Iceland for some Northern exposure
Trip Start Jun 29, 2005
235Trip End Nov 30, 2009
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Karen had stopped over at Keflavik airport numerous times before, en-route to Boston when she was completing architectural studies there. That meant she was somewhat prepared for the scale and feel of the place. I was amazed looking out the window of the plane on approach, because it took a long time to cross the island (I guess it's about 500km across) and also because of its generally barren, tundra-like appearance. Apparently 80% of Iceland's landmass is glacial waterways cutting through mountainous lava deserts, so despite being a relatively small island, it has a vastness to it that you rarely get in Europe. Taking the road into Reykjavik from the remote airport compounds the feeling - miles and miles of lava fields slowly disintegrating under a blanket of beautifully green and verdant moss. Very strange indeed.
We quickly decided to hire a car and ended up with 'Bjorn' the banged up Toyota Yaris, a left-hand(ed drive) nordic cousin to Karen's 'Yogi' the Yaris we drive around in at home. The poor thing had 'Reported Damage' stickers all over him, but all that really did was encourage us to charge straight into the rugged countryside to take a closer look at the remarkable scenery in this corner of the island.
Massive rents in the lava crust, caused by millennia of severe temperature changes, pock the wilds out here, as do countless stone piles very reminiscent of the cairns that dot the Scottish highlands. These had been taken a step further along the airport road, with giant but simply primitive stone figures rising up on high-points along the road, constructed in modular form much like you would building a snowman. These were eerily striking rising out of the flat plains along the roadside to say the least.
No more than 20 kilometres outside the capital, heading due east, and the road seemed to get snowy and icy very quickly. We were heading toward an inaccessible interior, and more of the same lay up ahead, including snow covered mountains cloaked in a dull wintry haze. This made us more than a little nervous as Bjorn edged down the road and few vehicles, mainly large 4WDs, passed us in either direction. Even after seeing another small call being towed from its snowy resting place on the side of the road we soldiered on, and after a few hours travelling at slow speed over some hair-raising terrain we reached our initial destination - the aptly name Geyser!
(Quick travelling tip here - if it is winter and you're not driving in a 4x4, avoid the equivalent of 'B' roads which have route numbers comprising of 3 digits (e.g. route 365). Even if it looks a lot further 'as the crow flies', stick to the two digit route (35, 37 etc) and you will have a flatter and less stressful drive, with less likelihood of having to camp in your frozen car once you skid off the road. Well done sweetie for navigating us safely along my B road route.)
Back to good old Geyser, which happens to be the source of the word that has been adopted into the English language with a definition something like "a strange geologic phenomena where the Earth belches steaming water out of cracks in its surface with uncanny regularity". Well, this is exactly what happens here anyway, an area containing a number of geysers and superheated pools within a few acres of land on the side of a random low hill.
Strokkur geyser is the most regular, blasting a tower of water and steam dozens of metres into the air every 4-7 minutes or so. Woohoo - thar she blows again! The photos don't really do it justice so watch an almost complete video of it blowing its stack here. Apparently 'Lil geyser' and the big kahuna 'Geyser' also let loose every hour or two, but since it was so cold standing around watching pools of tantalisingly hot water, we didn't catch either doing their thing. Not to worry, Strokkur was great value and well worth the danger getting to it.
A few clicks further inland and we found Gulfross waterfall, at the end of the passable road before it heads into the glacial fields of the island's interior. We weren't prepared for the scale of this either, as it seems (to an Australian at least) like half of Iceland's water must be tipping down this monster river plain and over one enormous waterfall, in all its raging glory. Although probably not as big as Niagara or the like, the volume and noise of the cascading water is truly immense, and the snap frozen spray that covers everyone and everything is a novel sight too. Despite leaden clouds overhead we had three words for Gulfross - "that was awesome" - so get there if you can.
We took a much safer route back to Reykjavik that evening and by 6pm it was well and truly dark (I would have expected it to get dark earlier, but the compromise is it gets light later in the morning, say 9.30am in early November) but we still had a chance to check out some of the cute traditional architecture that is now being overtaken by the cutting-edge Scandinavian design that Karen was quite impressed by. The Viking longboat sculpture on the harbour foreshore summed this design aspect up for me - simple, edgy, progressive and magnificent in its conception and execution.
One more note on Rekkers after dark - the Imagine Peace Tower beaming from nearby Videy island. It was erected by Yoko Ono as 'a beacon for peace' and is only lit between October 9 (John Lennon's birthday) and December 8th (the date of his death) each year. Multiple shafts of (geothermally powered) light emerge from a wishing well to form one tower of light that pierces the heavens (or clouds, whichever prevails on the night) and at the base the words 'Imagine Peace' are inscribed in 24 languages. I'm not sure why Yoko chose Reykjavik to host it, but it is a nice crown to the capital and worth looking out for if you're in town at the right time of year.
Reykjavik looks smaller and more stark during the daylight hours, which is I guess a result of winter fast approaching. Still, there's plenty of shopping to do if you can afford the prices and some cool design to see around town - there's many artistic and culinary delights to taste along with the architectural. You also get a better appreciation of the landscape around town - it's like the populace is clinging to the edge of this harsh land, with snow covered mountains off in the distance trying to push mankind into the sea...
One bizarre structure that is a must see is the Hallgrimskirkja Church, an austere and imposing Catholic cathedral situated on a prominent hill overlooking the city centre and Tjornin lake. First conceived in the late 1930s, it seems to have been built over a long period of time and was only completed in its current form in the late 1980s. Always the architecture nerd, Karen studied some of the internal columns and deduced that it may be largely of steel construction, rendered with some sort of material which gives it a concrete appearance, certainly on the inside but also possibly outside as well. Now that you know that you'll be less likely to get your tongue stuck to it in the depths of winter I hope...
From an Arctic climate outside one comes into what is mistaken at first to be an equally cold and austere interior, however the natural light that bathes the cavernous space and the elaborate under-floor and wall heating system makes it a surprisingly pleasant place of worship. Still, we had left the best until last so after a final traipse around the design district we were off into the wilds again (via a few space-age housing complexes).
The Blue Lagoon is a seriously steaming collection of geothermal pools south of the capital and within touring distance of the airport, making it one of the more novel and refreshing short stopover destinations you will find on a long haul flight anywhere in the world (Icelandair do offer perfectly timed 2-3 hour tours on their trans-Atlantic flights).
It's actually a seawater spring located many miles inland - a bizarre force of nature resulting in a startling water colour and texture that is deliciously warming and silky to the senses. It makes for the perfect bathing pool and a very happy ending to a long day of sightseeing or travelling. We lolled about in it for at least two hours, along with dozens of other visitors, and at no time was the pool even close to being full. The facilities are first class and the environment (excepting the geothermal power plant next door) is pristine. We were so pleased we even stayed for a first class meal in the restaurant overlooking the pools. It is a little touristy, but if you only go to one place in Iceland, this really should be it.
No trip to Iceland in winter would be complete without an adventure to see the Aurora Borealis, otherwise known as the 'Northern Lights'. To be honest, after not seeing them in the far north of Sweden in perfect conditions when I was there last, I wasn't holding out too much hope of seeing them by simply driving a few kilometres out of Reykjavik and looking upwards. However the hotel manager pointed to the dodgy B-road that we'd taken the first day to Geysir and said that if you head up there towards midnight we had a very good chance of seeing them, and in the end he wasn't wrong.
Pretty spooky, certainly amazing and definitely visible even if we weren't beyond the halo of the of the city lights. The luminescent green rainbow arching above was a final, lasting vision of Iceland that typifies the haunting beauty of this gem of a place. We only saw a fraction of Iceland in reality - you would have to spend weeks travelling around the island and into its centre to see everything it has to offer - so if I do make it back one day I'll be pretty happy about that.
Great Brands of the World
Couldn't resist this one. A very tasty amber ale as well...
A main meal is likely to cost you £25 in Iceland but the food is great. Halibut is a new favourite fish dish and the Arctic Char fish also tasted was pretty good too. Good Skyr (milky yogurt) is delicious and Icelandic hotdogs and lamb shanks are A+ as well. Just avoid the chicken dishes, as it seems to be as expensive as beef fillets or lobster most places!