Wednesday, 19 July 2017

A MidsummerNight's Dream, II: Iceland's Golden Circle

The Golden Circle Tour proved to be a delightful way to spend a day. The weather started out overcast and a bit chilly with a bit of rain, but skies soon cleared and the thermometer soared to about 65F (18C). The driver was knowledgeable and funny, and best of all, he didn't get us killed. I learned a lot about Iceland, among other things that hot water heaters are unnecessary. The geothermal springs that are found all over the island provide all the hot water required, not to mention power to generate electricity. 

I also learned a great deal about the flora and fauna. When the first Vikings arrived from Norway in the tenth century, the island had no native land mammal except the arctic fox. Polar bears sometimes landed on the north of the island, but never took up permanent residency. The only native tree was the dwarf birch, which grows to about six feet. This is the source of one of the driver's best jokes. Q: "What should you do if lost in an Icelandic forest?" A: "Stand Up."

The Vikings brought in other species, including reindeer and horses. The horses are small, more like ponies, but do not tell an Icelander that. Call them horses, please. Farm animals, dogs, cats, mice, rats, and many different plant species have been imported over the centuries since the first human settlement. One particular import, the lupin, has taken over large swathes of the island.

The Golden Circle passes through a lot of beautiful landscapes, including the most spectacular waterfall I've ever seen, Gullfoss, on the Hvita (White) River. (Gullfoss)

Gullfoss is fed by Iceland's second largest glacier, and is considerably larger than Niagara Falls. The roar of the falls is certainly deafening. Gullfoss means "Golden Falls". The name derives from the fact that the sediment-laden water looks golden on sunny days. It drops 32 meters (105 feet) into the chasm below. It is the largest waterfall in Europe by volume, if one considers Iceland part of Europe. That brings me to the second highlight of the Golden Circle: Thingvellir.

Thingvellir National Park stands at the place where two tectonic/continental plates meet: The Eurasian and the North American. Iceland is thus partly in North America and partly in Europe. 

Thingvellir is a geologist's paradise. But its importance is not only geological. It is also significant in Icelandic history. Starting back in AD 930, the national assembly (Althing) met here, and continued to do so until 1798. The name Thingvellir means something like "Parliament (or Assembly) Fields." (Thingvellir)

Thingvellir lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and the evidence of geologic activity is all around you.


Thingvellir, and Iceland itself, sits atop the Iceland Plume, a volcanic hotspot which is believed to have formed Iceland some 16-18 million years ago. Geologically speaking, that is very young, and it means that the island never had dinosaurs, or many other species that emerged elsewhere over eons. But volcanoes and geothermal phenomena abound. That brings me to the third highlight of the Golden Circle: Geysir. (Iceland geology)

Geysir (from which we get "geyser") is a hot spot where Iceland blows off a lot of steam. The place is named after the largest of the geysers in the park, Geysir. It erupts infrequently nowadays, sometimes not for years, but its recorded eruptions have sometimes reached heights of more than 100 meters. Other geysers nearby are rather tame most of the time, just bubbling away. Good places to boil some eggs. But one geyser, called Strokkur, erupts about every 6-10 minutes, which is good for tourists on a tight schedule. Strokkur sends a plume of hot water about 30 meters into the air. Thankfully, the water cools a good bit by the time it returns to earth, because it is hard to avoid being hit by some of it when up close. 

Having completed the Golden Circle, our coach returned to Reykjavik. I went off to check into my hotel, only to discover that they didn't have a room for me. But they had booked me into a nearby pension, which turned out to be comfortable and boasted a scenic view of the harbor. I slept well after a long but delightful day.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

Iceland: A Mid-Summer Night's Dream

Iceland: land of volcanoes, geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, and trolls. And constant daylight in mid-summer. Having left London in pitch dark of midnight, I arrived at Keflavik Airport in blazing sunshine around 3 am. I took a bus to Reykjavik, the capital and largest city. Actually, the only city in this land of just over 300,000 people. It was 5 am but it looked like midday, and the streets were deserted. I felt like I had walked onto the set of an apocalyptic film, in which some superbug had wiped the entire population.

As I walked from the bus station through an elegant park graced by a lake I was relieved to hear sounds of life: ducks quacking. Ahead of me, I spied a well-dressed man sitting on a bench. When I got closer, he turned out to be a statue of some local worthy. I'd read that sunlight in Iceland turns trolls into stone, so maybe this was my first troll. He did look as if he had been there awhile, though.

I continued on, looking for my hotel. I had prided myself in having reserved a room at one of the cheapest hotels in Reykjavik. I found it and it fit the price. Shabby, sans the genteel. Well, this is Iceland, I thought. Cockroaches surely don't flourish here as in Charleston, South Carolina, where I had lived for many years. In Charleston, roaches have been known to grow as large as small dogs. I went inside. No one was at the desk. At 5:30 am I shouldn't have been surprised. I decided to continue my walk through the town until something opened up. I strolled down toward the harbor and discovered, among other things, one of Reykjavik's most famous landmarks, the World's Best Hot Dog Stand.

Vowing to try one when they opened, I walked on and soon came to the Gray Line coach terminal. That's it! I thought. Take a tour, and see something of the place, rest, relax, and go to my hotel at a normal time. Unfortunately, the coach office was not open yet. I decided to get some breakfast. I walked up and down the main streets, but found nothing open. Oh, yeh, I reminded myself, it's not quite 6 am. Too early for cafes, too late for bars.

At one intersection, I spied a large, unusual, pyramidal building, that dwarfed everything around it. Curious, I walked up to it, and discovered that it was Hallsgrimmelskirkja (Hallsgrimmels Church), the tallest building in in Reykjavik at 75 meters. It was unlike any sacred building I'd ever seen. Its designed to look like a volcano, which Iceland has quite a few of. A warning of divine anger, or merely something inspired by the landscape? Disappointingly, there is no smoke, fire, or lava, spewing from the top. Standing there, doing nothing in particular, it looks like a cross between a moth-balled rocket ship and Devil's Tower in Wyoming. Yet it does make a statement and gets your attention.

 In front of the church I spotted a large statue of a Vikingy-looking guy. It turned out be one of the most famous Vikings of all, Leif Ericson, who discovered America some 500 years before Columbus, but failed to get the credit -- or the blame. The statue was a gift from the USA to Iceland's people, for letting the US Air Force use the island as a giant aircraft carrier during the Cold War.

I retraced my steps to the Gray Line office, and found it had opened. I entered and went up to the reception desk, where a woman who reminded me of Britt Eklund asked how she could help, in flawless Americanese. I said I'd like to take a tour that would last several hours, at least until I could get into my hotel. 

"The Golden Circle Tour is perfect for you," she said. "it runs from 8:30 to 5."

"Great, I'll take it." I'd read about the Golden Circle and was sure it would be interesting. Waterfalls, glaciers, geysers, fault lines, that sort of thing. I had some time before the coach left to get some breakfast. The receptionist directed me to a nearby cafe-bakery, where I snarfed down a couple of delicious pastries and coffee before boarding the coach. I now knew that I would survive my first day in Iceland. And thrive.

More to come.