Iceland's Sagas Appeal After 700 Years

By Cathy Carroll

Reed Travel Features

NEW YORK -- Just as the literary works of Shakespeare have long drawn travelers to England, Iceland's sagas are piquing the interest of American visitors, tourism officials said. The Icelandic sagas are among the best-preserved documents from medieval Europe and are considered a major literary achievement. The anonymous 13th century authors are recognized as the first Europeans to write stories in their own language, rather than in Latin. But their greatest appeal, especially to Americans, is their story lines, which do not vary greatly from today's blockbuster feature films.

There are the romantic adventures of the outlaws Gisli Sursson and Grettir; the tale of the rogue warrior poet Egill Skallagrimsson, and the epic "Njals Saga," frequently compared with Homer's "Odyssey." "As it is in American history, often people sympathize with the outlaws. The same thing happens in all our stories," said Halldor Bjarnason, director of Iceland Safari Travel in Reykjavik.

He offers tours focusing on the sites referred to in the sagas and has found the number of Americans on the tours is increasing. About half of the 25 members of the tour this summer were from the U.S., compared with just two who joined last summer, he said. During a 14-night tour, guests travel to the farmhouse where Grettir was raised and to Vididalstunga, the origin of the largest Icelandic calfskin script, "Flateyjarbok." That evening, the group takes a boat trip to Grimsey, where Grettir was killed. "The island is about 4.3 miles from the land and is only accessible by boat -- or, as Grettir did, swim to and from it," Bjarnason said.

Last year, the tour was rather primitive, with tent accommodations, he said. Although he said he received many compliments about the trip, in 1998 accommodations will be in hotels, and a five-night itinerary also will be offered. He has not yet determined pricing, he said.

The itineraries combine saga folklore with bird-watching and nature tours, Bjarnason said, and customized tours for groups also can be arranged. Iceland Safari Travel can be reached by calling (011) 354 562-4222; fax (011) 354 562-4204.

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