Posted by: nmancini04 | August 31, 2011

Day 13: Blessaður Ísland

It’s 4 pm Iceland time and Maggie and I are sitting at Gate 35 at Keflavík International Airport, waiting to board our flight. The internet access here is expensive, so I’ll have to post it when we get home. Our flight, originally scheduled for 5 pm, has been delayed by a half an hour. Considering it’s been drizzling on and off for most of the afternoon, the cloud cover is so low it looks like the climactic scene from Casablanca…and there was a hurricane in New York City two days ago…I’d call that lucky.

We had to be out of our apartment by noon today. That means if we had gone to the airport directly, we’d have an awkward four hours to kill — if not more — before our flight. So instead, we woke early, finished cleaning the apartment and packing and got the 11 am bus to the one crucial tourist attraction we had yet to see, the one that Iceland is probably most famous for and the one we’d been saving: the Blue Lagoon.

Maggie awaits our bus to the Blue Lagoon

In fact, we had not been to any hot springs or swimming pools on our trip. Public bathing and swimming is a central part of Icelandic life, with most major towns featuring a swimming pool, most of them thermally heated. The Blue Lagoon, of course, is the most famous, so I must admit I was hesitant about visiting a site that was so obviously a spider’s web for tourists.

But I’m very glad we went. We had a place to lock up our baggage, so we could relax and enjoy ourselves, and the surroundings are unbelievable. The Lagoon’s water, of course, is blue, but that alone doesn’t describe how weird it is. It’s an unearthly, shimmering, milky blue and the day was so foggy, we couldn’t distinguish between the steam rising from the water and the fog settling from above. We couldn’t see the main building after we’d waded out about 100 feet.

The Blue Lagoon

The bathers in the Blue Lagoon

The incredible blue water

The locker rooms were almost as impressive as the Lagoon itself. They are sleek, modern and high-tech. The lockers are large enough to accommodate a moderate to large backpack and a full set of clothing. When entering, everyone is given a blue, plastic wristband with a white node on it. After closing your locker, you must press the node to a sensor which then locks the locker door and will only open when you apply the node to the sensor again. The wristband can also be used to charge food and drinks, the balance due when the wristband is returned.

Before entering the pool, everyone must shower without bathing suits. From what I’ve read, the showers and changing rooms at other pools are universally communal, but at the Blue Lagoon, the make certain concessions to the modest, uncomfortable tourist. There are one or two tiny, private changing rooms inside the larger locker room (although I didn’t see anyone use them) and the showers, while out in the open, are at least separated by opaque glass dividers. Let’s just say I saw a lot more asses today than I have for a while.

Maggie and I spent a pleasant, warm hour wading around the pool, which is quite shallow in most places, the deepest coming up to about neck level, the ground an uneven hodgepodge of smooth rock, mud and moss. We spent a little time in the sauna, dipped our heads under the man-made waterfall and then went looking for a bite to eat.

There are two food options at the Blue Lagoon: the cafe, which serves pre-packaged sandwiches and salads, and a proper restaurant. If you ever go there and need to eat something, I strongly recommend the restaurant. We didn’t eat there, so I have no idea if it’s good, but I do know that the cafe is awful and so expensive for what you’re getting that you might as well splurge for a real meal. We ordered two small pre-packaged salads, two fruit smoothies and a coffee. It came out to about $45 and was almost inedible. Not good times.

After that, we took a quick walk around the part of the Lagoon that is closed to swimmers (and is even more eerie for its emptiness), but has a walking track around it, then caught our bus to Keflavík.

Maggie at the Blue Lagoon

So here we are, waiting to board after almost two weeks in this amazing country. Here are 10 things we’ve learned:

1) Icelanders love pasta, pizza and hot dogs. I mean, they LOVE them, even more than Americans. There are pizza places everywhere and every restaurant, whether or not it has anything to do with the rest of the cuisine, has at least one pasta and one pizza option. Every gas station sells hot dogs and (as I mentioned on our first day) one of the most popular places to eat in Reykjavík is a 70-year-old hot dog stand.

2) Iceland’s geography and scenery is more astounding — and more varied — that I could have imagined. I knew it would be beautiful, but I didn’t know it would be this beautiful. Around every bend of every drive is something amazing to look at. After a while, I almost became accustomed to it. “Oh, there’s another picture postcard mountain;” “Oh, there’s another tiny glacial stream carving its way down the side of that mountain in a delicate, mini-waterfall.” It’s ridiculous. It’s the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been, and really, it’s not even close.

3) The water in the Blue Lagoon makes your skin and hair incredibly dry. They’re not kidding when they say, “We recommend everyone use conditioner before and after bathing.”

4) My cuticles suck. Seriously.

5) The tourists come from everywhere, but we noticed a strong difference between the tourist demographics on the road and those in Reykjavík. On the road, we saw mostly French and German tourists, and to a lesser extent, Italians, followed by Spanish, Americans and Brits. In the city, native English speakers are far more numerous. We heard probably twice as many American, British and Australian accents in four days in Reykjavík than we did in a week on the road.

6) As we speak, there is probably a bunny and any number of cats playing in a yard on the corner of Unnarstígur and Öldugata in Reykjavík.

7) Icelandic words and place names are hard to spell, but impossible to pronounce.

8 ) If Satan were to design the picture uploading tool for a blogging website, he would find it difficult to top WordPress.com’s picture uploading tool. It’s extremely frustrating and the last two nights it has literally taken me HOURS to get my posts up not including writing time because the site has been so twitchy and unresponsive.

9) Driving like an Icelander entails going really fast, even on gravel roads, and mostly in the middle of the road.

10) Maggie is an awesome driver (but we knew that already).

I’m glad to know I will sleep in my own bed tonight. I’m glad that the next pair of socks I put on will come from a drawer and not my suitcase. And I’m glad I won’t have to upload any photos to WordPress for a while. But mostly I’m glad we did this, that we got to share our trip with all of you and that we will have this record years from now to relive our vacation. We’re both going to miss this place.

Thanks for reading. And takk fyrir Ísland.

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 29, 2011

Day 12: The Seafarers

Our last full day in Reykjavík turned out to be a marine one.

We early woke to a gray sky, but not one that foreboded the rains of yesterday. We had a productive morning: We checked in for our flight tomorrow, booked our bus to the airport and successfully went out in search of an internet cafe where we could print our tickets.

The Maritime Museum

Our first stop today was Reykjavík’s excellent Maritime Museum. The museum, while small, could not have been more satisfying, providing a solid history of Iceland’s ships and fishing and shipping industries, accompanied by a superb collection of tools, instruments, model ships and even entire cabins and boats. Some highlights included a huge, reconstruction of a dock, an original, full radio cabin taken from a 1920s ship and a couple of huge steam engines.

A model of a Viking longship

Maggie on the ship at the reconstructed dock

A steam engine

A ship in the Maritime Museum

A ship's wheel

Instruments and a map

The wireless cabin, through a porthole

But the best part was our tour of the Coast Guard/Rescue boat Oðinn, which was in commission for almost 50 years, until 2006, and played a prominent role in the Cod Wars. Oðinn is now docked just outside the maritime museum and they run periodic tours. Our tour consisted of just ourselves, one other couple and our salty, mischievous guide, so we pretty much had full run of the ship.

Oðinn

Oðinn

Maggie on the bridge of the Oðinn

Full steam ahead

In the engine room

After touring the Oðinn, it was time for our own sea adventure. We finally decided to go whale watching. Ignoring the part where we both spent much of our two hours in Faxaflói bay feeling a little …green… it was a very successful trip. As soon as we got out into the bay, we came upon a minke whale that was surfacing pretty regularly and showing us her back and fins (and to a lesser extent her tail). She was a very active whale and we spent more than a half an hour in her company. After that we headed out into deeper waters and followed around a small school of dolphins for a while, but they weren’t nearly as cooperative as the whale.

The harbor before we sail

The lighthouse at the entry to the harbor

We leave Reykjavík behind

A windswept seafarer

The only close to halfway decent shot we got of our minke whale....... Well, it's all right...

On the way back, Maggie and I positioned ourselves on the bench in the stern. It turns out, when the boat hits a swell there, the spray comes crashing over the top deck and directly onto that bench. Maggie was smarter than I was and fled. I ended up getting drenched.

A little wet....

After retreating to our apartment to dry off, change clothes and check in with Bunny and the Cats, we found that the sky had brightened and the evening had grown quite warm. So we went to an outdoor cafe on Austurvöllur square and had a beer and watched the city roll by. Reykjavík is extremely quiet right now. We’re here at the tail end of the season and we already can see a huge difference from when we arrived. Two Thursdays ago, when we spent our first day in Reykjavík, Austurvöllur was a bustling center of activity. Since we’ve been back it has been almost sleepy.

Tomorrow we come home. But we may have at least one more sight to see…

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 29, 2011

Day 11: Rainy Sunday

Blech.

In solidarity with New York City, Reykjavík decided to dump rain on us all day, the first consistently awful day of weather we’ve had in our 11 days in Iceland, so today ended up being pretty boring. We got up relatively late and went for a nice, long walk, despite the weather, before settling down at a sports bar so I could watch my beloved Fulham FC lose a stupid match to Newcastle.

The harbor and the new convention center on our walk

A park path on our walk

After that we walked to the Saga Museum, which we had both very much been looking forward to and has been talked up in the guidebook and several other places we’ve read. It ended up being much further than we thought, out past the bus station, near the airport and up a large hill. By the time we got there we were thoroughly soaked. But that would have been fine if the Saga Museum was anywhere close to as good as advertised. Unfortunately it wasn’t.

We knew that part of the museum was Madame Tussaud’s-style wax statues depicting scenes from the Icelandic sagas. We didn’t realize that was the WHOLE museum. It was very small, just one room with 18 scenes, and upon arrival you’re given an audio guide that guides you through each of the scenes. The audio fleshes out some of the details about the various sagas, but there’s very little accompanying written material and it does not allow you to move at your own pace. Furthermore, some of the scenes depicted and information presented in the audio guide is historical and some of it is fictional, but the presentation blurs the line between the two so much that I’m sure it’s very misleading to people who don’t already know a fair bit about the history.

I found the experience extremely disappointing, and since (between all our walking and the stupid Fulham match) it was really the only activity we did today, it felt like a waste.

The building itself (the Perlan), however, is pretty interesting. From afar it looks like some space age living capsule and up close it looks like a creepy research facility from an X-Files episode, with several sets steps going down into short, sunken tunnels that lead to emergency and access doors. Inside it’s like a big atrium with a staircase up the middle that leads to a cafe level ringing the atrium. There’s a big fountain at the bottom of the atrium that’s supposed to mimic a geyser and shoots a jet of water three stories up every few minutes. At the top, there’s also an observation area outside that circles the main dome and provides vistas of the whole city…or would, on a better day.

Rainy Reykjavík from the Perlan observation deck

The Perlan, where the Saga Museum is housed

Bunny/Cat Update

Not much to report on the Bunny/Cat front, except that Cow Guy made an appearance today and got smacked around a bit by the Twins, while Bunny remained calmly aloof in his burrow. Tabby saw a dog that freaked her out a bit and shortly after it disappeared up the street, she followed with her tail bushed out. But we did see a new player in the drama, just as we set out for our walk: a young, white cat with splotches of black, calico and grey. She was clean and healthy looking, with a collar, and hid under a car when we approached, but when we knelt to look at her she sprang out with a meow came toward us. She didn’t seem to be brave enough to plunge into the drama of the yard yet, though. I’m calling her “Lady.”

 

A map!
Without much to report from today, Maggie and I worked on a new project this evening — mapping out the route we took on the road. For anyone who is interested in where these sites we’ve visited are located, we’ve mapped out just about every stop, with a different color for each day’s route and notations for where we spent each night (we did leave out a couple of the waterfalls). We’re anticipating that we will, indeed, spend tomorrow night here in Reykjavík. Barring some disaster, that seems a safe bet.

Click on the map for a larger view

Until tomorrow…

 

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 27, 2011

Day 10: And now for something completely different

Hey guys, Maggie and I are both very troubled about all the news coming out of NYC regarding the coming hurricane, the evacuation, the transit shutdown, etc. and we’ve been nervous all day. In one way we’re lucky we’re not there, but in another we both kind of wish we were, as this uncertainty is maddening and we feel like we should be there to stick it out with the City. We’re thinking about everyone there and we’re hoping this turns out to be one of those overblown things that happens now and then. My parents, at least, certainly seem to think it will be.

I know the point of a vacation — and in turn, this blog — is to distract from such things, but I do have something very serious to discuss: the Bunny/Kitty Situation is out of control.

Yesterday I mentioned the bunny and the kittens who hang out in the front yard outside of our apartment in Reykjavík, but it turns out the yard is a living melodrama of feline-leporine relations. Here is a brief list of the cast of animal characters who have been enacting said melodrama in and around the yard — our bunny friend and several cats — and some of their observed behavior over the last 24 hours:

-The Bunny. He is the hero of this piece. He is the Lord of the Yard, has a burrow against one of the stone walls and is generally awesome.

-The two extremely young black kittens who are usually around. They seem to be in the same clan as Bunny, or at least on very familiar terms, although it’s unclear whether they live here (we have confirmed that Bunny does). Bunny seems to be protective of them, as he tried to herd them back into the yard at one point when they were heading up the street this evening.

-A young tabby, not quite as young as the Black Twins, but still not fully grown. She is also part of the yard clan, spending most of her time hanging out with Bunny and the Twins and chasing after or pouncing on strange cats.

-An older black cat, whom we have taken to calling Mama, although we’re not sure she’s actually the kittens’ mother or if she’s even a she. Mama does appear to be familiar with and possibly part of the yard clan. She likes to sit on the picnic table in the yard and watch the ridiculousness.

-A nefarious white cat, with a collar, who is clearly not part of the yard clan and has an adversarial relationship with Bunny and, to a lesser extent, the other cats of the clan. He is the Voldemort of this strange bunny/cat universe. Bunny chased him out of the yard not once but twice and then chased him all the way up the street and out of sight. About 15 minutes later they came sprinting back into sight, this time with Voldemort chasing Bunny. He has been stalking around the yard with his tail bushed out all evening, looming like an evil white specter, while periodically venturing into the yard to creep menacingly at Bunny and get chased around by Tabby.

-A black and white stranger, with collar, whose markings remind me of a cow, and in turn, a cat my family once had named Cowboy. We have taken to calling this one Cow Guy. Although clearly not part of the clan, Cow Guy seems to be more tentative and curious about Bunny rather than an enemy. He hasn’t gotten into any fisticuffs, although Tabby did try to pounce on him a couple of times.

-A fat, ginger cat, whom Maggie has named Marmalade after a ginger cat her grandmother once had. He is a lesser villain to Voldemort. He and Bunny got into a little skirmish earlier, in which Bunny chased Marmalade out of the yard and into a neighboring driveway before Marmalade leaped on top of a trailer to escape. Bunny, who we assume has superior leaping skills, declined to chase him further and went to go chase Voldemort some more. When he’s not getting bushy-tailed and having stare downs with Bunny, Marmalade prefers to keep his distance, perching on the yard wall and watching the proceedings.

-A mostly black calico cat, a stranger, who aside from getting chased briefly, seems to give the yard a wide berth in his frequent walks through the neighborhood. Calico is a wise cat.

-The mysterious gray cat we saw peering from the basement window of the house this morning. She’s older and we’re not sure of her affiliations as she has yet to venture into the yard.

Bunny peers at Cow Guy over his burrow while Tabby looks for trouble

I’m proud to say that after about a half an hour of chasing people around, Bunny finally returned to his burrow and we seemed to witness a yard detente. He just sat around while Voldemort and Cow Guy crept towards him, Marmalade watched from the wall, Mama from her picnic table, the Twins from their bushes and Tabby ran around generally being a pain in the ass to everyone. We’re very proud of Bunny for not escalating things and we’re fiercely protective of him.

Detente: Bunny, Cow Guy and Tabby relax, while Marmalade watches from the wall. Voldemort was lurking by the yard entrance at this time.

 

Museum Day

As for our actual vacation, today was a museum day, and as such, we don’t have many pictures. Our first stop was at Reykjavík’s cool, modern city hall, which is right on the edge of the Tjörnin, the city’s central lake. In the basement, they have a large, 3D scale map of Iceland, which is pretty cool. Maggie and I walked around it and traced the route we took on our road trip.

Reykjavík's city hall

The 3D map

Then we went to the National Museum, which so far has been one of the highlights of our time in Reykjavík. The museum minutely traces Iceland’s cultural history — and to a lesser extent, it’s natural history — from the Settlement Era right up to the present. They have thousands of interesting relics, artifacts and works of art from Iceland’s history, all presented in a very sleek and appealing way. Full marks. Some highlights for me included the full fishing boat on the top level and some human grave remains from the 10th century, which are presented in lit glass cases in the floor in the precise position in which they were discovered. We weren’t sure if pictures were allowed (and we’re too weird to ask anyone), so we only took a couple of snaps.

An early era Christ figurine

Some strange stained glass

There is also a “hands on” room, which is intended for kids, so of course that strongly appealed to us, especially the helm, sword and shield hanging from the ceiling, which one can arm oneself with. And let me say, Maggie makes a fearsome viking.

Maggie the viking

We spent two hours at the National Museum and it easily could have been more. We got some lunch, took a little break and then decided to check out the Settlement Exhibition. About ten years ago, when renovating a building on Aðalstræti in Reykjavík, the remains of a viking longhouse, dating back to 930, were excavated and have been left in tact in the original spot of their discovery. They built the building around it and turned the building’s basement into a small museum to house the ruins. Aside from the ruins, which are the centerpiece of the exhibition, there are a large number of artifacts on display which were excavated from this and other archaeological finds in the city. The exhibition seeks to provide an introduction to Iceland’s Settlement Period, which it does fairly well, although not as well — nor nearly as extensively — as the National Museum.

With that, we’ll call it an early night and hope that everything turns out okay with Hurricane Irene … and with the detente in the yard.

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 26, 2011

Day 9: Back in Town

Today we left Borgarnes at 8:15 am and at 9:30 our road trip officially ended when we returned our rental car at the harbor in Reykjavík. Now we are settled into the apartment which will be our home for the next four nights, a very cute one-room garret at the top of a house just outside of central Reykjavík. It’s in a nice location, a five minute walk to the harbor and a ten minute walk to the heart of downtown and the apartment itself is great — huge bed, cozy feel and homey furniture, sunken floor in the bathroom and even a small deck.

The house we're staying in on Unnarstígur in Reyjavík

Inside our apartment

The deck of our apartment

Looking out from our apartment

But…there are weird things as well:

1) There’s nowhere to put our clothes. No closet, no wardrobe, no dresser, nothing.
2) We’re not allowed to wear shoes in the apartment even though it’s all hardwood floors.
3) The radiator is in the center of the room.
4) Every window has a window shade, except for the one that looks directly into a set of neighboring windows.
5) There is a bag of incense sticks on the dining table.
6) The garbage can…just makes no sense.

Huh?

7) There are three framed, historical maps of Iceland, two of which are exactly the same.
8 ) It took us 10 minutes to lock the door the first time we left. And we are reasonably intelligent people.
9) For much of the day, there were two extremely young kittens and a chubby brown bunny rabbit running around the front yard. We’re still considering the possibility that these are the landlord’s pets, but we have no evidence to support this.
10) There is a framed, tiny diorama of a living room hanging on the wall.

The bunny in the yard

The diorama

So that’s that’s where we are. Overall we’re very happy with the place, although a little disappointed that we’ll still have to live out of our bags for the next few days, even though there is ample space for a dresser.

Quiet time
Today’s post will be a little light on activities because, well, for the first time we didn’t do much today. After turning in our faithful Suzuki 2, we dropped off our bags at the apartment while we were waiting for it to get cleaned and went for a walk. We visited the National Gallery, a surprisingly small art museum that had two open exhibitions. The first was an exhibit of Louise Bourgeois sculptures, paintings and drawings that only had about 25 total objects yet was stretched out over three galleries. The second was a somewhat larger collection of paintings by the Icelandic artist Jóhannes Kjarval. Photography was not allowed, so no visuals, sorry. Both exhibitions left me lukewarm, anyway.

Maggie during our walk today

A street in Reykjavík

A strange contrast of house styles

A pretty house in our neighborhood

Then after lunch we decided to spend a quiet afternoon in our apartment. With so much going on while we were on the road, we felt we’d earned a small rest. This evening we had lobster soup in a shack right on the harbor and now we’re spending the night in.

A ship in the harbor

A ship on dry dock

Hard at work...or looking up baseball scores. One or the other.

So without much to report, Maggie and I thought we’d address, together, some of the questions you all have been posting in the comments (we’ve been too busy to answer everything along the way) and post some general observations about the country that I haven’t managed to squeeze in. And maybe, if the files aren’t too big, I’ll post some of Maggie’s best panoramic photos from our road trip at the end. So, here, in no particular order, is a series of facts, opinions and observations about Iceland:

-The weather has been at once consistent and inconsistent, if that makes sense. It has been pretty steadily in the mid-50s every day until the last two days during which it has been noticeably colder. We’ve had mostly cloudy days, with stretches of sun and the occasional shower, but only two large rains. The crazy thing is how quickly the weather can change. In less than an hour it can go from sunny and gorgeous to raining to sunny again but windy to completely overcast. It’s completely unpredictable. There are places, especially when you’re up high or on the coast, when the wind can be phenomenal, like on the tall, rocky island over Stykkishólmur yesterday or on the drive along the southern coast of Snæfellsnes, when we felt like we were getting blown off the road.

-The people, by and large, have been reserved, but polite and helpful, which is exactly how our guidebook suggested they would be. Most Icelanders don’t seem very quick to smile, at least not with strangers, but they can be friendly enough when engaged.

-The water, while potable, smells of sulfur. Sometimes it’s just a hint of it, sometimes it’s full blown rotten eggs. And if you shower in the rotten eggs version, you probably will smell worse after the shower than you did before. And for a while.

-Food and lodging in the country are quite expensive. We have stayed at both hotels and guesthouses, the latter ranging from rooms in people’s houses to mini-hotels without the trimmings, some with bathrooms, some with shared facilities. The guesthouses tend to be a little cheaper, but everywhere we’ve stayed has been between 15,000 to 20,000 kronur a night (except our guesthouse in Akureyri which was 12,000 and not worth a kronur more). That works out to about $130-175 per night. The rooms, even in the full hotels, also tend to be spare and very small and the beds are made up weirdly. The beds usually lack a top sheet and instead are made up with a combination top sheet and comforter that is too small for the bed. I’m not a huge guy, but my feet regularly find their way into the cold air by morning.

Food also isn’t cheap. A cheap meal still will run about 2,500 kronur (about $22) per person without drinks and a decent dinner is usually more. A cheap beer is about 850 kronur ($7.50). The tradeoff is that tipping is not customary and is worked into the price of food.

The silver lining here is that almost all of the other activities are cheap or free. The museums we’ve visited have been between 700-1,000 kronur (approx. $6-9) and the national parks, waterfalls and hiking sites are completely free. So really, we haven’t spent too much money on anything other than room and board. If we had gone whale watching, of course, that would have set us back.

-Considering that Tedo’s question from a couple days ago (about the turfed houses being so small) is right up Maggie’s alley, she’s going to handle this one solo: “The turf-roofed houses are quite small. People were smaller 150 years ago but the houses feel pint-sized beyond that. In a climate like Iceland’s, there’s a clear benefit to small spaces. It is a lot easier to keep a few small rooms warm than to try to heat high-ceilinged great rooms (something current home builders would do well to learn). An interesting side note to this subject is that the furniture was adapted to make more floorspace. The beds in the turfed homestead we visited could be collapsed during the day and then pulled out again at night, almost prototype Murphy beds. There was even one bed that folded up into a table during the day.”

-Something we’ve been talking about in our time here is the seemingly disproportionate number of artists and musicians that such a small country has produced. Seeing the country up close, it makes complete sense now. It’s an inspirational place. And beyond that, it’s inspirational in a weirdly magical way. Sigur Ros’ music seems almost obvious now. A place like Iceland would have to produce a band like this.

-We heard about the earthquake in New York. And the hurricane. We may not come back.

Now (here goes nothing) a few of Maggie’s panoramas. We’re posting small versions here, so click on them to see the larger image and get the full effect (you can also zoom in for amazing detail):

Þingvellir (Day 2)

Vík (Day 3)

Vatnajökull glacier tongues (Day 3)

Looking down on Egilsstaðir and Lagarfljót (Day 4)

Selfoss (Day 5)
The Mývatn region, as seen from the Hjerfjall volcano (Day 6)

Stykkishólmur (Day 8)

See you all tomorrow.
Posted by: nmancini04 | August 26, 2011

Day 8: Go West

Before I left New York for this trip, someone asked me why our trip to Iceland was going to be almost two weeks. “Aren’t you going to run out of things to do?” The answer, of course, is no. We could spend six months just touring around the country and we wouldn’t run out of things to do. In fact, tonight at dinner, with our week on the road coming to an end, we started listing all things that we’re really sorry we had to miss out on.

A perfect example from today: In yesterday’s post, I mentioned how much we wanted to see the museum here in Borgarnes, the Settlement Centre of Iceland. Well, we missed it again today. It doesn’t open until 10 am and we wanted to get an early start, so we figured we’d get back to Borgarnes early and see it in the evening. Bad plan. We came back too late, again, because there was so much to see and do on the Snæfellsnes peninsula, where we spent most of the day. And we didn’t even scratch the surface.

 

In which a man dresses like a viking
The staff at Eiríksstaðir dress like vikings. We knew this before we went there, and frankly, I was dreading it a little. I was dreading it even more after we arrived at about a quarter after 9 am and saw that we were the only people there. The staff member in the visitor center was a young, very thickly bearded Icelandic man with reddish brown hair. He looked like he’d just woken up and he was dressed like he was going out to a metal show. Incongruously, running around the office was a tiny, yappy puppy that looked like it would be more at home in an old lady’s handbag than with this metal viking. “This is Dragon,” he told us. We paid our entry fee and he asked us to take a look at the informational panel “while I get ready.”

Oh no, I thought. It’s barely 9 in the morning and this poor guy is going to have to dress in some absurd viking costume and put on a show for two stupid Americans. This is embarrassing. I feel like an asshole.

We beefed up on our history while we waited. Eiríksstaðir sits in an odd no man’s land between the more picturesque regions of the north, the Westfjords and the Snæfellsnes peninsula, and the hustle and bustle of the Greater Reykjavík area. But it’s notable because it’s the best guess we have for the location of Eirík the Red’s homestead and possibly the birthplace of his son, Leifur Eiríksson. Its location is mentioned vaguely and generally in medieval Icelandic writing. The name started showing up on Icelandic maps in about the 18th century. And they’ve conducted three archaeological excavations at the site: one in the last decade of the 19th century, one in the 1930s and a more thorough, modern one from 1997-2000.

In the excavations, they uncovered the ruins and remains of a longhouse. Was it Eirík the Red’s? Probably not. But it’s also probably as close as we’ll come. On the site today, they have reconstructed a turfed viking longhouse which, since the ruins are pretty much all gone, is the primary attraction of the site.

The reconstructed tufed viking longhouse at Eiríksstaðir

When our resident staff member/viking emerged, Dragon trotting at his heels, I was extremely relieved. His costume was technically viking, I guess, but it was very understated. He wore a simple tunic, a wool covering over his shoulders, canvas breeches, no silly hat or helmet and — I was amused to see — his sandals were crocs.  He opened up the longhouse, lit the fire in the center of the floor and urged us to make ourselves at home.

The longhouse is filled with items that would have been found in a longhouse of the period (late 10th or early 11th centuries): swords and shields, animal pelts, a loom, etc. As the items are all reconstructed, you can walk around inside the house touching things, picking them up and reclining in the sleeping nooks. Our Metal Viking seemed a little reserved at first, but he soon opened up as we asked him about the excavations, the reconstruction and stories of Eirík, who supposedly discovered Greenland, and Leifur, who supposedly was the first European to set foot in North America in the 11th century.

Maggie gazes into the fire in the longhouse at Eiríksstaðir

Among other things, he told us that the reconstruction had been built entirely authentically, using only period tools and that all the wood was driftwood. He told us about how the sleeping areas were so small because there had been a superstition about lying down, which was supposed to be a position only dead men assumed. He told us that, in the reconstructed building, they originally used wood for the fire in the center of the room (now a gas fire) but that the smoke made the room unbearable. We discussed the loom and how wool and woven garments had been used as currency in trade with other nations. “It’s said that before Iceland was a fishing nation, it was a weaving nation,” he said. And he told us a funny story about the “Elf Woman” and her husband who had visited the day before. She was an Icelandic woman who claimed she could see spirits around the fire. “I wanted to say to her, ‘This building is only 11 years old,'” Metal Viking chuckled. “Most people live in houses older than this.”

A shield and a needlework cloth in the longhouse

The door to the longhouse

A carving inside the longhouse

We spent almost an hour talking to him and looking around the small house (“longhouse” is a bit of a misnomer). It was a highly enjoyable time and I ended up being very, very glad we had been the only ones there. After that, he excused himself to look for Dragon, who had run off somewhere, while we stayed inside looking around, taking picture and listening to his piercingly loud whistles echoing across the landscape.

“He goes further every day, marking his territory,” Metal Viking told us when Dragon had returned. “Every day I have to call for him a little longer.”

Dragon exits the longhouse

After that we walked up the hill to what’s left of the excavation. It’s mainly just a grassy rectangle now, but the stones leading up to the front step are still there. When we returned to our car, we found that Dragon had marked his territory on our back wheel.

Maggie sits in the excavated longhouse

A small statue of Leifur Eiríksson at Eiríksstaðir, with the reconstructed longhouse in the background

 

A case of the Snæfellsnes

From  Eiríksstaðir, we drove west along a dirt and gravel road and out onto the Snæfellsnes peninsula, a beautiful area with great views of the sea on the north and south sides and an impressive range of mountains down the center, the most prominent of which is the glacier-topped Snæfellsjökull near the western tip. We got some beautiful views along the way, particularly in the tiny fjord of Álftafjörðiur, where there was also a huge colony of birds.

Álftafjörðiur

Our first stop in Snæfellsnes was to see the ruins of a sacrificial altar to the god Þor (Thor) and it was there we suffered a defeat for the second straight day. We turned off for the site and went down a long gravel track which ended at what was pretty clearly someone’s private home. Not sure what that was about, but we both felt too uncomfortable to park and start looking around.

Instead we just headed into the nearby town of Stykkishólmur, one of the great towns we’ve visited. Stykkishólmur sits on a tiny jut of land which sticks out into the bay of Breiðafjörðiur, surrounded by tiny islands. The houses are sweet and pretty, the harbor is fantastic and there’s an island, connected to the town by a bridge, with a big rocky hill that provides fantastic views of the town and its picturesque surroundings. The town also has the most bizarre church I think we’ve seen, weirder even than the “volcano church” in Blönduós.

The harbor at Stykkishólmur, with the island at the back left

The islands around Stykkishólmur

The church in Stykkishólmur

Stykkishólmur, from above

But the highlight of Stykkishólmur was our lunch at the magnificent restaurant Narfeyrarstofa. I knew we were in good shape when we walked in and the place was packed with locals. Two things on the menu jumped out at us both: the mussels and the lamb goulash, both made with local foods (and by local, I mean from right in or around the town). We decided to order both and share and…my god. The mussels tasted like they had been taken out of the ocean that morning — and they might have been: Stykkishólmur is a fishing village known for its shellfish — and the goulash was equally delightful, the perfect hot and hearty soup for what was easily the coldest day since we’ve been here. With our meals they brought us ceramic mugs of iced beer. The trip to Snæfellsnes was worth it for this meal alone, one of the few times we have been blown away by the food here.

After we’d walked off our lunch, we drove to the western end of the peninsula to walk around the point at Skarðsvík. There was nominally a hiking trail, which was even partly visible in places, but mostly we just walked along the rocky coast. It started at a grey sanded beach which gradually gave way to grassy hillocks, but everywhere was covered in jagged, black volcanic rock. We walked for about an hour, clambering over the rocks and admiring the coastline, before making the long drive back to our base for the second straight night, Borgarnes.

The coastline at Skarðsvík

Me walking at Skarðsvík

The lava fields of Skarðsvík

Volcanic rock at Skarðsvík

Maggie on the rocks at Skarðsvík

Skarðsvík

And with that, our week long road trip comes to an end. Seven days and more than 2,000 kilometers later, we will be returning to Reykjavík tomorrow morning and moving into an apartment for the next four nights. We’re sad that our tour is over, but we’re looking forward to exploring the city more fully. And of course, I’ll be posting about it.

P.S. You may have noticed that the main image for the page has changed. The original image was a stock, non copyright photo of an Icelandic glacier. It was nice enough, but the new one is actually a photo from our trip. Maggie now has stitched together some of the panoramic photos she’s been taking and some of them are really spectacular. The one on the top of the page now is of Þingeyrakirkja at Þingeyrar, from yesterday, and its surrounding views. I’m hoping to post a series of her panoramas together in the next few days, if the files aren’t too big.

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 25, 2011

Day 7: Welcome to Saga Country

One of the first things that drew me to Iceland was its literature. In college, I took a memorable course on Icelandic viking sagas — sweeping tales of heroes, rogues, kings, berserkers, vengeance and war. The west and northwest of Iceland is often called “Saga Country” and contains the sites of many of the most famous exploits from tales like Grettir’s Saga and Egil’s Saga. Hell, the hotel we’re staying in tonight is on a street called Egilsgata in the town of Borgarnes, which is steeped in tenuous saga “history.”

But the region is rich in historical significance of a firmer kind, as well. We had a long drive today, but we broke it up with a few stops at historic sites. At the last minute, Maggie and I decided to spend two nights in Borgarnes. There aren’t a lot of towns between Akureyri and Borgarnes that are good to stay in overnight, but it’s also an easier drive than to some of the places on the Snæfellsness peninsula. It’s close enough that we can still check out Snæfellsness tomorrow, but also close enough to Reykjavík that we can make it into the city early Friday morning to return our rental car. But that means we had to sacrifice more of the day than perhaps we’d wanted to the car. And we didn’t help ourselves either…

A morning in the gardens and the gas stations
I got up extra early this morning and headed to the Akureyri culture house to load photos and post yesterday’s entry. Once that was done, we decided to walk around Akureyri’s botanical garden. It was a pleasant way to spend the early morning, walking among many hued flowers and some of the first fully grown trees we’ve seen since we’ve been here. It was an extremely serene atmosphere…until someone fired up a weedwhacker on the nearby hospital lawn. But not before we had enjoyed the restful, plaintive surroundings for almost an hour and Maggie got her customary load of flower closeups.

A path in the Akureyri Botanical Garden...with actual trees

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

The Akureyri Botanical Garden

After that, it felt like we just could not get out of Akureyri. What was supposed to be a quick chat in the car to figure out which sites we wanted to hit and which town we wanted to stay in turned into 45 minutes of poring over the guidebook and the map. Once that was done, we botched filling up the gas tank. Then we got lost down by the docks of Akureyri after a wrong turn. Then we stopped to try (successfully this time) to fill up our tank once again. By the time we pulled out of Akureyri, it was 11 am. We had to give up one of our tentative sites and the cathedral at Hólar was voted out.

 

History Tour (and many churches)
After a long drive through the mountains west of Akureyri, our first stop on the road was at Glaumbær, the site of another set of historic turf houses. The site itself was originally settled in the Icelandic Settlement Period (roughly 870-930 AD) and the current buildings date back as far as 1750. It was another pretty homestead and in a beautiful location on a hill overlooking a lovely valley, although we didn’t go inside the buildings time.

The turf houses of Glaumbær

Me at Glaumbær

Glaumbær

Glaumbær

From Glaumbær, we headed north to the town of Sauðárkrókur to see the renowned stained-glass windows of the local church and because we’d read the town had some good lunch options. The lunch part was reasonably successful (Sauðárkrókur is known for its shrimp, but oddly our restaurant only had a few shrimp dishes — I had the shrimp pasta), but the church ended up being our first failure in Iceland. The door was locked, so we asked at the local tourist information center, where, strangely, we had our first real communication problem.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that everyone speaks English here. Icelandic is so difficult that they just assume nobody speaks it and tourism is so prevalent that practically every major sign — and certainly every restaurant menu we’ve seen — is written in both Icelandic and English. But the funny thing is that only a minority of the other tourists we’ve encountered are from English-speaking countries. We’ve seen far more French, German and Italian tourists than we have Americans or Brits. It’s an odd thing to hear a French couple ordering food or an Italian man asking for directions in English in a tiny town in Iceland, but those are daily occurrences here. So one would think that the fellow staffing a tourist information office would have a firm grasp of the language. Apparently not. But we gathered the church was closed. Why and for how long, we don’t know, but we couldn’t go inside to see the stained glass. It was fairly attractive from the outside, but we were pretty disappointed.

The locked church in Sauðárkrókur

On the way, we passed through the town of Blönduós, which was purported to have a pretty ugly church that was designed to look like a volcano. We didn’t stop to see it, but I did photograph it from the road. Both Maggie and I pronounced it “Not as terrible as advertised.”

The "volcano" church at Blönduós

We then passed close to Reykir, the site of Grettir’s Swim and the hot spring of Grettislaug, both sites from a prominent incident in Grettir’s Saga. But our destination was the historic site of Þingeyrar, which is notable for a number of reasons. First it was the site of a legislative assembly during Iceland’s Commonwealth Period (roughly 930-1264). Then it was the site of Iceland’s first monastery, founded in 1133 and lasting until the Reformation in 1550.

Unfortunately, as is the case with so many of Iceland’s historic sites, the older buildings and relics were gone long ago. Thankfully, a remarkable basalt stone church currently stands on the site. The Þingeyrakirkja was completed in 1877 and is interesting both outside and in, where it houses, among other items, a 15th century altarpiece with alabaster reliefs, a carved pulpit and a octagonal wooden baptismal, both from the late 17th century, and creepy, carved figurines of Christ and the Apostles. It ceiling was also done in an odd sky-and-stars motif, painted dark blue with yellow stars stuck on.

Þingeyrakirkja at Þingeyrar

Inside Þingeyrakirkja

The altarpiece in Þingeyrakirkja

The pulpit in Þingeyrakirkja

The baptismal in Þingeyrakirkja

From Þingeyrar, it was a long drive southwest to Borgarnes. The town has a prominent connection to Egil’s Saga (my personal favorite of the Icelandic sagas I’ve read) and was allegedly settled by Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, Egil’s father, who is also purportedly buried here. Maggie and I also saw a marker commemorating the site where Skallagrímur murdered Egil’s friend when Egil was a boy. It’s cheerful stuff.

The town itself is unimpressive so far, with a mostly charmless, nondescript, modern suburban feel (although the church is okay). We’d hoped to check out the well regarded local museum, the Settlement Centre of Iceland, which includes a whole wing dedicated to Egil’s Saga, but we were too late to have enough time to really check it out. That’s part of the plan for tomorrow. But so far the highlight of Borgarnes was an all-time fantastic snafu when, after a long, tiring day of driving,  Maggie couldn’t remember how to spell my name as she was checking us into the hotel. We’ve been together five years. And I don’t even have any accents or a Þ in my name…

Borgarnes

The church in Borgarnes

A street (with a view) in Borgarnes

I’ll just finish by saying that I’ve read a lot of these sagas — Egil’s Saga, Grettir’s Saga, Njal’s Saga, The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki and The Saga of the Volsungs — but none was ever so violent and bloody as the Saga of My Cuticles on this trip. As Mike might say, pass the moisturizer.

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 24, 2011

Day 6: Volcano Worshippers

As I write this — from the dankest and drabbest room we’ve stayed in so far — I don’t know when I will get a chance to post it. We’re in a guesthouse in the town of Akureyri on the north coast of Iceland. The guesthouse right in the heart of downtown (and yes, Akureyri is large enough to have a downtown); we have a bathroom and shower in our room, which is a luxury for most guesthouses; the furnishings are spare, which is to be expected; and it is pretty cheap, as far as Icelandic accommodations go. But It’s not quite entirely clean and my sheets have some holes in them…and there’s no wireless. So I can write, but I can’t post.

For now, the plan is to head over to the tourist information center across the street in the morning and see if I can get a wireless connection there, spend an hour or so uploading pictures and then hit the road, but I don’t know if that will work.

As the crow flies, we didn’t go so far today — Húsavík, where we spent last night, is only a 91 km drive from Akureyri — but that doesn’t mean we were idle.

A bit of history and culture
There’s only so much staggering, majestic natural beauty we can stomach. Okay, that’s not exactly true, but we were both starting to itch for something different. The first thing we decided was to forgo both of Húsavík’s main attractions, whale watching and the Phallological Museum. The whale watching was tempting, especially to me, but at 8,900 kronur (approx. $78) per person and 3.5 hours, that’s quite a lot of investment that could lead to nothing but seasickness. And the Phallological Museum, while an amusing curiosity (in a sophomoric kind of way), is inessential and seems, well, kind of stupid.

We knew we were planning to do the whole “staggering, majestic natural beauty” thing later in the day, anyway, visiting the lake region of Mývatn, so on the way we stopped at the Grenjaðarstaður homestead site, our first visit to an historic site since Þingvellir, which was on our first day on the road. Grenjaðarstaður, now a museum, is the largest grouping of connected turf-roofed farmhouses in Iceland and was a prominent medieval estate, although most of the current buildings date from the 19th century.

The turf-roofed houses of Grenjaðarstaður

I walk around Grenjaðarstaður

Grenjaðarstaður

Inside they have an exhaustive collection of furniture, tools and household items from as far back as the 18th century. The houses are incredible on the inside — a trip to a different time — and so tiny it’s hard to believe upwards of 30 people lived in the homestead at the same time as recently as 100 years ago. Some of the highlights included the hearth kitchen, which contained several intricately hand-carved wooden boxes that were used by the residents to keep their butter rations, and the attic rooms, accessible only by ladder through either holes or tiny doors at the base of the wall. Some of the pictures are quite dim, as it was pretty dark in there.

Inside the homestead: tunnel to the next group of houses

Maggie looks around

Butter boxes in the homestead

Mini barrels in the homstead

Me inside the hearth kitchen

From inside the homestead

The Wonders of Mývatn
One thought kept occurring to me as Maggie and I explored the various wonders of the Mývatn lake region, and in fact, it’s a question that can be asked of Iceland as a whole: How can all of this amazing stuff be in one place? Here is an incomplete list of the attractions right on the coast of Mývatn or just a short drive away: Vindbelgjarfjall, a lonely, picturesque mountain that allegedly can be summited in under 45 minutes; the flooded volcanic fissures and hot springs of Grótagjá; the tephra cone volcano of Hjerfjall; the dried lava lake of Dimmuborgir, with its insane volcanic rock formations; several nature parks and satellite lakes, with some of the best bird watching in a country that’s famous for it; various sites of pseudocraters, weird conical formations of solidified magma. That’s just a taste and I haven’t even mentioned the lake itself, a beautiful clear turquoise when the light is right, dotted with turfy, green islands, many of which themselves are pseudocraters that sprang up from the bottom of the lake.

Mývatn; note Vindbelgjarfjall, the mountain, on the far shore and the pseudocrater island to the left

We spent most of the day driving around the lake, visiting various sites. Our first stop was Hjerfjall, the volcano. It’s a quick, steep track up the the top of the cone and from there you get spectacular views, not only of the stark, rocky ash within the caldera, but of the lake and it’s surrounding region. We walked around the rim for a while taking in the surrounding scenery and peering within the ashy cone.

Hjerfjall, the volcano

Maggie makes her way up the side of the volcano

A view of a mountain and a crater from the volcano

Inside the volcano

Mountains from the rim of the volcano

Maggie walks around the crater's rim with Mývatn in the background

After Hjerfjall, we headed to the lava lake of Dimmuborgir, a gallery of magnificent natural lava sculptures. We walked the maze of winding paths past twisted towers and bizarre, bulbous formations of volcanic rock, ending finally at an eerie lava cave called Kirkja (“the church”).

Looking down into Dimmuborgir

Maggie at an interesting formation

Dimmuborgir

Kirkja in Dimmuborgir

I explore the Kirkja cave

After Dimmuborgir, we made our last stop around Mývatn at the pseudocrater site of Skútustaðir. The short, squat, conical craters lack the ashy bleakness of the volcano and instead are covered in grass, appearing to be just interestingly formed hills with the tops chopped off, until you climb to the rim and get a sense of their crater-like shapes.

A pseudocrater at Skútustaðir

Inside a pseudocrater

Pseudocraters

Gods and Waterfalls (and Akureyri)
Mývatn is an easy drive — roughly due south — from Húsavík, and from the lake it’s a quick shot west to Akureyri, sometimes called “The Capital of the North” and the largest town in Iceland outside of the greater Reykavík area. In fact, it’s so big compared to the places we’ve been, that I’m going to call it a city, even though only about 17,000 people live here. It sits at the end of a large fjord (the Eyjafjörður) roughly in the center of Iceland’s northern coast.

On the road from Mývatn to Akureyri, it’s impossible to miss Goðafoss (“Waterfall of the Gods”), which sits right off the road. Even though we’ve seen enough waterfalls to last us for the next 29 years, we had to stop and take a look. Goðafoss is so named because, as the story goes (and it’s unclear to me whether this is history or legend, but I suspect the latter), the Alþingi lawspeaker Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði dumped his pagan idols over the falls after proclaiming Christianity Iceland’s official religion in 1000. If that pissed off the gods, they didn’t take it out on the falls themselves, which remain stunningly beautiful, the unearthly blue-green water of the river Skálfjandafljöt crashing down in two main sections, with several smaller water flows carving paths between and around the main ones.

Goðafoss

The blue water of Skálfjandafljöt under Goðafoss

The bridge over Skálfjandafljöt

Maggie on the bridge, in front of a smaller rush of water below Goðafoss

Finally, we arrived in Akureyri. It was too late for us to take in most of the sites (and we were pretty wiped out by then anyway), but we went for a short walk around downtown, to the harbor and finally up to the city’s prominent church, the Akureyrarkirkja. Maggie got a kick out of the new culture house on the harbor (which is where I’m going in the morning to try and post this), admiring the unique architecture. She was less fond of the church, which was designed by the same architect who designed the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík and which she derided as “chunky.”

The new Akureyri culture house, across the main road from our guesthouse

A street in Akureyri

The "chunky" Akureyrarkirkja

Stained glass windows inside the Akureyrarkirkja

Inside the church, however, there were some interesting stained glass windows, including one that was relevant to our day. It depicted our old pal Þorgeir, the lawspeaking, Christianity-declaring idol tosser, preparing to hurl his old gods from the precipice over Goðafoss…

Þorgeir at Goðafoss

I thought he looked a little sad.

.

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 22, 2011

Day 5: The Desert and the Whale

Greetings, from scenic Húsavík! The whale watching capital of Iceland! Home to the renowned Icelandic Phallological Museum! This town is full of whales and penises (it even has a whale penis) and it’ll be the upset of the trip if we get out of here without seeing any of them. But how did we get here?

The Interior
The interior of Iceland is a vast, uninhabited region of mountains, glaciers and deserts and most of it is largely inaccessible, except by bus or on foot for serious trekkers. But there is a small section of the Ring Road that cuts west into the interior from Egilsstaðir. We spent last night in Egilsstaðir, of course, so we started early this morning and headed west.

At this point, the Ring Road tracks up into the mountains, through the high passes and across the lava fields and gravel deserts that mark the beginnings of the wild interior, cresting at the alphabet soup that is the Moðrudalsfjallgarðar mountain range. It is astonishingly stark up there and unsurprisingly the formerly ubiquitous sights of farm houses and sheep soon faded into rock and gravel covered emptiness.

The bleak emptiness of the interior desert

Boy…there is not a lot up there and the harsh landscape is pretty awing. We did stop at one lookout point once we reached the top of the Moðrudalsfjallgarðar range, where the road looked out onto an impressive valley, but other than that, we just pushed on through. At the lookout point there was also a big stony mound where hundreds of visitors had built small cairns. Maggie and I made our own before fleeing from the biting cold wind.

The valley from Moðrudalsfjallgarðar and the wastes of the interior

Maggie photographs the valley

The cairn mound

Our primary destination for the day was Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, home of mighty Detifoss and some pretty interesting hikes. This required a significant detour from the Ring Road, as we pulled off to approach the park from the south, taking the road along the east bank of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Iceland’s second longest river. The road to the park was a very, very rough gravel track, so we had to kick the Suzuki into four-wheel drive for the first time on the trip. Along the way we saw an unlucky car that had somehow gotten jammed on top of a large rock with its windshield and back windows shattered.

At the southern end of the park is the sight everyone comes to see: Dettifoss. You may be sick of waterfalls in this blog — hell, we’re practically done with them by now — but all the waterfalls to this point have been just vassals to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

Me above the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, just north of Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

I get close to the falls…although not as close as some of these other insane people

Maggie by Dettifoss

So…um, yeah. P.S. See those crazy people so close to the edge of the falls? It was even worse than it looks. They were tramping around these jagged, wet rocks with terrible footing, going right up to the edge and planting to take pictures. It was insane. It make my stomach churn so much, I wanted to push them over myself.

From Dettifoss it’s a short one kilometer walk to another set of falls, Selfoss, which are remarkable for their stark contrast to Dettifoss. The falls drop a comparatively very short distance, but are extremely wide, cutting diagonally across the river. It was much less crowded in this area, as it seemed like every tourist we’d ever seen on the road was gaping at the big guy.

Selfoss

Selfoss

Maggie snuggles up at Selfoss

We walked back to Dettifoss to pick up our car and fled the hordes of zombies feasting on the waterfall’s flesh and continued north on our rough gravel road. Once we reached the northern end of the park, we went for a walk into the Ásbyrgi canyon. The canyon’s distinct shape gave rise to the legend that it is the hoofprint of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. The walk took us through the first “woods” we’ve encountered (they barely qualify) to a small, pretty lake, where the world’s boldest duck flirted with us, and then up higher against the cliff wall, where we got a beautiful view of the whole canyon. After that, we headed out of the park…and the desolate interior.

The flirtatious duck

The lake and the canyon wall

The lake from higher up

The Ásbyrgi canyon

The Ásbyrgi canyon

We begin to see settlements again during our descent

A house by a lake

The North Coast
Leaving the park, we drove down out of the mountains and to the northern coast along the huge bays of Öxarfjördur and Skjáfandi. Húsavík sits on the coast of the latter. We reached Húsavík in the late afternoon and it has already replaced Seyðisfjörður (from yesterday) as my favorite of the towns we’ve seen since we left Reykjavík. There’s a lovely harbor, some beautiful houses and more to do than most of the small towns we’ve seen so far. We’re staying in a very sweet guesthouse, which is clearly just someone’s house converted to accommodate tourists. We got a cute room in what used to be the attic.

Our room in the Árból guesthouse

A small window in our room

Húsavík's beautiful church

Húsavík

The harbor in Húsavík

Having arrived early, we had some time to kill after getting our room, so we decided to go to the museum….but not the penis museum, the Húsavík Whale Museum. The museum is full of information and artifacts, ranging from the history of the whaling industry to scientific data on whales and their behavior to facts about conservation and the various threats to whales’ survival. But the highlight was definitely the whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling, accessible on a spooky and fascinating mezzanine level.

A narwhal skeleton in the Whale Museum

The skeleton of a sperm whale

Maggie walks among the whale skeletons

After that, we went to dinner by the harbor and decided to call it a night. We’re still debating what to do tomorrow and that decision will affect the next couple of days and whether or not we travel to the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes or hang out an extra day in the central north of the country, where there’s a lot to do. Some big decisions tomorrow: Whale watching? Phallological museum? Those are the two things this town is best known for…. We’ll see.

Posted by: nmancini04 | August 22, 2011

Day 4: Into the Fjords

Today was a travel day. Much of the eastern coast of Iceland is cut by narrow fjords, making for typically beautiful topography…but there’s not much to do. For the first time on our trip, Maggie and I had no clear plan today, other than that we knew we wanted to reach Egilsstaðir, the last major town before we cut inland and make for the north, so we took the scenic route along the fjords and spent most of our time in the car, unfortunately. This means fewer stories today and blurrier pictures, as many of them were taken from the car, but we did manage to find some things to do……and waterfalls. Are you sick of waterfalls yet?

An early start
I’m happy to announce that Rental Guy was mercifully absent from today’s proceedings, and Suzuki 2 performed admirably, driving long distances over windy, hilly roads without troubling us. We woke early in Höfn, the first town we’ve seen that actually looks like a town, with actual businesses and street signs and a police station! We started the day by going to the local lookout point, which had decent views of the glacier across the bay.

Vatnajökull across the bay from Höfn

But we soon were headed north along the coast and we would pass through (or by) several cute fjord towns along the our drive from Höfn to Egilsstaðir, which, including several stops, lasted from 9 am until about 3:30 pm. We also passed this, along the way:

Uh…………

We thought that was…odd.

Our first stop was just after the area of Lón, where the Ring Road goes right along the coast. We pulled over at a lookout point to get our first pictures of the rocky and jagged coastline that marks the start of the Eastfjord region.

The coastline, north of Lón

More coast

Soon after, we made our longest stop of the morning, spending nearly an hour walking through the springy turf, wet rocks and black sand along a beautiful stretch of coastline where one particularly interesting outcrop of rock rose like a platform at the edge of the sea (I should know what that’s actually called, but sorry, I’m tired). We finished our excursion by climbing the platform and looking out at the ocean.

The rocky coastline

The "platform" on the shore

The waves crash against the rocks

Maggie at our stopping point

A rocky beach

A cairn on top of the "platform"

The Eastfjords
We soon were heading into the fjords, of which I took so many pictures it’s a little embarrassing. The mountains rise on either side in huge, often sheer cliffs as the water cuts inland. The towns are ridiculously scenic. We passed first through or around the towns Djúpivogur, Breiðalsvík and Stöðvarfjördur, not stopping long anywhere until lunch. When we finally did stop to eat, it was in Stöðvarfjörður at a combination restaurant, rest stop and souvenir shop called Brekkan. Their menu was heart-clogging roadstop diner fare — and I mean that as a compliment — a palette of hot dogs, hamburgers, ham and cheese and bacon and eggs.  The proprietor, a stocky, tough-looking lady with a limp, seemed to do everything herself while we were there — stocking sodas, taking orders, serving food and cooking. There was only one other couple patronizing the restaurant with us, so it wasn’t exactly busy, but I was still impressed. And man, could that woman fry up some bacon.

The fjords

The fjords

A typical farmhouse, at the foot of a mountain outside Fáskrúfjörður"

We continued on from there to Fáskrúfjörður, a factory town on the edge of the last fjord we drove through, where we stopped for gas. Having already spent most of the day in the car, we decided not to drive around the arm of the next fjord, but take the 6 km tunnel through the mountain of Kollufjoll from Fáskrúfjörður to Reyðarfjörður.

The tunnel was astonishing. The entrance and exit were typical concrete tunnels, but the concrete soon gave way to solid rock. The tunnel was literally just carved out of the mountain, with the mountain rock — in all its strange and beautiful shapes — bare above and beside. Unfortunately, it was too dark to get a decent picture on the move and everything I took came out blurry and dim. We didn’t stop at Reyðarfjörður itself, but there was a fantastic lookout point just above the town with views of the valley and a glacial stream running to one side.

The valley near Reyðarfjörður, from the lookout point

The glacial stream at the lookout point above Reyðarfjörður

 

Egilsstaðir to Seyðisfjörður and everything in between
From there, the last leg of our journey north cut between the mountains to Egilsstaðir, our home for tonight. The town is pretty big and is a major transport hub for the eastern side of the island. It’s modern (founded in the 1940s) and looks like a pretty typical suburban town…except with no nearby urban area. We checked into our hotel early, because we wanted to head east to see Seyðisfjörður, a nearby town at the end of the nearest fjord that we’d heard was lovely and had some beautiful houses.

The drive to Seyðisfjörður was practically as rewarding as the town itself and we found several surprises along the way. We hand’t realized that the road there was a mountain road, which took us up higher than we’d yet been in our vehicle. The road goes up through a rocky, spooky and beautiful cleft in the mountain, with a small mountain lake running to one side, and the cloud coverage was so low it cut off the peaks on either side of us. Maggie and I agreed that if we were to encounter any trolls, this is probably where they would live.

The drive to Seyðisfjörður

The drive to Seyðisfjörður

We also came upon yet another waterfall off the side of the road, just outside of the town. This one, called Gufufoss, was a complete surprise and it didn’t show up on any of our maps or in our guidebook. It was easily accessible, yet secluded and lovely.

Gufufoss

Me at Gufufoss

Gufufoss

Seyðisfjörður itself is probably the prettiest village we’ve seen yet. There’s a lovely harbor which is a stop on a prominent ferry line that goes to the Faroe Islands and Denmark and there was actually a cruise ship docked there when we arrived. Seyðisfjörður has a lot of cute houses and a distinctive architecture that our guidebook calls “chocolate box architecture”…whatever that means. We had heard rumors of hiking trails here, but couldn’t figure out where they started, so we decided just to go for a walk around the town.

Seyðisfjörður

The cruise ship at Seyðisfjörður

A house in Seyðisfjörður

The bay and houses of Seyðisfjörður

On our way back to Egilsstaðir we suddenly got crushed in a dense, eerie fog that seemed to come out of nowhere. “The trolls are going to eat us!” Maggie declared. Just as the fog seemed to be its densest, suddenly it was gone. We went from “zero visibility” to “partly cloudy” in a matter of seconds.

The fog on the mountain…

…suddenly lifts.

Egilsstaðir from the mountain

On the last leg of the road, just above Egilsstaðir, we decided to pull off and see one more waterfall, Fardagafoss. It looked like a halfway decent hike and mostly we were itching for a legitimate one after the Skaftafell hike proved so crowded and touristy. It was short (an hour at most), but it actually turned out to be fairly strenuous and at least it traversed an actual hiking trail, unlike Skaftafell’s gravel paths. The hike actually brought us to TWO waterfalls, one which fed the stream that became the next. Which was Fardagafoss? Or did the two together comprise Fardagafoss? We still don’t know. But it was beautiful and secluded and we didn’t see a soul…until the end.

The lower falls on the Fardagafoss hike

The upper falls on the Fardagafoss hike

Maggie on the Fardagafoss hike, with Egilsstaðir in the background

We finish the Fardagafoss hike

As great as it was, at the end of the hike we began to fear for our lives. Not because of the hike itself, though. Four people were heading up as we were making the descent and when I saw the leader my first thought was, “If these people try to murder us, how am I going to fight them?” His beard was down to his nipples, his hair down to his buttocks and he was carrying a huge number of reindeer antlers and animal skins. “Shit,” I thought. “I don’t even have a penknife.”

But they allowed us to pass unmolested and trekked up to Fardagafoss to conduct some pagan ritual while we went down to Egilsstaðir, ate mussels and salmon and ignored the reindeer on the menu.

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