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Given how few people there are in the country – and therefore how few places – you might think that unlike the rest of us Icelanders would have survived thus far without having to double up on their town-names. Presumably however, just like the rest of us, they name places by reference to geography, geology and/or people or events, so doubling-up does happen. There are several Reykholts dotted about. That being so, let’s get the confusion out of the way from the outset: we are talking about Reykholt in West Iceland, about 35km northeast of Borgarnes on route 518.
At first sight there is very little to recommend the stop-off to the passing tourist. Certainly it doesn’t exude the atmosphere of having once been one of the three most important centres in the country. Internet searches suggest a current population of well under a hundred souls. It wasn’t always thus. For centuries, this was a power base, a centre of learning, and for a while home to Iceland’s most celebrated historical writer: Snorri Sturluson.
Like most mediaeval scholars, Snorri was not of common farming stock. He was born into the Icelandic equivalent of the aristocracy in 1179. His mother’s ancestors included the warrior poet Egill Skallagrimsson and his father was from a line of influential chieftains. In the absence of a central ruling body, the chieftains governed the country through a series of alliances and deals. These were often cemented by marriage between the clans or by the fostering out of a child. At a young age (between two & four depending upon the source), Snorri was sent in just such a fashion to Oddi – at that time a cultural Mecca centred on the ecclesiastical school founded by French-educated Saemunder Sigfússon. Here he grew up learning not only the ways of the clans but also becoming familiar with historical writings and the workings of the Norwegian court.
In his late twenties and married to a wealthy heiress he returned to Reykholt. In between securing his grip on power and scandalising the country by fathering children by three women other than his wife, Snorri produced the Prose Edda (an account of Norse mythology, codifying a system of beliefs into a structure that many since have argued is far more rigid than was actually conceived at the time), then Egill’s Saga and the Heimskringla (a history of the Norwegian kings).
Although best-known as a poet, Snorri was also a lawyer rising to the only position of public office in the country: Lawspeaker of the Althing – a position he held from 1215 to 1218, and again from 1222 to 1232. In the intervening years he had been in Norway by Royal invitation, forming and cementing relationships that would eventually prove to be his downfall. Norway was bent on extending its control to include Iceland, but Snorri apart, most of the Icelandic chiefs had other ideas. The disagreement spilt over into pitched battles and guerrilla warfare, mirrored by a civil war in Norway itself over the claim to the throne. To cut the long and bloody story short, Snorri was eventually pursued to his own home where he was hacked to death.
As is always the case with historical writers, Snorri’s actions and works are often judged in a modern context – particularly in connection with views on national identity and sovereignty – which simply wasn’t applicable at the time, but his real importance lies in the writings which are one of the very few contemporaneous sources for beliefs and political activity in 13th century northern Europe.
Beneath the more modern of Reykholt’s two churches is the Snorrastofa, a museum and study centre dedicated to the life, times and works of Snorri Sturluson. The institution and its curators are reckoned to be famous throughout the country for their outspokenness on all things Snorri, and the venue is clearly a place of pilgrimage for Icelanders as well as foreign tourists.
Don’t believe the guide-books though… the exhibition is over-stated. Yes, it is a must-see if you happen to be in the area, but not worth going out of your way for.
Whilst the facsimiles and information panels do give an interesting insight into the world of the writer, there is little of genuine age: a few finds from recent excavations of the original farmhouse and Iceland’s oldest document, the deeds to the original church. For those of us used to more tangible evidence of past lives, the 700Kr entrance fee (about £4 at current exchange rates) seemed a little over the top.
The shop is worth a look, holding a reasonable selection of books in both Icelandic and English including a number that I didn’t come across anywhere else.
The more direct link to Snorri can be seen for free outside. A short distance from the museum you’ll find the Snorralaug (Snorri’s pool).
According to the Landnamabok (Iceland’s near-equivalent to the Domesday Book) a hot water bath was in use at Reykholt already in the 10th century, although documentary evidence suggests that there were no residents at that time, only a few sheep sheds belonging to a nearby farm.
By the 13th century and the time that Snorri moved in the homestead was technically Church property. In the Sturlunga saga (a miscellaneous collection of writings from the time), the bath is mentioned several times including direct reference to Snorri and his pals sitting chatting away in true Roman fashion.
The present construction was one of the first archaeological remains in the country to be officially listed, in 1817.
Don’t get carried away and imagine a mighty roman-style bath-house. This is a much more modest affair: a circular pool, constructed of hewn stone, 4m in diameter and between 0.7m and 1m deep. There are three steps down into the pool, with a stone bench just below the water level. The thermal water – which today carries warning signs as being too hot to bathe in when the pool has just been refilled – feeds through a conduit from the hot spring Skrifla, which is believed to be contemporary with the original construction of the pool. A wooden shed covers the pipe-way, but we are warned that this is not a reconstruction of any kind – merely a device to protect the remains at surface level from erosion. Most of the conduit is below ground. The pool itself is open to the elements and there is nothing to stop you hopping right on in.
The “picture-postcard” epithet quoted in the tourist guides relates to the two churches which form the centre of what passes for the modern village. The village itself is a scattering of houses on the nearby hills. The only shop is attached to a petrol station on the main road half a mile or so away.
The older of the two churches is a small pale grey and white clapboard affair, with a simple interior of unexpected candy pink walls and baby blue ceiling. This is believed to be on the original church site, with the foundations of four or five previous structures lying beneath it. The present building dates from the 19th century.
It is dwarfed by the modern replacement dating from 1996, with its huge chandeliers, floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows and the 600 year old organ which once graced Reykjavik cathedral.
Both buildings exude an unmistakeable simple faith, calm quiet interiors, artwork that is restrained and elegant rather than flamboyant. The form of Christianity that took hold here is clearly Lutheran – there is no showy Catholic exuberance to be found anywhere. In the graveyard there are no Grecian urns or weeping angels, only simple crosses or slab headstones carved with a name and dates – even a simple one-line inscription (Rest in peace) seems held-back, as if it might offend the neighbours with its arrogance.
So why else might you wind up here?
Given the unprepossessing nature of the place, you might question the size of the hotel (see separate review) and the number of tour buses passing through or settling down. There must be some other attraction, no?
As is often the case on this geological young island, it is the landscape itself which is the real enticement. If you come to Reykholt...it’s probable that you’re planning to do a little exploring round and about. With only two days to play we managed to get a good taste of the area.
A few kilometres up the road is Deildartunguhver: Europe’s largest hot spring.
The facts: The thermal spring produces 180 litres of water a second, the highest output of any thermal spring anywhere. The water temperature averages 212 degrees Fahrenheit (or 100 degrees Centigrade i.e. boiling point). The total production capacity of the spring and its two neighbouring boreholes is 62 megawatts. It has been used for central heating since 1925, but is now heating homes far beyond what could have been envisaged back then. With the spring being only 19 metres above sea level it has to be pumped if it is to travel any great distance. The current distribution network connecting Akranes, Borgarnes and Hvanneyri was completed in 1981, covering a distance of 74 kilometres. The water reaches Akranes in about 24 hours, having lost approximately 40 degrees F (about 29 degrees C) en route. The figures will vary depending upon the weather, being higher during dry, frosty periods and lower during periods of rain.
The experience: The facts are staggering enough – and make it clear why those very few Icelanders (less than 5%) whose homes are not heated by geothermal energy receive a payment from the government to compensate. But they are nothing compared to the first time you see this in action.
The viewing area is very small, but get there early and you will have it to yourself. An uplift has caused a short rift, where water bubbles and steams to the surface. Steam rises steadily, and pools boil incessantly, regularly spitting and spurting in anger. At its base the rock is rust-red as though being cooked in the waters; where the steam condenses on the upper levels it is cloaked in moss and lichen, a deep rich seaweed green.
This isn’t on the awesome scale of the world’s great geysers, but as a starting point on a tour of the country it is an immediate explanation as to why the elders believed in elves and monsters and strange angry gods. Quickly enough, people learned how to make use of the god-given waters, but still they knew they couldn’t tame them.
Standing here on a drizzly morning in the 21st century 13 well-educated who (more-or-less) understood the processes at work were entranced for a while. How much more magical must it have seemed a thousand years ago?
Gabrok Crater – and a walk above Hredavatn
From current activity to signs of past eruption: a few more kilometres and we alight at Gabrok Crater. Formed in a fissure eruption less than 3000 years ago, the crater is 173m above sea level, and the largest of (originally) three craters on a 600m long fissure. The smallest of these has since been raided for road-building gravel.
The crater is a scheduled natural monument and a boarded footpath leads to the summit, preventing erosion of the lava scree slopes. It’s worth the jaunt to the top for wide views of the surrounding valley, lakes and hills. Look closely too. At your feet you will life on the edge. Lichen carpets the lava boulders and between bare rock fragile flowers take their footholds and bloom forth.
Having circuited the rim, we descended by the same stairway and headed off down the old road to Bifrost. ‘Lonely Planet’ has little to say about this town, noting only that it is a village and college complex, while the Rough Guide calls it ‘little more than a filling station’… one of our party said something along the lines of “turn right at
Pictures of Reykholt Village, Reykholtsdalur
Reykholt Church...and Snorrastofa
the army camp”… the old Fosshotel now forms the centre of the “campus”, supplemented by a hideous 3-storey deck-access granite-grey slab of an apartment block and a few prettier yellow-painted chalets. The remainder of the village comprises a series of housing terraces, white with the traditional red roofs struggling to be attractive but managing to look simply temporary and unfinished, as insubstantial as children’s toys, as they squat among the unmoved boulder field. A fire hydrant stands un-ironically on the corner.
Turn right we did and headed out over the fields and up into the hills. The weather was walk-perfect, cool and bright, with intermittent sunshine (the most we would see of it this week). Flowers carpeted the floor as we climbed up above Hredavatn lake, following a broad dirt track. Approaching a house (no doubt the owners of the track) we are requested not to pass through the gate, a hand-written notice indicates a detour around the property, a short clamber up a grassy slope up onto a ridge following paths and trails which are more or less clear at intervals. Small streams break up the way; marsh flag (cotton-grass) abounds at the margins. As we descend towards Bambavatn the old joke about being lost in an Icelandic forest loses its edge. The story goes that the thing to do if you get lost in an Iceland forest is: stand up!
Nothing grows to any height, is the theory.
The birches may not have been tall, but a machete would still have come in handy as we blundered our way through trying to stick to an allegedly way-marked path, down to the lakeside and then up over the col between Grafarksotsfell and Litla Skarosfjall, and back down to the road. The lush green landscape was a surprise.
This was not a side of Iceland we’d been led to expect.
The day ended at the Glanni Falls, a picturesque low-lying series of rapids, whose main attraction is the salmon leap. In a quiet side water, a seven-storey fish-ladder has been installed with great engineering skill and expense, but at this time of year the fish clearly didn’t need it, being content to make their traditional way up through the white water hurtling over the rocks.
Our second walking day should have seen us joyfully exclaiming over more white water, as we headed up Rauchsgill (Raven’s Gorge). Leading straight off the road just outside of Reykholt, the path took us up alongside Faefoss, Baejorfoss, Einiberjafoss, Trollesfoss and Faellaekur before heading up onto Burfell (which needs no translation) for stunning views. Allegedly.
We didn’t make it onto the fell. The morning started with a light drizzle that descended and deepened into real rain. Low cloud meant that we’d see nothing from the top anyway, so when the consensus seemed to be that having reached the head of the gorge we’d achieved enough – and in fairness had probably seen the best of the walk – turning back was what we did.
The fosses (from which we get our English word “Force” as in “High Force” on the River Tees) are a series of short drops from through about 350m total descent… at their prettiest from near the bottom when the whole sequence can be seen; at their most dramatic when seen from directly above. After a zigzag climb to gain half the height, the path follows the edge of the cleft giving direct views down into the torrents. Our descent was a little more wayward, simply striking downhill until we reached a fence which proved how far off track we’d come and circling round to regain the track.
In good weather, and assuming that the route upon onto the fell summit still exists (a fence had been erected since our leader’s notes had been produced that meant that the onward path was somewhat disputed), this has all the potential for a fine walk.
If you’re a culture vulture, you can probably check off the highlights of Reykholt whilst passing through. For walkers, I’d definitely recommend spending a few days and exploring round about.
[Note: if you're reliant on public transport your options are limited there is a bus two Reykholt from Reykjavik on Friday & Sunday evenings, returning a couple of hours later in each case.]