Island – Hákarl und heiße Quellen

Today was our last day in Iceland. Our only firm plan for the day was an evening spa retreat at the famous Blue Lagoon. Faced with bad weather, we went to check out a few museums and sites we had skipped over on our first day in Reykjavik.

We began our morning with a trip to the Saga Museum, a retelling of Icelandic folklore as an introduction to the history and background of Iceland’s settlement and early history. While the museum was perhaps a little cheesy, the narrative was a neat way to see the history and get a feel for early Icelandic culture. Tales of Vikings, religious wars, plague, battles and exploration dominated the sagas we heard. It’s strange to contrast the stereotypical modern Europe with its past; people today think of Europeans as being liberal, tolerant, and modern whereas the sagas depicted a warring, harsh people well-versed in warfare, doing things like burning suspected witches, taking Celtic maids as slaves,and regularly engaging in power struggles. Of course, the Sagas we heard are stories and legends and are not to be taken at face-value, but their retelling and staying power say something about the value system at the times they depict nonetheless. It is not hard to imagine that the early settlement of Iceland would have been dark and dangerous.

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Figurines at the Saga Museum

After the museum we returned to Hallgmskirkja (we had been unable to go inside / up the tower on our prior visit). The church is Lutheran, and very plain on the inside with pristine whitewashed walls and ceiling. There’s a large pipe organ above the entrance with some interesting looking woodwork. However my favorite part of the structure is still the basalt column decorations which hearken to Iceland’s volcanic nature. We were able to take a lift to the top of the tower and see the city from above, although we didn’t stay long with whipping wind and rain.

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The church organ
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Reykjavik from above

We then went to a nearby restaurant called Cafe Loki, which had neat Norse Mythology as a theme for decoration and served Icelandic fare. We both ordered a combo with meatsoup (very tasty) and tried their rye bread ice cream, which was surprisingly good as well. Tyke, good to his word, ordered the Icelandic fermented shark, Hákarl. The smell was vile and I knew that his *failed* attempt to cut the small cube with a knife was a bad sign. Nevertheless, he tried a bite and subsequently spit it out. I won’t fault him – I wasn’t even willing to try it. It smelled like rotten fish soaked in cat pee, but stronger. Tyke described it as “malicious”. We tried the local liquor, Brennivin, and didn’t particularly care for it either.

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Hakarl and Brennivin. No one said Iceland was famous for its food.

After lunch we didn’t have much else we wanted to see in town, so we tried to find some local hiking spots nearby. At a park I sank through some thin ice and got my boot wet, and we couldn’t even find the second location we had picked out based on a website listing. Satisfied with the outdoors given the weather, we thought it’d  be fun to do a bit of people watching in some stores away from the touristy areas. We went to a local supermarket called “Bonus” and a store similar to an Ikea called “Ilva”. It was fun trying to buy things when people assumed we spoke Icelandic since we were away from the popular area. After some time in the store we left for our night at the Blue Lagoon spa.

The Blue Lagoon was wonderfully relaxing. We soaked in the geothermal spring for over 2 hours, tried a few facemasks, and did some more people watching. The spa was a great way to end our time in Iceland – we punctuated our outdoor exploration in the cold and wet weather by soaking in Iceland’s natural hot springs.

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Thoroughly pleased with our time in Iceland, we returned for one last night to our lodging to pack and get ready for our flight to Madrid the next day.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Island – Auto und Sand

Despite all our efforts to plan and take precautions, sometimes things go awry. Yesterday our plan was to explore Iceland’s south coast. We drove past many pretty sights on our way to the glacier a few days ago, and wanted to double back to explore during daylight.

Around 10AM, having driven for about 1.5 hours, we arrived at our first destination, Hjörleifshöfði. Fun fact: Hollywood does a fair bit of filming out in Iceland. The opening scene for Star Wars: Rogue One was shot at Hjörleifshöfði, and the water planet from Interstellar was shot near our glacier hike the other day. It’s not surprising when you see the landscapes here why it gets chosen to depict alien planets.

There was a “road” which led to the trailhead which was covered in snow. A lot of the roads off of the main ring-road are snowed over this time of year in Iceland, so we didn’t think much of it as we pulled off to begin our day. Before we knew it we were stuck in deep snow, with the car’s frame being supported by hard compacted snow, reducing the downforce on the tires until they could no longer make traction, leaving our vehicle stuck. Without a shovel or a way to call someone, Ben and I split up; he tried to flag someone down for help while I worked with a jack crank as an improvised shovel to try and dig the vehicle’s frame out.

Eventually a kind British couple stopped, let us use their phone, and gave me a ride back to Vik, approximately 12km west. In town I went to a local tourist shop which was open where I hung out for a few hours trying to call someone to tow us out. The rental company was less than helpful – the employee explained to me that they were unable to wake up their normal towing guy. We had unfortunate timing with needing assistance on a holiday which was also a Sunday. I tried 4 or 5 telephone numbers given to me by the local shopkeepers in Vik, none of whom answered.

I ended up having to dial the emergency service, 112 (Iceland’s 911). Thankfully, they didn’t send out a response team but rather put me in touch with local police, who were able to provide me with a different phone number of someone to call. This man did answer and was able to pick me up about half an hour later in a massive Dodge truck with studded winter tires.

He brought along two dogs and his wife, who worked with me to correct my butchered pronunciation of Hjörleifshöfði. I rode back with them to our car where Ben Tyke had been waiting and we got pulled out. Perhaps not our best use of money and 3 hours, but at least no one was injured and we were able to get the help we needed. If not ideal, for me it was an experience which forced us to work with the locals and I got a better sense of Vik as a town.

Determined despite our rough start, we headed out with what daylight we had left to try and see a few other sights. We *carefully* drove to Reynisfjara and Hálsanefshellir, a Black sand beach with a neat-looking cave and basalt column formation nearby. I’m not sure whether it was the beauty of the landscape or just the relief to be done with this morning’s mishap, but I felt very peaceful checking out the waves and observing the scenery. There were a lot of signs warning about “sneaker” waves which come up above the tide line unexpectedly, and we had to dodge a few.

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Black volcanic sand and the basalt columns

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Tyke had been to a black sand beach before in Hawaii, but he said the sand here was much finer and that the beach he had been to before was more granular and really more like black pebbles on the shoreline. I bottled up a bit of sand to take with me as we went to our next destination, Skógafoss waterfall. When we got to Skógafoss, I decided I would not need the ice spikes I had brought along for my boots. Almost immediately, I was met with a totally frozen path to walk up to the waterfall with tourists slipping and sliding, and several using crampons. Eventually we slipped our way all the way up to the waterfall, which had made a very pretty ice formation due to the spray from the falls. There was also a metal staircase to an overlook where you could see the Skógá River and a pretty panoramic view of the south coast.

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Skogafoss from the bottom
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Overlooking Skogafoss

After coming down from the overlook, we slipped back to our vehicle and drove to our next stop, Seljalandsfoss. We had seen this waterfall several times as we had driven past as it is lit up and visible from the main ring road. This waterfall has a path you can take to walk behind the falls. Having learned my lesson at Skógafoss I brought my ice spikes, and I used them to try and get behind the falls to explore. The stairs on both sides of the path circling the waterfall were completely iced over with a thick, smooth coating. Trying to walk up them without spikes would have been a dangerous waste of time but thanks to my footwear I was able to make it up. Directly behind the waterfall the path got fairly steep, so with the whole path coated in thick ice I decided not to try my luck with my small spikes and turned around.
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An icy bridge on the path behind the falls

After we finished up at the small falls, we drive back to our lodging near Selfoss and grabbed a quick bite to eat. Exhausted after the long days of driving and sightseeing and the restless night, we headed to bed early.

It’s unfortunate that our plan for today didn’t fully work out, but we were lucky – the situation could have been far worse. We did our best to work past the problem and take it in stride, and I think we were successful in that. I’m glad we got to see some of what we had anticipated for today and had a cultural experience, albeit not one we had been hoping for.

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Island – Wasser und Licht

On the 31st we got off to another early start to see Iceland’s famous “Golden Circle”. Our first stop was Thingsvellir national park, where we saw the fissure between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates and the Öxarárfoss waterfall. Standing between two continents was quite humbling, and I’m glad we made this our first stop as we had beautiful early morning light and the site was completely empty. We took some time just to admire the silence and take in the sights. The Almannagjá fault formed the canyon we walked through to reach the falls. I realize this has been a recurring theme on this trip, but I couldn’t help but feel small again as I stood between two continents. It was great to see more of the geology responsible for Iceland up close.

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Left – North American Continental Plate, Right – Eurasian Continental Plate
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Oxarafoss in early morning light

We left the park and continued on to Geysir, a popular site to observe geysers and see more of the geologically active region. We were greeted with the smell of sulfur as Strokkur, one of the frequently erupting geysers, let off some steam. Geysir itself is the largest geyser in the area though it no longer erupts. Seeing the hot springs and anticipating each eruption was a fun way to spend our mid-morning. Unfortunately by the time we made it here it was already crowded with tourists, but it is not such a big site that we had trouble getting up-close to the action.

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Strokkur letting off some steam

We went inside the visitor center to warm up and grab some lunch. We had a soup which reminded me of a curry and a simple sandwich. I’ve been noticing that Icelanders seem to like their soup, which is understandable given the desire to warm up.

After lunch we continued on towards Gulfoss, a huge two-tiered waterfall. Unfortunately a few of the walkways were closed off and there were large crowds of tourists there, but it was still impressive to hear the roar of the falls. Apparently the average flow in the summer can be almost twice what we had been seeing!

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Two tiers of Gulfoss waterfalls

Not yet tired of waterfalls, we paid a visit to Faxi, a smaller wide waterfall that you can get quite close to. I really enjoyed seeing this one because it was almost completely deserted and you can get right up close to the water. There seemed to be a manmade structure next to the waterfalls that was allowing spillover. It seemed a little redundant given the waterfall right next to it – we aren’t sure what it is there for.

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Up close with Faxi

We wrapped up our visit to the Golden Circle with a stop at Kerið, a volcanic crater. Experts initially thought the crater was the result of an explosive eruption but now believe it is tied to the collapse of a magma chamber, and need not have formed explosively. Based on pictures I had seen I had expected a small formation but it is quite substantial – the pond at the bottom is frozen and you could easily play a hockey game on it.

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Kerid, iced over
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Humans for scale

Daylight fading, we went into Selfoss for dinner. New Year’s Eve is a popular time to go out to eat in Iceland, so we had to wait at the restaurant we chose, “Surf and Turf”. Everything on their menu was pricey so we decided to be adventurous and try the horsemeat steak. Our server told us how it is similar to beef but healthier – the steak did have a similar taste to beef but a much tougher texture. I did not prefer it to a beef steak but I’m glad we got to try it.

After dinner we went outside and got our first glimpse of our New Year’s Eve lightshow – the Aurora Borealis! It wasn’t dark enough yet to see the lights properly and I was exhausted from all the driving and sightseeing we had done, so I begrudgingly took a nap for about an hour while the sky continued to darken. I woke up from the nap, put on extra clothing layers, and we headed back to Kerið (it was close by) to get away from the lights of Selfoss and observe the night sky. We were treated to a special sort of fireworks this New Year’s Eve, and I couldn’t be happier.

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Faint green on the horizon – a great sign!

I had been trying to see the lights for quite some time now. While we weren’t banking on it for the sake of this trip, it really is icing on the cake and we couldn’t be more grateful. The pictures don’t capture the beauty and elegance you feel when you look up on a silent cold night and see them dance before you. I’m sure I will be making more trips to try and glimpse them again someday.

Happy New Year everyone!

Best wishes and safe travels,

– Ben

 

Island – Schnee und Eis

Yesterday morning we headed out for our Glacier walk and ice cave tour. Bound for Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður, we started our drive in heavy snow. With limited visibility we slowly made our way across the south ring road. It was quite a long drive; though we were on the road around 7:30, we didn’t make it to the glacier until around 12:30. Progress was initially slow due to inclement weather, but the snow cleared up after around an hour or so. Afterwards we stopped for gas and some snacks in a beautiful little town called Vik. For some reason there have been many signs for this town. We expect there are more signs for the town than there are citizens – it is quite small. Tyke (for reasons unbeknownst to me) bought some dried fish which smelled awful and (he attests) tasted worse.

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Just an “ordinary” view from the gas station in Vik, Iceland

We made a few more stops as daylight showed us more of the beautiful scenery. We continued past Vik and the landscape grew more barren and desolate. The countryside was dominated by a dynamic between black igneous rock and the snow and ice covering it. This can create some wild landscapes with great contrast between the dark and light colors.

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Beautiful, barren lava fields on the southwest coast
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Just a pit stop
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We saw at least 4 or 5 waterfalls like this, fed by glacial runoff.
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Closer still to the park entrance

Eventually we made it to the national park and were treated to spectacular views as we drove up. I had never been this close to glaciers of this size. Pictures cannot do it justice.

We had a ton of fun out on our glacier hike. Our guide was patient in explaining everything from techniques to his background and how he experiences the glacier. Describing the formative process of snowfall, compaction, and movement. We were in a group of about 12. While on the hike we stopped in an ice cave, drank delicious glacial water, talked about the movement and changes taking place, and survival techniques. The scale of the glacial formations is difficult to describe. It is a humbling experience to be faced with such an immense living landscape.

After the hike, we drove back home. We stopped for dinner at a little inn in the town of Hella. They had great soup and the prices were relatively reasonable (most food here is pretty expensive). We were able to cut out a fair bit of time on the drive home by speeding. The weather was good and the roads clear, and there was no traffic to be seen anywhere so I thought we may as well save some time. Exhausted again, we went to bed shortly after we got home, though I woke up periodically to keep an eye on the aurora forecast. No luck for northern lights yet but we’ll keep looking!

Best wishes and safe travels everyone,

– Ben

Island – Regen und Wind

Today we arrived in Iceland! Getting off of the flight I felt well-rested, but before long jetlag kicked in and I was feeling pretty tired. We set our drowsiness aside and decided to make the best of our first day.

We were introduced to the whipping winds of Iceland as soon as we went to look for our rental vehicle to pick up. We didn’t know that the vehicle wouldn’t chirp its horn as you press the lock button (as most American cars do) so we were left wandering around the parking lot in cold wind until we were able to find our white compact Toyota. Fortunately, the rain held off until we found the car. Driving in Iceland works mostly as you’d expect – the signage is mostly intuitive. However as we drove into town from the airport there were two notable exceptions:

Once, while making a right turn, I entered a turning lane and was faced with (what I thought) was a yield sign and also a red “right-turn” arrow. I was unsure which of these signals to prioritize, but went with the yield when I saw a truck make the turn without stopping.

A lane ended (what I thought) was very suddenly and without warning, forcing me to merge at the last minute. It’s likely that I misread (or missed entirely) the relevant signage.

We parked near the harbor and found a visitors’ center to get acclimated. After a quick stop for breakfast, we planned out a circular walking-path through downtown, making the following stops: National Museum of Iceland, National Gallery of Iceland, Hallgrimskirkja, and Sólfarið “The Sun Voyager”. We even made time to check out the Icelandic Phallological Museum of Penises, more to say we went than for the displays there.

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Braving the elements at Hallgrimskirkja

The day was informative and periodic in the sense that we would stop at a museum, learn about Icelandic culture or history, and then move onto the next one through chilly swells of rain and harsh winds. The museums were informative in a cultural sense, the rain was educational in a very practical one. Thanks to the gulf stream, Iceland is no colder than the northern United States and enjoys relatively mild temperatures. However, strong winds and wet clothes can make even a mild winter day feel bitter cold. After about mid-day we were both tired enough that falling asleep during our lunch was a real problem.

Despite sub-optimal weather we were able to make the most of our first day and get an introduction to the history and the people who have made Iceland what it is today. While I’d have loved to be out on the trail hiking, having this appreciation will be beneficial in the days to come.

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“The Sun Voyager” Overlooks the sea

We pressed on until the late afternoon before making our way to the car to head for our lodging. We recently checked in to our accommodations here – a guest house just east of Selfoss, in what seems to me like farmland. They have the famous Icelandic longhair horses here. The place seems very quiet and cozy, though I wish we had a little more space. For tonight, I don’t think it will matter. Given the lack of sleep and all the walking we did today I’m sure I’ll sleep just fine.

Best wishes and safe travels,

-Ben