We left Iceland on a 7:51 a.m. flight to London…a 3 hour flight and one hour time difference. Then a 1:15 p.m. flight to Dublin. Just a hop, skip and jump. Of course, Heathrow is there to hobble you. We lost 2 of 3 bags through Heathrow. The one that made it with us to Dublin was the one full of dirty clothes. Gotta love that!
We arrived on a not so typical sunshiny day. We checked into our B&B, room #6 at the top of the stairs in Mrs. Crofton’s Garville Manor, in Rathgar. First things first…laundry. And then we took the bus to Grafton Street and Bewleys. It was an amusing ride listening to two teenage girls cat-calling out the bus windows–“fashion police”, “Hey Casanova…”, “well, hello there…”
Great, comfortable meal at Bewleys with mugs of white coffee…God how I love Bewleys!
We ran into Siobhan there (she worked with Bryan at the Duke in Chicago). Small world.
Headed down the quays to visit Nick and Catherine’s. We sat and talked to them for awhile before going back into town to meet Siobhan and a friend for drinks at Brogan’s at the Olympia. Stayed just past last call and hoofed it all the way back to Rathgar in a light mist because there were no taxis. Things have changed here. The buses run longer, the city is jammed with traffic and there’s clearly money in the system
Elderly Mrs. Croften shocked us in the morning with her comment “It’s a long walk after a few jars”–and doubled over laughing at her own joke.
Rainy days then. Typical and accepted. They make for good pub days, and just fit this beautiful old city. I checked in on the familiar places. The Foggy Dew has lost it’s ambiance–it’s expanded now, and bursting at the seams with the young crowd. Temple Bar is extraordinarily posh. The quays are high end. Is this the same place that only 5-10 years ago was not exactly safe?! Smells the same, sounds the same, buskers still on Grafton Street, still quiet just inside the walls of Trinity, still soft seating at McDaids, still the Haypenny Bridge and the Liffey, and the sales people on O’Connell Street Bridge and around the GPO. And still the playful wit and sarcasm…but it’s more polished now. We took in Juno and the Paycock at the Gaity and then met Shane and Jackie for a full moon Saturday night in Dublin–and caught the last bus home.
We drove back through Reykjavik, stopping for lunch at Tiu Dropar and some last minute souvenirs, before moving on to the Blue Lagoon near the airport. We checked into Gistihusid Blaa Lonid (room #21).
The Blue Lagoon is at the Svartsengi power plant–where mineral laden water is pumped from 1 1/4 miles beneath the earth at 470 degrees Fahrenheit. As it passes off, it’s cooled to 158 degrees with silica which is known to cure psoriasis. The hotel is situated in a lava field, a moon-like area and surrounded by steaming, industrial smoke stacks.
We spent a happy couple of hours squatting in the 3 1/2 feet deep blue water with the powdery silted bottom. It was warm and a funny sensation vs. the cold air on your face.
Early in the a.m., we were to be on to Ireland, via London. Good night Iceland…thanks! What an odd and wonderful place. As Bryan said about Iceland, “No one is going to believe this.”
What a strange night in Akureyri. Awake every hour to go out onto the balcony by the bijou and stare into the skies for the Northern Lights. No luck. Am I looking in the wrong direction? Am I missing them between alarms? Will I ever see them? Are they such a gift as to only be seen by the deserving? I had strange dreams when I was asleep, and maybe some while I was awake.
We went for coffee at Glaa Kahnan and had some figure-eight shaped Kleina Innihalds–twisted plain doughnut-like yummies before heading out.
The journey west would be thankfully uneventful. Foggy in parts–but nothing like the East coast fjords. We stopped for lunch at something akin to a Stuckey’s in the middle of nowhere.
In the middle of nowhere, we passed a bearded old man, dressed in a black suit and black hat walking along the road towards us. It was if he’d stepped out of the book I was reading, Independent People. He did not smile or wave. A few minutes later we came upon this lonely house. I had black and white film in the camera, as if meant for this house, this moment. I got out of the car, but the wind made the house hum and creak. One shot and I was back in the car with chill bumps and my hackles up.
Skies were clear as we drove into Stykkisholmur. We checked into Fosshotel Stykkishólmur (Room #215). Clear skies and a corner room facing North, West and East, on a hill facing the fjord. PERFECT for waiting for the Northern Lights.
Dinner was fancy at the hotel….delicate fish with wine/beer and cappuccinos. Bryan went over to a basketball court where a lone kid played and joined him for a game.
Again, I set the alarm clock for every hour. The night was like a dream. At 1:26 a.m., I sat in the window sill and questioned my eyes…was it? I wrote in my journal in the dark, “I think I may be seeing them, A white wisp like a cloud–white wisp like a cloud that goes and comes in the eastern / northern sky, never blocks the stars, same area, near mountain, Never blocks stars.”
The next morning I remembered this as looking like fog coming over the mountain, faint, white and wispy. Coming together and separating. Funny though, there was no mountain there. It was like a dream. Lonely Planet says they are believed to be a gift from the dead or a storehouse of events–past and future. All I can think is “AGAIN! AGAIN!”
We would climb Helgafell today, silently and without looking back, so as to get our wishes. Helgafell–Holy Mountain–is considered to have supernatural powers. According to legend, those who climb Helgafell for the first time will have three wishes come true, provided a few conditions are followed:
You must climb the southwest slope, not looking back or speaking on the way;
You must make your wishes facing east;
Only benevolent wishes made with a guileless heart are granted;
You must descend to the east and pay your respects at the grave of Gudrun Osvifursdottir
This woman, Gudrun from the Sagas, was married 4 times during her long life. Her 1st husband abandoned her. She was persuaded to marry his friend/cousin/blood-brother and enticed him to kill her 1st husband. But then, #2 was killed by #1’s brothers. She ultimately remarried twice, but ended up living out her life as a hermit around Helgafell. On her deathbed, her son asks her who she loved the best. Her reply–“I treated the worst the one I loved the most”–is famous for its ambiguity. And the final condition: You must never tell anyone what you wish for on Helgafell mountain.
After a fish-laden breakfast, we circled town once more and headed over the foggy mountain into the barren land along Ring Road to Lake Myvatn. I do mean barren. Scary. No sheep, no grass–just a lot of gravel and dirt. It was a huge mountain with dirt & gravel roads. We ended up following the only other car we saw…a little Golden Yellow car (we named him “Sven”) on the foggy Yellow Roads.
Finally after an hour or so, we exited the fog. Just like that. It opened to amazing views of sun, yellow fields/land, distant mountains and low clouds way ahead of us. Sven pulled over and we kept going…out into that sunny, moon-like landscape of yellow soil for miles around. It was just odd. We found the road north to Dettifoss. My god what a road. Rough. Bryan eased over the tractor ruts and gravel. We turned around, thinking we–and the car–would never make the 17 mile journey to Dettifoss without rattling every nut/bolt loose in the car or our heads. About 30 seconds after we turned around, Sven comes barreling down the road–headed to Dettifoss at about 50 miles an hour with a little white car with 2 Asian girls in it close behind.
We looked at each other, Bryan whipped the car around–and again we headed to Dettifoss–now hauling at a mind-numbing 50 miles an hour following Sven’s parade. What a hard 28 km! Bryan called the day “living off our nerves”.
Dettifoss was huge. Strange basalt formations along the canyon walls. This is the largest waterfall in Europe. Although only 44m high, the amount of water volume that goes over per second is immense. Plumes of spray can be seen a mile away. The 20 minute walk down to the fall was over a rocky trail that wasn’t marked often or well. Thank god for the Sven boys and the Asian girls. We smiled and waved at each other–as we experienced the canyon. Despite the power, this waterfall didn’t impress we like Gullfoss or the beautiful one we walked behind. We took our time…dreading the hammering of those 28 km of road.
Later we made it into the Lake Myvatn area. Midge Lake is in an active volcano area–and is statistically the driest spot in Iceland since it’s in the rain shadow of the Vanajokull icecap. The lake sits on the Mid-Atlantic ridge and thus, all the volcanic activity. There are about 50 islands and islets in the Lake which are pseudo craters formed by gas explosions when molten lava flows into water. There are boiling mudpits around here and the whole scene smells of sulphur.
We saw smoke from the Krafla crater “Viti” (which means “hell”). We walked around the area. You are highly encouraged to stay on the paths so you are not scalded by the boiling, bubbling, spurting mud pits. The smell was overwhelming…and the ground was hot to the touch.
We spent about an hour in the Dimmuborgir forest…a field of strange 2,000-year-old contorted volcanic pillars, haunting arches, caves and tunnels. There was no place to stop for lunch or we would have stayed in this area longer….hunger drove us on.
We paid our respects to Godafoss, the waterfall of the Gods. Once again, you can walk to the very edges of a massive waterfall in perfect solitude.
We arrived into Akureyri and checked into Hotel Nordurland by Keahotels Akureyri (room #103–smelled homey, like my grandmother’s house) and found pasta at Baulinn, followed by coffees at Graa Kahnan. Our hotel faced the “bijou” as Bryan said. It was going to be a clear night and we had a window facing north. I was again hopeful for the Northern Lights–trying to witness them five different times during the night.
So, it’s time for a bit about the roads in Iceland. The Ring Road, circles the island. It was completed in 1974. Thing is, the road has a tough time surviving the volcanic pressures, glacial bursts, gravel landslides, ocean waves, and freezing temperatures. The roads really keep you guessing. There are one lane bridges, “Blind Heads”, sandstorm and volcanic eruption warnings…and some signs simply say “!” There are RED and YELLOW roads on the map. Red roads are generally paved or metal. Yellow roads are like a surprise…you don’t really know what you’ll get…unpaved, m**************s, gravel, washed-out, AND/OR intense fog.
Many times we would wait on the road as a truck “repaired” the road ahead of us by flattening the rock and dirt that had tumbled there. When given the ok to pass, we passed slowly, often scraping the bottom of the car. By the end of our journey around this Ring Road, our rear view mirror had cracked and there were numerous dings around the car from flying gravel.
The other thing about the road is that Iceland has some beliefs about elves and fairies who live in the rocks and fields. Road projects have been canceled so as “not to disturb the fairy-folk”. This from a country who elected the first woman president of any nation.
So, we experienced these just about every kind of road Iceland has to offer as we headed into Seydisfjordur. The day was to be a full one of driving. We stopped at several stacked cairns of rocks…placing 3 in the pile meant good luck for the traveler. After the luck we’ve had, of course we stopped to add rocks!
We saw white picket-fenced graveyards, fish-drying racks, shy sheep, churches seemingly in the middle of nowhere, empty roads, scenic look-out areas, and some amazing scenery along the fjords as we headed up the East coast of Iceland. We stopped outside a cute little town called Faskrydsfjordur to finish our lunch of pepperoni and shredded cheese on Ritz crackers. We sat alongside a fjord or lake, skimming stones and enjoying the sunshine.
As we headed up into the fjords, we started seeing more trees…birch forests. The trees are bent, twisted and short. They have to try really hard to grow in such harsh conditions. We also got into some THICK, dense fog as we twisted and turned up the narrow cliff-side roads…YELLOW roads I should add. Bumpy, graveled, washed out, fog so thick you can’t see beyond 5 feet in front of you and the cliff edge just to the right of the road. Harrowing. Yeah…it was an intense few hours of driving.
We arrived in Seydisfjordur around 5 p.m…hands tight from gripping the steering wheel. We checked into the Hotel Snaefell (room #15) and had a few drinks. Tapered candles stuck in a small bowl, fresh flowers, lace curtains, soft music, Icelandic fishermen everywhere, whale bones, ship bells, whistles and a wheel. As it got dark, a lighted sign came on on the side of the mountain…1999 Isolfur (the mountain’s name).
I had started reading Independent People by Halldor Laxness. I wondered if I’d lived this life in the past…knitting sweaters and watching the fog come and go in one of the tin-covered houses around the fjord. Again, it was overcast at 2 a.m. I saw eerily lit fog over the water. The mountain sign was turned off. At breakfast, we had salmon, cheese, ham pepperoni, toast and poached eggs. We were also offered pickled herring. Nice gesture, but it nearly put us over the top.
It was in Vik that I began the 2 a.m. Northern Lights vigil. We had a picture window facing the Atlantic in our wood paneled room #25 of Hotel Hofdabrekka Vik. The evening ended with clouds covering up a perfect 1/2 moon. I set the alarm for 2 a.m. When it went off, I spent an hour gazing at the sky. It was overcast this night. A storm was rolling in from the ocean. I could see distant car lights moving along the ocean road–yet I couldn’t see the mountain just to our side. The farmhouse lives in the good graces of Volcano Katla, and is supposedly haunted. Getting back to sleep that night was not easy.
The next morning dawn seemed late and there were sheets of rain coming down sideways with the wind. We wanted to see the black sand beach and the standing stones at Reynisdrangar on this cold Sunday morning. We turned off the main Ring Road towards the ocean.
The road was patchy (I’ll get to these roads in the next entry). We bounced along, braving the road. Suddenly, the road was over and we were on a strand of black gravel sand leading down to the beach with the three sea stacks (Skessudrangar, Landdrangar and Langhamrar). We parked. We could only see one of the standing stones from here. We would get out and walk to the ocean’s edge to see the others.
The wind nearly pulled the doors off the car as soon as we opened them. We held hands and began walking down to the beach. The wind was unbelievable. It pushed and pushed–like a giant hand cupped along your back–forcing you to the ocean. Bryan and I linked arms and dug our feet into the sand to avoid being driven into the ocean. It was funny at first, then lost the charm when we couldn’t catch our breath and couldn’t stop being pushed like a leaf towards the waves. Somehow, we turned around and made it back to the car. The wind changed direction and pushed us quickly to the car…making the cars doors difficult to open, but slamming them shut even as we hurried to tuck our legs in. An omen, a warning? Should have heeded it!
I had the bright idea of driving the car down to a different place on the gravel road so that maybe we could see all three standing stones from the safety of the car. Bryan gamely tries it. The gravel becomes sand. The car bottoms out. We come to a halt, the car stalls. Bryan reverses. We go nowhere. Not forward, not backward. Black sand, wind, rain, it was an early Sunday morning in a bleak, isolated corner of Iceland. We got out and became horrified. The front tires are 1/2 buried. We can’t see underneath the car. The headlights burn in the dark beach as we start digging like dogs to free the wheels. Fifteen minutes later, no progress. Now we’re filthy, tired, and really scared. We’ll have to call Avis to rescue us. IF we can find a phone…
We walk to the closest farmhouse…up a hill about a mile away. Two dogs greet us, surprisingly friendly. We knock. A man answers, a little girl is wrapped around his leg looking at us wide-eyed. He had nearly clear blue eyes and blond hair. I asked for help and pointed at the car. He smiled as he looked out to our tiny, isolated car–motor still running, lights burning way out there on the beach–and says “I’ll bring the tractor”. We walked back, accompanied by a sheep dog. Soon he came into sight on the tractor. He tied a tow-rope around the back axle and pulled it out with Bryan steering, dogs barking at the car and dirt flying.
We thanked him about a hundred times, petted the dogs and Bryan gave him every piece of paper money we had…we think it was about $40. What a day….and it wasn’t quite 10 a.m. We stopped at the next gas station for an ATM, fuel, chips and cokes. We were still shaking. After settling down a bit, we began the drive East.
The scenery was again surreal–bizarre. Out of place rocks–HUGE boulders. And then gravelly, sandy streams, and black beaches. Thufurs of bright green/yellow/black mounds. Miles of nothing but marshy looking grass and stacked stones. We drove through two sandurs (Mectallandsandur and Skeidararsandur)–vast wastelands of black sand and glacial debris carried out by volcanic eruptions underneath the icecap Vatnajokull. Until the Ring Road was completed in 1974, the only way to cross was on a horse with a guide. Miles of this road washed out in 1996 because of an eruption under the glacier. Travelers are warned about the dangers of the area’s intense wind that sandblasts people and cars.
At Skaftafellsjokull glacier, we hiked for about 45 minutes on a rock trail to the glacier. It looked really close. It wasn’t. The glacier is retreating–it has separated from it’s other finger now…leaving behind dark sand and gravel and no growth. “Glacial bursts” have left boulders and giant slabs of ice here and there. We touched the glacier–muddy, slate grey with shiny spots of ice and blue up further. Water runs beneath it. It’s hollow underneath and sounds like a muffled waterfall–dripping, pouring and swirling.
A little while later we came suddenly upon the iceberg lake, Jokulsarlon. Big chunks of beautiful blue ice floating in a lake. Saw a seal. No one was at the boats, or we would have taken a ride among the bergs.
We arrived in Hofn, Guest House Hvammur (Gistiheimili Hvammur), room #3. We were the only guests there. We grabbed burgers from a small yellow drive-up stand on the harbor. And collapsed. I dreamed I was about to see the northern lights…lying on my back looking at the 1/2 circle of the black sky–with lines drawn over it for star formations. Just as the Northern lights were coming, I woke up.
We turned the radio up loud and headed out. Past blue mountains, a rainbow and all those green chunky fields. I’d read Summer at Little Lava by Charles Fergus–and remembered his description of thufur–the frozen bits of ground that jut up here and there. Farmers who’ve grown accustomed to negotiating these thufurs, find it difficult to walk normally on level ground. We were on our way around the Ring Road of Iceland.
Off in the distance, we saw a waterfall and as we got closer, decided to stop. It was Seljalandfoss. The sun came out, we shed our coats and set off to walk around the waterfall. A path nestled into the wall, ran behind the waterfall…we walked behind it, taking loads of pictures, getting a little misted, and enjoying the exhilarating thrill of nature. Small yellow flowers bloomed in the short green grass.
We also stopped for pictures of sheep standing on a barn roof, mountain rocks encroaching on the buildings beneath them, black sand beaches, signs that warned of erupting volcanoes, amazing light on distant buildings and a little village called Skogar.
Skogar is a folk museum of old Icelandic housing. There were tiny, sod-roofed houses filled with an amazing amount of furniture. Beds were built into the walls and covered with delicate quilts–despite the sod walls, ceilings and floors. A tiny white church was the village centerpiece. As we walked quietly around the open air museum by ourselves, peering into the little homes…we heard organ music and several voices singing a hymn. The only other people there were in the church. The wind carried their song. It was so quiet out there…and their voices and the organ music was the only sound except for the wind in our ears. Magic. So peaceful.
Of course, you get back on the road and begin seeing signs warning of imminent danger if Katla erupts. Katla volcano is one of Iceland’s most destructive volcanoes. When it boils over, it melts some of the glacier over it, sending a wall of water, sand, and silt to wash away everything in its path. The last eruption was 1918. Another is expected soon. The sign reads: “Please Note: Due to possible eruption in the Katla volcano, people are adviced not to leave the road.”
We arrived safely at Hotel Hofdabrekka, checked into room #25 facing the Atlantic and visited the large dining hall for a filling supper.
On the way back to Reykjavik that first morning, we stopped to pay our respect to Geysir Strokkur–“the Churn”–that shoots water 65 feet into the air every 5 minutes. Visitors are warned to stay on paths to avoid being scalded in the geothermically-heated area.
Still in awe of the waterfall, but getting very hungry and very tired, we found the Hotel Geysir around Gullfoss and Geysir Strokkur. Our first sticker-shock…~$30 for 2 soups, 2 sandwiches and 2 coffees. Colorful money even if it didn’t hang around very long…$7 U.S. = Icelandic Kronur 500…or kr75 to a $1.
I picked up a few postcards of Gullfoss, one of it frozen solid. It looks like dripping white icing, curling at the plate. In the photo, people boldly walk across the lip of the fall…on ice. It is a stunning photograph and tempts me to return to Iceland in the winter
On the quiet ride back to Reykjavik, “All I Want is You” came on the radio…we passed green green fields, stony mountains and saw large boulders resting in odd places as if flung there. Boulders everywhere…spotted with green and yellow moss/lichen and surrounded by short tuffs of golden red grasses. Every now and then, a red gravel driveway led to a distant building.A slinking, curly-headed girl with a tattoo on her chest answered the door to Gisthaus Svala (Gistiheimilid Svala). She wore jeans beneath a black apron skirt and sashayed it like a ballroom gown all the way to Room #7. We tucked in for a 3 hour nap. I dreamed of waterfalls so big I couldn’t see the other side.
We spent 2 days in Reykjavik. Spending time at the Dubliner pub and a little tea/coffee house called Tiu Dropar. Tiu Dropar was at garden level–teapots and sugar cubes, beaded lamps and plenty of time/space to spend writing postcards and warming up after long walks. I was amused by the tin covered houses painted bright colors. They often had window boxes of colorful heath and heathers. We ate well, walked a lot, saw the sites and bought “woolies.”
The descent was a quick 20 minutes into Iceland. We rented a green 4-door Opel with license plate “TV 222″ and set out for Reykjavik….”Sweet Home Alabama” on the radio.
Have we landed on the moon? Where was the green grass? The waterfalls? The land around the airport was rocky–like a dug up construction site, for miles. Every now and again, we spotted red roof houses in the distance–across the rocks. It was early morning, nothing was open, the streets were empty.
Jet lagged and without a home to go to yet, we decided to drive the 45 miles to Gullfoss waterfall. The morning sky was overcast…low, dark gray-periwinkle clouds squeezed a thin, bright white break of sky at the horizon line. We passed fields of short reddish-yellow grasses, blue mountains in the distance, very few buildings, and only one or two cars. We arrived around 9 a.m. Not another soul around. You heard the wind and the distant rumble of water–lots of water–and saw the far-off Langjokull glacier from the parking area. We followed the path and in about 10-15 minutes stood at the waterfall’s edge.
Good LORD! It was HUGE! Majestic! Loud! Gullfoss–“the golden waterfall”–is the River Hvita tumbling down a deep canyon 70 meters deep and 2.5 kilometers long. I read somewhere that it was to be dammed, until a farmer’s daughter walked to Reykjavik to protest. Now, it is a national monument.
We walked down some steep stone steps, embedded in the ground and slick with mist and moss. The path led us to an outcropping of rocks that change the path of the waterfall. There is a view point from here that puts you below the water fall (as it is falling into the canyon crack before the spit of land you stand on). It is a shocking perspective. Fear nearly rooted me to the spot. Bryan wandered on. I stood there–mist flying up at me in the waterfall’s perpetual rain. The sound was deafening. It was so green, the smell so freshly intense of moist earth. The wind alternated between playing and pushing. And I stood there. Locked into the moment that has become a dreamlike memory. We spent over an hour there, trying to absorb the spectacle.
“Why Iceland?” was the question we heard most. There was something about the isolation, the hardiness and raw beauty of the place that intrigued us. Glaciers, massive waterfalls, volcanos, fjords and green grass. Would we see the Northern Lights?
And then a return to Ireland–Carol’s 7th trip to beloved Eire. Green grass, fresh air, mist, music (ceol agus craic), and that special something that is in the nooks and crannies of Dublin. Slainte!
Chicago to Reykjavik and Hurricane Floyd!
We awoke on the morning of our long awaited journey…to find that Hurricane Floyd was pummeling it’s way up the East coast. We were scheduled to fly from Chicago to Baltimore on Southwest and then to Iceland.
But Floyd was expected to hit full gale in Baltimore about the time our flight was to land there. The Chicago to Baltimore flight was cancelled, and we expected the IcelandAir flight to Reykjavik from Baltimore to be in the same situation (though they told us they couldn’t confirm cancellation until after 2pm–which meant we couldn’t swap departure cities until the first flight canceled.) Since we were booked in one-nighters all the way around Iceland, missing the planned date of arrival was like yanking the table cloth off of a fully-dressed table.
I spent the morning on the phone with United, American, Southwest, and IcelandAir trying to re-route us through Minneapolis. After a tense 3 hours of being on hold with nerve-racking music, watching the Weather Channel (also nerve-wracking music), hoping that Floyd would just up and blow away, throwing last minute things in the suitcase, chewing my nails, and speaking with over three dozen people across 6 airlines, I ultimately used air miles and spent another $500 on airfare…and got it worked out. Now, we’d leave the U.S. on IcelandAir via Minneapolis. The connection to Minneapolis on American would leave Chicago in just 2 hours!
Holy Cow! I’ve been on the phone all morning–still needed a shower and to do the final packing. It was an intense hour…passport, undies, socks, film, camera, tops & bottoms, toothbrush…Hug the dogs, turn out the lights.
We made it with little time to spare. Barely time to get to the gate.
Landing in Minneapolis, Bryan comments “We’re gonna make it after all” in that sing-songy voice of the Mary Tyler Moore show…Immediately lifting the day’s stress…we’re going to ICELAND!
Minneapolis to Reykjavik
The IcelandAir ticket is confirmed and we board for the 5 hour 40 minute flight to Iceland. And there’s a 5 hour time difference.
I noted in my journal that the sky was “Maxfield Parrish blues”, with tons of stars and crisp light. Thin clouds below us, water below that. Sunlight on the fringe of the horizon.