ICELAND . . . . sjáumst fljótlega við (April 2019) May 2019
If Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, then Iceland must be the land of 10,000 waterfalls. Everywhere you look there is a waterfall, and then more waterfalls and more… some are mighty and gorgeous, and some are tiny. Many of them arise from glaciers. The entire landscape is still very young and being formed and shaped by glaciers and volcanoes. This is the picture I returned with from my vacation.
Until then, my sole connection with Iceland was through Eyjafjallajökull. That’s the Icelandic volcano, that had brought European air travel to a near standstill in the fall of 2010. And with that, it had come close to stranding us in Istanbul, Turkey, as we were wrapping up a three week long European vacation. (As intimidating as Icelandic words and names are, a simple explanation can make them seem less daunting - see NOTE 1) In the end, we did manage to get two tickets, literally on the last plane, out of Istanbul to the States. So, plan B was not necessary - which would have been to go to Cairo by ship, and then catch a plane to the States.
As we left for the airport, our friends Karl and Becky from Germany, with whom we had vacationed, were standing in a very long queue in front of the main train station. German skies were already closed, and the train was the only option. Many other German vacationers were in the same situation. So, it took them a week to get back home.
Beyond that distant encounter with Iceland, the other thing I knew about Iceland was that after the 2008 financial crisis, it was the only country in the world that had jailed its bankers instead of bailing them out. And finally, I remember having read, also about 10 years ago, a book by Halldór Laxness. He is the only Icelandic author to have won the Nobel prize in literature.
(Photo credit Christine)
Now back to our recent Iceland vacation. It was a driving and sightseeing trip around the island. We started from the capital city Reykjavik and drove in counter clockwise direction - first going east along the southern shore, then turning north. Then we continued east along the northern shore, and finally went south, again along the coast, to return to Reykjavik in 10 days.
Iceland is a small country with an area of 103,000 sq. km. That means it is roughly half the size of Minnesota but has just 340,000 inhabitants vs. 5.7 million in Minnesota. Most of Iceland consists of mountains, glaciers and a craggy landscape. Although Iceland is located pretty north (with its northern tip jutting into the arctic circle), its climate is relatively temperate. That's because of Gulf Stream. Our travel route came close to the arctic circle, but did not cross it.
The first day in Reykjavik was cloudy, cold, blustery and rainy. We were further weighed down by our jet lag. But none of these were unexpected. We took it easy and went for a leisurely stroll through the deserted downtown. Deserted, because Icelanders take Easter holidays seriously and close down most activities, apparently from Thursday to Monday.
The sun peeked through every now and then to give me an opportunity to take a snapshot with my iPhone. But usually it didn’t last long. This became the rule of engagement for most of the vacation. As a result, the photo yield with my SRL Nikon camera was meager. No big deal though. I enjoy photography as a hobby, but don’t let it ruin my vacation.
The weather and the first spell of jet lag made the Church of Hallgrímur a welcome refuge. It is the city’s best-known landmark. Although it is just 244 feet tall, it is one of the highest structures in the entire country! The architecture of this in 1986 completed church is plain and simple - not to be compared with mainland Europe’s churches. But it is known for its excellent, German made, pipe organs. As luck would have it, an informal live performance was underway just as we entered the church, What a great welcome on our first day!
Church of Hallgrímur (intside and outside)
THINGVELLIR – HISTORY, GEOLOGY AND WATERFALL
Next day, our first destination was Thingvellir, a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its prominent role in Iceland's history. This is where Icelanders had founded their first parliament in 930 AD and had continued to meet every year! Their adoption of Christianity around 1000 AD, as well as the foundation of the current Icelandic state in 1944, were also decided here.
Thingvellir is a National Park with beautiful natural and geological attractions. Here is a junction of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates that is nowhere as visible as here. These two plates are drifting apart at the rate of 2 cm per year. As I took a video from the high platform, it was cold and very windy. In the video you can sense the trouble I had in keeping the iPhone steady. And wiith the other hand, I had to hold on to the platform railing for my dear life. Here we also saw the first imposing waterfall of our journey.
Then we drove east, along the southern coast. First came the geysers. They are small, compared to Old Faithful in Yellowstone. But they erupt every 5-10 minutes, giving ample opportunity to see them in action. What remains memorable is the cold and rainy weather. It is however, my principle not to complain about the weather.
The tectonic juncture at Thingvellir
The first of many waterfalls at Thingvellir National Park
Next on our journey east came Gullfoss, a gigantic, twin waterfall. By that time, I already knew that Foss means waterfall. And thanks to a beer I had the previous night, named Gull, I also knew that Gull means gold. It turns out that the name Golden Circle, the most popular tourist destination in Iceland, is derived from the name Gullfoss
THE DAY OF (MORE) MIGHTY WATERFALLS
Skogáfoss is hands down the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. Period. What made it even more memorable was a direct intervention from Thor. That’s the only way I can explain how, just as we had approached the waterfall in a cloudy and drizzling weather, the clouds had parted just for a brief minute and let the sun shine through. All of a sudden, there it was - the gigantic waterfall, framed by a dark black volcanic river bank, and a gorgeous rainbow across the entire breadth of the Valley!
Skogáfoss (with compliments from Thor)
Skogáfoss is also the trailhead of Fimmvorouhais (five-milestone-ridge). It is a 26 km long, and supposedly the most beautiful, hiking trail in Iceland. It runs along the Skogá river that originates from the previously mentioned Eyjafjallajökull glacier. Along the trail there are another 20, breathtakingly beautiful, waterfalls. Unfortunately, this was not planned as a hiking vacation and we had to move on. Besides, the recommended hiking period for this mountainous trail is between May 15 and September 15.
Prior to Skogáfos, we had stopped by at Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk behind the water cascade. By now I knew the weather routine – cold, windy and rainy … and suddenly a brief period of sun. I took advantage of one of the respites to shoot photo and a short video with my iPhone. Just look at the gorgeous landscape!
The day ended with a trip to the stunningly beautiful black beach of Reynisfjara (fjara= beach), covered by jet-black sand - made up of volcanic rocks, grounded to fine particles by the unrelenting Atlantic waves. The waves are treacherous and have washed away several tourists, most recently in 2016. It was an overcast and drizzly late afternoon. So, I picked the fleeting black and white patterns created by the white froth on the black sand as a motif for my video. All the while, I was scared to death of being caught unawares by a deadly, treacherous wave. Thanks god, and as you can see, I made it alive!
The treacherous, black beach of Reynisfjara on a cloudy day
THE DAY OF GLACIERS
The next day was a glacier day. It started with a glacier walk in Vatnajökull National Park. Vatna means water, and jökull, as we already know, means glacier. Glaciers are dangerous. You also need proper gears. But we had an experienced guide with us, who showed us how to use the gears, how to walk and climb on a glacier, what to do and what not do. Most importantly, he steered us away from hidden dangers like holes and crevices.
Our guide was Kyle. We learned a lot from him about glaciers, Iceland's geology, and even some bits and pieces about Icelandic. What is interesting is that he is from Singapore! He has been living in Iceland for two years now but was planning to go back home because of his parents. Kyle was an excellent guide, having learned glacier climbing in the Himalayas.
On an outlet glacier of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Europe
Next stops were Diamond Beach and Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon. That's where you can admire the fascinating beauty of icebergs. As they float away along Diamond Beach, the contrast between the jet-black volcanic sand and the blue-whitish and sparkling blocks of ice of the most bizarre size and shape is simply stunning. And then, there is the interesting play of subtle color contrast among the different icebergs too. One can just stand there for hours and be lost admiring the beauty.
NORTH, NORTH WEST
Next came a lot of driving, and some wonderful landscape. Along the way came a neat little fishing port Djupivogur, established by the Danes in the 16thcentury (Djupi= deep, Vogur= cove).
Going North, North West
Driving was sometimes treacherous, but fortunately never crowded. Two highlights were Dettifoss and Godafoss. Dettifoss is Europe’s most powerful waterfall with a width of 100 meters (330 ft.) and a drop of 44 meters (144 ft.). It originates from the Vatnajökull glacier (the same glacier on an outlet of which we had our glacier walk). Godafoss (Goda= god) is another magnificent waterfall. Just wish we had a better weather for photography.
On the road again
Godafoss (photo credit Christine)
Especially scenic were the drives along the fjords. There were long stretches of picturesque view of the coastline from the high up, interspersed with tunnels through the mountains; the longest being 7 km long. Some of them were with a single lane! There were indeed periodic turnouts so the you could yield to the opposing vehicle. But the tunnels are never straight. As a result, you had to be on your toes and anticipate who might be coming. Fortunately, there was little traffic You also knew that when come out of the tunnel, you will be greeted with a spectacular view.
One highlight on the north was Akureyri, the unofficial capital of north Iceland. We arrived there at midday – in perfect time for a break and for a stroll through the neat, small downtown. A quick visit to the local concert hall revealed what Brittney Spears has been up to. But we didn’t think it worthwhile to wait until May. Then a quick fish soup lunch at a local shop and off we went….
Barely out of Akureyri, we entered the magical “Rainbow Land”. Nowhere have we seen as many and as bright rainbows as here. The weather was drizzly and wet, leaving me no other option than to limit my picture taking with my iPhone.
Passing through the "Rainbow Land"
We continued going north hugging the coast, and along more fjord landscapes. The northernmost town we passed through was Siglufjordur, with a latitude of 66.2, just shy of 66.33, the arctic circle.
In the interest of your and my time, I’ll stop ruminating about rest of the driving all the way back to Reykjavik. One exciting part of our daily experience was the anticipation of the next hotel. Yes, the hotels were all prearranged by our travel agent. But what was interesting was their selection. Many of the hotels were at unexpected places, sometime in the middle of nowhere. Often times, the first look was deceiving. All of them came with excellent amenities. Especially interesting were the meals - both dinner and breakfast. Breakfasts were somewhere in-between continental and American, with the added flair of fish. We always looked forward to fish - including freshly pickled herring and different varieties of salmon. Dinner was usually at the hotel, especially when it was in the middle of nowhere. The cuisine was always exceptionally good, usually cooked by the chef based on prior reservation. At the Magma hotel, the chef cooked a lamb recipe just for the two of us. My favorite fish is now Atlantic char, which I believe is a variety of salmon.
Getting updated at breakfast in Foss Hotel in Myvatn. The outside is a moon landscape of frozen lava.
Don't be misled by the exterior look of Magma Hotel in Kirkjubaejarklaustup.
Photo credit Christine
Finally, some tidbits about Iceland. When I am in a new country, I try to remember the first impressions. Here are a few from Iceland, both the profound and the mundane:
I did not see a single cop - neither in any city/town nor on the highway.
The same is true for Idiot Boxes. I didn't see a single one in any public place, including in hotel lobbies.
Service is good and efficient but sometimes lacks the personal touch we are used to in the US.
Most Icelanders speak Icelandic, English and Danish. Iceland was a Danish colony until 1944.
I heard a surprising number of languages being spoken among the tourists - most of them seemed to come from Eastern Europe and the Baltic.
Chinese tourists were well represented. The unexpected thing was that most of them were young and vacationing on their own (as opposed to being bussed around in groups).
There is a surprising dearth of hooks in bathrooms for hanging your stuff from. But on the flip side, every hotel had down comforters. This is based on a sample size of 8 hotels.
Restaurant food is expensive.
Iceland being Europe comes with certain things: tiny dessert forks and spoons, and the fact that power switches are off in the up position and on in the down position.
It was a 10-day long journey full of splendid memories. But there were many things we did not do or see. That include whale watching, horse riding, hiking, “chasing after” northern lights, Blue Lagoon, see puffins, etc. Part of it because we never stayed at one place for more than a day, part of it because of the time of the year, and part of it due to simple preference. Some of these are very good reasons to go back to Iceland again. On that note - sjáumst fljótlega við
Icelandic is a North Germanic language belonging to the Indo-European language family. Both German and Icelandic allow multiple words to be chained together to create a new, complex word. Not surprisingly, both languages have long words that confound non-speakers, but are actually pretty simple. For example, Eyjafjallajökull is composed of three words: “Eyja + fjalla + jökull”, meaning “island + mountain + glacier”. For an Icelandic speaker, who knows the rule as well as the three constituent words, it is child’s play to remember the name Eyjafjallajökull. If this rule were to exist in the English language, then remembering “Islandmountainglacier” as a name would be no big deal for English speakers, but not for non-English speakers. Hypothetically, that name would be “Inselberggletcher” in German.
"Idiot box": Ubiquitous, wall-mounted, flickering devices that incessantly blare out the latest “breaking” “news” in the form of fillers between two segments of commercials, with the primary goal of turning your remaining brain cells to mush.
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