Day 6 |
Aug 04, 2008

Brattahlid & Igaliku, Greenland

By Susan Langley, Historian

Co-ordinates: 61° 09. 31' N, 045° 30. 40'W (Brattahlid)

Co-ordinates: 60° 59.85' N, 045° 28. 79'W (Igaliku)

We went to sleep nestled in a fog bank and lulled by calm seas, and awoke surrounded by icebergs of all shapes and sizes as we glided up Tunulliarfik, or Eric’s Fjord. Although only two fjords north of Qaqortog, the wind had picked up and it was cooler in the morning. We were heading for the village of Qassiarsuk and the site of the farmstead of Erik the Red for whom the fjord was named.

We enjoyed a dry landing at the jetty in this village of about 60 souls, and were met by our superb guides from Blue Ice. In groups, we set off to explore the village and environs. Norse ruins abound and the most significant include the farmstead of Erik the Red (Eiríkur Rauðe) called “Brattahlið,” which translates as “steep hillside”. Other important sites include, the site of the church constructed after “serious marital negotiations” with Erik by his wife, Þjóðhildur, as well as the sites of the second through fourth (and current) churches. The earliest church dates to approximately AD 1000 and is believed to be the earliest Christian church in the New World. There is also a reproduction of Þjóðhildur’s church that has an altar cloth woven of Norwegian, Icelandic, and local wools on a reproduction Viking loom, which can be seen in the adjacent reconstructed Norse lodge. The cross above the altar was made by the noted artist Aka Høegh. At these sites we were greeted by a local guide in period dress who told the stories of the two structures. Other ruins included those of a manor house barn, the other churches and a reproduction of an Inuit sod house. Although the latter has been modified to have a side entrance for visitors, the original tunnel entrance is still available to brave (and more slender) guests. The current church, dating to 1936 is a charming wooden structure with the typical blue interior, ship model, and chandelier lighting, as well as candles on the ends of pews. To my delight, there was a bee hive near the church. Although vacant, it answered and posed many questions about beekeeping in the Greenland.

We also visited a bronze sculptural installation on a rock face. This piece of art was donated in gratitude by an American whose wife did not sail on the ill-fated Hans Hedtoft, which stuck an iceberg on its maiden voyage off Greenland, and sank in 1959. It is known as the Havsteen-Mikkelsen sculpture. On a rise above the village, there is also a statue of Leif Eriksson that was erected in AD 2000 for the millennium celebration of the first European to set foot in North America. It is a recasting of a statue created in 1962 by August Werner for the Seattle World’s Fair. Below, by the road, is a small Viking monument from 1982 near the youth hostel. A bronze plaque near the bridge commemorates Otto Frederiksen, who initiated resettlement of the area for sheep breeding, the first real settlement since the Norse, on July 30, 1924. His original cottage is nearby and contains photographs and some memorabilia of his life. Most of the sheep rearing farms in the area are owned by his descendants.

Returning to the Prince Albert II, we enjoyed lunch as we repositioned, heading to our landing at Ittille, “the Crossing Place” or “Isthmus”, for our visit to Igaliku. As it had warmed considerably, we had an opportunity to change clothes and prepare for the next adventure. We were offered a choice of a hike or ride into the picturesque village of Igaliku along the 3km gravel road, known officially as the King’s Way named for a visit by King Christian X in 1921. Considered by some as the most beautiful village in Greenland, Igaliku is something of a summer vacation community and artists’ haven, with only about 40 permanent residents. It is most famous for the ruins of the St. Nikolai Cathedral, erected by the populace between 1124 and 1126, to greet their new bishop. The site was then known as Garðar. Extensive archaeological excavations in 1926 turned up 25 walrus and 5 narwhal skulls beneath the church, which may indicate a crossover from pagan to Christian beliefs. Also found was a skeleton buried with a crosier – possibly the third Bishop, Jan Smyrill. Part of the church includes a small museum of photographic images of life and events in the village.  Extensive ruins throughout the area are related to the religious complex and some are still in use, such as the stepped cold-water channel used to keep food fresh.

After touring the village, which boasts several pieces of sculpture and commemorative plaques as well as the more famous sites, we enjoyed local hospitality at the hostel with a traditional “kaffeemik” of coffee, tea and pastries made by some of our guides.  Some of us took vehicles up the steep hill then down to the landing site, whereas others elected to hike back.  In either case, there were spectacular views of Igalikup Kangerlua, or “Einars Fjord” on which Igaliku sits, as well as of Erik’s Fjord where we were anchored and which was dotted with icebergs, rolling fields of mostly harvested winter feed, sheep, and colorfully painted and red sandstone cottages. 

Returning to the ship for dinner, many of us were drawn to the decks to play name-the-‘bergs (it looks like a duck; a house, etc.) as we watched this fascinating region slip into the distance.