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Published: October 8th 2018
It was the May, 2018, VirtualTourist Euromeet which brought us back to Iceland thirty-five years after our first visit to this spectacular country in the North Atlantic Ocean. Unlike our first visit when we spent only a night or two thanks to Icelandair’s free stop over option, our time this visit lasted almost a week long though it was mostly confined to south Iceland. We had already been in country 4 days and with the official Euromeet activities over, some attendees like ourselves who were staying in country a bit longer decided to book a day trip to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula
with Tröll Expeditions.
Starting with an 8 am pickup, our much too compact minibus departed the cloudy environs of Reykjavik for a northwesterly route where as the skies became brighter, so did our mood. This turnabout in weather was a welcomed change from the previous two days of enduring lashing rain to light rain and overcast skies while doing the Golden Circle and South Coast tours.
Today our journey took us through the relatively new Hvalfjörður Tunnel
spanning the scenic Hvalfjörður, or Whale Fjord, which saved us an hour of driving on our way to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.
Our first sight of so many that were to come on that day was that of the gray basalt column cliffs at Gerðuberg
. From a distance the cliffs appear to be just a low wall, but on closer inspection you realize that this rock formation is far more expansive and lofty than thought as it stretches along an otherwise barren area. Until seeing many such examples of basalt columns in Iceland, I had thought Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland lay the one and only claim to having them. By the time we left Gerðuberg, we were well into late morning and our driver/guide stopped at the pleasant Rjúkandi Kaffi which offered not only a place to eat an early lunch, but a chance to stretch our legs and take advantage of clean restrooms as good facilities would be few and far between for most of the day.
Like in all areas of Iceland that we visited, prices for food here were high, so it pays to be prepared with cash or a credit card when eating out. My husband and I each had a bagel sandwich plus a bottle of soda or water at Rjúkandi Kaffi and the tab
(without tip – no tipping in Iceland) came to the equivalent of about US$39 (2018 prices) – 3 times what we would pay at home.
The next stop, in my opinion, could have been completely eliminated, however, some in our group found it interesting and it did yield some interesting photos. Driving onto a farmer’s property in Ölkelda
, we saw a pipe with faucet in the yard and learned that hundreds of years ago (circa 1754) a naturally carbonated spring was discovered here. The water is potable and full of minerals such as iron which accounts for the brilliantly colored coppery, red and orange sediment covering the ground and rocks around the spring. Some here, including our driver/guide who grew up in this area and drank this very water as a child, swear by it as good for the health and in general is good for what ails you. Unfortunately, to me it just tasted like dirty carbonated water and I know I could not drink it on a regular basis.
The group was excited to hear that our next stop would be Ytri Tunga
where we hoped to see a colony of seals sunning themselves on the
rocks. Parking in a flat grassy field we made our way down towards the sea. There were indeed seals to be seen at Ytri Tunga beach but at a good distance. To get any photos at all, we found ourselves crossing sandy stretches and rivulets of salt water, then climbing over seaweed-covered rocks to get in moderate range of the seals for photos. I feel at home in seaside environments, but at Ytri Tunga you only needed to look around to see contrasting geography such as volcanic mountains too. The gently sloping grassy plain with Snæfellsjökull, the snowcapped stratavolcano in the distance, versus the glistening sea and rocky shore so close by -- this is the magic of Iceland.
It seems none of the sights on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula are very far from each other so quite soon after Ytri Tunga we were seeing the next set of falls named Bjarnarfoss Falls
near where the main road #54 splits to go either north or south on the ring road. At Bjarnarfoss the waterfall tumbles over a cliff of basalt columns from the close by Mælifell Volcano, then it gradually narrows into a fast flowing, rocky stream with smallish patches
of deep green evergreen trees on either side. A folk tale attached to the waterfall tells of the Fjallkonan or Lady of the Mountain who is considered the female incarnation of Iceland itself and she is often represented in Icelandic poetry.
Moving further west this time we visited a man-made site at Búðir
, where on an elevated, barren point of ground stood the “Black Church," so called because of its dark wood siding, roof, and steeple punctuated only by white doors, and window frames. Though plain, it is quite beautiful especially when set against the panoramic backdrop of snow-capped mountains. Next to the church is a sparsely populated graveyard surrounded by a low but solid rock wall and white entry gate. This whole setting reminded me of scenes from America's old, wild west days -- the lonely-looking church and graveyard atop a barren windy hill. The Black Church and graveyard at Búðir was for me the most memorable sight of the day.
Brilliant sun followed us to Arnarstapi
where our guide dropped us near a small but pretty harbor. Here we would begin a 30 – 40 minute walk following a path along steep cliffs overlooking the amazing
deep blue sea. The geography here ranged from the flat & grassy clifftop to the craggy rocks, to the vertical and most unusual horizontal basalt columns which lay upon a large rock surrounded by crashing waves. At one point there was a stone bridge, “Gatklettur,” or Arch Rock created by a large hole in the rock itself -- a window to the sea. As the wind whipped our faces we lingered to watch the crashing waves and the birds making aerial dives close to rocky ledges.
Just near the end of the walking path, we saw a strange stone structure we thought was a gate of sorts but learned that it was a representational sculpture of “Bárður Snæfellsás”
by renowned sculptor, Ragnar Kjartansson. The legend surrounding Bárður Snæfellsás explains that Bárður Snæfellsás, an early Viking, landed at Dritvík and Djúpalónssandur, and settled with his family on the south coast of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. His half-brother Þorkell also settled in Iceland, at Arnarstapi, with his two sons. Bárður Snæfellsásflies loses all reason after Þorkell’s sons play a prank on his daughters. In the aftermath, Bárður relinquishes all his land and earthly belongings while vanishing into Snæfellsjökull glacier. He wanders this
area dressed in rustic clothing with staff in his hand. He is believed by the locals to be a helpful spirit when they are in need or facing difficulties.
As beautiful as the coast is here, one of the most spectacular scenes to me was the striking dark gray rock and mossy green growth on the conical-shaped stratovolcano, Mt. Stapafell, which rises on the south side of Snæfellsjökull glacier. The volcano is believed by some to be home to the “hidden people” known as the Huldufólk
or elves which you will often hear mentioned in Iceland. Like so many beautiful geographic wonders in Iceland, there is often a folklore legend attached to it in some way and like Bárður Snæfellsás and Mt. Stapafell’s Fellskross rock, a rock which signified holy powers, many of these legends originated in the Viking era. You may also remember that Jules Verne’s 1864 fictional novel, Journey to the Centre of the Earth,
tells the story of a group of scientists who ventured from Arnarstapi into the crater of Snæfellsjökull
glacier to prove the theory that volcanic tubes lead to the Earth’s core. It is clear that Iceland’s dramatic geography inspires all who see it.
A different view by contrast was the prairie-like setting against the backdrop of Mt. Stapafell and a shining lake in the foreground there stood a lovely 18th
-century house known as the Amtmannshúsið. Could someone have planned the setting more perfectly? It did make me wonder how Icelanders live so calmly on this volcanic island. In 2010, Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupted shooting torrents of ash into the sky, disrupting air traffic across the globe for weeks and that is only one of many Icelandic volcanoes which are active at any point in time.
The rock formations known as sea stacks made for some interesting photos at Londrangar & Dritvik, but it was Djúpalónssandur, the black lava beach, which had much more dramatic scenery. To access the beach required carefully treading down a rocky narrow pathway, the Nautastígur, alongside a ravine. On the path we saw another Gatklettur, or hole in the rock formation through which we could see yet another facet of Icelandic beauty --- a large mirror-like pool of water trapped in the deep crevices of the rock formations. However it’s said this pool and others such as this one actually rise and fall with the tide levels.
Once again on the nearly flat, black pebble and sand beach here at Djúpalónssandur, we saw the “Lifting Stones,” 4 smooth, oval shaped rocks with one just bigger than the other. Lifting these stones was used as a test for strength and therefore fitness for a man considering making his livelihood as a fisherman or otherwise at sea; a man must lift at least 3 of these! Here at Djúpalónssandur our Icelandic friend and “Guide to Iceland” author, Regina Hrönn Ragnarsdottir, explained there were native stories attached not only the lifting stone but the geological features here, but there was yet another story to be told here concerning the 1948 wreck of the British trawler, Epine
. Several pieces of the metal remains of the ship littered the beach and were a grim reminder of the lives lost at sea – only 5 of 19 crew members survived. I couldn't help but do a little more research of the story of the Epine
after returning home.
Though collapsed volcanic craters can be scenic especially when filled with water, the Saxhóll crater was not one of these. Though I myself was too tired by this point to climb, my husband
bravely climbed the 300 + steps hoping to see something beautiful, he said it was disappointing. I’m sure if there was a pool of water in Saxhóll’s crater, his opinion would have been much different. More interesting were the small lava tubes left from the air escaping the lava flow when the volcano was active. Tiny homes for the “Hidden People,” or Huldufólk? Hearing the story earlier in the day about Huldufólk allows you to conjure up many ideas of where they may be hiding in this country. It would have been nearly a perfect ending for our day on Snafellsnes Peninsula, but there were two more major sites to see – the riveting profile of Kirkjufell, and the just close by Kirkjufellsfoss waterfalls.
By the time we had arrived, there were so many tourists that one of the guides was attempting to help relieve the overcrowded parking area by directing people to parking spots. The multi-level falls had walking paths and observation points. For talented photographers, the most desired shot would be one which captured some of the falls with Kirkjufell itself in the distance. But as it was late afternoon, the light was mediocre and the crowds
impacted the sight lines.
Finally back on the now hated minibus, we began the long road back to Reykjavik (bouncing all the way, LOL) but our guide made a quick stop once again at Rjúkandi Kaffi for a tea, coffee or bite to eat. It had been a long time since we had eaten, and we were feeling peckish to be sure. The purplish twilight here was fading but as light itself lingers long into the evening at this time of year, it was still light when we arrived back at Hlemmur Square in Reykjavik. It had been a long and rewarding day, though it may have been a bit too long, and a bit too uncomfortable in the hated minibus.
This was by far our best day in Iceland, and we had to forego a scheduled whale watching tour the following day; but, having seen a good portion of the southern part of Iceland, I felt satisfied. However, I now find that the magical sites of northern Iceland are calling me back to this magnificent country.
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