Iceland is like Sweden’s weird cousin that shows up at all the big holidays. It looks more like the moon or a newly-discovered boiling planet than the other Nordic countries, yet it shares the same ancient gods and speaks some variant of an old mother tongue. It’s intriguing, mysterious, remote, cold and hot (simultaneously)… It’s the one who tells all the cool stories at family gatherings, tales so far-fetched that we’re not sure whether they’re real or not.
It’s roughly the size of Kentucky (or, the size of Ireland and Belgium combined), but with a population smaller than the city of Nice; so once you leave Reykjavik virtually everywhere feels like you’re in the middle of Nowhere. It’s almost like a theme park, divided into regions where the farther from the airport you stray, the more A-tickets you’ll need (Adventure tickets, that is…).
One corner looks like a troll nursery, while another, a boiling cauldron ready to burst its seams and spew scalding water or lava or unicorn entrails… one never knows.
I’ve been curious about this strange place, and I’m known to take a photograph or two (or 642) when I travel, so I made plans for a 3-day stopover here on my way back from Sweden, taking advantage of Icelandair’s #MyStopover promotion, where they don’t charge you extra to add days to your ticket when you fly through Reykjavik. You do, however, get to pay for your hotel, rental car and anything you do or eat while you’re here. One thing to note: Iceland is not cheap. On the plus-side, most of the things to do are outdoors, and for the most part, free (unless you do a tour).
So I land in the land of fire and ice, acquire my rental car (another note: you need 11 different types of insurance to cover the land/air/sea hazards that may or may not occur while driving in this place), and I’m off: first stop the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which I’ve nicknamed Snuffleupagus because it’s only just moderately easier to pronounce, to see mountains and waterfalls and old churches and fantastic coastlines.
My first observation: there are no trees here. But: black mountains and weird green rolling hills pop up from flat expanses, appearing out of the fog like they’ve just sprung from the depths of some grim faery tale. It’s like Kansas meets Mars or the Moon, in black (and green) and gray, but there are still literally no trees, just a smattering of what looks like wheatgrass and moss-covered boulder fields. And rainbows appear on a moment’s notice, since it’s drizzling then sunny…not terribly unlike New England weather. But with ink-black earth. And volcanoes. And maybe trolls.
About an hour outside of Reykjavik, wending my way north and west, I encounter a tunnel*. Only later do I find out that it is called the Hvalfjarðargöng, and only when I’m 1 or 2km in, do I realise it’s the longest tunnel I’ve ever driven (nearly 6km long and 165 metres deep), rock-lined and sloping steeply (8%!) to enable travel beneath the Hvalfjarður fjord. It’s as I resurface here that I behold the first of many Icelandic rainbows I’ll see in the following days.
The hotel is the only thing lit in the little town of Hellnar when I arrive. And by little, I mean there seems only to be the one hotel, a cluster of about 15 clean-cut, brown houses, an old church, a couple of other buildings, maybe another restaurant, and an expanse of coastline. The staff, friendly; the tea, hot; the bed, cosy. I’ve spanned 2500km in a plane and another 230+ kms driving up here in the wild and woolly weather. This flicka is ready for sängen.
I shot on the order of 600 photos in 3 days, beginning that Monday morn. How? When the landscape and the light are otherworldly, and the sky shows a different side every 8 minutes, even a simple snapshot out the window of a hotel room has a mood and a texture like a painting.
So on this new day, when the dreariness looked like it wanted to thwart an entire stopover, I woke up and steeled myself for the worst of elements. At brekkie, though, the clouds broke. For a precious few moments the sun appeared as if it would stay the day… alas, by the time I was ready to embark (a mere 20 minutes later), the skies darkened and Thor reigned (and rained and rained). Undaunted, I set out (rather, there is quite literally NOTHING to do here except look at nature, so I went anyway). First stop: Kirkjufellsfoss.
The road from Hellnar to Kirkjufellsfoss is across the Snæfellsnes peninsula: follow the main road, make a left at the black church “on the corner” and make a right when you see water again. There are few roads here and, it must be stated, they are in very good condition – Iceland even has a website dedicated to road status…the weather here is so changeable that many roads close due to water, mud, snow, ice, etc. at the drop of a hat.
The Kirkjufellsfoss is one of the most-photographed landmarks in Iceland, and my ultimate dream was to capture the Northern Lights here, though I’m doubtful the weather will permit it. I arrive, driving through the small mountains, then along the coast, a drive lined with moss-covered lava fields, dramatic green hills, glacial peaks and an otherwise other-worldly landscape.
The tour bus and teeming tourists turn me off at first (as do the rain and wind). But the clouds momentarily break, the bus leaves, and I am left with a living photograph before me… The shot, worth it. Then the skies then darken and it begins to hail.
Hailstorm, brief, I set off again, towards the seaside town of Stykkishólmur, situated on the northern side of the Snuffleupagus peninsula. It is quaint, and I climb up to the lighthouse during a break in the showers, rewarded with a view of the bay, rainbow touching down on one of the surrounding islands.
My Snæfellsnes loop continued with a stop at the renowned Búðakirkja, a dark-brown church built in the early 1700’s by a Swedish merchant, torn down and rebuilt (twice!) before the mid-1800’s. It is only made more stunning by its site (mountains on one side, the wild North Atlantic on the other) and the magic Icelandic skies. I continue along that coast, stopping multiple times, gape-mouthed, to photograph the landscape. I vow to put that Nikon 14-24 f2.8 lens on my wishlist.
By midafternoon on that first day, cold and wet were factors by which I had stopped measuring my well-being. The weather began as gray, moved to alternately downpouring and sunny, shifted to gale-force winds (in which, at one point, I had to hold onto my rental car to avoid getting flung off a cliff), hail, more rain, then brooding fog. More sacrifices to the gods of Gore-Tex. The winds, unrelenting! Njörðr (Njord), Norse god of sea and wind, is ever-present. One wonders why this strange place wasn’t called Norway instead.
On Tuesday, I’m slated to stay in the South Coast town of Vik. My plan is to head that way in the morning, stopping along the way when I see things that pique my interest. From Hellnar to Vik is about 360km, the weather only marginally better than the day before.
I stopped to get gas in a small town called Hveragerði, somewhere between Reykjavik and Hell(a)… Turns out it’s a geothermal hotbed here, the hillsides boiling just below the surface, and the continental plates threatening to move farther apart at any moment.
I took a small hike in the town’s geothermal park, met a lovely local woman named Jenny (pronounced “Yenny”) and her dog, and visited their quirky earthquake museum, where I stood in the void between the Eurasian and North American plates.
The earth here, mineral-rich and vibrant in the pre-downpour sunshine, seemed to speak…creaking and bubbling as it sent up its wafts of steam from underground cauldrons. The air, its texture, like silk: smooth and thin and soft. Jenny told me she moved here because the energy was different; that the place somehow called her to stay.
As the sun was getting lower in the sky, I stopped to explore Seljalandsfoss, tourist magnet that it is – it’s one of the waterfall wonders here, and because of the stone’s configuration, you can walk behind it (if you don’t mind getting a tad wet!).
And again the landscape changes on this part of the island, on one side of the roadway, there’s glacial peaks bounded by dormant volcanoes, on the other there’s flat, black expanses dotted with what looks like meteorites. It’s remnants from the volcano that erupted here in 2010. Nobody can pronounce Eyjafjallajökull, so they just call it “the volcano that mucked up all the flights.” All this lava yields to fertile fields and farms promising horse riding on the celebrated Icelandic ponies. It changes again as the road wends back towards the coastline, with its basalt cliffs and black beaches. And I arrive at a little guest house in Vik for my final night.
My last morning, I spend an hour or two wandering the hills above the town, then out the jetty to view the Reynisdrangar rocks from my perch some 300 metres into the sea. Legend states that the rocks are mischievous trolls, caught in the sunlight and frozen as pillars of jagged rock, after a night of dragging ships to shore.**
I drive the way I came, stopping along the route to see what I can in the little time left. As I leave, I reflect that what I’ll remember more than the famous waterfalls, the oft-photographed landmarks, and the tourist-filled hotspots, is the landscape leading to-and-from the wonders.
NB: I’ve found that the coolest, most amazing experiences I’ve had travelling are the ones not in a guide book, but rather what arises (and surprises) when you least expect it: A trail lined with wild blueberries; cartoon mushrooms popping up from the mossy forest floor; fresh kanelbulle from a local baker; a stranger coming to your aid when you are out of options; a kind local guiding you to the best view in a town you can’t pronounce; deep sleep in an old dirt-floored cabin beside a stream; a paddle down a canal beside an urban island once used as the Royal hunting grounds; a hike through rainbow-coloured steaming earth; a hail storm then a magnificent rainbow on a volcanic coastline in a village with 12 houses…
And so, with a last-minute road closure that diverts traffic over a small mountain on a semi-paved road and gets me to the airport almost an hour later than necessary, I leave these Nordic lands behind, hoping to return again as soon as my interpreter will have me.
*Side note: tired from travel and gobsmacked by the scenery, I accidentally got stuck in the EZPass lane (perhaps ËZPæðþ here?), so time will tell what my penalty is in retrospect.
**According to Norse Mythology, Trolls are said to turn to stone upon contact with sunlight.