Set at the base of the broad, north-facing Skagafjörður, 25km north of Varmahlíð, SAUÐÁRKRÓKUR is the second-largest town on the northern Icelandic coast, with a population of 2600. It’s a likeable spot, occupying a triangle of suburban streets bordered by fjordside Strandvegur, Hegrabraut and Skagfirðingabraut. Sauðárkrókur’s brightly painted houses and wide open spaces, with views of the bustling harbour on the edge of its centre, lend a pioneering edge to the town, and wandering around the streets is a pleasant enough way to pass an hour or two, popping in at the fascinating fish skin tannery on the way. The main attractions, though, are the boat trips to the nearby island of Drangey and a dip in Grettislaug hot pool, both connected to Iceland’s classic outlaw tale, Grettir’s Saga, and horseriding tours out into the surrounding countryside.
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Now a bird sanctuary where kittiwakes, puffins and guillemots can be seen in abundance, the steep-sided, flat-topped island of Drangey, which resembles an arrow pointing north, is best visited on the three- or four-hour boat tours, operated by Drangey Tours, which leave from the harbour at Reykir. Offering an unbeatable combination of birdlife and history, the tour is easily one of the best on offer in northern Iceland – although it’s not for the faint-hearted, given the steep climb required once ashore and the dizzying drops as you ascend.
From the boat moorings, a narrow winding path streaks steeply up Drangey’s rocky cliffs to the grassy meadow at the summit of this 180m-high plug of palagonite rock. The deep hollow in the turf here, where the bedrock shows through, was once the hideout of Grettir the Strong (or Grettir Ásmundarson), hero of Grettir’s Saga. The island’s northern summit is accessible only by climbing a rusty ladder, erected by local bird hunters, which overhangs an area of crumbling rock – definitely not one to attempt if you’re afraid of heights. Incidentally, for fresh water Grettir depended on a spring virtually hidden under a steep rock overhang on the island’s southern cliff. Even today, the only way to reach the source is to clamber hand over hand down a knotted rope, trying not to look down at the 500m sheer drop beneath.
Drangey and Grettir the Strong
Drangey and Grettir the Strong
Iceland’s great outlaw story, Grettir’s Saga centres on a man who is born out of his time: Grettir has the wild spirit of a Viking, but lives a generation after the country’s conversion to Christianity. Outlawed for three years in his youth for killing a man, Grettir spends the rest of his life performing great deeds – often for the benefit of others – yet something bad always seems to result from his actions, isolating him from his fellow men and eventually forcing him into perpetual banditry. In the end, he and his brother Illugi settle on Drangey, living off sheep left here by local farmers. Yet even as he is granted a pardon at the Alþing for his past crimes, Grettir is hunted down by his enemies and finally killed after three years on the island.
The stretch of bitterly cold sea between Drangey and the farm at Reykir on the mainland opposite is known as Grettir’s Swim, which the outlaw reputedly swam across to fetch the glowing embers he’d spotted on the mainland after his own fire had gone out; its 7.5km are still sometimes swum for sport, despite the fact that the water temperature in summer barely rises above 9°C. However, if the bawdy humour of the sagas is anything to go by, this feat certainly takes its toll, even on Viking superheroes; according to Grettir’s Saga two young women, finding Grettir lying naked on the ground numb after his swim through the freezing waters, declare, “He is certainly big enough in the chest but it seems very odd how small he is farther down. That part of him isn’t up to the rest of him,” to which Grettir retorts, “The wench has complained that my penis is small and the boastful slut may well be right. But a small one can grow and I’m still a young man, so wait until I get into action, my lass.”