Of ice and fire (part 1)

Let’s leave the welcoming shores of Lake Maggiore to fly towards the more Northern latitudes on a voyage of discovery to Iceland. For fear of saying too much, and not leaving enough content for future posts, I’ve been debating how to approach this article for a while. I finally decided that to serve as an introduction to the country, this fourth article in TravellingMogwai.com would describe what a week’s exploration in the west and the south has to offer.

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It was during the summer heat wave of 2011, and I was sweating, sprawled out on the bed of my Montreal apartment. It was on this night, only slightly less suffocating than the previous ones, that I decided to make my first voyage to Iceland. At the time, I was to be a prisoner of a pleasant but time-consuming job until fall and was dreaming of taking a first trip to the Northern countries. The announcement of newly added dates to Björk’s Biophilia tour in Reykjavik was the perfect reason to choose a departure date for this long-awaited adventure. I ended up staying awake the whole night buying tickets to be one of the 500 or so, spectators admitted into the, what was at the time brand-new, Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik. The next morning, thoroughly exhausted but euphoric, I had the tickets in hand and soon after booked a flight that would leave from Toronto at the end of October.

Almost obscured by the gigantic white shadow that is Greenland and suspended from the Arctic circle by the frail Isle of Grímsey, Iceland’s volcanic mass extends well past the Faroe Islands and also past what I once considered to be the Northern limits. For the longest time, I considered it an unthinkable destination, essentially unknown to me until my first glimpse of its glaciers as it passed under the wing of my plane on my flight to Canada. A few months later, it was commanding all the attention of my young traveller’s mind as I planned my next dream destination. Right then and there I decided that I would one day set foot on the island, and, exactly four years later, I can say that I have done so three times.

Surging out of the tumultuous waters of the North Atlantic hardly fifteen million years ago, Iceland acts like a teenager on the global scale and is known for all the passion and boundlessness that adolescence brings with it. There are heavy waterfalls shooting down volcanic slopes around every corner, smoke escapes from a friable soil that is in constant motion, it is tormented by the deep gashes of fjords and beaten up by volcanoes, barely camouflaging its gaping wounds with the apparent imperturbability of the glaciers. Underground, on the other hand, the activity never weakens and comes to the surface once in a while with eruptions that thankfully, at least for the time being, don’t compare with the cataclysms of the last few millennia. Driving only a few kilometers, we pass out of green valleys into sinister lava fields that, under a leaden sky seem to have completely eradicated the concept of color; Iceland is a spectacle that never offers the same show twice. A country of multiple personalities, my accumulated memories of the last three trips evoke vague sounds of heavy wind blowing, the piercing cries of the seabirds, the whiff of sulfur and the soft caress of the northern sun. It is a country of multiple climates and extremes. A country of fire and ice.

Islande - Krýsuvík
The geothermal area of Krýsuvík – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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The Keflavík international airport has the look of an island, lost as it is among the lava fields that surround it. The weather being rarely fair here, and as the airplane dives through the thick cloud cover that usually shrouds the country, the moonscape of the Reykjanes peninsula is often the first thing that Iceland has to offer travellers on their arrival. When leaving the modern terminal, the cold gusting wind nails us to the spot with its icy welcome. The town of Keflavík isn’t worth spending much time on, and its proximity to the airport and few decent hotels are the only draw. At the opposite end of the highway that leads to the capital city, very nearby, the first place that we will visit is the lighthouse at the Garðskagi point, on the northern end of the peninsula. Although battered by the winds, the place is relaxing and offers a remarkable view of the western coast of Iceland as well as free camping at the base of the lighthouse – if the furious winds allow you to put your tent up. On the other hand, the facilities are more than basic. From the point, the road leads south along the western coast of the Reykjanes peninsula. Shortly after the suburb of Hafnir, a parking lot on the left denotes access to the Bruín milli heimsàlfa, where a fault crosses the countryside, the bottom of which is covered with black sand. Joined by a bridge that is supposed to mark the point of original rupture (or “Miðlína”) between the European and North American faults, it is more a tourist trap than a scientific fact but does offer some nice views of the area. A little further along the road 425, a bifurcation allows us to leave the paved road and, a few potholes later, to visit the impressive cliffs of the Reykjanestà and the Gunnuhver geothermic zone where abundant smoke rises from a rusty, yellowed, crumbly soil. Not far from there, a pond reminiscent of the Blue Lagoon bathes the geothermic factory.

Islande - Gunnuhver
The « Blue Lagoon » of Gunnuhver – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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The Blue Lagoon is north of the village of Grindavík, whose only point of interest is the accommodations, with one well-equipped campground near the small port where one can sometimes see seals breaking the surface of the water. With its large parking lot and flags snapping in the wind, one is easily dismayed by the affluence of the area. But it has to be said, as much as it is a tourist mecca, the Blue Lagoon has been developed, at its best, without excess. Modern buildings dot the waterfront and melt into the landscape. It’s useless to argue about price or to compare the Blue Lagoon with its more modern neighbours that are found all over the island. National tourism is unavoidable, and the exponential rise of affluence makes it impossible for me to call this an “essential destination”. Regardless, it is an agreeable pit stop, notably for visitors who don’t have the time or chance to visit any of the numerous other hot springs in the country, or who will profit from its relative proximity to the airport to take a quick dip in the hours preceding the return flight.

The road 427 heading east from Grindavík is one of my favorites on the island, with a section that offers a great preview of the country’s north-easterly highlands. Leaving the main road, and turning to the right up a rough path that is easy to miss, allows us to bring our vehicle, not without a struggle, closer to the semi-circular cliff tops of Krýsuvíkurbjarg. Here we spot seals, razorbills, guillemots, fulmars, kittiwakes and even a few rare puffins. Going back up to where the path meets the main road, we find ourselves in direct proximity to the geothermic site of Krýsuvík on the mountainside and of which the fumaroles can be seen for many kilometers. Just before Seltún, Lake Grænavatn, whose colors become the deepest of blues, is worth a peek. A little bit further, in the shadow of a mountain chain, we find the Krýsuvík parking lot, from where several boardwalks lead us over bubbling, sulphurous puddles. From time to time, we can see footprints off the path that give the wrong example; here, the earth underfoot can give out at any moment, and a reckless visitor could be suddenly plunged into mud whose temperature is well over 100°C. A marked path rises to the heights of the site, all the way to the spot where abundant smoke escapes from the mountain and offering a magnificent panoramic view of the ocean to the right, glaciers in front (on a clear day) and Lake Kleifarvatn to the left.

Iceland - Road 42
Towards Krýsuvík – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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It’s in the direction of Kleifarvatn, that the road 42 continues its way North towards the capital. Its curves follow the lake’s shoreline through the middle of a veritable moonscape with grey and black rocks, that, when combined with the leaden sky and dark waters, give a stunning impression in black and white, studded only rarely with the green of vegetation that manages to grow up through the rocks. After having navigated a stretch of non-paved road and crossing over a hill, the surroundings finally take on some color thanks to the ocean that is revealed in front of us, and a roadside that is sprinkled with violet lupines. Reykjavík is soon in sight.

Iceland - Kleifarvatn
The shores of Lake Kleifarvatn – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Islande - ReykjavíkThe Icelandic capital always gave me an instant feeling of ephemera. Always tacked on to the end of longer trips, my time in Reykjavik is usually spent trying to recover my strength for a return home, and to manage a few impromptu visits to the unavoidable bars, a newly discovered restaurant, or a few of the city’s museums. This summer, almost four years after my first trip, I rediscovered the Harpa, where, after having been to Björk’s concert, the Northern Lights greeted me at the port, pierced by the Peace Tower that rises vertically from the Island of Viðey, in the bay. A first for me, followed by a few more auroras sightings in the very same Icelandic capital, and, a few weeks later, over the saw-toothed mountains of the Lofoten archipelago in Northern Norway. More than just a few frozen tears in the corner of my eyes, this natural phenomenon, beyond the exaggerations that I could easily use to describe it to impress my readers, carries you away to a place that puts everything, once and for all, in perspective.

Reykjavík offers numerous points of interest, and is generally a very lively city, and inclined to celebrate. Icelandic connoisseurs regularly argue about their favorite « place to be« , going on and on about the quality of one place or another. But, given the price of a meal in the best neighborhood restaurants, it’s wise to know where one is going. You can have your choice of the intimate and cozy atmosphere of the Grillmarkaðurinn, the best of new Nordic cuisine at Dill, the homemade soups at Svarta Kaffið, the vegan cuisine of Gló or, taking a safe bet, settling at Tapas Bar or Sushi Samba. Others who think like me will prefer the relative comfort of Sægreifinn, which feels like a cabin squished between two terraces and offers brochettes of fish, shellfish or whale, as well as a fantastic lobster soup. In the morning, the hipster vibe and gargantuan breakfasts at the Laundromat Café are de rigueur. The Downtown offers an impressive choice for all budgets, cuisines, and styles, especially for a city of its size and even those on a tight travel budget will have lots to choose from. There is a similar amount of research that needs to be done to find accommodations, with the notable difference that the effects of a burgeoning tourism industry are filling establishments well in advance. From camping to the most luxurious hotels, not forgetting the guesthouses with cozy atmospheres, Reykjavík is often the ideal occasion, in the beginning or at the end of a trip, to offer yourself a more comfortable rest than the rustic conditions of the Icelandic nature. But, as lovely as the Icelandic capital is, the call of the wild is soon heard and deeply felt.

Islande - Reykjavík
Reykjavík, the bay and Mount Esja – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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It’s a two-hour drive North to reach the Snæfellsnes peninsula, after spending a thousand kroner to use the tunnel in the direction of Akranes, so as to avoid an interminable detour through the bottom of the fjord. At Borgarnes, the road 1 veers to the right to enter deeper into the land in the direction of the Northern capital, Akureyri. On the other hand, the road 54 continues to follow the coastline for a good distance. At the foot of the gentle slopes of Mount Esja and the Western Icelandic mountains, the trip is made through long green country sides and soon enough the first point of interest appears at the end of a little path on the right, shortly after passing the intersection with the road 55. The impressive basalt cliff of Gerðuberg cuts into the relative curviness of the surrounding landscape and offers wonderful views of the conical Eldborg crater, situated in the bay.

The peninsula’s Southern coastline is stunning and the stops to make before turning North are endless in number. At the foot of the 600 meters þorgeirsfell, the Ytri-Tunga beach occupies an idyllic spot where seals hang out, always at a good distance from the tourists and the sandy beach that is covered with tide-tumbled rocks. To the West, the peninsula continues towards the ocean. The road snakes between small lakes to end up at Búðir, the black church that is located at the beginning of a lava field that descends to the ocean. If this version of the church is only thirty years old, it is the fourth in a series of churches to be built on this site and the most recent version contains, in its colorful interior, unique artifacts such as an altarpiece from the 18th century and a bell from the 17th.

Islande - Ytri-Tunga
Ytri-Tunga beach – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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The road then brings us to the point of the peninsula with a backdrop of the immense silhouette of the conical volcano of Snæfellsjökull. This conical summit is 1466 meters high and visible from Reykjavík on a clear day. It is one of Iceland’s symbols and was chosen by Jules Verne as his entry towards the center of the Earth. On the side of the road, a steep vertical cliff breaks up its regular slopes, itself scarred by a deep fault by the name of Rauðfeldsgjá. Accessible on foot, we discover a narrow passage between its walls that allow us to visit the interior in only a few meters. The slopes of Snæfellsjökull, seen from the sky, are stained by lava flows (the “hraun”) that sometimes run into the ocean and in the midst of which road 574 manages to join the various points of interest along the coastline. The jagged shore is prone to marvels of nature and, in the shadow of Mount Stapafell, Arnarstapi to the East is a remarkable example. Long ago a fishing village, much more important than the remaining houses, the site is sought after for its cliffs and the basalt arch of Gatklettur at whose summit the views of the bay of Faxaflói are jaw-dropping. A little farther, the sites of Hellnar and the two volcanic columns of Lóndrangar offer other interesting pit stops, such as Djúpalónssandur beach. At the end of the road that snakes between strangely shaped rock formations, there is a point of interest in the form of innumerable shapeless pieces of rusted metal that emerge from the sand and the jet-black stones. On the 13th of March, 1948, the trawler named Epine (GY7) was a victim of one of the terrible storms that regularly hits the peninsula. The nearby villagers who lived there at the time rescued only 5 of the 19 crewmembers from the ocean. Today there are no houses and no traces of the fifty-odd fishing boats that once plied the waters of the bay, but only a black beach surrounded by volcanic towers of raw beauty and devilish waves that are to be respected and approached with caution when the ocean is restless.

The Northern end of the peninsula is gentler, less sharp than its Southern and more populated neighbor. The villages that we pass through along road 574 are known collectively as Snæfellsbaer and feel much more isolated due to the lack of life and activity. But, there is one site here that is worth the trip for curious visitors – and what a site! I’m not talking about the Shark Museum in Bjarnarhöfn where one can taste the unattractive Hákarl, but the Mount Kirkjufell, a couple of minutes to the West of the modest village of Grundarfjörður. Though not very impressive in size, it’s the pyramidal shape of it that stuns. Seen from the summit of the Kirkjufellsfoss Falls, only a few steps from the highway, the view from the mountain is surreal and incredibly poetic at dusk.

…to be continued in Part 2



Islande - Kirkjufellsfoss
Mount Kirkjufell – Grégoire Sieuw ©

Translated from French by Monique Damus.