It may not have been clear from my posts so far, but we are stationed in Reykjavik for the duration of our stay. As I booked this trip because of the great deal offered by Icelandic Air, it was a package with restrictions … a limit on how many days we could stay and had to stay at one of two specified hotels the whole time in Reykjavik. This actually hasn’t restricted us at all, but should I have the good fortune to return to Iceland, I would want to travel around the island and get to all the nooks and crannies, and move camp each night. But for this trip, a single home-base worked perfectly fine, there is so much to do within reach of Reykjavik.
So we decided to stay “home” on St. Patrick’s Day and spend another day in the city of Reykjavik. Slept in late. We had already scoped out where we wanted to end the day, at an English pub we’d found the first day that had advertised 300 isk Guinness and Kilkenny (my favorite Irish beer). This exchanges to around USD$2.50 a pint. That, my friends, is a darn good deal.
But first we made our way around the old town in wickedly cold, strong wind to see the last couple sights on my list … going to the top of the tower in the church for city views. Sufficient to call it The Church because it’s the tallest thing in the old part of Reykjavik by a long shot, and it’s the one thing you can see from miles away. Locals will direct you around town using that feature as your compass (walk toward the church, walk north of the church, etc.) Here are some views ... such a pretty city, I think.
Next I wanted to check out the “culture house” which is the former national library where there was an exhibit on ancient manuscripts, some of the collection is on loan from Denmark. That was a worthy experience for me. Icelanders are very keen on their sagas, or “eddas,” which are epic tales kept alive mostly by a very strong oral story-telling tradition. Sometimes they’re written down and illustrated. Their illustration style, which is fairly consistent, is unique and reminds me somehow of drawings in old fairy tale books … almost a subtle comical element.
In addition to viewing the old books, there was a room showing the Icelandic manuscript production process … how they made the paper-thin sheepskin pages (yeah, they’re animal skins, not plant-derived paper), how they made the ink dye of various colors and quill pens, insights into the life of a scribe and the physical ailments they tended to acquire, etc.
The old manuscripts have been a source of animosity between Denmark and Iceland regarding their ownership. A few decades ago, Denmark repatriated several of them to Iceland. The ceremony was recorded and you could watch it on a TV. The solemnity with which it was conducted gives you an idea of how seriously these items are respected and treasured in this culture. Here’s a photo I snapped of the television screen, showing the presentation the Danish made to the Icelanders of the largest manuscripts. Imagine having those things on your bookshelf ... a little light reading in bed before going to sleep, perhaps.
Unexpectedly, the top floor of the building contained a modern art exhibit. Though some of it was a bit too avant-garde for our little minds, we enjoyed it and were subsequently inspired to visit the national gallery to see their art exhibits. We felt the national gallery was a bit of a disappointment, but it was a small entrance fee, and of course that’s just our personal taste. My favorite part was looking out the upper level window at the swans gathered on a partially-frozen pond. And kind of a crazy thing we saw, was this guy striding across the pond, at first glance looking like Jesus walking on water. The ice didn’t appear to be very thick at all, and this illustration of faith in it rather impressed us.
And here's the kitty cat of the day, citizen of Reykjavik.
Then to our pub where we were crowned with St. Patrick’s day Guinness hats and beads while I swilled an undisclosed number of Kilkennys. One thing that amused me that I’ve never encountered in America and probably wouldn’t … I think we’re a little uptight about this kind of thing … every time I went to the Ladies room, there were men in it. They were just employees working … refilling toilet paper, getting bar supplies from the storage unit that was accessed through the full length mirror, which was actually a door, etc. But nobody paid any mind to anybody else, just business as usual; once one of the guys was chatting with one of the ladies telling her how Guinness is a very low-calorie beer (true), and that if she were to be on a diet she should drink Guinness. She was close to busting some seams on her leather pants … I wondered if he was giving her a hint or just unaware that’s a pretty stupid thing to say to a girl. She didn’t seem put out.
And THEN … we were walking back through the city to go “home,” when I looked up at the sky and noticed what I first thought were airplane contrails. But as I studied how they moved yet never dissolved, and then discerned a pale green hue, I began to suspect an aurora. A minute later, a girl from across the courtyard (we were walking in front of The Church) shrieked into the night, “Look, it’s the northern lights!” (in English) Goosebumps rose up underneath my sweaters and heavy coat and scarf.
Let me give a wee bit of back story. The Northern Lights is something on my Top 10 list of things to see and has been there for ages. When I saw this great deal to Iceland, though I’ve always wanted to see the island, the first thing that went through my head was “northern lights.” So it was a huge motivating factor in booking this trip. We’d been in Iceland since Tuesday morning, it was now Sunday and we were leaving the following Tuesday night. We had checked the aurora forecast (solar flare activity) every day to find disappointing numbers of 1 or 2 out of 9, meaning very quiet on the sun, and hence no lights. So I was quite surprised to see those lines above the church. We hurried back to the hotel and asked the front desk staff about it. We said we thought we’d seen a trace of them and wondered if we drove out of town if we’d see them better. (we already presumed this and had done so the night before with no luck, but decided to double check) The guys said, “Yes! It’s the best forecast of the year! You should go out.” This seemed highly improbable to me given the “2” on both aurora forecast websites. “They just changed it,” the hotel guys said.
So we grabbed some camera gear and extra clothes and bee-lined to a place we’d already scoped out in our driving as a good candidate for watching – a ski area not too far out of town. And there, I got to cross off another item from my list, lucky little devil that I am. That makes 5 crossed off of my Top 10. Green lights on St. Patrick’s day could hardly be more appropriate. I can’t really gauge Erik’s reaction to and assessment of the experience because I was so overwhelmed by my own. I squealed like a pig in excitement (no joke, I really did) and was jumping up and down outside with glee. It was so cold that we spent a lot of time inside the truck … the lights sort of come and go – they’ll be filling the sky very brightly and morphing quickly into discreet shapes and lines, and then they sort of dissolve into a general green mist. Sometimes they wavered almost like a curtain of light in the sky. During those misty times we’d sit in the car waiting for them to build up again into shapes and then go outside. I can see why people get addicted to tracking them … such a tiny little taste, I definitely am not satiated. My photos didn’t turn out well, as I was woefully unprepared for the shooting conditions and got frustrated trying to operate the camera, so I just gave up. Honestly, it's one of the few occasions I'm not really even bummed I didn't get photos, because they can't remotely capture the feeling of having this light fill the sky above and all around you. (Though now I'm super inspired to see them *again* and be better equipped to photograph them!) But here are a few glimpses anyway of what we got in our cameras. The big white thing is the moon.
So here’s what happened: it turns out that on Friday an unexpected large flare (coronal mass ejection) happened on the sun but it took until Sunday to reach Iceland, and the forecasts hadn’t been adjusted. It arrived during the daytime, unfortunately, but fortunately we caught them just as darkness fell, so we had the maximum time available to see them, which turned out to be only a couple hours, before they faded away. We talked to some folks the next day on our travels up north who described an incredible display, illustrating that the further north you go, the more intense. But I’m just pleased as the fruitiest, sweetest punch that I got to witness them at all. Mission accomplished.
I’ve been through longer tunnels ... in South Africa we spent 12 minutes on a train in complete darkness in a tunnel. I think it was the lights inside this one that made me so aware that I was traveling underneath the ocean for 6 kilometers. While Erik was preoccupied being confounded by the GPS that appeared ('twas an illusion) to work far underground (“that’s not possible!” “GPS’s just don’t work underground!” “it’s impossible!”), I was preoccupied with thinking about all that weight of the water above me, waiting to crush me in an instant. This tunnel was taking us across a narrow finger of ocean so we could access the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We thought we would check out the national park centered around a volcano in the middle of the peninsula. That didn’t work out, in the end, but no matter. It was a beautiful drive. Here is the Snaefellsjökull volcano looming ahead of us.
I’ve taken more photographs out the car window and through the windshield while driving (well, as the passenger being driven … I’m not one of those people multi-tasking while driving) than on any other trip by like an order of magnitude. The landscape is so striking. The more so because of the snow that fell on our first full day here, the day we walked the glacier. The black volcanic rock in contrast with the white snow is just lovely. Particularly when you throw in a bright blue sky.
I think the little gate in the left foreground is so random and cute beneath the massive black cliffs.
Much of the flat land in the country is covered in lava fields … huge stretches of lava in the slow process of being broken down by moss and weather into soil. The shapes of the rocks in this process of decomposition are absolutely fantastical. I could have spent a whole afternoon just romping through lava fields and marveling at their crinkly craggly convoluted uber-trippy shapes.
Here’s a close-up of some of the more advanced plant life on this particular lava field.
I like how the church in this photo looks like it’s in a diorama. I think this look is due to the two rocks in the foreground. With my 250mm lens on my camera, I couldn’t get past a large foreground; at first I was frustrated and switched to the G9. But in the end, I actually rather like this diorama effect.
This is an old volcano, rather small that was then cut into to quarry the rocks. Erik is walking up the remains of the quarry, along the edge of the volcano’s caldera. From here I snapped the photo of the clouds … they were very interesting during our stay in that they moved into an area with a defined line, quite like an army would, at least in the ancient days of battle. Seldom, if ever, was there a gradual building of wisps or cottonball clumps, just this advancing line.
The landscape is dotted with tiny little churches set at the bottom of huge mountainsides. I asked one of our hotel staff about the churches, as there are so many and they are so itty-bitty, I wondered if each one had a minister. Apparently, one minister might have as many as 8 or 10 churches under his direction. Nearly all Icelanders belong to the national church, which is evangelical-Lutheran. I don’t even know what that compound label means, but that’s what the sign said in the big church in the middle of Reykjavik. In about 1000 AD the ruler of Iceland at the time decided that for the harmony of the country, all citizens should follow the same religion, and so all Icelanders were mandated by law to be baptized into Christianity.
Many of the churches are only used for special occasions such as weddings, funerals, holidays, etc. I started referring to them as 3-, 4- or 5-window churches, in reference to the number of windows along the congregation section (behind the steeple). Five-window churches are the big boys.
All the graveyards we looked at contained graves spanning a large width of time. Usually dates on tombstones ranged from the early- to mid-1800s all the way up into the 2000s.
This is a church built in 1703 and rebuilt in 1848 through the efforts of a local woman who was adamant that its disrepair be remedied. For some reason, the church elders didn’t want the church rebuilt, but support grew with the local population and they contributed funds for its repair. The official church council of the country made a point to put a plaque on the new church explicitly declaring it was rebuilt without the support of the church elders. I think this is funny that they felt compelled to officially express their disapproval.
What I think is so charming about the insides of these tiny churches is that they even find room for a choir loft. The choir is probably only the neighbor, Thor, and his wife and two cousins. I wish I could witness a service inside one.
After driving through the middle of the peninsula over a high pass and around the whole coastline, we headed home. When the sun sets behind the ocean, it’s a giant disc. I've seldom witnessed a sun so sharply defined in shape, just this crisp disc, like a monstrous penny thrown out from one of the volcanoes onto the horizon.
I had brought a couple beers with us from our duty-free shopping spree sitting in our hotel mini-fridge, figuring we’d find a spot at the end of the day to enjoy them. We found this little half-frozen waterfall just off the highway down a nondescript dirt road, where we looked out across the deep blue ocean. The water here is always the prettiest color. Though the sun had already set, dusk lasts forever here … the time between when the sun goes down and when it gets dark seems inordinately long. So we sat in the dusk enjoying our Icelandic beverages, toasting the end of another lovely day.
Iceland is a waterfall-lover’s paradise. For as much as I love waterfalls (and it’s very much), I haven’t seen many really big ones in my life. I’m mesmerized by even the smallest. The falls we saw the other day the glacier walk pretty much blew my little mind. But then we went to Gullfoss, managing to arrive before the throngs exiting tour busses. When we arrived, there were a handful of photographers who had climbed over the rope which said the path was closed due to winter conditions (icy). Fortunately they inspired us to do the same. They were all standing around with huge tripods and super fancy cameras, but the lighting was pretty horrendous, half dark shade and half bright, snow-reflected light. I suppose they were trying to get the silky smooth effect of a long exposure, but that didn’t negate the poor lighting. None of my photos came out well, but hopefully they can give you an idea of the scope of the place.
The river starting over the falls. At first glance, it almost looks like snow on the river, but it’s lots of baby rapids making the white in the river, and the banks across the way are covered in snow.
In this photo, you might at first think all the white on the right is also water tumbling over a cliff like the river on the left, but it’s all glassy ice built up on the canyon wall from the spray of the waterfall freezing.
I was literally physically smiling the whole time at Gullfoss, as we walked from one viewpoint to another.
Erik knew he would be lucky to drag me away from there before dark … but luck was on his side. So we drove to Geysir, the location of some spectacular geysers and hot thermal pools. The English word, “geyser,” derives from the Icelandic word, geysir. The biggest one hasn’t erupted to its reputed full height of over 200 feet in several decades. But another one gives a delightful show regularly. Erik and I and another dude were standing near the geyser inspecting the cool patterns the shallow water made running over the soil and stone downwind of the geyser. Suddenly we heard the sound of it erupting and looked up with delight.
I, and it turns out also Erik and the other guy, was psyched because it was a cold and windy day and as this massive column of steam moved rapidly our way, we all anticipated a nice warm blast sweeping over us. We were all looking up at it, and had a split second to notice the huge droplets of water before they were pelting us with startling force. We turned and ran, and I screamed, but it was too late … the same as if someone had just sprayed us with a garden hose. We were soaked. The three of us were laughing over it, over how we so totally didn’t expect that to happen, when the geyser erupted again. Instinctively we turned to watch it, and then suddenly we realized we were going to get hit with the water again. So we ran, I squealed, the other guy exclaimed, “Shit!” We avoided most of the spray this time, but we could hardly have become more soaked than we already were.
The last stop on what they call The Golden Circle was Ϸingvellir … the site of the first parliamentary assembly in the 900s. This was the seat of the parliament for a long time, where laws were read out loud and the law reader pretty much had the highest authority and settled disputes, etc. A couple hundred years later, they started writing down laws and transferring power away from the reader. This is a church and graveyard now sitting on the site.
And our last stop of the day, for one more water adventure, was the Blue Lagoon … where we snagged a beer at the most exotic (and expensive) pool bar we’ve had the pleasure of drinking at. The lagoon is basically a byproduct of a geothermal facility. The water is a pale blue color, the bottom is gooey silicone mud, which is also collected in various containers around the lagoon, and people like to smear the mud all over them. Erik was particularly gleeful over squishing it between his fingers.
The neatest part was near the steam vent at the far end, where the water temperature was warmer (outside air temp was about 38 degrees F, just above 0 C) and the steam poured out so copiously at times that a person four feet away from you would be instantly and completely obscured, and you suddenly feel that you are all alone in the world, surrounded by nothing but a veil of steam. When the steam would then blow away in the wind, it was like watching time-lapse photography of a cloudy day … watching clouds move and morph in fast motion.
So things are a little backwards here: houses in winter have windows open because of the cheap heat, buildings often just have it running constantly and tenants need to open the windows sometimes (as we have in our hotel a couple nights); on the other hand, employees at a geothermal HOT springs are wearing heavy down coats because the air temperature is soooo cold. It’s just funny to swim up to the pool bar and have the bartender be working in her fur-lined parka, handing a cold beer to you in your swimsuit.
Lots more to come! Am falling behind on the real-time ... I forget that when traveling with another person, evening time is typically not so open for making posts on a travel blog. Northern lights, wild seals ... stay tuned. :-)
A few random notes … one thing that has surprised me is the fact that Iceland is pretty much self-sufficient agriculturally. I imagined they would be importing nearly all their produce and food, but actually they can grow nearly everything right here, are very conscious about “organic” quality in both meat and produce. So far our meals, and we’ve been eating at the cheaper end of the scale, have been delicious. Tonight, Erik proclaimed he had eaten the best baked potato ever in his life.
Now let me wander briefly to an aside … Recently a cousin of mine revealed to me that when we were kids, she thought my parents were super mean because they only let me have bread and water. But the truth was, the only thing I ever wanted was bread and water. Didn’t even like butter. I ate dry toast and liked it. This is to illustrate that bread has been my number one culinary comfort my whole life. So I feel it’s slightly significant to say that there is something special about Icelandic bread, and it is the best on the planet … I’ve been to countries “famous” for their bakeries and they don't hold a candle. In Iceland, no matter what type of bread, no matter how warm or cold, its texture is so smooth and moist and delicate, I would almost call it creamy. Anyway, I don’t know what the secret is, but if necessary, I can subsist on this single item for the rest of the trip. And when I become wealthy, I’m hiring an Icelandic baker to import his ingredients from Iceland and bake bread for me daily at home.
Yesterday we decided to hike a short ways up the hill across from our hotel to check out a huge glass dome. When we got up there, we saw that people were walking around the top outside. Turns out the inside is a museum on the bottom level, a rotating gajillion-star restaurant at the top, and a terrace in the middle with well-priced (for Icelandic standards) food where you can look out over the city. Pleasantly surprised, we sat down for soup and bread yummy bread, and watched the clouds shape shift over the bay.
The rest of this day is mostly undocumented in photographs. Too difficult to wiggle a camera out of your pocket with gloves on and hold it up and snap a photo while riding a horse. Too bad for you, because the landscape we rode our horses through was completely magical. I know I’ve already used that word a lot here, but it’s just plain appropriate. Snow-covered lava fields with snow-covered black-faced mountains as the backdrop. The shapes of the rocks in the lava fields are craggly and twisted and random, and the dusting of snow on top was divine. It was beautiful, but it stays in my mind’s eye, sorry. :-) It was snowing when we started out, but quickly the large flakes subsided.
So horses in Iceland are a particular breed and the country has strict standards to ensure its purity … no cross-breeding. They are a very small size, more like a pony. And so shaggy and wooly, even the insides of their ears are furry. I think they are hands-down the cutest and prettiest horses I’ve seen. In a country with a human population of about 330,000, the horse population is about 100,000. So you can see horses are an important part of their culture. These horses also have two more gaits than American and European horses. One is used only in riding competitions, but the other is an extremely practical gait, called a "tölt," and we got to experience a little of it. It’s about the speed of a trot, but the horses have a way of keeping their upper body completely smooth and still. It feels almost surreal to be clipping along, the sound of the horse’s iron-clad feet loudly and quickly clomping, yet feeling like you’re just gliding across the path as though you were riding a skateboard on cement. In fact this gait is so smooth that in riding competitions in Iceland, there is an event in which the riders hold a full mug of beer in one hand and the reins in the other, and race around the track. The person with the least amount of beer spilled out of their mug at the end wins. And the winner usually has pretty much a full mug.
The horse I rode seemed rather fond of me, and whenever I had to walk her, she pressed her head into my side until I petted her more.
Erik’s horse gave him an adrenaline-pumping finish to our outing when the lead guide’s horse suddenly bolted and the guide couldn’t gain control of it, and Erik’s horse, who was following immediately behind, decided to follow suit, galloping full speed ahead with no care for anything Erik did to try to halt it. Erik said he just thought to himself, “Don’t fall off, don’t fall off; people ride galloping horses all the time and don’t fall off.” When the guide got her horse to stop, Erik’s stopped as well. “You did very good,” she congratulated Erik, “you didn’t scream!” At the end of the ride, we each got a certificate saying which horse we rode, like a little diploma. The guide wrote at the bottom of Erik's, "Thanks for the show!"
Our previous horse-riding experience consists primarily of po-dunk riding operations in Mexico where they pretty much just slap you on a horse and tell you to follow them, and your horse never really does anything but plod along at a slow walk. This outfit was mega professional. First you receive a very good introduction, and then the whole time you’re riding, there’s a guide at the front of the line, one at the back, and then the sort of “ride master” rides up and down the line (there were 11 of us tourists on horse) pointing out if you’re doing something wrong or how to improve, making sure everyone is positioned correctly and managing their horse correctly. And several times we got to speed up to experience that smooth tölt gait if we could get our horse to do it. They naturally would start that way, but if you didn’t keep the reins properly taught, they would revert to a more nerve-rackingly bouncy trot. The saddles didn't have pommels like western saddles do, so it was a little scarier not having much to hold onto when the going got bouncy. She (the ride master) said at the end of the trip that she had us ride faster than most groups because of the fresh snow on the ground … if the horses walk too slowly the snow packs into their shoes, but if they go faster they stomp the snow out.
Erik began the day with Black Death. Can you guess what Black Death is? A dark beer, of course. In an effort to save money in this very expensive country, we went cheapo-skate-o and brought with us from home a bunch of instant oatmeal packets and some bowls and spoons, and are using the tea pot in the room to boil water and eat oatmeal for breakfast. Black Death, Erik tells me, makes an excellent breakfast beer for a supplement. I’d been told by several people to buy all our alcohol at the duty-free shop in the airport before exiting. Typically the duty free isn’t available on your way out of the airport, but sure enough it was here, and not just tourists, but the airline pilots and stewardesses, etc., were all loading up grocery carts. So basically we bought a week’s worth of beer, knowing we had a mini fridge in the room, and glad we did so. I pass the advice on to anyone else visiting Iceland – the price of beer in the duty free is at least 50% cheaper than anything outside the airport.
So anyway … Black Death, and then we began our glacier tour. This was our “activity” that was part of the package deal we signed on to for this trip. It was about a 12-hour day. We learned quite a bit about the geology of Iceland from our guide. Driving out to the glacier, you see a lot of volcanoes and also huge stretches of lava fields. The only thing that grows on lava is moss. So these areas are also known as moss fields. It takes 6,000 to 8,000 years for moss to break down lava rock into a layer of top soil, at which time other plants can start to grow. There is not a lot of large flora in Iceland. One of the national jokes is: Q: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? A: Stand up.
You may already know that Iceland uses geothermal energy for nearly all their heating needs. Our guide told us that the average heating bill for a household in Iceland is USD$200 to USD$300 per YEAR. Living in the Colorado mountains with a roughly similar climate, I can appreciate how astoundingly low this is. Cold water is full-on free!
So on to the glacier. … First we got set up with our crampons and ice axe. See my stylish crampons on my feet ...
This glacier is currently retreating; apparently a few years ago it came all the way down to the parking lot, now you have to walk over a stretch of rock and ash to ascend it. We’ve walked on one other glacier in the past, in Torres Del Paine national park in Chile. On that trip, we were roped together. When we told our Iceland guide this, he was horrified, saying that was the surest way to death and that they never tied people together. Each to their own method, I guess.
The weather was touch and go … sometimes snowing and sometimes clear. But that made it all the more atmospheric when walking on the glacier amid snowflakes. Unlike the glacier in Patagonia (Chile), which was mostly white with patches of intense blue, here the ice was mostly a continuous subtle shade of blue. And the unique thing was all the black ash infused in various layers and cones (reputed to be trolls). Very striking landscape, and very close to the coast … so you can stand on the glacier and look straight ahead to see the ocean, to the side to see sheer cliffs of green moss, and behind to see the field of snow and ice stretch out of sight.
Our guide found us a little ice tunnel to crawl through. The inside was pretty neat, it's ultra smooth glassy ice, blue and rippled. I'm inside looking out at Erik here.
My little moment of excitement came when I had lagged behind everyone else as we neared the bottom in order to take some photos. See Exhibit A:
Everyone else disappeared behind the folds of glacier, so when I was done snapping photos, I continued on, but I didn’t take the precise path the others had. I stepped onto some snow and instantaneously, before I could even blink, I was suddenly encased in snow up to my waist. Both legs broke through the snow into a hole in the ice. It was so shocking, I let out a little yelp, and soon one of the guides and Erik came running back to find me in my compromised position. But I was easily extricated.
Next we stopped at the beautiful, thunderous Skogafoss waterfall. And were blessed with a rainbow in the mist in the setting sun. Lots of birds nesting in the surrounding cliffs. Notice the people in the second photo for some perspective on how tall the waterfall is. Nearby is a little volcano museum showing a film about a family farm there by the waterfall that was affected by the latest eruption in 2010. A film you can see nowhere else in the world, just at the little museum run by the family who owns the farm … they now make more money on the museum than on farming.
Dinner at a hotel that celebrated the life of Anna the Traveler. Seemed appropriate. And last stop was another spectacular waterfall, but we viewed at the unlikely time of well after dark. The waterfall is lit up at night. There is a path that goes behind the waterfall, we followed with a flashlight. We stood behind the high falls, glazed with an icy cold mist, marveling at how alive the waterfall seemed ... the curtains of water that came down looked just like an aurora borealis the way it shimmered and snaked languidly through the air. Really quite magical.