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.
Sometimes it’s tough to start at the beginning when the second part is more exciting. But I’ll try to be conventional and stick to the time line. So … as I type late at night, Erik is busy learning the Icelandic language by translating the ingredients on the beer can one word at a time … as the label is printed in both English and Icelandic. He is anticipating some riveting conversations now with the locals.
We arrived in Reykjavik on a cloudy day early in the morning. Having not slept as we had desired to do on the plane, the first order of business … somewhat against our mental will, being at the mercy of our physical will … was to take a little nap. Our hotel has themed rooms, and we are in the “Volcano” room. This means … drum roll … we have two photographs of volcanoes in our tiny room. Pretty exciting. We haven’t stayed in a hotel room of this ummm … quaint … size since the Communist cell-dubbed-“room” in Slovakia (wherein I suffered the worst stomach sickness ever in my life for those who are familiar with that story). So our little chamber is a bit cramped, but no worries. The hotel itself is quite nice by my standards and has a beautiful spa in the basement with geothermal baths of 2 different temperatures available for guest use. Naturally, I have already checked it out and it meets my rigorous standard of ahhhhh-ness.
Anyway, after the nap, we made our way into the old city center via bus and foot. The old center is very Medieval in character, and everything seems just a wee bit too small. I kept thinking I was in a theme park. Funny though, as we are accustomed to the sound of studded tires, having them on our own vehicles in winter, we picked up quickly that many of the cars here have studded tires … it’s a very recognizable sound when the wheels roll slowly by you.
We ran across this funky little skate park on a side street with fun street art and nice little ramps, etc. We ran into the skate-boarders down the road in a public square where you’re not supposed to skateboard, hopping up on planters and such.
A little more street art ... who is imitating who?
We stepped into a little museum to see the archaeological remains of a long house from the 900s. Conventional knowledge is that Iceland was first inhabited in the late 800s. We stepped inside the imposing cathedral at the far end of the old town, but decided to wait for a clearer day to take the elevator to the top of the tower for a bird’s eye view of the city. Hopefully that day does come to us.
Check out these organ pipes! 5,275 of them.
Naturally, this wouldn't be the SKJ travel blog without the obligatory sprinkling of photos depicting the various kitties I meet around the world. This adorable one was stalking a bird in the yard of a Reykjavikian.
I always think it's interesting at the end of a trip to go back and see what was the very first photo I took. Well, for your amusement, I publish it here now rather than at the end. My first photo in Iceland, walking toward the old city center in Reykjavik.
And I leave you on our first day in a large book store in the old city center. Wherein I learned about a number of things, the most interesting being piratology. Don't know if there were actually a lot of pirates around Iceland, but somehow pirates seem appropriate to any island. It's after 1 a.m. now, going to plop into my pillows. But coming up next, our little excursion onto a glacier in the land of volcanoes.