"" Writer's Wanderings

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Iceland - The Glaciers

My night had been interrupted several times by my urge to see the Northern Lights. Yes, I knew it was a bit cloudy when we went to bed but clouds seemed to come and go quite quickly. About midnight I rose and stood at the window. Behind our guesthouse was a big hill and as I gazed up at the top I noticed that there was a break in the clouds. There, larger than I'd ever seen it was the big dipper! It was positioned such that the dipper looked to be touching the hill and perhaps emptying something onto it.

I looked all around and thought I saw something that looked suspicious in the sky but it never materialized into anything. In one direction I saw a sightly greenish cloud but to my sleepy eye I thought it was probably the lights of the town down the road reflecting off a cloud in the sky. Several more times I woke and got up then finally told myself to go to sleep. It was a little after one in the morning.

After our breakfast in the dining room, we headed back out to the Ring Road, #1. We still had farther to go south before we would begin heading east. As a matter of fact our destination for the night was the most southern point of Iceland.

Iceland is a land of fingers. Fingers of glaciers reach out in all directions coming down from the volcanic mountains they cover and fingers of the sea reach inward creating beautiful scenic fjords. This day we would be seeing more of the icy fingers of glaciers as the southern side of Iceland showcases the largest glacier, Vatnajokull.

As we drove the Ring Road, we passed through a huge moss covered lava field that seemed to go on forever. It was formed from what was called the Laki eruption that began on June 8, 1783. During the course of the eruption a series of 10 fissures opened up and the lava flowed in several directions, the one to the south almost reaching the sea. One of the western branches of the flow is said to have stopped when a pastor held his "mass of fire."

The eruption ceased in February of 1874 leaving behind one of the largest lava flows in the world covering around 600 square kilometers (372 square miles). The lava has been covered by a thick moss called wooly fringe and inhibits the growth of other vegetation. It was amazing to stand at one vatange point and look out for as far as you could see--mossy lava rocks.

Bob found it interesting that the eruption had produced so much ash and other content that circled the world (as it did not too long ago and stopped air traffic for a time) that it caused a change in the weather patterns and in turn led to famine in some areas and hearty produce in others. Bottom line: the sign suggested that the famine in France eventually led to the revolution that ushered in the progression of democracy in the world. Who knew?

Always the curious seeker of answers, Bob turned the car around and stopped along the side of the road where we saw two women on their hands and knees in an area that had some kind of low vegetation on it. It wasn't the moss that covered the lava and we could tell they were gathering something. Bob found that the women spoke enough English to tell him they were gathering bilberries, a berry that resembles blueberries but is darker in color. She was using a type of small tined hand rake that, when drawn through the undergrowth, harvested the berries by the handful. It beat picking them one by one. They were collecting them to make jam--something that I would find among my favorites on the breakfast table each morning. She gave him a handful and we each got to taste some. A little bitter but oh so good in jam!

The Fjaorargljufur Canyon, our next stop was formed by a glacial river. Never underestimate the power of water.

An unusual formation of rocks near Kirkjubaejarklaustur at first discovery was thought to be the floor of an old church thus earning it the name of Kirkjugolfid or Church Floor. The unusual design however is caused by the erosion of basalt columns which form hexagons usually but sometimes have more than six sides. They reminded me of the basalt columns we'd seen in Ireland. Lo and behold--or should I say faith and begorra--there was an Irish connection.


We passed a mound with a sign explaining what it was. Turns out the first inhabitants of the area were Irish hermits and the story says that heathens were not allowed to live there. When the pagan Hilder Eysteinsson planned to move there, he fell down dead when he set foot on the property. The large mound was his burial place.

Along our route, we stopped to view a few more waterfalls and then we began to see more and more glacial fingers as we got nearer to the largest, Vatnajokull, which actualy takes up 14% of Iceland. Each of the fingers that extend down have a different name.

In the Shaftafell Visitor Center in the Vatnajokull National Park we enjoyed a very spicy bowl of vegetable soup at the cafeteria and then set off to walk the easy blue trail S1 to the Skaftafellsjökull glacier, about a 3 mile round trip.

We had hoped to get close enough to touch the glacier but it was not to be. At the base was a glacial lake complete with its own set of floating ice sculptures one of which resembled a whale. The sun was shining and the temps were mild and we decided that this was getting to be a great trip.

By the time we reached the Jokulsarion Glacier Lagoon at the Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier the temps were dropping and the sun had been clouded over. A misty rain was beginning and added to the chilly 5C temperature (about 41F). We donned our all weather coats and set out. The parking lot is right next to the lagoon so there wasn't far to go and we were so enchanted by the icebergs in the lagoon that we didn't mind the chill.

The icebergs break off of the larger glacial finger and are said to float around in the lagoon on an average of five years before they eventually make it out to sea or melt. They have to make it under a bridge that spans a narrow channel. The channel is what probably keeps the icebergs in the lagoon.

Among the icebergs people were entertained by several seals. If you wanted to, you could take a boat ride around the lagoon and get a closer view of the icebergs. I thought we were pretty close as it was. We stayed until the chill finally got to us and the rain started a little more in earnest.

There would be lots more views of glaciers along our route and each vista was unique and beautiful in its own right before we arrived at the Seljavellir Guesthouse near Hofn. The guesthouse was more like a modern motel but the owner's mother greeted us and showed us to our room.

The town of Hofn is known for its "lobster" which really turns out to be longastino. It was Bob's birthday so we found a #1 rated restaurant on TripAdvisor and had what we thought would be our most expensive meal of the trip. The longastino came on a plate with some salad and a couple of pieces of homemade bread all for somewhere around $50 each. Happy Birthday, honey!

A check of the aurora forecast and we determined we would not bother to get up in the middle of the night for viewing. It was cloudy, rainy, and the northern lights were not expected to be active. Ah, a full night's sleep.



Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Iceland - The Southern Coast

For some reason I seem to be more directionaly challenged in Iceland than at home. I can't explain it. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that we are so much farther in the northern hemisphere and compass directions are more difficult to discern by the sun. I keep thinking we are on the east coast when really we have moved to the southern part of Iceland.

Our drive this day was only projected to be an hour and a half without stops but we managed to stretch it into a full day's worth of travel. Including several waterfalls, a trek to a DC3 plane wreck, a glacier, and a nature preserve with a black sand beach.

Every waterfall has a significant label. One is most voluminous. One is highest. One is most spectacular. Another most beautiful. I don't know how they distinguish but each has its own brand. We stopped at one where we were able to actually walk behind it, Seljalandsfoss.

Between waterfalls was the visit to the wreck of a DC3 Navy plane on  Sólheimasandur’s beach. Back in 1973 the plane ran out of gas (although another account is severe icing) and crash landed there. All of the crew survived so at least it was not a memorial site we were visiting. Of course as the supposed 1.2 mile hike turned out to be 2.5 miles one way we began making jokes about gathering enough stones by the wayside to use as markers for our untimely grave. Thank goodness all but the last little bit down to the fuselage was level and the sun was clouded over keeping the temperature cooler. Otherwise it could have been very uncomfortable.

As it was, this was the first time since leaving home I actually got warm enough to sweat (make that glisten--women glisten). So two hours of our day were spent making our way to a small part of a fuselage minus wings and tail of a plane that was already totally gutted I'm sure by scavengers. But it was interesting and it did give us a good workout.

Since it was past noon, we opted to lunch on the bananas and peanut butter I had stored in the back of the car. We were too far from any place we knew of to get lunch and too hungry to take a chance on finding anything quickly. It satisfied the hungrys and we went off to see the glacier. I could only hope it wasn't another long walk. My legs and feet were screaming at me.

Thankfully the Solheimajokull glacier was not too far down a trail that was a little up and down but easy enough to navigate. We were passed up by two groups with climbing gear in hand and helmets on heads prepared to go to the top of the glacier and walk around. As we neared it we could see groups of people up on top of the glacier already.

We walked to where the trail veered downwards to the base of the glacier and stopped. "Far enough?" Bob asked. "I'm good," I answered. We took our pictures and turned back. I wished the glacier which was actually a finger of a larger glacier was one of the pretty white and blue ones but this was one that had gathered all sorts of lava rock and sand as it inched its way down

On our visit to yet another waterfall, the Skogafoss, we found time to enjoy a cup of coffee and a rest stop at the nearby restaurant. Did I mention how good the Islandic coffee is? I don't know the brand but it was consistently good along the way. That was good news and bad since you wanted to drink more but "rest stops" were quite a distance from each other. There were few public toilets but you could usually find a cafe or restaurant where either for a fee or the purchase of something, you could use the facility.

By the time we got to Dyrholaey or Doorway Hill Island,  the wind was kicking up and there was a light mist changing to a drizzle. My pictures look like I shot them in black and white but there was little sunshine and the rocks and cliffs were so wet the lava was a dark black. There were supposed to be puffins somewhere in the area but it wasn't evident where they would be. We guessed somewhere down on the black sand beach which was closed at that point because of the surf.

An arch in one area of the lava formed cliffs can be passed through by boats and even small planes if the tide is out and the conditions are good. This day it would have been suicide for either with the wind and the waves.

There were some interesting lava formations and we took a few more pictures before deciding we would head for the town of Vik and find something more for lunch. It was already 3 o'clock but we knew dinner would not be until 7:30 at the place we were staying so a late lunch was in order.

We found a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant, Sudor Vik. Bob ordered soup but I still wasn't very hungry. They had a small order of breadsticks with pizza sauce dip and I opted for that. It turned out to be really good. Their pizza sauce was obviously made from fresh tomatoes. I almost wished we could go back and order a pizza later.

Down the street we found another black sand beach and walked along it for a bit still looking for the elusive puffins. Every place in the world we have visited where they are supposed to be we have always missed seeing them. It would be the case again this day. While we saw some nests high up in the rock it turned out they were not puffin nests.

As we walked back to the car it began to drizzle a little more again and with the wind kicking up it was getting a little miserable. We both sat down in the car seat and said, "I'm done." A ways down the road we had already passed our hotel for the night, the Volcano Hotel. Did I mention we were staying at the base of Katla, the volcano that just the week before was said to have sent off tremors and rumblings. Ah, what would the night hold?

The Volcano Hotel calls itself a boutique hotel. It only has seven rooms. From the outside it doesn't look like much but the inside has what they call a volcano rock floor in the common area. It looks like Nature Stone flooring. Nicely decorated but still in the simple style of Icelandic decor--light hardwood floors in the rooms, simple lines in the furniture but the most welcome sight was two wash cloths on the sink. Most places outside the US do not have washcloths.

We had emailed ahead that we would take advantage of their dinner offering. They will make dinner for their guests at an extra cost but you have to take whatever they are making for the evening. We had seen some of the offerings on TripAdvisor and thought that most anything they made would be okay with us. It sounded better than having to travel down the road again in the rain and find a restaurant seven miles away in Vik.

We were so glad we did. The meal was absolutely delicious. It was Arctic Charr which is a fish that is a little like a salmon/trout mix served with some salad, boiled baby potatoes and a mix of veggies that were sauted. It was accompanied by homemade bread and followed up with an ice cream or Skyr dessert. The Skyr is an Icelandic yogurt. It is not as creamy as most yogurts and our server gave us a pitcher of cream to add to it. The flavor was blueberry but it was not sweet at all. But now we can say we tried Skyr.

We ended the day wondering if the clouds would clear enough for the Northern Lights. Our guess was no and the website (www.vedur.is) for predicting it was not promising anything either. So, as I climbed into bed I wondered: do I set the alarm for midnight again to see if the sky is green or just give it up for the night?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Iceland - The Golden Circle

Our second day in Iceland began with a nice breakfast at the Lambastadir Guesthouse. One of the other guests had his camera handy to show his pictures of the Northern Lights. Please tell me you didn't take that last night, I said. The answer was not what I wanted to hear. He'd taken them during the night, around 11:30. I remembered waking a few times during the night. I'd left the curtains open (our room looked out into a field of cows) but I guess I didn't wake at the right time or I didn't look in the right direction or I was just too tired to get out of bed. I vowed to be more diligent. Hopefully the night would be clear and the lights dancing in the sky again.

As we ate breakfast we saw the morning welcome team arrive. Greylag geese. They were no strangers to the guesthouse and soon we saw why. There were a couple of waffles tossed out and the half dozen feathered beggars tore them apart and downed them quickly. When we went out to the car they followed us hoping for more treats, I'm sure. They weren't camera shy either.

In the more touristy part of Iceland, the southern area near Reykjavik, there is a route called the Golden Circle with lots of interesting stops along the way. The plan was to take the day to drive the circle. It would include several waterfalls. If you love waterfalls, Iceland is the place to be. The falls that have been labeled as stops of interest each have their own notoriety. Our first, Urridafoss (foss being the word for waterfall) is known as the most voluminous falls. While there was an immense amount of water running over it, I didn't think it was as pretty as others we saw along the way.

Christianity was made the national religion in the year 1000. About fifty years later, Skalholt became the bishopric of the Catholic church and stayed so until the middle of the 16th century when under Danish rule, the national religion became Lutheran. Skalholt continued to be the central bishopric but now for the Lutheran bishops. There have been several churches and cathedrals built there. The last one still standing was consecrated in 1963.

There is a school on the grounds of the former farm of Skalholt and an archaeological dig was going on during our visit. It was a cold and tedious job but they were unearthing more foundations from some of the other structures that had once been there. Those already discovered show that there was a small settlement there at one time.

In our research to find a place where we might experience a nature bath as the Icelanders call them, we had looked at the Secret Lagoon. It is much smaller than the Blue Lagoon but not as expensive. Our GPS led us astray and we ended up at a greenhouse on the opposite side of the river from the lagoon. We managed to correct the mistake and find our way before we got in trouble for trespassing.

The Secret Lagoon was a nice stop along our way but we weren't ready to partake yet. For one thing, I wasn't ready for a trip back down memory lane to a junior high gym shower. A shower, naked as they tell you, is required before entering the lagoon. We did get a cup of coffee and enjoyed it outside while we watched others enjoying drinks and crackers and cheese as they lounged in the steamy waters.

After a walk around the lagoon, we left for our next stop, trusting that our GPS would not lead us astray again. Just in case, I kept the old fashioned map in my lap and traced our progress with my finger until we arrived at the Faxi Waterfall. The waterfall had a different name at first but in 1917 an Icelandic poet visiting the falls said it deserved a better name and since it reminded him of the mane of a horse (Fax in Icelandic), he said it should be called Faxi. The name stuck.

To the side of the falls is a fish ladder so there must be a time when salmon fill the river finding their way to some breeding grounds. Maybe it was the beautiful sunshine but this was one of the prettiest spots of the day. I could have lingered but we were only half way around the circle and Bob was promising an even bigger waterfall to come.

Fish ladder.
And there was--a bigger falls. Bigger is not necessarily prettier but it was two tiered and impressive. The Gullfoss or Golden Falls has several stories for where its name comes from but the one I liked was that the farmer who lived in the area years ago had acquired a lot of gold but when he felt his life was coming to an end, he couldn't bear the thought of someone else having his gold so he threw it all into the falls, thus the name Golden Falls.

There was no picnic table or bench where we could sit and enjoy our Subway sandwich we'd purchased the night before so we cleared a spot in the hatchback and sat with our legs dangling out and watched the crowds of people come and go as we ate. As I said, the southern part of Iceland is the bigger tourist area and the Golden Circle a popular tour out of Reykjavik. Lots of tour buses and vans.

We've seen a lot of geysers, even Old Faithful in Yellowstone, but the geyser, appropriately called Geysir was the most accommodating I've ever visited. It went off every 3-5 minutes. Of course some eruptions were bigger than others but it never took more than five minutes for it to recharge. Each time it did a big bubble and a burp was followd by a stream of water shooting into the air. We explored some of the hot pools and climbed up a hill for an overall view of the hot pools. After one more look at the Geysir, we left for our next stop.

The Thingvellir National Park features large lava fissures. We parked and after a little hassling with the automated ticket machine to get our parking permit for the park, we started off on a short trail that took us inside one of the fissures and led to a pretty waterfall. Yes, another waterfall and I'm not even mentioning how many others we passed along the way during the day. There is no denying that Iceland was definitely formed from volcanic action and this was just another piece of evidence. It was impressive.

While we were a little concerned that it was getting late and we still had a ways to go, I talked Bob into taking the long way around the largest lake in Iceland, Lake Þingvallavatn. What I didn't know was that it would take us on our first gravel road. The views were well worth the trip but it did slow us down. Remember we had that low clearance on the Renault so we took it slowly where necessary but for the most part, the road was almost like a paved surface with loose gravel on it.

The Kerid Crater was a must-see on Bob's list. We stopped and paid 400 ISK (about $3.50 USD) each for this and were a bit disappointed. But if you want to see a volcano crater this is a nice one to look at. We walked part way around it and then decided we'd seen enough.

After a short stop to freshen up at our guesthouse, we drove into Selfoss for a dinner of weiner schnitzel. It was just as expensive as the night before. Food prices we soon discovered were going to be high. We walked around town a bit wishing we could find dicaf coffee but realized it was fairly non-existent. The evening was not as cold as the day before. We returned to the guesthouse hoping for clear skies and lights in the night with sunshine in the morning.


Thursday, September 22, 2016

The Iceland Adventure Begins

Gardskagi Lighthouse
Our luggage stowed in the hatchback of the Renault the car rental place had given us we were off for our first stop on our Icelandic adventure. The Renault had a very low clearance and we were cautioned about gravel roads. All gravel roads are not created equal. Some are just marked gravel and others have an F in front of the numbered route. F was bad. No F roads without four wheel drive and high clearance. It wasn't long before we realized it was going to bottom out on even an asphalt road with a bump in it. Ah, the challenges that awaited.

We drove out onto the nearby Gardskagi Peninsula to see the historic lighthouse. The day was becoming increasingly beautiful. Temperatures were somewhere in the 50sF. It was a nice change from the hot and humid weather we had left back home. The moment we pulled into the parking lot I knew exactly where I was going. A sign pointed out a little cafe in the base of the lighthouse. I couldn't face the coffee at the airport. It was espresso. Just the smell of it churned my stomach especially with so little sleep. I hoped this would prove to be better. It was.

While I drank my coffee and had a small twisted plain donut (I would learn later that these are called kleinur and are supposed to be deep fried in sheep fat) Bob was able to climb the steps to the top of the lighthouse. Only customers of the cafe could do that. It turned out that the young man and the older gentleman (perhaps related) were a wealth of information. The first lighthouse was built in 1897 and was a square building with a small space for the keeper. The keeper had to rewind the clock mechanism every four hours. Guess he didn't get much sleep at night either.

Bridge Over Two Continents
The coffee was refreshing and we thanked the gentlemen and walked out. The older gentleman followed us and began telling us how wonderful the area was for viewing the Northern Lights which had been in great splendor the night before while we were flying to Iceland. He also began telling us some tall tales about the discovery of Iceland and America which involved Leif Erikkson rather than Columbus (or Amerigo Vespucci). The story got longer and longer and I became more suspicious--all confirmed when he mentioned that the history is all recorded in Lonely Planet. All this said with a twinkle in his eye. We laughed, thanked him, and went on toward the "new" lighthouse to take pictures. If all Icelanders were going to be this friendly and funny, we were about to have a great two weeks.

Gunnuhver Hot Springs
It didn't take but ten minutes before someone else was telling us that we missed a great show of the Northern Lights during the night. I had looked out several times from the plane but didn't see anything. Okay, we took a deep breath and counted out fourteen more chances at catching them. Along the way on our first day in Iceland there would be a half dozen who would say the same thing--the lights had been spectacular. Sigh.

The Bridge Over Two Continents was our next stop. I remembered Bob talking about this and teasing about scuba diving where the European plate meets the American. I had never thought about the continents extending underwater. I just thought of them as dry land but the plates of the continents meet at certain places and the Eurasian plate meets the Americas plate right at Iceland. Therefore much of Iceland is considered a part of Europe. Seems odd.

Blue Lagoon
We walked the bridge that goes over the meeting place on land and passed from Europe to America and back again. I looked out toward the ocean and shivered. No way did I want to see the meeting of the plates in that cold water. We'll stick to diving in warm water places.

Not too far away from the Bridge Over Two Continents was a spot suggested by our car rental agent, Gunnuhver Hot Springs or mud pit as he called it. This geo thermal wonder is named after a female ghost that was tricked into being pulled into the area with a ball of yarn but not before causing trouble for lots of others about 400 years ago. We never really saw mud pits--at least not like we were expecting, but there was lots of rising steam.

Blue Lagoon spa area.
When we stopped in the port of Reykjavik on a cruise several years ago, one of the excursions was to the famous Blue Lagoon, a geo thermal spa that is said to have lots of minerals like silica and sulphur. The excursion was very expensive and a good part of that was because of the cost of entry to the lagoon. The cost ranges from around $45USD to $220USD depending upon what type of package you choose. We had researched and found several other lagoons along the way that were less expensive and much less crowded but we did want to take a peek at the lagoon.

My lunch. The lava was small potatoes.
We caught a view of the lagoon from the hallway leading to the restaurant where we decided we would get something to eat. It was our first sticker shock price for food in Iceland. Bob ended up with a bowl of soup and I got an appetizer of mussels. We drank water to save a little money. People were coming in from the lagoon in bathrobes to have lunch. We almost felt a little overdressed.

After lunch we walked outside and around some of the trails that wandered around the lagoon. The water was a milky blue. People seemed to be enjoying themselves. Drinks were delivered to them at the edge of the lagoon and the area really wasn't too cold for those who were getting out in wet suits.

Strandarkirkja
Continuing on our way, along the shore on 427, we stopped at the Strandarkirkja, an old church whose original structure dates back to 1200. The present one was built around 1888 and refurbished in 1968 and 1996. As with most things in Iceland there is a story. Seamen were caught in a storm and were frightened of trying to put into shore along a coast full of reefs and rocks. They prayed and promised to build a church if they could find a safe harbor. You guessed it. They did and followed through on their promise.

Now I'm not sure what he was thinking as Bob was planning all these stops. All I know is tht I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open and I worried that he might too. If I so much as blinked I could doze off so when he made another stop all I could think of was how much farther to the guesthouse? This stop was in the middle of nowhere (a phrase you may find me using often in the next few posts). It was a cave, Raufarhoishellir, said to be a kilometer long and if you felt up to it and had a good flashlight, you coud explore. The map showed a couple of side tunnels and then there was the climb down into it. I looked at him and said, I'll see you when you get back. He decided we might be a little too tired for spelunking and we turned and left.

Finally we found our guesthouse, the Lambastadir, and it was time to check in. Most guesthouses set check in time at 3 PM and we found that hotels set their time at 2 PM. It was neat and clean and so welcoming. We settled in and sacked out for an hour before deciding to drive into the nearby town, Selfoss, for dinner. I enjoyed braized pork bellies and Bob dined on slow cooked salmon. Trying to plan ahead and thinking about our pricey lunch, we noticed a Subway across the street from where we were eating. We bought a sub and chips and tucked it into the trunk. The temperatures were dropping with the fading sun and we knew it would be safe there.

When we returned to our guesthouse, we tried to stay awake until a decent bedtime. We did some planning for the next day's drive, a little blogging and then it was time for some blessed sleep. We snuggled under our individual comforters. Even though it was made into a double bed, there was always two comforters on the bed at each place we stayed. Those Icelanders sure know how to solve the nightly tug of war.



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