We live in an age where travel is becoming a commodity. £300 return fares, London-New York, non-stop. £60 tickets for the train to Paris. Competition has brought low fares and low fares have shrunk the world: the jet set is no more, and we should all be thankful for that.
But what if today was AD 980 and you were a good eight centuries away from the invention of the internal combustion engine, let alone a Wi-Fi-equipped airliner? Well, in that case you’d be up the creek without a paddle. Unless your name was Guðriður Þorbjarnardóttir from Laugarbrekka in Snæfellsnes, Iceland.
The X and XI centuries mustn’t have been easy on the tourism industry in Europe. Carolingian unity was well and truly a thing of the past, roads were still those designed by people walking around in togas and I doubt that the postal service was much better either or they would be reading something other than the Epistles to the Corinthians in church. In facts, it seems to me that long-distance travelling was something that one would indulge in only if part of a band of Saracen pirates. Or a Viking.
Laugarbrekka’s many charms were a bit hard to appreciate on the morning when we paid it a visit. A cloud the colour of graphite hung above a sea that was on the tenebrous end of the blues palette, all while a vicious wind pelted us with ice goblets that flew almost horizontally. The very act of inching the car’s door open sent the thing flying, breaking some part that I dearly hoped was covered by the insurance.
This was the place that Guðriður, daughter of Þorbjarn, called “home”. Hardly surprising, we figured, that one fine day her family decided they’d enough and that it was time to head towards pastures new. Like Greenland.
Greenland, avid readers of Norse sagas will know, had been colonised by an enterprising Viking called Eirik the Red who, with a brainwave worthy of an advertising agency, decided to give such a name to island that is 85% covered in ice as a mean to entice gullible settlers. Still, for a while everything seemed to go just fine: the colony functioned and Guðriður had tied the knot with one Þorstein, son of Eirik himself and brother of none other than Leif, the chap who was first to discover Vinland. Perhaps it was Leif’s raving reviews that convinced Guðriður and Þorstein to kiss Greenland goodbye and head over there too.
As we sat in our car, listening to the storm rumbling outside, I thought about travelling through seas such as the ones just a few hundred meters away from us. I thought about boarding a drakkar made of wood, not much longer than a bus, and setting sail into a sea peppered with icebergs and freak waves. Even considering the thing was enough to send me shivering.
On that particular occasion, though, things didn’t work and the trip ended in disaster with Þorstein dying in the process. Such a setback would’ve been enough for anyone to call it quits with this thing called travelling, but not Guðriður. Newly widowed, the redoubtable Viking returned to her native Iceland by way of Norway (stopovers are always cheaper as we know). There she met a gentleman going by the name of Þorfinnur Karlsefni who, the saga points out, was “a man of good family and good means”.
The newlyweds didn’t lack vision and, evidently, Guðriður still had a bee in her bonnet when it came to Vinland for, soon after becoming Mr and Mrs, they led an expedition across the ocean. This time the enterprise proved to be successful and the party – the saga mentions sixty men, five women and an unspecified number of animals – made landfall in what today is Mr Trudeau’s happy country sometimes after the year 1000. The small colony was soon cheered by the arrival of Guðriður’s son, Snorri, the first European ever to be born in the New World.
Snorri was still a little more than an infant when things, though, started to go south. Relations with the First Peoples with whom the Vikings had gotten in contact soon turned sour and, faced with the perspective of annihilation, Þorfinnur and Guðriður opted to cut their losses and make sail for the friendlier shores of Greenland and, thence, back to Iceland.
In her older age Guðriður, once again widowed, didn’t lose that feeling of wanderlust that had evidently been flowing in her veins. Her sons had by then flown the nest and she had recently converted to Christianity: no better time, then, for a pilgrimage to Rome. So off she went and, some say, managed to chat about her travels to the Pope himself. Whether she met the big man or not is unsure, but I’d like to think she did; what is certain is that, on her return, she became a nun and lived the rest of her years in a church built by her sons, becoming known as Víðförla or “far-travelled”.
Somewhere in Laugarbrekka, we were told, Guðriður’s legacy lived on and there it was: a small plinth holding a sleek, metallic drakkar. On it, standing tall and proud like the woman she undoubtedly was, was Guðriður the far travelled, little Snorri waving from her shoulder. In that snowy, windy morning in Snæfellsnes, it looked as if she was smiling at us in encouragement.