“It’s not the destination, it’s the journey”, have you ever heard that one? Even upon arrival at Keflavík International Airport the traveller is reminded of the Chatwinesque saying, as it stands out on the Hertz Car Rental ads along the corridors. And yet, in the case of Icelandic winter, that same statement could be taken as a warning or witty advice, rather than a philosophical outlook on the experience of visiting places. Even when travelling by car, sudden waves of cold and bad weather can actually play havoc with the plans of the most intrepid and systematic journeyman: as the snow and the ice sever all communication, access to (and escape from!) entire localities becomes indeterminately forbidden, until conditions get favourable for the Road Administration’s snowploughs to do their job. In this sense, a well-architected trip is not necessarily the one relying on accurate and defined plans, but rather entailing no plans at all. Being ready to change route at any time in order to avoid the blizzard, lending space to flexibility and improvisation, privileging the fact of moving around over reaching prefixed destinations, being content with what discoveries the course of events will lead to – under particular circumstances, these represent the founding pillars of organisational wisdom.
I became most acutely aware of this simple truth – and of the joys offered by roaming without actual goals – on the occasion of my last escape from Reykjavík. I had set out with the intention to reach Látravík in the Northwest Fjords, and stand on Europe’s westernmost point; I found myself drifting from farm to farm somewhere else, in an almost archaeological quest, a few hundred kilometres away from my original destination.
Challenging the Weather Gods
As I left town, the forecast was not ominous. But, as occasionally happens, simply inaccurate. By the time I reached Búðardalur – almost a midway point on the way to the Northwest Fjords – in the afternoon premature darkness, large flakes of snow had started descending, already covering all stripes of asphalt in an impenetrable mantle. The storm had reached the western coast a couple of days ahead of expectations. I called the Road Administration switchboard for advice – “It is difficult to make predictions,” they told me, “but if you go forth, be prepared for the eventuality of being stuck in the most remote parts of the fjords quite longer than you wish.” I pulled eastwards: the forecast – if it still was to be trusted – was giving fair weather over the north-central part of the country for the next few days. An initial sense of malaise accompanied me as my plans went up in the air.
As one travels in the midst of Icelandic winter, erratic and sometimes prohibitive weather conditions represent only one of the possible sources of surprises – generally, the least welcome. Another class of unforeseen events can be brought along by other factors and circumstances, such as, the facts that the tourist flow is nearly null at this time of the year, and that Iceland remains a country characterised by a very high and diffused sense of trust. As I reached the Sæberg youth hostel in Hrútafjörður, what I found was – not so unexpectedly – an utterly unlit white building, almost camouflaged in the snowy surroundings. No sign of life. A note on the door suggested contacting the warden by phone.
“Good evening. I am travelling around, would it be possible to get sleeping bag accommodation at the hostel for tonight?”
“Sure, just go in and pick your room. The door is open. Have a good sleep.”
If I was amazed to find the door unlocked – I hadn’t tried the chance myself – I was even more amazed by being let alone the whole time: nobody showed up, neither to make sure all was in order, nor to collect payment for my overnight stay.
In the Country of Grettir
The bays of Hrútafjörður, Miðfjörður, Húnafjörður, and Skagafjörður follow one another in a peaceful and almost lazy succession, so different from the jagged and nervous inlets of the northwestern coast. They are the maritime border of a vast agricultural area, renowned for its horses, its farms and its history. While most foreign visitors tend to traverse the region without lingering – a sort of rush-through between Reykjavík and Akureyri – Skagafjörður in particular has become a favourite with the locals, in virtue of the many possibilities for hiking, horseback riding, and especially river rafting that a largely unspoilt nature offers in summertime. Quite evidently, none of these activities go well with the winter harshness, and my visit had to be limited to sightseeing and digging into the area’s historical heritage.
A few kilometres from the main road, lies the farm Bjarg, birth- and resting place of Grettir Ásmundsson, the hero/antihero protagonist of the Saga of Grettir the Strong. The exploration of the Icelandic past and its remains is largely an immersion into the cruel and inspiring world of the sagas, an in-between territory where myth and historical truth find themselves inextricably blended. National history here seems inscribed into the evocative power of the toponyms, as they recall the deeds of a hero, the refuge of an outlaw, the occurrence of a prodigy… In such a context, the visitor is not summoned to stand in awe before monumental vestiges of a glorious past, but rather to fill in the gaps in the landscape, drawing from their own knowledge and imagination.
The territory between Bjarg and Sauðárkrókur – the largest settlement in the whole region – is all a dense collection of similar locations, backdrops to Grettir’s roaming and violent deeds. All the way to Drangey, in the middle of the Skagafjörður fjord, the inaccessible islet where the saga hero found first refuge and eventually his doom, betrayed by witchcraft and by his untrustworthy slave.
While the island of Drangey can be reached by ferry only during summer, it offers – together with its sheer, impregnable cliffs – a most spectacular sight throughout the winter months, as it appears frighteningly close in the cold arctic light. It first revealed its presence to me as I drove my way around the perimeter of the Skagi peninsula – a highly scenic road, along low but menacing cliffs, solitary lighthouses, and scattered farms. Sculptures of ice adorning the fences, and a surreal whiteness spread over the land. The car thermometer read, a not so indulgent, –7º outside. It is probably true: when traversing similar scenery, the pleasure of simply being there can be such, that any thoughts about direction and getting somewhere become basically irrelevant. Not that I expect to have been so keen on these considerations, on those very moments: more likely, I was dwelling on concern for the thick layer of ice covering the steep track, or on the violent wind drifting the snow towards the North; possibly, on a warm sense of thankfulness for having a 4WD at my disposal.
Sauðárkrókur may well be the most populated settlement in the area – and even the second-largest town in North Iceland, for accuracy’s sake. As I saw it in the dwindling, blue-hued light of the afternoon, all gathered around its church, however, it just looked cutely sleepy as a small crib under a bell glass. With a certain disappointment I found the entrance to Kaffi Krókur shut – the somehow celebrated one and only local bar, occasionally hosting remarkable live music events – and I had to feel content with the rather discomforting coffee one is usually served at any gas station.
Although the island of Drangey keeps stealing the horizon away from the coast, Sauðárkrókur’s real landmark is represented by Tindastóll, the mighty massif towering straight above the Ocean’s waters, only a few kilometres north of the town. And at its root, Grettislaug, the hot spring pool where Grettir the Strong supposedly bathed, after swimming the four miles of sea that separated the coast from his refuge on the islet of Drangey. Immersion into the pool’s water felt comfortably warm, but the idea of an oceanic swim could only evoke cold thoughts.
I found overnight accommodation at a farmhouse in Hegranes, a short way east of Sauðárkrókur. Again, I didn’t really have to struggle for space with fellow visitors, finding myself as the only guest in an overly comfortable six-person cottage. And again, further historical reminders around me: for some three centuries, Hegranes used to be an assembly site, where the chieftainships of Skagafjörður met to hold festivities, as well as settle feuds and legal cases. One of these assemblies was also the occasion for one of Grettir’s most infamous exploits.
Waking up to a glorious dawn the next day convinced me that pulling eastwards and avoiding the blizzard had actually been a wise decision. Staring at a morning sun raising among conically-shaped mountains, piercing the clouds, and casting its warmth over a white-clad country can be a most fulfilling sight (especially after a pleasant sleep): it’ll be an uncomfortable season, but winter at these latitudes can definitely have its moments.
Þingeyrar is referred to as one of the fundamental historical locations in Iceland. Once the site of an important monastery, today only a 19th-century church is left on the spot, inspiring in its solitude as it stands out in the magnificent surroundings: on the eastern side the imposing Víðidalsfjall massif, on the western one the Hóp lagoon, flat and smooth like a mirror in a windless day.
Even more fascinating I found the visit to Borgarvirki, a mysterious fortress-like natural enclosure, formed by tall columns of basalt. Despite being an established archaeological site (traces of human activity have been certified) its purpose is still obscure. As often in Iceland, legend and history intertwine, and tradition from the saga wants Borgarvirki to have been a military defence post – the only castle in the country, as the information plate at the parking lot proudly recites. Whatever the case, the place holds a strong, arcane charm, and on such a clear day as the one I was luckily given to enjoy, the view from the top can be utterly stunning, as the gaze effortlessly reaches the highlands of Kjölur, and the great Langjökull and Eiríksjökull glaciers.
The completely still weather and starlit sky I enjoyed on the way to Reykjavík felt like ironic counterpoints to the strong snowstorm warning that forced me to change the course of my trip, just a few days before. And yet, as I thought back, I found no actual reason for complaining about the final outcome. After all, there had been something highly revealing to this casual and totally improvised itinerary. As a trekker and outdoor enthusiast, I had never felt much attraction for the investigation of historical Iceland: I always thought that more about the place is told by its nature than by its past. And I will not claim that my outlook has been entirely modified, in the wake of this last experience – at least enriched, however, yes: that’s no overstatement. Especially in the short days of winter, sightseeing and bedtime stories make up for a most healthy mix, one that by no means should be underrated.
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