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Hella

If you want to try out the manageable and good-tempered Icelandic horse in Iceland's premier horse-farming area, consider combining a ride with a farm stay. Some farms offer packages for anything from overnights to week-long pack trips.

Hekluhestar, on Austvaðsholt Farm, Route 272, 9km (5 1/2 miles) northeast of Hella (tel. 487-6598; www.hekluhestar.is), is mentioned above for its 6- and 8-day trips around Mt. Hekla and the Fjallabak reserve. Like many of the horse farms, they'll negotiate just about any trip in the vicinity. Hekluhestar welcomes you to take part in farm life, which could be especially delightful during lambing season in late April/early May, foaling season in late May, and the sheep roundup in September.

Herríðarhóll, on Route 284, about 5km (3 miles) north of Route 1, and 15km (9 1/3 miles) from Hella (tel. 487-5252 or 899-1759; www.herridarholl.is), offers anything from local beginners' tours to multi-day expeditions through the highlands. Destinations include Þjórsárdalur, Mt. Hekla, Dýrholaey, Skógar, Geysir, and Gullfoss. Look into package deals, for example lodging, dinner and breakfast, a day of riding, and a picnic for only $200. The farmhouse has five guest rooms and its own hot spring nearby.

Hestheimar, on Route 281, just off Route 26, 7km (4 1/3 miles) northwest of Hella (tel. 487-6666; www.hestheimar.is), is an appealing guesthouse that offers horse rides and locally renowned home cooking. The guesthouse has four rooms, two with private bathroom, and a loft that sleeps ten to twelve on floor mattresses; amenities include a guest kitchen and hot tub.

Markarfljót Valley

Before the Markarfljót river was diked and bridged in the 1930s, it would swell with meltoff from Mýrdalsjökull and Eyjafjallajökull and change course, creating havoc downstream for farmers and travelers. From Hvolsvöllur, Route 261 proceeds east along the northern side of the Markarfljót valley for 27km (17 miles) to the Fljótsdalur Youth Hostel, where it turns into mountain road F261. The valley becomes progressively narrower, and Þórsmörk seems very close by, but the river is uncrossable unless you have a 4WD vehicle.

If you can't get to Þórsmörk, a day hike up Þórólfsfell is a very worthy substitute. The 3-hour round-trip walk from the Fljótsdalur hostel isn't too strenuous, and wandering around the flat-topped peak yields fabulous views. With no single route or marked trail up Þórólfsfell, the best approach is from its northwest side, not from F261 to the south, which is much steeper. In good weather your destination is clearly visible, but if fog rolls in it's best to have a map and compass. From the top you could descend the east side of the mountain and walk back to the hostel along F261.

The most ambitious hikers tackle the 9-hour round-trip from Fljótsdalur to the Tindfjallajökull ice cap; ask at the youth hostel about trail conditions. The hostel is also used as a base for extensive treks run by Dick Phillips tours.

For an oddball re-creation of a 19th-century turf house, see Kaffi Langbrók.

Njáls Saga & Its Sites

Of Iceland's medieval sagas, Njáls Saga is by critical consensus the most lasting literary achievement, and the only one set in south Iceland. It has also been an invaluable historical resource, providing, for example, the most thorough account of Iceland's conversion to Christianity in 1000. The book was written around 1280 by an anonymous author, and purports to recount events almost 300 years earlier. The well-crafted story revolves around Njáll Þorgeirsson and his friend Gunnar Hámundarson, both actual historic figures.

Sites associated with Njáls Saga are heavily featured in tourist literature and roadside informational panels: just look for the "S" icon. The history recounted in Njáls Saga has left almost no human trace on the landscape, but the vividly described natural settings are much the same as they were in Njáll's time. Local farmers can usually recount any saga event that took place on their property as if it happened yesterday.

For a horseback riding tour of the Njáls Saga sites, try Njála Tours (tel. 487-8133 or 865-4655), which operates out of Miðhús farm on Route 262, 2km (1 1/4 miles) north of Hvolsvöllur.

Þingskálar -- In Njáll's time this was the annual spring assembly site for the Rangá river district, and the scarce remains of about fifty temporary encampments have been found. Several scenes are set here, including one in which Ámundi the Blind regains his eyesight just long enough to kill Lýtingur á Sámsstöðum.

From the Ring Road, 2km (1 1/4 miles) east of Hella, exit onto Rte. 264 heading north. In about 7km (4 1/3 miles), turn left on Rte. 268 and proceed another 8km (5 miles); Þingskálar is on the left.

Keldur -- This home of Ingjald Höskuldsson, uncle of Njáll's illegitimate son, is now a modern dairy farm with over 20 preserved buildings from the 19th century. The most notable survival is a 15th-century hall with stave construction and a hidden underground passageway.

Keldur is at the easternmost point of Rte. 264, about 20km (12 miles) east of Hella. tel. 487-8452.

Gunnarssteinn -- In a savage battle scene, Gunnar Hámundarson and his allies are ambushed at this rock, which can be reached on foot from Keldur. Excavations turned up a skeleton and a bracelet engraved with two hearts. This bracelet might have come from Gunnar's brother Hjört (Heart), who in the saga was slain at Gunnarssteinn.

At Keldur, ask to be directed to the Gunnarssteinn trail, which leads 3km (2 miles) to the Rangá river, crosses a bridge, and follows the river south for 1km (1/2 mile).

Hlíðarendi -- Once Gunnar's home, this pretty spot overlooking the Markarfljót valley now holds a few farm buildings and a nicely restored country church. After Gunnar was killed here, he turned over in his grave and spoke cheerfully to his sons in verse. Ruins only amount to simple mounds in the earth. Bergþórshvoll is barely discernible in the distance.

A sign for Hlíðarendi is marked on the left side of Rte. 261, about 17km (11 miles) from Hvolsvöllur.

Bergþórshvoll -- Once Njáll's home, Bergþórshvoll is now just a low hill amid marshy land 3km (2 miles) from the ocean. In the saga account, Njáll's family is burned alive inside the house in the year 1011. Excavations from 1927-28 and 1951-52 proved conclusively that there was indeed a fire around this time.

Exit the Ring Road onto Rte. 255, 4km (2 1/2 miles) south of Hvolsvöllur. When 255 ends, turn left on Rte. 252. Bergþórshvoll is 5km (3 miles) ahead on the left.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.