The parking lot in front of the BSÍ – Bus Station was crowded with tourists as the photographer and I arrived there early on a Wednesday morning. There were various trips scheduled to head across the country at any given minute from the bus station, and after a search we found our van, marked The Saga Circle. The group inside the van consisted of only three people: an elderly British lady, a horse-loving German and a Saga fanatic from the United States, all there ready to learn everything needed to know about the early settlers, Icelandic Vikings and the old Sagas. “You must be mad to waste a whole day for this article,” the guide said to me before we drove off. I decided to take that comment as a joke, hoping we weren’t in for a long and boring tour. As it turned out this trip was very interesting as our guide proved to be a hell of a storyteller while he drove us around the west coast following the old Vikings’ footsteps.
Thanks to Ari Fróði (Ari the Wise) and his writing of Íslendingabók, written around the year 1130, we know a lot about Iceland’s settlement, the establishment of Alþingi and the conversion to Christianity, among other important facts regarding the country’s early history. The Sagas are somewhat different from Ari’s chronicle though. They tell us in a riveting way about the generations that lived in Iceland around the year 1000 and
monumentalises their lives. The accuracy of the Sagas is somewhat disputed. Many believe that both fiction and exaggeration occur in accounts of events as the writers had to rely mostly on oral sources. Nonetheless, Icelanders take pride in the Sagas and many of them know the main characters quite well.
The west coast of Iceland was the setting for many of the Sagas so it is an ideal route to take for those interested in Iceland’s history. I was looking forward to dedicating the next eight hours to the Vikings and their voyages. It had been years since I last did anything related to the old ancestors.
“Read the Sagas. All of them. There are only 38,” our guide said to the group as we were driving out of the capital. I hadn’t realised the Sagas were so many. Only able to count seven different stories I got interrupted when our American companion blurred out with much enthusiasm: “I have read most of them, Egils Saga even three times. It is awesome!” To further show off his knowledge he started to pronounce the Vikings’ names, some of which I had never even heard before.
It is not strange that the Sagas appeal to people of different nationalities. They are exciting; some of them are even romantic and all of them have great heroes and breathtaking action sequences. They tell us about Christian influence on pagan inhabitants, of revenge and heroic battles. They describe how the warriors defended their honour by chopping someone’s head off. In my opinion, Viking adventures and wrongdoings are no less entertaining than modern thrillers.
As we drove towards Borgarfjörður our guide turned into a storyteller while he pointed to places were the Vikings lived and battled until death. He counted some colourful characters we would learn about in the next few hours, including Gunnlaugur Ormstunga, Snorri Sturluson, Hænsna Þórir, Hörður Grímkelsson and the biggest star of them all, Egill Skallagrímsson. I leaned down in my seat and made myself comfortable while I enjoyed the scenery rushing past and used my imagination to picture the action that had occurred outside over a thousand years ago.
Our first stop outside of Reykjavík was Borg á Mýrum, home of
Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, the father of Egill Skallagrímsson. We walked around the cemetery and looked at the sculpture “Sonartorrek” made by Ásmundur Sveinsson, based on a poem that Egill wrote upon learning that his second son had drowned. A lecture ensued on the importance of Borg in ancient history and we learned some interesting facts about Egill and his family.
To those unfamiliar with his legacy, let me expound a bit on his character. Egill was born in 910. He was a Viking, of course, and of the more brutish kind. According to the legend, he was only seven-years-old when he killed his first foe with an axe. In short, his future was characterised by the same behaviour until his death. When Egill was not slaughtering his enemies, he spent his days travelling to other countries and writing poetry. During his travels Egill came to possess some wealth, but as a stubborn man he was not willing to share his treasure, consisting of a great amount of silver coins, and instead buried it in the ground somewhere around Mosfellsbær. To this day, the treasure has not been found and many people believe the whole story to be a legend. On the other hand, if it is not a legend, whoever finds Egill’s silver will be a rich man.
While I thought about the hidden treasure our guide drove us to the newly opened Settlement Centre in the small town Borgarnes. Two permanent exhibitions are on display in one of Borgarnes’s oldest building, one offering an insight into the settlement of Iceland telling in detail how Iceland’s nation was born and how the society developed, the other one dedicated to Egill, where in 30 minutes you’ll get the short version of his life. The smile on the American’s face was getting bigger by the minute and he celebrated his old friend’s legacy by gulping down a beer with his name on it. Being the action hero he is, Egill naturally has a brewing factory named after him, Ölgerð Egils Skallagrímssonar.
After enjoying some traditional Icelandic meat soup, coffee and cake at the roomy restaurant, located on the second floor, we rushed back to the van. With no time to waste we made a quick stop at the waterfall Barnafoss (Children’s Waterfall) where a crowd of tourists had scattered all around the area, some hiking up the hills to get a better view, while others were having a picnic, shielded by a few tiny bushes.
We returned to the car and headed to Reykholt where a big statue of Snorri Sturluson dominates the surroundings. Reykholt was the mansion of Snorri, a writer, historian and a politician, whom some scholars have attributed with the writing of Egils Saga. Snorri, born in 1179, was an influential man in Iceland and has gained more and more respect as the years have passed, mostly for being the author of some of Iceland’s most renowned literature, like Heimskringla and Snorra-Edda. Reykholt’s old relics are a part of Iceland’s greatest heritage.
The place is more or less dedicated to Snorri with the cultural centre Snorrastofa as the main attraction, though I was more attracted to Snorralaug, a small, outdoor pool where Snorri apparently spent a lot of his time. “Imagine sitting in the pool with Snorri, old, fat and drunk, telling tales of his great victories,” the guide said to me and continued by telling the story of Snorri’s assassination, right on the same spot where we stood, for betraying Hákon, the king of Norway.
Our trip was coming to an end. The last tale had been told and my head was full of stories. On the way back to the van we came across some archaeologists digging among old ruins where a church used to stand. A few days earlier a mysterious wooden coffin had been discovered at the site. Sadly, they don’t have enough money to dig it all up, the guide explained. Whose bones are buried there will therefore be a mystery for a while.
After a quick stop at Deildartunguhver, the biggest hot spring in Europe, we concluded our trip at the restaurant Tíminn og Vatnið, where we had some refreshments. Having explored the places where some of Iceland’s greatest heroes and notables grew up, learned about their lives and legacy and listened to tales of their combats I was ready to call it a day, knowing more about the old Vikings than ever before.
Tour provided by Reykjavík Excursions, Tel.:562-1011, www.re.is
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