Of Ice and Fire (part 2)

Read part 1

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Islande - Öxarárfoss

It is only a short drive from Reykjavík to the basalt cliffs of Almannagjá. It’s here on the shore of Lake þingvallavatn that we find one of the birthplaces of democracy itself: the Alþing, the first parliament in the world, chose this sacred site to hold its summer solstice gatherings starting in the year 930. The exceptional site consists of a large plain formed by the crumbling away of soil that had become unstable due the fissure that cuts across Iceland and separates the North American and European tectonic plates. Far from being the tortured landscape with brutally sharp elevations we imagine, þingvellir has dressed its open wounds with green moss and crystal-clear waters, and, with the passing centuries, has softened the cutting edge of its volcanic rocks. The visit is therefore as interesting for its historical value as it is captivating for the variety of different landscapes that you cross through. In the heart of the park we find the Lögberg (or Rock of the law) around which, in a long distant past, members of parliament would assemble. As well, we find the Öxarárfoss, a waterfall which bathes the valley and rushes into the Silfrá fault, where it is possible to plunge into some of the clearest water in the world. Just like at the “bridge between continents” on Reykjanes peninsula, the rift is observable here: a deep scar cuts into the countryside and forms a rocky corridor through the middle of which a path leads from the main parking lot right into the valley.

Only a little further East, another more discreet parking lot allows one to reach the Öxarárfoss waterfall in the middle of a narrow opening between two steep walls. It is reached by a steep path that appears a few times in the series Game of Thrones, and marvelously shows off the tortured landscape North of Westeros. Its proximity to Reykjavík and its easy access, paired with the immense historic interest of the site make þingvellir one of the most visited sites in Iceland. The park is part of what the local guides have nicknamed the Golden Circle, a one day loop whose harmony is ideal for attracting many visitors from Reykjavík towards Þingvellir first of all, then towards the Strokkur geyser and the Gullfoss waterfall.

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The Allmannagjá fault – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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In the middle of these three tourist draws, one single site manages to resist the masses of tourists that descend on the Golden Circle in ever increasing numbers each summer, and this, despite its privileged position between Þingvellir and Geysir. The Brúarfoss waterfall is, however, easily accessible, the only difficulty getting there being the complete lack of signage. Brúarfoss is one of those locations that tourism has strangely missed and whose name we like to keep hush from pure selfishness, one of the secrets we like to keep and the pleasures we intentionally forget to share. It’s located shortly after the intersection of highways 37 and 355 when coming from the West and Laugarvatn, that a path on the left allows you to find the summer cottages that are highly prized by the inhabitants of the capital city. There is something that passes for a parking lot in which to leave your car. Next, you must walk along a rough path between the long grasses, then cross a first wooden bridge that spans one arm of the river and assures you that you are going in the right direction. A few meters later, the sound of water can be heard in the distance. The bridge is finally in sight and offers a stunning view of the waterfall. From in between two face-to-face rock walls, the water falls and then spills, foaming, into a deep crevasse. The blueish color of Brúarfoss distinguishes it clearly from the other of the country’s waterfalls: the cold, oxygen-rich water gives it the look of a Blue Lagoon which would descend furiously from the slopes of the Rauðafell and Högnhöfði mountains.

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The blue water of the Brúarfoss.- Grégoire Sieuw ©

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On route 37, with a little trepidation, we return to the flood of visitors to the Golden Circle, who are filing towards Geysir. The name of the site says it all: the Icelandic term “geysir” comes from the verb gjósa, or, “to spring from”, and today it internationally defines the rare but magnificent geysers. From the moment you arrive, the sheer size of the parking lot sets the tone for the rest of the visit: this won’t be a trek through the wilds of nature. It is, however, a very rare phenomenon to witness and is easily classed among other must-see sites. For the 5 to 10 minutes between eruptions, the waters of the Strokkur swirl and churn, building expectation and mischievously tricking the many travelers who stand around it, camera at the ready. Suddenly, an enormous turquoise bubble forms and spits out a column of water to a height of up to one hundred feet, before crashing back down and taking up its movement once again for the minutes to some. A few feet away, Geysir, the sleeping giant, and namesake of the site, wakes up but rarely. The tourist center was recently renovated and offers one of the most complete souvenir boutiques in the country, a café, a campsite and a hotel.

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The Eruption of Strokkur (Geysir) – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Last stop in this very popular Icelandic region, the Gullfoss falls are named “Golden Falls” because of the rainbows formed by the sunlight that reflects through the myriad of droplets. The strength of the two successive falls in the Hvitá River (11 and 21 meters) is such that it’s pretty common, on a windy day, to become soaked when standing at the viewing location for the falls, despite the fact that it’s located above the canyon. Information panels line the paths that wind through this site and tell the story of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, who, it is said, saved Gullfoss from vanishing by campaigning against a hydraulic factory project. When coming back to Route 1 from the South, the tourist buses frequently make a stop at Kerið, near the village of Selfoss. This crater lake is surrounded by reddish cliffs and recently became the country’s first natural site to require a paid entrance, a revealing sign of the tourist development despite the low fee requested.

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Selfoss is the last village worthy of the name before the famous Route 1 begins to follow the island’s coast. Finished in 1974, the ring road forms an 800-mile loop around the country that joins most of the sites of interest as well as the cities of Akureyri or Egilsstaðir, that will seem like metropolises after having crossed through the deserted sandur and the highlands. The journey towards the famous Eyjafjallajökull, for its part, can be resumed as a succession of straight lines whose monotony is hardly broken by the few concentrated hamlets around much-welcome gas stations for an Icelandic coffee (recommended more for its shot of caffeine than its flavor…). Slowly, the dark slopes of the Eyjafjöll come into view on the horizon, and a number of cascades resulting from the melting of glaciers can be spotted at the foot of the mountain. The largest of these is also the closest: Seljalandsfoss. This spectacular waterfall at the edge of Route 1 shoots out from the top of an incurved cliff, leaving enough space behind the curtain of water to take a tour of it, at the low cost of finishing the visit soaking wet. But that doesn’t matter: with its deafening roar bouncing off the walls of the cavity that it shelters, Seljalandsfoss is a raw beauty. A stone’s throw to the North, a narrow break in the mountain allows you to slip into a rocky corridor and admire the hidden waterfall Gljúfrabúi from a little bit closer. If the wind is going in the right direction, adventuring into the whirlwind of droplets becomes a real ice water shower and hell for photographers.

The Route 1 continues along the sharp cliffs of the Eyjafjallajökull and offers a stunning spectacle in which green finally made its return six years after its eruption covered the region in ashes and dust- not to mention also paralyzing the whole of Europe. Where in the Pyrénées the mountains form at the discretion of summits that get higher and higher until they reach the « 3000 » of the Vignemale or the Mont Perdu, here the extremes are the order of the day: the volcano rears its colossal mass like a wall surging suddenly out of the turbulent waters of the North Atlantic. This tormented landscape favors the grandiose, and the strange and Seljavellir is the perfect example of that. This local curiosity can be reached at the end of Route 242, a discreet path located near the recently built museum dedicated to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull. Although it feels like being at the end of the world, the hamlet doesn’t have anything particular to offer. It’s when leaving the parking lot on foot and following the strange pipes that we end up in a sublime valley at a dead-end where the Seljavallalaug geothermal pool can be found. Fairly basic, it still manages to draw locals as well as tourists who have been spreading the word more and more often over the past couple of years. A small cottage houses the change rooms and allows a visitor to change for a relaxing bath that becomes even more exhilarating when the rough Icelandic weather sets in.

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The Seljavallalaug geothermic pool – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Sheltered behind an enormous rocky spur, the few houses of the village of Skógar are currently almost all dedicated to tourism, tucked into a leafy green frame at the foot of the Skógafoss waterfall. At a height of two hundred feet, it brutally returns the Skógá River to sea level, as it throws itself into the nearby ocean. A path allows one to walk along the waterfall and offers a spectacular mid-way view facing the waterfall. A few feet of this path are used by thousands of visitors, but it is also the starting point of a much longer trip for other travellers: the Laugavegur trek leaves Skógar towards the North and joins up with the Landmannalaugar park in a walk that is 4 to 6 days long and passes through the neck of Fimmvörðuháls and the verdant valley of the Þórsmörk. An adventure that is possible only during a short window of time and subject to the dangers created by sudden changes in weather. The small number of places to spend the night along the way, coupled with the popularity of the trip, means that you must reserve months in advance, or endure a couple of nights of enforced camping.

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The Southern route passes through a field of lupines and this creates a transition between the leafy region surrounding Vík and the jet black of Mýrdalssandur. With other curiosities such as the Sólheimajökull or the well-known remains of the American plane that was lost in the middle of the dark Sólheimasandur, and only reachable by going off the beaten path, the Southern coast is not short on sites to discover. The term “South Coast” is all relative, because the ocean is hardly ever in sight. The only proof of its presence is a bumpy protuberance located in the South: it’s hard to believe that what marks the horizon is none other than the Vestmann archipelago and is actually a few miles wide. Reaching the enormous rocky outcrop of Dyrhólaey, Iceland’s southern tip, is done in the unique way of driving along a road that is wedged between the ocean and a lake with murky waters that was formed by the great tides and unrelenting storms. Arriving at the cliffs is impressive: to the right, the lighthouse dominates a gigantic rocky arch, and to the left, an endless black sand beach leads the eye towards the sharp rocky needles of the Reynisdrangar, that despite their size, seem to be crushed by the mass of the eponymous Reynisfjall cliff. An exceptional site, but also a dangerous one. Many accidents and deaths have occurred over the past few years because of treacherous waves whose irregularity and sudden power can quickly drag an adventurous visitor out to sea.

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Vík spreads its few alleys at the food of a hill where its celebrated church occupies the place of honor and seems to have grown out of the middle of the angelic lupines at the foot of the mountains. The village, although rather small, marks a welcome stop before Route 1 begins to traverse the Mýrdalssandur desert, named for the mile-long glacier that dominates this immense and completely flat area that is made up of ashes and black sand. You can’t shake the feeling of isolation for about an hour and a half on the road, when you finally arrive in the small hamlet of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, nestled at the base of hills which are covered in thick grass in an unbelievable leafy landscape. They are also stuck in between miles of friable moss-covered lava and the desolation of the highlands. On the path that leads to the Laki craters, the deep Fjaðrárgljúfur crater is an essential stop. The road continues to follow the mountains whose peaks support the titanic mass of the Vatnajökull glacier, which is as large as Corsica. Glacial tongues sometimes descend into the valleys, like at the impressive Svínafellsjökull, in the Skaftafell National Park. At the foot of the walls of the Hvannadalshnúkur, the farthest tip of Iceland, the only hamlet for miles around also is home to one of the most surprising churches of the region. A little farther, while the Route 1 finishes going around the foothills of the mountain before their slopes plunge into the ocean, a path marks the beginning of an excursion by tractor towards Ingólfshöfði to meet up with the puffins at the top of the cliffs of this rocky outcrop that dominates miles of flooded sandbanks.

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The torfkirkja of Hof – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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The glacial lake of Jökulsárlón marks the end of my first article dedicated to Iceland. My two visits were filled with rain, wind and clouds that were low enough to prevent me from ever seeing the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier from which come the icebergs that flow into the ocean and file ever so slowly past visitors. Lucky are those who are able to observe the location under the ideal conditions of a sunset or the Northern Lights. From the other side of the bridge and the main parking lot, the black sand beach of Breiðamerkursandur sometimes collects a few stray pieces of those glaciers.

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Stranded icebergs on the Breiðamerkursandur beach – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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Between my first two experiences in Iceland and my third were exactly four years. The most noticeable difference is due to the increase in popularity. It only takes a glance at the statistics to see the impact that tourism has had on the island: an increase of more than 23% last year, it is hovering around the bar of one million visitors, for a total population of 330 000 inhabitants. It’s a trendy destination, so the first consequence is quickly realized once you arrive: off-road, the terrain is often dangerous and not made for maneuvering- there are very few different itineraries for reaching the major tourist sites, which makes the rare access to them difficult at times.

Iceland is still remarkable, any way you look at it. Who would have guessed that an igneous underground would have created such wonderful atmosphere on the surface? Leafy and splashed by the frequent floods over here, deserted and covered in iridescent rocks over there, the island quickly makes the visitor forget that he or she is standing directly on blackened flesh whose scars sometimes give in when faced with pressure from the volcanoes. The country remains known for its eruptions and whose every rumbling brings us back to the traumas of nightly news in 2010. It was however these successive layers of lava, the shock of the waves on the basalt, the incessant wind and the floods that gave birth to the unique forms and colors of a landscape that is never the same view twice, through the seasons and the ever-changing lighting at this Nordic latitude. A country of ice and of fire, a confusion of extremes, from which the traveller does not return home unmoved, as was noted at the end of my travel journal when returning from my first trip to the island: “Iceland, timeless beauty. Glacial island, smoking island. I can hardly believe that this immense, cold, emptiness, rising out of the water, is so eager to offer more surprises around every corner. All the more reason to tell myself that somewhere, one place would have offered me a temporary complete escape from my worries, something that I have been seeking for so long, and the only desire being to go farther, to walk straight towards the ocean maybe, or just to let myself constantly marvel at the purity and the violence of the elements.

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Landmannalaugar/Jökulsárlón/Fjaðrárgljúfur – Grégoire Sieuw ©