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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.

HELP Iceland

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)

The Saga Museum

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Like most countries, Iceland has its share of legends from the time of its founding. But unlike most countries, Iceland’s legends are about Vikings, guaranteed to be bloody and exciting. For the uninitiated, the country’s sagas have been brought to life in the excellent Saga Museum.

Cutting Off Breasts

(Note: The Saga Museum has moved to a new location down by the harbor. This post was written when the museum was still found within the Perlan Building — please check with the official website for the new location.)

The Perlan is one of Reykjavík’s most distinctive buildings. Set on a hill just south of town, its glass dome sits atop four huge water storage containers, and is visible from all over the city. The building is a touristic sight in its own right, with artificial geysers both indoors and outside. There’s a souvenir shop, a cafe with an excellent panoramic view of the city, and a revolving restaurant on the fifth floor. And there’s the Saga Museum, found within one of the water tanks.

At 2000 krona ($16), the museum’s entry price probably puts a lot of visitors off, but if you have any interest in the sagas or Icelandic history, it’s worthwhile. An audio guide is included, leading you between the various exhibitions, almost all of which are engaging. You’re immersed in the world of the Vikings, and introduced to their most famous legends, taken straight from the sagas.

The models are eerily lifelike, and some of the scenes are terrifically violent. Perhaps the most striking is the one of Freydís Eiríksdóttir who, when threatened by the natives of Greenland, terrified them into retreat by threatening to chop off one of her own breasts. (Unconventional, but it would scare the crap out of me too. “Just leave your boob alone, lady! I’ll leave!”) You’ll also see the martyrdom of Jón Arason, Iceland’s last Catholic bishop, who met a gruesome fate after the island embraced the Reformation.

The audio guide takes about 45 minutes to complete, bringing you to seventeen different displays. At the end, there’s a chance to don some Viking gear, and a video demonstrating how the museum came to life.

Locations on our Map: Saga Museum | Perlan Building (New Location)
Saga Museum – Website

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August 11, 2013 at 6:13 pm Comment (1)

The Southern Coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula

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The day after our soul-crushing 20-mile trek out of Hellissandur, we hopped on a bus run by Snæfellsnes Excursions which brought us around the southern coast of the peninsula. Sitting in a bus all day and basking in the awe-inspiring scenery of the Snæfellsnes without any walking involved? That was exactly what our aching bones were hoping for.

Djúpalónssandur Iceland

Our first stop was at a black-stone beach called Djúpalónssandur. Huge, craggy rock formations surround the small inlet, which until recently had been an important fishing port. You can still find the remains of a shipwreck on the shore, and although we didn’t see them, there are four famous lifting stones on the beach, used to measure the strength of new fishermen. Fullsterkur (Strong: 154 kg), Hálfsterkur (Halfstrong: 100 kg), Hálfdrættingur (Half-as-good: 54 kg) and Amlóði (Lightweight: 23 kg).

 Arnastapi Photo Arche

The next stop on our tour was Hellnar, connected to neighboring village Arnastapi by a short trail leading along the peninsula’s most spectacular coastline. We were amazed by the strange rock formations, blowholes, birds and sheer cliffs of lava, along the one hour trail. One of the best formations is found at the trail’s head: Gatklettur, a huge arch through which sea birds are constantly soaring. We enjoyed this easy, mostly downhill walk immensely.

Ytri Tunga Beach

After picking us up in Arnastapi, our bus stopped at Ytri Tunga on the southeastern side of Snæfellsnes. This beach is well-known for its seals, but today they were nowhere to be found, which was a disappointment. Instead, there were just a couple of Icelanders on the beach, playing with their Golden Lab. The dog was happy and cute, chasing sticks into the ocean, but secretly I blamed him for scaring the seals away. Secretly, I hated him.

We ended our day at the crossroads of Vegamot, where we had some coffee in the gas station and waited for the bus to Reykjavík. The day was exactly what we had been hoping for: an easy and inexpensive way to see the highlights of the southern part of the peninsula, without any thought or planning necessary. If you’re looking for something similar, I’d give Snæfellsnes Excursions a ring. We paid about $30 apiece, from Hellissandur to Vegamot. By Icelandic standards, that’s a serious bargain.

Locations on our Iceland Map: Djúpalónssandur | Hellnar | Arnastapi | Ytri Tunga

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August 10, 2013 at 1:02 pm Comments (3)

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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