Quoting the Icelandic news site visir.is, the magazine reported, "A Canadian couple was thrown out of a church in the village of Reykhólar in the Southern Westfjords, West Iceland on Friday morning when a local resident discovered the travellers had camped out inside the church overnight. This is not the first time foreign travellers have camped out inside the church, spending the night and even cooking their dinner inside the old wooden building. Locals are baffled by this inexplicable behaviour," and have decided they will have to keep the church doors locked from now on, "a step the community finds regrettable, since the church is the centre of the small village. 'It's ridiculous that you have to formally ban things which any sensible person should realize you cannot do,'" said one resident.
But is it ridiculous? Is camping in a church in Iceland baffling and inexplicable behavior?
There's been lots in the news in the last two years about Iceland's tidal wave of tourism--and the country's inability to provide the basic services these tourists require. This year Iceland's 330,000 residents are expecting over 1.5 million visitors.
They're not all happy about it. Learning that I am leading guided tours for the company America2Iceland, one of my longtime friends admonished me over Facebook, "Please don't bring more people over here, Nancy!!!"
There's a shortage of hotel rooms. There's a shortage of parking. There's a shortage of public toilets--and stories of mothers letting their toddlers defecate on the city streets, of travelers pissing on the graves of famous poets.
Iceland's sudden popularity as a tourist destination is changing the country. Granted, tourist dollars revived the country's economy after the crash of 2008, but traveling there now is not the same otherworldly experience it was when I first went in 1986.
But should camping in churches be included in the long list of negatives that modern tourism has inflicted on Iceland?
No. It's an idea with a long history--one the Icelanders themselves seem to have thought of.
The Canadian couple who were ousted from Reykhólar church may have simply been more aware of the history of tourism in Iceland than are the town residents.
Read almost any book by an 18th- or 19th-century traveler to Iceland--and most of them are available free online--and you will hear about camping in churches.
"Churches are in this country not only used for purposes of public worship, but also serve as magazines for provisions, clothes, etc., and as inns for travellers."
She did not approve, saying:
"I do not suppose that a parallel instance of desecration could be met with even among the most uncivilized nations. I was assured, indeed, that these abuses were about to be remedied. A reform of this kind ought to have been carried out long ago; and even now the matter seems to remain an open point; for wherever I came the church was placed at my disposal for the night, and everywhere I found a store of fish, tallow, and other equally odoriferous substances."
She describes one evening in particular:
"The little chapel at Krisuvik is only 22 feet long by 10 broad; on my arrival it was hastily prepared for my reception. Saddles, ropes, clothes, hats, and other articles which lay scattered about, were hastily flung into a corner; mattresses and some nice soft pillows soon appeared, and a very tolerable bed was prepared for me on a large chest in which the vestments of the priest, the coverings of the altar, etc., were deposited. I would willingly have locked myself in, eaten my frugal super, and afterwards written a few pages of my diary before retiring to rest; but this was out of the question. The entire population of the village turned out to see me, old and young hastened to the church, and stood round in a circle and gazed at me…. so I began quietly to unpack my little portmanteau, and proceeded to boil my coffee over a spirit-lamp. A whispering consultation immediately began; they seemed particularly struck by my mode of preparing coffee … My frugal meal dispatched, I resolved to try the patience of my audience, and, taking out my journal, began to write. For a few minutes they remained quiet, then they began to whisper one to another, “She writes, she writes,” and this was repeated numberless times. … At length, after this scene had lasted a full hour, I could stand it no longer and was fain to request my amiable visitors to retire, as I wished to go to bed."
She had already visited Palestine and Egypt (twice), along with Istanbul and Italy. She took two world tours. Between 1846 and 1848 she visited South America, China, India, Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece; from 1851 to 1854 she saw England, South Africa, Borneo and Sumatra, Australia, the West Coast and Great Lakes areas of the United States, Peru, and Ecuador. In 1857 she went to Madagascar, where she got involved in a coup and was kicked out of the country; she died of complications of malaria in 1858.
She published five popular travel books that were translated into seven languages. All of them are now available as free downloads in various formats through Google Books. You can find A Visit to Iceland and the Scandinavian North here.
Of course, times have changed since 1845. Instead of staying in a church, Madame Pfeiffer's descendants can now book a room through AirBnB in nearly any little town in Iceland. The company lists 37 rentals within a short drive of the Reykhólar church (though none in the village itself).
There's no excuse for camping in a church uninvited.
But Icelanders, too, have to realize that "sensible people" in their country once thought it quite normal to use a church as an inn.