Category Archives: Iceland

Iceland – a re-cap

How to start when talking about Iceland. The people? the history? the landscape? the towns? So after my 2016 trip I have already posted 4 blogs in chronological order which can be found earlier on this site. But so much remained to be said.

I was, and am still – after 8 months – totally captivated by Iceland…so familiar yet so exotic. At times I felt I had journeyed to Middle Earth; at other times I thought I was observing a very modern society. New suburbs about 10 years old brought a note of the familiar, as did the heavy 5pm traffic flows. We passed satellite towns of smart new developments and ate at restaurants the peer of some of the best in large international cities.

The population is so small and the challenges of nationhood so large, that the country is fascinating. It punches far above its weight on the world stage and just this week voted for compulsory equal pay for men and women.

Since this week Is International women’s day, it is worth mentioning that Iceland was the first country in the world to have a political party formed and led entirely by women Founded in 1983, the Women’s List helped increase the proportion of female parliamentarians by 15%] It disbanded in 1999, merging with the Social Democratic Alliance and left a lasting influence on Iceland’s politics: every major party has a 40% quota for women, and in 2009 nearly a third of members of parliament were female, compared to the global average of 16% for women average of 16%. (from Wiki)

To jog my own memory now and in the future, I have simply cherry picked some facts that stick with me:

LANDSCAPE

  • The country is awesome with volcanic ranges, long fjords, waterfalls, geysers, bog lands, lava fields – some of it beyond description.
  • The volcanic country is rich in geo-thermal activity. Managing this has lead to Icelandic energy experts being sought after around the world and this expertise responsible for a significant contribution to the national income.
  • Iceland has a third of the world’s lava flow with an eruption on the south coast around every 2 years.
  • 24 species of whale swim off the Iceland coast and a polar bear had swum there from Greenland the previous week – only to be shot for his trouble. (In the interests of research and of safety we were told.)

 

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THE CAPITAL

  • About 240,000 of Iceland’s 330,000 citizens live in the capital,Reykjavik.
  • More than 2 million tourists pass through Reykjavik annually, that is more than 6 tourists for every citizen.
  • Parliament Square is the home of the Allthing (the Parliament), a surprisingly small and unpretentious building with a smart extension – surprising until you remember that the population is only 330,000, less than many local authorities/cantons in the western world.
  • Here in 2008 the people gathered to demand action on the financial crisis when the State took over the banks’ debts. In November that year, what is now known as the “pots and pans” revolution happened. People used these cooking tools to generate noise in the square. The police kept the calm. People started dressing in orange to signify peaceful protest.
  • Harpa Hall the concert hall, was being built on the waterfront as a convention centre, hotel etc. by a bank which went bust in 2008. The government bailed them out and this huge cultural centrepiece was completed by the national and city governments. 1.7million visitors a year enjoy this standout building of geometric glass shaped panels. It is a beautiful, imposing building even if perhaps out of scale with the town.
  • Hallgrim’s Church was commissioned in 1937 and took 41 years to complete. It is said to be designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.
  • There is a settlement museum in town showing where the first houses lay under the foundations of the current town.
  • The National Museum has an artefact which is believed to be of the god Thor, one of the few remaining signs of the pre Christian culture.
  • The pedestrian area is lively as in many sophisticated tourist towns.
  • I enjoyed watching the crowd at one posh restaurant, the Grillmarket, where there was one entrée of 3 sliders filled respectively with puffin, minke whale and lobster. I sat at the bar watching dish after dish of minke whale leaving the kitchen. I enquired of the meat the girl next to me was eating. I was told it was the best horse in town.
  • Wine like most things in Iceland was expensive There were Australian wines: – a Wolf Blass President’s Selection at17,900 IK a bottle ($195) and the familiar old quaffer Jacob’s Creek cab sav for $359 (gulp).
  • Coffee was $5.90 in most places and glass of Spanish wine about $16.

 

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HISTORY

Early history

  • Icelanders have been here for 10,000 years; while Vikings settled the country, Celtic DNA is also present.
  • The Icelandic sagas tell the story of the tribes who settled here as early as 874AD.
  • The first parliament in the world, the Allthing, is said to have begun with the 930AD and then annual, meeting of the 13 Icelandic chiefs in the impressive fields at Laws were read and codified at these gatherings.
  • Christianity arrived in 1000AD and in 1262 the tribal gathering then pledged to Norway’s king. The Allthing was not revived until 1843.

Modern history

Our guide Bjarne (more later) described the recent history of Iceland as the 4 revolutions:

  • Mechanisation. In1902 the first boat with a motor appeared, then the first taller, then the fishing industry was mechanised as were the farms
  • Population explosion. In18990, 13% of people lived in towns larger than 50 people. In 1923, it was 50% and by 2000 only 6% of people lived in rural areas.
  • Energy revolution. Hydro plants were established selling to aluminium companies and the growth of energy knowledge stimulated the export of the expertise.
  • Bank revolution. Around 2000 peopled started to believe Iceland could become an international monetary centre. Government sold the banks to private investors and banks underwrote overseas investments. Local development boomed (some say with the import of eastern european labour including new influences of drugs and criminal elements. By 2008 with the GFC people realised things were wrong and the demonstrations for reform began.

 

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Thought to be the only found idol from the pre-Christian period.

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Along the escapement at Thingvellir where the world’s first democratic parliament met

ECONOMY

  • The economy relies mainly on tourism (30%), fishing (20%), aluminium smelting – enabled by cheap energy (30%) and export of alternate energy expertise.
  • Tourism is seeing a year on year increase of 20%
  • Fish has dropped from 60% of the export economy to 20%. The main fish export is cod but mackerel (which were never seen in Iceland until a few years ago) are now appearing in large numbers.
  • There was a building boom here between 2000 and 2008 preceding and in part generating the Icelandic fallout from the Global Financial Crisis.
  • Now after 9 years, the debts are paid and young people who went abroad are being encouraged to return. There now seems to be more new building happening although the few Icelanders I spoke to were wary, working harder than ever to set themselves up and hoping the cycle was not on repeat.
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Geysers bring tourists and geothermal expertise

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Puffins are a drawcard for the tourists

PEOPLE

  • Settlement is in a number of towns scattered around the coast and many months of the year are spent in constant darkness so like most of Scandinavia and Greenland, inhabitants suffer from the “dark depression”.
  • Between a quarter and a third of Icelandic men are admitted to an alcohol addiction centre during their lifetime.
  • Iceland has more authors per capita than anywhere else in the world
  • the national sport is swimming and recently Iceland has punched far above its weight in soccer.
  • There is a gene in Icelanders that can be found in the Irish and Scottish Celts but the jury is out on whether this came from the women the Vikings stole as wives or whether it is that carried by the Norwegian Vikings it is not known. Suffice to say that there’s a bit of Irish in the Vikings and in the Icelanders.
  • While there are 5 political parties, the recent emergence of the Pirate Party seeking full transparency and open access to government accounted for 40% of the vote, a first in Europe.
  • Whatever the genetic material, I found the people direct and friendly, possibly with a dry humour and certainly they have shown a passion for their politics – all of which sits well with my own Irish background

Our guide Bjarne described the Icelandic character as:

  • Curious about the world because of the island home
  • Hard working , strong and courageous because of the harsh surroundings and the power of natural forces
  • Kind to each other because it is a small society and living is hard
  • Opportunistic, competitive and sometimes greedy (he cited bankers and fishermen
  • Stoic

Our guide personified for me the direct, reserved, dry humoured, knowledgeable, strong person that I began to think was the Icelandic character.

For much of this information I am grateful to Bjarne an impressive man, one time a sculptor then an arts administrator and now a wonderful guide. He had a wonderful face.

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Iceland 4 … the Snaefelles Peninsula

No one part of Iceland can top the other experiences, but this west coast region spoke strongest to me. It is said that the tip of this peninsula sits on a ley line and this makes it one of the few genuine mystical parts of the world.

Having worked and lived for awhile at another special place, Byron Bay, I am versed in these theories of the earth’s magnetic energies manifesting in a geographic place. At the small town of Hellnar as in some other “special” places, I read there is the first Intentional Community in Iceland

Anyway whether in fact or in mind, I found that sitting alone outside the fabulous Hotel Budir near the tip of the peninsula in the late evening, sipping a G&T and gazing across the lava field towards a small church, brought the deep meditative tranquility that one experiences rarely in life.

The hotel sits within a few hundred metres of the coast where a moss covered lava field up to 8000 years old meets the ocean.

In the middle of the field is a volcano called Búða-rock and in the distance the ice- domed Snaefell Glacier stands tall.

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After we left for Reykjavik a few days later we were told that in the 16th a notorious serial killer lived on this peninsula. That bloody tale was centuries away from the remarkably good gourmet meals served by the hotel.

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The peninsula offers other experiences that make it special:  –

the famed Snaefell glacier,

a coastal walk at through the lava field between Arnartapi to Hellnar,

and the hunt for the elusive puffin!

But before I explore these, I want to digress and give a nod to a few other stops along the way from Akureyri to Reykjavik. – specifically:

The Bjarnarhofn Shark Museum is the region’s leading producer of fermented shark meat, a traditional Icelandic dish.

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The young family member who entertained us offered us the real deal after we had watched a video on the fermenting process. The Greenland shark is poisonous if eaten fresh and fermentation neutralizes the toxins.

Even fermented, it tasted poisonous!!!

I became interested in this shark and found that the species is mostly restricted to the waters of the North Atlantic Ocean  and Arctic Ocean and It has the longest known lifespan of all vertebrate  species (up to 392 years) is big enough to swallow a reindeer

Secondly, I mention Snorri’s pool only because it is here that my third (they come in 3’s) minor Iceland irritant occurred – first the broken tooth in Reykjavik, then Iceland Air broke a wheel off my suitcase and here at Snorri’s geothermal pool I lost my Gucci sunglasses. Serves me right for being a self-indulgent consumer.

Snorri was a 13th century poet and Lawspeaker who is responsible in this writings for preserving much of the information about Nordic pagan life. He derserves more than this passing reference.

Finally, In this living earth of Iceland there are many awesome sights along the way. The Deildartunguhver thermal spring produces 180 litres of water per second, the largest of any in the world. water temperature is 212 degrees and is used to generate electricity

Greenhouses heated from the springs produced these wonderful tomatoes.

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Now, back to the main game:

Snaefell Glacier

The glacier is accessed by way of a snow cat. We climb up the granite until we hit the ice and then climb through the cloud line to icefields under blue skies. This glacier tops the dormant 1446 metre high volcano whose 200 metre crater Jules Verne chose as the entry point for his Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Some have believed this to be a meeting place of extra-terrestrials.  Others believe it to be one of the seven chakras (energy centres) in the world.

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The Game Old Dame on the Glacier

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Here the granite volcanic rock, the glacier and the cloud fight for dominance

Coastal walk

There is a hiking trail leading through the lava field along the coast between Arnarstapi to HellnarAround Arnarstapi the columnar basalt and cliff formations are stunning as the photo below of Mt Stapafell shows.

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The energetic walk around the coast with the cliff formations and the squawking of birds makes me realize I have run out of adjectives so overwhelmed am I by nature. It is better to let my inadequate pictures speak for themselves.

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If you look closely you can see the idiot tourists who put their lives at risk

Puffins

Before we go on the puffin hunt I see this graffiti. I am a fan of good graffiti and so can’t resist photographing this in the very tiny port.

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From a small harbour, we take a boat one evening in search for puffins.

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The Captain in his cabin

Sightings are not guaranteed. Our captain takes us to a small islet covered in birds. Excited confusion ensues. Is that a puffin? Can I see a puffin? Camera click, mine included. My puffin pictures are very average

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But Tim Wilson who was travelling with us took a few spectacular photos which I am pleased he lets me post here.

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Besides the puffins bird life was prolific:

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From the sea the landforms, the grandeur of this country its relationship to settlements  look even more spectacular.

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I am sad at leaving

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Iceland 3…a few days in the Arctic North

The flight from Reykjavik north takes us to the agricultural/tourist/service centre of Akureyri, a small (pop. 17,500) neat town at the west side of the inland end of the beautiful Eyjafjörður fjord.

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Although about 100k from the Arctic circle, on this first day it is so warm that people sit outside cafes; presumably it is the locals in T-shirts.

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Norse Vikings settled the area in the 9th century. By the 17th century Danish merchants set up camp on the site of the now town and In 1779 the 12 permanent residents were (temporarily) granted a municipal charter!

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Our first visit was to the Arctic Botanic Gardens to wonder at some of the floral displays; the range begin to make sense as you realise that at this time of year, the sun shines almost round the clock. The garden were begun in 1910 when women from Akureyri founded the Park Association to beautify their city. The previous year the city had given them a hectare of land. It was the first public park in Iceland. The garden area has increased to 3.6 hectares. Its prolific range has proven that shrubs, trees and other plants can survive on the edge of the Arctic. Besides arctic plants, those from the temperate zones and high mountains are grown. There are about 400 Icelandic species and about 7000 species altogether.

After the Gardens we drive along the northern shore of the fjord to visit the   Laufas farmouse.

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Laufás is a renowned church site and chieftain‘s residence from settlement (874-930). The current Laufás church was built in 1865, among its special items is a pulpit from 1698.

The current farmhouse (below) which is now a museum typifies of a wealthy vicarage from 1853-1882 furnished with household items and utensils from the period.

The drive is dotted with extraordinarily picturesque scenes of nestled farms, horses grazing and hay bales waiting for transport. Bright pink bales, a symbol of breast cancer awareness, stand out. Like everywhere in the world, people are slowly moving from the land into the town but when I think of what conditions must be like here in winter, I can sympathise. I also wonder about how these wonderful while farmhouses must disappear into the winter snow but then again, it is dark most of the winter time!

Next, an area full of geothermal and volcanic features

Lake Myvain (Midge Lake)

The next day we venture further visiting landscapes around Lake Myvain (Midge Lake) and I observe the good sense of tourists with full netting over their heads to protect them from the small flying irritants. The area is one of active volcanism not far from the Krafla volcano.

The lake and its surrounding wetland are prolific with birds. The lake was created by a large basaltic lava eruption 2300 years ago, and the surrounding landscape is dominated by volcanic landforms, including lava pillars and pseudocraters.

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At the close of the Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, the Mývatn basin was covered by a glacier which pushed up huge moraines which can still be seen at the north end of the lake.

(Moraines are accumulations of dirt and rocks that have fallen onto the glacier surface or have been pushed along by the glacier as it moves. The dirt and rocks composing moraines can range in size from powdery silt to large rocks and boulders. – I know this because one of our group had a PhD in glaciers!!!)

Godafoss

Godafoss waterfall (Waterfall of the Gods) perhaps so named because the Lawspeaker who proclaimed Christianity as the new religions of Iceland in the year 999 is said to have thrown his pagan statues in here. Whatever the reason, it is spectacular.

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Dimmuborgir lava field 

 Dimmuborgir “The Dark Fortress” is a true wonder. Dimmuborgir consist of fields of huge lava rock formations which make you feel like you stepped into another world – a world of fairy-tales. This is where trolls come from =this is their homeland surely? True, further south one can see their rock like silhouettes on the sides of hills and mountains but it is here in the lava towers they must have originated.

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Hot lava streamed over these ponds trapping the water underneath the lava, and steam issuing through vents formed these pillars, which then remained standing even after the crust around them had gone away. The rocks are brittle and fragile because of how they came to be made. Walking along the pathways between the towering lava is truly an experience from Middle earth.

Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá rift is one of the best known underground caves in Iceland. It has two entrances with steps leading down to it. It is half-full with geothermal water and our guide says that as a boy he used to bathe in it. He explained an underground stream which brave lads swam beneath to reach the girls’ in a second cave.

During the eruption of Mt. Krafla in 1975-1984 the temperature of the water rose so it couldn’t be used for bathing until 2004. The temperature of the water is now too hot for bathing. We were warned against testing it although the potential danger didn’t seem to worry a few tourists; one man  clambered deep down into one cave regardless of a small baby he was carrying. This tourist below was only intent on his photo opportunity.

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Hverfjall Crater

This day we also walked up Hverfjall, a bare symmetrical and circular explosion crater thought to be 2800 – 2900 years old. It is about 140 metres deep and 1km in diameter which makes it one of the largest of its kind in the world. To my shame I was a little out of breathe when I reached the rim.

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Lest it all be too physical and overwhelming, back in Akureyri there is a more than a decent cup of coffee to be had in a charming bookshop and more children to watch as they are chasing whatever one chases playing Pokemon Go! There are installations in the street outside the art gallery.

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But the real surprise is one of the best Japanese entrees I have ever eaten (and there are about 10 Japanese restaurants in my neighbourhood).  A gastronomic surprise up here on the Arctic Circle, just down the street from the art gallery, the bright red Rub 23 serves Japanese, fusion, Asian and seafood. I was so impressed I bought the book. Below is the cod served as a main.

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