Listen to the locals please – An interview with Hrútur Ærson The Sheep

With only 350,000 human residents, some people think Iceland lacks a diversity of opinion.  But at Iceland Unwrapped, we have what it takes to seek out local expertise where it can be found.

Happy sheep can fly

For a thoroughly different perspective, we interviewed Hrútur Ærson, Iceland’s oldest sheep, for a special perspective on the place he has called home since 930.

IU: You’re very old for a sheep.

HÆ: Yes, I know.  I’ve been roaming around Iceland since end of settlement 930.

IU: How have you managed this?

HÆ: Iceland isn’t the biggest country and I know all the good hiding places by now.  

IU: So you’ve seen all of Iceland?

Sheep rule Iceland so please make sure to drive safely if you encounter them on the road.

HÆ: No. Haven’t been to the Blue Lagoon yet.  Or the Westman Islands because I’ve never been able to stow away on the ferry

IU: But you have been everywhere else?

HÆ: Yes – certainly everywhere a visitor can get with an SUV.  I used to be more adventurous, but then again, I am several hundred years old.

IU: What are your favorite places to visit?

HÆ: I usually walk the Ring Road every two or three years.  The main thing is to do it in opposite directions, because the look and feel of everything changes based on the direction, time of the year, and the amount of light at any time.  The amazing thing about the ring road is that the scenery is constantly changing. In a couple of hours’ walk – or ten minutes drive time – the landscape is unrecognizable. Mountains change to desert to prairie.  I always love that trip. The Highlands of Iceland are also extraordinary. Only important to get down from there before winter arrives or you are toast. Or as we sheep say – A toast with smoked lamb. 

IU: What do you do in the years you don’t walk the Ring Road?  

HÆ: I really like the Snaefelsnes Peninsula.  It has a varied landscape, and it’s a bit grassier than the Ring Road, which I find quite satisfying.  The glacier is also a wonderful place to chill.

IU: What do you recommend for visitors to eat?

HÆ: DEFINITELY THE FISH

IU: Why?

HÆ: I’m a sheep. You can figure out the math.

IU:  OK, I’ll keep quiet about the lamb.

HÆ: Thank you.

IU: Do you think Iceland has too many visitors?

HÆ: Not too many, yet.  It depends on how people visit.   It’s always nicer to see Iceland on one’s own, but you have to really look out for the environment.  Don’t leave a mess. Listen to the advice of us, the locals. Stick to the tap water and respect the rights of sheep, horses and wild animals. 

IU:  Thank you for the guidance

HÆ: So you didn’t think that was baaaaad?

IU: Not baaad at all.  Thank you!

Be aware of sheep crossing the roads in Iceland during summer – They are in full right – Photo by Guðmunda Magnúsdóttir

The national book flood – By Helga Stina

In Iceland we have two kinds of floods. We have normal floods when glacier rivers flood because of unease and geothermal activities under glaciers. This is something the Icelanders are used to being aware of and manage reactions very professionally.

The magical Black water fall in the glacier area on the South Coast of Iceland – Photo by Claudia a client from The Netherlands

The other type of flooding in Iceland is the Christmas book flood.

One Christmas I didn´t get a book for a Christmas present from anyone.   The family was in total shock and I got looks of comfort, guilt and some kind of a pity, „poor you, didn´t you get a book“?, said with a mix of bad conscience, disgust and shock.

All cats in Iceland love to read..- Photo by Helga Stina (Model is Belle)

 

Well..there is a reason for this reaction. Iceland calls itself the book nation. Since the Viking age, Icelanders have been known for writing the Sagas and that has been the pride of the nation. When some of our old manuscripts were returned from the Danes some years a go, people gathered by the harbor to receive the coast guard ship bringing the manuscripts home.  It was a celebration, this was a proud day in the nations history and kind of made us fully independent even though we became independent in 1944, while Denmark was occupied by the Germans.

The Sagas are extraordinary and Icelanders can in most cases still read the original manuscripts as the language hasn´t transformed as much through the centuries, as for example in the other Nordic countries, due the isolation of this island in the North Atlantic.

Iceland is sometimes Iceland – Photo unknown

This is totally understandable, as the language, traditions, history, culture, literature, music and the arts are such a big part of the identity of a nation.

There are 330.000 people living in Iceland. We have had a football team, both women and men in the World Cup, we have had amazing musicians conquering the world, we had the first female president in the world,  we even have a Nobel Price winner in literature, in 1955 when Halldor Laxness was honored. We have almost won The Euro-vision Song Contest twice, but who´s counting…The winner takes it all. That said, I know that Icelanders are very proud to be a book nation and proud to be known for that in the outside world. Therefore there is a good will towards authors in Iceland, it is respected by most, and especially if the authors “make it” internationally. Here are some suggestions. 

Every Icelanders pride is shown by the books in the shelves of his home – Photo by Helga Stina in Laugarvatn Iceland

But back to the books and my book less Christmas trauma.

The season for books in Iceland, is before Christmas. That is the harvest time for our amazingly hard working authors. Some who have made a great success in the international world, such as Arnaldur, Yrsa and Jon Kalmann. It´s sometimes like there is a factory of making books for the book flood season, as these authors, and others, somehow manage to create one book after the other, almost as by demand, every year, for years. Kind of like Santa Claus (Some people believe exists) in Finland, having a factory for toys. Quite extraordinary.

And the funny part is, that these authors always manage to write good books, interesting books, fresh books that mostly  keep the reader in a spell until the book finishes. You should try it.

A beautiful Christmas eve with good food and presents or treats. At least one book per person is a must – Photo by Helga Stina

I agree. It was horrible to not get a book for Christmas ones. I felt that I wasn´t a part of the community anymore. God forbid that ever happens again. My family has sworn that they will use all methods possible to prevent this from happening, no matter where I am located in the world 🙂

Because there is nothing like the smell of a new book, a cup of warm chocolate and some scones with smoked lamb, and maybe a home made cookie, on Christmas day morning. Then the holidays have arrived for me.

Icelandic Chocolate is delicious – Photo by Helga Stina

 

More information on how to connect to the Icelanders, their culture and beautiful nature at Iceland Unwrapped 

or connect Helga Stina directly.

Have you ever dreamed of living through the book? By Helga Stina

Have you ever dreamed of reading Icelandic literature and getting the feeling and atmosphere of the book while in Iceland?

Everyone has their way of relaxing and especially when traveling.

For me the ideal vacation is a mix of some adventures and outdoor activities and then relaxing and reading a good book.

In recent years author like Yrsa, Arnaldur and others have been very successful, not only in Iceland but all over the world. There is a lot of growth in the Icelandic literature scene in all genres, so no lack of material to explore and enjoy.

Mystical lava fields – Photo by helgastina

What is important to me as a travel planner for all kinds of people from all over the world, is to create in cooperation with the visitor a whole experience, a total experience if you like, where all senses are used to make the experience and the adventure something never to be forgotten.

What I recommend my clients to do is to read a book by an Icelandic author either before or while in Iceland. I try to recommend books that fit the areas or the atmosphere of the trip and the people involved.

The looking forward to is also an essential part of the travel. Some say that your travel starts when you start planning  or even just when you start  thinking about the possibility of traveling to a place. What better way to travel in your mind then to read a book from the area.

Lava formation in the north. Very important to the imagination – Photo by Helga Stina

Through your reading you will be able to experience the real essence of the Icelandic people, culture and life on an island in the North Atlantic that has always been a challenge to live on due to weather, nature with possibilities of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and flooding of the glacier rivers, but also the with the beauty of the midnight sun, Northern Lights, extraordinary lava formations to spark the imagination and space you have never experience before.

Tasting exotic food, smelling the salty air when walking in crazy wind by the ocean, smelling the water when bathing in Iceland (smells to some like eggs. For me it smells home). Everyone has a different experience and ways of feeling things and experiences and people notice different things.

Dry fish on a rock – The smell is amazing – Photo by Helga Stina

Even better if people read books that can explain and give the ideas of the people or the areas visited in Iceland. Stepping in the  footsteps of  the author is a great way to explore a country like Iceland that is rich with history, folklore, fauna and feelings.

Imagine visiting a location where a book takes place and sink in deep. What a way to get away from your daily life and enter the exciting universe of literature and experiences.

More information on personalized travel plans for everyone who wants to connect and see more than just the surface of Iceland.

Let´s start the adventure

Iceland Unwrapped

Have you ever dreamed of knowing more about the trolls and the elves and the hidden people of Iceland?

The Icelanders were a nation of fishermen and farmers until the Second World War, when people moved to the capital Reykjavik and other towns in Iceland. This was mainly because of work provided by the American military that stayed in Iceland during the war. Here is a bit of information on the Occupation of Iceland during that time. 

Before that people stayed in fisherman villages and on farms and made life work for themselves, using folktales among other things to entertain themselves during rest hours and evenings.

Imagine being on a farm in Iceland, surrounded by lava fields, extraordinary nature and the colors and power of the mountains everywhere you look. As you can imagine the possibilities of story telling about natural phenomena such as lava formations surrounded by geothermal smoke, fog and lack of sunlight during the winter months could encourage creative minds to form stories and tales through the centuries.

Photo by Frida

The book nation Iceland is known for having shelves filled with books by Icelandic authors and sometimes specially chosen foreign ones. In recent years this has changes a lot and the selection of books in the Icelanders shelves has changed from being Icelandic to being more international.

When I was growing up there were at least two Icelandic authors that were in every shelf in every home in Iceland I dare to say. One was our Nobel Price literature author Halldor Laxness. The other selection of books I was especially scared of and excited about at the same time as a child, were the folk tales collected by  Jon Arnason

These books were so exotic, scary and exciting at the same time, about trolls, elves, hidden people, ghosts and other unexplained creatures. Enough to scare the hell out of everyone or at least get you wondering what was real and what was not.

Dimmuborgir – North of Iceland – Photo by Helga Stina

And where did these stories come from? Yes they came from people living in extraordinary landscapes where the formation of the lava when the sun was setting or rising could be anything from a troll to an elf or a Christmas cat (yes there is such a thing in Iceland).

These stories have integrated into the soul and being of the Icelanders through the centuries and influence a lot of everyday life and way of being. Perhaps you have heard stories of elves disturbing and changing plans of constructions in recent times in Iceland

Not it´s not a joke.

When asked if I believe in elves, trolls and hidden people, I always say that I don´t know if they don´t exist so why not believe and make your reality a bit more colorful and exciting. You can even get a guided tour and hear tales in areas where elves and hidden people have been living. That is a very exciting experience to try.

Here is an example of one of those stories with a bit of background

In modern times the Icelanders have integrated the believes in hidden people, trolls and elves into daily life such as during Christmas, New Years and midsummer celebrations when these creatures appear for some people to see..and some not.

You don´t need a huge imagination to understand where these tales come from if you have experiences being outside in the fog on a mountain surrounded by lava fields and no sound..

…until you hear something…..

Grýla – Mum of the Jule Lads

(Helga Stina – Founder and owner of Iceland Unwrapped)

If you want to know more about unwrapping Iceland and get a personalized travel plan for you and those who travel with you contact Helga Stina

Red and white Christmas – The feeling of Christmas in Iceland

My family and I are spending Christmas in Iceland this year.

What is very common in the discussion in Iceland before Christmas is the weather. Actually the weather is a very common topic in Iceland in general. No wonder, as the location of this rock in the Atlantic offers all kinds of weather, often in the same day.

The discussion around the holiday season involves conversations about whether Christmas will be red or white this year. Red Christmas meaning a no snow Christmas. White Christmas: like in the song.

Some people don´t even get into the Christmas spirit unless Christmas is white.

The reason for that is that sometimes, in the past, beautiful heavy snow has fallen around Christmas time, making the little towns of Iceland and the capital even more beautiful and peaceful. It truly is a picture perfect post card at times.

In my memory when I was a child,  the feeling of waking up on Christmas day morning, having a cup of warm real chocolate with cream, cookies and the family recipe scones with butter and smoked lamb, was the feeling of Christmas. In the memories it was always snowing during the holidays, so us,the kids could go out to make igloos and snow men all day long, until we returned home wet from head to toe, with red cheeks and hungry like wolves.

As I have mentioned before the Icelanders love reading. The Christmas book flood is a yearly event, and Christmas day spent in pajamas, eating chocolate and reading one of the books that came from under the tree, the night before, gives the feeling of Christmas to me. If the snow is falling outside, even better. And then you just daze of from time to time because there are only 3 hours of daylight anyway that time of year.

The schools in Iceland have a long holiday and in some countries people go travelling this time of year. Some of the Icelanders even go to warm places to experience a bit more light and warmth during this hard period of time in Iceland.

Some people though would not even consider having Christmas somewhere else than home and will just jump in the nearest geothermal pool to heat up in this coldest season of the year, after a refreshing walk by the ocean. Problem solved. Because some people think that is what Christmas is about. The darkness and the Christmas lights add to the charm to this cold holiday in Iceland.

So it really doesn´t matter if Christmases are red or white. They will come whatever and hopefully everyone will have peaceful and beautiful holidays, wherever they may find themselves in the world.

More on personalized travel planning. Also for the winter holidays on www.icelandunwrapped.com 

In Iceland we eat shark – but that´s just part of the story

The funniest thing many of us Icelanders know how to do is to make foreigners taste our food.

I have made countless “enemies” through the years while encouraging people to have a bite of shark with me, with a schnapps of course, to survive the experience. Fortunately for me they all survived and some are still thinking of how to get back at me for being so persuasive.

I don´t know what it is. Probably the Viking in us wanting to show the world our super powers in being able to eat things such as rotten shark, sheep testicles, dried fish, sheep heads or Skata (something I guess you just have to come to Iceland to try, …to give you a clue, it smells worse than it tastes).

Smoked lamb, fish oil, butter, shark and other important delicacies in the Icelandic Viking food tradition.

 

I could continue for a long time to tell you about which parts of the animal were eaten in Iceland before the days of refrigerators,but as I would like you to continue reading, I’ll stop for now.

Because in Iceland we also have wonderful traditional things we enjoy such as smoked lamb. Lamb is sometimes referred to as mountain lambs or road lambs, as they run free in the Icelandic midnight sun during summer, mostly in the mountains but sometimes needing to cross a road (don´t we all).

Mountain/Road sheep minding their own business.

 

We are able to use our fantastic geothermal energy to grow tomatoes, lettuce, mushrooms and even strawberries in greenhouses. We have wonderful fresh herbs in the Icelandic nature and vegetables in autumn, such as potatoes, cauliflower and other root vegetables.

What is for sure though is the amazing experience of having a good meal together, laughing, connecting and tasting something new, made with passion and traditions. This is valued all around the world.

That´s why I started offering the Dining with the Icelanders experience three years ago. I met a lot of people that had had an amazing trip to Iceland but had never met any locals, and certainly not had dinner with them.

I have already planned many dinner parties in cooperation with my network in Iceland and the travelers have been thrilled with the experience and the uniqueness of meeting the Icelanders in their homes and connecting with them on a personal level. People have formed friendships and have even met again in other places around the globe.

Mandy and her group from Tennessee enjoying a wonderful dinner, opera singing and cultural experience in the company of Bergþór and Albert – Photo courtesy of www.alberteldar.com

 

Many places in the world offer this experience to get to know the locals and in my opinion that is an important way to get the most out of your travel. It´s also an important way to make the world a bit smaller, to look your prejudice in the eye and to experience how human we all are.

I am very fortunate. I have amazing hosts all around Iceland. They are as different as they are many, making it possible for me to offer a personalized service, connection and inspiration, all depending on the interests of the visitors.  The group size depends on  the needs of the travelers and everyone can enjoy the experience, big groups, small groups, families and individuals.

Breakfast, lunch or dinner in nature makes everything taste even better.

 

My hosts have a big passion for what they are doing , details are in place and some of them even go out in nature picking fresh mountain herbs for their guests or they go fishing or hunting before the meal to provide fresh Icelandic ingredients.

No dinner party is the same as we are all have different approaches and the seasons change.

I encourage you not to miss the opportunity to meet the Icelanders, connect, enjoy a meal and hopefully have a good laugh together.

Geothermal energy is essential to the Icelanders daily life.

No worries. Nobody will be forced to eat shark or other viking things as the dining experience offers you a home cooked meal, something the Icelanders would have themselves for dinner and nowadays most of us only enjoy viking food in the old month of Þorri, after the New Year.

More info on Dining with the Icelanders, music in the homes of  the Icelanders and personalized travel planning for all humans,  on our website Icelandunwrapped

 

Photos Iceland Unwrapped – Frida Hjaltested . Road sheep picture courtesy of Gudmunda Magnusdottir

Equality is a goal of men and women

When I was growing up in Iceland, I was surrounded by powerful women. My mother came from the “West fjords” in northwest Iceland where life was harsh, nature was brutal and women often had to lead the fight for their families´ survival.

My grandmother on my father’s side came from the relatively isolated Snaefellsnes peninsula. In most coastal areas in Iceland, the main livelihood at the beginning of the 20th century came from fishing the treacherous North Atlantic. My great-grandfather, Adalsteinn, had bought his own fishing boat to provide for his family: my great-grandmother Helga, for whom I am named, and my grandmother Kristin for whom I also named. Adalstein’s ship tragically went down on the coast, visible to the village where he had been born and in front of his wife and two-year-old daughter.

The day after, the officials of the area came to collect all of the belongings of the family to pay for the boat that had just gone down so tragically.

Fortunately Helga had a good friend, a woman, who agreed before the officials arrived that it would be best that Helga would give her belongings to her, to prevent them from being taken from her. A powerful act by a powerful friend who managed to save family treasures, some of which still belong to the family. When my wonderful Aunt Helga (also named after our grandmother) told me this story, I was impressed by the power of this incident and the kindness and courage shown by my great-grandmother’s friend in those days.

Since I was a young woman, my group of friends and I have shared stories of our foremothers in Iceland. We have talked about great women heroes of ours, like the first woman president of the Republic of Iceland, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, Audur Laxness, the wife of our Nobel prize winner, the women settlers and Viking women who went through tough situations, took risks, and found a way to survive powerfully in making the world more tolerable to those around them. We have made trips to honor these women, visited their places of birth and so on and so forth.

Now I want to take this concept even further and to connect international women and men and Icelandic women and men together with an inspirational trip to Iceland.

The idea is to join together men and women from around the world, to connect, share past and present stories, develop new contacts and possibilities in a wonderful, powerful and inspiring location in Iceland, and to interact with women leaders (and male leaders) in a country with a long and continuing commitment to equality and empowerment.

This is possible all year round and for groups with 4  to 15 members, and combines well with visits to many of Iceland’s natural treasures and other cultural highlights.

Involving both men and women in the process of gender equality is essential for future sustainability.

If you are interested in joining a group of friends or your workplace and get to know the power of equality in Iceland please contact Iceland Unwrapped

Two of Iceland´s most inspiring women

Picture by Frida Hjaltested

The hidden pleasures of Reykjavik

I love it when you don´t have to plan your whole vacation from minute to minute. I have traveled around the world and a big part of being somewhere is to bumble around, enjoying, drinking coffee and getting the atmosphere.

Some people that travel to Iceland understandably want to get into the nature as soon as possible and skip experiencing the beautiful city of Reykjavik and amazing possibilities there.

Please wait a minute before doing that.

The city is located in nature with the sea surrounding it, mountain circle visible from everywhere, a salmon river running through it and hiking possibilities all around.

If you want to go a tiny bit further you have mountains to hike, ski slopes to try and horses to ride.

The buildings and culture of Reykjavik is something different from everything I have experienced. The nearness of culture all around in architecture, sculptures, music, painting and other visual arts is one of the things that makes the city so special for tourists.

Just strolling around the center, breathing in the the air, sometimes fishy air, going to the harbor to see the boats come in or go out, drinking coffee and looking at peaces of arts on the walls of the buildings in the harbor area.

That´s a lovely way to enjoy a morning in Reykjavik.

In the afternoon you can visit one of the many interesting museum in the Reykjavik area or simply jump into a warm geothermal pool anywhere in the Reykjavik area.

Life can be very simple sometimes.

If you would like to know more about the hidden pleasures of Iceland and Reykjavik, have a look at your possibilities for an authentic and personalized vacation in Iceland.

 

Hiking, collecting the sheep, berry picking and the wonderful Kjotsupa.

A few reasons why September is a good month to travel to Iceland.

So let´s imagine a day.

You are hiking in the mountains with the farmers in a little fjord helping with collecting the sheep.

On your path you taste fresh blue berries straight from the bush.

You get a drink of water from a creek after a long day of hiking in your Icelandic wool sweater.

At the end of the work day you have a wonderful “Kjotsupa” – meat soup, with the locals followed by the dairy product Skyr and blueberries for dessert.

After dinner you lay down in a beautiful warm geothermal pool, with a view of a lifetime hoping to see the Northern lights dancing in the sky.

Sounds like a dream to me.

The fact of the matter is, that this is possible. All of it or parts of it.

This is possible in Iceland at the end of august and in the beginning of September.

Autumn in Iceland is beautiful in so many ways and it´s very precious to be a part of nature when summer is almost over.

The sunsets are unbelievable and one of the biggest events of the year takes place, when the sheep get collected from the mountains before winter starts.

In the old days and to a certain extend in modern times, the autumn is the time of collecting as much food as possible for the hard winter months in Iceland.

Berries are used for all kinds of delicacies, mushrooms are collected and dried, fish is caught from the rivers, potatoes, cabbage and other cruciferous vegetables, that manage to grow in Iceland, are picked from the ground and we make something called Kjotsupa.

It´s a celebration of food.

Kjötsúpa is a wonderful dish. Lamb soup with vegetables of the autumn, warm and delicious on wet autumn nights. Some people even have Kjotsupa for every meal in the autumn they say.

Fresh – authentic and delicious Iceland.

Interested in getting an authentic experience?

Contact Helga Stina for more information

The distance makes the mountains blue

Today is the longest day of the year in Iceland.

What I have heard from my clients is that having so much light can both be positive and negative. Negative because it is hard to sleep. Positive because you need less sleep and you can enjoy more, even during the night.

But why is this time of year so precious to the Icelanders?

Imagine 3 hours of daylight in winter. You still have to  go to work and school at 8 in the morning anyway. No mercy when you need to have a functioning society even though you are a rock in the middle of the north Atlantic.

When I was a kid in the memory, it was never that dark. We had loads of snow in the winter so we would be stuck inside, the electricity went out and my mum wanted to iron, because there suddenly was time. But no electricity so no ironing.

When we could go out we used to go skiing in any nearby hill and build snow houses and drink warm chocolate until our toes were frozen and we went home.

There was no TV on Thursdays when I was a kid in Iceland and no TV for 6 weeks in the summer. No video games. The book nation read a lot .

In the past my grand parents and great grand parents lived in very hard conditions in horrible weathers as fishermen and farmers on the Snæfellsnes peninsula and in the Westfjords. Then life was about surviving or not and many had to give in to harshness of nature.

Because of the hard conditions of winters of Iceland, long summer nights and midnight sun add this romantic atmosphere, where everyone is just enjoying, hiking at midnight and even playing golf in the middle of the night.

In the poetry I read in school as a child, our most loved authors, who often spent majority of their lives abroad, mainly in Copenhagen, would write about the summer of Iceland. Their writing was filled with longing for the colors of nature and the freshness of the landscape. The distance makes the mountains blue, is a saying we use i Icelandic.

In summer time children forget time and their parents do too, and there is nothing like receiving a very tired and dirty child after a whole day and evening of adventures outside with friends.

Collecting energy, vitamins and memories is imporant to the Icelanders during the summer months in our beautilful country, to get through the winter ahead.

The shortest day of the year in Iceland in December is important for the Icelanders because then the days start to get longer again.

The longest day in the summer is important because you have constant daylight and the hidden people and the elves come out during that time of  year. That is not a common event as it happens only also duing New Years and on the 13th day of Christmas. After the longest day the days start to slowly get shorter again so there is no time to waste in enjoying the daylight.

Jónsmessa is the time of year when the day is longest.

It is said that people get magical powers if they dance and roll naked in the dew of the longest night of the year. I won´t say they don´t, but I guess you have to try it out when you are in Iceland in June next time.

Happy Summer – Happy light – Happy playing outside all night..before it starts to get dark again.

More information on personalized travel planning and connecting with the Icelanders and their culture on www.icelandunwrapped.com