Into Iceland’s past

By Julie Skurdenis

by Julie Skurdenis

I first made the acquaintance of Erik the Red in the fourth grade. I was intrigued by this 10th-century Viking who left the country of his birth (Norway), settled in another (Iceland), then was exiled and resettled in yet a third country (Greenland).

Of course, as nine-year-olds in a far gentler time — or so it seems many years down the line — we were not told that Erik the Red was not the most savory of characters, that he was exiled from Iceland for murder or that the adjective “red” after his name equally could have referred to the color of his hair and beard or the blood on his hands.

I was intrigued by Erik but shocked to learn that his son, Leif Erikson, was probably the one who first “discovered” America in A.D. 1000, a good 492 years before Christopher Columbus, a fact I regarded as heresy at the time.

Without doubt, Iceland is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth — a spectacular paradise of hot springs, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls, lakes and volcanoes. It’s why most people travel there — to revel in this beauty. I too went for the beauty on my visit in August 2004, but I didn’t forget Erik the Red and Leif Erikson.

Erik the Red’s home

I found Erik the Red’s home in the idyllic Haukadalur Valley in the western part of Iceland, about 120 miles north of the capital city of Reykjavik. Archaeologists, who excavated the site in the late 1990s, believe this is where Erik lived and where Leif was born.

The site sits high on a hillside overlooking the valley, with a small waterfall close by. There is the foundation of a longhouse fairly typical of the Viking period, with a rectangular area approximately 13 by 39 feet divided into several sections serving different functions. Around a central hearth there was a central area for cooking, living and sleeping, another smaller area to one side that served as a kitchen and a third area on the opposite side for the storage of farm implements.

It would take a fairly vivid imagination to picture the house as it must have looked a thousand years ago, but, fortunately, a replica was constructed four years ago and stands a few yards away from where the actual longhouse stood. The replica longhouse has a dirt floor, turf walls and turf roof. In the central area surrounding the hearth are beds for the entire family as well as for slaves. A ladder leads to a loft where the children of slaves slept.

Guides dressed as Vikings describe the sort of person Erik the Red was (troublesome) as well as give visitors an idea of what it was like to live in the 10th century in what was then a newly settled remote land. The Norwegian Ingolfur Arnarson first settled in Iceland in A.D. 874, only a century before Erik the Red would have built his house in the Haukadalur Valley.

Outside the reconstructed longhouse stands a statue of Leif Erikson with a faraway look in his eye — probably dreaming of new lands to discover. Leif eventually sailed to the North American continent, reaching Baffin Island, Labrador and a place he called Vinland, as yet unidentified.

Iceland’s first parliament

Having finally visited Erik’s and Leif’s Icelandic home, it was on to Þingvellir (pronounced approximately Thingvellir), the most important historical site in Iceland. Located 26 miles northeast of Reykjavik, it was there in 930 A.D. that Iceland’s chieftains began meeting for two weeks each summer in an assembly, or “parliament,” called the Alþing. At each year’s Alþing, they settled disputes, traded and socialized. These assemblies lasted for 868 years, finally replaced in 1800 by the Parliament in Reykjavik.

Visitors come to Þingvellir more for the spirit of the place than for the sights, although there are remnants of buðir (roofed camps) once used as meeting places and places of business during the assemblies, pools where women accused of witchcraft were drowned (men were beheaded) and the supposed site of the Lögberg (Law Rock), where Iceland’s laws were recited aloud by a lawspeaker.

The site itself is physically striking. Visitors walk along a high cliff at the very edge of a great geological rift where the North American continental plate is gradually separating from the Eurasian plate. Far below lies the site of the Alþing beside the Öxara River.

A Viking and a saga writer

I revel in the archaeological, so there were two other sites I wanted to visit. They are connected, although 300 years apart in time.

The first, located at Borgarnes, 40 miles north of Reykjavik, is the 10th-century burial mound of one of Iceland’s earliest settlers, Skallagrimur Kveldulfsson. In true Viking style, his horse and his weapons lie buried with him. Skallagrimur was the father of Egill Skallagrimsson, who is the hero of one of Iceland’s greatest sagas, “Egill’s Saga.” Egill was a Viking adventurer who traveled to Norway and England and engaged in a continuing conflict with King Eric Bloodaxe of Norway.

This connected nicely with another site I visited at Reykholt, 20 miles northeast of Borgarnes. Snorri Sturluson, one of Iceland’s most famous writers and historians, lived in Reykholt in the late 12th/early 13th centuries. Snorri, who counted Egill Skallagrimsson as one of his ancestors, is credited with writing “Egill’s Saga.” Snorri was murdered in 1241 on the orders of the Norwegian king for reneging on a deal. The only thing left of what was once Snorri’s farm is a large circular pool fed by a hot spring where Snorri must have relaxed many a time 800 years ago.

Natural beauty

Besides its 1,100-year-long history, Iceland offers natural beauty in abundance. Mind-boggling beauty. As my husband, Paul, commented, “My eyes are full.” We spent two weeks touring Iceland and visited — by my conservative estimate — at least 30 scenic spots.

Here are my favorite half dozen don’t-miss places: the Blue Lagoon (yes, it really is blue) for the unique experience of soaking in a huge, warm “hot pot” in a setting of black lava; Vatnajökull Glacier, the largest in Europe and covering 3,200 square miles (roughly 160 by 160 miles), where visitors can walk up to the edge of one of the many glacial arms; Gullfoss and Goðafoss, two of the most impressive waterfalls in a land full of waterfalls; the surreal collection of twisted lava towers of Dimmuborgir; the placid expanse of Myvatn, a lake full of ducks (18 species, including harlequin, old squaw and scoter) and tiny black, annoying flies (gauze netting over the face keeps them at bay), and Strokkur Geyser, which erupts every few minutes spouting 90 feet into the air. This is only a sampling of what Iceland has on tap.

As for Reykjavik. . . in a word, a surprise. Surprisingly sophisticated. Surprisingly full of good restaurants and intimate cafés. A surprising number of things to see and do for the total of eight nights we spent in the city. A few of our favorites — strolling around the Old Town, examining the ancient saga manuscripts at Culture House, viewing the Erró exhibit at the Hafnarhusið Museum (Erró is one of Iceland’s best-known modern artists; his style reminds me of Andy Warhol’s), listening to an organ recital in the ultramodern Hallgrimskirkja, visiting the modern art exhibited in the National Gallery of Iceland, meandering among the superb sculptures in the garden of the Einar Jonsson Museum, stopping at each and every café along Laugavegur, Reykjavik’s main shopping street, and sampling the art galleries along Skolavörðustigur.

Can’t beat the combination of intimate, walkable, full-of-things-to-do Reykjavik and the wide-open, all-around-you beauty spots outside the capital. Add a touch of history — the ancient Parliament site or Erik the Red’s home — and you’ve got the recipe for a great holiday, one fewer than five hours from New York.

If you go. . .

Our travel arrangements were made by Iceland Saga Travel, the company for Icelandic travel. Iceland Saga Travel specializes in Iceland. Its menu of trips covers the gamut from day trips (57 of them, including the Blue Lagoon in combination with a Viking feast, whale-watching, salmon or trout fishing, horseback riding or sea kayaking) to a 14-day “Grand Iceland” tour that offers a comprehensive introduction to the country.

Our tour was the 9-day “Island Life” tour that cost $2,954, including airfare on Icelandair from New York (or Baltimore, Boston or Minneapolis), accommodations, transportation by bus, all breakfasts, most dinners and admission charges. Trips to Greenland and the Faroe Islands are also offered.

We added some extra days in Reykjavik.

Contact Iceland Saga Travel, 3 Freedom Square, Nantucket, MA 02554; phone 866/423-7242 or visit

Julie Skurdenis received a partial discount from Iceland Saga Travel.