Thursday, December 11, 2008

Iceland Notes, Part I

By the time I get a chance to do my traditional write-ups of my Iceland trip, it will have faded too much from my mind. As a result, I'm just posting some brief notes.

First, the first two days of my trip were really windy. The first day, this was because a storm had recently passed through the country; the second, because I was travelling along the south coast, and the northerlies off the mountains and glaciers were brutal. The third day, when I went up by Borgarnes and Reykholt, was much calmer.

Most of the sites I visited were geology-oriented. Iceland is being formed by volcanic action on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, and has at least two live volcanoes and many earthquakes every day. Of the latter, only those which reach at least 3.5 on the Richter Scale are reported on the news, which has them as part of the weather forecast.

Because public transportation can be chancy in the winter, I signed up for organized tours on each of my three full days. The first day was the common Golden Circle tour, which hits Thingvellir National Park, Gulfoss, and Geysir. I didn't get to see much of the first, as conditions were too treacherous, but that is where the North American and European plates are pulling apart, and is filled with deep crevices continually being formed by seismic action. Everything was iced over and slippery, and particularly with winds gusts which reached as high as 60 m/s at higher elevations and 20 m/s at sea level, meaning where we were they were borderline hurricane-force, you can understand why, when we got back on the bus, the guide asked if everyone was all right. Normally you walk for about half an hour down a steep path and across the plain where the Althing began meeting in 930 CE, but the path was totally iced over, and we had to call it off.

Gulfoss is Iceland's largest waterfall. Iceland has lots of those due to its many glacial rivers, and when I get my pictures uploaded to Flickr, you'll be able to see the variety of their scenic forms. We couldn't go behind any of them because icicles had formed where we would walk, and there was a danger of them breaking. Geysir has given its name to geysers everywhere, as there are a number of active ones there. The most active erupts from a boiling pool every 4-6 minutes. On the third day, I saw a boiling river near Reykholt that provides many of the communities of west central Iceland with their hot water.

On the second day, my glacier tour took me to Solheimajokull, a southern tongue of Myrdalsjokull, Iceland's fourth largest glacier. The extent of the glacier is marked with polls on an annual basis, and you can see that the retreat of the past few years is stunning. Incidentally, because Iceland is such a new volcanic island, all the beaches are made entirely of black basalt sand. Along the coast you also have crazy basalt formations with names that sound like something from Tolkein, such as the "Sea Stacks of Reynisdrangur" and the "Arch of Dyrholaey."

Food was not as expensive as I feared. Iceland is self-sustaining in meat and dairy products, and every spring has one million sheep. Most diners have huge pots of lamb soup, in which they do their biggest trade. Combo plates of sandwich, fries, and a drink ran between $5 and $7.50, depending on the exchange rate you were able to get. Foreign cuisines seem chancy. We stopped at a gas station diner in the village of Vik, where the menu includes shawarma; the picture looked nothing like it. What seemed a small Middle East-themed chain called "Habibi" listed shawarma on their menu "served with three cheeses and a purple onion sauce." One evening in Reykjavik I stopped in an Indian place that advertised "Traditional Indian Dinner" for around $10. I decided to order something else when I learned that evening's dinner special was schnitzel.

I was interested in Iceland's Viking Age, and so saw sites like Skalholt, the site of the first bishopric, and Snorri Sturluson's estate at Reykholt, which is now a center for the study of his work. Iceland, incidentally, never bothered with the clerical celibacy thing. The Reformation was official there when the last Catholic bishop was murdered with his two wons when they went to Skalholt on a pro-Catholic mission of which I can't remember the details. I can also recommend the Settlement Center at Borgarnes, which is near the grave of the father and son of Egill Skallagrimsson from Egill's Saga. Skallagrim's farm is also around there, though I forget exactly where. I was surprised to learn just how thinkly covered with vegetation Iceland used to be, before the onset of the Little Ice Age in the 13th century.

Tomorrow I'll try to post on Iceland in more recent times.



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