Iceland 3/9/2019 - 3/17/2019

Tuesday, March 12, 2019 - Hólavallagarður Cemetery, National Museum, Tjörnin, A Glimpse of the Northern Lights

This morning after our standard hotel buffet breakfast, we decided to visit the National Museum, which seemed like the best place for us to learn more about the history of Iceland via a large collection of artifacts. The Settlement Exhibition had whet our appetite for this yesterday, and it seemed like the perfect way to spend the morning.

The weather was overcast. Along the way, we stopped to admire Hólavallagarður (garden on a hill), an historic cemetery. It was surrounded by a wall, and we found a gate which was unlocked so that we could enter this atmospheric graveyard. The cemetery was founded in 1838, and is still in use to this day. It was amazing, with large gnarled trees protruding from between the gravestones (in some cases even toppling them). It was incredibly picturesque, and we walked through observing the headstones and monuments. Most were fairly modest, marked with simple wooden crosses, stones with inscriptions, or simple tombstones. However, there were occasional graves which were more elaborately marked, with statuary or polished granite or marble tombstones.

It was a very atmospheric place, with crooked bare trees that resembled something from an Edward Gorey illustration. It was like you were in a monochromatic world with an occasional pop of color from lime green lichen and deep green moss. Even though the cemetery is in the middle of the city, once you step inside you feel like you are in a secret world.

Then we continued to the museum, which contained many amazing cultural artifacts from the original settlement of Iceland to the present day. Viking artifacts including tools, weapons, jewelry, and mythological iconography were on display that dates back to the Settlement era. We saw the iconic Eyrarland Statue: a small bronze figure of Thor and Mjöllnir (his hammer) dating back to 1000 AD. It was unearthed in 1815/1816 on Eyrarland Farm in the vicinity of Akureyri.

We also saw a copy of the Íslendingabók (Book of Icelanders) written in calligraphic script from 1681. The Íslendingabók was first written by Ari Þorgilsson cira 1130 A.D., and relays the history of the Icelandic people from Settlement to 1120 A.D.

There were also human remains dating back to the 10th century. Depending on the type of earth in which the bodies were buried, the bones were in various conditions. Sand preserved the bones best, and a skeleton of a 40 year old woman was very well preserved.

Christianity arrived in Iceland around 1000 A.D., and there were many religious artifacts on display. There were carved church timbers from Modrufell dating from 1050-1100 A.D. One of the prized medieval religious artifacts in the museum is the Valþjófsstaður door. This is a carved church door dating to circa 1200 A.D. It is the only surviving Icelandic medieval carved wooden door and depicts the story of Le Chevalier au Lion. From the same time period was a birchwood carving of Christ from a crucifix in Ufsir, North Iceland.

Also on display was one of only 500 copies of the original printing of the Bible in Icelandic (Guðbrandur's Bible), dating back to 1584 with its original binding intact! There were other interesting religious artifacts, including wooden confessional / Communion dials used by clergy to keep track of the number of congregants receiving sacraments.

Artifacts from textile production included a loom, spindle whorls, and loom weights. A baðstofa (heated sauna shed that was also used as sleeping quarters) dating to the late 19th century had been transported from Skord, West Iceland, and was reconstructed inside the museum.

Iceland's history of seafaring and fishing was also well-represented. We saw a 4-man fishing boat built in 1898. Iceland cut ties with Denmark in 1944 and founded its modern republic. British trawlers would illegally fish in Icelandic waters following World War II, and Icelanders invented a weapon to combat this: trawl wire cutters. The design was a carefully guarded secret during the "Cod Wars", and consisted of a metal rod with four arms on it. There was a blade in the crotch of each of the arms, and when dragged behind Icelandic Coast Guard vessels, they would catch on trawling lines and cause them to part off, releasing the illegal catch back into the sea and damaging the trawling nets.

One exhibit showed the geologic stratification of the land in cross-section, which show evidence of various volcanic eruptions since the Settlement Era (871 +/- 2 A.D.) to the present. The "Landnamslag" ("Settlement tephra") dispersed by the eruption of Torfajokull in 870 A.D. was clearly visible.

The museum was fascinating and we learned a lot.

We walked back along Tjörnin, a pond in the middle of the city. It was partially frozen and quite picturesque with ducks and whooper swans swimming around. It is a popular pastime here to feed the ducks and swans, but we noticed a sign which asked people to please refrain from doing so in summer, when it attracts seagulls who will attack the ducklings.

The southwest bank of the pond is the location of the so-called Pearl Necklace, an installation of sculpture created by women artists, including one which emerges from the water...Hafmeyjan (Mermaid) sculpted by Nína Sæmundsson in 1948. The statue that is there today is actually a replica. The original was blown up on New Year's Eve 1960. The replica was installed in 2014 when the rest of the Pearl Necklace statuary was installed. Craig sat on a bench mimicing the position of the seated statue of Tómas Guðmundsson (2010) by Halla Gunnarsdóttir.

We had lunch at Frederikson's Ale House, where we each enjoyed a drink and a delicious pulled pork sandwich on a porter bun, served with salad, pickled carrots, pickles, spring onions, chili mayo, and curly fries. I had a Somersby hard cider, and Craig had a Viking Craft Selection Red IPA from Akureyri. We were seated in front of a mural map of Iceland, and Snæfellsnes, which we would visit tomorrow, was right behind Craig's head. There was an illustration of a red-headed whale monster, which we would learn is Redhead, the evil whale of Hvalfjörður. We were chatting with our server about our trip and our plans. When he learned that we hadn't rented a car and were instead relying on buses and vans, he said that we were lucky that we were here this week, because next week driver strikes were scheduled. We had timed it well, having just missed the hotel housekeepers' strike, which had happened two days prior to our arrival.

We went back to the hotel room for a bit, for a small siesta. We needed to check my e-mail to see if the conditions were favorable enough for our rescheduled Northern Lights tour tonight. According to the web site which tracks these things, tonight is rated 3 out of 9 in terms of probability. While we waited, we packed up whatever we would want to take with us for our two day excursion to Snæfellsnes, leaving early tomorrow morning.

We did not receive word of cancellation, so we went to Bus Stop #3 at 8:30 p.m. for our pickup by Reykjavik Expeditions. There were dozens of people waiting here, and we wondered if they were all on the same tour. It turned out that they weren't; there were many other operators picking up for the Northern Lights at the same stop. When our full-sized bus arrived just before 9 o'clock, it was already quite full.

The bus made a quick stop at the BSI terminal, and then we headed out of the lights of the city. Our driver's name was Marek, and our guide's name was Marta. She had a very soothing voice, and she explained to us how the tour would operate. Reykjavik Excursions had 8 full size coach buses seeking the Northern Lights tonight. They were all in contact with one another, and would all go to the same place where the probability of seeing the aurora was highest.

We were one of the last buses to arrive at their destination inside Thingvellir National Park when we got there at around 10:15 p.m.. The buses parked and we all congregated on a hillside facing north. The guides directed our attention to one particular spot where what looked like a faint cloud was visible behind a mountain ridge. The greenish color is more visible to a camera than to the human eye, so I set up my iPhone on a tripod with my Slow Shutter app which I had purchased for just this occasion. The green color came out much more prominently in the photos than was visible to our eyes, and we kept waiting for the show to become more definitive than a faint cloud on the horizon, but it wasn't to be.

We couldn't stand there for over an hour, so we sat ourselves down on the hillside. I was comfortable for a while, but soon my fingers got uncomfortably cold (I had them exposed to operate my phone camera), and it took them a good while to warm up in my leather gloves. Some people were being rather thoughtless, wandering around in front of people's long exposures, using a flash, etc. There were just too many people and not enough to see.

But the stars were absolutely amazing. We saw Orion and some shooting stars. It was really my own fault that I was uncomfortable. If I were to do it again, I would have worn longjohns and waterproof pants.

We left at the appointed time of 11:30 p.m. I was tired and cold and wanted to get to bed, as we had an early start for our guided 2 day trip to Snæfellsnes tomorrow. This is why we had originally planned this activity for last night, but the weather had other plans.

Having had a late lunch, we hadn't eaten dinner. I was now hungry and had visions of hot dogs in my head, knowing that the stand next to our hotel was open until 1 in the morning. But, in an attempt to give us a chance to see more aurora action, Marta asked Marek to pull over for a few minutes when she noticed some action in the sky. We were offered the chance to get off the bus to observe, but we could see through the window that it was no different than what we had already observed, and I was too cold and tired to go back outside.

We made one more such stop, which meant that we arrived back at the bus stop soon after 1 o'clock, just missing last call at the hot dog stand. We got to the room at 10:15, and we were in bed within about 5 minutes.

Because we hadn't had a very successful aurora experience, Marta had said that we could all rebook for another night for no extra charge. They want you to be satisfied, and obviously there is no way to control the atmospheric conditions which enable viewing of the Northern Lights. However, unless the forecast is much more confident than 3 out of 9, I don't know if I would want to try again in the cold so late at night...


Holavallagardur Cemetery

Hólavallagarður Cemetery

Holavallagardur Cemetery

Hólavallagarður Cemetery

Eyrarland Statue of Thor from 1000 A.D.

Eyrarland Statue of Thor from 1000 A.D.

Medieval Christian artifacts at the National Museum

Medieval Christian artifacts at the National Museum

Whooper swans at Tjornin

Whooper swans at Tjörnin

Northern lights

Northern lights

See all photos from March 12

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