It’s an hour’s drive from the capital to Borgarnes, and, on this Good Friday morning, old-time Southern gospel seems a fitting soundtrack for the familiar bucolic stretch of Route One that normally constitutes a forgettable leg of long-haul treks northward. I’ve not even finished my first cup of joe as we glide across the narrow causeway over Borgarfjörður and arrive at the rocky spit of land on which Borgarnes stands. The town’s proximity to the capital—and the drab collection of gas stations and supermarkets that line the highway—make it tempting to write off Borgarnes as a scenically situated rest stop. But turning off the Ring Road and exploring Borgarnes reveals an unexpectedly endearing little town, steeped in the memory of its medieval past.
After clearing the charmless hub of roadside amenities, we cruise down Borgarnes’s main thoroughfare towards the tip of the peninsula. First, we explore Hlíðartúnshúsin, where several turf houses from the early twentieth century remain tucked into the rocky hillside. Continuing through the modest town centre, we pass Skallagrímsgarður, a small wooded park and the purported burial site of Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, who first settled this area in the ninth century. At the peninsula’s end, we cross a narrow bridge to the island of Brákarey—a post-industrial graveyard of automotive bric-a-brac. Old cars and buses rust in varying states of disrepair and a bright pink VW camper stands out against the backdrop of rocky islets jutting from waters which, at low tide, reflect the bright afternoon sunshine. Tucked amidst the warehouses are the town’s Transportation Museum and Antique Car Exhibition, which are closed for the holiday.
After our exploratory jaunt through town, we stop into the Settlement Centre, which houses exhibitions on the medieval settlement of Iceland and Egils Saga, which takes place chiefly in this region. Equipped with an audio guide, we work our way through the labyrinth of dioramas and infographics that help visualise the circumstances of 9th century settlers and illustrate the lore of local hero Egill Skallagrímsson. With displays built of repurposed wood and found objects, the Egils Saga exhibition in particular is tastefully folksy.
The expressive wooden sculptures that fill the exhibit were built by artist Aðalheiður Eysteinsdóttir, whose congenial statues appear in the lobbies of Icelandair hotels throughout the country. In the Settlement Centre’s restaurant, we gorge ourselves on a wholesome buffet of salads and roasted vegetables—a welcome departure from the heavy fare that more commonly fills my gut beyond Reykjavík’s city limits. We climb the hill behind the Settlement Centre where a monument commemorates Egill’s nurse, Þorgerður brák, for whom Brákarey is named. Egils Saga recounts how Skallagrímur, Egill’s father, chased Þorgerður into the sea here and hurled a boulder at her, causing her to drown and infuriating young Egill. The grim tale taints the impressive vista with an unsavoury aftertaste.
Coffee and kitsch
We drive up one of the town’s hilly roads to our accommodation at Borgarnes Bed and Breakfast. Soporific sunlight shines through the home’s ample windows. The dining room window affords a sweeping view of the waters and islets of Borgarfjörður, perfectly framing Litla Brákarey, a small island that, depending on the tides, can be reached on foot. We clamber down to the beach to attempt the crossing, but decide to stay on the shore when viscous mud encases our boots on the first step.
Drowsy from the walk, we recharge on coffee and cakes at Kaffi Kyrrð, which is also the town’s florist. Kitschy décor and sanguine platitudes (“Dream, Hope, Love”) make Kyrrð feel more like a great-aunt’s living room than a place of business, and indeed the handful of locals sitting in the café seem completely at home, chatting breezily while sinking into couches as we plot our next move.
The mid-spring sun begins its idle descent as we drive forty minutes inland along mostly dirt roads towards Krosslaug hotpot. A sign in Latin and Icelandic at the beginning of the trail announces that Icelanders from the West were baptised here in the year 1000. Indeed, the medieval Kristni Saga confirms the proclivities of certain Icelanders who eschewed cold water christening in favour of a more soothing experience. It’s hard to blame them: the water in the small, mossy pool steams at a comfortable 43˚ C. We soak for hours, undaunted by errant snowflakes and glacial winds, as the sun continues to sink behind the mountains. By the time we return to Borgarnes, diner food is the only hot meal available, but after our refreshing, languid dunk, I have no reason to complain. We return to the B&B and call it a night.
The next day, as I sip my morning coffee, the view out the dining room window has changed completely: seas entirely encompass Litla Brákarey and pregnant clouds hang above. We nosh on a sumptuous breakfast spread whipped up by Bertha, the proprietor of Borgarnes Bed and Breakfast: hot pancakes and several varieties of freshly baked breads. Before leaving, we take a final spin around town, climbing to the hilltop church for a final view of Borgarnes and the snow-peaked mountains that dwarf it; nascent grassy patches are beginning their yearly ascent up the mountainside. After 25 minutes of driving, the spire of Hallgrímskirkja is already visible from the road. I’m surprised for a moment, but then remember that I’m already halfway home.