Y ou would be forgiven if even after reading all you can about Iceland travel and interesting places to visit in the country you still have no idea about a place called Saenautasel farm. You could even drive right by and be none the wiser.
Saenautasel is a very old farm in the East of the country and one of those few buildings left made almost entirely of turf. That in itself not its claim to fame as turf houses could in theory be built today and in fact, Saenautasel, has been partly rebuilt after having been abandoned for a long period.
We sometimes jokingly call it the favela of Iceland but that is an overstatement. First off there are no favelas or shantytowns in Iceland yet. Secondly, favelas tend to be built in or around cities and not in the harshest and most inhospitable spot available far away from much human contact. Which is how Saenautasel farmstead could well be described.
For a brief period of time, from 1840 until 1875 there were no fewer than 16 farmsteads located here but only one remains today. So, what happened?
Saenautasel was in effect a farm in the highland of Iceland
Two things did. Askja volcano, not far away, opened up in 1875, blanketed this area with ash and made it impossible to live here. The other reason simply that even without any volcanoes this area is so high up it is actually on a moor where summers are extra short and winters and darkness extra long. Saenautasel was in effect a farm in the highland of Iceland. Life here was pure hardness in the best of times and only the poorest of the poor in the country even tried to live off the land here.
Which brings us to the real claim to fame of this place. One summer, Halldor Laxness, later Iceland´s only Nobel prize winner for literature, stopped here on his way North. The experience of the this poorest and most disgusting place he had witnessed made quite an impact on the young author. So much so that his most popular novel, Independent people, is said to be partly or wholly based on what he faced while staying here briefly.
Team Total Iceland recommends grabbing a copy as the novel is fine and a great testament to how hard life was in rural Iceland only a couple of centuries ago.
Today, Saenautasel is open in summertime for visitors although it sometimes opens quite late in the summer as roads to this area are closed off as all other highland roads in the country. But should you find your way here you could get coffee and a bite to eat while you admire the handiwork of the turf building. Which are a whole lot more difficult to build than people realize.
Getting here: On the Ring Road between Akureyri in the North and Egilsstadir in the East. Road 901 about 20 km from the main road. Gravel all the way but no problem for smaller cars in summertime.