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The Settlement Center in Borgarnes

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The town of Borgarnes is a standard stopping point for buses from Reykjavík headed toward the north. Although we had been here many times, we hadn’t seen anything except the bus stop’s bathroom. Turns out, there are better places to spend time in Borgarnes, such as the wonderful Landnámssetur Íslands, the Settlement Center of Iceland.

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Who could have suspected that the best museum we had yet visited in Iceland would be found in tiny Borgarnes? The Settlement Center completely won us over. The museum’s two floors are dedicated to different exhibitions. On top, you’ll learn about the Settlement Era, while below is a vivid re-telling of Egil’s Saga. You can buy a ticket to one or the other, but it would be foolish not to buy the reduced-price combined ticket. Both exhibitions are well worth your time and money.

Presentation is everything in the Settlement Center. The audio guide is included in the entrance price, and is an essential part of the experience. The narrator describes the displays and explains the story of Iceland’s early days. The exhibits are marvelously done. Artistic, compelling, never boring. There’s a theatrical touch to both the visual displays and the narration, and the 45-minute tour passes in a heartbeat. It came as no surprise to learn that the museum’s founders are former theater people. They certainly know how to put on a show.

As much as we loved the upper floor, we enjoyed the exhibition dedicated to Egil’s Saga even more. Egil Skallagrímmson was a Viking poet/settler/murderer/maniac whose tale is told in one of Iceland’s most riveting sagas (believed to have been scribed by Reykholt’s Snorri Sturluson). One of western literature’s earliest antiheroes, Egil is horrifically ugly, cruel, and prone to outrageous fits of violence. But he’s also a gifted poet, highly intelligent and loyal to his beliefs.

I had read his saga before visiting the museum, and couldn’t wait to see how the action-packed story would be portrayed. With beautiful wood-cut figures and a stirring audio narration, the museum didn’t disappoint. Jürgen hadn’t read the saga, but enjoyed the presentation just as much as me. Again, the founders’ theatrical sensibilities created an experience which can be appreciated by all.

At about $20, the combined ticket price is nothing to sneeze at, but this museum is worth the expense. Even if you’re just passing through Borgarnes on a north-bound bus, try and find the time to visit the Landnámssetur Íslands.

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October 1, 2013 at 6:16 pm Comment (1)

Þjóðmenningarhúsið: The Culture House

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Nothing is so important to Iceland’s cultural identity as its sagas. Transposed onto vellum leaf by anonymous scribes in the 13th and 14th centuries, these are the blood-soaked stories of the country’s settlement. Today, the best collection can be found in the Þjóðmenningarhúsið, or the Culture House.

Culture House Reykjavik

The Þjóðmenningarhúsið might be dedicated to preserving and sharing Icelandic heritage, but it’s housed inside Reykjavík’s most non-Icelandic building. The ostentatious neoclassic museum sticks out like a sore thumb amid all the painted corrugated iron of the capital, looking like a lost visitor from Vienna. In the past, the National Library and National Museum had been based here, but today the Þjóðmenningarhúsið is focused on preserving Iceland’s sagas.

Among the treasures on display is the Flateyjarbok. This beautifully lettered and illustrated document was written toward the end of the 14th century and includes the Greenland Saga, which details Leif Erikson’s explorations of North America. Also present is the hugely influential Codex Regius, the world’s oldest and most important source of information about Old Norse mythology.

For most of modern history, these manuscripts had been kept sealed away in the Royal Library of Copenhagen, requisitioned by Iceland’s callous colonial masters. It was only after a 70-year legal struggle that they were finally returned. The sagas had come to represent a missing piece of Icelandic identity and their reacquisition sparked jubilant celebrations from Reykjavík to Akureryi.

Other exhibitions found in the Culture House include modern Icelandic paintings and an examination of the life of Jón Sigurðsson, one of the heroes of independence. There’s also a small library to relax or study in. But it’s the presence of the manuscripts and the chance to learn what makes them so important which really makes the Culture House worth visiting.

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The Culture House: Þjóðmenningarhúsið – Website

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September 6, 2013 at 4:01 pm Comments (0)

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)
The Settlement Center in Borgarnes The town of Borgarnes is a standard stopping point for buses from Reykjavík headed toward the north. Although we had been here many times, we hadn't seen anything except the bus stop's bathroom. Turns out, there are better places to spend time in Borgarnes, such as the wonderful Landnámssetur Íslands, the Settlement Center of Iceland.
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