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Vestmannæyjar: The Westman Islands

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Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.

Westman Islands Panorama

The story of the Westman Islands begins with Iceland’s original settler, Ingólfur Arnarson. After murdering his blood brother, a group of slaves Ingólfur had kidnapped from England stole a boat and fled to Heimaey. Vikings of the day referred to British Isles as the “Western Lands” and their inhabitants as “Westmen”, which explains how the islands got their name. The slaves didn’t enjoy their freedom for long, as they were almost immediately found and executed, but the name stuck.

Ever since the settlement, Heimaey has been home to a decent population of Icelanders lured by the rich fishing and bird-hunting. The islands are home to the largest puffin colonies in the world, and the people here have always been, and still are, expert hunters of the little birds. Alone on their island with abundant eggs and fish, the people of Heimaey enjoyed an idyllic existence for most of their history. Until the fateful year of 1627.

In what has come to be known as the Turkish Abductions, a crew of Algerian pirates landed at Heimaey on July 17th, 1627, and brought havoc to the tiny town. 242 people were kidnapped into slavery and 36 were killed. Catastrophic, considering that Heimaey only had a population of 500. Those who managed to survive did so by hiding in caves around the island’s shore.

The next catastrophe to hit the Westman Islands came in 1973, with the eruption of the Eldfell volcano. What had previously been a flowery meadow on the eastern side of town was suddenly a growing volcano spouting smoke and lava. The town was evacuated within 24 hours. Amazingly, only a single person died during the eruption. Heimaey was radically changed as a result: entire blocks of the town had been buried under lava and the size of the island increased immensely. Today, you can still see remains of some of the houses where the lava flow stops, half-buried under tons of rock.

Heimaey is a great place to spend a day or two. Ferries leave frequently from Landeyjahöfn, and take just a half-hour to make the crossing. The town itself is fun, with interesting sights and good restaurants, and there are any number of rewarding walks one can make around the island, including a climb to the top of the volcano.

-Accommadation On The Westman Islands: Hostels And Guesthouses

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Fähre Westman Islands
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September 19, 2013 at 6:34 pm Comment (1)

The Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum

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Upon arriving in the village of Árbær, I was amused by the men and women dressed in historical attire, toiling at tasks around the farm. But after an hour, I no longer registered their presence. And as the day progressed, I found myself worrying about the impending harvest back home. Would old Betsy survive another winter? Say, that’s a fetching wench. I wonder whither she brings that bucket of mead, and what her dowry may be. And then my cellphone rang, snapping me back into reality.

Tender Icelandic People

Found atop a hill overlooking Reykjavík, Árbær was once a real farm. But today it’s been converted into the Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum, which aims to recreate an authentic historical setting. We joined a free tour of the grounds, led by a woman dressed as a comely maiden of days past. She told us about the history of the farm, while showing us into the minuscule house where over a dozen family members lived. We saw the the stable, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the toys the children would play with, and the tools their parents would use to knit.

And we saw people actually knitting. One of the coolest things about this museum is its large staff, who are there not only to help visitors, but to contribute to the historical ambiance. Passing by a house, you might see a bearded fellow on the porch working on a half-made sock. You’ll see girls tending the sheep, and others just hanging out having a chat.

Árbæjarsafn is a neat place, and does a wonderful job of conveying a sense of the past. For obvious reasons, it’s a little outside of the city center, but not hard to reach by bus, and completely worth the effort.

Location on our Iceland Map
Árbæjarsafn Open Air Museum – Website

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September 15, 2013 at 5:06 pm Comments (0)

Hólmavík and the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft

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The first stop of our week-long tour of the Westfjords was in the tiny eastern village of Hólmavík, where we visited the unsettling Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft.

Sorcery Museum Iceland

Although Hólmavík is the largest town on the Strandir peninsula, that doesn’t mean a whole lot. It’s home to about 300 people, and “downtown” consists of a single road curving toward the port. But despite its small size, Hólmavík is surprisingly lively. I couldn’t believe how many cars were cruising around, nor the number of tourists.

The town’s big draw is the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. The Black Arts have a long history in the Westfjords. Life was hard in this isolated, northern peninsula, and people occasionally turned to magic to meet their needs. Whether it was to manipulate the weather, gain wealth, punish enemies or win love, the budding sorcerer could always find a spell, sacrifice, rune or incantation which might prove useful.

Need to render yourself invisible for some nefarious reason? Easy. Just paint the sign of Hulinhjálmur on a piece of lignite. But you have to use a special kind of ink, prepared in the following way:

“Collect three drops of blood from the index finger of your left hand, three from the ring finger of your right hand, two from your right nipple and one from your left nipple. Mix the blood with six drops of blood from the heart of a living raven and melt it all with the raven’s brain and pieces of a human stomach. Carve the sign on the lignite with magnetic steel which has been hardened three times in human blood.”
Icelandic Sorcery

Maybe it’s not quite so important to be invisible, after all. Instead, let’s create a monster to steal goat milk. A “tilberi”. That sounds cute!

“To acquire a tilberi, a woman has to steal a human rib from a churchyard in the early hours of Whit Sunday, wrap it in gray wool and keep it between her breasts. The next three times she takes Holy Communion, she must spit the sacramental wine over the bundle. The third spurt of holy wine will bring the tilberi to life. When it grows larger and the ‘mother’ can no longer conceal it in her bosom, she must cut loose a piece of skin on the inside of her thigh and make a nipple which the tilberi will hang on to, and draw nourishment from her body fluids.”

Forget it. And I’m not even going to get into “Necropants”. You can just look that one up, yourself.

The museum is full of fascinating/horrifying information like this. Along with the specifics of the spells, it tells the stories of people who were executed for employing them. Twenty sorcerers were put to death during 17th century witch hunts in the Westfjords, almost all of them men. The most infamous persecutor of witches was Jón Mangússon, a Lutheran pastor from Ísafjörður who had the tendency to accuse neighbors who had slighted him in some way.

We loved the Sorcery Museum. It’s not very large, but was one of the rare museums in which we avidly read every bit of information posted. Hólmavík is worth seeing in its own right, but this collection of stories from the Westfjords’ dark past warrants an extended stop.

Location on our Iceland Map
Strandagaldur: The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery and Witchcraft – Website

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August 25, 2013 at 7:08 pm Comment (1)

A Concise History of Iceland

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Geologically speaking, Iceland is one of the Earth’s newborns. The island didn’t even exist until after the age of dinosaurs had passed, and it was the last European territory to be settled. Iceland continues to grow, still firmly in its adolescence, but its short history has been a volatile one. Whether they’ve been dealing with abusive Danes, glaciers, the plague or volcanic ash, Icelanders have had it rough. Here’s a rundown of the biggest events in the country’s history.


This incredible topographical map of Iceland can be found in the Ráðhúsið (City Hall) in Reykjavik
20 million BC Iceland is formed by a series of volcanic explosions along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and European tectonic plates are pulling away from each other.
847 AD Norseman Ingólfur Arnarson settles down in present-day Reykjavík. For the next 150 years, scores of his countrymen follow, driven out of Norway by the harsh rule of King Harald the Fair-Haired.
930 The first annual Alþing, or parliament, is convened to govern the fledgling country, and the Saga Age commences. The exploits of Iceland’s founders are passed down orally, and eventually written out in magnificent manuscripts which would become the country’s greatest treasures.
1000 At the millennial Alþing, leaders vote to adopt Catholicism as the island’s sole religion, abandoning the Viking paganism of their ancestors. There are a few fights, but the conversion is remarkably peaceful.
~1000 Around the same time as the Catholic conversion, and five centuries before Christopher Columbus’s voyage, Icelandic explorer Leif Ericson discovers North America, which he calls Vinland.
1262 Iceland cedes its sovereignty to Norway and thus begins a 682-year period of vassalage to foreign powers. In 1380, power shifts to the Danish Empire.
1402 The Black Death arrives in Iceland. Half of the island’s population succumbs, just shortly after a massive volcanic explosion in 1386 which had devastated crops. Unhappy days in Iceland.
1602 Denmark squeezes its vice-like grip on Iceland with the introduction of a trade monopoly. Until 1786, Iceland is only allowed to trade with Denmark, and at absurdly unfair rates, leaving Icelanders in a perpetual state of financial misery.
1786 Laki erupts. What, never heard of Laki? The deadliest volcanic eruption in history, Laki spews clouds of sulfur dioxide that cause famine as far away as India. 25% of Iceland’s population is killed, and Laki is credited with over six million deaths across the globe. The crop loss attributable to Laki is one of the main factors which led to the French Revolution.
1944 World War II may have devastated Europe, but it’s a boon to little Iceland. British and American forces use the strategically-situated island as a base, and introduce roads and airports. On June 17th, 1944, Iceland is finally able to declare independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark.
1975 Iceland engages England in the closest its ever come to a military skirmish, after unilaterally extending its territorial waters to cope with dwindling cod stocks. The Icelandic coast guard cuts nets and rams foreign vessels, and the Brits send in the Royal Navy. The Cod Wars end only after Iceland threatens to close a NATO base on the island, forcing England to back down.
2008 Iceland’s banks had been deregulated in 2001, and suspect banking practices ensued almost immediately, setting the stage for the dramatic financial crisis of 2008. The stock market falls by 90% and customers across Europe find their accounts frozen. The government resigns, and all of the nation’s banks collapse.
2013 and Beyond… Iceland has emerged from its financial crisis just as strong as before, and with a pragmatic vision for its future. Using the landscape to its favor, Iceland has developed its natural geothermal and hydroelectric sources and is nearly energy independent. With one of the world’s most highly-educated populations and lowest crime rates, the country is well-poised to prosper in the future… at least until it’s ripped apart by volcanoes.

Read About The History Of Iceland (Books)

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August 1, 2013 at 6:59 pm Comment (1)
Vestmannyjar: The Westman Islands Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.
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