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Wheels, water, and crampons

A day on the south coast of Iceland

sunny 45 °F

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Worldwidemike, brave Arctic explorer

So, did we see the northern lights on Sunday? Yes. Cross it off the "bucket list." That said, the nearly full moon washed out the display, and it was not the most impressive sight. Nevertheless, as the photo below shows, I did see the aurora borealis. Thank god I brought my tripod, otherwise I think I would have seen little. To the naked eye, the arc of the aurora across the sky looked like wispy gray clouds. On my 15-second exposure, you could clearly see the green, though. Many people come to Iceland and never see them, so I shouldn't complain.

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My admittedly weak northern lights photograph

We were up early once again the next morning to pick up our rental car. We wanted to see the south and west coasts of Iceland and renting a car was supposedly the most economical way. I'm always a bit daunted taking to the road as a driver in a foreign country. I'd much rather rely on public transport, which unfortunately is limited in winter here in Iceland. Excursions are fairly expensive, so we felt this was the way to go. As it turned out, we had zero problems on day one. A nice thing about renting a car is you can pull over nearly anywhere to take pictures of a scenic view that catches your eye. Plus, you can generally squeeze in way more sights than you ever could on public transport.

Our first stop was Skogarfoss waterfall. Yes, we'd gotten quite an eyeful at Gulfoss yesterday, but this one was smaller and more intimate. It was still impressive with a bright double rainbow gleaming in the day's sunshine, though. Plus, there is a set of metal stairs that climbs the hillside next to the falls, with several amazing viewpoints. Both of us were enchanted by it, and along with the perfect, yet relatively warm day, it was a perfect way to begin. Seagulls wheeled around it continuously, and the place was far less overrun with tourists than yesterday's sights.

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Skogarfoss waterfall

Next, we drove to our glaciar hike we'd scheduled. Neither of us had been out on a glaciar, so we were looking forward to it. Our hike included only six of us and a guide. She quickly taught us how to strap on our metal-spiked crampons for walking on the ice and we were off. The glaciar we were hiking on is only a few miles from the volcano that erupted last summer in Iceland for a month. So, it's surface is speckled with black, volcanic ash - making it look like a quadruple scoop of vanilla ice cream with crumbled Oreo cookies on it. It wasn't the pristine landscape of ice I'd expected. Nor was it an amazing frozen world of blue ice and tunnels and crevices. It was more like a hike across a snowy mountain slope. Yes, we saw sinkholes the ice dug into the glaciar's surface. Yes, we saw snow-edged crevices where the glaciar cracked apart as it flowed downhill. It was cool how slick and how vertical a surface you can walk on with crampons. All in all, though, I found myself slightly disappointed with the glaciar walk.

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Walking on a glacier in Iceland

Next, we drove to the rainiest town in Iceland, Vik. On the way, we experienced sun, rain, and sleet, but the skies cleared as we walked out onto Vik's black volcanic sand beaches. Some of Clint Eastwood's movie, "Flags of our Fathers" was filmed here to stand in for Iwo Jima. The sea was pounding, and made for an interesting mood with the black basalt columns looming off shore. Icelanders say they are the remains of three petrified trolls who were caught out in sunlight as they walked out of the surf after fishing. Our luck with the weather let up after we left, Vik, though. We crossed a causeway to the dramatic seascape of Dyrholaey. A rain squall closed in and then spun around, blowing onshore then back offshore - all the while refusing to leave. We could see sun and patches of blue out to sea, but the rain stayed with us, throwing showered of spray across the windshield as we tried to wait it out. Eventually, we gave up and headed back to Reykjavik, about two and a half hours away.

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Petrified trolls in the rolling surf at Vik, Iceland

During the day, we'd taken full advantage of being able to stop and photograph iceland's spectacular scenery along the way. To me, that was one of the best parts of the day - having total control of what I could photograph. I snapped nearly 100 photographs today, and hope to be able to do the same tomorrow when we head north and west to check out the tongue-twisting Snaefellsnes Peninsula. If you'd like to see more photos than I uploaded here to the blog, check out my photobucket album, here: My Photobucket Iceland album.

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Icelandic scenery not far from Vik

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:38 Archived in Iceland Tagged car walk glacier iceland vik renting skogarfoss crampons Comments (0)

A Beautiful Lady Named Snaefellsness

Day 4 in Iceland and a drive around a peninsula

sunny 46 °F

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I normally don't like photos of myse,f standing in front of places, but I could not resist this beauty...

So, there are two things I love when I travel: history and gorgeous scenery. Today was tops in the second category, as we drove our rental car around the Snaefellsness Peninsula. The peninsula is the westernmost arm of Iceland, and has a spine of tall, snow-capped mountains all along its length. Our plan was to circle the peninsula mostly along the coast. It would be a long day - taking more than 8 hours round trip from Reykjavik. We'd hoped for good weather and rewarded with the sunniest, warmest day in Iceland yet.

From the beginning, the image that captivated me most was the scattered homesteads, farms and villages, looking tiny - isolated by all of Iceland's towering wilderness. Again and again, I stopped the car to take a picture of a lonely farmhouse looking like a brightly colored doll house beneath a massive, snow-capped mountain range. Churches stood like shepherds by themselves, with sweeping views of the sea. Their bright primary colors contrasted sharply with nature's browns, blues, golds, and of course, the white of snow and black of volcanic rock. Here, the man-made structure, though it often looked lost on the landscape, was as much a part of the scenery as any mountain or lake. In fact, these houses with their bright blue, red and green roofs gleaming in the sunshine served as exclamation points on the peninsula.

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Isolated farm house on the Snaefellsness Peninsula

We began our sweep around Snaefellsness on the southern coast. Our first real stop was the village of Beothir. It's black-painted church was more than three centuries old, and brooded amidst its graveyard, staring out to sea. The church sat surrounded by gnarled, lava rock fields that local legend says are home to elves. Most of the tombstones were from the 1800s. It seemed the village's population was slowly shrinking, because there were very few homes and farmsteads around. A signless hotel sat beneath the church, its large windows looking out on stunning views in every direction.

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The parish church at Beothir

Next, we stopped in the village of Arnastapi. It was composed of mostly rental cottages. Try as we might, we couldn't find a place open to use the restroom or buy a soda. The village seemed shuttered for the winter, though its quiet homes basked in a very springlike sun. Just down the road from the village, though, we came upon a magical place. A tiny turnoff from the road was perched above a panorama of ice, mountain and snow that would be hard-pressed to be topped anywhere. To one side, the row of mountains stretched their black and white fins towards the blue sky. For miles in front, though, was a sloping lava field covered in snow making it look like a massive bowl of vanilla ice cream speckled liberally with black chocolate chips. Behind us, the dome of the glacier Snaefellsjokull was decorated like a wedding cake with tiny snow-covered spires. The view was simply delicious, and I prayed my photographs would do the landscape justice.

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The icy scenery near Arnastapi, Iceland

We continued on, having the road and peninsula nearly to ourselves. The issue of a bathrooms stop was getting urgent, so we were getting a bit exasperated when we pulled into Hellnar and found it similarly deserted. Hotel Hellnar's front door was open, though nobody answered the desk bell when we rang it. So, we helped ourselves to their bathrooms, then drove down the road to the village's shuttered church. Perched on a hill overlooking the sea, its red and white colors were a bright stab of color against the clear blue sky. I wandered down to its tiny graveyard, drawn by the view those in their final resting place had been granted. If I had to choose a place to lie and peacefully contemplate the passing centuries, it would be hard to choose a more scenic spot. To one side, deep blue sea sparkled or dashed itself foaming against dark rocks. To the other, the spine of Snaefellsness' mountains brooded darkly down on the homes and farms far below them.

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Gravestones at Hellnar church by the seaside

The day passed by with similar sights. I think I exasperated Jenny with my frequent stops to dash out and take pictures of a scene that caught my eye. In Malarrif, a huge stack of volcanic rock stood on the shoreline like a stone giant, it's arms outstretched in horror. The coastline became even rockier, and waves hurled themselves against the shore again and again, only to have their efforts end in white spray and foam. The sea was a deep blue, and the basalt columns and rocky coast reminded me of similar ones in Cornwall, Wales and Scotland. Seagulls wheeled overhead or nested in tiny nooks they found on the cliffs.

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The sea shore and volcanic stack near Malarrif, Iceland

At one point, we rocketed past a scenic viewpoint only to nearly slam on the brakes. Unmentioned in either of our guidebooks was one of the best panoramas of the day. A wide, still lake reflected the curve of the snow-capped mountains that encircled it. Above the razor peaks, clear blue sky was similarly reflected on the quiet pool's surface. We'd inhaled hour after hour of incredible views to be stopped breathless by this one. Every angle I took to photograph it seemed inadequate to capture its beauty. Zooming in one the lake meant leaving out part of the sinuous curve of the mountains. Panning wide to capture the whole scene shrunk the lake's surface in the frame. It was like being asked to photograph the most beautiful model in the world, but being allowed to focus on only one feature. What to leave out?

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An amazing lakeside view near Grundarfjordur, Iceland

We capped off the day with a visit to the peninsula's largest town, Stykkisholmur. We'd seen many pretty villages and towns over the course of the day, but Stykkisholmur rightly deserves its praise as the fairest. We crossed the causeway in its tiny harbor to the giant basalt island that guarded it. The views from atop it were immense. Out to sea, islands stretched across the bay to the Westfjord Peninsula. In olden days, many of the islands were inhabited by tiny villages of fisherfolk. Farmers would supplement the sparse grazing land by loading their animals on boats and dropping them off on uninhibited islands to gorge themselves on its vegetation for a week or two. Looking inward, Stykkisholmur reclined up its hillslopes with its brightly colored homes shining in the light of the setting sun.

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The harbor at Stykkisholmur

It had been a wonderful day - my favorite of the trip, so far. Iceland had smiled on us, today. We'd seen one of her fairest regions, and in the warm sunshine the lady had flashed us her most dazzling smile.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 16:56 Archived in Iceland Tagged iceland peninsula snaefellsjokull arnastapi snaefellsness hellnar stykkisholmur beothir Comments (1)

Museum Day in Reykjavik

History, history, and guess what else?

overcast 38 °F

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Golden brooch in the National Museum in Reykjavik

So, to illustrate how the weather has cooperated so far on this trip, consider today. We had several museums we'd planned to visit, along with some other indoor sights. Every day prior to this one has been sunny, but today was cloudy with drizzle off and on. Perfect museum weather! We were able to sleep in a bit today, and didn't get out and about until after 10 am. We did find out that the free breakfast is packed with the "sleep in" crowd.

Anyway, we began with the Reykjavik City Museum. They have taken a Viking era farmstead that was uncovered in downtown Reykjavik and designed a museum around it. The ruins lie in state, with only bare minimal reconstruction by archeologists. You walk around the outer edge of the bowed out rectangle. On the outer walls are exhibits and computer reconstructions of what the area or the farmstead looked like at that time. Towards the center are the actual ruins themselves, with explanations and strategic spotlights that point out what the text is talking about. Sound effects play, so you hear sheep bleating, bird calls, and even the graphic death throes of an auk - a flightless bird the Viking settlers quickly hunted to extinction. It was a high tech, clever exhibit. I wished it was brighter, though. It was so dim down there it bordered on out and out dark. Pictures were impossible - even if they were allowed (I never found out).

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Viking era horns from the National Museum in Reykjavik

The best museum of the day was the next - the National Museum of Iceland. It covers the history of Iceland on two sprawling floors. My favorite parts were from the Viking era of course. In addition to weapons like you'd expect, they had actual graves, tools, carved wooden doors, church vestments for when they converted to Christianity, and much, much, more. The most amazing part was looking at my watch around 2 pm and realizing how much time I'd spent in there already! The upper level contains most of the 1800s to modern era exhibits, and was less interesting to me. There were lots of computer and video screens throughout the exhibits with audio-visual presentations on Viking halls, political infighting in the Viking age, and other interesting topics.

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Viking swords and axes in the National Museum in Reykjavik

After lunch, we stopped in the Domkirkjan, which used to be the city's main church until they outgrew it. The inside was pretty, as our guidebook promised. From there, it was on to the Cultural Center, which has an exhibit on medieval manuscripts. The layout is very cool, with massive enlargements of manuscript pages, illuminated drawings, and other visuals. The second room had the actual book pages themselves, and because of that, no photos were allowed in the exhibit, of course. It focused mainly on the Icelandic sagas, but also dealt with medieval bibles, later reproductions of the sagas and other fictional versions, and so on. Visually, it was a very well done and cool exhibit. I know it wouldn't necessarily be everyone's cup of tea, but I liked it. I am certainly inspired to read the sagas, now (which I had wanted to do before I came here but ran out of time). I bet the online Gutenberg Project has online versions of them I could download for free.

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interior of Domkirkjan church in Reykjavik, Iceland

We did a little souvenir shopping afterwards, but didn't buy much. I'm going to pick up some inexpensive stuff to give as prizes for my students. I thought about getting my Mom an Icelandic wool sweater, but if she found out I spent $200 on one (the going rate) she would NOT be happy. Tomorrow is our last day in Reykjavik, and we plan to visit one more museum, but aren't sure what to do for the rest of the day.

Stay tuned to see...!

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Medieval era bible from the National Museum - not the Cultural Center's manuscript exhibit (where no photos were allowed)

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:42 Archived in Iceland Tagged museum national medieval iceland reykjavik manuscript exhibit settlement Comments (5)

Prowling Around Reykjavik

Day Six in Iceland

overcast 46 °F

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Colorful homes in downtown Reykjavik

I don't understand what force is at work, but it seems that every country I visit springs an unexpected and bizarre holiday during my trip to mess with my plans. Today is - get this - a holiday in honor of the day Jesus washed the apostles feet. So, the bus schedule we were depending upon to get to the Viking museum that has a reconstructed longship and lots of cool exhibits was non-existent. No biggie, really. I saw the Viking longship museum in Denmark, but Jenny was a bit disappointed. Still, I cobbled together a half-day sightseeing tour in the morning to replace it.

We had a good day waking around Reykjavik, checking out cool buildings and seeking out scenic views. We started off checking out the harbor area where we hadn't been, yet. Probably the most interesting building was a brand new concert hall and convention center right on the waterfront. It is constructed of tinted glass panes and its five stories are full of interesting views of the city and the building itself. A number of other travelers were doing the same, prowling around in search of cool angles and photos.

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The modern concert hall and convention center in the harbor of Reykjavik, Iceland

From there, we climbed a short hill to a statue of the first Viking settler in Icekand, Ingolfsur Arnarson. The hill marks the spot where supposedly the wooden hall pillars he'd tossed overboard on his longship washed ashore. While we wer in a sculpture mood, we walked along the waterfront to the Sun Voyager. This metallic, stylized Viking longship is sited in a gorgeous spot with view of the bay, colorful buildings along the shore, and snow-capped mountains looming over them. It has become a "take your picture in front of it" kind of place. I resisted the temptation, but Jenny - in a tradition begun millennia ago by Eve, succumbed to temptation.

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The Sun Voyager sculpture on Reykjavik's waterfront, meant to bring to mind a Viking longship

We also did some souvenir shopping, though neither of us made a bit purchase. My splurge was $10 for an ice blue pair of sunglasses. Not only will, it remind me of the glacier ice, it will make me match my car....ha, ha! The rest of the day was spent wandering around Reykjavik looking for iconic photos. It was a low key day, for sure. After 5 days of go-go-go, though, it is nice to have these once in awhile.

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This one is for my friend, Keith. LOOK, Keith! Trees....in Iceland (He insisted before we went that Iceland had none)

Tomorrow we head to the Blue Lagoon to soak for a couple hours before our flights home. They have a really cool package that takes you there, gives you a place to store your luggage, then shuttles you to the airport. Should be a nice, soothing time before being cramped in an aircraft seat for hours.

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Icelanders love their colorful graffiti!

Posted by world_wide_mike 10:52 Archived in Iceland Tagged sun concert center harbor voyager hall iceland convention reykjavik Comments (0)

Soaking in the Lagoon

Last Day in Iceland

sunny 48 °F

Our final day in Iceland was probably more like a "typical" American's spring break than any of the others. We were taking advantage of a service where the FlyBus will drop you off at the famous Blue Lagoon and store your luggage. After a few hours soaking, they will then shuttle you to the airport for your flight.

The Blue Lagoon is a man made pool of sorts, made to resemble a rocky bay. The milky bluish water comes from one of their geothermal plants nearby. Much of Iceland's heat and electricity comes naturally, from setting on a volcanic rift that is the cause of its frequent volcanoes and geysers. So, even though the water comes from a power plant, it IS natural, in a sense. There is also a silica that is produced that Icelanders insist is healthy to rub on your skin. When it dries, it looks like you've been the unfortunate victim of a pigeon dropping his load on you!

So, when you enter the very modern facility, you are briefed on the procedure. They give you a plastic bracelet with a magnetic chip in it. It is a combination ID bracelet and credit card for purchases. It allows you to use on of the lockers which are included in the admission. Men and women have different locker areas. I don't say of course because Scandinavians are known for their liberal views on those types of things! Scandinavians also tend to be particular about how to stay clean, so visitors to the Blue Lagoon are instructed to shower before they enter the water. I was able to navigate the lockers, showers and such, and was soon ready to go.

The day was sunny and relatively warm, so the brief walk in the open air before getting into the lagoon wasn't that bad. Still, steam rose off the water, which is heated to essentially "hot tub" temperatures. We found a little cove sheltered from the wind and kicked back and relaxed...and people watched. I'd say about one in four were smearing the white silica on their faces or heads. Being the bold adventurer, I chose not to do it. The idea of slathering myself in chemicals that looked like bird droppings didn't appeal. After awhile, we made a circuit of the lagoon, finding the main heating area which put out very, very warm water.

As I said, it was a more typical spring break day than walking on glaciers or hiking along sea coasts in 30-40 degree weather. Soaking in warm water and watching people wading through the water with beers or umbrella drinks in their hand fits more what the rest of my countrymen on spring break were probably doing! It wasn't long before it was time to shower, change and head back outside to catch our shuttle to the airport, though. We'd been able to print all of our boarding passes for our flights home, and the process went very smooth. Reykjavik is an easy airport to fly in and out of, compared to most European gateways.

Our biggest worry of the day, though, was our relatively short connection time in Boston. If we missed our USAirways flight from Boston to DC, we'd be spending the night in Paul Revere's very expensive city. Icelandair did us a huge favor, though. Not only did they move our seats near the door we'd deplane through, the flight attendant moved us and our luggage to the seats right next to the door and made sure we got off first. That, and the short passport control and customs lines made it a snap to make our flight with time to spare. I'm writing this on the 1-hour flight to DC. Assuming no problems ahead, we should make an easy connection home to Columbus.

Iceland was a gorgeous destination. I saw amazing sights, and had great experiences. It IS an expensive place to visit, though. I would encourage anyone not traveling alone to rent a car, though - rather than take the expensive excursions. You have to really be aggressive in seeking out bargain eats, though. Be prepared to research and walk around Reykjavik and check out the menus in the windows. It says something about their cuisine that our best meal was in a Pakistani restaurant! When your traditional dish is rotted shark meat, well, unless you are a seafood aficionado, prepare to be underwhelmed by the food. The people were friendly and polite on the whole, though. In an entire week, we only had one problem with not being able to communicate. So, if you've been considering Iceland, I highly recommend it! It is not as cold as you think, and much more beautiful than you imagined!

Posted by world_wide_mike 12:00 Archived in Iceland Tagged blue lagoon iceland icelandair keflavik Comments (0)

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