In this three-part post, the intrepid Bobbi (aka Borghilde) Speck gives us all the news that’s fit to print on Literary Iceland: Isle of Awe, 2014. Led by Mark Cwik and Ann Kirkland, a group of travellers read, ate, and hiked their way through this astonishing country. Did they encounter any elves? You’ll have to read on to find out.
Day 1 (August 30): The First Evening (Ann penned this post while Bobbi donned Borghilde duds)
Tonight far surpassed my expectations. Renowned soprano Lilja Gudmundsdottir and world-acclaimed bass Bjarni Thor Kristinsson, accompanied by a great pianist, sang a wonderful array of classical and traditional Icelandic songs. Many sounded very much like German lieder, and one had strong echoes of Schubert/Goethe’s “Erlkönig,” a piece that figures prominently in the first book we will discuss, Halldór Laxness’s The Fish Can Sing.
What a curious and admirable place this island is. We are so used to having infinite human and geographic resources. Here they are limited by a tiny population, linguistic obscurity, nowhere to run, a harsh climate, and barren landscapes. Such beauty and resourcefulness. Lots of Scandinavia but also much reminiscent of Newfoundland.
After a delicious dinner, a bunch of us hung around the fireplace in the hotel lobby getting to know one another over a glass of brennivín (Iceland’s locally produced caraway-flavoured spirit).
Day 2 (August 31): Reykjavik The City Centre (Over to Borghilde)
A day on our feet—pouring rain and gale force winds! (Note to self: bring rain pants next time. Also water-repellent rather than water-resistant outerwear, and a rain hat with a peak so hood doesn’t drop to nose and block vision!). We had a great walk around town and out to the National Museum for a guided tour to learn about Iceland’s heritage. Various sites were pointed out along the way.
We had lunch at the Nordic House cultural centre, which was designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, including the furnishings. Delicious lunch of fresh cod—nothing like cod at home. It’s light and flaky, not fishy, poached in kelp and butter broth. (Ask for a spoon.) We looked at an art exhibit there, as well as a beautiful library which had a Steinway grand piano among the books.
The rain stopped, the sun came out, and we had dried off in the museum. We had a leisurely literary and historical walking tour of parts of the city which figured in the setting of Halldór Laxness’s novel The Fish Can Sing. Found a lane I want live in! Occasionally you find park benches which are Wi-Fi hotspots for a literary tour app. Also some parks have general Wi-Fi hotspots. At the university bus stop there is a shelter with special lighting for the students to counteract SAD in the dark days. Icelanders look after each other. I’ve found Iceland to be an intelligent, literate, caring society which fosters the pursuit of physical activity as well as intellectual and cultural endeavours. Very civilized.
We roamed around on our own for a while. Great shops! Dinner at an excellent tapas restaurant called Tapas Barinn. Licorice ice cream was fab. Whale, puffin and pony were on the menu.
Lively group. Having a blast. Got to do some reading for the discussion tomorrow morning!
Day 3 (September 1): Reykjavik: Art and Design
We had our first discussion, on The Fish Can Sing. Terrific discussion. High energy and participation; careful reading; animated, articulate comments. Our guide, Yrsa, joined us and offered the general opinions of Icelanders on this country’s favourite Laxness book. The manager of Reykjavik’s largest independent book store visited us and we had a discussion about the phenomena of reading and publishing in this little country.
Then we went on a bus excursion to the Reykjavik outskirts to explore Icelandic art and design, stopping first at the Asmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum.
Next to the Botanic Garden in Laugardalur, where we had a delicious lunch in the greenhouse restaurant Flora. Our table had qualms about eating the flowers in our salads in this setting, imagining screams of protest from the gardens.
Next up is a guided tour of Halldór Laxness’s home, then on to the new Museum of Design and Applied Art in the town of Gardabaer.
Dinner was on our own, and three of us went to the famous fish ’n’ chips restaurant on the waterfront, finishing with an after-dinner drink at a Parisian bistro.
It rained off and on during the day, but the rain affected only our walk in the Botanic Gardens and the petting zoo (which has seals along with the typical domesticated farm animals).
Another great day!
Day 4 (September 2): Thingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss Waterfall
A day of exploring. We checked out of our Reykjavik hotel and headed for the country in our big bus. Off and on rain again, but we’ve gotten quite used to it.
On these bus trips our guide Yrsa had been giving us short lectures on a variety of subjects. One day she talked about trolls, elves, the 13 Yule Lads, and the current belief in elves. She also discussed Icelandic history and economics, and gave a particularly lucid explanation about how Iceland pulled out of the 2008 economic crisis.
Our trip took us to Thingvellir National Park: we walked through the tectonic rift which divides Iceland in half—one side is the European plate, the other the North American. Fabulous black craggy rocks that sometimes suggest figures prompted us to give some thought to trolls. The section of rift we walked is the setting of the next season of Game of Thrones. A bizarre landscape, particularly when we consider its geological significance: Iceland is splitting apart by two centimeters a year.
The lakes and waterfalls are beautiful; Arctic char and trout are large and plentiful. We saw the place of the orginal Althing (Icelandic assembly of chieftains, their parliament, dating from 930) and a spot on the lake where 20 witches were drowned in the 1600s. It was an unusual punishment in this country, but one fitting the times.
The door to the little church is approximately 4 inches taller than me, as I would have been the average height of a man.
Then on to Geysir, where we watched a few erupt from time to time, spraying us with hot sulphurous droplets, much like at Yellowstone.
We ended at Gullfoss Waterfall, which is simply spectacular. Wild! More exciting than Niagara Falls because we could walk around it and over it in places, and watch the water charge into the gully. Breathtaking.
It was a two-hour drive through beautiful countryside dotted with sheep and horses to our home base for the next three nights, a working farm with a hotel, in Fljotshlid. I saw pigs as we drove in, and Icelandic horses outside my window.
Dinners at the farm were all made from produce that came from here or from nearby farms, including carpaccio, cod, and vegetables. Simply delicious. On this trip I’ve had cod three times and Arctic char once: they’re caught in these northern waters and are very fresh.
The group has really come together and are quite festive at meals and as we explore. I am loving every minute!
I am especially impressed by Icelandic culture. Ancient mythology is still a part of the Icelandic culture and sensibility, borne out in the literature and reinforced by the landscape. A fascinating society.
Click here for Part 2.