Europe, 2013: Iceland

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Following my cross-country camping trip, I wanted to make a quick international trip before returning to work – in this case, a week and a half in Europe, traveling to Iceland and Belgium. After spending roughly a week at home in Jersey City, I would head out to Iceland on October 10th, as an extended layover prior to visiting Belgium. I first visited Iceland the previous year, but had spent the entire time within Reykjavik. A cute little city, to be sure, but as anyone who’s seen photos of Iceland knows, it’s the countryside that surpasses other countries in its austere beauty: its waterfalls and glaciers, the volcanoes and icy beaches and hot springs, in the land of the Hulduf√≥lk.

All the gear

All the gear

My packing list: 3 pairs wool socks; 3 pairs synthetic underwear; mp3 player; batter pack; USB cables; mini-daypack; universal AC adapter; wallet; passport; compressible down coat; wool mittens; wool t-shirt; cotton t-shirt; running shorts; ultralight shoes; wool sweatshirt; boots; jeans; toiletries; jeans; belt; Kindle; Nexus tablet; camera. Of these I never used the ultalight shoes (I had hoped to train for a marathon that I would run a few weeks after returning, but found myself distracted, and didn’t really want to run in unfamiliar cities).

Typical four-wheel-drive vehicle near Gullfoss

Typical four-wheel-drive vehicle near Gullfoss

There are a few ways to tour the Icelandic countryside: you can do a quick bus trip, rent a car, or go on a four-wheel drive expedition. Many of the roads on the country’s interior are deep gravel and only suitable for four-wheel drive vehicles. I wanted the autonomy to travel at my own pace, so I opted for the car rental.

My cute little rental car

My cute little rental car

I didn’t have a ton of sights in mind, and didn’t have the time for a country-wide tour (I really, really wanted to hike the interior, like the incredible Made in Iceland video, but I simply didn’t have the time. Put it on the to-do list!)

The eponymous Geysir

The eponymous Geysir

There’s such diverse terrain, and after picking up my rental (mental note: make sure to explicitly look for automatic transmissions in Europe), I simply tried to navigate the roads in roughly the right direction. It was foggy, rainy, I was in an unfamiliar car in another country, so it’s safe to say I was cared witless. Nonetheless, I made it to Geysir, the home of the geologic phenomenon from which the geyser takes its name. I wouldn’t really say it was it was worth seeing, it certainly didn’t stack up to similar phenomena in Yellowstone or Lassen Volcanic National Park. Of greater interest to me was the countryside: desolate and dotted with long-haired sheep, looking like a cold, rainy Wyoming stranded in the middle of the North Atlantic. Pico Iyer once wrote “In Iceland, nature adores a vacuum.”

Gullfoss crevice

Gullfoss crevice

I also stopped at Gullfoss, Europe’s largest waterfall, most famous as the site of opening of Prometheus. The landscape surrounding Gullfoss is completely flat, so the river and the waterfall seem to appear out of nowhere; the waterfall is visible only from a narrow vantage point. Gullfoss is also the end of the line, where the pavement ends and turns into gravel – posted signs make it clear that only four-wheel drive vehicles are allowed.

Thingvellir - the intersection of two tectonic plates

Thingvellir – the intersection of two tectonic plates

I hoped to check out Thingvellir, the original home of the Icelandic parliament – Europe’s oldest, dating from 930. Really deep Viking territory; Thingvellir is also notable as the edge of a tectonic plate. It’s jarring in a way that’s similar to Gullfoss: a huge shelf of igneous rock right in the middle of two grassy plains.

The youth hostel I stayed at, pictured with the only nearby buildings

The youth hostel I stayed at, pictured with the only nearby buildings

I stopped at a youth hostel in the middle of nowhere (literally, the middle of nowhere – it was more isolated than Kansas. There was a little swingset out front with two kids playing on it, and I was the only guest… it was far outside the summer tourist season, or even the winter aurora borealis season. I snacked on food from the local grocery store and read about Belgium.

Church at Thingvellir

Church at Thingvellir

The next day, I only had two stops: I wanted to travel along the coast, and I wanted to visit the Blue Lagoon.

Another photo of Gullfoss waterfall

Another photo of Gullfoss waterfall

Traveling along the coast, the absolute emptiness of Iceland became readily apparent. Iceland has an area of 40k square miles. That’s roughly the size of Indiana. But its population is only 300k, of which 200k live in the Reykjavik area (Indiana has a population of 7 million). It’s possible to look at the entire country on Google maps, and see ‘major’ towns that have just 2700 residents.

World-famous Eyrirbakki

World-famous Eyrarbakki

In my case, I stopped in Eyrarbakki, population 530, on the southern coast. It was mid-morning, but I didn’t see a soul as I walked the length of the town – really a one-street town. The ocean was right there, over some rocks, and the wind was chilly. The colorful little houses, so characteristic of Nordic architecture, were here revealed to be shabby – cozy and shabby; no industry was apparent. Wikipedia dryly notes: “The most recent enterprises in Eyrarbakki have been a fish-processing plant, and an aluminum frying-pan plant. However, the main fish factory closed in the 1990s, and the frying-pan factory has closed as well.” Now it’s the site of Iceland’s largest prison, a facility that houses 87 prisoners, 63% of Iceland’s 140 prison cells (there are 12 cells for women in the country).

I also stopped at Blue Lagoon, a famous spa in geological hot springs near Reykjavik. The water is opalescent blue, and the spa is a large single pool of geothermal water outside, surrounded by volcanic rocks; standing up in the water exposes you to some bracing winds. (It’s striking, but they don’t allow photos in the spa). I enjoyed the visit as a one-time treat, but it’s quite pricey and I don’t think I’d return.

I spent the night near Reykjavik, to be ready for an early-morning flight to Brussels, Belgium.

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