A Modern Icelandic Saga

This session’s study tour was a week in Reykjavik, Iceland and its surrounding area! Why Iceland, you might ask. Well, Iceland was first discovered and settled by Vikings in the 9th/10th century and has played an important role in Viking history ever since. A lot of the sagas recording historical events and people were written down in Iceland during the 12th and 13th centuries, greatly contributing to our historical understanding of the Vikings. So here is my record of our very own Icelandic saga.

07/17:  Monday

It began with an early morning and a 3 hour flight to Keflavik airport, about 40 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The only conflict that early morning was the massive lines and huge throngs of people clogging the airport. Who would’ve thought that half of the Danish population would try to leave the city at 6:30am on a Monday. But in any case, all the tourists were being idiots and trying to que up around a pod of four self check-in kiosks, not realizing that there was a treasure trove of many kiosks only a couple of feet behind that pod of kiosks. So that’s where I went and ended up skirting around the line rather quickly. I spent the three-hour flight alternating between reading and dozing and it was quite lovely.

We reached Iceland around 10am or so Icelandic time, two hours behind Copenhagen. We had to wait for our bags for a bit and one of my classmates’ bag never arrived, which was an extreme bummer. I don’t think he had super important things in there but losing a bag is never fun and there weren’t even Scandinavian airline people at the airport to assist in locating his bag! After most of us collected our bags, we took a short bus ride to this Viking museum where we had a buffet breakfast right underneath a replica of a Viking ship. It was actually quite cool and the food was welcome after an early morning. The tiny museum also had a kind of interesting exhibit that had artistic representations of events in Norse mythology. There weren’t really signs or anything except for name plates for some of the Gods so we mostly had to guess what was going on.

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Breakfast underneath a Viking ship

After breakfast, we were whisked away to one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations – the Blue Lagoon! This is both an artificial and natural phenomenon, first discovered and utilized by an Icelandic dermatologist! It’s a huge geothermal pool, like a big hot-tub, that has properties very good for ones’ skin. I think the pool was created by the run-off of a geothermal power plant nearby and the silica and sulfur in the water mixed with mineral content of the ground, giving it a unique blue color.

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Part of the Blue Lagoon

Locals starting hanging out in the pool and when this doctor heard about it, he started prescribing it to his patients with skin diseases! We got to luxuriate in the Blue Lagoon for about two hours, putting on mud face masks and paying a vast to the steam bath. It was so relaxing and felt so good after sitting on a plane for a couple of hours. It’s a super touristy area and quite expensive but it’s a fabulous experience and understandably one of Iceland’s most popular tourist destinations. You will certainly not meet or see any locals there, however. The spa building itself was kind of weird. It felt like I was in some kind of futuristic society. We got wrist bands that locked and unlocked lockers in the locker room and you could also use these wrist bands to purchase additional things like an algae face mask or alcohol inside the Blue Lagoon. It almost felt like something out of Black Mirror and Iceland’s landscape also makes you feel like you’re on a different planet with its abundance of volcanic rock, eerily green moss, and the mountainous horizon. Scandinavian architecture is also very minimalist, which is what I picture societies in sci-fi movies look like. It was a very surreal experience.

We headed to our hotel after relaxing for those two glorious hours. It was a very different kind of hotel from the one that I experienced in Belfast. I had a roommate for one, which was nice, but our room was absolutely tiny with two twin beds and horrible wi-fi connection. Our teacher had made it seem like Iceland was an ultra-modern society with wi-fi absolutely everywhere and we discovered that this was not the case. Every single bus we took, and even a boat that we were on later in the week, had better wi-fi than this hotel. But the beds were comfortable and it’s not like wi-fi is essential for living so it was a pretty nice place to stay for only a week. We had a very short rest and chance to unpack and organize ourselves before we embarked on a walking tour of Reykjavik. It was really cold and windy, a stark contrast to the warmth and comfort we felt in the Blue Lagoon but it was really nice to be able to explore the town and orient ourselves. Our teacher took us around to see a lot of things, Hallagrimskirkja, the downtown area, the two main shopping streets, Parliament, the Cathedral of Reykjavik, and even this rock that’s said be the home of the hidden people. Apparently, Icelanders are very superstitious and firmly believe that the land is inhabited by spirits and hidden people, sort of like elves. They really take pride in their natural environment and try not to disturb it as much as possible, which is actually really awesome. They’re known to even halt the construction of roads and alter building plans if there’s a sign that the hidden people don’t like what they’re doing!  I think that’s one of the best things about Iceland.

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Hallagrimskirkja

Another cool thing about Iceland is that their parliament has existed since 970 A.D., when the Althing was established. The Althing used to be a huge democratic gathering of Icelandic settlers from the entire island, where disputes were settled, marriages were arranged, and even divorces carried out! Someone told us that Iceland had the very first democracy in the whole world, which I guess is true if you totally forget about Ancient Greece. Their Parliament building is also not what you would think it would be. Most European buildings of state are massive and meant to be impressive but the Icelandic Parliament building looks like it could be a small, local bank or a library or something like that. But I think the Icelanders are more low-key about architecture and stuff like that, they don’t seem like they try to be more than they are, which is kind of refreshing.

We also saw City Hall, which is a totally different building, and the tourist information center, both located on this small lake in the middle of Reykjavik. It was here that we witnessed true Viking savagery in the form of a duckling massacre. There were a bunch of cute little ducks following their mom on the small lake before us, many of the students even commented on how cute they were, etc., etc. And then, as our teacher was trying to tell us where the University of Iceland and the National Museum were, the seagulls above started dive-bombing the ducklings, snatching them right from the air! We shouted in dismay but couldn’t look away from this unfair battle between species. The mamma duck tried to protect one last child from this savage attack but failed. We all stood open-mouthed, staring in horror at the lake where everything had become calm once again, the mamma duck back to swimming towards her original destination. I started laughing because that’s how I deal with sudden tragedy, others were also laughing, probably trying to conceal their horror like I was, while others wiped away a tear or two that had slipped down on frozen cheeks. No one saw this coming and our teacher kept reminding us of this event for the entire week, which got very old after the first couple of times. So that was our introduction to Reykjavik!

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The site of the duckling massacre, featuring one of the assailants

We ended our first day with a soup and salad buffet at this Indian themed restaurant. The soups were absolutely amazing, our appetite regained after the massacre. One of the guys, who I still don’t think is old enough to be in college, downed seven bowls of soup after being challenged by another one of the guys, even shoveling in a salad to end his gluttonous feast. But anyways, I enjoyed my meal and was very satisfied with the soup. I love soup and apparently the Icelanders do too! Every soup we had was exquisite and now I’m filled with the desire to try to make soups when I get back home. The rest of the evening was on our own, so my roommate and I decided to go back to our room and relax. We were absolutely exhausted and it was quite a busy day!

07/18: Tuesday

We had to wake up relatively early for the day’s activities but it was okay because the hotel’s breakfast buffet made up for everything else it lacked. There was a waffle maker, pancakes, eggs, sausage, skyr (Icelandic yogurt that’s similar to Greek yogurt), fruit, breads, meats, fruits, and veggies. It was quite amazing. We split up into two groups after breakfast, one group for horseback riding and the other for hiking in a lava cave. We had to sign up for one of the activities previously and by the time the paper reached me, all the slots for horseback riding were taken. I was sort of bummed but hiking in a lava cave seemed just as cool and the day’s weather made it seem even more appealing. It was pouring rain and really cold so at least I was going to be under the cover of rocks and ground! It was about a 40 minute drive to the cave, which is newly discovered. It’s a baby lava cave, formed only about 1200 years ago. We got to learn a lot about the geology of Iceland, which I discovered is a main attraction for most tourists. Iceland is the youngest island in Earth’s history, formed only about 12 million years ago! It’s the closest example we have to what other planets with the beginnings of life would resemble, and gives researches a better idea of how Earth itself was formed. So that’s pretty cool! Our tour guide in the cave also taught us a lot about how lava tubes are formed and pointed out the features of the cave that indicate how its structure was formed. Our guide was pretty funny and is actually from Greece, moving to Iceland after meeting an Icelandic man. Why she left sunny and warm Greece for cold and rainy Iceland, I’m not entirely sure. But she loves it, as she is a geology and spelunking kind of gal.

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Inside the Lava cave

One of the coolest parts of the lava cave was when we had our silent, dark moment. Our guide turned off all the artificial lights so we could ‘see’ and hear what the cave would have ‘looked’ and felt like prior to human intervention. I put see and look in quotations because it was the darkest dark I have ever experienced. I held my hand right in front of my face and couldn’t see a thing, I kept thinking my eyes would adjust to the dark but they never did. It was an oppressive type of dark, one that makes you hear your heart beat. And then our guide said, “Think about going spelunking in a cave like this and your flashlight runs out of batteries ….”, that sent a shiver down my spine. There’s no way in hell you could find your way out if your light went out in that cave. So that was quite an experience.

We had a good amount of time for lunch before our next activity so a bunch of us went to a pizza place a few blocks up from our hotel. They had a lunch special so two other girls and I ordered a large with two toppings for only like $11 each, which is a good deal in Iceland. It’s ridiculously expensive there, much more expensive than Copenhagen. It was pretty good pizza although I am craving some of the ticker and doughier crust that you get in the States. After that, we still had time so we walked around more of Reykjavik, going to a coffee shop called Reykjavik Roasters and into some of the tourist shops that are everywhere on the main shopping street. I also found a crystal shop, which was super exciting! I explored that for a bit and then also found a large bookstore where I found some awesome gifts for my dad.

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Unicorn Mural in Reykjavik

We went back to the hotel and dried off before heading out for our evening activity. We were going on a tour of the Golden Circle, which is another popular tourist activity. Unfortunately, it was still raining and cold and kind of dreary, which made the tour not as much fun because the clouds obscured the landscape and we got soaked. But it was still really cool. We started off with Skáholt Church that was the Icelandic bishop’s seat from 1056 to the 1770’s, quite a long time! It used to be a place of immense power and learning but that changed after Denmark forced Iceland to accept the reformation and conversion to protestantism. The basement of the church had some cool Latin inscriptions so I enjoyed seeing those. There was also a crypt but it was closed.

After the church, the bus took us to some the incredible Gullfoss (Golden falls) water fall. It was even more wet and windy here but it was totally worth it because the falls were so exquisite. We got some cool pictures and were also able to climb around on some the rocks near the falls, which gave us a chance to stretch our legs after so much time on the bus. We didn’t have a lot of time here because it was cold and rainy and we also had to make our dinner reservations at the Geyser hotel. On the bus ride there, our bus driver told us about this Icelandic dating app where you can figure out how closely related you are to whoever you just met at a bar! The Icelandic population is super small, around 300k, and everyone seems to be related in some capacity. We ended up getting there too early so we had a chance to walk around the geysers, and even watched one blow! It was pretty cool, I’ve never seen that before. It had also stopped raining at that point so we were able to walk without getting drenched, a happy turn of events.

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Gullfoss water fall

At dinner we had more of a chance to dry off, which was nice. We had a three course meal: bread with pesto sauce and a vinaigrette for pre-appetizer, salad with reindeer pate, chicken on barley risotto, and a chocolate mouse cake type thing for dessert. It was an amazing meal! The reindeer pate was really good and came with some sort of fruit compote or something. We didn’t get any wine though, which was disappointing, as our activity for the day wasn’t finished and you’re not allowed to drink while doing ‘school’ things. Actually, the only ‘school’ related thing we did was the very last site visit, which was to Thingvellir, or the Law Rock, in the National Park. This is where the Althing was held since it was established in 970. The National Park was absolutely gorgeous and I wish we had had more time to explore. It started raining again so a lot of people were miserable so we didn’t stay long. But we also discovered that Game of Thrones films here quite often, every time they go north of the wall! So now I can say that I’ve been beyond the wall, so that’s pretty cool.

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The National Park at Thingvellir

Our teacher played Of Monsters and Men, an Icelandic band, on the way home to the hotel. I enjoy their music but she also had CD’s of traditional Icelandic folk music and I would’ve rather listened to that! But it was a good day, packed with lots of activities.

07/19: Wednesday

We got to sleep in a bit because we got back to the hotel pretty late Tuesday night. Sleeping in felt amazing, and I had another delightful breakfast. We left around 9:30 for the morning’s activities. The first was a tour of Harpa, Iceland’s first and only major concert hall. It’s a beautiful building and has now become one of the landmarks of Reykjavik, even though it was only completed in 2011! It was specially designed for acoustics and has four different concert rooms where each room can be tuned to suit the type of music that will be performed inside it. Every room is also really artistically designed and was beautiful! So we got to learn about how each room worked and operated, and the history of the building. It was started in 2007, right before the financial crisis, which really hit Iceland hard and they almost went bankrupt as an entire country. So construction had to completely stop in the middle of 2008 because the investor pulled out. But the city decided to go forward with construction, relying heavily on volunteers from the community. And it was finished in 2011, owned and operated by the city! They host a lot of other cultural events apart from music, so it really has become a location of Icelandic pride and heritage. We were going to see about a 30 minute Classical concert later in the afternoon, which was made even more exciting after we had learned all about the construction of the concert hall.

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View of Harpa Concert Hall

Before the concert, we went to Reykjavik’s Culture House, which is basically like an art museum and used to be the national library. It was a really weird situation there, our professor rushed us through like three floors in a super quick tour and then turned us loose until the concert, which I thought was really stupid. Most people obviously left, and those who stayed had to go back and forth between floors to see what we missed. We really should have just gone through each floor and then left as a group but I guess that didn’t seem logical to our teacher or something, who knows. But I strolled around until it was time to go to the concert. It was a cello and piano duet playing Schumann, which was perfect for me because I play both those instruments! The musicians were incredible and the music was beautiful. It was a very intimate concert as there weren’t many people in the concert hall.

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The Stage of the concert hall

It was here that we had our second, very unexpected surprise. The cellist announced that they had prepared a very special encore for us and they proceeded to start playing the Wedding song, you know, the one that plays when the bride walks down the isle. We were all really confused, until someone walked up on stage with a bouquet of flowers and proposed to his girlfriend sitting in the first row! It was one of most romantic things I’ve ever seen. He read what seemed like a heartfelt speech from his phone (it was in Chinese so we didn’t really know what he was saying), and then he got down on one knee after the end of the song and popped the question. She said yes, of course, and then the cellist and pianist played a very romantic waltz to end the concert.

We had the rest of the afternoon on our own. We received a free ticket to the National museum so two other girls and I decided to go grab some cheap lunch at the University of Iceland student cafe and then head to the museum. I’m still shocked and appalled that the National museum wasn’t on our itinerary. It was literally entirely about the Vikings and the first settlements on Iceland, which is incredible relevant to our class. The free ticket was a surprise to even our teachers, included with the ticket to the culture house! That museum visit was probably the most Viking related thing I did on the entire trip. That said, it was a pretty cool museum. They had a lot of great artifacts and really walked you through Iceland’s history. They also had a great museum shop where I got some cute gifts for my mom. After the museum, we walked around Reykjavik, seeing more of the city and visiting all the shops that caught our eye. We started off by going to this super cute cafe called C is for Cookie, where I had a very delicious cookie! We walked along the water, and explored some of the side streets, and definitely got a better feel for Reykjavik as a city. It felt a lot different from Copenhagen. The main shopping streets were clogged with people but as soon as you turn off into a side street, there’s basically no one!

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We got dinner at this little restaurant called Lemon, that sold really good sandwiches and skyr smoothies. I had to down it though because I was due to meet some other classmates at an Icelandic saga comedy performance at the Harpa! It was a wild tour of 40 different Icelandic sagas in 75 minutes, which was pretty crazy. There were only two actors and they did a really good job, really committing to being absolutely ridiculous. There were also some hilarious volunteers that unwittingly got really into it. The show was surprisingly raunchy but I guess the sagas are already kind of raunchy, as many ancient things tend to be. It was such a great evening! All of us who went think that it should also be included in the tour’s itinerary because you actually learn a lot about Icelandic sagas and even some Icelandic history! It was a little expensive but totally worth it.

07/20: Thursday

We left the hotel around 9:15 for the morning’s activity, to be greeted by an amazing weather day! The sun actually appeared behind some clouds and it wasn’t raining, so we were super happy. It was definitely the best day in the entire trip. And the weather was absolutely perfect for our activity: whale watching! I was really excited for this as I’ve never been whale watching before. It was about a 3 hour trip in total, and chilly out on the water but at least the sun was out. The guide actually made a super funny joke about it. They use the clock system to point out points of interesting in the water so she said, “If you look at about 6-7, you’ll see something very, very rare in Iceland – the sun!”. She totally got all of us. We saw lots of puffins flying close to the water, two humpback whales, and a pod of dolphins! It was so much fun and so beautiful. I’ve never seen a whale in the wild so it was really cool to see the humpback whale make a dive. And the dolphins were also really cute, there was even a little baby swimming close to his mom! This was definitely one of my favorite activities on the whole trip. This is also the boat that had really good wi-fi, way better than our hotel wi-fi.

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Part of Old Harbor in Reykjavik

After we got back into port, we went to Icelandic Fish and Chips to have fish and chips. It was very good! And they even started us off with an amazing veggie soup and some salad. I was almost left behind at lunch, actually. I had gone to the bathroom after I finished eating and when I came out, everyone was gone except a couple of girls! Our professor was apparently in a huge rush to get us to our next destination, the settlement museum. The settlement museum was decently interesting, it was built right on top of the excavated remains of a viking long house. It had a cool panorama of what the city would have looked like when people first settled there. There were also a lot of interactive things, which is always a bonus. After that, we had the afternoon on our own again. The free time was nice, but I felt like we could’ve been doing more things relevant to our class, such as going to the damn National museum. But the same girls who I went to the museum with wanted to go to one of Reykjavik’s local pools so we decided to go do that together. We walked slowly from the settlement museum to the hotel, browsing in some of the shops where I got a few more souvenirs for family.

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A mural in downtown Reykjavik

We really struggled with the bus system and getting to the Vesturbæjurlaug pool, the bus route maps were sort of confusing and we had a hard time finding our stop and had mixed directions about what bus to take and where to get off so it was just a struggle. But we got there nevertheless and experienced a very local thing to do! It was almost all locals there, which was cool, and we relaxed in the hot tubs, steam baths, and large swimming pool for a couple of hours. It felt really good and was extremely relaxing. It was also surprisingly crowded and seemed like a very social type of activity. We were pretty hungry after the pool so we met up with two others from my class and went to this place called Noodle Station, that served a dish that was sort of between ramen and pho. It was really good and relatively inexpensive for Reykjavik. So that was the end to another good day! I went to bed a little bit earlier because we had to get up pretty early for our last day of activities.

07/21: Friday

Today was our saga day, a so-called ‘academic’ day. We left the hotel at 7:45 and were set to drive north of Reykjavik to sites important in Egil’s Saga, which we had read for class the prior week. Our first stop was at this church in Borg, where Egil and his father, Skallagrim lived, and reputedly where Egil killed his first man. That was a fairly quick stop, mostly so our teacher could read us a poem about Egil killing his first man. Then the bus took us to the nearby town of Borgarnes, where we went to the Settlement center to explore this really cool exhibit on Egil’s saga. It was an audio-guided tour and the exhibit itself had a lot of really cool wood art, depicting scenes from Egil’s saga. It took about 30 minutes to go through and was really cool! It definitely helped the entirety of Egil’s saga to sink in more, or for those who didn’t care to read it, to actually learn about what the saga was about. The settlement center also had a cafe and that’s where we had a super early lunch. It was another buffet of soups and salads but it had the best bread ever. And the soup was exquisite. The salads were pretty good too but the bread, oh the bread. I was so full after that lunch, uncomfortably full. And sitting on the bus did not help, I felt like we barely got to move the entire day! But we did get to walk around the settlement center, located on Brak’s sound, which is named after Egil’s nanny who was killed by his father, Skallagrim. We also got to walk around Skallagrim’s tomb in this really pretty park in the center of Borgarnes.

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Brak’s Sound

Our professor announced that she had a surprise for us, no one had any idea of what it could be. And on the way to the surprise, we stopped at this little town that had a ton of huge geothermal pools. So that was kind of fun to see and gave us a chance to stretch our legs. The surprise turned out to be a double waterfall! It was absolutely gorgeous. It wasn’t as impressive as the one we saw earlier in the week but they were incredible. That was a very welcome surprise as we got to walk around in nature and gaze with awe upon the water falls. But she got pretty mad at us towards the end because a lot of people bought ice cream at the little cafe, which they couldn’t bring on the bus. But I still enjoyed the surprise and we still made good time to our next destination.

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One of the surprise falls

Our final stop in the saga tour was to Reyholt and the home of Snorri Sturluson, who recorded the Prose Edda and Egil’s Saga, and to whom we must give many thanks for preserving Old Norse religion and culture. He was a historian, chieftain, and three-time elected law speaker, so a pretty important guy in medieval Iceland. It was at this site in Reyholt that he was eventually assassinated for refusing to let Iceland come under the influence of the Norwegian king. He’s a really interesting guy! Reyholt has also been a really important religious site since the 11th century, with around 9 remains of churches found there! There’s a really beautiful church there now that is still functional. We had a mini-lecture there by a really nice woman, who is basically a Snorri Sturluson historian. She told us about his life and works, which was really nice. There was also a small exhibit about Snorri that we walked around in before walking down to his famous ‘hot pot’ (geothermal pool), where he bathed everyday and invited guests to sit and relax. It was right here in his tunnel leading from the pool to the church where he was assassinated in 1241! So we ended our study tour on that note, which was a little macabre but cool to be able to appreciate this man who allows us to know so much about Nordic mythology.

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Snorri’s hot pot

The bus back was long and sleepy and I felt super gross by the time we got back to the hotel. We had a three course dinner to end the day but I was still so full from lunch and the inactivity of the day! So I went for a nice little walk before and then we had quite a long walk to dinner at a place called Geyser Bistro. We actually got to have a wine or beer this time so I had a glass of the house red wine, which was super good and excellently paired with dinner. We had potato soup and bread for a starter, a lamb and veggie kabob with risotto, and a molten lava chocolate mini-cake for dessert. It was so good but so much food.

We had to be out of hotel at 4:45 the next morning so I went right back to the hotel to pack and go to bed but a lot of people decided to go out partying until it was time to go. They were all still really drunk by the time we got to the airport and some even dumped one of the most wasted into my care, so I lead him through check-in and security and got him safely to the gate. It was quite the morning. But I got a solid 6 hours of sleep and passed out on the plane so I was a-okay, just slightly tired. Thus ended my Icelandic saga! It felt so weird to be back in Copenhagen, and to know that this is my last week here. I still have some travels after this program ends but it’s just weird that I’m going to be kicked out by Saturday afternoon.

It was a pretty good study tour overall and I’m really happy to have had the chance to go to Iceland. It’s a place that I never thought I’d go to so I’m grateful to have had the opportunity! It’s a beautiful country and definitely more accessible for people going to backpack and camp, rather than museum goers. This next week includes doing everything I haven’t done in Copenhagen yet and writing the final paper, which I have decided to change my topic. I realized that writing about cults in the Old Norse religion is a topic best meant for a disseration so now I’m going to explore a theory I had about Game of Thrones before I learned that it was heavily based in Norse mythology. All shall be revelaed in the next post!

 

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