August 07, 2016 • Leave a Comment
Iceland is a beautiful, powerful and varied land. I don't think that it is generally possible to say that some place or other is "the most beautiful place in the world", but if I were asked to compile a list of some of the places that I wish to return over and over again, Iceland would be near the top of the list. I have visited it twice, first in the summer, then in the autumn. I will be going back for a third visit early this winter. I know that it will not be my last.
Of course, I have known about the Icelandic Sagas since childhood, but I had not read them. During my first visit, after spending about a month driving around the country and meeting Icelanders, I became deeply aware that this powerful and difficult land had bred a most welcoming, warm and friendly people. Are these the descendants of the fearsome Vikings? What better way of understanding my newly found friends than by reading what they had to say about their origins? How I wish that I had discovered them much earlier. The sagas are as unique as Iceland and the Icelanders. If I had read them thirty or forty years ago, and I had visited the country back then, perhaps my outlook on humanity would be more positive than it is. Better late than never, I suppose. Much has been written about why the sagas are masterpieces, about their unique place in prose narrative, centuries before anything remotely comparable arose in mainland Europe. I can certainly see this, but, to me, what is truly great about the sagas is how they succeed in changing one's perception of an entire people and their culture. For we grow up learning to fear the Vikings as the scourge of the Dark Ages. And yet, in the sagas, where they talk about themselves, we see them every bit as human as any of us. Some of them - Olaf and his father Hoskuld in The Saga of the People of Laxardal - are eminently decent human beings. Gisli Sursson is deeply unlucky through no fault of his own. Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir may be one of the most remarkable pre-modern women. And then there is that most complex and likable of anti-heroes, Egill Skallagrimsson. If they are any different from King Alfred, the Cid or Roland it is in their more patent humanity.
Iceland has become popular with the Lonely Planet crowd and with the selfie generation. Shame - they tend to ruin what they touch, although they may have a harder time with Iceland. You will see them congregating in the (justly) famous waterfalls, glaciers and volcanoes. I prefer to begin my photographic exploration of Iceland along the coast, and in particular with some of its pretty harbors. Where the endless summer twilight, the fog and the quiet fjords give a softer, and perhaps more accurate, image of the land and its people.
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Photos, commentary and opinions by Alberto Patiño Douce