Sunday, 26 January 2014

New Year Travels 5 - Iceland - Waterfalls, Volcanos, Beaches and the Fabulous Mr Tomasson

January 7th

We were up early for our day trip the South Shore Adventure.  The guide told us that modernity came late to Iceland. In 1940's the UK, then the US had a base there, when they left they left their vehicles and airports in Reykjavik and Keflavik. Gradually Iceland moved into the modern era. However it was only in 1956 that the last turf house was inhabited.

Some of the Westman Islands
The first hour and a half driving was in darkness. We passed through Hveragerdi which has the ominous distinction of being the place in Iceland that has the most earthquakes.  We had a short break at Hvolsvollur. As we continued east with the ocean to our right the Westman Islands came into sight, looking like mountain tops rising from the water, a sea mist at their base making them look as if they were floating on the water. They looked beautiful, and this belied their violent past. One of my earliest memories is of seeing the birth of one of these islands, Surtsey, on black and white TV in 1963, I can remember marvelling at this island literally being created during a volcanic eruption that started below the sea, eventually reaching the surface and once the eruption finished in 1967 leaving an island.

Heimaey, the largest and the only populated Westman Island, also had a major volcanic eruption when Eldfell blew in 1973 destroying half of the town. At Volcano House we had watched a film about this, many of the residents had said that, although destructive, the eruption was also very beautiful. Once over the people just picked themselves up and started over again.

The Westmans are also home to eight million puffins. Puffins always next in the same site, and our guide, who
seemed to know the islands well, said that during the eruption when they came back to their nesting area they flew in and immediately died with the heat, thousands of birds died this way.

We had snow covered mountains to our left, the snow lay in crevasses, ledges, some areas free of snow, it looked like an amazing abstract work of art, Mother Natures creations are pretty awe-inspiring!

Our first stop was at Seljalandsfoss, a waterfall that is 200 feet high. At other times of the year you can walk behind the falls, but due to the ice that was impossible today. It was a lovely setting, any direction you turned to there was a fabulous view, no houses, just wild Iceland. The falls were not as dramatic as in the summer because some of it was frozen, it was still a wonderful sight. I noted that the Icelandic word for waterfall is foss, and here in Cumbria, where there was a strong Viking influence especially in place names, it is force.

The next stop was a short, but memorable one, Eyjafjallajokull (which means island mountain glacier), the volcano that stopped air travel when it decided to stir in 2010.  Our guide joked that only Icelanders can pronounce the name and everyone else should all in E+15, which I think is a brilliant idea!  Though Dianne bravely got the guide to teach her how to say the full name, she did very well too. It looked 

deceptively tranquil glinting in the noonday sun, white farm buildings with red rooves stood at its base. A dog bounded excitedly towards us and enjoyed a play with the guide, apparently the dog comes every day when the tour bus stops there. The guide said that farm was the worst affected by the eruption. Animals died, sheep went blind, but luckily regained their sight after about two weeks and now it's up working again, until the next time. These Icelanders are resilient people!

Next stop was another waterfall, Skogarfoss. This waterfall is wider than Seljafoss but has the same drop. There was a rainbow across the top of the falls, which apparently is usual here due to amount of spray produced.  There was a steep flight of steps up the side of the waterfall which must have had a great view from the top but we had neither the time nor the stamina to get to the top. There is a legend that  the first Viking settler in the area, Þrasi Þórólfsson, buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall. Locals found the chest years later, but were only able to grasp the ring on the side of the chest before it disappeared again. The ring was said to have been given to the local church and can now be found in the nearby museum.

Normally there would now have been a lunch break next but the guide said that because of the short days he had rearranged the stops so we could see places in the daylight.  The next stop was the 
Solheimajokull glacier. We left Route 1 and travelled along an increasingly windy and bumpy road that turned into nothing more than a stony track until we arrived at a small car park. From there it was a ten minute walk to the foot of the glacier. You had to watch your footing as the ground was stony with patches of ice. To the left was a frozen lake containing huge lumps of layered ice that must have calved off the glacier at some time.  There was a stillness in the air and I
Solheimajokull Glacial Lake
felt awe as I approached the glacier which was white with patches of vivid blue and black - the latter was ash from the E+15 eruption.  
There were people climbing on the glacier, they were on one of the glacier walk tours you can go on. 

There was a wall of rippled ice as clear as glass as tall as me, that stretched for yards.  I also noticed some rocks that were partially melted. I thought it was great that we could walk right up to the glacier like that, to be so close to something  like that was awe-inspiring for me. The guide said that we were very lucky with the weather as often you can't get close to the glacier because of it, and the tour itself often has to be cancelled because of bad weather. For the whole of our stay the weather had been fantastic.

We headed back to the coach and trundled along the bumpy road to Route 1 again, I noticed the flood plain stretching to the sea and it brought back memories of seeing the floods caused by the E+15 eruption melting ice and snow that swept down to the sea taking many roads with it. It occurred to me that Icelanders have
learned to live and respect their wild and unpredictable country. They harness the power it gives them via the geothermal energy (they call it white oil), they accept the eruptions and earthquakes, clear up afterwards and then get on with their lives again. 

By now I was getting very hungry, the bus continued to head east and soon we descended into the village of Vik (the most southerly village in Iceland) by the sea and stopped off at a cafe there.  We all had beefburger with a fried egg on top and fries, unusual but it really went together well. The cafe was obviously used to serving tourists and we got our food very quickly which we were pleased about!

After our meal we started west again, but first stopped at Vik beach which is on the other side of Reynisfjall mountain from the village, and takes about ten minutes to reach. Our guide said that the beach was voted the most beautiful in the world.

Vik Beach
By now the long Icelandic dusk was falling and no one else was on the beach. The sand was black and our footprint were the first since the tide started to go out.  To the left was Reynisfjall and a large cave called Hálsanefshellir which was framed by huge basalt columns. In the sea are stone pillars, Reynisdrangar, the sky is a rich blue with wispy pink clouds and a sickle moon, it is ethereal, magical, truly stunning.  I find it hard to find words to describe it, all I know is that I will never forget that time on Vik Beach, we found it hard to tear ourselves away when the time came to leave. I picked up a small stone from the beach, I had to take a small piece away with me.

We continued to head west until we were back near Skogarfoss, but this time we stopped off at Skogar Folk Museum.  The museum was first opened by Mr Tomasson in 1949, and the same man, now 93, is still the museum's curator. He wanted to preserve the area's history, even moving turf houses to the museum and built up the collection over the years. 

We were shown round the museum by a woman who looked like a blond Bjork who was very informative. Then Mr Tomasson came in, he had a friendly face with a mischievous glint in his eye.  He took over from the guide and it was clear he was very proud of his museum. He showed us how to spin wool just with a hand spindle and then took us (at a very sprightly pace for a 93 year old!) the short distance to the tiny little white church where he told us a little about its history and then played the organ.  He played
Mr Tomasson at Skogar Folk Museum
Amazing Grace, psalms, even God Save the Queen! He was a real character.  We had a look at the tiny turf houses on the museum site, people had it hard in the past!  I would have liked to have stayed longer at the museum as there is so much to see. Good job Mr Tomasson is a hoarder, he has made something very special in this place.

Skogar was our last stop and the rest of the trip was heading back to Reykjavik. What a fabulous day it had been, that trip was worth every penny.

We were booked in for a special last night meal at The Pearl Restaurant and once in Reykjavik had no time to go back to the apartment we just hopped into a taxi to the restaurant.  It is a revolving restaurant so we had lovely views over the city. The seating was comfortable and the actual restaurant very nice. The food and wine was very good, but the service was not, which was disappointing especially as it was expensive.  For me and my friends the service is as important as the food when in a restaurant. We wouldn't go back.

So that was it, our holiday in Iceland over. It exceeded expectations by a long way. Our accommodation was perfect, the weather was good, the people warm and friendly and the scenery stunning.  Iceland is a place that captivates me as few places do, it keeps drawing me back - and we're already talking about visiting one summer!

In the Pearl Restaurant

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