Going to the moon! Or Iceland
Europe`s largest glacier, mightiest waterfall, and highest geyser. The island nation of Iceland, midway between Europe and North America, boasts some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the world. Or out of this world. "This looks just like the moon," is a typical comment by a first-time visitor to Iceland traveling from Keflavik Airport by bus or car over vast fields of rough black lava.
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This is a country with a rich cultural legacy, especially in terms of its unique medieval literature, but what impresses most tourists - apart from the awesome nightlife of capital city Reykjavik - is the opportunity to experience a vast variety of outdoor adventures in unusual settings. Snowmobiling, whale watching, hiking, puffin bird-watching, boat touring, dog-sledding, ice climbing, kayaking, and scuba diving are some of the activities offered, depending upon the season and your present mood.
Perhaps the best way to see Iceland is on horseback. You can combine two fantastic adventures in a single day, by taking a two-hour ride in a colorful, varied landscape of rolling hills, followed by lunch. The day is completed with several hours of luxurious soaking in the world famous Blue Lagoon: a natural geothermal spa with amazing hot turquoise water all surrounded by a lava field and black sandy beaches.
I was incredibly lucky to embark on the Blue Lagoon Riding Tour, arranged by the Ishestar tour operator, on a rare sunny day in mid-October. Before you get in the vicinity of anything smelling like a horse, however, you have to sign a questionnaire about medical conditions and a form releasing the riding center from liability. This made this absolute beginner a bit nervous. But my anxieties were groundless. We were first led to a changing room to pick up black riding helmets, and (should it be a rainy day) rain jackets and boots. Then my group, of mainly Swedish and American tourists, were led to a corral and introduced to our mounts; mine had a name that sounded like Pondaur and he tried to nibble my hand. After adjustment of stirrups to a proper length and a check to make sure the saddle was fastened securely, we mounted the horses, which seemed to be shorter and squatter than their North American cousins.
After two minutes of instruction about how to hold and handle the reins, we headed to the trail. Once you get accustomed to the bouncing rhythm and figures out how to steer the docile beast, all you can do is contentedly admire the spectacular landscape and breathe the totally unpolluted air. The view from atop a horse, of course, is much better than from a bus. Our guides, friendly young horsewomen who seemed to enjoy their jobs, galloped frequently along the straggling line of tenderfeet to inquire: "How do you like your horse?" or "Is everything okay?"
These courtesies were a small thing, but the friendly interaction with the staff helped to make the entire experience pleasant. At a fork in the path, more experienced riders took off with one of the guides to gallop or canter or do whatever horses do when they run.
One of my riding companions, Patty Gibson from Boston, Massachusetts, had previously tried Western-style riding in Colorado. "On these Icelandic horses, the gait is much smoother," she commented. We dismounted half way on the tour to let our mounts chew on some grass and to learn that the Icelandic horse, known for its strength, good nature, and sure-footedness, is a five-gaited horse. In addition to the three basic gaits, walk, trot and canter, the Icelandic horse can master both pace and Tölt, whatever that is. My brown-and-white horse seemed to have two speeds, slow and pretty fast when I kicked him in the ribs with my heels.
A wide variety of shorter or longer riding tours are available. You can travel by horse to the lava fields surrounding Mt. Helgafell volcano, for example, followed by a bus tour to the Geysir hot springs and the spectacular Gullfoss waterfall, the biggest in Europe. Hannelore Geyer, a German-born veterinarian who has lived for decades in Wisconsin, enjoyed riding with the more experienced group so much that she was thinking of stopping by a stud farm the next day and buying an Icelandic horse to bring back with her to the USA. "Maybe I can deduct it on my taxes as a business expense," she joked on the bus back to Reykjavik.
Strong Icelandic women: A true Saga
If a woman is slapped in the face in an Icelandic film or novel, you can be dead certain that a terrible act of retribution is soon to come. It is likely that someone will be brutally murdered to revenge the humiliation. This isn`t a new trend in Iceland, but a modern echo of the distant medieval era, when a series of histories called the Icelandic sagas were recorded. In several of these sagas, written in the 13th century but usually based on events which took place in the 10th and 11th centuries, a slap in a woman`s face meant bad things would happen: "The audience of that time knew that if a woman was slapped she would take terrible revenge," explains Asdis Agilsdottir, Associate Professor of Literature at the University of Iceland.
Hundreds Icelandic sagas were created, providing a detailed portrait of the medieval world unique in world literature. Norwegians, Danes, and Swedes, seeking knowledge of their shared historical past, are all forced to turn to the Icelandic sagas for answers. Some of the most famous are: the story of a prophetic lawyer in Njá++lls Saga; Egil's Saga, recording the life of a warrior-poet; Laxdaela Saga, a triangular love story where women play especially prominent roles; and Gisla Saga, the tragic tale of a heroic outlaw. Women of strength and consequence are important figures in all of these quasi-historical works.
"In general, the ladies were the driving force behind revenge," Icelandic scholar Egilsdottir explains. If a kinsman was killed, the woman would visit their next of kin to urge them to fight. Women were not allowed to carry weapons. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of examples in these medieval adventure stories of extraordinary and liberated Icelandic women who broke rules and refused to assume traditional female roles.
In the Hervarar Saga, which records the battle between the Huns and the Goths, we meet an independent young woman named Hervor who assumes masculine dress and flights like a man. "She was brought up with the Jarl and was as strong as the boys, and as soon as she could do anything for herself, she trained more with shot and shield and sword than sewing or embroidery. She did more bad than good, too. And when these things were banned to her, she ran into the woods and killed men for their money."
We meet another unusual woman in Gisla Saga, the story of a heroic outlaw, which was made into a film by director Agust Gudmunsson in 1981. "It was not customary for women to carry weapons," says medieval literature expert Egilsdottir, "but in this saga, the loyal wife of the outlaw does carry a sword. A man tries to give her a purse of silver so that she will reveal where Gisla is hiding, so she smacks him in the face, and tells him, 'All your life you must remember that a woman has struck you.`"
There is little doubt that the Icelandic woman, like her sisters in the other Nordic countries, is prepared to fight for her independence and not be bound by the will of men. Part of this feisty spirit no doubt has historical roots. "I think that we, Icelandic women, are not easily controlled," says Asdis Egilsdottir.
Photography: Borkur Sigthorson
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