Iceland: Home of James Bond and volcanic activity

May 9, 2014

Here’s another dispatch from Iceland by blood, dirt & angels’ de facto foreign correspondent, Jack Schnedler. He and wife Marcia, retired newspaper editors loping toward their 71st birthdays next month, are spending much of May doing a leisurely circumnavigation of Iceland. They’re in a rented Dacia Duster, the first vehicle of Romanian derivation they’ve ever driven.

By Jack Schnedler
for blood, dirt & angels

Iceland's craggy coast ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

Iceland’s craggy coast ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

STYKKISHOLMUR, Iceland — It’s no big surprise to learn that Leif Ericsson, allegedly the first European to set foot in North America, was born in Iceland as a son of renegade Viking Eric the Red.

But who’d have guessed that James Bond, secret agent 007, has Icelandic ties? True, they’re a lot remoter than those of the Norse explorer who sailed to present-day Newfoundland at the start of the 11th century.

Both those historical factoids came to light one afternoon last week as Marcia and I motored along unpaved coastal Route 54 in western Iceland. She spotted them in the exhaustively detailed Iceland Road Guide as we navigated past a stretch of the mid-Atlantic island’s tumbled volcanic landscapes.

This 604-page atlas is packed with information that the Schnedlers are nibbling like peanuts while we circumnavigate this mid-Atlantic island bestriding the North American and European tectonic plates.

At Drangar, we passed the farm where Eric the Red killed two men, for which he was outlawed and fled to Greenland. Son Leif later made his pioneering visit to North America after his vessel was blown off course while trying to sail to Greenland.

At Klungurbrekka, a typical jawbreaker of an Icelandic place name, we saw the site of the farm where the parents of Sir William Stephenson lived before moving to Canada in the early 20th century.

Stephenson became the senior British spymaster for the Western Hemisphere during World War II. Ian Fleming, author of the Bond books, once wrote: “James Bond is a highly romanticized version of a true spy. The real thing is … William Stephenson.”

This single stretch of a secondary highway turned up a third how-about-that location, this one involving the United States.

Breidabolsstadur (gulp!) was the 1887 birthplace of Sveinn Kristjan Bjarnson. His parents also moved to Canada, where he changed his name to Holger Cahill.

In 1932, after an art-history education, he became acting director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Then he became a cultural adviser to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and a power in the U.S. art community.

Our base for the drive was the coastal town of Stykkisholmur, population 1,100. Tucked at the mouth of a fjord, it would seem an unlikely place to find a flashy piece of art by Andy Warhol.

The Warhol serigraph, created in 1985 and displayed in the local Volcano Museum (in Icelandic, Eldfjallasafn), is Warhol’s vividly red impression of Vesuvius. He saw the famous volcano on a trip to Italy, although it wasn’t erupting at the time. So he added the fiery flourish.

The museum, brainchild of noted vulcanologist Haraldur Sigurdsson, offers informative and captivating displays (including a lot of volcanic rocks) from around the world. A National Geographic video, shown on request, shows mind-boggling images (with English narration) of the 2010 Eyjafjallajokull eruption that scrambled air traffic to Europe for a week.

Iceland has 30 volcanic systems that are considered active. Bearing in mind that this island is only three-fourths the size of Arkansas, that’s a staggering number of craters and calderas with the potential to blow their tops. So a Volcano Museum here may be even more apt than a Tornado Museum would be in the Natural State.

 Vesuvius by Andy Warhol, 1985. ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

Vesuvius by Andy Warhol, 1985. ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

The one forgettable meal during our three-night stay in Stykkisholmer was a hurried lunch of cheeseburgers at a local service station. The menu also claimed to offer barbecue, but that seemed too daring a stretch so far from home.

We savored three superlative dinners at Narfeyrarstofa, a restaurant manned by a chef from Denmark. Just about everything we ordered was excellent: creamy seafood soup, locally grown mussels, seafood pasta, loin of lamb, cod and a cod relative called ling. Wine prices in Iceland are gasp-inducing, so we drank a lovely light ale from a nearby craft brewery.

This Norwegian House in Stykkisholmur was shipped from Norway to Iceland for assembly in 1844. ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

This Norwegian House in Stykkisholmur was shipped from Norway to Iceland for assembly in 1844. ©2014 Marcia Schnedler

A family-run bakery, Nesbraud, on the edge of town, twice supplied us with fine sandwiches on house-made bread for lunch. On top of that, we fell for a top-flight pastry each time.

As Napoleon supposedly said of his army, we were traveling on our stomachs. It occurred to me that the French emperor might not have minded exile so much if he’d been transported to Iceland.

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