Medieval Scholars and Hot Tub Enthusiasts

Medieval Scholars and Hot Tub Enthusiasts

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Summer is practically over. That means that the mild weather we’ve had will soon be replaced by cold winds, rain and, eventually, snow. For residents of Iceland, the long winter is traditionally a harbinger of extended stays indoors with books—stories to keep them warm while the rain, snow and wind blusters about outside. In days of old, books and stories were the primary source of recreation during the dark winter months (before the invention of skis). Today, Iceland has enough fantastic museums, libraries, old churches, restaurants and research institutes to entertain anyone. And of course, the brave traveller may walk outside in the wintry months to see the beautiful landscape of the country.

I am one such traveller. I am a lifelong bibliophile, and consider myself to be a history buff. One of my favourite activities is curling up with a good book during a cold night. Having fully embraced the dropping mercury, I set out with my favourite photographer, Art, to explore the famed Borgarfjörður. We started in Reykholt.

Borgarfjörður is for book lovers
Situated forty kilometres north of Reykjavík, Reykholt is a hub of cultural history and the final resting place of renowned poet and politician, Snorri Sturluson. The large building that looks like a church also functions as a museum, library, and institute of research. Talk about a triple threat.

When I went inside, I saw walls and tables full of books. I felt more than welcome. Our guide, Sigrún Guttormsdóttir, greeted us warmly and gave us a brief history about Snorri. The man was a genius. While Genghis Khan was invading China, Russia and Poland, Snorri was writing the Eddic poems and Egill’s Saga. While Francis of Assisi was founding the order of mendicant monks, Snorri was building himself a hot tub—which is still there. You can see it and even touch the water, which is still warm. But, trust me, the museum directors get very mad if you strip down to bathe in it.

Snorri also constructed a large fortress from materials imported from Norway, to house his library and residence. This was a man who liked to enjoy life and knew how to do it. He was also a prolific writer, a shrewd politician, and one of the richest men in Iceland at the time. If you want to get the whole story of his life—which I highly recommend—you’ll have to visit Reykholt and haveSigrún show you around.

Sigrún Guttormsdottir leads the way

Sigrún Guttormsdottir leads the way

From the museum, we went upstairs and visited the church. A relatively new structure, the church was finished in 1996. Beautiful stained glass windows loom over the sanctuary, casting the light of day over the congregation, and changing colour depending on the time of day and weather. A 500-year-old baptismal font stands in front of an artefact depicting the crucifixion of Christ, which is just as old as the font. The pedestal which holds the font is much newer, and was a gift from Norway to the institute, continuing Snorri’s tradition of sourcing goods from our Nordic cousins.

The institute conducted excavations in 2008, which unearthed the ruins of Snorri’s house and the plumbing which brought the water from the hot springs to his hot tub—plumbing which is intact to this day. The materials for excavation were (you guessed it) imported from Norway. It seems they are just as interested in the history of a man with strong connections to their nation as Iceland is.

Try the meatballs
After the taxing mental stimulation of Reykholt, our bodies required sustenance. At the nearby Brúarás cafe, Art and I refuelled with a cheeseburger and meatballs—two separate dishes, though I would totally eat cheeseburger meatballs—that were very clearly served with pride. The restaurateur runs a farm where she sources her meat.

You don’t want to miss these falls
To cap off the excitement of the day, and to work off those meals, we walked around Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. The name of the latter translates to “waterfall of the children,” and is so named due to a tragedy that occurred long ago. The story is that two children from a nearby farm were playing around the falls when they tried to cross the natural bridge to the other side. Sadly, they never made it there. They fell into the falls, prompting their grieving mother to destroy the bridge, and the falls have been so named ever since. Hraunfossar, on the other hand, is a vast collection of creeks that come together and run down rocks that have been formed by lava flow. Hence its name, which translates to “lava falls.”

As far as autumn, or winter—hell, even spring or summer—road trips go, you can’t go wrong with a drive to Borgarfjörður.

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