There be hid­den folk

Ghosts and trolls haunt a tour of Ice­land’s creepy cap­i­tal

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - NIGEL RICHARD­SON

WHEN Oli Kari Ola­son de­cided to of­fer guided ghost tours of his na­tive Reyk­javik, he hired a team of medi­ums to scout out haunted hot spots. ‘‘The prob­lem was, they saw ghosts ev­ery­where,’’ he says. ‘‘Thou­sands of them. Even on rooftops.’’

Ola­son ges­tures from the Old Har­bour, where his tours start, to­wards the com­pact down­town area of Ice­land’s cap­i­tal city. His words con­jure a mo­men­tary im­age of spec­tral fig­ures hov­er­ing in door­ways and on para­pets. Then we set off to meet some of them.

Ice­land is sat­u­rated with the su­per­nat­u­ral. ‘‘It’s a left­over from the old Nordic mythol­ogy, the bits Chris­tian­ity didn’t strip away,’’ reck­ons Ola­son, a his­to­rian and for­mer teacher. The coun­try’s other-worldly land­scape, of lava fields, gey­sers and wa­ter­falls, has surely also shaped the col­lec­tive psy­che. What­ever the ex­pla­na­tion, this is one of the most su­per­sti­tious cul­tures in the de­vel­oped world, which is why Ola­son’s Haunted Walk is more than just a bit of light-hearted ghostie non­sense. It gets to the soul of a place where not just ghosts but elves, trolls and hul­du­folk ( hid­den folk) are taken se­ri­ously by even the most se­ri­ous-minded.

The first stop for our small group — my part­ner and me, a young Amer­i­can and a French cou­ple — is a car park near the Sal­va­tion Army build­ing. Three of the four medi­ums Ola­son hired showed a great in­ter­est in this ex­panse of tar­mac. ‘‘So I used my amaz­ing skills as a his­to­rian to find out that a house used to stand there,’’ he says. In 1953 this house was the scene of an hor­rific crime when the owner, a phar­ma­cist called Sig­urour Mag­nus­son, killed his wife and three chil­dren be­fore com­mit­ting sui­cide. ‘‘Af­ter­wards peo­ple who moved in com­plained of hear­ing the cries of chil­dren and the wail of a woman,’’ Ola­son says.

In 1961 the house was lifted and moved to Ar­bae­jarsafn, an open-air folk mu­seum of tra­di­tional Ice­landic houses in the city sub­urbs, where it has been ad­mired ever since as a fine ex­am­ple of ur­ban ver­nac­u­lar ar­chi­tec­ture.

As we walk old Reyk­javik’s tidy streets, Ola­son ex­plains that Ice­landers are brought up on the Ice­landic Sagas, early me­dieval his­to­ries of their an­ces­tors in which ghosts are real and dan­ger­ous. So when Ice­land’s only se­rial killer, Axlar Bjorn, was sen­tenced to death in the 16th cen­tury (it’s be­lieved he killed up to 18 peo­ple) the au­thor­i­ties made it as dif­fi­cult as pos­si­ble for him to come back: ‘‘They chopped off his head, arms and legs.’’ What they couldn’t de­stroy, how­ever, was his DNA.

In a coun­try with a no­to­ri­ously small gene pool, where

Oli Kari Ola­son, right, leads one of his Haunted Walk tours

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