Day 8 (September 6): The Saga Circle
Another amazing day, and the last of our bus adventures outside Reykjavik.
This time we travelled along the southwestern coast heading north. We drove through a 3-mile long tunnel in bedrock beneath the water to cross the Hvalfjord on our way to the Borgafjord region, which is considered the most important region in Icelandic literary history. At the Settlement Centre in Borgarnes we were treated to an excellent exhibition depicting the saga of Egil, one of Iceland’s most famous warriors and poets (written by Snorri Sturluson). We also saw an equally fascinating exhibition on the first settlement of Iceland, which took place in this same region.
We were treated to a delicious lunch before boarding our bus for Reykholt, the home of Snorri Sturluson, a chieftain and one of the most important medieval Icelandic writers, considered by some to be the most influential writer of the Middle Ages. We had a most engaging lecture here at the site of Snorri’s home, given by a curator who is also a descendant. (Iceland has a genetic and medical database which can trace ancestry to the founding settlers.) After touring the grounds, church and churchyard, we went down the hill to see Snorri’s hot tub – probably the first in the world. He had the water transported through stone pipes which are still in use. We peeked into the access tunnel Snorri built from his home down the hill to the tub. It appears as though Snorri and his guests (and I) could walk upright in the tunnel. Glass shards from Europe found near the tub suggest that Snorri and his guests drank wine or champagne while they soaked.
Our next stop was Hraunfossar to view waterfalls that seep from underground rivers and splash out through the porous soft lava that covers them into a gray-white, rapid-shot river. Rain soaks through the lava and gradually reaches the rivers, exiting years later through the lava into a river flowing outside. Really wonderful to view and think about.
Our last stop was to have a picnic at Deildartunguhver, Europe’s most powerful hot spring (135 degrees). Yrsa carefully transported eggs in her bicycle helmet from the bus to the hot spring, and then boiled them in a cloth bag in the spring for 10 minutes. Tomatoes from a nearby hothouse were on sale at a little stand at the site, and together with delicious bread and butter and with the help of an egg slicer and salt we all had a delightful open-faced sandwich picnic! The local Border Collie was attentive (and clearly well fed).
Bus lectures during today’s trip touched on ecology; geothermal heating (the first school was thermally heated in 1928, and our hotel in Reykavik is thermally heated, including water); whales and a legend about a whale transformation; government support of the arts through stipends; famous contemporary Icelandic writers; real estate and housing; homeless persons and social assistance; the birthrate (highest in Europe); crime (300 people in prison, mostly on drug charges), lack of violence and murders; food, cooking, fusion and the return to old culinary styles.
Yrsa played a CD of her youth choir on the way home, while we looked at the various books on legends, statistical facts, ponies, volcanos, trolls and elves which Yrsa has brought along every day. And we finished the Icelandic chocolate and licorice candies Yrse had treated us to.
Once back at our hotel, we split into groups for dinner at various restaurants, though no one was particularly hungry after our late afternoon geothermal picnic. What a great day!
Day 9 (September 7): Reykjavik
This morning we discussed the other novel, Jar City, a contemporary mystery set in Reykjavik by the popular writer Arnaldur Indridason. I was so pleased by this discussion because, being unfamiliar with the genre, I really didn’t know how to appraise this book. Yesterday’s lecture on Snorri Sturlason made this plot much more interesting (no spoiler alert—I won’t explain how!). So I really learned a lot in our animated conversation.
Then we set out in the rain (which we have come to accept) for a 45-minute circuitous trek through Reykjavik toward our destination, the Reykjavik Art Museum – Kjarvalsstadir. En route, we walked through the Nordurmyri neighbourhood where Jar City is set.
At the art museum we had a good lunch, followed by a private tour of the permanent collection of works by Johannes Kjarval, Iceland’s most beloved artist, famous for his landscapes. We also looked at paintings by other Icelandic artists, giving us a short but clear idea of the development of art in this newly independent country. Our guide was most informative and articulate, and we learned a great deal in a short time.
Afterwards we had time on our own to roam around the art gallery and the city, to shop, whatever. Yrsa led some of us to a supermarket where we could purchase candy and other Icelandic specialities and delectables we might want to bring home. We were joined on our walk by Yrsa’s husband and their little daughter. Then we all went on our separate ways, visiting the shops that were open on Sunday.
I’m grateful for this gradual winding down because I have enjoyed visiting this country and with such delightful and engaged companions, so saying goodbye should not be sudden.
We assembled in the evening for our farewell dinner, an elegant affair with Icelandic delicacies, including goose carpaccio, three types of herring, lamb (of course!), pork, salmon and wolf fish, and more. Then a few of us gathered in our hotel lounge for a farewell drink.
Tomorrow we leave at different times, but most of us will take a van to the airport together at 2:00. We have the morning to roam about, and I plan to explore the waterfront and extend the adventure as long as possible. This is one of the best Classical Pursuits trips I have ever been on!
Day 10 (September 8): Homeward Bound
Our last day in Iceland, was a decompression day, a time when we were on our own to do more exploring or shopping, to pack, to check out. The hotel was our central location, and we bumped into each other there or around the downtown Reykjavik neighbourhood, extending neighbourly greetings on our familiar turf. The rain drizzled steadily, but we had become strangely acclimatized, as if we’d grown slinky skins. At the airport Yrsa explained the VAT process and helped us with the new boarding pass and luggage sticker machines, and then we bade her goodbye and dispersed gradually, peeling to smaller numbers as we headed for different destinations.
On the Toronto flight we caught our first sighting in a week of bright blue sky and sunshine from the plane as we left the Atlantic for Canadian airspace. Eventually escaping the airport crowds we drove home under a clear evening blue sky, with small clouds skirting a giant full moon rolling low over Lake Ontario.
I am back in Toronto, but I can’t shake off Iceland so easily. This is a familiar experience since I have been travelling with Classical Pursuits. Ever since my first trip to Europe as a teenager, I have felt compelled to read the literature or history of the country while I was visiting it, and that is why these trips with Classical Pursuits appealed to me years later when I first learned about them. But what they provide goes beyond my personal study, through the discussion engaging everyone in the group, bringing vibrancy, immediacy, and depth to the literature. The immersion in a country’s literature and other arts, and the energetic discussion about it with adventurous fellow-travellers, unlocks a door to the cultural psyche of a country that infuses my awareness and guides my viewpoint as we tour the terrain.
The readings for the Iceland trip—a seminal turn-of-the-century novel by a Nobel Prize–winning writer, two short sagas set in 900 and 1000, and a contemporary murder mystery set in Reykjavik and employing a specifically Icelandic cultural phenomenon (being deliberately vague here so I won’t spoil it for you)—were carefully selected by Ann and our skilled, delightful leader, Mark Cwik. They complemented the locations in which they were discussed, knitting together our cultural understanding like an Icelandic sweater.
This is also my experience of the summer program, Toronto Pursuits, which I have attended all but one year. In the hands of a good leader, the discussion greatly enriches whatever is being studied, be it literature, music, visual art, philosophy.
And I really enjoy the people who attend both of these programs. I like the energy, the buzz, of the group. It isn’t that we are like-minded because, thankfully, we aren’t! But what we have in common is the willingness to take the plunge and express not what we know but what we think—did that ever happen in school?
Another feature of these trips is the guides in each country, who seem especially suited to the Classical Pursuits agenda. They understand the interests and intelligence of the travellers in many cases have read the literature (and even participate in our discussions) or studied the art or music, and they also have a deep understanding of history and culture. Yrsa’s guidance through Iceland was incredibly intelligent and informative.
I am so thankful that Ann Kirkland thought this all up some 17 years ago, and that a little notice in a Toronto newspaper caught my eye and blew open my small window on the world!
But now I am looking out my study window, and my dog Dakota is gazing at me. It’s time for both of us to become reacquainted with our smaller world. Thank goodness I have memories and photographs …
To read more, see ON THE ROAD WITH ANN: Iceland – an unlikely nation
To see more, see ON THE ROAD WITH ANN: Iceland in images