Iceland since 1986–and the place isn’t done with me yet.
It’s not only that I’ve missed whole quadrants of the country. The places I know still astonish me. Each year, I notice something new or–paradoxically–very old, like the Viking Age longhouse that was discovered under a Reykjavik parking lot last year and is forcing a critical rethinking of the city’s development.
And then there’s the weather.
Last summer, from the farm where I like to stay, I gazed for days and days at the high white ice caps in the center of the island. But the one day we traveled toward the sea, the mountains by the coast wrapped themselves in clouds. Majestic Snaefellsjokull simply disappeared.
I knew it was there, laughing behind my back. The West is one part of Iceland I know very well: from Borgarnes to the Breiðafjorður, out to the tip of Snæfellsnes, and in to Surtshellir cave at the edge of the highlands. The West has a wonderful variety of landscapes–farms, fishing villages, lava fields, glaciers, beaches, waterfalls. On various trips I’ve found a path through the lava that had long been lost, crouched behind a rock while a sea eagle strafed me, rode a horse through a swift salmon river (careful not to let the eddies dizzy me), collected crowberries, watched fox pups play, rescued trapped sheep, frightened myself in a pitch-dark cave, drank sweet water from the well in another, soaked in a wilderness hot pool, sunned on the flank of a volcano.
I’m not a naturalist: What draws me to this part of Iceland are the medieval sagas, with their tales of sheep-farmers and sorcerors, horse fights and feuds, love and grief and hard times and strife. Tales of a satisfying life scratched from an unforgiving land. Tales tempered with poetry and grace.
These sagas, this landscape, has inspired nearly all my books. It’s here that I found one perfect horse in A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse (Stackpole 2001), and learned how Icelandic folklore and mythology are infused with horses.
Here is where the story of Gudrid the Far-Traveler begins, the Viking woman who explored North America 500 years before Columbus. I’ve written about Gudrid twice, as nonfiction in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman (Harcourt, 2007), and in the young adult novel The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler (Namelos 2015). Guðriður grew up on the tip of Snæfellsnes, in the shadow of the glacier some people call the third most holy spot on earth. (Seeing it rise out of the sea is certainly one of my favorite views of Iceland).
In the twelfth century, West Iceland was ruled by Snorri Sturluson, that unscrupulous chieftain who has become the most influential writer of the Middle Ages, in any language. My book Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) is his biography. Here he wrote the Edda, which contains almost everything we know about Norse mythology. Here he wrote Heimskringla, his history of the kings of Norway. Here he probably wrote the first (and maybe the best) of the Icelandic sagas: Egil’s Saga. And here he died, murdered, cringing in his cellar, for having betrayed the king of Norway.
Here, as well, Snorri and his family may have cornered the market on walrus ivory. As I argue in my latest book, Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them (St Martin’s 2015), the land of the sagas may also have been a land of world-class visual art in the Middle Ages.
The best way to research my books, I’ve found, is to walk through the landscape where history happened, to live where my subjects lived and face some of the same challenges. To cross rivers on horseback, for example, or climb a volcanic crater. To experience the midnight sun in summer, when the birdsong never stills, as well as the dark days of winter (though I must admit, I’ve let a very few of them stand in for the rest). To marvel at the beauty of white glacier ice, black lava rock, blue (or slate-gray) sky, and jewel-green fields. To feel the spirits of the land in the breath of the wind, the sting of rain, and the warmth of the sun.
I’d like to bring you with me. Since 2012 I’ve been leading tours in West Iceland for the company America2Iceland, which is based on the farm of Staðarhús in Borgarfjörður. Earlier on this blog I’ve written about our Trekking Bootcamp I, an adventure tour for horseback riders.
But we also offer a tour for non-riders, for people who like to learn about Iceland’s sagas and its Viking past. For people who’d like to meet real Icelanders and see more of the country than just the surface it presents to the usual tourist.
This year’s “Sagas & Vikings” tour will take place from July 10-16. We’ll begin in Reykjavik, with a visit to the Settlement Exhibition, then travel to Thingvellir, site of Iceland’s ancient parliament and locus of many saga episodes. We’ll end our day at Staðarhús, where we’ll settle in for a week in a comfortable, family-run country hotel.
Mornings we’ll spend reading, taking nature walks, and observing the lifestyle of a traditional Icelandic horse farm. Those so inclined can take a riding lesson or short trail ride (for an additional charge).
Each morning’s assigned readings, from my own books, will introduce the sights we’ll see on our bus tour in the afternoon. We’ll hike into the lava fields at Eldborg and Budir. We’ll tour the sea caves and bird cliffs at Hellnar and Arnarstapi, and visit Gudrid’s birthplace at Laugabrekka. We’ll explore the town of Borgarnes, with its museums and geothermal pools, and Snorri’s estate of Reykholt. We’ll visit hot springs, wander along black and golden beaches, and see glaciers, volcanic craters, and waterfalls. And we’ll meet the Icelandic horse and learn why the horse, not the dog, is “man’s best friend” in Iceland.
Over dinner–a gourmet meal served at the farm–we’ll discuss what we’ve learned and seen: How Iceland was settled, why the sagas were written, how the country has changed since the Middle Ages, how its culture has so powerfully influenced our own.
This tour is limited to 12 people, so each will get my personal attention. For more information click here. I think this is the perfect tour for first-time visitors to Iceland. Even if you’ve been to Iceland before, you’ll see it in a completely new light.