Saturday, June 25, 2016

A visit to Iceland

First view of Iceland
Date: May 7-11, 2016

I went to Iceland because of Haldor Laxness, Iceland's only Nobel laureate, who wrote "Independent People", a book I came across when I was working at the Homer Public Library. On some now forgotten impulse I picked it up and began to read. Many years later it remains one of the most engaging and memorable books I've ever read. Set in Laxness' native Iceland in the early part of the 20th century it describes the life and times, and trials, of sheepherder homesteader Byartur of Summerhouses. I've been curious about this remote island ever since. My brief visit was an attempt to satisfy that curiosity.

Route 1 — southern coast of Iceland
It all came about because while searching Hipmunk for cheap air fares from Amsterdam to New York City, one from Icelandair jumped out at me because in addition to its low price and "agony rating" I found I could easily arrange a longer layover in Reykjavík for free. While mulling it over I made a Skype call to my buddy Kirk in Alaska who had worked in Iceland back in the 90s. His enthusiastic response convinced me to go ahead with my plan. I found and reserved a nice AirBnB apartment in Reykjavík for $85 USD per night, researched rental cars so I could get out into the country, and then promptly booked the flight and a car.

In retrospect my visit might have been warmer and sunnier had I been there during the summer months. In early May much of the island was still suffering a winter hangover with brown fields showing through the remaining snow. While the rural areas were beautiful they had a somewhat grim appearance owing to that. The brief glimpse I had later of the southern coast under blue skies was proof that no matter where you are in the world there is natural scenery to be enjoyed, especially when the sun is shining!

My first venture out of Reykjavík was to the northeast. I wanted to see one of Iceland's most famous waterfalls, Guillfoss, and the Þingvellir National Park (Thingvellir) which includes the historical site of Iceland's first parliament, the Alþingi (Althing). There have been Europeans on Iceland for a very long time — the first settlers arrived from Norway in about 874 CE — and the Alþingi first met in this valley beginning in 930. The area is geologically significant too as it includes a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Because of its cultural importance Þingvellir is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
(Note: Double-click on images for full size)

Site of the Alþingi, Iceland's first parliament, in 930 CE (N64.25740, W21.12113)
The Rift Valley at Þingvellir
I continued northward into the high country to see the Guillfoss waterfall. Along the way I stopped at a small market and bought a jar of pickled herring and some sandwich rolls. We used to follow an old German custom of eating pickled herring on New Year's Eve when I was growing up. I've liked the stuff since then. Of course, and all too obviously, there's not many foods I don't like. I made sandwiches of the herring and onions on buns and enjoyed a chilly but pleasant picnic lunch by the side of a small clearwater brook. The entire scene below could have been transported to Iceland from Alaska and I'd be unaware of the swap.
Picnic site on Route 37 (N64.24179° W20.66968°)
I got the following photos as the clouds began to give way to a bit of sunshine. Guillfoss means Golden Waterfall (foss=waterfall) and it was impressive.

Guillfoss (N64.32549 W20.1250)

Next I stopped to see the Skálholt Cathedral. It's been an important cultural and historical part of Iceland and the Church of Iceland for eight centuries. Here is its most recent incarnation.
Skálholt Cathedral (N64.12547 W20.52405)

Stone and sod church reconstruction near Skálholt Cathedral (N64.12547 W20.52405)
The next day was perfect. I woke early, saw cloudless skies, gulped down some tea and toast and was on the road by 7 am. Reykjavík is at 63° north latitude so the light comes early and stays late as it does in Homer, Alaska, (59° north) at this time of year. I had a longish tour planned, about 350 miles, and wanted to get an early start. My destination was a picturesque canyon having the totally unpronounceable name of Fjaðrárgljúfur (see the Notes below).

The ride was splendid, the scenery stunning, and to top things off the sun was warming the air just enough to have the windows part way down, with the heat on, that is. By the way, my rented Ford Focus had studded tires on all four wheels and the clicking sound they made on the pavement reminded me of the days when I had to swap my summer tires for studs every September — a chore I don't miss. Another is scraping windshields in the mornings. No thanks.
As I drove along I kept stopping to snap pictures as one jaw dropping scene after another rolled by. Waterfalls abound along Route 1 and the two I had on my list were in shadow on my outward trip but there were plenty of other cascades to gawk at.

After a few hours I was jonesin' for a cup of coffee and maybe some lunch. Coffee shops or cafes were few and far between after leaving Reykjavík so when I spotted a sign saying Black Beach Restaurant 6 km, I hung a right and headed south. It was just one of those random things, that turn, but as I crested a hill a lovely black-sand beach, Reynisfjara, came into view and stretched way off into the distance. The restaurant wasn't due to open for another 45 minutes so I walked down a short path to the beach to have a closer look. Nearby are two slender sea stacks guarding the entrance to a huge cave, Halsanefshellir, the ocean has carved out of the basalt. What a pretty spot this is. Tourists come from far and wide to see the beach and caves no doubt but I blundered into it unawares while thinking about a cup of coffee.

Reynisfjara Beach (N63.40401 W19.04778)
Catching Reynisfjara on such a beautiful day was a piece of luck. I took some photos, relaxed for a while in the warm sun, listened to the sea gulls crying overhead as they caught drafts and twirled around in the clear air. After that idyllic interlude I went to the restaurant and had a sandwich of Icelandic lox on a croissant before continuing my drive.

Rocky outcrop near Vik

I'm writing this in Alaska and so I'll toss in a photo of my dinner tonight. I eat a lot of fish while I'm here because the fish we eat is quite literally the best there is in the world. This is sautéed Alaskan salmon with baked potato and steamed chard.

Alaskan RV Dinner

Okay, back to Iceland.

I finally found myself at the canyon with the unpronounceable name, the canyon I'd just driven 170 miles to see, Fjaðrárgljúfur. It was scenic and cool but compared to the waterfalls that came later, a bit disappointing to my already jaded eye.

Fjaðrárgljúfur (N63.77223° W18.17203°)
I wandered around for a while and then started back to Reykjavík. I made pretty good time on the isolated and lightly traveled highway and before long I was back at one of the waterfalls I had passed on the outbound leg of my ride. I got there when the sun was at a perfect angle to make rainbows in the spray.

Skógafoss (N63.53226° W19.51153°)
Just a few miles down the road was another cool cascade, Seljalandsfoss, and it too had those magical spray rainbows caused by the slanting sunlight.

Seljalandsfoss (N63.61551° W19.99001°)
View from behind Seljalandsfoss
Seeing those waterfalls was a fitting end to my long field trip to the east and I'm happy I had such fine weather for it. The next day dawned overcast and chilly but I wanted to get out to see a hot spring so I dressed warm and headed to a thermal area south of the city. It wasn't a long ride but the countryside was dreary and there was light rain in the air. I stopped at Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on this western peninsula, before arriving at the Seltún thermal area. Here you can see the gloomy weather I had for my last two days in Iceland.

Route 42 and Kleifarvatn Lake (N63.91984° W21.97707°)
Iceland is volcanic in origin and there is evidence of its fiery past everywhere. Here is a shot of some solidified lava near the lakeshore.

Seltún in foreground, Kleifarvatn Lake in the distance
I climbed a rough trail from Seltún to a height of land hoping for some good views. Working my way back down the steep path was treacherous because the surface was covered with pebbles. I felt so unsteady in my smooth soled tennis shoes that I broke a cardinal rule of good hiking practice and moved over into the grassy areas bordering the path where I gingerly descended back to the boardwalk of the thermal park. The unsteadiness or ungainliness I felt on that descent seems to be new feature of my life that's been popping up now and again to haunt me. I do not feel as competent on rough terrain as I used to when I was younger — lately even a walk across a mowed lawn compels me to slow down and take small deliberate steps. Getting old sucks!
I continued my drive with a swing east on the 427 to the fishing port of Þorlákshöfn where I had lunch. The coast along here is so barren, so forsaken that one wonders whether a shipwreck survivor upon spying the desolate shore might not be inspired to turn around and swim back out to sea.

Coastal plain alongside Route 427
Above are some remnants of Iceland's volcanic past; you can see where molten lava flowed out of a break in the ridge. The foreground is littered with pillow basalt boulders and there is no leafy vegetation whatsoever — only moss and lichen can grow in such a harsh environment. Iceland has many active volcanoes and boasts one of the world's newest islands, Surtsey, which was formed by volcanic eruptions in the years 1963-68. Iceland's climate is significantly milder than nearby Greenland because warm ocean currents moderate the climate. Despite those "warm" currents, I got chilled during a short walk after lunch and was ready to head home soon after that.

Icelandic Feast by Tapas Barinn (N64.14866° W21.94205°)

I decided to eat out on my last night. I had read about a set menu style dinner called the Icelandic Feast being offered by several Reykjavík restaurants and I was anxious to try some of the foods on that list. At almost $70 USD it would be an expensive meal but I justified it by telling myself that I was only going to have this one chance to eat whale meat, and puffin, both traditional Icelandic foods, so I might as well go for it. After reading some reviews I decided on Tapas Barinn. I was not disappointed. It was quite a feast.
The whale meat was unlike any meat I've ever had, dark red with a very smooth texture and mild flavor. (They serve minke whale, which is supposedly a non-threatened species. Opinions vary on this topic.) The puffin was smoked and served cold with a blueberry glaze of some sort and was also very tasty. The meal was served as tapas, that is, small individual plates of the featured foods on the menu, each served with a small side of vegetables and a unique sauce tailored to enhance the particular food. I also had Icelandic lamb on skewers, some Icelandic cod, Arctic char, and several satisfyingly garlicky, jumbo shrimp, finished off with dessert and coffee. The meal was fantastic and the service polite and fast. Next time you're in Iceland, stop in and try the feast for yourself.


The Icelandic language:
The character "Þ" is pronounced something like "th" but that's only one of the oddities of the language. For example, trying the name Þingvellir with Google Translate produces this. Click the tiny speaker button beneath the left hand text box to hear it spoken.

Try this one too. It will better demonstrate the difficulty a foreigner would encounter if trying to learn the language.

Iceland has a population of 328,000 with 129,000 of those living in Reykjavík. Its land area is 39,690 square miles. By comparison, Alaska has a population of 730,000 and occupies 663,000 square miles. That works out to be 8.2 persons/sq. mi. for Iceland and 1.1 persons/sq. mi. for Alaska. Half of Alaskan residents live in Anchorage so overall Alaska is much less densely populated than Iceland even though the parts of it I saw seemed thinly settled.