Nordic Adventure: Iceland, Day 2 of Elves and Vikings

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There’s something ringing. I’m surrounded by dark and warmth and comfort and I can’t figure out what what’s ringing. I pick up a small, circular clock from the nightstand and stare at it, but it doesn’t make sense. The numbers, the hands, they don’t jive with morning, which, I think, it must be early yet. It must be broken, I think, turning it to one side, then the other. The ringing is not coming from the clock.

No, it’s from the phone, which is clearly not going to stop until we answer it.

“Hello?”

“Hello, is this Kate? This is Sibba’s daughter, you’ve been talking over email? She’s been looking for you on the street. I tracked down your information and address and was able to call you.” I’m mortified to realize it’s 11 a.m. It’s been 12 hours since we went to bed. We didn’t bother to set the alarm because we couldn’t conceive of sleeping so long, jet lag be damned.

“Ohmygod. I’m so sorry. We must have overslept. We were traveling all night before last night and our schedules are completely off. We’ll be right out!”

We both manage to get ready in the time allotment of a commercial break. Just as we’re walking into the courtyard, Sibba walks up.

She looks just like her photos. Same small stature, red apple cheeks, red hat. Someone in the know might even say she looks a tad elfin. Which makes it wholly appropriate that she’s here to guide us on our elf tour.

I didn’t know about the whole Icelandic elf thing until I read about it in a guide book and then researched it more online. According to the numbers I found, nearly 80 percent of Icelanders believe in elves (to put that into perspective, 83 percent of Americans are Christian). I read about roads being diverted, housing developments stalled and other urban planning changes gone awry because of elf activity.

A few years ago, Sibba, who was working for the tourism bureau at the time, saw that there was great interest from the public on all things elfin. She encouraged others to start tours and when no one bit, she decided to do it herself. She gives “Hidden World” tours twice a week regularly and other times on request (as with us), talking about elves, ogres, trolls and fairies. The elves are the main focus, though. When asked why, she says, “Because they are the closest to us.”

Believer or not, the tour was an eye-opening look into the Icelandic culture and lore. Sibba talked about the extreme isolation of the country, and how storytellers used to roam from farmhouse to farmhouse, weaving tales in exchange for room and board. Often, she says, those tales involved elves. Other times, they were cautionary stories to get children to behave (i.e. if you behave poorly it could mean you’re a changeling and I’ll have to beat it out of you). She also told the tale of a house that was to be built near a rock. When they drove a stake into the rock, it stuck. That, she said, is because the rock is an elf house, and the elf dwellers grabbed the stake and wouldn’t let go. To this day, no one can get that stake to budge because of the elves’ grip (I tried to pull it out. No could do.)

The elf tour was similar to the ghost tours I’ve taken, with a mix of anecdotes, folklore and history. Enter it with an open mind or at least a respect for story telling, and you’re in for an entertaining couple of hours. Sibba is a great narrator and a cool, free-spirited woman.

After the tour, we grabbed breakfast and multiple cups of coffee and then headed up to The Pearl, a geothermal energy plant and one of the more modern and stunning buildings in town. The glass dome sits on top of six aluminum storage containers, each of which is capable of holding 4 million liters of 185-degree water, serving as water storage and the heat source for the city. There’s a geyser inside that shoots up three stories into the air every few minutes, a cafeteria, a viewing deck looking over the city and a fancy pre-fixe restaurant at the top.

Not all of those storage tanks hold water. One of them is actually home to a viking museum (the Saga Museum), which tells the history of Iceland using eerily realistic figures. At the end, there’s chainmail, viking hats and plastic weapons, allowing for the viking dress-up photo op we’d been craving.

It was a cold, rainy, windy day, so we headed back to the apartment to make lattes and read until we went to dinner at a wood-fired pizza restaurant, Eldsmidjan. The pizza was fabulous (I had a salt-lick special–my words, not theirs–with pepperoni, olives and capers and Neil had his topped with chicken)–Neil proclaimed it one of the best outside of Italy and the US. My one regret is that I didn’t go for their special pizza–cream cheese, pineapple and jalapeno.

Read about day three of the adventure here.

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