Chill’in in the trendy capital of Iceland is for us an oxymoron, below normal temperatures and steaming hot springs in this country of mega geothermal activity. Reykjavik shops have plenty of Icelandic wool in every form, enticing souvenirs, restaurants serving world cuisines and local favourites, such as traditional “meat soup”. We find truth in the saying “Iceland runs on coffee” with our thrice-daily stops for flavourful cups of java.
Rick’s camera clicks the most photographed sites.
Our Iceland Pix
Hallgrímskirkja is the gigantic concrete church dominating the city’s skyline. In the stark cavernous interior, we are enthralled by the melodic strains of hymns flooding the airwaves from its 15m high organ possessing 5000 pipes.
Out front of the church is a statue of the famous Viking, Leif Eriksson (spelled Leifr in Old Norse). According to Icelandic saga, Leif was born in Iceland around 970. His father Erik the Red, an explorer and outlaw from Norway later founded the first colonies on Greenland. Leif, as a young man, left with a crew to visit the Greenland settlement, but winds blew him off course and he landed instead at the northern tip of what is now Canada’s Newfoundland around the year 1000; he is therefore said to be the first European to land in North America, nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus. He stayed in Canada a winter then on his voyage back home he came across another castaway ship, gaining him the sobriquet “Leif the Lucky”.
A newbie on the Reykjavík scene is Harpa Concert Hall & Convention Centre (home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and Opera). From every angle different reflections give it a multi-dimensional personality.
Down by the seafront looms Sólfar (Sun Voyager), the sleek contemporary Viking ship in shiny stainless steel fashioned by Jón Gunnar Árnason for Reykjavik’s 200th birthday.
The name Reykjavik, meaning smoky cove, was coined by the county’s first settler of Viking persuasion, Ingólfur Arnarson, who mistakenly took the steam rising out of the boiling springs as smoke caused by fire. A statue of this ancient hero is perched on a grassy knoll. The Book of Settlements (the famed medieval sagas) tells the story of Arnarson and his crew settling in this new land. A dragon head faces his front, and to the side is the god Odin with two ravens and his 8-legged horse and mythological tree.
During our week in Iceland we encounter rain, rain, and more rain and the odd smidgeon of sun. Seeing a bunch of Icelanders with nary a water-proof covering drinking wine at an outside table sends us the message “man-up”, although we did not part with our North Face jackets and my faithful umbrella.
This portrayal of Huldufólk (hidden people) is “a hoot”. These elves and trolls are richly described in folklore, and surveys reveal more than 50% of Icelanders “believe they exist OR there is a possibility they exist”…although much of this may be for the benefit of tourists….yet, recently a proposed road construction never saw the light of day due to local cultural beliefs that the roadway would destroy the habitat of elves.
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a 300km loop beginning and ending at Reykjavik, the most travelled tourist route for a very good reason – it takes in three of the natural wonders of Iceland. We rent a car so we can go at our own pace. Our first stop is Geysir, the very active geothermal area in the Haukadalur valley. We check into the Geyser Hotel for the night, and then rush across the road in the sunshine (yes, old Sol poked out). If a geyser can be considered “cute” it is Litli (little) Geysir which furiously and continually bubbles and spits.
A bit further is Strokkur which erupts every 4 to 8 minutes. Its biggest blast of gushing water reaches 30m, occurring just a minute apart from a lesser one; luckily our camera and recorder were still on standby. Strokkur’s big brother Geysir, for which the area is named, in its heyday regularly spewed forth 70m blasts. It appears now as a large, deep blue pool, which after decades of inactivity has been roused to some activity after a nearby earthquake in 2008, although its eruptions are with such irregularity that seeing it is a matter of luck.
Gullfoss (Golden Falls) is also in the Haukadalur valley. It plunges from the Hvitá River in tiers into a 70m-deep canyon. The government proposal to harness its power for electricity, was met with public dismay and daughter of the main advocate (yes, it was daughter against father) threatened to throw herself into the waterfall…the story’s end – it is now preserved as a natural attraction. And since then, when the government comes forward with some project that the conservation oriented public feel is as unbelievably ridiculous, this quip rolls off tongues, “And then what? Sell Gullfoss?”
It is onto Thingvellir National Park for its historic events and geographical aspects. The focal point is Thingvellir where you straddle the Eurasian and American tectonic plates that are pulling apart by a few centimetres each year! This is the founding place of Iceland’s Parliament in 930 and where annual meetings were held until 1798. It is also where in 1944 the country was declared a Republic, severing its ties with Denmark. (A brief synopsis of rulers: in the early 13th century violent blood feuds between Iceland’s chieftains lead to rule by Norway from 1262 and then Denmark from 1397. Why the switch from Norway to Denmark? Early in the 14th century the Kingdoms of Norway, Denmark and Sweden became one kingdom, then later when they split up again, somehow Iceland wound up under Danish rule.)
Of particular interest to my archaeological sway is the 2001 find of a Viking hall known as Landnámssyningin (Settlement Exhibition). The oval shaped walls enclose a sizable living space with a central hearth. It is believed people lived here between 930 and 1000AD, yet part of the tuft wall sits on top of volcanic ash from a powerful eruption in 870AD (- or + 2 years). Current technology in the form of shadowy figures performing daily tasks adds insight into their long ago existence.
Our Journey Toward the Centre of the Earth
In each country we visit, Rick and I keep our eyes peeled for something unique to that country; something that cannot be seen or experienced anywhere else in the world. In Iceland we got wind of such a phenomenon. Normally, after a mega-volcanic eruption the magma hardens closing the crater opening. Not so with Thrihnukagigur – which after its mega blast 4,000 years ago, an anomaly of nature occurred – the magma did not remain in the cavity! Volcanologist Haraldur Sigurdson’s explanation, “It’s like somebody came and pulled the plug, and all the magma ran down out of it.” We are hyped to see this oddity of nature!
After a 40-minute bus ride over a winding road (our bus driver feeds the local ilk, saying the reason for the twists and turns is to avoid elf and troll habitats), we arrive at the foot of Bláfjöll Mountain Range – where the road ends. Thora, our guide meets us and leads us on a 3km lava field hike. At one point we pass over the split between the Eurasian and North American rift that runs northeast to southwest across Iceland (and is widening by 1.5cm each year).
Arriving at the small Welcome Cabin, our group of eleven is divided into three, with us the middle group, and we are fitted with a harness and helmet.
Our turn!! We walk up the nearby embankment to the gaping opening of Thrihnukagigur or Three Peaks Crater, one of which we will descend 120 metres into!
A metal cage awaits us; one like window washers of sky-scrapers use. Pall, the operator, assures we are properly hooked to the cage frame with carabiners, and then presses a red button. After a few jolts and the cage scraping against the rock face, we rumble slowly into the dormant volcano’s enormous maw.
Icy fingers run down my spine from more than the 4 degrees Celsius at the bottom! My eyes bug out at the enormity of the chamber! Its ground space could hold three basketball courts and could easily fit the Statue of Liberty!
We are untethered and other than being warned where “not” to go, we are free to wander away from the semi-flat section up and down over jagged rock to get nearer to the chamber walls, where we see the results of gases, pressure and extreme temperatures from the magma blasting to the surface so many years ago. The colours are astounding – amber, yellow, green, russet, and reds – which on our decent Pall explained “are from the different ore concentrations in the rock, and the pitch black sections are where the outer coating has crashed down in chunks from the walls.
Humbled by this grandeur, I barely move until I hear Rick call, “Come over to this edge; this is unbelievable!” I grab onto sharp boulders and make my way over to where he gazes into a seemingly endless abyss of more dazzling colour in swirling patterns. Truly a spectacle to behold!
We have learned from Thora that this chamber was first discovered in 1974 by long-time cave enthusiast Árni B. Stefánsson, who at that time descended without a headlamp and thought it nothing more than a dark hole. Years later, this time with lighting, he was overwhelmed by what he saw, and began petitioning the government on the fine line of conservation while at the same time opening this wonder to the public.
National Geographic helped this along by wanting to do a documentary about this amazing chamber, which lead to an entrepreneur covering the cost of the lift and lighting for the magazine’s crew to film the documentary – this was 2010. The first tour took place in 2012 – the first time in history visitors, like us, could venture into this eerily magnificent subterranean world.
Above ground again, we fill up on a much appreciated bowl of steaming meat soup and several cups of coffee before our trek back from this unforgettable look “inside the volcano” – as Sci Fi as anything we have done to date!
Our taste buds sing an Icelandic tune
Wind-dried cod – we munched on this salty snack, but well… we think it’s an acquired taste.
Kjotsupa “meat soup” – we had at least a dozen bowls of this delicious hearty fare; chunks of the sweet tender mutton (from sheep grazing on herbs), carrots, rutabagas, potatoes, cabbage, onion, garlic, brown rice, thyme and oregano.
Skyr (skeer) – a dairy staple here for over 1000 years; you’ll never guess from its creamy consistency that it is made from skim milk.
On this delicious note we leave Iceland with great memories – the warmth of the locals a good buffer for the chilly rain during our week here.
It is next on to Norway!
If you go:
Costs: Iceland is not cheap to travel through. My Finance Minister Rick (who counts every last Krona) calculated our cost (accommodation, food, travel within Iceland, entry fees) at $427 per day.