Travel: Just another strange place in Iceland (Hnjotur and Látrabjarg)

October 3, 2010

After an unseasonably warm and dramatic walk along the Látrabjarg bird cliff (Europe’s westernmost point), David and I stopped at the weird little outpost at Hnjotur, the Egill Ólafsson Museum. Here, a compact museum houses the fruits of Ólafsson’s apparent lifelong obsession with collecting: IBM mainframes, bits of ships, the varied implements involved in the the endless local struggle to procure protein; stark Protestant objects, coffins; bare furniture shiny with hard use; dessicated specimens of fish; geological specimens; pale quilts thin with years; an unsettling number of brutal proto-medical contraptions aimed at keeping farmers alive in this northern, lonely place.

Patreksfjörður on Flickr


We were happy because we’d just seen puffins. The occasional rifle shot echoed off the cliffs: the age-old rivalry between shepherds and arctic foxes. The water in nearby Patreksfjörður ranged from emerald to turquoise, a tropical ruse that belied the chilly reality.

Puffin on Flickr


A young woman who’s name means She-bear in Icelandic told us we were the first visitors. The first visitors? we asked. Today?

No, she said, this year.

David ordered a guillemot egg, which took a long time to boil on account of its size. It looked very pretty and its white was almost transparent. I ruined it for him by mentioning that the yolk tasted like fish. Sea bird eggs, sea bird flesh even, tastes like their marine diet. David bought a T-shirt.

David's Guillemot Egg on Flickr

David's Guillemot Egg

Birna (that may look trivial to pronounce, but it is not) gave us a 90-minute private guided tour of the entire, densely-packed collection. Raised locally by parents who still farm today, she had a broad understanding of the Old Ways, ways that are closer to the present there than they are here in America’s West. She showed us a primitive bolt-gun used to stun livestock, harpoons, the diary of a revered local man who was such a dedicated hermit that he lost most of his ability to speak.

Her English was spectacular. She helped me with my few Icelandic terms, which are mostly limited to the geographic (I know the word for blind summit in Icelandic but not how to ask for coffee). Back in the lobby, the other employee, a sullen shadow of a girl, sang along with Kings of Leon. Your sex is on fire, she lipped, without irony. Later Metallica came on and Birna, who was sweet and soft and almost assuredly still in her teens, apologized. They said a bad word, she grimaced. Don’t worry, said David, I love Metallica.

Outside the guts of old US Navy planes were spilled out in front of a rambling series of outbuildings. I tried to get closer to take the obligatory isn’t-this-weird photographs, but the terns nesting in the wings kept attacking me. Then we left: we had a ferry to catch.

Hnjotur on Flickr


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