Saturday, January 7, 2017

Iceland is getting bigger

Þingvellir National Park is situated in a place where two tectonic plates are slowly (2cm a year) drifting apart, and this tectonic activity leads to some pretty cool looking terrain. Giant rifts are formed by the earth settling and the park is built up around one of the bigger chasms. The area is also hugely important for Icelandic culture and history, as it used to be a gathering place where laws were read and punishments decided (it still is politically important). The history of Iceland is pretty dark and raw if you go poking around why certain areas of the park have names that translate to drowning pool and gallows rock.

Let's run off some of that energy

Wide paths without many people

Frosty water from a frosty foss

So we decided to put on our studded shoes and go for a run. There weren't too many trails to choose from and the day wasn't as bright and cheerful as we might have hoped, but any day with a foss is a good day. We started from a very empty parking lot, and soon discovered why, the trail down into the chasm from our spot wasn't maintained for winter use and thus covered in sheets of ice. No problem for us though, so we had the first little bit of exploring by ourselves. Pretty soon we met the crowds coming from the visitor's center, and that was a bit less fun, as we had to slow down to a crawl in order to get past that section.

The flag flies behind the "law rock"

On the edge of the rift

Once we dropped down out of the rift, we were pretty much on our own again. We swung past the place where snorkel and scuba tours head into the lake, to get a view out over the lake and to observe the tours. We had thought about doing a snorkeling tour, but as there aren't really very many fish and the water is only 2 degrees C (the snorkelers had lots of gear on), it seemed like something we could afford to miss.

The few species of fish that live in this lake were trapped when the land rose up

We then headed off into the hinterlands of the park, across barren scrub covered lava fields to check out some old farmsteads. Again, these trails were not winterized, and we had the run of the place to ourselves. The sun was tantalizingly peeking out from behind clouds, from time to time, but never really to stay.

Pretty lonely place to farm
Linné provides some much appreciated color

A little blue, over the hills and far away

After the park, we headed back towards the coast, stopping by a bakery along the way for some pizza swirls (think cinnamon bun, but pizza) and coffee. We cooked dinner in our AirBnB and then, since this is our last night in Iceland, we took a gamble on the weather service and jumped in the car to drive to the end of the Reykjanes pennisula (15 minutes away) to search out some northern lights. The clouds did part directly overhead, as predicted by the weather service, but the clouds to the north were still obscuring any potential light show for the night.
The lighthouse provided the only pretty lights for us

Now it is off to bed, as we head to the airport at 4:30.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Iceland is hot stuff

Iceland really is hot stuff, and things got a bit too heated at breakfast too, as we had an extra loud 7:30 alarm clock when the smoke detector went off. Not a problem for us, as we had planned to get up then, but I think the Germans next door were unhappy. The Korean's breakfast got out of hand it seems.

We had a two hour drive to get to our first attraction of the day. We were running up to Reykjadalur, a thermally heated stream, for a morning dip. There was a thin layer of snow and ice the entire way up, but it wasn't really that cold. We passed several other early groups at the start of the 3km trail, but soon enough ours were the only footprints on the snowy track. In the summer, this place must see a lot of traffic, and they have an elaborate built up area of board walks near the stream where you can leave your things. Even some wooden screened off "changing areas." We were just going through the elaborate process of trying to dry off and get dressed when the other hikers started to catch up. It was very cold to have any wet body part out of the water too long... but we managed and ran back down to car to head off to the next stop.

Not a good pool to bathe in!

Maxin' and relaxin'

How long do you need to sit in hot water before you can call it a soup?

We stopped briefly to walk around the Kerið crater. The lake at the bottom was frozen over, and the snowy conditions really gave a bleak atmosphere. Circumnavigating the rim only took a few minutes, really, and we reminisced about other craters that we have visited on past trips, like in the Galapagos and Hawaii.

Next along the marked route was a stop at a tomato farm. The family here harnesses geothermal heat and cheap electricity in cleverly designed greenhouses to grow about 300 tons of tomatoes a year in 5000 square meters of space (Can you tell that there were lots of stats provided about the place?). The farm operates a restaurant in a greenhouse with a distinct tomato theme. We opted for the tomato soup buffet. The soup was really very good, but the star was the fresh and amazing bread selection that accompanied the meal. We over indulged, and didn't have space for the green tomato and apple pie that was offered for dessert. Apparently they serve the best Bloody Mary in the world. They won points from me by having a pot of basil and herb scissors at every table.

A unique setting for lunch

With daylight fading, we made mad dash to the end of the Golden Circle (That is what this part of Iceland is called) to see Gullfoss. The waterfall here is very impressive but it was just too dark to capture really stunning photos. On a sunny day there are very often rainbows in the spray, we're told.

Gullfoss has two large drops for a total of 31 meters

Sam is cleverly hiding the hordes of other tourists

Looking down into the rift

Just a few kms down the road and we stopped at the geyser which gives us the name geyser, Geysir (the name derives from Icelandic verb meaning to gush). The big geyser there does not erupt very often these days (side note/digression:, Sam wants to point out that this is not a useful bit of information unless I qualify it with a stated frequency, there are a couple of reports of eruptions in the spring of 2016, but none since then on a cursory search. The geyser reaches upwards of 70 meters when it does erupt!). Luckily, the nearby geyser, Strokkur (v. to churn) went off 6 or so times before we headed out.

 Here is one that I caught on video

Feeling cold next to the boiling Geysir

We were tuckered out, and ready to check into our guest house for the night, but there was one more foss right along the way, so a jump out of the car, jump into the car, visit Faxafoss with the last of the remaining daylight.

Our room tonight is very cozy, with heated stone floors and a great fireworks duel/show back and forth across the valley. The guys on the other side had way more fireworks to use up from New Year's I guess, so we got to see a lot of them.

Tomorrow is our last full day on this trip. We'll try to see some more things here in the Golden Circle before winding up at the end of the day back near the airport.

Iceland is fickle

 Well, our luck ran out on the string of good weather. When we woke up, the rain was still pouring down. After press time last evening, we noticed that several of the other hostel guests were heading out to search for northern lights. There were patches of stars in the night sky, so we also tried our luck, but were unsuccessful. Our delayed bedtime rolled into a delayed breakfast and we only left for the day at dawn. I guess, being layabeds, that we didn't miss much though, as we had simply terribly conditions for our morning visit to the glacial lagoon, Jökulsárlón. The dark and brooding predawn light conditions complemented the mighty winds from the south and hard driving rain that gave the feeling of being  pelted with hail because the drops were whipping down with such force. Staying warm was not so much the issue, but staying dry was tricky. We were pretty soaked in just the 20 minutes that we braved the storm. The giant icebergs were really amazing to see, the blue was otherworldly and we even saw a couple of seals frolicking in the lagoon.

The seal is just ducking under again here
Buffeted by the wind and drenched

Alien blue color

The icebergs wash up at this end of the lagoon, the glacier is out of sight

The light changed and we could get a few nice shots from the car window

We were slated to meet with our ice cave tour group guides at 11:45 and that was when we learned that the heavy rain all night and into the morning caused enough flooding that we wouldn't be able to go to the caves. Tragedy! We retreated to the relative safety of the car to think about how to redeploy our remaining daylight hours. We headed back west, chasing better weather. Just a few minutes after we slipped out from under the rain clouds we turned off the main road in search of some glacier looking things. Well, we struck gold by finding a tongue of the giant Vatnajökull ice cap, the
svínafellsjökull glacier. We took hundreds of photos around this glacier and were really happy to have some more blue ice to look at. We kept saying "Okay, just one last photo of the glacier." We said that over and over.

Okay, not exactly an ice cave

This is getting closer to cave-like

So blue!

With the reflection, this is scene is twice as nice

Get that guy out of the amazing picture

Late afternoon

Time to print our own postcards?

After this serendipitous stop, there wasn't much daylight left, so we had to rush over to the fjaðrárgljúfur canyon in order to catch any of the amazing views before full dark set in.

Only moonlight for the quick jog back down

Our hostel tonight is near the town of Vik. We had dinner and played a quick round of Race for the Galaxy, and we are contemplating another late night run to find an aurora. It is altogether likely that we will instead try to bank some hours of sleep as the gale force winds are still howling and we'll need to have some clear skies in order to see anything. The hostel owner, Laura, told us that there have been too many clouds to see northern lights for the past three months here near Vik. The exception was on New Year's Eve, when they were simply amazing. So we need a bit of luck on our side to redeem this day a bit.

Tomorrow we leave Route One and head up into the so called Golden Circle. This area has a lot of famous tourist spots including geysers and fosses. So stay turned!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Iceland is foss-some

Day two of our adventures in Iceland was another unmitigated success! We had a long day of driving, and there were several waterfalls that we wanted to see along the way. The word for waterfall in Icelandic is foss, thus forming the basis for my excellent pun of a blog post title.

The ring road of Iceland, Rt. one, is pretty much the only option for winter tourists, as many of the smaller roads can have pretty dangerous conditions. We set off south after a quick stop for groceries, and had a couple of hours in the slowly breaking dawn light. Weather continues to be very forgiving, so we had clear and dry roads with very little traffic. Our several stops along our journey are shown below in picture form. A short summary would be waterfall, waterfall, waterfall, random field with horses, beach, waterfall. For hiking around near the waterfalls, wearing our studded orienteering shoes made for much safer trekking. Many of the other tourists were slipping and falling, I felt pretty smug about zipping past on the thick sheets of ice that built up from the spray (drizzle, as it stated on one sign) of the waterfalls.

Tonight we are staying in a hostel type place, several friendly groups all sharing the kitchen. We chatted a bit with a group from Moscow, and they gave us a very cool looking fridge magnet with Russian nesting dolls on it. I am busy folding some origami to give them in the morning.

Too cloudy to make it worth going out in search of the northern lights tonight. Here's hoping we get a lucky break soon! Tomorrow we're heading into an ice cave with a guide company. There are a too many neat things to see and not enough daylight hours in which to see them.
Our first foss

On this foss, we could walk behind the curtain of water

Still great weather for fossing

We forgot to buy carrots at the store. Ponies were uninterested in us

Cool rock formations at the black sand beach

Finally a break from all that sitting in the car

Cave at the black sand beach

Starting to get dark

Two giants, towing their 3 masted ship to shore were turned to stone: According to legend


So much beauty off towards the horizon

Iceland is a nice land

We spent the last few days of 2016 having a lovely Christmas holiday in the Boston area and, after ringing in the new year, it was time to start heading back to Sweden. However, this time we decided to have a bit of an adventure and so we have stopped off in Iceland for a few days to explore. Sam has done a great job planning, and as long as the weather cooperates, we should be set to create a mini Saga of our own.

We landed early on Tuesday morning, and met up with the agent from the rental car place. The roads can be quite icy and challenging at this time of year, and we'll put in some solid driving in the next days, so we had opted for a 4 wheel drive jeep style car. It's a giant beast of a vehicle, but it got us to  Reykjavik without incident, and we headed straight to the AirBnB to get a few more hours of real sleep. Into bed at 7, and then awake again at 11, about the same time the sun rose.
Two minute walk to the very windy coast

Our day was spent moseying around the town taking lots of pictures, interspersed with plenty of breaks to warm up our fingers again before removing the gloves to take another batch of photos. It was a great day for walking around the city, clear and relatively warm!

Another nice panorama along the coast

We visited a chocolate factory OmNom, and tasted lots of good chocolate. Malted white chocolate with Sea Salt and Caramel is delicious. The lakkrís (licorice) flavored chocolate was also surprisingly good. Things are pretty expensive here, so we limited our buying to just a couple of bars, and headed back out into the wild. We may have stopped to get both ice cream and coffee/chai, meaning that our day was fueled mostly with sugary goodness.We did a lot of window shopping and browsing as we worked our way over to the very impressive and iconic Hallgrímskirkja. One of the placed we visited was a fantastic photography gallery, where we saw a print of the statue of Leif Eriksson - erected in front of the church - that we both liked and tried our best to capture the same composition in our own shots.

The employees get to invent their own flavors that sometimes get sold in the shop

Now that's a striking viking!

Popular spot to snap a few photos
The sun was starting to set as we reached the Harpa concert house, giving us a lot of chances to try to capture a gorgeous sunset reflected in the glass exterior to the building.

Christmas decorations were still up

Dinner was at a very cozy bistro that came recommended, and we paged through the guide book as we ate burgers and fries (seems safer than some of the traditional Icelandic foods, such as Svið = sheep's head or Súrir hrútspungar = sour ram's testicles). We next ventured out to a local swimming pool in our neighborhood to relax in a pool of geothermally heated water. The little community pool had a few lanes for swimming laps, a large warm pool for kids to play in, and several heated pools for relaxing and gazing up at the stars. It was neat to sit outside in a hot tub at 40 degress Celsius and look at the digital display showing the outdoor temp hovering just about 0.

Lots of street art and murals everywhere

The last little venture for the day was to try to get out of the light pollution in the city to try to see the aurora. We drove out a ways on the peninsula and parked with a mass of other like minded tourists, and despite ducking the lights of the city, we did not see any northern lights because the clouds had moved in and seemed to be ready to settle in for the night. Taking that cue, we also headed home and are putting ourselves to bed. Tomorrow we venture out of the capital (Reykjavik is the northernmost capital city in the world, at 64 degrees N lattitude) and head east along Rt. 1.

Many come to visit this city. I guess some are a bit more destructive