Tag 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 2….The Golden Circle plus some.

This blog is basically about the awesome tempestuous living landscape of Iceland.

From the moment I left the airport it was clear that this was a land different from any I had known. I was 100 k’s from the Arctic Circle but July warmish. The distant volcanic hills were snow patched blue, dressed in cloud, while in the foreground, intense green fields dazzled. Further along a 30 million year old mountain was ringed with lava.

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Now was the time to leave the town and experience the land.

The Golden Circle

If you’ve heard anything about Iceland, this day trip is probably it. The story is that when Gorbachev and Reagan held a summit in Iceland in 1986, a US news team reported on the stunning country they visited in the down time. Since then, this round trip has starred on the tourist bucket list.

The Þingvellir National Park

Some 25 k’s east of Reykjavik, this is a UNESCO World Heritage site and home to the world’s first ”parliament”, a two weekly annual open-air gathering of the tribes that first met here in the Middle Ages (930AD) and continued until 1798 to make laws and settle disputes.

The Althing as the gathering was known (and as the current Parliament is still known) was held in a verdant field, an active volcanic site, fringed by a majestic granite cliff. A grassy knoll with an Icelandic flag is reputed to be where the Lawspeaker read out the laws agreed by the Althing.

Below is the granite cliff with the flying flag and the path that meanders through the site.

 

 

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Here in the mists of time, paganism was the first religion before conversion to Christianity was proclaimed. Back in the day men were burnt here for witchcraft and women drowned in the lake filled with glacial water. Unsurprising then that these fields have provided one scenic backdrop for the popular “Game of Thrones” series.

Myth runs strong here. Trolls and elves are still part of Icelandic superstition and it is easy to see why. Tourists on the cliff top reminded me of the myths and legends – it isn’t a long stretch to see them as the tribes coming for the Althing gathering back in the day.

 

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Through the fields of the first Althing, a wonderful walk takes you to the picturesque site of the first Icelandic (10th century) church rebuilt in the 1850s; it adjoins the summer home of the Prime Minister.

 

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This house (above) is built in the old vernacular with the exterior of multiple matching front facades with a unified interior.

 

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Further on you can peer into the remarkable chasm where the Northern American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and diverge triggering natural ramifications like the 2010 volcanic eruption which affected air travel throughout Europe. Brave or foolhardy divers go deep here. This is truly an iconic place.

 

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It is no surprise this is known as the Land of Ice and Fire

Gullfoss (Golden Falls) Waterfall

Our second stop is the spectacular double drop waterfall. The river plunges 32 metres into a crevice which is also 32 metres deep. Both falls are perpendicular to the flow of the river.

 

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The endearing story is that Sigridur, one of 13 children, lived here on what was then a sheep farm (1874-1957). The farm had this massive powerful waterfall, Gullfoss. Sigridur and her sisters loved the falls and guided visitors there, cutting the first paths. She was self-taught, a well-read and talented illustrator and embroiderer.

Sigridur’s father was approached by foreign investors wanting to dam the waterfalls for hydroelectrical production but she fought to protect it.

It is said that she walked barefoot the 120km to Reykjavik, to urge the politicians and financiers to leave the waterfall alone. She threatened to throw herself over the waterfall if they were to be dammed.

She briefed a lawyer who later became Iceland’s first President. The investors could finance the deal. Gullfoss became a National Park in 1979. A monument to Sigrid stands at the site.

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Geysir

There is something amusingly weird watching tourists stand around, cameras at the ready waiting for a spurt of water into the air.

 

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“Geysir “ is actually the name of a specific grand spurter who has given his name to this phenomenon all over the world. He has been active for 10,000 years but now spurts rarely. It is said that in 1845 his eruptions reached 170 metres.

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We are here to see another geyser and tourist ‘picture opportunity’, Stokkur who sits surrounded by petticoats of small geysers.

 

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We leave the Golden Circle but not before a stop to visit a second waterfall and the “National Geographic” picture perfect beauty of salmon fishermen in an idyllic stream next to a fish ladder.

I was told these enthusiasts can pay up to US $5000 a day to the farmer for the pleasure of trying their hand at catching one of these fine fish in his or her lake.

 

 

Horses

Dinner that night is a surprise. It is at a tourist venue. Usually I would avoid such but in Iceland things seem different. It is a horse show. We are to see the famous Icelandic horses perform their famous fifth gait, a rocking horse movement known only to this breed.

So treasured are these small sturdy pure bred Icelandic horses that should one leave the country for whatever reason (sale overseas being a major reason) then they are never allowed to return due to fear of disease.

Driving back to Reykjavik in the light that lingers to near midnight, we pass fields of lava. I think I can see some trolls. Why wouldn’t there be since this land is alive?

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