During one memorable history lesson our teacher was unsuccessfully wrestling with the attention of a distracted class. Frustrated, she barked a question, ‘Whose name ends in ‘son’?’ Hands went up, mine included. ‘Then you are all the descendants of Vikings!’ Uproar.
Since that moment I’ve naturally assumed this to be true, but admit that my ancestral probing extends only five or six generations and hasn’t unravelled any certain Norse thread as yet. Recently however, Cherchbi research and unrelated travels have led to exploration of Norse history and to regions with Viking connections. The most recent of which, prompted by Mrs A’s gift of two airline tickets to Reykjavik, a midsummer Icelandic adventure by camper van.
At this time of year a latitude of 65 degrees north holds potential for almost 24 hour exploration, sensibly we didn’t take full advantage of this and chose to sleep at points. Our route took in Iceland’s western region and stunning Westfjords peninsula. We began however in relaxed fashion with a visit to the Blue Lagoon. Incredibly this spa, considered one of the must-see destinations in Iceland, originated in the 1970’s as a mineral-rich pool of water beside the new geothermal power plant. Workers took to bathing in it and discovered its restorative properties which were duly capitalised on.
North from Reykjavik, in driving rain, we followed the coast of the immense Snæfellsness peninsula. At its tip, the 1500m Snæfellsjökull (inspiration for Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth) was shrouded in cloud and we were resigned to missing it. However, during this first of countless rapid weather changes, the front moved east and the peak appeared. This combination of unique climate and landscape have fuelled dramatic myths & legends. The wonderfully robust stone figure is Bardur Snaefellsas, a deity of Mount Snaefell, subject of a Saga and descendent of giants and men.
We took the first ferry from the pretty port of Stykkishólmur to the Westfjords. Being off the island’s Route 1 ring road this region is less well frequented by visitors yet is a stunningly dramatic coastal environment. On arrival we continued north, our road truncating the fingerlike peninsulas via high mountain passes or resolutely following the lowest contour at the edges of the fjords. In need of provisions and to stretch legs, we stopped at Ísafjörður, the northernmost settlement on our trip. Built on a sand spit this beautiful town is of great cultural, geographical and historical significance. It has a surprisingly cosmopolitan air considering its near-Arctic position and is home to many music festivals and sporting events.
As we travelled, our route plan found it’s own order, nightly stops invariably planned at one of numerous geothermal springs, many of which have been developed into bathing pools. Some resemble small swimming pools, others hot-tubs, the best we found were remote and almost entirely natural. All were a welcome end to a long day on the road, and an unusual luxury with which to start the next.
Eastbound, we travelled across the top of the Westfjords and many miles along a dirt road at the base of enormous scree. The old herring factory at Djupavik gives the town an abandoned feel, but we learned that this is now home to a thriving artist community. Onwards to Kaffi Norðurfjörður at Árneshreppur, worth the trip for a piece of their rightly famous chocolate cake. At this point, after many days, we turned south and began the very long drive back to civilisation and our penultimate destination, the Golden Circle. More a triangle, this route connects a trio of Icelands most spectacular places – Gullfoss waterfall, Haukadalur valley with it’s geysers Geysir and Strokkur, and finally Þingvellir. This Unesco World Heritage Site is doubly interesting; the site of The Alþingi, the worlds first parliament which itself is located in a rift valley on the crest of the Mid Atlantic ridge, the precise meeting point of Eurasion and North American tectonic plates.
Finally, a couple of days in the comparative bustle of Reykjavik. The National Museum of Iceland is excellent as is the Alvar Aalto designed Nordic House, designed to foster cultural connections between the Nordic countries. The food at Cafe Loki, opposite Hallgrimskirkja, the impressive city church, and the organic restaurant Icelandic Fish & Chips is recommended.
With some Nordic countries yet to visit, and preferring a balanced approach to the research of my (probable) forefathers homelands, it may be a little while before a return to Iceland is possible. However, the corner of the country we experienced left an indelible mark and with three corners yet to see a return visit is a certainty.