Banner
E-mail Print PDF

Lac Moraine Alberta

Iceland - The ageless beauty of Iceland. A glacial Iceland. A steamy Iceland. I am still amazed to discover that this immense, almost empty, cold, materialized-from-the-water country, offers at each step more surprises than expected, more reasons to believe that somewhere, a place will be able to offer me, even temporarily, the total lack of concern I am looking for and the sole desire to go further on, to walk straight ahead toward the sea or only to stand and let myself be in awe of the violent purity of the elements.

By sheer luck  

Iceland is the youngest country in Europe. It sprung up from the water 15 million years ago between both the European and North American continental plates. Everything in the country is extremely pure: its immense glaciers, sometimes pierced by volcanic eruptions that add a few meters to the territory every year.

Fjords and cliffs, walls and ramparts hold back the impetuous waters of the North Atlantic! Hvannadalshnjúkur Mountain emerges with its black rock summit from the largest glacier in Europe a few kilometers from the sea and overlooks 50 kilometers of the totally flat surface covered in volcanic ash. A country of superlatives and of indescribable beauty!

My first trip to the island was due to sheer chance. I literally pounced on the occasion to see Björk, the famous singer, an icon of the islander culture, who was giving a show in Reykjavík. Literally on the spur of the moment, I bought a plane ticket, saw my first aurora borealis from the plane’s window and landed for a 5-week stay on the island that would change my idea of travel.

My second trip allowed me to visit the South and the interior of the country in more depth and to set foot on the Laugavegur, the most renowned trek in the world. This starts from the heart of the country and reaches the South coast, crossing the lunar-like landscapes of the Landmannalaugar and the Borsmörk, or green valley.

Two euphoric trips indeed!

Fabulous myths, impressive and stunning realities

Located 300 km from the coast of Greenland, suspended under the Polar Circle by Grimsey Island, Iceland is, in the imaginations of almost anyone, feared for its extreme weather conditions and volcanic eruptions that are always making the news. The reality is not far from the myth because of its unique landscapes lit by its light that changes through the seasons.

In fact, there is no season bad enough to refuse to go there, as there is no season nice enough to travel there. In Iceland, changes in the weather are often very sudden: equipment and clothing have to be planned accordingly for all types of situations.

Exhilarating West: sublime colors and warm waters

We land at the Keflavík airport, 40 km from Reykjavík, only to discover its well-known fast-food chain Olsen Olsen, whose motto is “Here we don’t count calories and we advise you to do the same.” Keflavík is on the Reykjanes Peninsula, which is a real microcosm of the country. Ideal for a short stay!

From there, the only possible itinerary is the mossy coast road, where all the sites worth seeing are located along.

First stop: Garður Point. From the foot of the lighthouse, we look toward the direction of Mont Esja, which dominates Reykjavík on the contours of the West Coast. From there, the road unwinds through the village of Hafnir and its rocky beach, then towards Bruín milli heimsálfa. “The bridge between the continents,” crossing a canyon whose bottom is covered with black sand. With the ocean and the volcanic island of Eldey in the backdrop serving as a symbolic, but justified, landmark between the American and the European continents, the landscape is superb.

The road continues on a broken-up track until the Reykjanestá cliffs and the geothermic site of Gunnuhver, named after the sorcerer who, according to beliefs, was thrown into the boiling waters that now feed the power plant. The plant doesn’t really spoil the landscape since (to avoid accidents) you have to walk on wooden pontoons through land that has a lunar appearance. The soil here fluctuates between a bright yellow and a blue green, punctuated by innumerable sites where smoke comes from the entrails of the Earth to titillate your nose with a sickly-sweet egg odor.

For more sensations, one has to follow the southern coastline on the exotic route 427 to reach Krýsuvík, hooked on the mountain. Here the ochre color brings about another dimension. It is possible to climb for a few minutes to reach the place where the fumaroles are most impressive and where you can see the whole valley, with Lake Kleifarvatn to the left and the ocean to the right. Straight ahead, under a clear sky, the bright white of the glaciers stands out against the sky.

The most popular site on the peninsula is the Blue Lagoon, located in the middle of a sea of an almost artificial looking green moss. Even considering the great popularity of the site and the fact that it might be overcrowded, to bathe in such a natural environment in the turquoise 40-degrees water of its lagoon is a memorable experience. We even hope for a cold, dark and windy day, thrilled to experiment by relaxing outside during such a day.

The most direct road between the Blue Lagoon and Reykjavík, which is in the middle of the lava fields, is impressive. But to reach the capital crossing, Krýsuvík, and following the banks of the Kleifarvatn Lake, with its crater, is even more rewarding.

Reykjavík : culture, action and nightlife

From the lagoon, after half an hour on the road, we reach the downtown of a city that looks like a Christmas village with small colored wooden houses: Reykjavík. The city always keeps the humble appearance of a village, with a cultural life and nightlife that leaves nothing to envy about other Scandinavian cities. Islanders are known for the love of their country and of its history. It is therefore difficult to imagine a stay in the city without visiting the Iceland museum and other museums of art or the stunning phallus museum…

Reykjavík is nonetheless a city of the “immediate”, whose objective seems to be to offer the best to its visitors. During the day: visits to the harbor, to the old city, the Perlan Museum, the Harpa concert hall for its magnificent architecture, as well as to the roof of the Hallgrimskirkja Church for the view (and its architecture).

At night, it is another world! Hundreds of young people invade the downtown streets. Concerts are held in the bars. There is also a very special Scandinavian tradition that is abided by here: stay in a pub for one beer only and a few songs and then move on to another one, and another one… until you cannot find your way back home or to a house of some local people who are nice enough to offer you a bed… and one or a few last shots of Brennivín, the local fermented potato vodka, which has the reputation of killing any worries you might have.

Although the capital is an excellent pied-à-terre for the first and last day of your stay on the island, the call from the east will soon be irresistible. Route 1, the only comfortable rapid link, circles the country for 1,100 km, going from glaciers to volcanoes in close equilibrium with the fjords or slaloming along the valleys. In a week it is possible to see every interesting site.

The South: unreal water columns, rainbows and lunar landscapes

Another MUST is the popular zone of the Golden Circle, which forms a bow between the þingvellir National Park, the Geysir site, the Gullfoss cascade and the Kerið crater.

The þingvellir national park, a one-hour drive from the capital, is located where the ancient outdoor parliament was once situated, considered to be the first democracy in the world, in the year 1,000. An impressive fault cracks the landscape and erects a rocky wall whose summit offers a splendid panorama of the valley and the largest lake in the country, the þingvallavatn.

On the cliffs formed by the fault runs, the Öxárarfoss, a cascade that is well-liked by photographers for its beauty that is full of life during the summer and iced over in the winter.

The road towards the east sinks into the land to reach Geysir, where we find the first authentified geyser in the world, the Strokkur. It wakes up approximately every 7 minutes: what a sight to see a sudden column of boiling water climbing up to 30 meters in the sky.

A little further away one of the highest cascades in the country, the Gullfoss or Golden Falls, is known for its spectacular rainbows.

A little more to the south, close to the town of Selfoss, the volcanic crater, Kerið, with its almost violet rocks is an interesting stop, as well as the wide cascade of Urriðafoss and the costal city of þorlákshöfn, where you can board the only boat going to the Vestmann Archipelago, which has had recent volcanic history.

It is nice to drive through the plains and mountains in the east of Reykjavík for a few kilometers. But after Selfoss, leaving the main road, the landscape becomes really interesting and almost unreal with the Hekla volcano, the most active one in the country, erecting its walls on the other side of the river. A lookout allows a view of the panorama: mountains showing their black, red, ocre and violet colors, while the valleys are dug deep, hiding all possible vegetation.

Finally, the road reaches the Landmannalaugar site: a lunar landscape viewed along a small trail that cuts through volcanic ash for many kilometers. After a detour to lake Ljótipollúr and fording two streams, the haven and its post-apocalyptic looking campsite will come into view

One of the most celebrated treks: a passage to the “other world”

The Laugavegur trek starts from there to reach the ocean in the south. After four or five days of a very difficult trek, though very impressive, we reach the sanctuary of Lake Alftavatn. After crossing a lava field, the trail winds through stunning landscapes and colors to slowly rise, permitting the view of a valley marked by prints of dozens of glaciers that have now disappeared.

You will be rewarded with a stunning view of the Ocre Mountains, the glaciers and Lake Alftavatn. After a physically challenging descent and fording two icy streams, the trail continues along more reasonable altitudes until the climb at the Fimmvörðuháls pass, the last challenge before the descent towards the ocean on the slopes of the Eyjafjöll volcano.

After trekking many dozens of kilometers, we reach the small village of Skogar, its cascade and few hotels. After our stay of a few days in the “other world,” we almost feel as though we are in a megalopolis in the small village full of tourists.

Memories of disruptions in the world

The surroundings of the Eyjafjallajökull, whose volcano and glacier have unpronounceable names, have been well known since 2010 and are full of must-see sites. Apart from the þorsmörk valley, binded up on its side at the north of the volcano, its slopes welcome the two splendid cascades of Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, as well as an access to one side of the glaciers Mýrdal, the Sólheimajökull.

The road then reaches Vík, a small village known for its lovely church, the rock formation of the Reynisdrangar, the Dýrholaey cliffs where puffins can be seen in the summer, as well as its well-known black sandy beach. In spite of its beauty and popularity, Vík is nonetheless the rainiest place in Iceland.

From Vík, route 1 unwinds along the immense flat, black ash landscape of the Mýrdalssandur to reach the green casket of the Kirkjubæjarklaustur, known as Klaustur by the locals. This village is an interesting starting base for the Lakagigar (or Laki), which has seen the worst eruptions of the millennium, leaving Europe famished and planting the seeds of the revolts that lead to the French Revolution in 1789. A landscape, green today, but pierced by dozens of craters, testifies to the violence of the inferno experienced in the past.

The site is under the shade of one of the largest glaciers in the world: the Vatnajökull, a monster with a length of 200 km by 70 km wide, with one km depth. It covers many volcanoes, such as the Grimsvötn, which comes to life once in a while and pierces chimneys in the ice. The melted ice then runs like true tsunamis called jökuhlaup to reach the villages in the valley. It spreads over 200 km, leaving only a tiny line on route 1 on which to drive between the summits and the ocean. The many wooden bridges on the road are as rapidly rebuilt after each eruption as they are rapidly destroyed and simply sent off to sea as twigs.

The lookouts on the tongues of the glaciers, falling from impressive heights in the valleys, are the main attractions of Skaftafell National Park, as well as the Svartifoss cascade with its basalt columns.

After going around the Hvannadalsnhjúkur, the highest point in Iceland, route 1 leads to the glacier lake of Jökulsarlón, a charming spot. 200 meters under the sea, it is formed from the thawing of the glacier Vatnajökull, receding year after year, leaving huge blocks of ice of pure blue, sliding to the sea and sometimes ending on the nearby black sandy beach.

The East: fjords and highlands

After the many kilometers of stunning natural beauty, a stop in the village of Höfn is welcome before diving into a quite different landscape: the fjords of the East Coast. To reach Egilsstaðir, you have to drive for many hours through a winding road going around fjords and summits reaching perfection at Fáskrúðsdfjörður and its village.

A little further, Egilsstaðir, a real city, the first one in fact since Reykjavík. It is on the border with the north and the limit between fjords and the Highlands.

The North: cascades, whales and seals

Many hours of driving will be necessary to reach the tourism zone of lake Mývatn, passing a few farms that are totally lost with their “end of the world” look, before a road takes you near the nicest cascade in Iceland and the most powerful in Europe: Dettifoss, in the Jökulsá National Park in Fjöllum.

This served as a movie set for the first scene of the recent Ridley Scott film “Prometheus”. The fall sends its muddy waters from a height of 45 meters along a wall 100 meters wide in a narrow gorge. The noise could easily be compared to the noise of a plane engine taking off.

The region has many other jewels, but in a more touristic setting. Apart from the volcanic site of Leirhnjúkur, the Nordic equivalent of the Blue Lagoon, more natural and less expansive but with equal sensations you will find the fumaroles of Námafjall, the Grjótagja hot water grottoes and the lovely narrow and small falls of Goðafoss.

When the Iceland parliament decided that the island should become Christian, icons of the Gods and goddesses “goða” were symbolically thrown in the cascade’s impetuous waters to mark the end of many centuries of paganism.

This is the last cascade before reaching Akureyri on the slopes of the beautiful Eyjafjörður with its year-round snowy tops. The deep waters of the fjord, as well as Húsavík, shelter whales during the summer.

Nightlife here is as active as in Reykjavík, with the same Christmas village look. The surroundings also have many interesting attractions, with the Langadalsfjall mountains and its summits, Blönduos and Hvammstangi, two small towns where it is possible to watch wild seals on the coast.

Torn coast and a slant cone mountain

The Snæfellsnes peninsula shows a torn coast, whose most beautiful part is on the south side, in Arnarstapi, under the famous Snæfellsjökull volcano, picked by Jules Verne for his book "A Journey to the Center of the Earth".

If we had to select only one site to exemplify the out-of-this world beauty of this peninsula and of Iceland, many would choose the Kirkjufell Mountain. With its almost perfect slant cone, bathed in a light that only Nordic countries can offer, circled by the ocean and embellished by a cascade whose swirls don’t disrupt in the least the quietness, but rather add to the charm of the place.

Land of inspiration

Under the rain, in the fog, under a cold sun or under the aurora borealis, nature in Iceland is a true land of inspiration for artists. Björk’s song Joga is a classic and my favorite example of this. Solely representative of the younger generations of artists, others such as Mugison, Agent Fresco, Hildur Guðnadottir, and Sigur Rós, already known on the international scene, all testify to this truth.

It is a land of inspiration, where many would love to come and live close to nature... it is a land of isolation, where the weather can scare a few…

Iceland maintains its image as a land of ephemera, where you come for a few weeks, fall in love and dream about coming back to the light and unique moments created from every season in that latitude.

Maybe the words I wrote at the beginning of this piece are best suited to the end: the only desire was to go further, to walk straight ahead towards the sea or to just stand there and let myself be immersed in the violent purity of the elements. Again.

Island, sjáumst við aftur ? það gaman að sjá þig. Bless! Iceland, will we meet again? It was good to see you. Until next time!

 

Grégoire Sieuw

English version: Christiane Théberge


Jökulsarlon

Skaftafell park

Leirhjnjukur

Reykjavik

 Harpa concert hall, Reykjavik

Garður

Gunnuhver 

 Hekla volcano

Reykjavik (Harpa) early morning

 Solfar sculpture - Reykjavik 

Blue Lagoon - Reykjavik

Landmannalaugar

Skogafoss

Geysir

þorsmörk 

Église Vik's church

Akureyri 

Route 1 Akureyri 

Fáskrúðsfjörður 

High lands

Dettifoss

Leirnhjukur

Reykjavik Harpa

Photos: Grégoire Sieuw

  

 

Back