Tuesday 5 November 2013--Our plan today is to circle SnŠfellsnes, a peninsula that is sometimes called "Iceland in Miniature". As
best I can tell, "SnŠfellsnes" rhymes, more or less, with "rifle's mess"...although, truth to tell, after hearing Icelanders speaking their
native language, I'm quite sure that nothing in Icelandic rhymes with anything in English, really. The two languages have common Germanic
origins--English through its Anglo-Saxon roots, and Icelandic via Scandinavia--and it isn't difficult to find similar words. A loaf we see
in a bakery, for example, is labeled "sex korna braud"--six-corn (grain) bread. But the two cousins have been a very long time apart.
We drive up over the pass at the base of the peninsula, from south to north, and stop for a look at the town of Stykkishˇlmur. Had we made the trip to the West Fjords, we'd have caught the ferry here. It's a pretty little town, smaller still than Borgarnes, but very attractive. We're thinking we'd have liked to spend a night here. [We are unaware at the moment that Stykkishˇlmur was one of the locations for the Ben Stiller film, The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, which would open just a few weeks after we get home.]
Then it's off to the west, along the north shore. The peninsula is about fifty miles long, with much mountainous scenery (notably the outlier Kirkjufell, "church mountain"), and the towns of Grundarfj÷rur, ËlafsvÝk, and Hellissandur, none with a population much over a thousand. At the latter, there is an outdoor museum with sod houses and whale bones, among other things.
We turn the tip of the peninsula, rounding the mountain SnŠfell and its glacier, SnŠfellsj÷kull. Jules Verne placed the portal to the center of the earth somewhere on the mountain. Nearby, we examine Saxhˇll, a small volcanic crater similar to a few we saw on our first trip to Iceland in 1999.
The afternoon is getting along, so we motor along the south side of the peninsula. Our one stop is, for me, the most important one of the day--Laugarbrekka, the site of the farm where GurÝur Ůorbjarnardˇttir was born around the year 980. GurÝur ("Gudrid" in English, usually) was probably the most widely-traveled woman of the Middle Ages. Much of what is known about her comes from the Greenland Saga and the Saga of Eirik the Red.
The Icelandic sagas are social histories of the tenth and eleventh centuries, written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, evidently after being passed down as oral history. As such, they are not entirely reliable, and indeed sometimes describe events (particularly supernatural ones) that are simply not believable. Moreover, the two Vinland sagas contradict each other on many details. They are probably, however, more rooted in fact than your average Hollywood movie "based on a true story." Like most histories, they are concerned for the most part with the actions of men. As little detail there is of GurÝur's life, it's obvious that she was a remarkable woman.
Here are the bare bones of her story: Gudrid moved to the young Greenland colony with her father and her husband, Thorir. Thorir shortly died of illness, and GurÝur married Thorstein Eiriksson, youngest brother of Leif. Together, they attempted a journey to Vinland to recover the body of Thorvald, the middle brother, killed by skrŠlings (the local natives) on an earlier trip. They were thwarted by weather, however, and shortly after their return to Greenland, Thorstein fell ill and died. Gudrid then married Thorfinn Karlsefni, a prosperous Icelandic merchant, and they were part of a large party that attempted to establish a permanent settlement in Vinland. The colony didn't last long, but Gudrid gave birth there to her son, Snorri, the first person of European heritage to be born in the Americas.
Gudrid and Thorfinn returned to Greenland, then visited Norway before resettling in Iceland. Thorfinn died shortly thereafter, leaving Gudrid a widow for the third time. She converted to Christianity, became a nun, and made a late-life pilgrimage to Rome. She lived out her life as a hermit in the convent she founded on Thorfinn's estate.
The Vinland colony established by Leif Eiriksson and his followers was a failure, but archeological evidence suggests that the Norse presence in North America went on for several centuries, as the Greenlanders traded with the Dorset people of Baffin Island, and harvested Labrador timber for treeless Greenland and Iceland. The Greenland colony itself, which peaked at about 5,000 residents, dwindled and disappeared sometime in the 15th century, at least in part because of a deteriorating climate.
I first became aware of GurÝur Ůorbjarnardˇttir by reading the novel The Sea Road, by the Scottish author Margaret Elphinstone. GurÝur's pilgimage to Rome provides the framing for the story, as she tells a transcribing monk about her life. The novel follows the sagas faithfully, their spare recitation of events fleshed out and given life by Elphinstone. As in all of her novels, there is a strong sense of geography, which is one reason she is a favorite of mine. I know she researches both places and people at great depth, and don't doubt that she has stood at Laugarbrekka, as Win and I are now.
We tromp over the site, examining the remains of a turf-built church, which was in use as late as the 1880s. The remnants of the farmstead are nearby.
[You can read the Saga of Eirik the Red at the Icelandic Saga Database. You can read the Greenland Saga, too, if your Icelandic or Old Norse are up to it--it has yet to be translated into English there.]
The afternoon is fading, so we get in the car and hustle back to Reykjavik, passing over Borgarfj÷rur and under Hvalfj÷rur. Arrive in town well after dark, check into our hotel, and go for a pint at MicroBar. Fall into chat with a couple of Airwaves attendees, and tell them we'll be at Dillon Whiskey Bar later. We say the same to a couple at Nora Magasin, where we have dinner. Everyone shows up at Dillon, and we have a nice little going-away party.