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How to Get to Down Home Iceland

On the scenic northern coast, an historic fjord is home to a collection of enchanting seaside villages and the backdrop for the island’s most potent myths.

By Judith Niemi

ShermansTravel.com

May 16th, 2008

It is so easy to love Iceland: Glaciers, geysers, volcanoes, magnificent waterfalls—and in Reykjavík, an abundance of art, music, food, and style for a city of only 115,000 residents. But along with geological drama and urban excitement, there’s another sidesag to this country of 316,000 souls that doesn’t receive as much attention: rural and small-town Iceland, where a thousand years of history and myth live on in quiet villages set in gorgeous landscapes.

For the past five summers, I have returned to the same tiny town, Hofsós, in the Skagafjördur district on Iceland’s northwestern coast. The area surrounding the fjord—a wide bay rimmed with steep mountains—is famous for exceptional horses, choral singing, and amazing ghost stories. It is a bit off the beaten path and has more horses than people, but I have yet to run out of fascinating things—small villages, ancient ruins—I want to see that are right down the road.

And then there’s the saga of Grettir. It doesn’t take long after arriving in Skagafjördur before you hear about Grettir the Strong, an outlaw who roamed northern Iceland in the 11th century. Grettir bravely killed giants and vanquished ghosts (which the locals appreciated), but he was an awful thug and after one human murder too many, he was cast out.

Grettir took up residence on Drangey, an easily defended island in the middle of the fjord, and lived there for three years before his enemies enlisted a witch to help kill him. Today, his name turns up on maps and plaques and—during one of my recent visits—on a bus ride when the driver recited lines from Grettir’s Saga to passengers. (Imagine a London cabbie quoting Beowulf from memory.) I have become fond of Grettir—“a classic, misunderstood bad boy,” as one friend calls him—and look forward each summer to retracing his footsteps.

One of the great draws of this area is its landscape: a lush central valley and miles of wide open fields that roll up to steep mountains and down to a dramatic coastline. Over the centuries, it was farmed, used for grazing, and fought over by generations of Icelandic heroes. Now it feels quiet and full of ghosts.

Getting to Skagafjördur couldn’t be easier. A scenic three-hour drive north from Reykjavík along the Ring Road lands you in Varmahlíd, the gateway to the district. There’s an excellent tourist information center here, and just north on Route 75, the Glaumbaer Folk Museum, which occupies a former farm (354/453-6173). In the earthy-smelling turf buildings, five-foot-long wooden shelves that served as beds and open fireplaces, once used for heat and cooking, offer a fascinating glimpse at the hard, claustrophobic conditions of Icelandic farm life in the 19th century. Thirty minutes north is Saudárkrókur, a charming fishing and shipping town of about 2,600 people that has the amenities of a good base for visitors to the area.

Once you’ve settled in at Saudárkrókur, it’s an easy drive to Tröllaskagi (Cape of Trolls), the eastern shore of the fjord, which rises to a rugged mountainous interior with small, fast-melting glaciers and long hiking trails. In the foothills of the lush Hjaltadalur valley sits the town of Hólar, which today has only a hundred or so permanent residents but for 700 years was northern Iceland’s ecclesiastical, political, and cultural center. The island’s first printing press operated here, producing Bibles in Icelandic as early as 1584 (a quarter of a century before the printing of the King James Bible in England). One of these ancient texts, inches thick, in heavy leather binding, rests right out on the lectern in the town’s cathedral. Built in 1763, the stone church holds artwork from the 15th century to the 20th century.

The town is still a center of learning—Hólar College offers three practical programs: aquaculture and fish biology, rural tourism, and horse breeding and training. In summer, visitors can take riding lessons at the school and learn about Iceland’s sturdy little horses (locals take offense if you call them ponies). These animals are direct descendants of horses brought by Viking settlers in the late 9th century. For hundreds of years, they made travel and communication possible in Iceland’s interior. Even now, they serve as the best means to explore the island’s more remote locales. To protect the bloodline and prevent disease, Icelandic law forbids bringing horses from other countries onto the island, and once an Icelandic horse leaves Iceland, it may not return.

Northwest of Hólar lies Hofsós, a centuries-old trading and fishing village that has been my home away from home for five summers. Only one commercial fishing boat remains in the harbor—locals have built other businesses centered on tourism and genealogy. Americans and Canadians now come to the town to trace their roots at the Icelandic Emigration Center (hofsos.is), located in handsomely restored 18th-century clapboard buildings on the harbor. Its exhibits tell a melancholy story: Iceland is a wealthy nation now, but a little more than a century ago, ash from a volcanic eruption killed livestock and crops in the north, and abnormally cold winters choked the seas with ice. Thousands fled—in a few districts, a third of the population emigrated to escape starvation.

Hofsós has a few simple-but-comfortable guesthouses, one restaurant (the delicious lamb is raised and smoked by the cook’s mother), and one bar/café where you might find accordion music and dancing on Saturdays. Mostly, though, it’s a quiet place. Take a stroll to the old turf chapel at Grof (the key’s in the door). Or ramble along the shore, where eider ducks coo and Arctic terns—shrieking their Icelandic name, kria, kria—dive-bomb human intruders. Or go on a midnight stroll when the low Arctic sun paints a vast expanse of pink sky.

North of Hofsós is Siglufjördur, a lively harbor town full of brightly painted houses tucked picturesquely into a deep mountain valley. An essential stop here is the Herring Museum—an homage to the region’s mid-20th-century boom years. Visitors can explore restored herring boats and tour the now-vacant canning factory and “herring girls” dormitory—all reminders of how fast that industry collapsed when fish stocks decreased. Nowadays, Siglufjördur is the trailhead for a network of rugged day-hiking trails—many with their own famous resident trolls or spirits. One could argue that these are the most spectacular trails in all of spectacular Iceland. Maps are available at the Herring Museum (or at siglo.is/en/tourism/hikes). Just driving along the high cliffs is breathtaking. Watch out for wandering sheep. They have a thousand-year history here and insist on the right-of-way.

A high point of any Skagafjördur visit is a trip to Drangey Island. In my first few summers, several attempts to see Grettir’s final home were thwarted by stormy weather, which would have made landing difficult and climbing dangerous. Finally last year, a perfect day arrived and some friends and I hired a guide to take us to the island. Jón Eiríksson, known locally as the Earl of Drangey, and his son picked us up at the Hofsós harbor. Jón is a vigorous old man with seafarer’s eyes, and on the half-hour ride, he narrated the island’s lore in Icelandic while his son translated, perhaps an expurgated version.

Drangey is a perfect fortress. The cliffs drop down a sheer 500 feet and teem with loud nesting birds. It looks bleak but has been an important resource for Skagafjördur hunters and gatherers. Grettir lived well here, eating sheep brought out to the island to graze, and when the mutton was gone, seabirds and eggs.

There’s a single narrow route up to the top, and after one look at the steep scree slope a few in our group decided to stay below and watch puffins. But it’s really not a bad climb. There are iron ladders and ancient chains here and there to keep you from tumbling into the sea. Jón’s stalwart son offered me a hand in tricky places, and I was just relaxing when he hissed urgently, “Watch it!” I froze. The danger was at my feet: a fulmar, a cousin of the seagull, which has the obnoxious habit of vomiting half-digested fish when annoyed.

The top of Drangey is worth such moments of alarm. Arctic wind ruffles the long grass, puffins shoot out of burrows underfoot. Peering over the edge, you see layers and layers of kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, auklets in their nests and soaring above the cold water—some estimate the number at a million birds. And on our visit, there was a man dangling on a rope three hundred feet down the cliff face, keeping up a centuries-old tradition of gathering eggs. A small plaque set in a boulder reads “Grettir Asmundsson, 1031.” In Iceland, Grettir’s residence on this island is just matter-of-fact history. The gatherer, who turned out to be another of Jón’s sons, gave us a bucket of huge eggs: blue, chocolate brown, creamy white, and speckled. The hardiest Viking spirits among us ate them for lunch.

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