The Iceland Insight Tour was remarkable in many ways. First, it was planned in collaboration with a Travel Agency: MUNDO, led by a Fulbright alumna. She understood from the first that a customized tour would be appropriate, and she and I worked quickly and well together to craft the outline via SKYPE. My role was to begin with the proposition that we go North and West rather than taking the usual tourist route of the Golden Circle from Reykjavik to the waterfall, glacier, geyser, and green houses along the South Coast. There are many tours that go there daily, and alumni who wish to visit them can easily add a day or two to a journey and go there on their own. Two persons did on a day just before returning home. Another booked a day at the Blue Lagoon SPA—another iconic Iceland site, but not necessarily the “must do” uniquely for Fulbrighters. Several others had already made those tours on prior visits to Iceland. Thus, the basic idea of going to a less touristic and more historic area of the country ended up bringing in a group of alumni and friends of Fulbright who wanted the deeper immersion in the country’s history, culture, and ecological and environmental uniqueness.
The second element that made the trip memorable is that Belinda Theriault, the ED of the Fulbright Commission in Iceland, was convinced by her colleague at MUNDO to be the guide/leader on the journey. She was wonderful: she knew so much; she had such special contacts; she connected us with Fulbrighters either currently on grants or ready to go on them; and, at the end, the Chair of the FC of the country—its most prominent, now retired, Ambassador to the USA, to the UN, to China, and to the Balkans. Having him as a dinner companion in Reykjavik the last evening was the final “coup” Belinda provided, and it was particularly meaningful because three of the current members of the Fulbright Association Board of Directors were on the trip and were able to talk with him about mutual concerns over dinner: FAR Schmider (President of the Board), Bruce Fowler (Chair of the Advocacy Task Force), and Jay Nathan (active member of Conference Committee and generous donor.)
The third element, of course, was the camaraderie and genuine interest the Fulbright and friends travel group found with one another during the six days on the road. Many have now written specially to acknowledge their pleasure at making new friends with whom they hope to travel again. Not only was Belinda a generous leader; the driver of the 15-passenger van, Sirry, and she made a terrific “tag team.” They hadn’t known one another before the tour, but both brought so many extra insights and ideas to the journey that we waited for the day’s “surprise” each morning. They even joked they could become a team doing tours: maybe someday they will be! They’d be great.
The tour was six days and nights, with two nights in each of three hotels. This is a critical element: if one moves every night, too much time is spent checking in and out and packing, unpacking, and repacking. And one sleeps better the second night in the same bed! The travel time in the van was managed well, also. We never spent more than two to three hours in travel at a time, and each day was planned with visits, exhibits, spa baths, or talks with questions interspersed with the ever-scenic vistas as we drove the ring road.
So what did we see and experience? First, two-lane roads with very little traffic moving through an immense variety of landscapes: ocean, fjords, lava fields and caves, hidden waterfalls, snow-covered mountains, hints of the glacier in the distance, isolated farm houses, sheep ranging free on the mossy green ground cover of hills, mountains, and valleys, Icelandic horses (never allowed to return if they leave the country, and no horses allowed to enter the country to keep the herd pure), and towns of less than 100 people or homes with small barns dotting the landscape. Weather was as changeable as advertised: from warm days in the 60s to mixed clouds, full sun lasting moments, fog, cool nights in lingering light (we were just under the Arctic Circle where the summer days never end), and just a bit of rain. Changes occurred by the hour, as is another typical and unique aspect of Icelandic life. One always travels with layers of clothing.
Events included a demonstration of yarn dyeing at Hespa Gallery—the small room where all the flora historically part of Iceland’s landscape are used to dye the natural, lamb’s wool yarn. The artist did her master’s thesis on the history, folklore, uses, and dying potential of natural materials, and her practice and teaching have resulted in specialty packs of yarns for shawls or caps—or larger projects. These are for sale at her atelier as well as in upscale design stores in Reykjavik and at the airport shop. (The FAR Schmider, a knitter, immediately spent more than she had budgeted on the first day!)
The Settlements Centre was next: two tours introduced the group to the settlement of Iceland in 870 AD and the narrative of Eigil, an early settler in the farming area and the subject of the most famous of the Viking Sagas written down from oral tradition between 1240-1260 AD.
The first evening culminated with an outdoor hot springs natural bath visit to the largest such SPA in Iceland: Karuma. It was one of two such events, giving travelers the chance to relax, invigorate their skin cells, and revel in another unique aspect of Icelandic life.
A modest hotel welcomed tired travelers in the area of the earliest settlements, an area now revitalizing with environmental/ecotravelers. The history of the area is evoked and documented in the novelist Jon Kalman Stefansson’s book, “Heaven and Hell.”
On day two, we descended into the Cave at Vithgelmir, owned and environmentally protected by the farmer under whose private land it lies. The information about its formation in volcanic eruptions and a careful look at the variety of layers, subtle colors, and hidden places where outlaws hid from organized society in the past, were all relayed during stops on route down and back from deep in the earth. The group was official and safe in hard hats with Magellan lights.
The Center for study of the Sagas and other Icelandic literature at Reyholt introduced the group to the devotion of Icelanders to literature and to education as well as to its literary treasure trove. Now twenty years old, the center holds conferences, oversees publication of books, and continues research in related areas. Scholars from all over the world come there to learn and to explore the great tradition of medieval literature—in fact, the most famous medieval historian, Snorri Surluson, who was a descendant of Egil’s, wrote the Saga (story) of Egil Skallagrimsson on the farm site. The newest study of the Sagas was published with an Introduction by Jane Smiley, a Fulbright Scholar to Iceland. It is based on new comparison studies of all the available vellum editions, many returned from Denmark after centuries held in a library there while Iceland was under its political control. “The Sagas of the Icelanders” is the title; copies in paperback were prominently displayed at the Keflavik International Airport. (Smiley had just returned as a Fulbright Specialist to discuss this new publication.)
SIgliufjorder was another surprise–a beautiful small city (2200 people) at the head of the fjord surrounded by snow-covered mountains. Those of us who had read Ragnar Jonasson’s crime novel, “Snow Blind,” set in midwinter in the city began to understand both the beauty of endless summer sun and the claustrophobia of winter nights and days of darkness so close to the Arctic Circle. The town lies at the very northern part of the country.
The Herring Museum in Sigliufjorder, the largest industrial museum in Europe, documents the years of the Norwegian Steamships from Bohuslan which scooped up the Herring from the sea and gave work to the Icelanders who “worked the fish.” Barrels of pickled Herring and specialty canned products were sent all over the world from 1875 until about 1910. A local Icelander who became wealthy in the fish industry, returned to Sigliufjorder to reinvent it as a charming place to live and a tourist destination. The Hotel Sigliu was the highlight of our nights on the road. The morning buffet in a sunny dining space facing the fjord and the snow-covered mountain just outside the window made us wish to linger.
Even dinners in Sigliufjorder were surprises: we had Lamb Shanks cooked Moroccan-style served in individual Tagines at a local restaurant where we saw copies of Ragnar’s novels displayed on the piano ready for jazz musicians.
Akuryeri, the second largest city in Iceland, is home to a university where a Fulbrighter from the U. of Alaska is currently working on Polar Public Health issues. We were fortunate to have her join us for the entire day going to Lake Myvatn. It was a fine opportunity both to learn about issues facing both America and Iceland with climate change in the Arctic regions and to hear her enthusiastic report of being a Fulbrighter there. We hope our connection with Rhonda Johnson will result in another alum adding her expertise to a program of the FA.
Lake Myvatn was another extraordinary opportunity: from taste-testing lamb and fish smoked in the traditional Icelandic way in a shed fired with “sheep shit.” It was also the place for an extraordinary nature Bath at Reykjahlith.
Retracing our route on the ring road, we experienced the Westgoers Museum in Hofsos. The displays there were filled with the photo panels of late 19th C. life in S. Canada, and Northern North Dakota and Western Minnesota send back by the descendants of those who left Iceland in hope and despair. The land was so difficult to live in after the volcanic eruptions of the 19th century. The beauty of Hofsos in summer belied the winter dark once more, and it showed in the picture of Westgoers on the ship ready to depart the harbor how mixed their feelings were leaving a place they were never to see again.
We arrived in Reykjavik to spend the last two days of the journey at a hotel in the center of the old part of town within walking distance of the Parliament, the cathedral church, and the university and national museums. It turned out to be a record-setting time of heat (about 70 degrees F.) so the street cafes and the roller blade park were full of summer celebrators into the always-light early morning hours.
Though our last day was to be “on our own,” everyone eagerly took on the chance to tour the Parliament, the Althingi. It is not open to the public, so it was Belinda’s final “surprise. She worked with leaders there for 14 years, so she was able to arrange a full private tour with a good deal of information about the oldest standing parliament of a democracy in the world. This opportunity, along with having met the most distinguished ambassador of the country the prior evening over dinner, were fitting conclusions to our in depth introduction to Iceland.
It is a country whose history connects the Viking past with the first sightings of N. America, and whose literate, sophisticated, world-aware residents are now sharing their land of harsh beauty with over two million visitors each year. Sitting precisely on the ridge between the North American and the Eurasian techtonic plates* at the original Athingi, at Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one can look into the gap between them. Our group, however, will need to wait for another Icelandic tour to do that. It is but one example of how much more there is to experience, learn, and enjoy about this remarkable country.
–Mary Ellen Heian Schmider
* The tectonic plates whose turbulent interactions formed Iceland, are the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate. Spanning the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Iceland emerged as a result of the divergent, spreading, boundary between these two plates and the activity of Iceland´s own hotspot or mantle plume.