Wednesday, August 24: We arrive back in Reykjavik at 3:00. After our amazing circular 11-day trip around Iceland, we’re back to the beginning. When we first arrived, we had gray and dreary weather; today we’re blessed with impossibly blue skies and crisp but comfortable weather. What a perfect way to end our trip.
We missed Jón Gunnar Árnason’s TheSun Voyager when we were here before, so this is our first stop. The work is constructed of quality stainless steel and stands on a circle of granite slabs surrounded by so-called “town-hall concrete.” It sits along Sæbraut Road, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean.
It is commonly thought that TheSun Voyager represents a Viking ship, sitting ashore as it does in the land of the sagas, but this was not the artist’s original intention. It was essentially seen as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light, hope, progress and freedom (Wikipedia: The Sun Voyager).
Jón Gunnar Árnason was ill with leukemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location.
We do enjoy the sculpture, but there are so many tourists posing in every manner possible – climbing on the sculpture, hanging up side down on it – that I can’t get one decent photo without people.
We then drive directly to the OK Hotel/K Bar to check in to our apartment. It’s right in the center of busy Reykjavik along Laugarvegur, and, oddly, has an automated check-in system. A doorphone to the left of the front door is connected to a remote reception. They buzz me in through the K-Bar restaurant, closed and undergoing renovation (without a person in sight), and then check me in from a phone in the lobby.
Inside OK Hotel
Suitcase display at OK Hotel
Bar at OK Hotel
Our room is fancifully decorated in what looks like old American encyclopedia pages. An angel is drawn overlooking the beds with the words: “Does an angel contemplate my faith?” written among the folds of her robes.
You can see some close-ups of the encyclopedia pages by clicking on any of the images below.
our room at OK Hotel
Biological Clock – encyclopedic wallpaper
trains in America
Mike finds a parking spot, surprisingly, right outside the door of K-Bar. We have to pay for parking until 6:00 and it’s free after that. It seems too good to be true. Because of this unlikely good luck, I worry all night that we’ll wake in the morning to find our car towed. Of course, all my worries are for nothing.
After dropping our stuff in our apartment, we go out for a walk. Immediately we come across a Bonus market, where we buy some breakfast food and some snacks for our flight home tomorrow morning. After returning to our room and depositing our food in the refrigerator, we sit on our balcony and enjoy the rooftop views and a glass of wine.
After our wine, we head out again for a walk. I’m excited to find a shop full of puffins. This is my one and only close-up view of puffins in Iceland!
We’ve already seen many of the sights in Reykjavik, and as it’s late in the day anyway, we simply enjoy walking up and down the shopping street, Laugarvegur.
We want to take home some Icelandic music, and luckily we happen upon the perfect music store, where we can sit in comfortable chairs and listen to various CDs. The owner recommends a couple of CDs, which we buy to take home.
Reykjavik is such a quirky town with great street art, decorative and artsy shops, and cute houses. I’m charmed by all of it.
I love this admonishment to forget the Wi-fi and to actually “Talk to each other and get drunk!”
After our walk, we stop at Salka Valka fish & more, where we enjoy a great yet simple meal accompanied by beer. We have a long chat with four young Scandinavian ladies, who have done some major treks, glacier hikes and camping. They are treating themselves to a restaurant meal tonight.
I have really loved our Icelandic fish dishes on this trip. This one is Traditional Plokkfiskur: “Our signature dish, oven-baked plokkfiskur (haddock and cod mixed with potatoes, onions, spices and herbs in a casserole like fashion) topped with béarnaise sauce and served with root vegetables, Icelandic sweet bread, butter, Basmati rice and our in-house red sauce.”
After dinner and drinking a beer, we go out to walk some more, but of course, after a beer, I shortly need to find a bathroom. As finding a bathroom anywhere in Iceland is like finding Waldo, we walk around in vain with the situation getting increasingly desperate. Finally, we find a pub where the only available restroom is a men’s room. Mike checks it out to make sure it’s empty and then guards the door while I find some relief!
Back at our hotel, we enjoy another glass of wine on our balcony and then pack up all our stuff. We have an 10:30 a.m. flight tomorrow.
Total steps today: 15,986, or 6.77 miles.
Thursday, August 25: We get up at 6:15, eat breakfast, shower and drive our rental car back to Budget at the airport. Luckily, there are no extra charges on our rental car. We’re relieved as we were never clear as to whether our rental included insurance! Our flight back is uneventful, with less turbulence that we’ve encountered on many flights, arriving back in Washington at 12:30 p.m.
All told, we drove 2,700km around Iceland’s Ring Road, with many detours along the way. 🙂
I loved Iceland! I would love to go back again on the Icelandair Stopover because there was still so much we missed that I’d love to see!
Tuesday, August 16: This morning, we meet a young Chinese lady and her mother in the breakfast room at Freyja Guesthouse. It turns out they’re going to pick up their rental car in Reykjavik today and then head around the Ring Road (Route 1) north to Akureyri. We’re doing the same today, but as we already have our rental car, we can get an earlier start. It’s nice to chat with them about our shared experiences in China; the daughter, Wang Wang, can speak fairly decent English; her mother can speak very little. This is the second time I’ve met a Chinese mother and daughter traveling together. The first time was in late July of 2015, soon after I left China; at that time, Mike and I met my student Christine and her mother in Washington as they were traveling down the East Coast.
When we leave Reykjavik it’s raining. So far, we haven’t had luck with the weather. We pass ponds, streams, harbors and rivers all over the pastoral area known as Hvalfjörður. We find farms tucked into the flat areas at the bottom of rumpled and fuzzy green mountains. They’re usually isolated places, set alone on a plain with a mountain backdrop.
Not too long after we leave the city, we go through a 5.7km long tunnel under Hvalfjörður. Before the tunnel was built in 1998, drivers had to spend an extra hour going around the fjord. The tunnel seems to be made of solid stone and runs 165m below sea level.
I love the treeless mountains of Iceland. Covered in moss, they look like behemoths covered loosely in a blanket of velvet . Everywhere we see bales of hay, wrapped in white or black plastic wrap, lined up neatly atop green fields. The farmhouses and barns are often white-walled with red roofs, and when rays of sunlight hit them at the right angle, they glow like beacons from another world.
And then of course there are the Icelandic horses. These horses, bred in Iceland, may look the size of ponies, but they are actually registered as horses. Long-lived and hardy, in their native country they have few diseases. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported into the country and exported animals are not allowed to return (Wikipedia: Icelandic horse).
The horse displays two gaits in addition to the typical walk, trot, and canter/gallop commonly displayed by other breeds. The first additional gait is the four-beat lateral ambling gait known as the tölt. The second additional gait is called a skeið, flugskeið or “flying pace.” It is used in pacing races, and is fast and smooth, with speeds often reached up to 30 mph (Wikipedia: Icelandic horse). Not all horses have this latter gait.
I have been a horse lover since I was a girl; because of this I’m always urging Mike to pull over when I see them standing near the road.
As a matter of fact, I’m constantly asking Mike to pull off the road so I can take pictures of everything. I love the farmhouses and barns, the sheep, the horses, the sweeping and strange landscapes that change around every turn. It will take us forever at this rate to get to Akureyri, 242 miles from Reykjavik.
We decide to fill up with gas at the N1 at Borgarnes, a tiny town that has one of the original settlement areas and sits on a scenic promontory at Borgarfjörður. It costs us about 5,300 Icelandic krona, or around $46 to fill half our tank! It’s expensive to rent a car in Iceland, and even more expensive to drive it!
While I’m in the gas station getting some coffee, I chat with a woman who’s from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She and her husband are heading west to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula in Western Iceland. It’s known as “Iceland in Miniature” because many national sites can be found there. Sadly, we miss this area of Iceland, which boasts the volcano Snæfellsjökull, the setting for Jules Verne’s novel, Journey to the Center of the Earth. In addition, scenes from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty were filmed on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. The woman asks if we went to the Kaldidalur Corridor, which skirts the edge of a series of glaciers, and the Langjökull ice cap. Of course we have to respond in the negative to this too.
There simply isn’t enough time to go everywhere and do all the activities we want to do without being rushed. 😦
The name Borgarnes means “Borg peninsula” and refers to a farm of that name, Borg. Borg was the home of Egill Skallagrímsson, the titular character of Egil’s Saga (Wikitravel: Borgarnes).
We drive into the town and climb up to the sculpture called Brákin, memorializing a dramatic moment from Egil’s Saga. It’s named after Egil’s nursemaid who saves Egil’s life by jumping into the sea to escape Egil’s enraged father. Sound confusing? It is – that is unless you know the Icelandic sagas.
While standing atop the hill at this overlook, the skies open up. Mike has seen it coming and has run to the car. I’m too late, and I get drenched!
We leave the cute little town and continue our drive. My jeans are soaked and it will take some time for them to dry out.
Although we don’t see many trees while in Iceland, there is apparently a lot of native birch woodland that is protected by The Iceland Forest Service (IFS), established according to the forestry and soil conservation act of 1907. There are also cultivated forests of various species, experimental forests and arboreta, according to an article Forestry in a Treeless Land. We come across this small forested spot along our drive, with a sign indicating it is managed by the IFS.
We pull off the road when we cross a bridge over a small scenic canyon; we want to have a look and stretch our legs, take in a breath of fresh air.
a small canyon along the road
When I see farmhouses set in idyllic spots, I ask Mike to please pull over. It’s not always easy to pull over on Iceland’s roads as they are two-lane highways, one lane going in each direction, with no shoulders. The highways sit atop elevated beds so if you pull off, you will tumble down an embankment about 8-10 feet. We often try to pull off onto farm driveways or small gravel pull-offs along the roadside. On some stretches it is impossible to pull off. Every so often, when we don’t see anyone behind us, we stop the car in our lane; inevitably another driver appears out of nowhere barreling down the highway at 90km/hour. We can’t count on another driver seeing us in time to stop; they’re probably oohing and aahing at the scenery just as we are!
The total length of the Ring Road is 1,332 kilometres (828 mi). The road is paved with asphalt for most of its length, but there are still stretches in eastern Iceland, about 32km, with unpaved gravel surfaces (Wikipedia: Route 1 (Iceland)). We are surprised by this because we thought we’d read the whole road was paved. We were misinformed.
Many smaller bridges, often constructed of wood or steel, are single lane, especially in eastern Iceland. There are no signals at these one way bridges; drivers are expected to look across the bridge, if possible, and yield to whoever arrives first. On some of the really long bridges, where we can’t see the other side, there are shoulders where drivers can pull over to let people pass by.
As we’re zipping by on the highway, Mike sees a place where people are hiking. As we’ve already passed it, we stop to take pictures of the bizarre volcanic landscape.
a strange & desolate landscape
landscape near Grábrók Crater
stark lanscape near Grábrók Crater
landscape near Grábrók Crater
Mike is looking back longingly in the direction of the hiking spot we passed. At his request, we decide to turn around and do the hike. We’re glad we do. We find these are the Grábrókargigar craters, protected as natural monuments in 1962. The goal of protecting the craters was to preserve the beautifully formed scoria cones that formed in “modern” times and are remarkable natural formations. The area’s vegetation, particularly moss vegetation, is vulnerable.
There are three craters within the protected area. Litla (small) Grábrók has mostly disappeared due to mining operations before the area was protected. The crater we are climbing up is Stóra (big) Grábrók, which rises up near the main road.
We climb up the well-maintained wooden walkway and steps, enjoying the views of the surrounding landscape.
Beneath us, we can see some settlement ruins.
We continue up the wooden walkway to the rim of the crater. We can see down into the crater. Of course, the crater is asleep these days; there is no gurgling lava, no rising steam, no ash, no gaseous sulphur smell.
The Grábrókargigar craters are part of the Ljósufjöll volcanic system and are the most easterly craters in the system. The Ljósufjöll volcanic system belongs to the Snæfellsnes volcanic zone, which is a peripheral zone (i.e., not a rift zone). The volcanic system extends far to the west on the Snæfellsnes peninsula. It is believed to be somewhat younger than 3,600 years. The lava, alkali olivine basalt, from the craters covers a large portion of the Norðurárdalur valley.
view from Grábrók Crater
view from atop Grábrók Crater
view from Grábrók Crater
inside Grábrók Crater
view to the west from Grábrók Crater
As we walk around the perimeter of Grábrók Crater, we can see Grábrókarfell, another crater within the protected area.
We also see some settlements ruins near the base of Grábrókarfell.
All over Iceland, we see campers like the one below, rented from KúKú Campers: “DON’T STINK AND DRIVE!” You can check their website to see costs for renting different types of vehicles. As there is no shortage of campgrounds throughout Iceland, this is an economical option for an Icelandic road trip. During what KúKú calls the “Sexy Season” (June 16-August 31), prices range from 135-279 euros per night. As we are spending around $100/day to rent a car + gas + hotel rooms averaging around $180 per night, it would have saved us money to travel this way. 🙂
As we pass by the pretty farmstead we saw from the rim of the volcano, I have to ask Mike to pull over again for another picture.
We continue our drive into North Iceland, and we still have a long way to go till we reach Akureyri.
Monday, August 15: After leaving Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition, we continue our walk through Old Reykjavík.
The pyramid form of Water Carrier (1937), by Ásmundur Sveinsson, suggests strength and stability, which is important, since the image depicts the women who carried water year-round to every household in town, whatever the weather (Reykjavik Grapevine: Statues of Reykjavik).
A statue of Norwegian Ingólfur Arnarson (Ingolfur meaning royal wolf), reputed to be the first Icelandic settler, sits atop Arnarhóll. He and his wife Heilveig built their home in Reykjavik around 874 AD. The sculpture by Einar Jonsson and shows the settler standing by his high seat pillar which is decorated with a dragon’s head.
After leaving Arnarhóll, we head up the colorful main shopping street, Laugavegur, where we see a lot of quirky and charming buildings.
We are in route to an unusual museum recommended by Lonely Planet Iceland: The Icelandic Phallological Museum. It is probably the only museum in the world to contain phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammals found in a single country. We can’t help but be bowled over by this unusual collection.
According to the museum’s website: The Icelandic Phallological Museum contains a collection of more than two hundred penises and penile parts belonging to almost all the land and sea mammals that can be found in Iceland. Visitors to the museum will encounter fifty-five specimens belonging to sixteen different kinds of whale, one specimen taken from a rogue polar bear, thirty-six specimens belonging to seven different kinds of seal and walrus, and more than one hundred fifteen specimens originating from twenty different kinds of land mammal: all in all, a total of more than two hundred specimens belonging to forty-six different kinds of mammal, including that of Homo sapiens.
One sculpture memorializes the Icelandic men’s handball team, who won a silver medal in the 2008 Olympics. According to a 2012 article in Slate: “The sculpture consists, basically, of a bunch of silver penises pointing at the ceiling in a kind of wild-mushrooms-waving-in-a-field effect.”
The Icelandic National Handball Team
the silver penises of the Icelandic National Handball Team
There are numerous specimens of whales, dolphins, walruses, horses, giraffes, reindeer and even one Homo Sapiens, that of former Icelandic explorer and notorious womanizer, Pall Arason, who died at 95.
White beaked dolphin
Sperm whale, pottwhale, cachalot
one of these is a reindeer
After visiting the museum, we walk down to the waterfront where we have a view of the North Atlantic Ocean and the Harpa Concert Hall.
We had passed an Icelandic Tapas spot earlier on our walk and now we decide to stop here for an early dinner as we’re going to the Blue Lagoon this evening.
Across the street is a bright blue music store.
Inside, we sit at tall bar tables on wooden benches and order tapas served in jars. This is something new for us both as we’ve never had tapas in jars before!
The walls have drawings of some of the wildlife found in Iceland.
drawings on the wall of Icelandic Tapas
artwork at Icelandic Tapas
artwork on the walls at Icelandic Tapas
We order beers, me a white pale ale. We enjoy homemade bread with wild mushroom spread and pesto. The tapas jars are these: smoked lamb salad on flatbread, Icelandic fermented shark, sweet potato soup with ginger, coconut milk and chili, blue cheese and poached pear salad, and Acras, or deep-fried salted cod fritters and marinated red onion.
All tapas flavors are delicious, although I have to say it’s not a very satisfactory dinner; we’re both left hungry afterward.
We continue our walk through the city until we come to Joylato, where we order fresh-made ice cream. We try to order scoops of two different ice cream flavors to share, but this is very confusing to the staff as the ice cream is homemade and they make one flavor at a time. This helps fill us up after our not-so-filling tapas dinner.
Finally, we make our way back up Skólavörðustígur, with me jumping out into the busy street to take some parting shots of Hallgrímskirkja.
We go back to our room to relax for a while until we drive to the Blue Lagoon for our 8:00 timed entry.
Monday, August 15: After lunch, we continue our walk around Reykjavík, heading toward The Old Harbour and the glittering Harpa Reykjavík Concert Hall and Conference Centre, designed by Olafur Eliasson, Henning Larsen Architects and Batteríið Architects.
Harpa has won multiple awards for architecture including Mies van der Rohe in 2013, Best Public Space – Arkitekturmassan Awards 2012, and the World Architecture Award 2010. (About Harpa)
According to the Harpa website, the name Harpa has more than one meaning. It is an old Icelandic word that refers to a time of year and is in fact a month in the old Nordic calendar. The first day of that month is celebrated as the first day of summer and marks the beginning of a brighter time where nature comes to live and the colours of the environment sharpen. Harpa also refers to the instrument that refers to the activities and operations within. To some people, Harpa looks likes a drawn harp from a certain angle.
A statue of Danish cellist Erling Blöndal Bengtsson (March 8, 1932 – June 6, 2013), by sculptor Ólöf Pálsdóttir, sits atop the reflecting pool in front of Harpa.
We walk along the Old Harbour, built from 1913 to 1917. Previous to its construction, which was the largest project to date in Icelandic history, most ships dropped anchor well offshore and transported goods in by rowboat. Today, most boat traffic has moved east to Sundahöfn port (Frommer’s: Old Harbor (Hafn)).
We spot the Óðinn, a grey Coast Guard vessel with a blue, white and red diagonal stripe. The Coast Guard ships “defend the country’s territorial fishing waters. They were sent out to slice British fishing nets in the so-called ‘Cod Wars,’ which date back to 1432 but culminated in the 1970s, when Britain broke off diplomatic relations” (Frommer’s: Old Harbor (Hafn)).
After walking around the Harbor, we walk back up hill into Old Reykjavík, where we pass more colorful street art and buildings with funky rooftops.
We stumble upon Dómkirkja Krists konungs, or the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Christ the King. Though Iceland is primarily a Lutheran country, the number of Catholics during the 20th century grew slowly. In 1960 the members of the catholic congregation constituted about a half percent of the population (897). In 1994 the number reached 1% (2535) but is now about 3% of the population (about 11.500). These are mainly immigrants from Catholic countries, especially from Poland (Brief History of the Catholic Church in Iceland).
Mike wants to see Reykjavík 871±2: The Settlement Exhibition. We find the building and go inside. Though I try to take pictures, none turn out because it’s too dark.
This exhibit about life in Viking times showcases archaeological remains excavated in 2001 in Aðalstræti. These have turned out to be the oldest relics of human habitation in Reykjavík, with some of the fragments dating to before 871 AD. A longhouse from the tenth century was also discovered. The hall and a wall fragment are now both carefully preserved at their original location at this museum (Visit Reykjavik: REYKJAVIK 871 +/-2 THE SETTLEMENT EXHIBITION).
The name of the exhibition is such because a layer of tephra was deposited all over Iceland around 871 AD from an eruption in the Torfajökull area, about 400 km to the east; this layer has made it possible to determine the exact dates of many archeological finds in Iceland. The tephra layer has a possible two-year, + or -, range of error (Wikipedia: Reykjavík 871±2).
Across from the museum, we see the attractive Salvation Army building as well as an interesting statue surrounded by flowers.
We continue our walk through Old Reykjavík, up the main shopping street Laugavegur. Our destination: a very strange, and risqué, museum.
Monday, August 15: We wake up to a rather gloomy day in Reykjavík, but at least it doesn’t seem to be raining. We’ve slept rather late, as we’re existing now in parallel universe with a four-hour time difference from home. My friend Beatrice had earlier recommended potassium and magnesium to help us sleep, and, after taking it last night, I slept like a dormant volcano (snoring away of course, as Mike complains). The fog I’m in and my resistance to get up could be from jet leg, exhaustion from walking nearly 7 miles yesterday, or just being in a comfortable bed under a cozy comforter. 🙂
We find, to our surprise, that there is food in the common breakfast room. We didn’t know that breakfast came with our Airbnb reservation. Quite a spread is laid out: ham, cheese, bread, butter, jelly, yogurt. There is a carton of eggs, an egg steamer, and stainless steel egg cups. It takes us some fumbling to figure out how to prepare and eat the eggs using these contraptions, which are not a normal part of our lives. A cappuccino machine also proves to be a bit of a challenge, but we finally figure it all out.
Our Airbnb hosts, Páll And Gunna Palsson, are welcoming and friendly. Looking out at the gray skies outside, I ask Gunna if she knows the forecast for today. She replies cheerily: “I don’t know. I don’t keep track of the weather. Whatever I get, I get. I just live with it.” That’s a good attitude to take, especially when you only have a limited time for a holiday. It doesn’t do any good to wish for blue skies and perfect weather, because whatever it is, it is. You have to go out and enjoy your holiday no matter what. Later, we hear a radio announcer say, “If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, just wait five minutes.” We find that is also good advice, as the weather here is utterly changeable. 🙂
Finally, after breakfast and showers, we head down Freyjugata, with Hallgrímskirkja as our destination. Purely by accident, we stumble into The Einar Jónsson Sculpture park, the garden of the Einar Jónsson Museum, home and studio of Iceland’s first sculptor (1874-1954). According to the museum’s website, Jónsson drew inspiration from Icelandic folklore heritage, but he also used mythological and religious motifs.
sculpture in the sculpture garden
Light and Shadow
getting milk directly from the source
We can actually see Hallgrímskirkja from the Freyja Guesthouse and from the sculpture garden, as we’re only one road over from the immense white concrete church that dominates Reykjavík’s skyline. When we get up close, the Lutheran church stands before us; a sculpture outline of the building before us. I take pictures from different angles, but it doesn’t really matter, it’s still dark and gray. I’ve seen postcards and pictures with blue skies, and it looks so much more beautiful against a blue backdrop. No worry though, I’ll have one more chance on our last day, August 24.
The church is named after the Icelandic poet and clergyman Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614–1674), who wrote Iceland’s most popular hymn book: Passion Hymns.
It took 41 years to build the church. Construction work began in 1945 and ended in 1986; the landmark tower was completed long before the church’s actual completion. Apparently its size and unique design were controversial.
The columns on either side of the church were designed by the state architect of Iceland, Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950), to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape. It wasn’t completed in his lifetime.
Standing proudly in front of the church is a statue of Viking explorer Leifur Eriksson (c.970 – c.1020), the first known European to discover North America before Christopher Columbus; the sculpture was done by Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945) and was a gift from the United States in honor of the 1930 Alþingi Millennial Festival, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s parliament at Þingvellir in 930 AD.
Sadly, it’s hard to get a decent photo of it on this light-challenged day.
We pay for an elevator trip up the 74.5m tower. We have to wait in a short line, but eventually, we enter the elevator with its odd sign: “Have you done your push ups?” At the top, we see fantastic views of Reykjavík. Even though it’s cloudy and gray, the colorful rooftops and buildings add a bit of cheer to the landscape.
view from Hallgrímskirkja
view from Hallgrímskirkja
view from Hallgrímskirkja
view from Hallgrímskirkja
view from Hallgrímskirkja
One view shows Tjörnin, the lake , or pond, at the center of the city, with its pretty reflections of the lakeside homes.
Hallgrímskirkja is fairly plain inside.
The most interesting feature of the interior of the church is the 5275-pipe organ at the back of the church, completed in December, 1992.
We head down the central street leading away from the church, Skólavörðustígur, with Old Reykjavík in our sights. I keep jumping into the middle of the busy street between cars, hoping against all odds that I’ll get a decent parting shot of Hallgrímskirkja. It’s simply not meant to be today.
As we head to Old Reykjavík, we come across colorful houses that catch my eye in the gray atmosphere. I find it interesting that, though many houses are made of timber or have a small stone or shell sand finish, many houses are covered with corrugated iron. Maybe the iron holds up best under Iceland’s harsh weather.
There is plenty of great street art to be found in the city. I like the artistic fence below, made of stone and timber, that depicts an Icelandic village.
Click on any of the photos below for a full-sized slide show.
an artistic fence
close up of the artistic fence
Reykjavik street art
Reykjavik street art
Reykjavik street art
We continue our stroll through Old Reykjavík, charmed by the cute houses, some in stone, others in the corrugated iron that’s so common.
We also come across a number of bicycles that have seen better days.
One place, with its red domes, looks like it was plucked from a Russian city and planted here.
Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík, The Free Church in Reykjavík, sits along the lake, Tjörnin. Established in the autumn of 1899 with 600 members, it didn’t spring from any doctrinal dispute with the national Lutheran church, but arose from objections to certain aspects of the national church’s organizations. The Free church wished to bring the church closer to the people, much like churches in Norway and North America (Wikipedia: Fríkirkjan í Reykjavík).
The postmodern City Hall, Ráðhús Reykjavíkur, stands in the northwest corner on the edge of the lake. It houses the offices of the mayor of Reykjavík.
Near City Hall is a sculpture honoring the anonymous job of the bureaucrat: Óþekkti Embættismaðurinn, The Unknown Bureaucrat, 1993. The 1994 sculpture by Magnús Tómasson depicts a man in a crumpled suit holding a briefcase, with his head and shoulders subsumed in a slab of unsculpted stone. Oh the thankless burden of being a bureaucrat!
We pass by a cute cafe with outdoor seating that beckons, but I think I’d rather go inside on such a chilly day.
Austurvöllur is a public square in which stands a sculpture of Jón Sigurðsson (1811 – 1879), the leader of the 19th century Icelandic movement for Independence from Denmark.
Domkirkjan, a church bordering Austurvöllur, played an important part in Icelandic history. Here independence was first officially endorsed by the Lutheran Church of Iceland. Though a church has been on this site since around 1200 AD, the current church was built from 1788-1796.
At around 12:30, we decide it’s time to stop for lunch. We hunker down in Hraðlestin Indian Restaurant, which is quite a festive place with its posters of Bollywood movies on its walls.
We enjoy a delicious lunch of vegetable thali and lamb samosas. I love the poster of “An Ideal Boy – Good Habits” I find in the decorative bathroom.
An Ideal Boy – Good habits
Inside the bathroom at Hraðlestin
the walls at Hraðlestin
After lunch we walk down Lækjargata toward the Harpa Concert Hall, situated on the edge of the Old Harbor.
Sunday, August 14: We drive next to the stop furthest afield along the Golden Circle: Gullfoss. It is proclaimed as Iceland’s most famous waterfall. Brown sediment from the Lángjökull glacier, about 40km north of Gullfoss, flows into the glacier lake Hvítávatn (“white river” lake) and then into the river Hvítá (“white river”), where it falls in two magnificent cascades into a 32m deep narrow ravine. Apparently on sunny days, the mist creates rainbows, but as today isn’t sunny, we don’t experience any color at all! At least, thank goodness, it’s stopped raining.
The waterfall is quite a sight when we first get a glimpse of it.
We walk down a long path to a ledge overlooking the first drop. Lots of people are walking around taking pictures on the slippery rocks and I can’t help wonder if anyone has ever fallen in.
It’s overwhelming to watch where the second drop thunders into the ravine.
It’s also quite heart-stopping to watch where it tumbles down a three-step staircase to the second drop-off.
Gullfoss and the surrounding area were made a nature reserve in 1979 to give people the best possible opportunity to enjoy the wonder of nature. The area’s ecosystem is also protected, and its vegetation remains untouched. Attempts are made to minimize man’s footprint, to keep man-made structures to a minimum and not to disturb the land and geological formations.
I look like a little round barrel with my multiple layers of clothes on. Here I have on leggings and rain pants on the bottom and a denim shirt, a cardigan, a rain jacket and a vest!
It’s difficult at first to see the depth of the ravine because of all the mist, but finally we get a glimpse.
I try to mess with my shutter speed and get this shot. I can’t believe I still am no good with my manual settings!
As we walk back to the top again, we see a memorial to Sigríður Tómasdóttir, born in 1871, the second eldest of 13 children. Only seven of those children reached adulthood. She quickly became the leader of the siblings. Of average height but strongly built, she had thick blonde hair and was considered good-looking in her younger years. She was hard-working, and early in her life mainly worked outdoors.
Tourists started to visit Gullfoss in 1875. The waterfall at that time was hard to reach because of rough terrain and impassable rivers. Sigríður and her sisters often guided visitors to Gullfoss, building the first trail that led to the waterfall.
Sigríður is memorialized here because of her heroic struggle for the waterfall’s conservation. In 1907, an Englishman wanted to harness the power of Gullfoss for electricity generation. Sigríður’s father declined to sell the land. Later, the waterfall was leased to foreign investors by the government. When Sigríður tried to have the rental contract voided, her attempt failed in court. She spent many hours fighting her case, even walking barefoot to Reykjavik to “protest;” at one time she threatened to throw herself over the waterfall if the development went ahead. Luckily, the rental contract was canceled due to non-receipt of payments. Sigríður has often been called Iceland’s first environmentalist.
She died when she was 87, in 1957.
After our walk down to the waterfall’s edge, we hike up to the lookout over the falls. In the distance, we can see the glacier Lángjökull nestled into the jagged mountains. This is our first glimpse of many glaciers we’ll see in Iceland.
Langjökull is the second largest ice cap in Iceland.
We have a nice view of the waterfall from the lookout above.
In the distance, we can see another mountain with a cloud hat. I make Mike pose sideways in front of it because their hats match. 🙂
We go into the visitor’s center at Gullfoss because they’re reputed to serve a famous organic lamb soup made from locally sourced ingredients. We share the soup and some bread as a snack because we’re looking forward to eating a hearty dinner in Reykjavik tonight.
We leave Gullfoss and head toward the third famous tourist attraction along the Golden Circle.
Geysir, which literally means “gusher,” is the original hot water-spout after which all other geysers are named, according to Lonely Planet Iceland. The great Geysir has been active for some 800 years, and at one time gushed water up to 80 meters. The geyser has been going through a period of lesser activity since 1916 and thus is now more undependable.
Luckily the more reliable geyser, Strokkur, which sits nearby, erupts every 5-10 minutes in a 15m-30m plume. We stand around the edge with other tourists until we hear it gurgle and heave like a whale, erupting suddenly with surprising force.
We walk around the field looking at the other geysers and then we’re ready to be on our way. I’ve seen a lot of impressive geysers at Yellowstone National Park, so these don’t thrill me that much!
We finally leave Geysir and head back to Reykjavik on the Golden Circle loop, going through Selfoss, which doesn’t have much to speak of. We stop for a couple of scenes along the way: sweeping plateau-top mountains, white farm houses with red roofs nestled cozily against the mountain slopes, strange desolate landscapes covered in bulbous, moss-covered rocks.
We set the Garmin to go directly to Nora Magasin, a hip bistro-bar in Old Reykjavik. There I have a wheat beer with citrus in a Viking glass and we share a delicious dinner of mushroom risotto topped with baby spinach and a large appetizer platter of warm Camembert with blueberry compote on bread, accompanied by corn on the cob with a sweet-sour sauce.
Then we go to our Airbnb room at Freyja Guesthouse where we get cozy for the night. Our plan is to explore Reykjavik tomorrow and go to the Blue Lagoon tomorrow night. 🙂
Fitbit step tally for today: 16,453 steps, or about 7 miles. 🙂
Saturday, August 13: Many people these days take advantage of the Iceland Air Stopover , which allows a 7-night stopover for travelers en route from the USA to Europe. We don’t do the stopover, but instead opt to focus our entire vacation on Iceland. Our plan is to spend eleven full days driving around the famous Ring Road in a rented car. In retrospect, we should have planned our trip for a minimum of 14 days. I’m always a firm believer in spending at least two weeks in a country, if not more, because I like to be immersed, to take on the culture of a place, to feel like I belong. To drive the Ring Road in a leisurely fashion (some of it is not paved, though it’s in decent shape), to do some longer hikes and other activities, like glacier walking and horseback-riding, we could certainly have used more time.
While waiting at Dulles International Airport for our 2:10 pm flight, I use the bathroom and then walk to the end of the gate corridor. I realize when I check my steps that my Fitbit has disappeared from my wrist! I figure the only place I could have lost it was the bathroom, where I took off and put back on my backpack. Luckily, when I go back, the cleaning lady has found it and hands it directly to me. This will be the first of many times during our trip that my Fitbit goes missing. 🙂
Our flight from Dulles to Reykjavik is 5 1/2 hours. During the flight on Iceland Air, we watch a hilarious Icelandic movie, Albatross. We don’t have any earphones with us, and, as Iceland Air charges for EVERY SINGLE THING except sodas, juice or water, we opt not to dish out $5 for earphones. Instead, we watch the movie by subtitles only, which is still enjoyable. No matter, the Icelandic would have been unintelligible to us. In the movie, city boy Tommi, who has big plans for the future, chases his girlfriend to the wild Westfjords. Soon after he arrives, she dumps him, and he is stuck with a strange cast of characters working at a golf course.
In one scene, the three guys working at the golf course have a long discussion about toilet paper. One of the guys comes out of the bathroom naked after his bathroom use; he says he shits naked because he doesn’t want to get his shirt dirty! A conversation ensues with the other two guys giving him grief: “You just pull up your shirt!” Then they ask each other whether they wipe from front to back and how much toilet paper they use. One says he uses two pieces and the other two tease him for wiping like a woman. Another says he rolls a bunch around his hand. One mentions that if you wipe from the back to the front, you get it on your balls, and the other says, No! You tuck them in!
I’m laughing so hard, I’m crying.
In another scene, the golf course owner is trying to win a competitive bid for an important golf tournament. The sponsors want a driving range, but the terns have built nests all over the driving range and every time someone tries to use it, the terns dive bomb them. Of course, an environmentalist is on the scene, arguing against disturbing the terns. In a hilarious, slow-motion scene, the guys at the golf course have to move the tern nests to the other side of the road, with the terns attacking them from all sides.
A funny and heartwarming movie, watched only with subtitles and no sound. 🙂 Later, as Mike and I travel around Iceland, we notice the multitudes of golf courses and can’t help but think fondly of these Icelandic characters.
When we arrive at the Keflavik Airport at 11:40 pm, we have to deal with the Budget Rental Car person, who tries to charge us over $600 for car insurance. Iceland is extremely expensive in every way imaginable, so we’ve already paid a fortune for the rental car — about $1,200 for 11 days! Our confirmation isn’t clear on whether we’d purchased car insurance when we’d booked, and we honestly can’t remember. In one place on our confirmation, it says we have the Collision Damage Waiver, and in another place it says we have only travel insurance. The woman at the Budget counter tells us she has no record of any insurance purchased. After much confusion, we decline the coverage, figuring the credit card that we used for booking through CheapTickets.com provides coverage. We do opt to rent the Garmin GPS, to help us navigate our way around Iceland.
When we exit the airport in pouring rain, we search the parking lot for a red VW Polo. When we finally find it, we try like hell to get the trunk open but our key doesn’t seem to do it, and we can’t figure out how to open it in the dark. Finally we throw both our suitcases in the back seat and try to start the car. It won’t start. It’s like a Three Stooges movie, but with only two stooges! As Mike tries unsuccessfully to start the car, I notice instructions on the dashboard to put your foot on the brake to start the car. What amazing things happen when you read directions!
Next, we have to figure out how to use the Garmin. We’re used to using our phones for directions, but neither of our phones work here. We keep putting in the address of the BGB Guesthouse, Hafnargata 58, but the Garmin says the address isn’t found. We figure we’ll try to find it using Mike’s printed directions, but they’re pathetic and we can barely see them in the dark. We end up driving around in circles in the airport parking lot about three times before finding our way out. Finally, after driving in the dark rain for a while, not having any idea where we’re going, we find the Ace Guesthouse, which is open. A woman inside tells Mike to “go to the lights and turn right” to find BGB Guesthouse. I ask Mike what lights she is talking about? We drive down the road and see many lights but finally we come to some low traffic signals and turn right. We’re still not on the right road, but I see the sign for Hafnargata intersecting our road. We head down Hafnargata and finally come to #58, BGB Guesthouse. We’ve been given a code to get in as it’s a self-service guesthouse. With the code, I open a lockbox and remove the key, but I can’t get it to work. Finally, by 2:30 a.m., after many attempts, we find our way inside an itsy-bitsy room with birds flying above our pillows and reindeer on the pillows. We collapse, relieved to finally reach our destination.
Sunday, August 14: In the morning, we wake up early and use the shared bathrooms, with showers the size of telephone booths, at the far end of the hall. About half of our guesthouses or hotels in Iceland will have shared bathrooms, which I hate! But, even though we booked two months ahead, many of the more ideal places were already booked. In a country that normally has a population of ~330,000, there are not enough accommodation options to serve the swells of summer tourists. The accommodation that we find is very expensive and, at the same time, very simple. Many people opt to camp or rent campers during the tourist season.
We pack up and get ready to head to Reykjavik. It’s dark, dreary, wet and cold. Our plan is to check into Freyja Guesthouse , which we found on Airbnb, and then head immediately to The Golden Circle for the day.
After checking into one of our favorite guesthouses in Iceland, we take off for the Golden Circle, an artificial tourist circuit which encompasses three major attractions: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss and Geysir. This route is only about 100 km from the capital and can be done in one day; it’s not to be confused with the Ring Road, which circles the entire country and takes over a week to complete.
By this time, it’s about 12:30 and we’re hungry for lunch. We’ve heard the hot dogs in Iceland’s gas stations are fantastic, so we stop at a gas station to taste for ourselves. The hot dogs are wrapped in bacon and are normally served on a bed of ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, fried and fresh onions. I have mine with only mustard and fried onions. They’re certainly tasty, but I’m not sure they live up to their reputation! We might have tried one of the healthier options, shown below, in the same gas station.
Outside the gas station, we encounter this little fella peeing on a rock. Mike says there ought to be a girl squatting behind the rock with a piece of bronze toilet paper left behind. We see toilet paper evidence of women peeing all over the country, and I have to admit I was a guilty party in this regard as well. Sadly, bathroom facilities are few and far between around Iceland’s Ring Road.
We begin our drive of The Golden Circle, gasping at every scene before us. I ask Mike to pull over the car for pictures too many times to count. This will happen during our entire trip.
It’s not easy to pull off to take myriad pictures because the roads in Iceland are generally two-lane highways on a raised bed with no shoulders. Every once in a while there is a gravel pull-off or a farm driveway where you can pull off; whatever view you have from that spot is the picture you’ll get.
We almost miss the entrance to Þingvellir National Park, but we turn around at the first opportunity and go back. Þingvellir, anglicized as Thingvellir, is a spot of natural beauty, situated as it is on a tectonic plate boundary where North America and Europe are tearing away from each other at a rate of 1mm to 18mm per year. Dramatic fissures, ponds and rivers scar the plain. (Lonely Planet Iceland)
Here, the Vikings established the world’s first democratic parliament, the Alþingi (pronounced al-thingk-ee), in 930. Þingvellir, the “assembly fields” or “Parliament Plains,” sits approximately 45 kilometres (28 mi) east of what later became the country’s capital, Reykjavik. This event marked the beginning of the Icelandic Commonwealth. Even after Iceland’s union with Norway in 1262, the Althing still held its sessions at Þingvellir until 1799, when it was discontinued for 45 years. It was restored in 1844 and moved to Reykjavík, where it has resided ever since.
Þingvellir National Park was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004.
From the cliff-top visitor’s center, we can see over the great rift, Almannagjá.
Below us, we can also see the farmhouse known as Pingvallabaer at the bottom of the rift. It was built in 1930 for the 1000th anniversary of the Alþingi and is the official summer residence of the Prime Minister of Iceland. It is used for receptions hosted by the Prime Minister’s office.
We take the path that runs along the fault between the cliff-top and Alþingi site.
The meetings of the Alþingi were conducted outside, and as with many saga sites, only the stone foundations of the ancient encampments remain.
Þingvellir lay adjacent to a lake abundant with fish on land with plenty of firewood; it was a dramatic setting perfect for political oratory. Every important decision regarding Iceland was made on this plain: laws were passed, marriage contracts were made, and even the country’s religion was decided here. The annual parliament was also a great social occasion, where people met and exchanged news, feasted and played games. Entertainers performed, merchants sold goods and services, and ale-makers brewed drinks for the assembly.
It’s fairly difficult to take pictures here today as it alternately rains steadily or spits periodically. I keep wiping off raindrop smudges on my lens and have to keep putting my lens cap back on immediately after taking photos. Many times, I tuck my camera into my raincoat or under my arm. So, if you see some blurry-looking spots on my photos, that’s why. 🙂
The church, Pingvallakirkja, has been at Þingvellir since shortly after Christianity was formally adopted by the Alþingi in the year AD 1000. In the Kristnisaga, it’s stated that Olaf the Holy, King of Norway, who came to power in AD 1015, provided wood in order to build a church here. It’s not known for sure where the original church stood and most likely there were in fact two churches in Þingvellir, one for the parliamentarians and one for the local parish. Research shows that the church was moved to the place where it now stands around AD 1500. The current church was built in 1859 and consecrated on Christmas Day that year. The tower was added in 1907.
The parish cemetery serves the local community that surrounds Þingvellir. Many lie here that originate from farms now long abandoned. The last church priest buried here was Heimir Steinsson (d. 2000), who also served as the National Parks manager. In 2009, a new gate was built by students from Hafnarfjordur Technical College using traditional woodworking skills.
We continue to walk along the many trails here, eventually ending up at the most impressive spot where the river Öxará cuts across the western plate, at Öxarárfoss. By this time it’s raining quite steadily and it’s hard to get a good picture. I keep putting my lens cap back on my camera and wiping the lens off.
It’s a long walk back to the Visitor’s Center, and after quite a distance, I pull my camera out from inside my raincoat and find my lens cap is missing. We walk back quite a way along the path, but we can never find it. It’s such a bummer to lose my lens cap right at the beginning or our trip! Between that and my Fitbit, which keeps falling off every time I put on or take off my back pack, I’m definitely being challenged at every turn!
One of the great things about Iceland’s national parks is that most of them are free. However, you sometimes have to pay for parking, as we do here, and you often have to pay to use the toilets, which are few and far between.
Finally, we make it back to the Visitor’s Center, where we hop back in the car and make our way to the next stop on the Golden Circle. On the way, I nudge Mike several times to pull off for pictures.
We see the famous Icelandic horses and sheep all over Iceland during our trip. Every time I see them, I want to stop and take pictures! Horses have always been one of my favorite animals, and the sheep are adorable.