Icelandic Sagas are enthralling. Dark and violent, vengeful. Myths and legends, or true stories of the Viking families who settled Iceland in the middle ages? They have been known as fiction, superstition and fantasy. It is said that truth can be found in the Sagas – that is Sagas were based on reality, but with mythical elements woven in to the stories.
Gma and Lolly Girl were idling about in London, Gma at Primrose Hill and Lolly Girl at Richmond. Iceland had been on our travel radar, and was far more accessible from London than from our antipodean homes. We were interested in the Sagas’, and were both reading a book written by Richard Fidler and Kari Gislason “Saga Land – the island of stories at the edge of the world.” The discussions of the Sagas, Icelandic history and the travel by the authors described in this book had us very motivated to visit Iceland.
Lets do it we said – so we did. Our only regret is that a week is not enough to do more than explore Reykjavic and areas close enough to visit on a day trip from Reykjavic.
Gma had booked a serviced apartment in the centre of Reykjavic, and was somewhat startled to find the city mapper app seemed to be taking us in a different direction than anticipated. Turned out that what I thought I had booked was not actually what I booked. The apartment was shabby, in a basement, smelt of cigarette smoke, and was basically a shabby room with a corner bricked off to accommodate a bathroom. A hovel in fact.
Lolly Girl was very good humoured, and didn’t seem too bothered, so after a minor tantrum on my part, and a good spray of french perfume around the hovel by Lolly Girl, we congratulated ourselves on saving so much money on accommodation by staying in a hovel, and set off to explore Reykjavic.
The architecture is varied. The buildings are constructed with reinforced concrete, wood or corrugated iron. My preference was for the corrugated iron. I loved the houses and shops in the central part of the city – bright and cheerful, some even sporting a turf roof.
The Harpa Concert Hall, designed by Iceland artist, Olafur Eliasson sits on the waterfront – a vision splendid, looking like a huge crystal sculpture, with its coloured glass facade. Sipping champagne at the bar, watching the light dancing on the glass panels and changing colour in different lights made me feel as if I was in a giant kaleidoscope. So entrancing was the view, more champagne was required before we were ready to leave.
A big disadvantage of staying in a hovel, is that we didn’t want to spend any time in it even to eat, which meant we were out hunting and gathering quite early for breakfast. An early morning coffee was elusive, even in Laugavegur, the main Street of Reykjavic. One establishment took our order, then we were told they didn’t open for another hour. It was not amusing. For a brief moment, I had a vision of seeking vengeance, Saga style, but I didn’t have access to an axe.
If we had turned left into Laugavegur instead of right, we would have discovered the most perfect breakfast place two shops down.
The hovel was just down the hill from the Hallgrimskirkja Church, which made it easy to visit whenever we wished – and to frequent the hot dog stand nearby. Lutheran churches have always felt quite austere and grey to me. Hallgrimskirkja was no different, but with soaring ceilings, long slim beautifully proportioned windows and a huge organ, the simplistic minimalism created a serenity often absent from the more ornate cathedrals and churches. The building is said to echo the shapes of cooling lava, and inspired by the basalt columns at the black sand beach at Reynisfjara, on the south coast.
There are a lot of waterfalls in Iceland. We managed to visit a very small number on day trips around the Golden Circle and the South Coast. They were awesome.
Although both Lolly Girl and Gma have spent many happy hours in thermal pools in New Zealand, we thought we should experience an Icelandic thermal pool. The New Zealand experience did not quite prepare us for our visit to the secret lagoon – Gamla Laugin. Clearly not a secret anymore judging by the number of people frolicking in the warm soothing water.
No hot pool we had visited in NZ required us to shower, totally naked, in a communal area. Deep breath, suck in stomach and go for it.
Lolly Girl escapes the naked scene before Gma. Gma emerges and collects a couple of noodles from the box beside the pool. Lolly Girl has a noodle, and is in deep conversation with a male swimmer. Male swimmer melts into the background when Gma arrives with noodles. Turns out that Lolly Girl had not noticed the huge box of noodles by the pool, and had approached the male swimmer with the line “oh, I say, do you need both noodles”. He clearly thought he was on to a good thing till Gma arrived.
The area around the Golden Circle and the South Coast contain most beautiful landscapes and are quite surreal in parts. Mountains, waterfalls, glaciers, lakes, spectacular beaches, historical sites, geysirs and boiling mud pools, crater lakes, wildflowers and birds. There were even trees here and there.
On the south coast drive, the most easterly point we visited was Reynisfjara, a black sand beach, with lava rock columns in the sea, caves and basalt columns. The Atlantic looked quite benign, although I felt it was treacherous, benign looking or not. Having read about people getting washed out to sea, I only timidly put a foot in the water. I had been particularly spooked by a story of a tourist, posing on a large piece of ice, shaped like an armchair, who got washed off the beach, floating away on the ice armchair.
The glaciers, as with other glaciers around the world, are receding. It was quite sobering to see how far the Solheimajokull glacier has receded over the past ten years. Little icebergs were floating on the glacier lake, and looked beautiful reflected in the water. An astonishing number of plants were growing in the barren landscape. A glacier hike was in progress, and 4WD trips on the glacier are available. A huge glacier could be seen from the road, behind a range of mountains – it looked like a cloud bank, rather than a glacier.
One of the highlights for me on the Golden Circle trip, was the visit to Thingvellir National Park. Thingvellir was the place where the Althing was established in 930AD. The Althing is the National Parliament of Iceland and is one of the oldest parliaments in the world. At Thingvellir, the Althing was an open air assembly representing all of Iceland, and assemblies continued there until 1798
The Althing, at Thingvellir plays a role in many of the Sagas, where details of the Assemblies, laws and legal procedures are discussed, and I was very interested to see the landscape referred to in these Sagas.
Very little remains of the Althing. However the Thingvellir National park is an area of outstanding beauty, circled on three sides by mountains, and it was easy to imagine the characters in the Sagas riding through this landscape to attend the Althing.
The park contains a rift valley, where the Eurasian tectonic plate meets with the North American tectonic plate, providing the unique opportunity to walk between two continents. Dramatic fissures and cliffs, rocky rivers, waterfalls and a lake add to the natural beauty of the area.
On our final day in Reykjavic we decided to hunt for puffins. To do this we had to catch a small boat, which takes its passengers out of the harbour across to some small islands, where hundreds, if not thousands of puffins would be seen.
The boat trip was not for the faint hearted. Along with our tickets, we were given anti seasick tablets. The sea was very rough and it turned out that all trips after ours were cancelled. The boat was broadside to heavy swell, so we were rolling about rather alarmingly – thank goodness for the tablets.
The puffin lady was very passionate about puffins, and showed us numerous photos of these beautiful birds on our way to the islands. Luckily she did. The only puffins we saw were a few landing on the water some distance away. The puffins landing were fun to watch – they can’t glide due to body size and small wings, so they belly flop onto the water, but we couldn’t see them in great detail. There were large numbers of birds nesting on the island, none of which were puffins.
A final walk along the waterfront, champagne at the Harpa, and dinner involving lobster, Icelandic lamb – the very best lamb I have tasted – and wine, we ambled back to the hovel, well satisfied with our experiences in Iceland.
Iceland proved to be a most interesting and exciting place to visit. A return visit is necessary, to visit more remote places. The captain of the Christina told us that in the summer he slept for only four hours a night, whereas in winter he sleeps eighteen hours a day. I feel that to properly experience Iceland, I should visit in winter. Then it wouldn’t matter if my accommodation turned out to be a hovel.