Christina here. When I planned out my current Viking time travel series a couple of years ago, it seemed like a great idea to have one of them set in Iceland. This massive island in the North Atlantic was more or less empty before the Vikings arrived to settle there around 860-870 AD. As my story took place in 875 AD, it made sense to have my characters be part of those first groups of settlers.
Of course, this would necessitate a research trip to Iceland – I’d wanted to visit for a long time so great excuse, right? Then Covid happened. For 18 months I waited to see if travelling would be possible again, and in the meantime, I had to work on my story using only information gleaned from books, travel blogs and other peoples’ remembrances. Definitely not ideal!
By early June this year, I had less than a month to finalise the edits for the book (TEMPTED BY THE RUNES) when at last the borders opened and travel was allowed! I jumped at the chance and with my husband quickly organised a trip which, despite hassle with paperwork and tests, turned out to be magical, so I thought I’d tell you about our journey. Here’s the first part:-
The main Icelandic airport, Keflavik, is about an hour’s drive away from the capital Reykjavik. First impressions of Iceland were of vast skies and a strange, flat and rather barren landscape with volcanic rock covered in moss, but with mountains in the middle. One of them, Fagradalshraun, recently erupted, but by the time we were there, all you could see was a cloud of smoke in the distance.
You can easily get around the centre of Reykjavik on foot, and we spent the first day sight-seeing, taking in as many museums as possible. The first was the Settlement Museum, which houses the actual remains of a Viking longhouse dug up underneath the building. Visitors go down into the basement to see it and there are displays describing how it would have looked back in 870 AD – fascinating! Originally, it would have been built of turf and was big enough to house at least 10 people. The archaeologists think it might have belonged to one of the first Viking settlers, Ingólfur Arnarsson, and his wife Hallveig, and there was lots of information, as well as objects found around the site. Reykjavik had a good natural harbour, great conditions for cultivating grain crops and plenty of other natural resources so was an ideal place to settle.
The second museum we visited was the National Museum of Iceland, which traces the country’s history from those first settlers to the present. There were some very interesting artefacts, including an original manuscript of the Norse sagas, and old textiles like the glove in this photo and a wicked looking fishfork for use when fishing for salmon in the rivers.
Finally, we went to a museum filled with life size wax dolls where you listened to the story of the settlers and sagas while walking around. It was great for me as it helped me to visualise how everything would have looked at the time of the Vikings.
The town of Reykjavik itself is a mixture of quaint multi-coloured clapboard houses and ultra-modern buildings. No skyscrapers though. It all looked very similar to little Swedish towns but with a distinctly Icelandic twist. There was a port and you could look across the bay to the mountains on the other side, which were covered in mist. Everyone we met was very helpful and friendly, and they all spoke excellent English. The weather, however, wasn’t quite so nice – average temperature while we were there (beginning of June) was 9 degrees Celsius, and it was incredibly windy most days. We did have one gorgeous day though (at a balmy 13 degrees) when the sun felt lovely and hot!
The following day we headed north and out into the countryside. The population of Iceland is only about 350,000, so it’s not a crowded place. There is only one main road which encircles the island, and it has just the one lane in most places. Sometimes sheep wander across it, so you have to keep an eye out – they obviously have the right of way and seemed totally unconcerned. Dark hills brooded over flatlands near the sea. Their lower slopes were covered in pale green moss or grass and most had low cloud or mist hanging over them, with the odd patch of snow here and there high up. Because the inland glaciers were melting, fast flowing rivers cut grooves through the landscape and there were little waterfalls everywhere flowing down the mountainsides – a beautiful sight!
We drove to a part of the island called Dalasýsla. The scenery around there was just stunning, and reminded me strongly of the Scottish Highlands. Waterfalls again, steep mountain sides, moss and scree. Unbelievable views all along!
In Haukadalur near a lake – Haukadalsvatn – we found a reconstructed turf longhouse called Eiriksstaðir. It is built on the site where Eirik the Red actually lived in the 10th century (he was the father of Leif Eiriksson, the Viking who discovered America). This sort of house was exactly the kind my characters would live in, and therefore seeing this place was the highlight of the trip for me. I was able to sit inside and soak up the atmosphere so that I could really get a feel for what it was like to live there.
Turf houses are curious buildings – humpbacked and a bit like little hillocks in the landscape. The roof and sides are covered in grass, although here and there you can glimpse the actual pieces of turf and see the construction. The walls are thick – usually two layers of turf with soil or sand in between – and built around a timber frame, and with a large hearth in the centre of the earth floor. The inhabitants would have been very warm and cosy in there, although cramped as they had to spend most of the winter indoors. Around the walls were benches to sit and sleep on, with straw and lots of furs to make them more comfortable.
A kind guide told us all about it and showed us weapons, utensils, materials and Viking ice skates – a pair of cow bones to strap to your shoes – and told us stories about the former inhabitants. All grist for a writer’s mill. I was able to put my hands on the turf walls to feel how soft and dry they were, if a bit dusty, and to notice that the house wasn’t damp. Eirik himself eventually left and discovered Greenland, where he settled. I couldn’t imagine wanting to leave that cosy little house and travel so far!
Being a volcanic island, Iceland is full of hot springs bubbling out of the ground. The characters in my book have a spring near their settlement, so I was on a mission to find one. I had hoped to actually bathe in it, but when we finally tracked one down there were signs saying it was currently closed to the public. For the sake of research, I went to have a quick look anyway (I know, naughty of me but necessary!), and at least I was able to take some photos and stick my hand in to check the temperature. It was hot, but not to the point of pain. I wish I could have gone in, but on the other hand, undressing in that arctic wind would not have been particularly nice!
The Snaefellsnes peninsula is a national park with a glacier in the middle – Snaefellsjökull – which was fascinating. It was shrouded in mists and low cloud, the top white with snow. We drove all the way around, stopping at Arnarstapi – a little fishing village – to see nesting sea birds down by the cliffs. Arctic tern, seagulls, eider ducks and puffins, although we didn’t spot any of the latter. There used to be great auks too, a large flightless bird about 70 cm in length and weighing about 5 kg. Unfortunately it was hunted for its meat and was easy prey so numbers dropped fast until it became extinct in 1844 – very sad. Up on the cliffs it was extremely windy, so much so that my hair could have doubled as one of those birds’ nests! Looking out to sea, you could see for miles and it was strange to think that the next landmass in that direction was Greenland.
We concluded the day with a visit to yet another settlement museum, this time in the little town of Borgarnes. The amazingly kind people there opened it just for us, and then they let us taste whey which you can apparently buy in Icelandic supermarkets. Whey was used by Vikings as a preservative – you can safely keep a haggis in it for up to a year for example – but they also drank it so I was very curious to try it for myself. It was a bit weird, but not unpleasant. Afterwards, we stayed in a hotel where the hot water came directly from hot springs in the ground which meant the shower smelled like rotten eggs! It didn’t leave a smell on the skin though so it was fine. The cold water also from a spring and was delicious everywhere we went!
To be continued …
Have you ever been to Iceland? If not, would you like to go?