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Trip 12 -- Iceland

Message 1: A saga of wind on Snćfellsnes

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Wed, 13 May 2009 06:18:26
Subject: Iceland update #1: A saga of wind on Snćfellsnes

Iceland had been on my mind for several years, but its high prices and narrow touring season had always been a deterrent. With the collapse of the country's economy last year and my finding a couple of free weeks in the May shoulder season - with long daylight hours, fewer tourists, and lower prices than the summer - I decided to strike. Iceland is still by no means cheap, but the new exchange rate has halved prices from last year - at least those not denominated in euros - and so prices are now more in line with those in mainland Europe. May is an exciting time to visit: Some tourist facilities are just opening for the season, and I'm learning that it's a crapshoot whether a hotel, meal, or road will be available.

My plan is to drive around the country for 11 days and then spend a couple of days in the capital. There's a well-traveled "ring road" that circles the country; I'm vaguely sticking to that, going clockwise, but also making a few detours. Also, for the first time in 14 years, I'm bringing a camera on a trip (thanks to my brother). I'll upload pictures when I get home.

Icelandair brought me down to Reykjavík in the middle of a rainstorm. The car-rental company, Gildo, doesn't have an office - perhaps that's why their rates were much lower (about €37 per day) than others'. Two people met me in the arrivals hall and showed me to the car. "Yesterday there was very nice weather," one of the agents said.

They were out of the basic economy cars, which is what I'd booked, so they upgraded me to a sporty silver Alfa Romeo with snazzy zebra-striped fuzzy seats. I'd wanted to take a few minutes to get to know the car, but the agent said we had to go, as she had a timed ticket for exit from the parking lot. "Follow me out and then I'll show you the road to Reykjavík," she said. I followed her out of the lot and turned onto the road, and a few minutes later I was right back where we'd started.

This was not a good beginning. I had visions of spending 10 days in Iceland and never leaving the airport.

"I thought you pointed the other way!" I said as I drove past her, this time in the correct direction.

Keflavík International Airport is on a peninsula about 50 kilometers from the capital. I hadn't planned to go through the capital, but there is really no way to avoid it if you're heading north. I put on the radio and out came Bob Marley interspersed with conversation in Icelandic. For the first half hour I saw nothing but rocks of lava on stubbly hills with blankets of green moss and grass. No towns, no shopping malls, very few gas stations. This was the main road from the airport? Iceland's most-traveled highway?

I skirted around the capital and took Route 1 north toward my first stop, the little town of Arnarstapi on Snćfellsnes ("snow-mountain peninsula"), where I would spend the night. The road goes through a 5,770-meter-long tunnel that's only 11 years old, shaving 65 km off the old road, which forced drivers around a fjord. I didn't see any other cars as I approached the tunnel, and it was a bit eerie to dive in alone, though it was nice to get out of the rain. On the other side, I paid the 800-króna toll (about $6).

Less than half an hour later I crossed into Borgarnes. This is where most of Iceland's history began, and this is where I first got to know Iceland's powerful winds. They are sometimes so strong that the bridge into town is closed. I parked in front of the Settlement Centre, a two-exhibit museum, which had not yet opened for the day. I tried to have a walk around the town and perhaps find a bakery or a place for breakfast - even just a place to take a break from driving and get out of the rain - but there was none. This is because there are no tourists in May and the town has only 1,800 people. There was, oddly, a Filipino restaurant, but it was open only in the evening.

Let's talk a little more about the wind, for which I have a lot more respect after two days in Iceland. There are electronic road signs on the highway that tell you the wind speed. I routinely have seen numbers in the 20s, and around Borgarnes it was 34, which I assumed to be kilometers per hour (admittedly, that didn't seem like much) until someone told me it was meters per second. That means the 34 signified almost 100 kilometers (about 60 miles) an hour of sustained winds. My Bradt guide specifically cautions drivers not to open car doors into the path of the wind, lest the wind rip the doors right off their hinges. It also warns against "falling rocks and large rocks that have already fallen," describes the mishaps that can occur when a paved section of road meets an unpaved section, and notes that gas stations are very sparse in remote areas. The guide taught me a few Icelandic road signs - such as "blind hill," "pavement ends," and "one-lane bridge," but I've already had a couple of occasions where I've passed a sign with long, unfamiliar Icelandic words and many exclamation points and I've just hoped for the best.

I couldn't walk for long in Borgarnes. The winds were fierce, and the rain stung my face. Anyway, there wasn't much to see. I went back to the car and sat in it, feeling it shake in the wind, until the Settlement Centre opened at 11:00. The museum had two audio tours, both expensive and excellent. (The $13 ticket may have been costly, but that would have been $26 last year!) A woman and a man ran the place, helped by two boys, one of whom had a T-shirt on that said "New York Fucking City." I asked if he had been there. He hadn't.

"Terrible weather," commented the woman.

"Is it always this bad?" I asked.

"Today we are lucky," the man said. "It should be snowing."

The first exhibit was a general introduction to the Vikings' settlement of Iceland, which began just outside of Borgarnes in around 900 in a place called Borg, where Skallagrímur Kveldúlfsson built the first farm - his father had accompanied him from Norway but died on the journey, and he had told Skallagrímur to throw his coffin into the sea and settle at whatever place it landed ashore.

The Vikings were mostly simple farmers and tradesmen from Norway, where they had encountered political turmoil and overpopulation and hence sought to find other lands. The Vikings are known largely for their brutality, but they were mainly interested in stomping out any threat to their heathenistic beliefs; it was only after their death crusades became routine that they realized there was good money to be made from looting their victims. Their famous ship, the knorr, was a fast, lightweight vessel with a strong keel.

Once their were enough settlers to require laws, a parliament called the Alţing was created. (Language lesson: Ţ/ţ, called "thorn," is pronounced like the "th" in "thick," and Đ/đ, called "eth," is pronounced like the "th" in "this.") The Alţing's laws were recited from time to time for a couple of centuries, until they started writing them down.

The Settlement Centre's other exhibit focused on the life of Skallagrímur's son Egil, the notorious poet-warrior with a penchant for courage and violence and an ability to "go berserk" if he needed some extra power. He alienated many with his violence, but he was often able to temper it with poetry. His great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson Snorri Sturluson composed many of the famous sagas, including Egil's, that tell the Viking tales.

On the way out of town, I stopped at the tourist office, explained that I was headed to Snćfellsness, and asked where I should go for lunch.

"The café at the Settlement Centre is very good," the lady explained.

"I know, but I was just there. Is there anything on Snćfellsnes?"

"You could go to Stykkishólmur."

That was on the north side of the peninsula, and I'd be driving the road along the south side.

"Is there anything between here and Arnarstapi?" I asked.

"No, really, there's nothing."

So I went on my way. I stopped at Borg, the old farmstead where Iceland's history began, but the rain and wind were stronger than before, so I skipped the little walking trail and gaped at the place from the car. I passed through some lava fields and then the road hugged the bay. It poured the whole hour and a half to Arnarstapi.

I was tired, ready for a meal, and eager to settle down somewhere for the night. I'd booked sleeping-bag space (you can substantially save on costs by bringing a sleeping bag and plunking it down on a mattress) at Snjófell, a little red turf-thatched hut. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. A handwritten note read: "Please call 435-6783 for accomodations."

A few things dawned on me at this point. First and most obvious, I didn't have a phone. Second, I didn't know where there might be a phone. I didn't see anyone else around. Come to think of it, I hadn't seen any people or moving cars since I'd gotten off the main road, 17 km earlier.

But I knew where there was another hotel, in Hellnar, about 3 km onward. The receptionist phoned and I was told the person in charge had gone to Ólafsvík and wouldn't be back for another two hours.

The delay proved to be very fortunate. The Hotel Hellnar's restaurant hadn't yet opened for the season (it was only the hotel's second day, and the chef wasn't coming until the next day), but down the hill from the hotel was Fjöruhúsiđ, a charming little café. I ordered the fish soup and only then realized that my Bradt guide called this "the most famous bowl of soup in Iceland."

I really can't think of a better way to spend an hour than warming myself up with cod-and-salmon soup, topped with a scoop of fresh cream and served with a basket of fairly sweet, doughy bread, followed by a mug of hot chocolate, and then going down to the bay just below the café. Here was an arch-shaped rock that was the home to a huge colony of Arctic terns. Through the arch, the water gushed from the bay ferociously in the wind. I stood there and listened to the squawking of the terns and the roar of the water, smelled the salty air, and realized that this was the Iceland I had come to see.

I drove back to Snjöfell and there was still no sign of anyone, so I explored the scenic path that winds its way to Hellnar through a lava field. The path begins at the rock monument to Bárđar Snćfellsás, who, the saga goes, threw one nephew into a gorge and the other over a cliff after they played a joke on his daughter.

By the time I got back, the guy was there, and I checked into my room. It surprised me that all the activity - and the only local eatery - was in Hellnar, which, according to a tourist brochure, had just three year-round inhabitants. Arnarstapi, by comparison, was a bustling metropolis with 10, and there was nothing to eat here. I thought about backtracking to Búđir, 15 km east, for dinner; I could even hike out to a crater near there. I crawled into my sleeping bag and pondered those options, and I woke up 12 hours later.

The scenic attractions at the west end of the Snćfellsnes Peninsula include many hikes of various lengths along the shoreline, all against the backdrop of Mt. Snćfellsjökull, a volcano that may still be alive. I never got to see the top of the mountain because it was always shrouded in clouds, but that added to the mystery of the place. It's possible to climb the mountain, but it's very challenging and time-consuming - not something I was about to do on my own. Rather, I followed the road around the coast.

The rain had stopped, although it was still overcast and very windy. My first stop was Sönghellir, the "singing cave" where Bárđar (the pleasant chap who tossed his nephews to their deaths) set up housekeeping - even had council sessions - while he was building his farm at Laugarbrekka, close to Hellnar. He reportedly heard the singing of dwarfs inside the cave, which is oblong and only around 20 feet across at its widest point. It's reached through a very small opening. Inside, there are inscriptions dating back to 1704, when the cave began to be used as a resting place for travelers.

At Laugarbrekka, I learned a thing or two about the remarkable woman Guđríđur Ţorbjarnardóttir, who was born at Laugarbrekka but traveled extensively, settling in what is now northeast Canada around the year 1000 and becoming the first white woman to give birth in America. She then went back to Iceland via Greenland, and late in life she even made a trip to Rome.

My next stop was Djúpalón, named for the "deep pools" formed by the erosion of lava. This used to be a fishing station, and the qualifications for being an oarsman required one to be able to lift at least the two smallest of four stones sited at the beach. The stones are still there; I could barely lift the qualifying 54-kg stone, though I have no aspirations to a life at sea. The largest stone is 145 kg. Along with the stones, there are also the iron ruins of a British trawler that capsized here in 1948.

I took the trail for a kilometer to Dritvík, or "dung bay," named - I am not making this up - after Barđar's excreta, which washed ashore here after he pooped over the side of his ship. ("Vík" means "bay," and the word also gives us the name Viking.) Dritvík was also a fishing station for around 300 years starting in the mid-1500s; presumably Barđar's waste had gone away by then. The trail took me through another lava field, and this was the worst wind I'd encountered so far. It made me lose my footing a few times. At least it wasn't raining. And at least the wind was blowing inland, away from the cliffs along which I was walking!

Next on was Saxhóll, a stand-alone crater. It's a perfect cone of ash that erupted about 3,000 years ago. I pulled into the parking lot and the clouds broke, if only for a few seconds. "Sunshine!" I shouted into the wind. "Sun-shine!"

Saxhóll takes only a few minutes to climb, but I got two-thirds of the way up and became terrified of the wind. "Damn it!" I shouted. (Sometimes when I travel alone and don't talk to people for a while, I guess I start shouting at nature.) The wind was really howling up here, and here I was spiraling my way up the edge of a steep volcano! I sat down and held onto an iron handhold, and while I was pondering whether to continue, I saw another car pull into the Saxhóll lot. Two other travelers - more sure-footed than I - passed me on the way up, and then they passed me on the way down. "There's no wind up there," one said.

It turned out I was only about 30 steps from the top, and sure enough, the view into the crater was protected from the wind by the volcano's own walls. But the way down was tough. I was never so happy to be back on solid ground.

I turned off the road again to see the sandy beach at Skarđsvík and catch a glimpse of the yellow lighthouse at Öndverđarnes, but I couldn't linger, as it was around 1:00 and I was supposed to be in Stykkishólmur by 2:30 to catch a ferry at 3:00. I drove through the town of Ólafsvík, still a fishing station, where I abruptly learned the Icelandic word for "speed bump." I arrived in Stykkishólmur just after 2:30, giving me just enough time to grab some treats at a bakery before boarding the ferry across Breiđafjördur, the "broad fjord" that separates Snćfellsnes from the West Fjords to the north. Taking the ferry was fun and cut the travel time to the West Fjords by hours. I saw numerous herring gulls - fast white birds with black-tipped gray wings - that swooped down into the water to fish. The boat wound its way through thousands of little islands and made a stop at Flatey, a tiny island where I might have spent the night if I'd had more time. As we pulled into its northern terminal at Brjánslćkur, at around 5:45, I saw a family of eiders.

I'd booked for two nights at Breiđavík, a sheep farm most of the way out to the magnificent cliffs at Látrabjarg. It was very early in the season and I wasn't sure its restaurant would be open yet, so I wanted to stock up on groceries. There was nothing at Brjánslćkur, which was really a collection of just 30 buildings or so. I took a small detour to the only real city in the area, Patreksfjörđur (pop. 770, says the Lonely Planet guide), where I bought a couple kinds of herring, cheese, mortadella, and bread and some of Iceland's famous thick yogurt.

The dirt road to Breiđavík was about 36 km (the cliffs, and the end of Route 612, are another 12 km onward). The road had all the hair-raising features I expected - high winds, steep drop-offs, potholes, and one-lane bridges - plus at least one I hadn't counted on: blowing sand. Midway through the journey a group of travelers flagged me down. Their car was stopped facing the opposite direction and someone was trying to fix a tire, but the jack wasn't strong enough. They asked if I had a stronger one, but I didn't have one at all (frankly, I was thankful Gildo had even given me a spare tire).

Other than them, I saw no people or moving cars during the entire 36-km trip along Route 612. I made it to Breiđavík without incident, and I was greeted by one of the farm's many dogs (the sheep were already inside for the night). Inside, I met a German couple who informed me that I was Breiđavík's third guest of the year (they were the first two). They had taken the same ferry I had, and the manager at Breiđavík had been able to cobble together a dinner of some sort. She said that she could probably do the same for me, but it was good that I had my own food.

"You came here in a normal car?" the German man asked. He had a four-by-four, which is technically mandatory only on F-lettered roads (Route 612 wasn't one of them) but I suppose would have been nice over all the potholes.

"The weather is supposed to get better," he said. "Sunshine, and reduced wind." His wife smiled in anticipation.

"When?" I asked.

"Well, today," he said. It was almost 9:00 at night. And the three of us had a good laugh.

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