Two Wolves in the North Jan & Rynn visit Iceland & Norway (August 2016)

Seattle to Keflavik

With four months of planning behind us, we board our flight with a fair amount of somewhat existential/spiritual dread, a bunch of travel anxiety, and... well, mostly a shit-ton of excitement. This trip represents for us a pilgrimage of sorts, contains a number of items from both of our bucket-lists, and would see us return, in some ways, different people than the two who boarded this flight bound for Keflavik and beyond...

Flying up through the northern Canadian wilderness and across Greenland (see all that ice down there?) to get to Iceland is the most direct route. On a red eye in the summer, it also means that the sun actually never goes down. So this was about 7 hours of perpetual sunset.

The planning for this vacation started by buying ticket to Midgardsblot, a folk & metal music festival in Borre, Norway. There we would get to see Einar Selvik and Wardruna play live on the last night of our long journey. After buying some early-bird passes one night at the completely-normal-hour of 4 am, all of our other plans just sort of fell into place in the weeks that followed. And so it was very fitting that on our departing flight, we watched a fantastic, hilarious, and dark Icelandic movie called Rams.

I'd seen the trailer many months before and had always wanted to see it. Even on the tiny airplane screen, it was great. When then the credits began to scroll-- Wait, what was that? Pause. Rewind. Play. "Taglharpa music by Einar Selvik"... Of course. How very fitting that our trip should start and end with his music. Too fitting. Like someone out there is having a laugh, and they probably lost an eye once. (Editor's Note: He didn't lose it, per se. He know exactly where it is.)

After some frustration with trying to set up my Icelandic SIM card and our ride to the rental car having overslept by several hours, we hit the road. Just a few minutes outside of the airport, we were greeted by some incredible landscapes. After some time, we stopped to pour some libations to the land to greet it and give thanks. Next: hot springs!

The Blue Lagoon

Jan: Our first stop after arriving was the popular and picturesque hot spring. Rynn's wanted to go there since she was a child, and it was a damn fine way to relax after a long flight. It can get pretty crowded – and the degree to which that's an understatement varies depending on the time of day (and dumb luck) – but it's well worth going to at least once for the experience.

The Lava Restaurant at the Blue Lagoon

The food in the Blue Lagoon's restaurant is fantastic. (Admittedly, we didn't have a single disappointing meal in Iceland.) On the left, that's Skyr butter, which has ruined all other butter for me forever. We celebrated the start to our vacation with some incredible lamb and a few glasses of Asti. While in bathrobes.

Yes, bathrobes. In a fine dining establishment. Please pause to envision a fine dining establishment. See swanky people in fancy-schmancy attire. And many others attired in fluffy bathrobes and Blue Lagoon flip-flops. So fancy.

Enjoy this very dignified photo of Rynn which she LOVES. Regardless about what she may say about it, she is definitely very, very glad that I took this photo.

Checking in.

Our little basecamp in Garðabær. Nice, quiet neighborhood in a suburb about 10 minutes from downtown Reykjavik and right around the corner from major roads.

After we checked in, we headed down toward Öskjuhlíð, a large park south of downtown Reykjavik, next to the local airport, university, and a geothermal beach. We weren't there for any of those things, however...

Asatru Fellowship Temple Site

Knowing that we wouldn't be in Iceland on a Saturday, we were sad that we would miss the weekly Ásatrúarfélagið open house. So instead, we paid a visit to the site of their new soon-to-be northern temple – the first public temple of its kind in a long time. We made some offerings of mead and tears, and silently agreed that we will definitely be returning to it (hopefully many times).

Reykjavik, Iceland

Getting hungry again, we headed downtown. Walked past some amazingly colorful corrugated iron-sided Scandinavian homes and eventually arrived at Lækjarbrekka, where we sampled their "Taste of Iceland" menu. It's exactly as the name says; meant to give visitors a taste of local cuisine – all of which was delicious.

First came a plate of dried fish in skyr butter, smoked reindeer, gravlax (fresh cured salmon), and a jar of... yep, fermented shark. Google it. It's a whole thing. Rynn was far more brave than I, with respect to that dish. (What does it taste like? Imagine a nicely poached scallop dipped in ammonia water. I'm sure your mouth is watering at the thought.) Next was langoustine soup, followed by more. delicious. lamb. Full disclosure: I can't write about this without actually drooling.

Sólfarið - The Sun Voyager

This is as dark as it gets in Iceland in at the end of July. Constantly just-past-sundown at 11:00pm at night.

Þingvellir and Southwest Iceland

Þingvellir National Park

This ancient seat of Iceland's government is both gorgeous and haunting. It was hard not to feel like we were being watched by less corporeal eyes and sized up (not in a bad way).

It may not seem like it from the photos (because I waited for the very brief openings where there was less traffic for just a moment), but this place was packed to the brim with tourists. Sometimes it seemed like the ground was shaking from their collective footfalls. We will definitely be going back (preferably before 9am or after 9pm, when there are far less people).

Driving South along the Ring Road

An hour or two south, along the coast, are some of the world's most gorgeous waterfalls. (Correction: an hour or two in ANY direction are 'some gorgeous waterfalls'.) We stopped for lunch at Restaurant Varma (in Hveragerði's Frost and Fire Hotel). Hveragerði is a small town next to a geothermic stream that is littered in hot springs (some of which are far too hot to enter). The stream itself seemed to be giving off steam, and there were steam vents everywhere.

The locals use these vents for cooking (boiling eggs, baking bread)... and if you ever get the chance to visit Iceland, you owe it to yourself to try their geothermally-cooked Rye bread. You've never tasted anything quite like it. We took a loaf of it with us and I spent the next week eating it as slowly as possible. (Translation: hoarding it and the skyr butter like it was gold and only indulging in small amounts so we had some the next day, and the day after that, and... you get the picture.)

Surprise! More lamb. Also some pulled pork. Again, fantastic food. Well worth the stop if you're driving south for waterfalls and such.

Þjóðveldisbærinn

The Reconstructed Farm is based on the excavated farmhouse Stöng from the Commonwealth Era in Iceland. Stöng is believed to have been destroyed in the Hekla eruption in the year 1104.

A lot of the excitement for this trip was for the opportunity to see large old buildings; feasting halls, mead halls, chieftain's halls. Some modern, some reconstructions... This is an iconic reconstructed turf house in the mountains east of Reykjavik. The smaller building is a chapel.

Is it me, or is there an old one-eyed man's face in the rock to the right of that waterfall?
That last shot, if it's not obvious, is a toilet.
So wet. So green.

Skógafoss

If you've ever seen Beowulf & Grendel, you might recognize this waterfall. Rynn and I might have gotten too close to it (still pretty far away from the water itself)... So much mist and wind! We were soaked to the bone. It was awesome. The hike all the way up to the top, though? Ow. Legs were sore for days.

The Secret Lagoon

We ended our second day in Iceland at The Secret Lagoon. We arrived for the last 90 minutes or so, long after the tourists had gone. It's a very stark contrast to the Blue Lagoon, and much more to our liking. We didn't bother with cameras; just snapped this quick shot with our phone before they closed for the night... so lovely and relaxing.

Reykavik, Iceland

Having only four days in Iceland, and getting about 4 hours of sleep each night because SOMEONE (me) over-planned this leg of the trip, there was a LOT to do today. Museums, two live performances at the Harpa Concert Hall, a photography session, eating... let's just start with the museums.

Reykjavík 871±2 - The Settlement Exhibition

Archaeological remains from the first settlement in Reykjavik, dating to before 871AD. The photo above does it no justice, but most of the exhibition is taken up by the well-preserved actual foundation of a large viking hall, still in its original location.

The National Museum of Iceland

Quite a bit of beauty preserved in this place. I wish we'd had more time to spend there. I'll shut up and let the photos do the talking...

Oh, I forgot the most important part. The drinking horns!

We ate lunch at the Apotek Restaurant downtown. It is a very fancy place, but lunch is affordable and delicious. While Rynn and I live in an area famous for its salmon, the best salmon I've ever had in my life was at this restaurant. I fully intended to take a photo of it to share, but something happened, fish melted in my mouth, I blacked out, I don't know... sorry, no photo. We're definitely going back there.

Mink Viking Portraits

Guðmann of Mink Viking Portraits is a treasure, and I wish I could get to know him a bit better. His photos are fantastic, he is highly professional, and incredibly friendly. Our only regret is that we were so excited/exhausted in the morning that we left our own Viking clothes in the apartment. Oops! I guess it means we'll have to visit Mr. Mink again. (Oh no.)

We ate dinner at Kopar Restaurant in the harbor. Again, stunning food (such that I forgot to take any photos of it). Rynn managed to snap one shot of me just before devouring far too much salted skyr butter. (Editor's Note: There is no such thing as "far too much" salted skyr butter.) Next stop, some live shows at Harpa.

Harpa Concert Hall

While we didn't ride around the island on a bus full of other tourists, occasionally we went in for the tourist-fodder. Rynn and I went to see How to Become Icelandic in 60 Minutes followed by Icelandic Sagas - The Greatest Hits in 75 minutes. Both were damn funny.

The latter is a two-person show, but when you're summarizing 40 Icelandic sagas, not every scene is going to have both genders represented, so if there's not a lady in the scene, the actress has a fun prop to help.

The Snaefellsnes Peninsula & the Westfjords

Leaving the capitol region early in the morning, we drove north. We stopped at the Geirabakari Kaffihus outside Borgarnes. Though the signs were changed, you might recognize the exterior from a short scene in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. There are no actual Papa Johns franchises in Iceland, so they took over this little bakery to film it. Awesome bread and pastries, and a nice quiet pit stop along the way.

Iceland has five classifications of roads. Most rental cars are permitted to go on all but the most extreme gravel roads (through glaciers and lava fields). After our stop at the bakery, we left the Route 1 ring-road and headed west, into the Snaefellsnes peninsula. These smaller roads can, in an instant, turn from a small highway into a wide gravel road with a speed limit that may seem dangerously high. This was... a little nerve-wracking.

Slight diversion. From the road, we spotted a beautiful rainbow cutting its way through the overcast sky. It looked close, so we chased it to a small lake called Baulárvallavatn.

Berserkjahraun

Not far from the lake and the rainbow is our first stop; a lava field called Berserkjahraun. It is described in an Icelandic saga as a place where a farmer tricked and slew two large berserkers from Sweden. In more recent history, two skeletons were discovered in the lava field, giving a great deal of credibility to the old saga.

Just beyond this lookout is the Berserkjahraun lava field.

The very edge of the lava field, paying respects to the fallen. While I spoke and poured a small offering, a single bird (European Golden Plover, I think) flew from beyond the mountains in the background, alarming the entire way. It flew straight for me, circled over my head once, and flew back in the same direction from whence it had come, alarming as it went. Having studied bird behavior and alarm calls (though, admittedly, not Icelandic birds), this seemed completely out of the ordinary and I've got nothing in the way of an explanation for it. But I could make a few guesses as to what it meant.

Helgafel, Thor's Sacred Mountain

Iceland's full of beautiful scenery. The views from the top of this hill, though... This website does the panoramic photo no justice and the photo does the vista none either. Just go there.

The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft

This is a place I've wanted to visit for years, and not just because of the Necropants. It's worth the day-long trip to get up to the Westfjords, but there was a lot about the experience that was surprising...

The museum is located in a very small fishing town, and it seems to be the town's main attraction. Really, it's main public venue – half of the museum is a little restaurant that is filled with locals who all know one another. The food was fantastic; we had a haddock soup with fish fresh off the boat. The second floor of the exhibit showcased a lot of old stories and texts, and everything painted a bleak and heavy picture... a region of Iceland that's been very poor or impoverished for a long, long time. The people who had no choice but to turn to folk magic for healing or justice, because they would find no recourse or relief from elsewhere. The students of local sorcerers who traveled abroad and learned to become witch-hunters, only to return home to practice their new skills on their own people... Much of this wasn't a true surprise, as there's a lot of reading material on the subject, but to be in that place itself, to feel the weight of such history on the people and the land; the weight was heavy, and unexpected.

After a long day, we turn south again. On our way back to Reykjavik, we stopped by Snorralaug and the The Settlement Center museum, which as several exhibits on early Icelandic life.

Snorralaug is the hot spring of the chieftain and storyteller Snorri Sturluson. Without his work, there are many Norse myths we would not have, so I had a mind to stop and give thanks.

Trondheim, Norway

We landed in a Trondheim after a short flight from Reykjavik and made our way to the little town of... Hell. Yup. That was the name of the town we stayed at for the night. We ventured from Hell into Trondheim proper and enjoyed a delicious dinner at Troll Restaurant. So delicious. (Editor's note: No actual Trolls were hurt in the preparation of the meal, but we couldn't NOT eat at a restaurant called Troll.)

The Lofoten Islands

The Lofoten Islands are dramatic in their beauty, power and majesty. And still, to try and describe them is to understand the limits on language. Better to let the photos do the talking here instead.

In the middle of Lofoten, we stayed at a simple oceanfront fisherman's apartment in a fishery in the small harbour of Hovsund. We snapped this photo of the eternal midnight dusk well after midnight.

The Lofotr Vikingfestival

A place that we've wanted to visit for years and the inspiration for traveling so far north, the Lofotr Viking Museum has a replica of the world's largest longhouse. Longest largehouse. Meadest longhall. Whatever. I want one.

We had the privilege of joining them for a feast in the evening one night. The other guests were tourists from a cruise ship, and with our garb all of them mistook us for actors and part of the show. The night before this, it was a feast for all the reenactors and costumed staff, and it lasted into the wee hours of the morning. We will need to return for that feast some day. It must have been a wondrous sight.

Our last night in the Lofoten islands. Their beauty is sorely missed.

Flying back down to Trondheim in the morning, we stayed one more night in Hell and then picked up a rental car and began the long drive south.

Gravfeltet Vang

(Vang Burial Mounds)

The burial site at Vang in Oppdal is the second largest known iron age burial site in Norway (possibly the largest). It is also one of the largest known in Scandinavia, containing 750-800 known burial mounds and countless other flat unmarked burials. It is almost impossible to walk more than 3 meters without almost stepping on someone's grave. Another site we'll be returning to, as we weren't able to spend near enough time there.

Snøhetta

A gorgeous hike south of Vang in the Dovrefjell mountains. The incline is so gradual that the summit looked much more near than it actually was. The wind was biting and cold, and it was about twice the hike that it looked to be from the parking lot. Hard to complain with that view though.

A traditional Norwegian homestead in Vågå

Below the mountains of Jotunheim, we stayed the night at Nordigard Blessom. I would say more about this lovely place, but the photos do a better job...

That fireplace is made from solid soapstone!

The view from the homestead at night reveals the entire valley below. Notice the big light on the right side...

In the morning, I learned from our host that this illuminated rock face was a Troll door called Jutulporten (or "the troll gate"), and that if one were to stand before it and throw a rock up to the top, and that rock lands in just the right spot, the door to the mountain would open up. There are other legends about it, including one about the battles between the trolls and those building the town's stave church, which explain the large boulders in the flat valley between the church and the mountain. Trolls have good throwing arms. And something about how 'troll' was a name for the local pagans. We listened and nodded and said little.

Stave churches in Vågå (left) and Lom (right)

Jotunheim

Between us and the fjords were some of Norway's tallest mountains. These were cold, primal, and awesome even in early-August. Another place we were sad to only be passing swiftly through on our way elsewhere, but we stopped frequently to catch our breath and a few photos.

The view from this rest area revealed the edge of the fjords. There was also almost no traffic, a handful of sheep trotting up the road, and then a helicopter came out of nowhere and landed in the parking lot. Not strange at all. Oh, and then it started to snow, so... time to take our little automatic rental down the hill.

The descent into Sognefjorden

We stopped for lunch at the base of the mountain, at the edge of this beautiful lake, and then continued driving on a tiny road on the east side of Lustrafjorden.

Urnes Stave Church

Sognefjorden

Kaupanger Stave Church

Borgund Stave Church

Ægir Bryggeri

Just through the world's longest tunnel is the little town of Flåm. There lies a microbrewery with architecture inspired by old traditional Norwegian buildings.

This place is great. I want one. They were just out of their most recent batch of Heidrun mead, so we'll need to go back for that. Darn.

Gudvangen

Home of the Viking Chieftain of Norway

We fell unexpectedly in love with this little valley town. Here we met Georg and Angela, two well-known viking reenactors who know everyone who is anyone and are two of the most gracious and hospitable people I've ever met. While meeting Georg for the first time over drinks, he (wisely) brought some muscle (as we viking enthusiasts from the States are not always the most savory folk) – an American named Reiter, who just happened to live about 15 minutes from our home in Washington. We've become good friends since meeting in a tiny remote town in Norway. Georg has also been quite busy and has since built a very large viking village (Njardarheimr) in the center of town!

Bergen

We stayed in Bergen for two days. It poured down rain the whole time, and we spent most of it relaxing in bed, catching out breath after two weeks of nonstop travel. We did get to visit the iconic piers and shops, including the Bryggens Museum (a must-see if you are interested in Norse runes).

Nordvegen History Centre

Avaldsnes was a beautiful place to stop to see yet another longhouse (one can not see too many of these). There was also a roundhouse that is Odin's. For whatever reason, the door was not able to be opened, even with help from the staff. The key was not to be found, but it wasn't even locked - the door was just magically shut and refused to budge. Fine, I can take a hint, Old Man.

Sun Rock, Stavanger

A little known megalithic site with ancient carvings, similar to many other across Scandinavia. This site was delightful. Also directly next to someone's house, which was odd (see below). Lucky people, having this natural ampitheater and ritual site in their backyard.

Jernaldergarden

The Iron Age farm. We missed their summer festival by one day! Damn. Beautiful site, though a little surreal to see turf-roofed longhouses in the foreground and high-rise hotels in the background (not pictured).

Here in Stavanger, we hit the biggest logistical hurdle of our trip, when our accommodations fell through and we had to book different lodgings on the fly. Suffice to say, some people on AirBnB who no business renting rooms. The purse took some bruises, but it was well worth it to have a nice hotel room (with a fireplace!) for a few days. We met Reiter for dinner at Bevaremegvel Restaurant, as he had also traveled south. Their steak was fantastic.

Sverd i fjell

Pro tip: When you're on vacation and you get off your tour bus with tons of other people, put your trash in trash cans, and may mind to people who have their cameras out already to take photos. Maybe look in their general direction and don't walk in front of their lenses. I swear, it took 30 minutes to get just a few unobstructed photos.

Domsteinane

This old stone circle looked to be the site of a recent ritual, as there were flowers on the altar and some trash around the edges of the site. While cleaning up some of that (don't leave your rubber gloves and condoms around, that's gross), we found one single crutch that was left behind. There's a story there... who knows what happened. One hopes it was a miracle. Apparently the locals had a habit of taking stones from this old pagan site to use in fences on their property, or other mundane things, and only recently had an effort been made to restore the circle to something more closely resembling its original form.

Solastranden Beach

A lunch of sushi on a beautiful local beach. We didn't even accidentally eat sand. 5/5

After Stavanger, we drove east along the coast. It's a long drive, and we only stopped once or twice to see some megalithic sites and beautiful views.

Istrehågan

Numedal Valley

Outside of Rollag, we stayed in an old cabin that was built sometime around when the Black Death was decimating Europe.

Rollag Stave Church

Rollag is a bit out of the way. The reason for our visit is that a dear friend's ancestors come from this region, and many of the more recent ones were laid to rest in this graveyard. A local caretaker showed us around the interior of the church, where you can still see her family's names on several of the pews inside. It really hit home for us how small this town is when the caretaker greeted us by saying, "Oh, you're the two Americans staying up on X's homestead. Welcome!" News travels fast in small towns.

Heddal Stave Church

Okay, this is the last one, I promise. It was (kind of) on the way over to Oslo from the Numedal Valley, and as the "biggest" stave church in Norway, it was worth a look.

Part of the inspiration for the trip was to study and admire their traditional building techniques (as opposed to being interested in visiting 'churches'). It was pretty remarkable how different every single one of them felt. Urnes & Borgund being some of the oldest, with some history that wasn't entirely Christian, felt very different than Heddal and Vågå. That many of them were built atop of ancient pagan temples and ritual sites was a fact that knocked the wind from us more and more with each one that we saw, particularly the latter ones.

Holmenkollen

When I was planning this trip, I knew I didn't just want to see reconstructed mead halls, homesteads, and stave churches - I wanted to find a place that married the old traditional architecture style with something more modern. I'm sure there are a number of things that fit that description, but I have no regrets about the Scandic Holmenkollen. This is the exterior of De Fem Stuer, the hotel's Michelin-recommended restaurant. And also, the best meal I think I've ever had in my life. No joke.

Two bites into this delicious aged beef and I was drunk. Seriously. This photo alone makes me light-headed.

Not only the best meal I've had, but a gorgeous sunset and one of the best views in Oslo at the same time. Be still my berserker heart.

The Viking Ship Museum

Borre Burial Mounds, the Gildehall, & the Midgardsblot Music Festival

The final few days of our trip were also the entire reason that this trip was planned at all. Wardruna announced a concert at the mead hall near Borre, and there were only a few early bird passes left. Having bought two of those, I then had to plan a whole trip around this music festival.

There aren't many photos of this festival, in part because there was lots of walking between the museum, the concert area, the burial mounds, and the waterfront – and cameras get heavy. Here are lots of wonderful photos from others.

My partner got a small tattoo, hand-poked, from the incredibly talented and kind Tor Ola Svennevig. His work is beautiful, and every bit of ink he gives someone looks as though it was there all along, and that he just had the right touch made it visible.

WARDRUNA!

On the third day of Midgardsblot, Wardruna took the stage. I've never seen a performance quite like it, but if I never have the pleasure again, it's a show I'll never forget. At one point, I looked behind me (from the front row, just to the side) to see a sea of badass vikings and metal-heads all but weeping through the epic performance. We did the same.

It poured down rain for most of the concert. The weather seemed to clear up for a few moments until they began to play Laukr - a song about water. The trees moved in the wind as though they were underwater during a storm, and as soon as Einar began to sing, a wall of water dumped from the clouds and did not stop until after the concert was over.

Truly unforgettable.

It was 1:30 in the morning by the time we made it back to the hotel (the Scandic Holmenkollen again). We must have looked like we had just strolled through a hurricane, because the young man at the front desk upgraded us to a Master Suite. Who am I to say no? Look at this thing. The bathroom alone was the size of my office at home.

Traveling home

We arrived home to see that a friend had left us a few treats – like some one-eyed old man was winking at us from inside the fridge. I laid out all the goodies we brought back with us. Most of them seem to be drinkable. Or drinking vessels. Complete coincidence, probably.

I could not have asked for a better trip. Nor for a better traveling partner.

Many thanks to Georg and Angela for their generous hospitality. To Tor for his kindness and fantastic work. To Einar (and Wardruna) for sharing his talents with the world (and bookending our trip with tagelharpa music in Rams as well as the performance at Midgardsblot). To Jacqueline and Reiter for the newfound friendship. To Guðmann at Mink for the fantastic photos. To Sol for looking after our place while we were away.

We will see you all again soon. Count on it.

❤️

Created By
Jan Bosman
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Photos by Jan Bosman and Rynn Fox, unless otherwise noted.

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