Day 6 – Hallo, Turf*

Sunday 4th July 2021. Happy Independence Day, people in the USA!

The usual obsessing about the weather attended our waking, and actually the day looked to be just, you know, ordinary – no sun, but then again no rain, which put us ahead of the game, in our view. And here’s our view of the hotel, to give you an idea of the weather today.

The day promised to be a mixed bag, with a variety of cultural experiences on the schedule. Our first stop was to gawp at a rock formation near the hotel called Hvitserkur, but described to us as a “drinking dragon”.  It took us a little while to see it….

…but actually, if you think of the left hand end as the head, it becomes clearer.  Jane swears it’s more like a drinking donkey with a load on its back, and I’m remaining neutral on the rock naming issue.  The scenery around this point is quite appealing

but it is clear that we’ve left the Westfjords area with its air of being a rock-and-moss-strewn Wild And Lonely Place.  Generally, this, the northern region, has a much less savage landscape.

Our day would take us over 200km through north-western region and into the north-eastern region, ending up at the regional capital of Akureyri. But we had several aspects of Icelandic culture to experience en route, not the least of which being a record haul of unusual churches, which seem to be a bit of A Thing in Iceland.  We started  this collection at Þingeyrakirkja (pronounced “Thingeyrakirkjya”, but I want you to know that I’ve mastered the knack of getting Icelandic characters into my blog posts).

Construction of the church took 13 years and required transporting stone from Nesbjörg, a scene of historical battles against the Vikings, throughout the winter of 1864-65, by sled over the ice-covered lake Hóp on an 8-km journey. It’s slightly unusual, being a Roman Catholic church in a land whose church is officially Lutheran.  Being Roman Catholic it has, of course, got some fancy artefacts in it.  The church itself was locked, which meant peering through the window into a gloomy church with the interior backlit by the windows opposite.

However, with the combined miracles of modern digital camera sensors and intelligent software, it became clearer what we were looking at.

There was also a gallery visible through a different window.  The processing results were less impressive, but still gave a fair idea of what was inside.

Thank you Nikon and DxO.  Oh, and Jane, for helping me deal with the worst of reflections in the window glass.

A church would be the subject of our next stop, but on the way there we got a reminder that we were in horse country.

Iceland has a unique genetic strain of horses and the authorities go to extreme lengths to keep it pure; Icelandic horses (never “ponies” in polite Icelandic company, despite the fact that they’re all smaller than 15.2 hands) are famous in riding circles for having a unique gait, halfway between walk and trot, called “tölt”.

So: next church: this one is Blönduóskirkja – so-called because it’s in a town called Blönduós  – and features another eccentric design.

Today being Sunday, we thought it might be open.  Like so many churches around the island, it wasn’t.

The next stop was also a church and the start of our brush with Icelandic turf constructions. It is called Víðimýrarkirkja, and is part of the Skagafjörður Heritage Museum (Skagafjörður is the name of the county it’s in). It’s small but beautifully formed.

and the inside is a delight both to look at

and to smell – it has a wonderful, woody, scent.

One of the other parts of the Heritage Museum is at Glaumbær, and also heavily features turf.

It looks like several turf houses

but this is an illusion.  If you step in the main entrance above and explore, it becomes clear that it goes back a long way

and there are different rooms off this passageway, such as this kitchen.

In fact, the whole construction is one house, constructed in sections up to 1879, which would have belonged to a wealthy person (a bishop, actually) and where some 24 people would have lived.  The timbers in the house give away the fact that this was a wealthy man’s house, as timber is a scarce resource in Iceland because the original settlers chopped down all the trees. A more typical example would have much less timber and of much coarser quality.  There are around a dozen turf houses left in Iceland, all examples of dwellings of wealthy people, and some were even inhabited as late as the 1960s.  The buildings look great now, but life in them would not have been too wonderful – two dozen people crammed into such a space would not have been that pleasant, and it’s too easy to romanticise life back then.

I’ve got a load more photos of the other rooms and the outer sections – toolsheds, etc – but don’t want to bore you more than I’m already doing, so I’ll move on, as we in fact did.

Dagur next took us on a tour of his native town, Skagafjörður, before we stopped off at Hofsos, a pretty village with a lovely harbour.

We then spent some time with Dagur’s mother, father, younger brother and niece, who have a summer house nearby; it was a very pleasant interlude, and they are a charming and hospitable family.

Our final brush with Icelandic culture was to visit Siglufjörður, which was a centre of a huge herring processing industry in Iceland, and is now home to the Herring Era Museum.  The town itself is quite handsome.

It would have been even more so had the fog not obscured the mountains, but it’s an appealing place.  To the left in the picture above is the Sigló Hótel, an imposing and attractive building, which is a strong candidate for a stay when we come back to Iceland in the future.

The Herring Museum itself (visible on the far quayside in the picture above) is very interesting as it gives a superb insight into the extraordinary size, scope and complexity of the herring industry which was so important to Iceland (still is, in fact, but it’s much more industrialised now).  Again, I have dozens of photos but will just show you a couple here.

The museum is actually five buildings of which three contain exhibits.  The biggest one is the boathouse.

As well as boats, it has examples of fishing equipment of all sorts, and a couple of idiosyncratic wooden figures of people from that era: a fishwife;

and an old salt, clearly out to try something on with passing people.

The next building is the fish oil factory, which shows the sort of huge machinery used to process herring into oil and fishmeal.

Upstairs is a gallery which gives a lot of information about the history and size of the industry and the importance of its products.

One gets a powerful impression of how tough the life must have been – hard labour in unremittingly unpleasant conditions. The third building covers the salting process and also contains the lodging for the “herring girls” who worked there in the summers.

As Jane pointed out, most ships have a bridge in them, but this is ridiculous.

Shortly after this visit, we arrived in Akureyri and checked into our room, so far towards the furthest reaches of the hotel that the WiFi reached only intermittently), at the Kea Hotel (comfortable enough, but so cramped that if one person is sitting at the desk, another can’t get round to the window) before heading out for a decent meal at a nearby restaurant called Strikið. We’ll explore the town more tomorrow and I’ll report back, so stay tuned for the gen on this, the capital of the northern region, and more waterfalls.


*  The title of this post is after an idea proposed by my wife. I just thought you ought to know this.

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