"" Writer's Wanderings

Friday, October 21, 2016

Iceland - The Horses

As it seemed to be the case, a day of rain would be followed by a day of sunshine. Thank goodness because it seemed that though he didn't have much on his to-see list the day before this one would be full again.

Breakfast was made more interesting by an Australian couple who happened to find the restaurant open and opted to buy into their morning buffet. We enjoyed our conversation but all too soon all of us were realizing we had a long day ahead. They were coming from the direction we were heading and talked of the gravel road slowing them down. Gravel road? I looked at Bob. I thought we were done with gravel roads. He just smiled.

A while later we were bouncing along another gravel road. This one was nothing like the other day though. It was almost like pavement. Or was I just getting used to them? We were about to pass a red dot town. (There had been nothing up until now.) That was pretty important. Red dots meant a population of 1,000 to 4,999 according to our map and that was just one step below a city like Reykjavik. There was bound to be a place for coffee and, well, you know.

We had to detour slightly from our main route but it was worth the trip. We found a very nice cafe that was near the wharf area of the town, Stykkisholmur. This is the place to catch a ferry to cross the large Breidafjordur and/or stop at the island of Flatey. We had opted to drive around the fjord instead of taking a five hour ferry ride. The couple at breakfast would be driving to the northern ferry dock and coming back here to their hotel later.

After coffee and on our way out of town, I had Bob stop near a field of horses that were near the road. It was a great day to photograph them and I had been waiting for the chance to get near them. The Icelandic horses are unique. They were brought to Iceland from Europe by settlers over eleven centuries ago. It is said that while the horses in Norway and Germany that they are descended from were bred with horses from other lines, the Iceandic horses were not mixed with other breeds.

At first the horses were used mainly for transportation and farm work in the early 1900s  but as industrialization took over, the horses became used more for sport and family somewhere around the 1940s and 50s. The horses are bigger than Shetand ponies but smaller than other horses and sturdy. While they may not have the elegance of show or thoroughbred racers, they are said to be ideal for riding. And certainly there are lots to ride. We passed many signs advertising riding establishments.

The horses vary in color and markings. My favorites were the chestnuts with the blonde mane. Their manes are all beautiful and long and outstanding when the wind whips through them. I kept thinking of paintings of horses running with their manes flying.

I wondered how they held up in winter since it appeared that they were outside mostly. I read that in the winter their coat doubles in thickness.

The most outstanding feature of the horse is the extra gaits. Along with the usual three, walk, trot and canter, there is also a gait called tolt, a "running walk", and a gait called skold or "flying pace". Some horses can reach almost 30 miles an hour with the latter.

Disease is almost unknown to them and the government regulates them for their own safety. No horse taken out of Iceland is allowed back in and only new horse equipment can be imported into the country so as not to introduce something to the horses that could decimate the population.

The fact that the horse is not easily spooked is attributed to the lack of predators and also said to factor into their friendliness. They all slowly tend to move toward visitors who stand by the fence to take pictures or pet them. I'm guessing a few apples passed along probably help too.

Yes, as you can see, I was quite fascinated. I will probably even do a post with just horse pictures and dedicate it to my horse-loving young friend.

We backtracked just a bit to see a church Bob had on his list of attractions programmed into our GPS. It was dubbed "the black church" because of its color. Most of the churches in Iceland are white with red roofs. This is due to the Danish influence since they were a part of Denmark for so long and the Lutheran church was an important part of that.

The farm it sits on, Bjarnarhofn, is also home to a shark museum that we passed on. There was someone who lived here long ago who was considered the most psychic Icelander ever and he was followed by a fellow who wrote a book about the botany of Iceland. The church itself was built in 1856 and was said to have an altarpiece from 1640, a cassock dating back to the 1500s, a chalice from 1286 and a pulpit from 1694. I was excited to explore but when we got there we found that we could only view the church from outside the church yard. Curtains were drawn over the windows so there was not even a chance to peek in from a distance.

The area was beautiful though and the day was sunny and we took our time just drinking it all in and breathing the fresh air. In addition to having really good water, they have really good air in Iceland.

On our way past the pasture, we stopped once more for a couple of photos of their horses before continuing on to the gas station we had passed on our way in. Bob used his gas card up that wouldn't do us any good back home. He'd purchased one the first day out just in case we got somewhere out in no man's land and had to pump at a self serve with no attendant in sight. He also gave our rental another car wash and promised me no more gravel roads. Yeah, yeah.

We were a long ways from no where when it was time to eat lunch. That and the fact that I still had two bananas and some peanut butter to use up had us stopping at a spot with a picnic bench. It was along the shore and we enjoyed the breeze and warm sunshine while lathering globs of peanut butter on a banana and eating. It's actually not a bad lunch.

Next up spelunking and visiting a troll's canyon--but I'll save that for the next post.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Iceland - Another Rainy Day

It began sunny enough and we watched from the dining room window as one of the college students who was working at the Flokalundur Hotel for the season was raising the Icelandic flag. When she came in Bob asked if we should be standing and singing the anthem. She smiled and said yes. After two nights stay there, they were getting used to his humor. "You can teach me," she added with a big smile.

The hospitality at this hotel had been so nice, I almost hated to leave but we had two more days to get us around to Reykjavik and our flight home. We did not have that far to go this day and after a leisure walk to say goodbye to the local sheep, we were on our way again.

There were some pretty spots where we stopped and took a few pictures but soon it clouded over and the thought of me and/or the camera getting wet kept me inside the car. Could I possibly be getting tired of the road trip? Or was it just the rainy weather?

We arrived at our hotel which again was almost the middle of nowhere. It was not in a town but it did have a good sized restaurant on the premises. We pulled up in front of it knowing that it was still to soon to check in but thinking that we could have a long lunch and maybe check in early (that never happens in Iceland--at least not to us.)

The place was dark and even though the hours said it should be open, the sign said closed. Bob tried the door and it was locked but he could see someone in the back moving around. They never came to the door so we figured we'd move on and find some place else to eat.

We drove to the next little town on the map, Laugar, which was quite a ways down the road. Following the map, we turned off the road to the town which consisted of a swimming pool at some facility that had a couple of buses parked in front of it. There was no restaurant that we could see even though TripAdvisor had said there were two.

Well, there was still a lot of time before we had to check in so we headed back to the main road and down to the next little town, Budardalur. This looked a little more promising but as we drove along several of the restaurants were closed. We finally ended up at a market that had a restaurant inside and got some soup and bread.

When we were done, we decided to explore a bit more and drove down to the water where we'd seen an information sign. The information office was inside a place that housed a museum and a nice cafe, Leifsbud, with a banquet room for tour groups. I groaned. Why hadn't we driven here first?

It was still raining out so we decided to follow our soup lunch with a cup of coffee. As we struck up a conversation with the proprietor and a young waitress, he suggested a piece of cinnamon cake and said it was a favorite in Iceland. The waitress chimed in with, "His wife makes it." Now, how could you turn that down?

The cake was sort of like a tort and was not real sweet but it was very tasty. I found some recipes online and will post one later. Good coffee. Great cake. Maybe the day wasn't so bad after all. And with all the hospitality of an Islander, the man offered us a free sample of the fish stew left from the tour group he'd just had in. We declined politely. We had just had lunch.

We drove back to our hotel and it was now definitely time for check in. Pulling up in front of the restaurant/office, it  didn't look much more promising than it had before. There was still a closed sign in the window. Bob checked the door. Still locked.

Back in the car, he pulled out his phone and called the number on the reservation email. The man who answered insisted the place was open and the "girls" were there. He told Bob he'd call and have them come to the door. We waited. And waited. And waited. This was not boding well.

Finally a lady did come to the door and Bob went in and registered. She came out again with him dressed in a winter coat (did she know something we didn't?) and we followed her in the car to the wooden building next door where the rooms were.

The hotel was set up like quads with a large sitting area in the middle and four rooms surrounding it. It echoed in the large room and I could only hope the other guests wouldn't be too noisy. We spent the rest of the afternoon reading and catching up with our internet stuff. While I was off resting in the room, Bob made friends with another couple that came in. They were an interesting couple who had just gotten engaged. Later they shared their engagement video with us. A nicely produced piece that was filmed with the help of a drone.

The couple was from Holland and Estonia and were traveling the world. All they owned (minus a few things at Mom's house) was in the trunk of the rental car. Ah, young love. They were spending this night out of the rain but usually camped out. He designed apps and she was a photographer. I wished them well.

Another night spent without worrying about missing the Northern Lights. Our prediction for the next night was still holding up and getting even better.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Iceland - Exploring the West

The plan was to head west from Flokalundur and circle around a peninsula that had a point with a huge cliff that was famous for lots of birds including puffins. While it wasn't a real sunny day, it was certainly a lot drier than the day before had been. There would also be a long gravel road to travel today so Bob was already planning for another car washing experience later in the day upon our return.

Our first encounter on the road would be a common road hazard, sheep. Out away from the major cities, the sheep roam free and in some areas it is hard to imagine how in the world they can manage to hang on to the steep hillsides. This morning it was obvious that sometimes they took the easy way out and used the road way to get from one place to another. We happened upon this group of sheep who couldn't get off the road to get out of our way because there was a sheer drop on the side. They ran along, their wooly backsides bouncing up and down until they found a spot where they could finally climb down. It was funny watching them run--reminded me of a Halloween wig one of my kids had that bounced on his head as he ran down the sidewalk.

I don't know where Bob got all his information about places to stop but he found some unusual ones including the oldest steel ship in Iceland that had been beached years ago. It had been built in 1912 in Norway and beached in 1981. Its original purpose was for whaling but when that became restricted, it became a fishing vessel. The steel hull was more appropriate for getting through the ice at the end or beginning of a season. When it had outlived its usefulness its owners decided that rather than scuttle it they would run it aground and now it is a favorite spot for photographers.

Eventually our road turned to gravel and not just gravel but huge pot holes. Bob weaved from one side of the road to the other trying to avoid them but there were lots of spots where they were unavoidable. It slowed us down and threatened to give us whiplash as we bounced in and out from one to the other. When we reached Hnjotur and saw a restaurant sign, we were ready for our morning coffee break.

The place was actually a cafe with a museum of collectibles that came from the owner of the farm it was built on. The owner was especially interested in aviation and an out building held other exhibits having to to with planes. In front of it were several plane carcasses including a US Navy plane. We didn't explore the museums. There was a fee and we weren't in the museum mood. The coffee was excellent though, the facilities clean and once we were done with our rest break, we continued on with the hope that our cafe hostess was right. The first part of the road was the worst.

The point of the peninsula had a lighthouse and what is said to be a 14 km long cliff called Latrabjarg, where the sea birds come to nest in the breeding season. The wind was whipping around. I couldn't tell if there was a misty rain or if it was just the sea water being carried by the winds but it did seem a little wet. I wondered what the weather was like when the men hung on the side of the cliffs collecting eggs. The practice of egg collecting only happens once in a while now. It stopped somewhere around the 1950s.

A path led up to the top of the cliff and we could see where the birds had made nests in the crevices of the rocks. Of course we had already learned that the puffins breeding season had ended in August but nothing I could find told me where they went when the season was over. When I finally had some time I discovered that scientists aren't really sure exactly where they go except out to sea. They have tried tracking them but haven't been entirely successful. They do seem to think that the winter months are spent out in the open ocean feeding on fish of course. Apparently they are very buoyant and hardy.

After our picture taking, we started back down the gravel road to return to the main asphalt road and circle around to our hotel in Flokalundur. At least on the trip back we knew a little more of what to expect and when it would end.

We found a little town where we could get some lunch. There was a bit of road construction going on and apparently this guy was the "flagger" to be sure you slowed down for the construction area.

Whenever we passed someone on the road who was pulled off we always wondered what they were taking pictures of. You had to be careful though because sometimes a guy would look like he was taking a picture of something when actually he was just relieving himself. As we came down the road at one spot we noticed a car stopped on the other side and a woman watching her companion who was down the road a ways taking a picture of something.

We slowed and asked what he was taking a picture of and she hesitated for a moment. I was afraid we'd embarrassed her but then I realized she was searching for the English words. "Arctic fox," she said and pointed. Just at that time the fox decided to scamper across the road. We pulled over and I hopped out with my camera. I tried to get a couple shots down the side of the road where he seemed to be eating something.

Quickly I yelled to Bob to grab my other lens from the glove compartment and I did one of the fastest lens changes I've ever done. I was rewarded with some great shots especially when he moved away from the pile of rocks he was in. He didn't seem intimidated by us. Maybe I should have been worried but I was too excited to think about it until later. I never did figure out what he was eating. What an amazing encounter! It was the last thing I would have expected to see out in the open like that.

We went on our way counting out all the different animals we'd seen already: the reindeer, the whale, seals, swans, and now an Arctic fox. Amazing.

Back at our hotel, it was decision time. Did I want to try out the hot spring or not? We walked over to it to see if it was crowded. There were a few couples in it but it looked like they were about to get out. We walked back, borrowed the robes and towels and changed into bathing suits. No way were we walking back though. We drove.

By the time we got there a family of three and three young men who were from India were in the hot spring. We eased our way into the warm water. It wasn't cloudy like the Myvatn Nature Bath but it was a bit algae covered so you had to be careful climbing over the rocks. The family left a little after we got there and we had a nice talk with the young men. We helped each other get pictures and then after about a half hour decided that was enough of an experience. It was time to go. I expected it to be icy cold getting out but surprisingly it wasn't too bad and the robes kept us warm all the way to the car. It was a fun experience.

After dinner we scoped out the possibilities of where we might view the Northern Lights but when a light rain started we gave up the idea of going out again. Besides, the prediction for the location where we would be on Tuesday night was looking good. Maybe I could get some more pictures.

Northern Lights rather than sugarplums were dancing in my head as I went to sleep.


Friday, October 14, 2016

Iceland - Rainy Gravel Roads

It seemed the weather was alternating with a sunny day and a rainy day. This day would be rainy. We did not have far to go again but most of the way was going to be on gravel roads and in the rain. And wouldn't you know it, the drive would start with a tunnel. Not just any ordinary tunnel either. This one had an intersection in the middle of it! It started out with two lanes but after the intersection it turned into one. We only had to pull over once though and thankfully not for a big truck. I was happy to see daylight again even if it was wet daylight.

When it was time for our morning rest stop, we found a hotel in  Pingeyri (or Thingeyri. The P is a funny letter, more like a symbol, that stands for th.) and stopped for coffee. The lovely lady who was just finishing up serving breakfast for their guests sat us down and delivered a whole carafe of coffee to our table. We were the only ones in the rather large dining area. She began a conversation with us that went nonstop while we drank our coffee.

I excused myself to take my turn in the restroom and when I returned, we began to gather our things to leave. "Oh, wait," she said, "You must try this." She finished buttering a second piece of dark brown bread and placed two slices of meat on it.

"This," she said handing us a plate with two small open faced sandwiches on it, "is smoked lamb and my grandmother's rye bread." I said we hadn't had a chance to try smoked lamb yet and smiled gratefully. We sat down again and munched on our snack as she told us how her grandmother used to bake her rye bread in the geyser for twelve hours. She giggled as she said she does her grandmother's bread in a modern oven but it still takes twelve hours.

The bread wasn't a hearty rye taste and was rather sweet. The smoked lamb delicious as well and the combination was a real treat. I was again amazed at the hospitality shown us by the Icelanders we'd met.

After Pingeyri we were back to gravel roads and it was raining pretty steadily. The car was going to be filthy by the time we got to our destination. We pulled off the main gravel road a while later to see what was said to be the biggest waterfall in the western fjords, Dynjandi or Fjallfoss. It was raining pretty good now so we positioned the car and put the window down to take our pictures. There were plenty of people in rain gear obviously from a couple of tour buses who were making their way up to the waterfall. I read that you can walk behind it. We'd done that with another waterfall--no need to do it again especially in the rain. We did a Chevy Chase head nod, rolled up the window, and moved on.

As we drove on, we also drove up. We were climbing. Our GPS told us we were at 1400 feet on the mountain. It was really slow going with heavy winds that rocked the car every so often. The rain wasn't so heavy now but it was certainly blowing. I couldn't imagine winter here--or maybe I could. I shivered.

Flokalundur was just a hotel and small self serve gas pump. If there was anything else, it was closed up already in preparation for winter and this was the last week our hotel would be open. Down around the bend in another direction was a hotel as well but apparently ours was the only one with a restaurant. We had a lunch of mushroom soup and salad. While we ate, we noticed that cars were pulling up to a wall of sprayers and using them to wash their cars off from all the accumulated mud of the gravel roads. Bob would manage a car wash after we ate.

With a clean car, we decided to drive a little further from our hotel just to explore until it was time to check in. The landscape was unusual. Large islands indicated on the map were actually attached to shore by a small causeway--gravel of course and I think they were probably F roads.

The major interest point in the immediate area however was right near our hotel--a hot spring. The hotel told us we could borrow robes and a towel if we wanted to indulge so of course we had to check it out. It was a bit of a walk from the hotel and I couldn't imagine going the distance in a bathing suit and robe especially upon the return when we would be dripping wet. We would think it over and if I was brave enough, we'd do it the next day.

While we were looking for the hot spring, we happened upon a couple of mushrooms that at first I thought were plastic. I've seen plastic mushrooms or drawings of red mushrooms with white dots but I had no idea they were a real thing. There were two of them growing along a path to the water. I was fascinated but as much as I love mushrooms, I couldn't imagine eating anything so pretty. Of course later I discovered that they are poisonous especially if not cooked properly so no, I wouldn't eat them anyway.

With the rain and the tedious drive, we took the afternoon off and just did some reading and listening to the wind howl. Our room was large enough to have a nice sitting area so it felt a little like home away from home. Dinner in the restaurant was nice. We had lamb and lightly salted cod. After dinner, Bob struggled to find the live feed he'd been able to watch of the Ohio State game the week before. He never found it and had to settle for a site that just updated the score every so often. Thank goodness it wasn't a conference game!

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Iceland - Surprises!

The morning after our awful rainy and windy day, the sun shone beautifully in the early sky. You would hardly know that just the day before we were whipped by gusts of wind and horizontal rain. We ventured out after breakfast to see the swimming pool and hot spring that was next to our hotel. Somewhere we read that for every 2500 people in Iceland there is a public swimming pool.

This was available for the area and if you paid a fee at the hotel you could use the showers and dressing room in the building by the pool. The hot spring was more like a natural fed hot tub without the bubbles. The curious thing we found though was a little ways behind the pool building. It was a structure built into the hillside.

It turned out to be the historical site of interest for the area as well--the Sorcerer's Cottage. It dates back to the 17th century and shows how difficult life was for the poor farmers. They believed that magic would help them and concocted all sorts of symbols and charms to help them along. One of the most interesting things I found on the information panel was the number of animals that were needed to sustain a family of four: 2 cows, 20 sheep, 4 wethers, 1 lamb and 1 horse. (I have no idea what a wether is. When I search for it all I get are weather reports.)The man of the house would spend his winters away fishing for a living. Can't imagine having to handle the harsh winter and all those animals plus kids on your own.

Isafjordur, our next stop for the night was not real far away but we did have that long gravel road to travel. We put away the cameras and headed for the fjord we had to drive around. Surprisingly the gravel road was not all that bad. It drained well except for the construction areas. We hit the asphalt road and made our turn only to be waved down by the British couple we had dined with the night before. They were standing next to their car and waving both arms at us.

When we came to a stop they excitedly told us they wanted to catch us so we wouldn't miss the whales that were out in the fjord. As they pointed the whales spouted water right on cue. They also said they'd seen some seals at the end of the fjord and we should watch for them. Apparently they'd backtracked a bit to be sure to catch us. They went on their way and we turned around to follow the whales down the fjord.

Bob drove a ways down the road and we found a spot to pull over. Once we were outside the car and watching for the pair of whales, we began to attract a bit of a crowd. Several others stopped to see what we were looking at. I had my camera set to sport mode that takes several pictures at a time when you press the shutter button. I learned that to catch the fluke of a tail, several pictures in rapid succession usually did the trick. I had no idea what was about to happen though.

I saw one whale surface and then dive. I pressed the button hoping to catch a picture of its tail. As the camera began clicking away I saw the whale start up and out of the water, do a slight piroret and then dive again. All the while Bob and I are yelling, "Do you see that?!!" When the whale disappeared we both stood there mouths gaping. Wow!

Down around the point of the fjord, we found the spot where the Brits had said the seals were but we could only find one. Maybe the others had told him to sit, stay, while they went out to hunt for food. We took a picture and went on our way.

We drove for a while and found a waterfall. That was hardly a surprise especially given the rain the day before. But across the road from where the waterfall was there was a group of whooper swans. We had passed lots of these along the way during our drive but this was the best chance I had at grabbing some shots of them. They breed in Iceland and winter in Britain and Ireland and are related to the American trumpeter swan according to one piece of information I found. So graceful.

There are signs along the way that have a flower-like symbol on them that indicate an attraction or historical point of interest. We hadn't had a stop in a while and happened upon one of the signs near a little cottage up on a hillside. It was an historical home, Litlibaer. Built in 1894, it was occupied until the mid 1960s and often held as many as 20 people. Many of the thick stone walls that surround it date back to the early days. The house was restored and became a part of the National Museum. A couple provides coffee and waffles for a price of 1000 ISK ($9). We passed on the food but wandered in and out of several rooms that were really small but had little tables for customers. Lots of interesting items in the house but it was hard to get a good look at them in the cramped space with others having their coffee and waffles. It did have the friendliest dog though that sat outside and greeted everyone.

We arrived in Isafjordur in time for lunch. We actually drove past our hotel and then found a restaurant close by that looked out into the harbor. I remember having a BLT, something I wouldn't have guessed would be on the menu. It was great. I was getting tired of soup for lunch.

Since it was too early to check in to our hotel, we wandered around town a bit. This was a pretty good sized town and the receptionist had pointed out a spot on the map that was supposed to be the older historic part of town. I couldn't tell a big difference but the day was warm, the sun was shining, and it felt good to be out of the car.

Across from our hotel Bob had spotted a Bakeri (bakery) and his sweet tooth kicked in. Before we checked into our hotel we stopped for a coffee and some donuts and a Facebook checkin with their free WiFi. Most places in Iceland had free WiFi and most did not even require a password. The hotel's WiFi did however. When Bob asked what it was the lady turned a framed printout around and pointed to it. I took a picture of it to save but didn't pay attention until we got upstairs as to what it was: 1234567890.

After a light dinner of Iceland style pizza (mild sauce with a cheese other than mozarella) and a hamburger, we decided to walk down to the wharf area. It turned out to be another historic area with several marine displays that referenced the early shipping and fishing days.

Bob's sweet tooth kicked in again and we found a spot that sold ice cream. While I waited for him to get his dish of ice cream I spied a stuffed puffin in a display case. I had to take a picture. It was probably the only puffin we were going to get to see this trip.

Northern Lights prediction? Not good this night. I slept well.

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