Our Icelandic Saga – pt 2

Itinerary:

Dates: December 26 – January 2

Our Odyssey:

Thursday, December 29 – Reykjavik and Golden Circle

We’re nearing the end of our third day on this north Atlantic island and I’m starting to feel like Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. That my yellow parka resembles Pooh’s yellow fur may be a contributing factor, but I can say with great confidence that these have, in fact, been some blustery days.

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View from our hostel room on our second day – you can actually see some peaks of mountains across the lake! 

As I write this, I’m sitting in a convenience store in a small town in Iceland. I think it’s called Fludir. Our tour guide has left half of us here and taken the other half with him on the bus in search of a mechanic who can change the inside dual rear tire. Also on this bus is my camera, my passport, my wallet, and all of our luggage. We’re hoping he comes back before this store closes in 2 hours. And we’re regretting not speaking up against being left in the store to wait for him. Being separated from your belongings and your source of information is an icky feeling. Needless to say, this vacation has gone far from how I planned it. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

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Best way to spend vacation? Passing hours in a convenience store…

It hasn’t been too bad, really. Although our Silfra snorkel and lava cave tour got cancelled yesterday, we definitely enjoyed the leisurely morning, complete with a long, relaxed breakfast at our hostel followed by my favorite- mid-morning reading and napping. We eventually got up with the sun, around 11am. We packed sandwiches made from our breakfast leftovers (like in our RTW 2014 days) and our swimsuits (in the event we decided to stop by a thermal pool), and we ventured out into the very blustery day.

We started with a short visit to the Sun Voyager, a sculpture that is meant to be a boat but looks like whale bones to me and Tim. Because the sculpture is right on the coast, it was unbearably windy, with rain pelting us and the zoo of other tourists. We took a photo and a half-hearted selfie and bolted inland where the buildings would offer some protection.

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Sun Voyager sculpture

From there we walked about a half hour through occasionally lovely (as in, cloudy and cold but no active precipitation or wind) and occasionally horrible (sleet and wind so furious you have to brace yourself) conditions to reach the National Museum of Iceland. Thankfully, the museum was well worth the struggle. The main exhibit focused on the island’s history, from the first settlements around 800 AD to present day.

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Me on the very blustery walk. 

Through multimedia displays and interesting artifacts, we learned about Iceland’s history first as a settlement by intrepid Irish monks in 700 AD, then as a home base for Norwegian Vikings between 870 and 930. Rejecting monarchy, the settlers formed regional assemblies to settle matters and govern the area generally. Overtime, it became clear a larger-scale assembly was necessary. This is where the althing was born. In the year 1000, the althing was presented with a decision that, if not resolved, could lead to civil war. The group was split between pagan beliefs (which was the main tradition of the land) and Christianity. Thorgeir, the incumbent law speaker, took a day and night to ponder the issue. He decided that the nation should embrace the new religion (Christianity) but that pagans, such as himself, should still be able to practice their beliefs in private. This is considered one of the most notably times in history where a transition in national religion occurred without violence or war.

In the late 12th century, however, Iceland descended into tribal-type conflict and, under pressure from the Norwegian king, came under Norway’s power. In the mid-1200s, Hekla volcano erupted three times and covered the region in ash, creating a mini-ice age, and shortly after, the plague also arrived to Iceland. Things in Iceland were not looking great. And they got worse over the subsequent centuries. Denmark took over, and imposed a trade monopoly that killed Iceland’s economy. Meanwhile, pirates began raiding towns and kidnapping Icelanders to sell as slaves. And then small pox arrived, killing over a third of the population. And then more volcanos majorly erupted in the 1600 and 1700s, culminating in Laki erupting for 8 months straight in 1783. This caused a Haze Famine where plants, livestock and people died in massive numbers. Danish authorities debated relocating the surviving Icelanders to Denmark based on how dangerous life in Iceland had become.

Somehow they recovered, and Icelandic nationalism flourished. In 1944 Iceland obtained full independence from Denmark, but, interestingly, was occupied by US military during the Cold War all the way into 2006 on behalf of the nation’s defense.

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Ready to fight (museum gift shops are fun)

After the museum we walked back towards our hostel, stopping at a local public swimming pool/thermal bath. Apparently these are a very Icelandic way to spend time. For less than $10 each we spent about an hour soaking in the outdoors hot tubs and sweating it out in the sauna. With our core body temperatures raised, the rest of the walk home felt so comfortable, despite the freezing weather.

Once back at the hostel we showered off and got ready to go out for a proper Icelandic meal for dinner. Tim found a restaurant, Old Iceland, just a 5 minute walk away with outstanding reviews. We headed there and put our names down for a table. There was a bit of a wait so in the meantime we stopped by a coffee shop and bookstore across the street. We each ordered hot chocolate and the barista was kind enough to offer us free refills! And when you’re on vacation and it’s a very blustery day, you always say yes to free refills of hot chocolate!

We then poked around some of the souvenir shops where everything was crazy expensive ($40 t-shirts) before heading back to the restaurant.

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It’s true, we have fun. 

The small, cozy spot stayed busy, even as it got late for dinner. Tim and I decided we should order some true Icelandic drinks from the menu, so we got brennivin and birch schnapps. We were surprised when the waiter returned with two shots and not two mixed drinks! Brennivin tasted very mild and easy. The birch schnapps, on the other hand, tasted like a tree – though being made from birch sap I suppose I could have guessed this.

For dinner we spilt two appetizers- traditional Icelandic meat stew and cured salmon- and shared a main of leg of lamb with mashed potatoes and root vegetables. Everything was phenomenal. All in all, even with bad weather, we had a great day in the city.

This morning we checked out of our hostel and were picked up for the 3 day/ night tour that would take us out searching for northern lights, ice caving, glacier hiking and around the typical tourist route of attractions called the Golden Circle.

After picking up the rest of the group, our guide, Rob, introduced himself. His background is in volcanology, which excited me since he would be able to share with us a lot of information about the geology we would be seeing.

The itinerary today was to go to all the sites in the Golden Circle- several waterfalls, a geyser field, Thingvellir National Park (where the European and North American tectonic plates meet), and a volcanic black sand beach.

The day was off to a rough start with the weather- lots of rain and wind, and we were delayed getting out of town because a family of four (a mom, dad and their two adult daughters) weren’t ready when the bus came to pick them up.

Our first stop was to Thingvellir, where you can see the rift between tectonic plates as well as where Iceland held its first parliament in 930 AD. A brief word on words: Many of Iceland’s first settlers were opposed to monarchy and instead created district assemblies called things. Eventually, a nation-wide thing was necessary- the althing – and it was held here. So you see, althing means Parliament, Thingvellir means “Parliament Field”.

Tim and I stepped off the bus and sharp sideways rain drops pelted us. In the 50 meters it took to get from the bus to inside the (unbelievably crowded) visitor center, my pants were soaked. We decided to throw on our waterproof pants and brave the weather to see the large fault driving the two continents apart. This is the same area Tim and I had been scheduled to snorkel in yesterday and admittedly I’m glad we didn’t. It would have been miserable in this magnitude of wind and rain- it was kind of miserable just walking through.

The family of four was 15 minutes late getting back on the bus. Over the course of today this became an annoying trend. Even before our hours-long delay due to bus issues (which I’ll get to), another guy in our group had calculated that we’d been delayed an hour and a half in total by members of this family.

The next stop was a place called Geysir, home to THE geyser (along with other geysers) which gave all geysers their name. The Great Geysir geyser goes off very infrequently, but there is another there, called Strokkur, that reliably goes off every 5-10 minutes. Again in rainy weather and surrounded by maddening crowds (Rob said he’d never seen these places so crowded before), Tim and I stood among a mob of tourists starting expectantly at a steamy mound in the middle of a thermal field.

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Strokkur geyser

About 7 minutes later, Tim and I heard a loud noise coming from an area further down the path, and then saw swarms of people starting to walk back towards the parking lot and visitor center. Tim and I are total goobers. We hadn’t been looking at the geyser at all! After correcting our position and waiting 10 more minutes, we saw Strokkur go off in a forceful if brief plume of water.

Back in the visitor center/cafe, which was even more maddeningly crowded than the one at Thingvellir, Tim and I pulled out sandwiches we had made for lunch and found a table with two free chairs. With only a few bites left, a woman who works there reprimanded us harshly for “picnicking”.

Not wanting to stand outside in the freezing rain and wind, we just got back on the bus.

We had to wait again for folks to return to the bus (this time 30 minutes late), and were quickly losing daylight.

We still had three waterfalls and a beach on our itinerary, and it was doubtful we’d make it to everything. This wouldn’t really bother us too much if it weren’t for the fact that if others had been on time getting back to the bus, we’d be on schedule.

Once everyone was back, our next stop was Gullfoss waterfall. Again the weather was awful, but we bundled up and climbed the stairs to the view point. The ground was slippery and the wind was the strongest I’d ever felt, but the reward was worth the struggle (and admittedly, while feeling that kind of wind was stressful in the moment, the experience felt pretty cool in hindsight). This was my favorite view of the day, as this waterfall is one of the largest by volume in the whole country. It reminded me of a smaller Iguazu with the thunderous cascades spilling first over a smaller dip and then plunging dramatically out of eye sight. Even with the wind, rain and crowds of people, I still managed a few brilliant seconds fully present and engaged with this sight.

Navigating back to the stairs and then down them was one of the most challenging short walks of my life. I couldn’t look directly in front of me due to pelting rain, and the wind was so strong I had to brace myself still every few steps while navigating along icy ground.

It was at this point that I accepted that, while everything we were seeing was really cool, the experience was actually kind of miserable.

Again the family of four was late, and again everyone was silently annoyed by them. With dusk approaching, Rob began our drive to the next spot.

Along the way we passed over one of Iceland’s many single-lane bridges, where we began having major tire trouble. Rob ended up pulling over briefly to evaluate the issue several times before finally pulling into a grocery store parking lot in the small town I’m now in. He’s taken the bus and half the group out to find a mechanic, while the rest of us sit here, surrounded by darkness and falling snow all around, unsure of when he’ll be back. Yikes!

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On the bridge where we started having bus troubles… 

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