Traveling In Iceland
From: A Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
It ought, one would have thought, to have been night, even in the
sixty-fifth parallel of latitude; but still the nocturnal illumination
did not surprise me. For in Iceland, during the months of June and July,
the sun never sets.
The temperature, however, was very much lower than I expected. I was
cold, but even that did not affect me so much as ravenous hunger.
Welcome indeed, therefore, was the hut which hospitably opened its doors
It was merely the house of a peasant, but in the matter of hospitality,
it was worthy of being the palace of a king. As we alighted at the door
the master of the house came forward, held out his hand, and without any
further ceremony, signaled to us to follow him.
We followed him, for to accompany him was impossible. A long, narrow,
gloomy passage led into the interior of this habitation, made from beams
roughly squared by the ax. This passage gave ingress to every room. The
chambers were four in number the kitchen, the workshop, where the
weaving was carried on, the general sleeping chamber of the family, and
the best room, to which strangers were especially invited. My uncle,
whose lofty stature had not been taken into consideration when the house
was built, contrived to knock his head against the beams of the roof.
We were introduced into our chamber, a kind of large room with a hard
earthen floor, and lighted by a window, the panes of which were made of
a sort of parchment from the intestines of sheep very far from
The bedding was composed of dry hay thrown into two long red wooden
boxes, ornamented with sentences painted in Icelandic. I really had no
idea that we should be made so comfortable. There was one objection to
the house, and that was, the very powerful odor of dried fish, of
macerated meat, and of sour milk, which three fragrances combined did
not at all suit my olfactory nerves.
As soon as we had freed ourselves from our heavy traveling costume, the
voice of our host was heard calling to us to come into the kitchen, the
only room in which the Icelanders ever make any fire, no matter how cold
it may be.
My uncle, nothing loath, hastened to obey this hospitable and friendly
invitation. I followed.
The kitchen chimney was made on an antique model. A large stone standing
in the middle of the room was the fireplace; above, in the roof, was a
hole for the smoke to pass through. This apartment was kitchen, parlor
and dining room all in one.
On our entrance, our worthy host, as if he had not seen us before,
advanced ceremoniously, uttered a word which means "be happy," and then
kissed both of us on the cheek.
His wife followed, pronounced the same word, with the same ceremonial,
then the husband and wife, placing their right hands upon their hearts,
This excellent Icelandic woman was the mother of nineteen children, who,
little and big, rolled, crawled, and walked about in the midst of
volumes of smoke arising from the angular fireplace in the middle of the
room. Every now and then I could see a fresh white head, and a slightly
melancholy expression of countenance, peering at me through the vapor.
Both my uncle and myself, however, were very friendly with the whole
party, and before we were aware of it, there were three or four of these
little ones on our shoulders, as many on our boxes, and the rest hanging
about our legs. Those who could speak kept crying out saellvertu in
every possible and impossible key. Those who did not speak only made all
the more noise.
This concert was interrupted by the announcement of supper. At this
moment our worthy guide, the eider-duck hunter, came in after seeing to
the feeding and stabling of the horses which consisted in letting them
loose to browse on the stunted green of the Icelandic prairies. There
was little for them to eat, but moss and some very dry and innutritious
grass; next day they were ready before the door, some time before we
"Welcome," said Hans.
Then tranquilly, with the air of an automaton, without any more
expression in one kiss than another, he embraced the host and hostess
and their nineteen children.
This ceremony concluded to the satisfaction of all parties, we all sat
down to table, that is twenty-four of us, somewhat crowded. Those who
were best off had only two juveniles on their knees.
As soon, however, as the inevitable soup was placed on the table, the
natural taciturnity, common even to Icelandic babies, prevailed over all
else. Our host filled our plates with a portion of lichen soup of
Iceland moss, of by no means disagreeable flavor, an enormous lump of
fish floating in sour butter. After that there came some skyr, a kind of
curds and whey, served with biscuits and juniper-berry juice. To drink,
we had blanda, skimmed milk with water. I was hungry, so hungry, that by
way of dessert I finished up with a basin of thick oaten porridge.
As soon as the meal was over, the children disappeared, whilst the grown
people sat around the fireplace, on which was placed turf, heather, cow
dung and dried fish-bones. As soon as everybody was sufficiently warm, a
general dispersion took place, all retiring to their respective couches.
Our hostess offered to pull off our stockings and trousers, according to
the custom of the country, but as we graciously declined to be so
honored, she left us to our bed of dry fodder.
Next day, at five in the morning, we took our leave of these hospitable
peasants. My uncle had great difficulty in making them accept a
sufficient and proper remuneration.
Hans then gave the signal to start.
We had scarcely got a hundred yards from Gardar, when the character of
the country changed. The soil began to be marshy and boggy, and less
favorable to progress. To the right, the range of mountains was
prolonged indefinitely like a great system of natural fortifications, of
which we skirted the glacis. We met with numerous streams and rivulets
which it was necessary to ford, and that without wetting our baggage. As
we advanced, the deserted appearance increased, and yet now and then we
could see human shadows flitting in the distance. When a sudden turn of
the track brought us within easy reach of one of these specters, I felt
a sudden impulse of disgust at the sight of a swollen head, with shining
skin, utterly without hair, and whose repulsive and revolting wounds
could be seen through his rags. The unhappy wretches never came forward
to beg; on the contrary, they ran away; not so quick, however, but that
Hans was able to salute them with the universal saellvertu.
"Spetelsk," said he.
"A leper," explained my uncle.
The very sound of such a word caused a feeling of repulsion. The
horrible affliction known as leprosy, which has almost vanished before
the effects of modern science, is common in Iceland. It is not
contagious but hereditary, so that marriage is strictly prohibited to
these unfortunate creatures.
These poor lepers did not tend to enliven our journey, the scene of
which was inexpressibly sad and lonely. The very last tufts of grassy
vegetation appeared to die at our feet. Not a tree was to be seen,
except a few stunted willows about as big as blackberry bushes. Now and
then we watched a falcon soaring in the grey and misty air, taking his
flight towards warmer and sunnier regions. I could not help feeling a
sense of melancholy come over me. I sighed for my own Native Land, and
wished to be back with Gretchen.
We were compelled to cross several little fjords, and at last came to a
real gulf. The tide was at its height, and we were able to go over at
once, and reach the hamlet of Alftanes, about a mile farther.
That evening, after fording the Alfa and the Heta, two rivers rich in
trout and pike, we were compelled to pass the night in a deserted house,
worthy of being haunted by all the fays of Scandinavian mythology. The
King of Cold had taken up his residence there, and made us feel his
presence all night.
The following day was remarkable by its lack of any particular
incidents. Always the same damp and swampy soil; the same dreary
uniformity; the same sad and monotonous aspect of scenery. In the
evening, having accomplished the half of our projected journey, we slept
at the Annexia of Krosolbt.
For a whole mile we had under our feet nothing but lava. This
disposition of the soil is called hraun
: the crumbled lava on the
surface was in some instances like ship cables stretched out
horizontally, in others coiled up in heaps; an immense field of lava
came from the neighboring mountains, all extinct volcanoes, but whose
remains showed what once they had been. Here and there could be made out
the steam from hot water springs.
There was no time, however, for us to take more than a cursory view of
these phenomena. We had to go forward with what speed we might. Soon the
soft and swampy soil again appeared under the feet of our horses, while
at every hundred yards we came upon one or more small lakes. Our journey
was now in a westerly direction; we had, in fact, swept round the great
bay of Faxa, and the twin white summits of Sneffels rose to the clouds
at a distance of less than five miles.
The horses now advanced rapidly. The accidents and difficulties of the
soil no longer checked them. I confess that fatigue began to tell
severely upon me; but my uncle was as firm and as hard as he had been on
the first day. I could not help admiring both the excellent Professor
and the worthy guide; for they appeared to regard this rugged expedition
as a mere walk!
On Saturday, the 20th June, at six o'clock in the evening, we reached
Budir, a small town picturesquely situated on the shore of the ocean;
and here the guide asked for his money. My uncle settled with him
immediately. It was now the family of Hans himself, that is to say, his
uncles, his cousins german, who offered us hospitality. We were
exceedingly well received, and without taking too much advantage of the
goodness of these worthy people, I should have liked very much to have
rested with them after the fatigues of the journey. But my uncle, who
did not require rest, had no idea of anything of the kind; and despite
the fact that next day was Sunday, I was compelled once more to mount my
The soil was again affected by the neighborhood of the mountains, whose
granite peered out of the ground like tops of an old oak. We were
skirting the enormous base of the mighty volcano. My uncle never took
his eyes from off it; he could not keep from gesticulating, and looking
at it with a kind of sullen defiance as much as to say "That is the
giant I have made up my mind to conquer."
After four hours of steady traveling, the horses stopped of themselves
before the door of the presbytery of Stapi.
Next: We Reach Mount Sneffels The Reykir
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