Cold thighs, unfriendly horses get eaten along with boiled tourists, but no lights. Yet.
14.01.2013 - 14.01.2013
View Northern Lights Explorer on Grete Howard's travel map.
Despite having read in several places before we left the UK that you have to phone ahead and book your evening dinner in remote places, I still wasn't prepared for the week's menu coming round the bus before we'd even left the hotel this morning; having to choose what we want to eat for every evening for the week. Oh well – we haven't got much choice in the matter, as the hotels really are off the beaten track. No whale, no reindeer and no puffin on the menus. Shame.
We set off at 09:00 in the pitch dark this morning, with a drive-by sightseeing of Reykjavik's main highlights. I can't say I recognised that much from our previous visit pretty exactly 20 years ago (January 1993), but then it might just have changed a trifle since then.
The world's northernmost capital of a sovereign state is often referred to as the Bay of Smoke as the name loosely translates to 'Smoke Cove'.
One of only two places we stopped, Hallgrímskirkja is a Lutherian church, named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614 to 1674), author of the Passion Hymns. It is said to have been designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland's landscape and took 38 years to build with completion in 1986. It is one of the few things I remember from Reykjavik last time. The church houses a large pipe organ some 15 metres tall and weighing 25 ton, which has mechanical action with 5275 pipes, but the interior of the church was closed due to refurbishment.
The statue of explorer Leif Eriksson (c. 970 – c. 1020) in front of the church was a gift from the United States in honour of the 1930 Alþingi Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland's parliament at Þingvellir in 930 AD. Eriksson is of course the disputed discoverer of America some 500 years before Columbus...
At Perlan we stopped to see the view over Reykjavik and the surrounding area, as well as use the facilities. By now the temperature had dropped to -6C with a chilly wind, especially on the 4th floor viewing deck.
Soon the sun decided to make an appearance, painting the sky a beautiful pastel purple and glowing gold on the mountains beyond. Is that a promise of things to come?
Alafoss Icelandic Wool Store
The itinerary states that we will visit a wool store “just to see what they do with all those sheep”, but all we saw was some knitted products. Was that the censored version? And anyway, all what sheep? I haven't seen a single baa-baa yet!
Apparently, Icelandic Wool Has Unique Properties reputed to be the world's most versatile fibre. Evolving over 1,100 years of exposure to the sub-Arctic climate , the fleece is dual coated - it has a long outer coat called tog and a fine inner coat called thel. The outer fibres are long, glossy, tough and water-resistant, while the inner thel fibres are fine, soft and insulating.
An average adult fleece weights 2.5-3 kg, with the locks 20-30 cms from a 7 month old sheep (Fall shorn) to 45 cms when the animal is one year old. Because that length of wool would be awkward to handle, most producers shear their sheep twice a year.
Icelandic sheep is also said to have the widest colour range of any breed, including various shades of white, grey and black, and a assortment of browns. Many fleeces have several colours, or inner and outer coats of different colours. I was impressed at all the different coloured wool on sale – I have never seen sheep in those shades before...
Traditionally Icelandic fibre was mostly separated, with the tog (outer coating) being made into embroidery thread, twine or rope and then woven into canvas tapestries, sails or blankets for saddles. The fine tog was also knitted into lacy shawls or made into durable items like aprons. Today it is regarded as a perfect fibre for woven rugs. Thel (the inner coat) was used for much finer and softer garments such as underwear, as well as for baby clothes. Sometimes both coats were spun together to be used for fisherman's knitted sweaters, socks, and hats. I remember 'islandsgenser' (Icelandic sweaters) were all the rage when I grew up in Norway. What I can't remember, however, is how rough the wool felt. Not the sort of thing you would wear for comfort. I was almost tempted by a knitted wine cooler though. Not
We stopped at a service station in Borgarnes for lunch – I tried out their daily special of Fiskibollur – fish balls, served with boiled potatoes and a type of coleslaw. If that was the size of their balls, I wonder how big the fish were? I was very excited to find the spicy salted liquorice in the small shop there too.
This area is known as the “Saga Valley” because of its rich history (nothing to do with the British travel agency for older people), and is also famous for being “the capital of elves and fairies”. Borgarfjörður eystri is said to be the home of a very large population of elves, often called the “hidden people” because it is so difficult to spot them. In the folklore, the elves are often described as similar to humans, but taller, fairer and more beautiful – and there was I thinking elves were small! They live inside the rocks and often help humans out, especially those bullied by their fellow humans. The fjord actually derives its name from the nearby residency of the Icelandic elf-queen. Álfaborg (Elf Rock, Elf Hill). Borgarfjörður has several other places also connected to elves, for instance the church of elves, Kirkjusteinn, which is a huge rock in the valley and the elfin bishop lives in the beautiful Blábjörg. Christening of the hidden people is a prominent motif in the folklore. I was reading on the flight on the way over that half the population of Iceland actually believe in elves.
Jasper is mined in this area too, the only part of the country where this precious stone can be found, and nearby is a farm with a Common Eider breeding colony, where the birds are protected for down collection. The birds are not killed or ahrmed in any way, they themselves removed the down to make nests, and all the farmers do is collect it and replace it with grass.
Grábrók volcano crater
The Grábrók crater is the largest of three in a volcanic fissure in the Bifröst area, and is interesting geologically because of the dramatic way the volcanoes have shaped the rock on the ground. The lava here is thought to be approximately 3000 years old and extends over a wide area. The path to the top is very good, with steps and handrails, but by this stage the temperature had dropped to -8C with a biting north-easterly wind and driving snow coming off the top of the volcano, making the rim of the crater a most uncomfortable place to be. Having dressed reasonably well, it was in fact only the front of my thighs and my face that was cold.
We made a quick photo stop at a paddock full of Icelandic horses – the guide (whose nickname is Rocky-Rock as that is apparently what his name means in Icelandic) explained that they are usually friendly, and those who aren't become food. The horses are now mostly used for gathering up sheep in September and renting out to tourists for riding. Apart from those unfriendly ones that end up on the plate either here in Iceland or in France and Japan.
Europe's most powerful hot spring (and reputed to be the most voluminous natural hot spring in the world) produces 180 litres per second of scorching hot water (97° C – way too hot to bathe in!). It supplies both Akranes and Borgarnes with water for central heating (64 and 34 kms away respectively) - the hot water pipeline to Akranes is the longest in Iceland and the water is about 78 - 80 degrees by the time it reaches Akranes.
Rocky-Rock told us to be careful not to touch the water as it only takes one minute to boil a tourist (against four minutes to boil an Icelander) – I did wonder if the unfriendly ones (tourists) ended up as food....
Hraunfossar is a series of cold springs that well up through the lava (the name hraun comes from the Icelandic word for lava) and run as tiny waterfalls and rapids into the Hvíta River over a distance of about 900 meters. The waterfalls pour from ledges of less porous rock in the lava. Again there are very nice boardwalks arranged from a car park (with facilities), past the Hraunfossar to Barnafoss.
The Hvítá river roars through a narrow chasm into Barnafoss Waterfall. In Icelandic it means “Children’s waterfall” and is said to be named after a tragic drowning of two children that fell into the falls. There once was a natural stone bridge over the waterfall and two local children tumbled to their deaths from the bridge. The bridge is no longer there, as the grief-stricken mother had it destroyed not long after the accident.
I did feel that we were not allocated enough time here, and in order not to be late back to the bus, I missed out part of the boardwalk, I was therefore rather annoyed to see people strolling back to the bus over ten minutes late, stopping to take photos of each other in front of the bus on the way. Don't they realise they are eating into my drinking time?
Reykholt was home of Snorri Sturluson, Iceland’s greatest Saga writer, poet and historian from the 13th century as well as being the intellectual centre of Iceland in Medieval times. I remember reading Snorri's most famous works, Heimskringla, at school, and finding it really hard going. Today, Reykholt is still one of Iceland’s main historical and cultural sites, complete with two beautiful churches, Snorri’s natural hot pool (not very hot), the tunnel where he was killed by a feuding clan, an exhibit of Snorri’s writings, a research centre for medieval studies and a statue of Snorri by the Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland (who is very dear to my heart). We parked the bus and took a walk through Reykholt village (all 300 metres of it) past all the tourist attraction and the hotel's hot tubs which again weren't very hot. What a disappointment. Rocky-Rock and I had a disagreement about whether Snorri was Icelandic or Norwegian.
Heimskringla is a collection of sagas about the Old Norse kings. It was written in Old Norse by the poet and historian Snorri Sturluson in Iceland around 1230, beginning with the saga of the legendary Swedish 9th century dynasty of the Ynglings, followed by accounts of historical Norwegian rulers from Harald Hårfagre (Fairhair) up to the death of the pretender Eystein Meyla in 1177. The name Heimskringla is derived from the first two words of one of the manuscripts (kringla heimsins - the circle of the world).
Before dinner we had a lecture on the northern lights, most of which I either knew before, or it went way above my head. The different colours (red, pink, yellow, green, blue and purple) are caused by the various levels of oxygen at the different altitudes. Green is the most common of all auroras with pure blue being the rarest. It's all to do with the various levels of solar activity at different altitude.... All we need now is to see them! The hotel has a service whereby you put your name and room number down and they will wake you if the lights appear in the night.
Dinner seemed to take forever – the service was very slow. We had an interesting conversation with Alicia from the US and Lee from Oz while we were waiting for the food.