A Travellerspoint blog

January 2013

Skaftafell to Reykjavik

Basalt columns, lava fields, old wooden houses, the Blue Lagoon and a final light show!

all seasons in one day 7 °C
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Kirkjugólf
The rain held off when we got to Kirkjubæjarklaustur and we all piled out of the bus in various items of waterproofs or not as the case may be. The weather was really quite bright, and we even saw some blue sky. It didn't last long though – as we were looking at the basalt columns, the heavens opened, making the walk back to the bus really quite boggy.

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Kirkjugólf (“The church floor”) is the flat tops of basalt columns, eroded by glaciers and waves, making it look like a tiled church floor. They are the same phenomenon as Giant’s Causeway in Ireland for those familiar with that. There has never been a church here but the columns give the appearance that it is man made. Columnar basalt is formed when lava flows cool and contraction forces build up causing horizontal cracks and fractures that result in the six sided shape of the columns.

Systrafoss waterfall

Even though it was really just a few hundred metres away, by the time we arrived at Systrafoss, it was dry and bright again. Systrafoss (Sister Falls) is the name of the waterfall where the river falls over the mountain edge into the gorge. Low down in the gorge there's a giant rock, Fossasteinn, that fell from the mountain during a massive thunderstorm in 1830.

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Great Þjórsá Lava Field
Another lava stop today, this time in the daylight, but guess what? It was raining again... The scenery around this area is almost spooky, with rounded lava rocks almost completely covered in green moss. There is a stark and austere beauty about the place, but it also feels somewhat outer-worldly, as if a green weed has invaded the landscape and covered everything in sight. I saw a few tufts of grass around 10cm tall, other than that, the vegetation was a maximum of 5cm above the ground for miles around, except a small sunken coppice of trees. Most odd.

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We stopped briefly in Vik again for lunch, at yet another fuel service station. I have eaten more fast food on this one week trip than I have in the last five years in the UK.

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Stormy skies over the sea at Vik.

Eyrarbakki
Eyrarbakki is an old fishing-town (until the harbour was deemed too unsafe) on the south-coast of Iceland with a population of about 570 people, not including inhabitants of the prison located there.

The oldest building in the village, Húsið ("The House"), is a Norwegian kit home dating from 1765, built for a Danish trading family, and is the oldest preserved timber dwelling house in Iceland. It now houses the regional folk museum. The town is full of old houses, many of which have corrugated iron covering the original wooden frames. They have almost all received government aid for restoration.

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Driving over the highlands towards Reykjavik, we encountered freshly fallen snow on the roads as well as rain, sleet and we even saw the sun at one stage! All seasons in one day.

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Bláa Lónið - “Blue Lagoon”
The steamy waters of the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa are part of a the Svartsenga lava formation, caused by a volcanic eruption some 800 years ago; its six million litres of warm waters rich in minerals like silica and sulphur are said to have curative powers - bathing in the Blue Lagoon is believed to help people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis. The water keeps a fairly steady temperature of 37-39 °C, so somewhat more comfortable than the 43 °C water in the Georgian Baths in Tbilisi last year! The temperature is variable according to where in the pool you are.

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The lagoon is fed by overspill water from the nearby power plant Svartsengi. Hot geothermal seawater is extracted from 2000 metres beneath the ground and used to run turbines generating electricity as well as providing heat for a municipal water heating system. The water is then pumped into the lagoon for treatments (it is clean and replaced every two days I am assured!), therapies or just relaxing in the large expanse of powder-blue water, set amidst a jet black lavascape. The radiant blue colour is the result of light-refracting micro-organisms that thrive in the unusual ecosystem.

The artificially created Blue Lagoon has been described as 'the most supernatural looking body of water on earth' as well as 'a massive hot tub on the moon' and was voted the best Medical/Thermal spa and one of the top 10 spas in the world by Conde Nast.

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The lagoon experience is totally amazing, and one you really shouldn't miss when you are in Iceland. It is huge, with lots of nooks and crannies where you can lose yourself from the rest of the world just floating about in the mineral-rich waters, standing under a powerful hot waterfall, rubbing white silica mud on your skin, or having a drink in the swim-up bar. We did all of that of course. David commented on how clear the sky was, with lots of stars in attendance, when a gust of wind seemed to change the weather instantly, bringing with it rain, sleet and hail. I had to put my hand over the glass to stop my beer getting watered down!

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The Blue Lagoon was used as the pit stop for the first leg of The Amazing Race 6, as well as for the thermal spa scenes in the filming of Hostel: Part II. It was also shown in the Incubus documentary Look Alive, when the band visited Iceland and shown in the fifth cycle of Britain's Next Top Model which used it as its photoshoot location.

I had read a lot about the lagoon and how you have to shower in the nude, and was feeling a little apprehensive about it. I have no problem with a public changing room per se, but to me showering is a private matter. I made sure to wear my swimsuit under my clothes when I arrived there, so getting into the water was no problem at all. Getting out, however, was another matter. As soon as I exited the pool, I walked into the ladies' area area and showered with my swimsuit on. So far, so good. I was just about to walk in to the actual changing room with one of the Canadian ladies from our group, when we were stopped by one of the attendants, and told we had to dry off first, which is actually a very good idea, so that the changing room itself stays dry for putting your clothes on. We were then told that unless we took our bathers off we wouldn't be properly dry! I protested that we were not Icelandic and she reluctantly let us walk back into the locker area in our swimsuits. Although the room had been deserted earlier when I arrived, now it was teeming with local ladies of all ages , from toddlers to pensioners, all walking about at total ease with not a stitch on. I know it should be the most natural thing in the world (and it seemed to be to the Icelanders – there really was every imaginable shape and size there and no apparent embarrassment), so why do most of us feel uncomfortable with public nudity?

After a traditional Icelandic dinner near the Blue Lagoon consisting of fish followed by pancakes (described as “Hearty Nordic Soul Food”), we boarded the bus for our last journey together as a group back to Reykjavik. The weather was still wet and grey and Rocky-Rock lamented that we were not going to see the Northern Lights this evening. I joked that he'd said the exact same thing a few nights prior, and we saw the aurora that night before we'd even reached the hotel, but he really felt there was very little chance of that happening this evening. So it was with great surprise that he suddenly discovered a small green band in the sky, which soon developed into curtains of vivid glare shimmying across the sky. There were swathes of light moving in waves, undulating ribbons teasing us with their spellbinding performance. Although the activity tonight was said to be a level 2 only, this was even brighter than the previous display. However, it was over as soon as it started, just two or three minutes of magnificent luminous arches - and by the time we found somewhere safe to stop the bus to get out, all that was left was a pale glow in the sky.

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Despite not being able to photograph it this time, I thought this was the best show yet; or perhaps exactly because I didn't take pictures I was able to concentrate and enjoy all the more. What a perfect end to the perfect holiday!

Posted by Grete Howard 20:11 Archived in Iceland Comments (1)

A day spent in the Vatnajökull National Park

Cold, wet and windy, but stunning nature!

storm 8 °C
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We weren't woken in the night for the light,s so presumably there weren't any – although I am not entirely convinced someone in the hotel is actually monitoring the night sky...

The weather this morning was atrocious. Not so much cold (in fact it was 8C), but wet and extremely windy (19 metres per second!), and as the day went on and we all got wetter and wetter, with the scenery obscured by low clouds (“behind that mist is such-and-such glacier...”), the faces of the passengers became more and more weary. We do seem to have more than our few share of miserable buggers in the group though!)

The first stop was to look at some glacier icebergs in a lake in the dark in the rain... whoopee!

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The next stop was somewhat better, but it was still raining and rather too dark to take decent pictures at the beautiful black pebble beach full of smaller clear icebergs and a dead seal.

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Jökulsárlón
At over 248 metres, Jökulsárlón (literally "glacial river lagoon") is a large glacial lagoon filled with floating icebergs and it is the deepest lagoon in Iceland. The scenery here was well worth getting soaked to the skin and pretty cold in the process for. We even saw the very rare Little Auk – Rocky-Rock got very excited as it was his very first sighting.

Since the 9th century, the glacier is believed to have moved nearly 20 kms from its original position further north. Initially, during what is often referred to as 'The Little Ice Age' (when the climate cooled considerably from 1200 until 1900), the glacier advanced with the erosion of its eastern part and the sediment being carried forward by the river Jökulsá. Then, with climate change and all that, the glacier retreated rapidly from 1920 until 1965, leaving a lagoon up to 190m deep where the glacier snout had been, exposing large distances of moraines on either side of the lagoon. In the 23 years from 1975 to 1998, the lagoon almost doubled in size, from 8km² to 15km². The lagoon is constantly furnished with floating iceberg from the calving glacier whose edges are ca 30m high.

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If you are interested, this link gives an explanation of the various terms used to describe glaciers: http://pubs.usgs.gov/of/2004/1216/glaciertypes/glaciertypes.html

This is another location used as a setting for scenes in various blockbusters: Tomb Raider, Batman Begins, A View to Kill and Die Another Day. It is not surprising why famous directors would choose this amazing location as a backdrop! This extremely picturesque glacial lagoon at the southern end of the Vatnajökull glacier is regarded as one of Iceland's greatest natural wonders.

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Hofskirkja - Turf church at Hof
Hofskirkja is the last turf church in Iceland built in the old style. Constructed in 1884 by the carpenter Páll Pállson, with the lock and hinges of the church door made by Þorsteinn Gissurarson, who was a well-known blacksmith. The walls of the church are made from rocks and its roof is stone slabs covered in turf. The reredos in Hofskirkja Church was painted by the artist Ólafur Túbals.

Hof in Öræfi has been a ecclesiastical site for almost 700 years, and is first mentioned in a cartulary from 1343. The church is dedicated to saint Clement.

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Bárðabunga eruption
At the Information Centre, we were shown a film about the volcanic eruption in 1996: On the 30th September, many small tremors were felt at the Bárðabunga volcano, and by 2nd October, a plume of ash was seen coming from the glacier. In the next few days, frequent implosions under the glacier ice in the crevasses caused the water in Grímsvötn Lake to rise by several metres. Even though it had been expected that a large glacier burst would follow the eruption, the speed of the flood took everyone by surprise when it finally occurred on the 5th of November. Only about 15 hours passed between the start of the flood until it reached its maximum level. 50,000 cubic metres per second of water travelled at up to 9 kms/hr, and on its way took out the Gigjukvis bridge on the main circular highway, effectively cutting off people living in Eastern Iceland. Within a few minutes, the bridge was turned into a heap of twisted metal. However, with true Icelandic efficiency, the bridge and highways was re-opened within three weeks.

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The bridge before

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The bridge after

Vatnajökull National Park
Vatnajökull is an alpine environment (we saw a few cute little ptarmigans running about) as well as Europe's largest glacier. With an area of about 12,000 km², it is the largest national park in Europe. Vatnajökull (meaning Glacier of Rivers) is the largest and most voluminous glacier in Iceland, covering more than 8 percent of the country, and Iceland´s highest peak at 2,100m, Hvannadalshnjukur is in the national park.

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The average thickness of the ice is 400 m, and under the ice cap there are seven volcanoes (mostly active - gulp) including Grimsvotn, Iceland's most active since the Middle Ages, with eruptions in 1996, 1998 and 2004. The last eruption, in May 2011, caused the volcanic plume to reach as high as 20 kms into the atmosphere. During the last ice age, numerous volcanic eruptions occurred underneath Vatnajökull, creating many more subglacial eruptions. Also underneath the glacier is an ice cavern system several km long.

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“Bright light, indescribable beauty, serenity. These words are often used by people to describe a near-death experience. And by people that we've taken to explore Europe's largest glacier. Heaven. Iceland. They're both a lot closer than you think.” So say the Vatnajökull website, although I am not sure the comparison to a near-death experience is a good selling point, especially when you are describing a visit to an active volcano.

Here are more movie references: The glacier was used as the setting for the opening sequence (set in Siberia) of the 1985 James Bond film A View to a Kill (in which Bond (played for the last time by Roger Moore) eliminated a host of armed villains before escaping in a submarine to Alaska), Die Another Day (where it was used for a BMW chase scene), Tomb Raider and Batman Begins - in addition to the reality-TV series Amazing Race. The glacier was used as a shooting location for the second season of the HBO fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, and Dettifoss (in the national park) was also the setting for the opening scenes of the 2012 film Prometheus.

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Posted by Grete Howard 09:37 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Hekla to Skaftafell via a couple of waterfalls and a museum

What a day!!!!!! It started and ended with the Northern Lights....

all seasons in one day 7 °C
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I woke with a start from a loud knock at the door at around 2am, with a shout of “Nortern Lights!” Jumping out of bed and switching the lights on in one swift motion, David, who'd not heard the knock wondered what on earth was wrong.

The lights were pale, but they were there. We stayed out for a couple of hours, and at least we've seen them. The photos will need to be enhanced in Photoshop, but that's the beauty of shooting in RAW.

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Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
A thin powerful stream of the river Seljalandsá drops 40 metres over the cliffs of the former coastline into a deep pool below. What makes this waterfall unique amongst the 10,000 or so waterfalls reputedly found in Iceland, is the ability to actually walk behind the cascade via a footpath at the base of the cliff. I had read abSeljalandsfoss.jpgout the path and how slippery it was before leaving the UK, and how there were no handrails, and was really concerned about undertaking this activity. It was wet, muddy and slippery, but fortunately not icy, and oh so worth it!

Seljalandsfoss was a waypoint during the first leg of The Amazing Race 6, with a clue box actually being positioned behind the waterfall.

All the way along the road we saw waterfalls coming out of the mountains, some thin, some wide, some tall, some short, some in stages... Iceland is not known as the land of 10,000 waterfalls for nothing.

Eyjafjallajökull Information Centre
Eyjafjallajökull (E15 to his friends as there are 16 letters in the name which most people can't pronounce) may not be a name you are familiar with – however, I think most of my friends are acquainted with the consequences of the eruption of this volcano in April 2010 and how it brought the modern world to its knees. Several people I know were affected by the ash cloud that disrupted flights over Europe – friends Sarah and Steve were stranded in New York, Mel in Syria and Lyn and Chris had to cancel their dream holiday to Mexico.

The Visitor Centre opened on April 14th, 2011 exactly one year after the start of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. Because the centre is at the foot of the volcano, you get to feel first-hand what it is like to have a huge volcano looming over your shoulders. A short film portrays the spectacular natural event, and the hectic times and incredible challenges met by the farm of Thorvaldseyri which was among those hardest hit by the aftermath of the eruption. It was a very well edited film, with some stunning shots of the eruptions and the aftermath, and was actually quite moving at times, following the one family all the way through the ordeal.

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Eyjafjallajökull is a volcano completely covered by an ice cap an area of about 100 km², feeding many outlet glaciers. Eruptions happened in year 920, 1612 and again from 1821 to 1823 when it caused a jökulhlaup (glacial lake outburst flood ). After a 200 year slumber, in 2010 the volcano erupted twice - on 20 March which forced a brief evacuation of around 500 local people; and in April through May. The 14 April eruption was twenty times more powerful than the one in March (more powerful than all the nuclear weapons in the US and Russia combined!) and caused substantial disruption to air traffic across Europe and beyond, with the cancellation of thousands of flights resulting in the largest air-traffic shut-down since World War II. The closures caused millions of passengers to be stranded across the world as flights to and from Europe were cancelled.

Check out some amazing photographs from the eruption here: http://www.fredkamphues.com/eyjafjallajokull2010/eyjafjallajokull2010.html

The eruption occurred beneath the glacial ice and the cold water from the melting ice chilled the lava quickly, causing it to fragment into very small particles of glass (silica) and ash, which were then carried into the eruption plume. Due to the extremely fine nature of the ash and the large amounts of steam created by the glacial meltwater, the ash plume rapidly became hazardous to aircraft and was injected directly into the jet stream, then carried over Europe into some of the busiest airspace in the world.

IATA stated that the total loss for the airline industry was around £1.1 billion, in addition airports lost another £80 million. Over 107,000 flights were cancelled during the 8 day period, accounting for 48% of total air traffic and roughly 10 million passengers.

The name Eyjafjallajökull means "glacier" (or more properly here "ice cap") of the Eyjafjöll. The name Eyjafjöll is made up of the words eyja , meaning eyot or island, and the word fjöll, meaning fells or mountains, and together literally means: "the mountains of the islands". The name probably refers to the nearby archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. The glacier itself is one of Iceland's smallest at 100 km², but the mountain (1,666m) can be seen from several kilometres away on a clear day.

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Skógasafn Folk museum
Skógasafn Folk museum is an outstanding collection of Icelandic artefacts along with a well-preserved turf farm showing how people lived hundreds of years ago. The museum has been the responsibility of one man, Þórður Tómasson (now in his 90s, but he will still play old musical instruments and sing for tourists, including the organ in the church) who started the collection of the artefacts and houses of the open-air museum about sixty years ago, and has not stopped yet – now there are around thirteen houses in the museum grounds.

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I swear our German guide, Hans-Martin, is one of Iceland's (not-so) hidden elves.

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There are some highlighted pieces in the museum, such as the first Bible printed in Icelandic, textiles for the wealthy, a small fishing boat, a terrifyingly large and effective mouse trap, and articles of daily life such as clothing and farm tools.
The pride of the museum is the church which was consecrated in 1998. Although recently built, the church depicts the most common Icelandic ecclesiastical architecture of the past and all its possessions inside once belonged to older churches, which have now gone.

It was a fabulous little museum, but being 'little', the place soon filled up with 40 tourists, and at one stage we couldn't even see the guide, let alone the artefacts he was describing. Another disadvantage of such a big group is that there will always be someone who walks in to your photos, especially when you have people like the Chinese-Canadian couple who insist on taking photos of each other in front of every single item.

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Skógafoss Waterfall

Located at the foot of the impressive Eyafjöll mountain range, Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in the country with a width of 25 metres and a drop of 60 m. Like many of the waterfalls in Iceland, this one has a almost perpetual rainbow as a result of the amount of mist produced, and its tall, geometric cascade makes it one of the more beautiful and most photographed.

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According to legend, the first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. The legend continues that locals found the chest years later, but were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The ring was given to the local church and is now in the museum.

By this stage a heavy drizzle was coming down, and every time you got your camera out, the lens immediately got covered with droplets. There were some cool fulmars flying about the waterfall, and I really wanted to zoom in on them, but changing lenses was totally out of the question.


Reynisfjord

The dramatic black lava beach at Reynisfjord was voted as one of the ten most beautiful beaches on Earth by the American journal Islands Magazine in 1991. I didn't find the beach itself particularly noteworthy, but the setting is spectacular, with Dyrhólacy headland at one end with its naturally eroded hole in the rock (where a local reporter once flew a Cessna through), and black basalt columns at the other with the remnants of Reyningsdrangar cliffs jutting out just beyond. The waves here can be up to eight metres high with dangerous undercurrents. Although there isn't a permanent colony here, we did see a couple of seals frolicking in the water. This stretch of black basalt sand is one of the wettest places in Iceland with its cliffs being the home to many sea birds, most notably puffins which burrow into the shallow soils during the nesting season. The weather was bracing to say the least – what a difference to earlier this morning.

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Vík í Mýrdal
We seem to be making a stop once an hour, often for a 20 minute coffee stop, something that I find totally unnecessary, but I suppose with 40 people using the facilities you need that sort of time. Our penultimate stop for today was the village of Vík (or Vík í Mýrdal in full) which is the southernmost village in Iceland. An interesting snippet of fact is that Vík is the site of the fictional Hanso Foundation's Vik Institute, a mental health facility in the TV series Lost.

Lava
Someone had asked earlier today if we could make a stop to photograph the lava fields around, but unfortunately by the time we did stop it was way to dark to take photos.

A very interesting little fact I found when researching, is that there is no landmass between here and Antarctica! Wow! Local folklore tells of trolls dragging fishermen's boats out to sea - only to be caught by the rising dawn. The sea around this area is rather wild and stormy, and the Atlantic rollers can attack with full force.

I can see stars...

On the way to the hotel, Rocky-Rock was telling us about the activities for this evening, which included a film showing about the Northern Lights (as he said there was very little chance of seeing the lights this evening because of the cloud cover), when someone spotted a star over our hotel. Rocky-Rock looked out of the bus window and said tentatively: “what's that out in front of the bus...?”

Everyone out to a fantastic display of dancing lights – they were very strong, a 9-10 on the scale of 10. There were pale curtains of green which seemed to float of a breeze of light behind the beautiful snow-covered mountains. And breezy it was. It was absolutely freezing, but none of us cared. Rocky-Rock phoned the hotel to get them to delay our dinner and we all enjoyed the luminous sheets of colour undulating in the frigid air of the Arctic night. It really is one of nature's most spectacular displays of artistry, and there was an awful lot of oooing and awwwwing going on.

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Posted by Grete Howard 15:24 Archived in Iceland Comments (3)

The Golden Circle

A Thing this morning, followed by some geyser, Black Death and a couple of eruptions

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At around 23:00 last night I popped out to photograph the rather unusual church yard next to the hotel (every cross is individually lit with fairly lights), when I noticed the clouds were clearing and a few stars were peeping out from the dark sky. I sent David a text, suggesting that he might want to get out of bed and come and join me as this was the best chance of the Northern Lights so far. Despite staying out until gone 01:00, all we saw of any excitement was a shooting star. Eventually we decided we couldn't stay out all night, but we did put our name down to be woken in the night should the lights make an appearance. They didn't.

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I did sleep very well, but obviously not long enough, so once on the bus, I went straight to sleep. After all, we couldn't see a thing outside and it was a 90 minute drive to our first stop. We did have a funny five minutes when the overhead vent cover fell off and icy cold air was blasting down. One stop on the way for a pretty pastel pink sunrise. That was the only sun we saw all day, and if you'd blinked you would have missed it.

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Hvalfjörður
Driving along the coast, Rocky-Rock would point out the things we were passing, but even after daylight we still couldn't see a thing, for a couple of reasons – thick mist and filthy windows due to the salt being thrown up from the road.

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Anyway, apparently we passed by Hvalfjörður (translated the name means Whale-fjord), which is said to be one of Iceland’s most scenic and beautiful fjords, the name is derived from the large number of whales which could be found and caught here. During World War II, a naval base of the British and American navies could be found in this fjord and until the 1980s, one of the biggest whaling stations in Iceland was located in one of their piers. In the past the fjord also contained a large number of herring fisheries. The old whaling station can still be seen. Or not as the case may be.

Whaling in Iceland dates back to as early as the 12th century, with more modern commercial whaling introduced by other countries in the late 19th century. Local Icelanders have held mixed opinions on the whaling industry over the years, and various part and full bans have been implemented on whaling in Icelandic waters from time to time.

Today, Iceland is involved in commercial whaling under objection to an ongoing moratorium established by the International Whaling Commission in 1986 and can be divided among two producers according to the types of whales they hunt in the North Atlantic. Hvalur H/F exclusively hunts endangered Fin whales for international export, whereas others hunt smaller Minke whales for domestic consumption.

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir is famous for three reasons:

1. It is the site of a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region; the biggest one, Almannagjá, being a veritable canyon. This also causes the often-considerable earthquakes in the area. One-third of all the world's earthquakes in the last 1000 years have been in Iceland. The plates move apart at the rate of 2cm a year, unless there is an earthquake, when the chasm can widen by 40-60 cms overnight, causing huge gaps to appear in the roads. And there was I thinking the potholes in the roads back home were bad! Unlike British road deterioration, the 8 m wide gap caused by the last earthquake here was filled in overnight and the road open again the following morning.

Þingvellir and the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa are the only sites on Earth where the effects of two major plates drifting apart can be observed – so, basically this morning we started off in America, and this afternoon we were in Europe. Not bad in less than an hour...

2. At Þingvellir - literally "Parliament Plains" - the Alþing general assembly (an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland) was established around 930 and continued to convene there until 1798, making it the world's oldest parliament. Major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Þingvellir and therefore the place is held in high esteem by all Icelanders.

Every year during the Commonwealth period (the union between Norway and Iceland), people would flock to Þingvellir from all over the country for the two weeks of the assembly. The main duties of the assembly were to set laws - seen as a covenant between free men - and settle disputes. Ordinary people also gathered at Þingvellir to sell their wares, as well as performers and ale-makers, farmhands looking for work and beggars seeking alms. It sounds like Þingvellir was a meeting place for everyone in Iceland, almost like a country fair. People would set up dwellings and trading booths with walls of turf and rock and temporary roofing - fragments of around 50 such booths can still be seen today.

I was really glad we went to the museum yesterday, where they had a model of Þingvellir showing the layout of the Alþing as it was. This made everything make more sense once we were there today. When we arrived, the car park and walkways were like ice rinks, and extremely dangerous, so we were not permitted to walk down the path to the lower area,instead taking the bus.

3. Þingvellir is the location where, on July 17th 1944, Icelanders celebrated their independence from Denmark.

Þingvellir National Park was founded in 1930 to protect the remains of the parliament site and was later expanded to protect natural phenomena in the surrounding area. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

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Geysir
The Geysir Geothermal area boasts a variety of hot springs and bubbling pools, and research shows that geysers has been active here for approximately 10,000 years, although the oldest accounts of hot springs date back to 1294, when earthquakes in the area caused significant changes in the landscape, creating several new hot springs. Changes in the activity of the Geysir and the surrounding geysers are strongly related to earthquake activity – the 1630 eruption was so violent that the whole valley trembled. Geysir is of course where the word 'geyser' or hot spring is derived from. As a teenager, I read a book which moved me greatly, where the finishing scenes had the heroine chased by the baddie around these springs, regularly tripping and almost falling in; or the fragile, thin crust giving way under her feet, before the villain was swallowed up by the boiling water of the middle earth. I have been wanting to visit this place ever since, and it certainly didn't disappoint.

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Strokkur
Strokkur, (the 'Churn'), is a geyser that erupts a heights of up to 30 metres every few minutes. Its activity has also been affected by earthquakes, although to a lesser extent than the Great Geysir.

Here is the scientific explanation of the cause of the eruptions at the Strokkur geyser:

Water at a depth of 23 metres is around 120 °C, but cannot boil because of the weight of the water pushing down on it from above. When this water is forced up to around 16 m, some of the water may be above boiling point, which sets off the chain reaction: the pressure decrease allows more water to boil and flash boil into steam, which drives the unboiled water further up the conduit. As this happens closer and closer to the surface, with increasing velocity, the water and steam is forced out, and it is this mixture of water and steam that forms the eruption.

We were lucky enough to witness seven or eight eruptions of Strokkur in the time we were there, varying greatly in height, ferocity and frequency.

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Restaurant Geysir
This is a restaurant kitchen with a difference – all the food is cooked in the ground with the help of the hot springs. Here, the chef gave us a taste of freshly baked “hot spring bread” (very dark and malty, almost sweet, but much tastier than I thought it would be) served with Icelandic butter along with geothermally-boiled eggs (they are placed in a string bag in the bubbling pools) and pickled herring (absolutely delicious!). Of course, it is best enjoyed with a small glass (or five – when Rocky-Rock heard I was Norwegian he offered me the bottle rather than a glass!) of ice-cold Geysir schnapps.

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Geothermally cooked food

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Eggs cooked in the hot springs

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Bread cooked underground

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Bread with butter, herring and eggs

Brennivín
Brennivín is a brand of schnapps that is considered to be Iceland's signature liquor - the word translates literally into English as "burning wine". It is made from fermented potato mash (similar to the Norwegian akvavit) and is flavoured with caraway seeds. It is sometimes called svarti dauði (Black Death) and has a strong taste, a high alcohol content (40% ABV – baby food compared with the Norwegian equivalent), and a dubious reputation. Brennivín is the traditional accompaniment to Hákarl (the fermented shark) – probably for those people that don't enjoy it to take the taste away!

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Gullfoss
Gullfoss, “The golden falls“, is a double waterfall that tumbles 32 meters down a wide curved three-step staircase, and then abruptly plunges in two stages (11 m and 21 m) into a crevice 32m deep. The crevice, about 20m wide, and 2.5 km in length, is at right angles to the flow of the river, so you don't actually see it from the view points. The average amount of water running over this waterfall is 80 m³/s in the wintertime.

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During the 20th century, foreign investors wanted to transform Gullfoss into a dam for a power station which would of course have changed the waterfall forever. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, a local girl, was determined to preserve the waterfall in its original condition and even threatened to throw herself into the falls. Eventually the government intervened and it did not happen (neither the use of the falls for power nor Sigríður throwing herself into the falls), and now Gullfoss belongs to the Icelandic nations and is protected.

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Icelandic horse
Horses are extremely popular in Iceland – in a country of 300,000 people, you can find 100,000 horses! It's unusual I guess for a horse-mad nation to also eat them, although I don't suppose any of the ones we saw at Friðheimar farm would ever end up on a plate. The horses were way cuter than I imagined them to be, and really friendly.

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Although the Icelandic horses are small, at times pony-sized, the Icelanders are keen to stress that the animals are still referred to as horses. I found two reasons for this when I researched – one is their strength, spirited temperament and large personality; the other is the fact that there is no word in the Icelandic language for 'pony'. I personally think the latter is the most likely explanation.

The breed comes in many coat colours, including chestnut, dun, bay, black, grey, palomino, pinto and roan. Despite there being no word for 'pony' in Icelandic, there are over 100 names for various colours and colour patterns in horses (or is that ponies?).

Icelandic horses are long-lived and hardy. Because Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return, there are few diseases affecting the animals. The lineage was developed from ponies taken to Iceland by Norwegian settlers as far back as the 9th century, and with selective breeding, the horses have developed into the present-day hardy variety. Natural selection has eliminated many horses through cold and starvation due to the harsh Icelandic climate - resulting in that they have now developed a double coat for extra insulation in cold temperatures. In the 1780s, much of the breed was wiped out in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.

The horses are still used for traditional farm work in Iceland, as well as for leisure, showing, and racing.

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One of the unique qualities of the Icelandic horses is that instead of the traditional three gaits of other horses (walk, trot and gallop), they have another two, called tölt and 'flying pace'. I'm afraid I couldn't distinguish between gallop and flying pace, but the smooth tölt was very impressive – the rider showed how he could easily carry a pint of beer without spilling a drop.

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Geothermal Greenhouse
Our last stop of the day was to see one of the 93 geothermal greenhouses in the country, and how they harness the natural resources to heat and light it. The farm has its own hot spring which provides the heat and electricity (there are 200 private power station in Iceland) to give the tomatoes 17 hours of daylight every day during the dark winters. They use the same amount of power to run the greenhouse as a town of 3000 homes! The fruit is totally organic, using the good cop bad cop method (or good bugs fighting the bad bugs in this case) of keeping the plants pest free, and they import bees from Holland to pollinate the flowers. It takes seven weeks from flower to fruit, and the tomatoes were delicious!

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Posted by Grete Howard 14:42 Archived in Iceland Comments (1)

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula - Fjord Cruise - Reykjavik

Rotten shark, hail storms, raw scallops and Viking sagas

all seasons in one day -2 °C
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The wind was howling in the night and by the morning almost all the snow had melted, or rained/blown away. The thermometer said +6C, but the wind said something way cooler. Rocky-Rock had suggested we wrapped up warmly today and we all took note. Subsequently, half an hour into the bus journey we were all stripping off down to the thermal underwear as we were almost passing out from the heat. At a stretch-of-leg-stop I even went as far as popping out of the bus dressed just in my thermal vest (plus jeans I hasten to add) just to cool off a little.

The Snæfellsnes Peninsula
'The peninsula of the snowy mountain' juts out from Iceland’s west coast, and is often described as a microcosm of Iceland. It is characterised by rugged mountains rising between a wide coastal plain on the southern side and narrow coast on the northern side. The 100 km long, 680 km² area is therefore sometimes referred to as “Iceland in a nutshell”.

The 1446 m high dormant (that's the key word here: dormant!) volcano Snæfellsjökull glacier lies majestically at the end of the peninsula and its main claim to fame is its location as the doorway into inner space in Jules Verne’s classic, “A Journey to the Centre of the Earth.” I think we're going to see lots of film locations on this trip.

Snæfellsnes is also renowned for its rich bird life and superb scenery.

Of course, we couldn't actually see anything whatsoever this morning, as it was still dark for the first couple of hours. We still had a photo stop – in the rain, taking photos of, well, nothing. I braved it as far as the doorway...

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Bjarnarhöfn
Bjarnarhöfn is an old estate at the foot of Mount Bjarnahafnafjall that was home to Þorleifur Þorleifsson (1801-77), a homoeopathic doctor who was said to have had psychic abilities. The church at Bjarnahöfn, built in 1856, contains many valuables and old artefacts, including an altar piece that is believed to have been painted in 1640. We, however, were there for one reason only: rotten shark.

Hákarl
The town of Bjarnarhöfn is where Hákarl is made, a uniquely Icelandic “treat” of fermented shark which is often associated with hardiness and strength. People may think however, maybe being a weakling isn't such a bad thing after tasting Hákarl....

Hákarl is basically a Greenland shark which has been cured with a particular fermentation process and hung to dry for several months. It is said to be an acquired taste (most definitely!) and has a very particular ammonia-rich smell and fishy taste, which has been described as similar to very strong cheese smothered in ammonia.

Greenland sharks are enormous creatures, some 8-10 metres in length, weigh 800-1000kg and live at a depth of 2500 – 3000 metres beneath the ocean. The shark itself is poisonous when fresh due to a high content of urea (that’s wee-wee to you and me) and trimethylamine oxide (they have no kidneys to remove the uric acid from the body), but may be consumed (really?) after being processed. Traditionally, Hákarl was prepared by gutting and beheading the fish and placing it in a shallow hole dug in the earth, with the cleared out cavity resting on a slight incline. The next step is to cover the shark with sand and gravel, and place heavier stones on top in order to press the shark. This helps the fluids from the fish to be pressed out of the body. This method of shark fermentation takes 6–12 weeks depending on the season. During this process the uric acid is destroyed and largely converted into ammonia. The flesh is softened and gets a more jelly-like consistency. Once the curing period is over, the shark is then thrown in the garbage bin cut into strips and hung to dry for several months during which time a brown crust will develop (rust?). This crust is removed prior to cutting the shark into small pieces and serving. Of course these days, a more modern method is just to press the shark's meat in a large drained plastic container. The whole thing leaves me with just one question – why?

Anthony Bourdain described hákarl as "the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting thing" he had ever eaten and Gordon Ramsay vomited after eating the 'delicacy'. Andrew Zimmern suggested the smell reminding him of "some of the most horrific things I've ever breathed in my life," and he noted that hákarl was "hardcore food" and "not for beginners." It has also been described as “smells like a men’s loo; a potent parfum of urine and toilet duck that leaves you gagging and gasping.”

Having tried many, many weird foods in my time (think live ants, silk worm poo tea, crickets, baby swiftlets (now they were disgusting!), cockroaches, cicadas, an almond passed through an elephant (!), brain amongst others), I thought I'd be fine with a little fermented fish. After all, just how bad can it be?

As we stepped off the bus, the ammonia-rich fishy smell hit us like a curtain, but to be honest, after a few minutes your senses acclimatise to the aroma. There is a cute little museum on site, with items from the family home and farm, and those associated with sharks and fishing. Then we get to taste the famous delicacy. Of course, David and I already tried it the first night in Reykjavik, but I did wonder if that was sanitised for tourists (plus we'd worked our way along the Icelandic beer shelf at that stage and maybe our senses were a little dulled), so I was still somewhat apprehensive to taste it this morning. I needn’t have worried, I still didn't find the smell as obnoxious as I thought I would, and the taste was really quite pleasant. I went back for seconds and even thirds, all in the name of research, as my good friend Helen wanted me to describe the rotten shark experience to her (the things I do for my friends!). Well here it is Helen: the texture is somewhat similar to tofu, although it depends on whether you try an end piece or middle piece (they are cut in cubes about the size of a die); the 'crusts' can be a little chewy. As for the flavour – well, it is really hard to describe. It is fishy, of course, and you can taste the ammonia (or maybe it is just the smell that confuses you?) - I likened it to salty liquorice, and Rocky-Rock and the driver didn't disagree with that. Satisfied Helen?

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Greenland Sharks give birth to live babies - such as this tiny 15 cm long infant.

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Note two thumbs on the gloves - when rowing, one side would get wet, so you just turn the gloves around and use the otehr side.

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Fighting over the shark delicacies.

Lunch cruise in the Breiðafjörður fjord
Due to high winds (the gusts were 10 on the Icelandic scale of 1-12!), our itinerary was changed from a lunch cruise, to having lunch in port (a delicious creamy fish soup with prawns, scallops and white fish) and then popping out on a cruise on the fjord.

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Breiðafjörður is a large shallow bay, about 50 km wide and 125 km long and is interesting in that the northern tip was formed about 15 million years ago, whereas the southern end at Snæfellsnes was formed less than half that time ago.

Breiðafjörður has a spectacular land and seascape consisting of shallow seas, small fjords and bays and an inner part of intertidal areas dotted with about 3,000 islands, islets and skerries. The area contains about half of Iceland's intertidal area and tides can be up to six metres.

This area is on the UNESCO Tentative List but hasn’t quite made it to the official list – yet.

By this stage it had stopped raining, so we decided (along with 10-12 others) to stay on the fore deck during the cruise. The scenery consisted of islands (well, there's a surprise), with sun-lit mountains in the distance, and dark threatening clouds looming above them. Really quite dramatic.

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As the boat gained speed, more and more people sought refuge inside, and by the time the hail set in, we were only four hard-core tourists left on deck.

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Meanwhile the crew had been busy fishing, and we were served the freshest (2-3 minutes out of the ocean) raw scallops ever! Delicious!

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Borgarnes
As well as the Borgarfjörður Museum, the town of Borgarnes is famous for the burial mound of Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson, the father of Egils Saga’s Egill Skallagrímsson which can be found in a park near the centre. Not that this is someone I have actually heard of, but the Icelanders seem to be proud of the fact.

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Since 1998 there has been a underwater tunnel (5,762 m in length and runs to a depth of 165 m below sea level) under Hvalfjörður fjord, cutting the driving time between Reykjavík and Borgarnes by around 1 hour.

Borgarfjörður Icelandic Settlement Centre museum
The Settlement centre is primarily a local history museum which also covers local folklore, an insightful exhibition of Iceland's settlement period and the famous 10th century poet Egil Skallagrimsson (author of Egil's Saga), and an art Collection. Visitors can learn about the town and local settlements, and also see many exhibits of birds, local art, and traditional agricultural equipment. The idea behind the exhibits is to leave visitors with a great impression of childhood in Iceland, rather than being just a detailed compilation of facts and figures. Photographs play a major role in this exhibition. I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibits, as I love folklore and sagas.

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We also had a very nice apple cake in the café there, which helped to get rid of the hákarl repeats was getting. It is not so nice the second time round.

One of the choices for tonight's dinner was 'lean horse steak', and very nice it was too. It was obviously one of those unfriendly ones....

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:55 Archived in Iceland Comments (0)

Reykjavik – Reykholt via waterfalls and hot springs

Cold thighs, unfriendly horses get eaten along with boiled tourists, but no lights. Yet.

semi-overcast -8 °C
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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.

Reykjavik
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'.

Hallgrímskirkja
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.

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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...

Perlan
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.

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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?

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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...

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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

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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.

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Borgarfjörður
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.

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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.

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Deildartunguhver
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.

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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....

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Hraunfossar
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.

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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.

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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
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.

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Heimskringla
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).

Northern Lights
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.

Posted by Grete Howard 13:07 Archived in Iceland Comments (3)

Bristol - London - Reykjavik

Tonight I think we have eaten a small zoo....

semi-overcast -3 °C
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I would like to say we had a good journey up to Heathrow, but the truth is, I have no idea – I fell asleep as soon as we joined the motorway outside Bristol, and David woke me up just as we were leaving the M4 at the airport. I must have needed it.

When checking in on line we had deliberately chosen 22A and C – hoping no-one would want to sit in the middle and we'd get the whole row to ourselves; but the check-in staff at Icelandair had other ideas. They wanted to upgrade us to the economy plus section for extra legroom, still giving us the window and aisle seats and blocking out the middle one. Who are we to argue? As per usual, we were extremely early at the airport (having twice almost missed a flight in the past because the motorway has been shut and twice because the car broke down, we tend to err on the side of caution these days), but the time went very quickly with the help of some eggs royale and Aspall cyder.

On boarding the plane, there was some confusion as to where we were going to sit, and eventually we moved seats again to let a group of three unaccompanied minors sit together. The crew were still faffing about trying to find us three seats together, but didn't take up my suggestion to move us to fist class. Shame. Still, we had excellent legroom where we were, and I suppose it does no harm for me to sit next to David for three hours.

The pre-departure information said Keflavik Airport is small and easy to navigate. Really? The corridor leading from the plane comes to a closed door, and you take the stairs down to passport control, around the terminal building, then back up again to pass right by the closed door.

The Flybus airport transfer is extremely well organised, and even has free wifi on board. They service many downtown hotels via the bus terminal and smaller shuttle buses, but we were lucky enough that the original big bus was going to our hotel.

We did get a taste of things to come with over 20 people trying to check in at the same time, but the receptionist was quick and efficient, so it wasn't really a problem.

The room is smallish, very clean, far too warm and typical of any three star hotel anywhere in the world.

As a result of a misunderstanding (on my behalf), we ended up tipping the taxi driver way over the odds, but he did play 'Stairway to heaven' at full volume for us, so all was not lost.

I spent a lot of time researching restaurants in Reykjavik before we left the UK, with the added complication that many were closed on a Sunday night. I wanted to try traditional Icelandic dishes, and found a place called Islenski Barrin (The Icelandic Bar) which seemed to fit the bill perfectly with an extensive menu featuring lots of local specialities. Imagine our disappointment when we got there (having booked a table from the UK a couple of weeks ago, with an email conversation with the manager about the menu) to find that the restaurant was under new ownership and the menu was completely changed from around 100 dishes to about 15. After explaining to the waitress, who went off for a conflab with the chef, they offered to make us up a plate of traditional Icelandic dishes as they still had some of the stuff from the old menu in the freezer. They certainly did us proud! The waitress (whose name incidentally was Greta) came out from the kitchen saying: “the chef and I have decided you should have a starter” and brought us a plate of mustard herring with a typical Icelandic rye bead and boiled egg, smoked salmon, lamb carpaccio, and smoked puffin. The main course was foal fillet, beer cooked lamb and minke whale. Before dessert, she brought us a small taster of the infamous fermented shark and brennevin (directly translated as 'fire water', a local strong spirit made from potato) - despite what everyone has said, we thought the 'rotten shark' was extremely inoffensive.

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Sampling Icelandic beers

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Starter - smoked salmon, puffin, herring and lamb carpaccio

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Main course - foal fillet, beer cooked lamb and minke whale

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Fermented shark....

We seem to be on a roll on exceptional customer service at the moment – back at the hotel we somehow managed to get 24 hours of internet for the price of an hour. I like Iceland.

Posted by Grete Howard 14:26 Archived in Iceland Comments (1)

Counting down the hours to the next trip

The Land of Ice and Fire

After the disastrous holiday to Kyrgyzstan in 2010 (long story, but in a nutshell the group dynamics were completely shot to pieces, mainly because of one woman) we vowed never to travel in a group again, but in planning this trip we have reluctantly booked another group tour.

The trip came about after seeing an advert on London Underground for a weekend to Iceland to see the Northern Lights for £399, but the more we looked into it, the more we realised we wanted to go for longer than that. Not only is there so much to see in Iceland (of course, we will only be able to 'see' some of sites we visit because the short daylight hours means it will be light late and dark early – sunrise is at 11:30 and it sets at 15:30), but we also wanted the maximum chance of seeing the Northern Lights, especially as this winter is said to be the best in 50 years to view this great natural show! Hence we settled on a one week trip. Aurora borealis occurs mainly on the magnetic pole, so the further north you go the greater your chances are of witnessing the show. As the most sparsely populated country in Europe, with almost negligible levels of light pollution and positioned on the edge of the Arctic Circle, Iceland is said to be the ideal place to view the Aurora Borealis.

Next was planning how to do the trip – the initial idea was to rent a self-catering apartment and a car, but when we looked into it, the group tour actually cost less than the price of just the apartment and car hire, without any of the entrance fees, petrol, meals or guiding. Plus, as the website points out: “the program includes a special six night Northern Lights Academy – with 6 evenings of presentations, lectures and guided tours at spots likely to offer a glimpse of the Northern Lights”. That clinched it for me, and should hopefully increase our chances of seeing the lights.

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Some amazing photos of Northern Lights in Iceland here

Let's just hope the weather cooperates – the forecast isn't looking too great at the moment. I am sure many of you can remember our ill-fated trip to Greenland to see the northern lights three years ago: we planned to travel there during December for the best chance of seeing the aurora – the week before we were there it was -35 °C, the week after we returned to the UK it was -35 °C; the week we were there, it was +5 °C! Not only was it the hottest New Year on record, it was warmer than the UK, all the snow melted so we were unable to go dog sledding and skiddoing as planned, and the warmer weather meant more cloud cover, so the Northern Lights never made a single appearance all week.

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So, there it is – we are off to West and South East Iceland for a week on a coach tour with 38 other people. With such a full program (day and night), I am not sure when I shall have time to write my blog, although with the Icelandic prices, we won't be spending much time in the bar...

Posted by Grete Howard 11:00 Archived in United Kingdom Comments (2)

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