Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 71/December 1907/A Trip Around Iceland III

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 71‎ | December 1907

A TRIP AROUND ICELAND.
By L. P. GRATACAP

AMERICAN MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY

III

REYKJAVIK was reached; the capital of Iceland, that first old landfall for the anxious vikings, who found that when they threw over their Lares and Penates those undiscerning deities floated ashore upon this inauspicious coast. The choice has a certain pictorial value, but for commercial purposes those old gods should have exercised more discretion, and commercial interests are beginning to weigh overpoweringly in this arctic metropolis. To the immediate north the snow-crowned Esja shines, to the southeast the sturdy eminences of the Lönguhlitharfiall swim upward over the horizon; and still farther south the volcanic peaks of Krisuvik, where the sulphur quarries are. Then to the northwest like a titanic gleaming gem Snaefells with its ice mantle draws to its overmastering beauty every eye. But this in clear weather, and clear weather is not a very plentiful article in Iceland. In bad weather, which is a trifle more common, the steamers may keep their imprisoned passengers for four days before they can land. The harbor is called so by a pleasant boreal fiction, which is not creditable to Icelandic hospitality. It is expected that next year an appropriation of some $400,000 will be granted permitting Mr. Smith, the official harbor surveyor of Norway, to execute his accepted plans for improving these inclement conditions.

The town of Reykjavik contains about ten thousand inhabitants. It has doubled its size in five years. Stores have developed, and the caravans from the interior can return home laden with the furnishings of a modern household, not omitting wall paintings and bath-tubs. It is scattered over a hilly surface with its more pretentious buildings displayed near the water front and around the square where the statue of Thorwaldsen faces the Althing (Parliament) house. The buildings are of wood (all brought from Denmark, Norway or Scotland), frequently sheathed with corrugated iron, with foundations, in many cases, of concrete blocks. Coals from Scotland are shipped here in great quantities, and the houses are thus provided with comfortable heating equipments. Some of the houses are also stuccoed. At times there is an architectural elaboration noted, but the houses are usually plain and serviceable. Two bank buildings of concrete blocks (the manufacture of these blocks is carried on in Reykjavik) gave its business street a very substantial expression, and two hotels continued

PSM V71 D567 Anstur street in reykjavik.png

Anstur St., Reykjavik.

the agreeable impression that Reykjavik was becoming popular. Photographers are kept busy flattering the vanity of its handsome sons and fair daughters; book-stores supply you with literature of all ages. from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" to the last verses of Thorsteinson; a public library of seventy thousand volumes (in which the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History may be found) will furnish the visitor with undreamed-of learning, and a cathedral with an organ, a bishop and a choir will save his feet from erring on Sunday; while his incredulous eyes will be shown a public school, a Latin school, a ladies' seminary and a literary club. The last touches of modernity are given in a theater and a jail. Surely those long winter nights, which scarcely leave any day at all, must approach, in the autumn months, shorn of some of their worst terrors. And then there is the coffee house, where coffee, only excelled in Arabia, can be obtained, and languidly sipped to the accompaniment of popular songs on the piano, or in the companionship of garrulous friends. And there is the chess club, which meets on Athalstraeti!

There are two museums in Reykjavik: one a museum of natural history (open one hour a week) and a museum of antiquities—the

PSM V71 D568 The oxalia foss thingvallir.png

The Oxaia Foss, Thingvallir.

latter over the bank. Both contain admirable specimens and both, it is projected, will be housed with the library in a new public building, where room will be provided ample enough to make these three "foundations" an ornament to the city.

The museum of antiquities has unquestionable importance. Here are very old altar pieces (Christianity was introduced into Iceland in 1000), old vestments and church paintings, with strange archaic buckles, girdles of brass, silver and gold, rugs, carved boxes, old cabinets, swords (many of them strips of iron rust), poignards, stone pestles and mortars, saddles, bits and bridles, lamps and chairs.

The crowning group of objects is a collection of most curious hand mangles, or rollers, for linen fabrics. These "rullur" are made of wood and most elaborately carved, having one uniform form but differing in size and in ornamentation. Some, two and a half feet long, are covered from end to end with carvings, not grotesque, but simple, and rudely or quaintly symbolic and decorative. Glyptic skill has been characteristic in Iceland. I saw some excellent modern examples in snuff horns made from ivory, with carved motifs taken from the Icelandic mythology. It seems probable that this ability prevailed more

PSM V71 D569 Almannaja wall and road.png

Almannaja Wall and Road.

in the past than to-day, and may have developed as a recreative feature in the long periods of isolation and idleness. Examples of this old art are difficult to get, and high prices are paid for authentic specimens.

I obtained an antique lamp, in hammered brass from Olafur Sveinsson, the goldsmith and jeweler (5 Austur St., Reykjavik), who deals in every variety of Icelandic curiosities, including belts, brooches, head-dresses, mantles, snuff boxes, bed boards, buttons, bracelets, drinking horns, etc. I paid about four dollars for my little fish-oil lamp and prize it greatly.

From Reykjavik the excursions into the interior are most usually made, though, as I described in a former number, they may begin from the east or northern ports. But the guides and ponies coming from Reykjavik and are sent overland. The preparations for a long sojourn in the interior are formidable, especially when the trip contemplated is beyond the zone of habitation and brings the traveller into the tenantless tracts of the middle island. I had no such ambitions or expensive schemes to consider. The ponies represent the vehicle of transport, and none to the accomplished rider could be more acceptable. Their endurance is phenomenal. Two are allotted to each rider, in order to

PSM V71 D570 Almannaja ascending road between walls.png

Almannaja, Ascending Road between Walls.

change animals. Halts are frequent, where the ponies are considerately treated, and where pasturage is attractive. The ponies feed a little, are remounted, and the journey is continued. Pack ponies carry provisions, clothing and outfit. The guides are unusually intelligent men, many of them teachers during the winter, and are resolute, capable, resourceful and safe. They speak English and can thread the devious trails with certainty. In many instances local guides are necessary, as in the crossing of the more difficult rivers.

At last my arrangements were completed, and, with some hastily and not very discerningly purchased "canned goods" (they were English and Danish preparations), and some oil-skin clothes and a pair of loaned water-tight hoots, my small cavalcade of fine ponies departed for Thingvallir, up Austur street, bound for the distant Gullfoss. As a most unpractised horseman, I had felt apprehensive about my appearance on one of these jogging ponies, and from the ill-concealed mirth amongst the old women on their way to the public laundry on the outskirts of the town, my worst suspicions were justified. On my return to Reykjavik eight days later, I feel no compunctions in stating, I was unnoticed, an excellent testimonial to my improved horsemanship

PSM V71 D571 Cairns to mark paths in the winter snows.png

Cairns, to Mark Paths in the Winter Snows.

The easy and instantaneous control over these active animals by the Icelander is admirable. They are all excellent riders, and with bare back or saddle and stirrups shoot over rock-strewn fields with confidence. These ponies are most gregarious and mine would whinny dismally when left far behind by my precipitate companion.

The road to Thingvallir from Reykjavik is excellent, and in places is receiving reinforcement by stone blocks and gutters. It runs for twenty-eight miles (seven Danish miles) and can be used by bicycles and vehicles. Traveling in Iceland is slowly undergoing helpful transformations; the discomforts and, in a measure, the perils diminish with the introduction of roads and bridges though this need not discourage any one who is looking for adventure. The jökulls will certainly repel coercion, and many of the rivers at their periods of transporting rage throw off the yoke of bridges. Let the young men. who wish adventure and exposure, suffer from no qualms of disappointment over the disappearance of either from Iceland.

The region first encountered was a hummocky moorland with stony tracts and distant encircling mountain ranges. It grew rapidly more wild and interesting. We reviewed a rolling country with distant hills, near-by vales and valleys, and breezy brows of rising land—an austere,

PSM V71 D572 The almannaja.png

The Almannaja.

lonely country, full of light, and swept over by cold winds. Then out again we galloped over more spacious areas with intermediate black scoriaceous hills, and here and there in green valleys a farm house. There were lakes and morassy heavily-bedded depressions about us with stony sheets of rubble and wind-swept acres of upland, in which we saw grouse and plover, the latter in numbers. An occasional raven croaked ominously, or protesting curlews whistled at our feet. There were many verdant spots and many more barren ones with the distant snow-covered ranges always in sight. The Thingvallir plain is a remarkably undulating or rather abruptly hilly amphitheater with a rising and falling road.

At last, after a passage across a breezy divide, we came in sight of the great vatn or lake of Thingvallir. From this point on the journey gained more and more in interest, and crossing dried-up or running stream-beds, and under high banks, with the mountains, beyond the lake, looming up with peaked summits and snow-gullies, with the occasional appearance of a green oasis about some farmhouse, we drew nearer and nearer to our destination, I with great relief, by reason of a badly bruised and suffering body.

The little red-roofed church, distinguished far off amongst its

PSM V71 D573 Chasm at the logberg.png

Chasm at the Logberg.

gray and green fields, was seen close at hand, the road began a descent, and, in an instant, the portentous gateway of the Almannaja, like an Egyptian façade loomed gloomily in our path. We moved slowly—awed into temporary silence—down the gradually sloping road between the frowning walls, over a bridge spanning a brawling torrent by a clear, deep pool, and before us, on a ragged plain, which held a fortuitous sort of herbage, fighting its way against the discouragements of a stony soil, was the Walhalla Hotel. To me, at least, it assumed all the radiance of that mythical paradise.

The next day was brilliantly clear, and we studied our locality. It presented a wonderful geological phenomenon. It was a broad valley of depression, between mountains, rifted by long parallel chasms, which crossed it in the direction of its longer diameter, and which were easily descried from a considerable distance, by the furrows they presented in the landscape, by reason of the unequal elevation of their bounding walls. There were some eight of these remarkable fissures—the sundered seams in one vast flooring of erupted rock—and many of them, as that one in which the ancient Logberg stood, contained softly flowing streams of water.