Posts Tagged With: althing

Cold Water, Hot Water

Yesterday was a watery kind of day, not in the meteorological sense — the weather was surprisingly mild — but in the sense that most of our destinations involved either looking at or being immersed in water. Our first destination was the tourist-heavy Gullfoss waterfall (that “-foss” suffix in fact means “waterfall” in Icelandic), which holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts because of the repeated failed attempts over the decades to exploit it for hydroelectric power. But, atypically for much of the world, the preservationists have repeatedly prevailed and the site remains pristine if you don’t count the endless stream of tour buses.

The two hour drive to Gullfoss took us pass scenes like these, which in some ways are Iceland as its finest, at least when the weather cooperates.


Iceland Gullfoss 2018-001Iceland Silfra 2018-019-Edit

Gullfoss itself is beautiful, large, though not altogether eye-popping in the Niagara or Victoria Falls sense, a pleasing two-tiered cascade through a broad canyon.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-002Iceland Gullfoss 2018-029-Edit

The wind was ferocious, which seems to be Iceland’s default, and which pretty much buries any ambitions I had of getting any aerial imagery with my drone. (The signs forbidding drones didn’t help either.)

Our next stop was a geyser, and not just any old geyser, but the ur-geyser, the geyser after which all geysers are named. Ever wonder where the word “geyser” comes from?Wonder no more, because here it is:

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-054

This particular site was first noticed (and named) by a local traveler in the year 1249, then lapsed into obscurity for 400 years before being rediscovered as a must-visit destination in the 17th century. Now, if you look carefully at the above photo you may notice a certain lack of geothermal activity, in that, well, there doesn’t actually seem to be a geyser there. That is because in the early 20th century its activity started to diminish. Frustrated tourists — this is a true story — started throwing rocks and garbage into the mouth of the geyser, causing its throat to collapse and thus transmogrifying it into a non-geyser, nearly 700 years after its eponymous discovery. Bottom line: the world’s first named geyser….isn’t one anymore.

Fortunately for the tourism industry, one need only walk about 100 meters from this disappointment to the site of the Stokkur geyser, which erupts satisfyingly every 5-10 minutes.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-047

After watching a couple of eruptions (“Was it good for you too?”) we ate lunch in the form of a private tailgate party — having visited a supermarket for lunch fixings the previous day — and headed to our final destination of the day, the Solfra volcanic fissure in Thingvellir National Park. Thinkvellir is distinguished by one very important geological feature: the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through it. It is literally the boundary between continents. Here is the basaltic wall that marks the edge of the North American plate:

Iceland Silfra 2018-002-Edit

It’s tall, ominously brownish-gray, and imposing, probably 20 meters tall and looking for all it’s worth like either the entrance to Mordor or the Wall from Game of Thrones. There were no White Walkers in the vicinity (discounting Icelanders’ natural complexion), but there is a notable location, which you can see marked by the flagpole at the right of the photo. That is the original meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament that has been meeting since the year 930. The chieftains from all over the island would meet there yearly, traveling from all over the island to do so.

The corresponding wall marking the edge of the Eurasian plate is a few kilometers to the east, and the broad plain in between is a sort of geological no man’s land, belonging to neither continent. (This of course causes me to wonder what’s underneath it. Could we, like, jump up and down really hard, break through the ground, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth? Let’s try!)

There is, however, a narrow fissure running parallel to the wall, only a few meters wide in places and about 20 meters deep, fed by a spring whose source is a melting glacier a few kilometers upstream. That means two things: (1) the spring water is filtered through several kilometers of volcanic rock and is thus spectacularly pure and clear (I mean, like distilled water); and (2) the water is seriously ^%$**ing cold, i.e. just a couple of degrees above freezing.

All of which is the lead-in to our snorkeling trip through said fissure, a remarkable experience. We were clad in enormously cumbersome, airtight drysuits. These are highly constricting and basically constrain you to floating on the surface like a straitjacketed Michelin Man. But they do you keep you dry and reasonably warm: the only part of your body that is exposed is your lips, since you need to bite on the snorkel to breathe. So here I am in the channel:


The water has a vertical visibility of its full depth (~20 m) and a horizontal visibility of about 6-8 times that. You read that right: you can see about 150 meters horizontally through the water. It is like swimming through very viscous blue-green air, quite the unearthly sensation.

There is almost no fish life in the channel, but there is quite a lot of exotic multicolored strands and blobs of algae coating many of the rocks. In some places the channel looks like someone went crazy with cans of Silly String.

There is a place where the channel is narrow enough to touch both sides at once, and of course the tour operators exploit this by taking photos of everyone doing so. They advertise this quite incorrectly as touching both continents at once; our enthusiastic and voluble guide Kate explained all this to us and swore us to utter secrecy. So don’t tell anyone!

Kate herself is worth a mention. A Canadian semi-expat, she spends summers as a tour guide in Iceland. Tall, athletic, and enthusiastic, she is thus the archetype of the 20-something outdoor adventure guide. And she’s got the piece of paper to prove it: her college degree is in (wait for it) “Adventure Tourism”. That is definitely the diploma that you want to have.

After de-drysuiting and downing some hot chocolate, we returned to Reykjavik, ate diner, and went out for a final nighttime view of the Harpa. We’re about to leave for our next destination: the town of Borganes.

Iceland Reykjavik 2018-134





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Reykjavik: In Search of Icelanders

We arrived in Reykjavik at about 6 AM local time this morning, some 14 hours ago. Since we have attacked the city with our usual touristic compulsion, accompanied by our equally immoderate traveling companions Janet and Tim, I am more or less exhausted and so will for the most part let some photos do the talking. So let’s start with a panorama of Reykjavik Harbor, taken from the tallest point in the city: the spire of Hallsgrimkirkja (which I will explain in a moment):

The city looks more or less to the north across the harbor, and a couple of things stand out as you view it from either street level or from above: (1) the city has a very clean, orderly feel; and (2) the predominant architectural style is Primary Colored Boxes, a very Scandinavian look that might have resulted from the Norse gods having purchased the city in its entirety from Ikea. (It would have had some typical Ikea name like Whølecitii and the assembly instructions would have been 163,000 pages long.) It has a very walkable and compact downtown area; most of the major landmarks and attractions fall within an area about a mile on a side. The dramatic clouds that you see in the photo are pretty typical.

The Hallsgrimkirkja is probably the single most publicized and photographed building in Iceland, a 75 m (244 ft) church named after  Hallgrímur Pétursson, a 17th century Icelandic poet and clergyman. It shows up in every tourist ad and every postcard. You have very likely seen a photo of it at some point. Here it is:

The statue in the front is Leif Erickson, presented to Iceland as a gift from the United States in 1930 to commemorate the thousandth anniversary of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament. Dating from AD 930, the Althing is the oldest parliamentary body in the world, originally presided over by Strom Thurmond. (That last phrase is actually a pretty good joke that only Americans over the age of about 55 will understand. Everyone else, just move on.)

As I mentioned, you have probably seen this picture before…. except that when you saw it, the building looked very white. For some reason, the Icelandic tourism authorities feel compelled to present this church as being heavenly white in color, and that is how it appears in most “official” photos after suitable lighting adjustments and resorting to Photoshop. But it isn’t white: it’s gray, just as you see here. Maybe on a sunny day it would like more iconic.

The interior of the Hallsgrimkirkja is every bit as striking and stark as the exterior. Here is the main sanctuary:

It is white, or nearly so, and very imposing, albeit in a spartan Mormon-Temple-Also-Bought-From-Ikea sort of way. At the back of the hall is a glorious and impressive 5700-pipe organ.

Before moving on I would first like to confirm two of the predictions that I made in my pre-trip blog post about a week ago. First, Reykjavik appears not to contain any actual Icelanders outside of store and restaurant employees. (And not even all of them: the rental agent who gave us our car was Lithuanian.) Pretty much everyone on the street is a tourist, Americans seemingly the most numerous.

Second, the locals love hot dogs, in case you thought I was kidding last time. We counted 5 hot dog stands in a two block stretch downtown. The most famous of all — supposedly the lines can be an hour long in the summer — is an unprepossessing kiosk dating from 1937, called Baejarins Beztu Pylsur. (No, I do not know what the translation is.) And by “unprepossessing”, here is what I mean:

That’s it. Happily there was almost no line. The menu consists of exactly two items: hot dogs, and Coca Cola. There are five possible things you can get on your hot dog: mayo, mustard, ketchup, raw onion, or fried onions. Oh, and the Coke can be diet. That’s it. So we did our touristy duty and each had a hot dog and a Coke because really, what else was there to do. Here are Janet and Tim, snapping under the pressure.

In all fairness, I will grant that they were pretty good hot dogs. They were reasonably priced, and a lot less exotic (or at least thought-provoking) then some of the other local restaurant fare. We were looking for places for dinner later in the day and came across a well-reviewed steak restaurant near our flat. It seemed pretty straightforward: the name of the place was “The Steak Restaurant”. Reading the menu in the front window, an entree called “Surf and Turf” caught my eye. Reading one line further down revealed that the “surf” was minke whale and the “turf” was horse. We went elsewhere and got fish and chips for dinner. The fish was cod. All the fish here is cod, except for the halibut and Arctic char. (And whale, which isn’t a fish.)

Anyway, having fueled up on hot dogs to counteract our jet lag, we were ready to tackle some of the major city attractions. Besides the Hallsgrimkirkja, the next most prominent structure in the city is the much more contemporary performing arts house, the Harpa, which is essential the local equivalent of the Sydney Opera House. It is an exceptionally striking edifice, all prismatic glass that creates stunning interior and exterior views, e.g.:

(The bottom image is on the inside, looking upwards and outwards from the atrium.)

The Harpa sits right at the water’s edge, which prompted Janet to relate an anecdote that she had read in a book about how Icelanders view tourism. The complaint from at least one of the locals was, “Why do tourists keep building stupid piles of rocks?” we weren’t sure what that mean until we noticed the beach next to the Harpa, which looks like this:

Apparently these were erected by tourists rather than trolls. (Icelanders love trolls. You see stuffed trolls, troll toys, and books about trolls in pretty much every store. These are apparently not the kind that live under bridges and eat billy goats. Nor do they build pointless piles of rocks.)

A few hundred meters up the road from the Harpa is another of Reykjavik’s signature landmarks: the Sun Voyager sculpture:

It dates from 1990, created by the Icelandic sculptor Jón Gunnar Árnason. It is 18 m (60′) long and about half that in height. If you are like every human being on Earth other than Jón Gunnar Árnason (who is now dead and thus not on Earth in the usual sense) you take one look at this thing and say “Viking ship.” I mean, it’s pretty obviously a Viking ship, right? But apparently not. According to Wikipedia:

“It is a common misunderstanding that Sun Voyager is a Viking ship. It is quite understandable that many tourists think like this when travelling in Iceland, the land of the sagas. Jón Gunnar was himself very ill with leukaemia at the time that the full-scale Sun Voyager came to be constructed, and he died in April 1989, a year before it was placed in its present location. Some people have thus suggested that Jón Gunnar conceived the work during this period, at a time when he might have been preoccupied with death, and argued that Sun Voyager should be seen as a vessel that transports souls to the realm of death. Sun Voyager was essentially envisaged as being a dreamboat, an ode to the sun symbolizing light and hope.”

You will note from a careful reading, however, this is all third-party interpretation: it appears that no one ever thought to ask Jón Gunnar whether it was a Viking ship and get “no” for an answer. So I’m sticking with Viking ship.

So jet lag and fatigue withstanding, that was our first day in Iceland. Tomorrow we are driving to Gulffoss Falls and doing our insanely cold snorkeling trip in the Silfra volcanic fissure.




Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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