To date, my blog has been about chronicling my travel adventures, with occasional lapses into cultural insight and political satire…from my perspective, of course.
Equally as important, this blog has been a repository for thousands of photos I’ve taken along the way, helping me identify and memorialize hundreds of destinations I’ve visited during the past six years, and perhaps, transcending the ubiquitous and banal:
or vegetable snapshot!
I admit to taking my fair share of goofy personal photos, and occasionally posting them from time to time (see “Looking Back in Pictures”). But for the most part, Streaming Thru America has been my “show and tell” outlet for timestamping my wanderlust…
What follows is this summer’s shameful display of selfies and portraits of familiar faces from faraway places.
And there are instances and circumstances when the background becomes the most important element in the picture:
Finally, there are occasions when I get to strut across nature’s catwalk, and Leah is mostly there to capture the moment:
This blog was never intended as a vanity project, and I was never under any illusion that posting my travel adventures would ever turn me into a world-wide influencer. But at the very least, there are precious moments when I get to star in my own production.
It took a few days of walking, cycling, and driving around Montréal before Leah and I found our bearings from atop Mont Royal.
We roamed the rues and parcs of the city in search of historic, cultural, and architectural significance–with an emphasis on good food…and we found it in many of the neighborhoods we visited.
We followed in the steps of 6 million annual tourists who stroll, bike, blade and run between Notre-Dame-de-Bon-Secours Chapel (1771),
and the Sailors’ Memorial Clock (1922) at the Vieux-Port de Montréal (Old Port).
We shared a laugh after spotting yet another monster-sized Ferris wheel on the pier, but La Grande Roue de Montréal, erected in 2017 to celebrate Montréal’s 350th anniversary is one of several family attractions that appeal to tourists near and far.
In 1642, New France took root on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, where French traders and the Crown established a fort (Ville-Marie) in support of a flourishing fur trade. Roman Catholic missionaries followed, intending to establish a North American parish that could convert the Iroquois to Christianity, and build a cathedral that was worthy of a New World capital.
Notre-Dame Basilica was designed by James O’Donnell in a Gothic Revival style, and built behind the original parish church.
The sanctuary was completed in 1830,
and the towers followed in 1841 and 1843.
The interior’s intricate stone and wood carvings were completed in 1879.
The pipe organ dates to 1891. It comprises four keyboards, 92 stops, 7000 individual pipes and a pedal board.
Arson destroyed the more intimate Sacre-Coeur Chapel in 1978, but it was rebuilt from original drawings, and finished with an immense bronze altarpiece by Quebec sculptor Charles Daudelin.
It’s a 5-minute Metro ride from downtown to Parc Jean-Drapeau, an island park surrounded by the Saint Lawrence River. Half the park is natural (Saint Helen’s Island) and the other half is artificial (Ile de Notre Dame), conceived with rock excavated from Montréal’s Metro tunnels.
The park is a fitting tribute and memorial for its namesake, Jean Drapeau. As mayor of Montréal (1954-1957, 1960-1986), he was instrumental in bringing Expo67 to his city. Drapeau is also remembered for securing the 1976 Summer Olympics for Montréal, as well as successfully lobbying Major League Baseball for a major league franchise during its 1969 expansion (Kansas City Royals, Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, and Seattle Pilots).
Few pavilions from Expo67 remain on the island. Notably, the French pavilion has been repurposed as Canada’s largest casino.
And the United States pavilion, featuring Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome has also been preserved, despite a fire in1976 that burned through the structure’s acrylic bubble, leaving only the steel trusses.
Fortunately, the exhibition space within the dome was spared, and has been transformed into an interactive museum named Biosphere, that tells the story of our environment through several rooms of multimedia presentations,
and a wraparound theater space.
But its the iconic geodesic dome that most visitors have come to experience. The New York Times picked the dome as one of “the 25 Most Significant Works of Postwar Architecture.”
Geometry majors may discover 32 triangles from the center of each vertex to the next vertex.
Montréal is also a culinary haven for foodies. We sampled wood-oven-baked bagels from St-Viateur, and smoked meat from Chez Schwartz in the Jewish Quarter. For dinner, Leah and I migrated to Chinatown to sample the fare with Jennifer, a dear friend in town for business.
We settled on a tasty meal of soup dumplings at Mai Xiang Yuan Dumpling, but wondered out loud about the long queue out the the door for Gol’s Lanzhou Noodle Shop.
We made a mental note and returned to Gol’s the following evening, only to find another long line of future diners waiting patiently. I spent my wait time studying the noodle maker through the window…
and tasted his skillset in my meal when we were finally seated and served a tureen-sized portion of steaming heaven.
These were beef noodles to stand in line for, whenever I’m back in Montréal.
I treated myself to a bobsled ride at the Nordic and Sliding Center in Lake Placid for no particular reason, and it was amazing.
Yet the notion of barreling down Mt. Van Hoevenberg in a pocket rocket was never part of my original bucket list…although it should have been. So I added it, just so I could cross it off my list.
True, there’s another bobsled run in Park City, but I’m not schlepping to Utah for another sliding track if I’m already here. Besides, Olympic history was made at Lake Placid, when the Americans defeated the Soviets in the men’s hockey finale.
Leah had less than zero interest in joining me, so I was on my own. Unfortunately, she was nursing a bad lower back the past few days, and missing out on a world of world-class activities–
while I was anticipating the thrill of winding through a dozen curves in a rumbling sled, and wondering how I would capture it all without dropping my phone. Carpe diem, all the way!
I filled out a “hold harmless” waiver online; showed the attendant my drivers license (although I wasn’t driving); and booked a 1pm run-time for $125. I thought it a bit pricey for a 55 second experience, compared to the “value” of free-falling from an airplane (Free Fallin’ Off My Bucket List),
or riding Class 4 and 5 rapids on the New River (New River Gorge), but at least I’d have bragging rights among friends.
Leah was willing and able to join me on the Legacy Tour, where we previewed the Olympic Center’s newest facility–the first of its kind, indoor push-track for bobsled and skeleton in the United States–
where athletes can practice start gate techniques for skeletons, and bobsleds. But they’ll need to dress for winter, because it was like a mammoth refrigerator inside!
We warmed up while examining the 1980 track, which is built atop the 1932 track, which runs parallel to the Cliffside Coaster, North America’s longest coaster.
Next, we boarded a bus that drove us to the 1st of 4 start gates of the Combined Track, completed in 2000…
for a look at what $50K to $100K will buy these days.
Then we walked the upper course…
past Curve 1…
to Start Gate 3…
with a distant view of the Ski Jump Center.
I shared my downhill ride with an anonymous coed, who took the first position behind the driver. I squeezed in behind her, with my butt planted on a quilted foam pad. Definitely, not the best position for a bad back, so Leah was right to sit this one out. Instructions were simple: hold onto the inside bars with both hands.
“But how will I video this?” I asked.
The attendant picked his words carefully: “You didn’t hear this from me, but if you hold your phone near the edge of the sled and brace your arm against the roll bar, your phone should fall into the sled if it slips out-ta your hand.”
We got a push and we were ready to roll…
We posted a respectable 52.25 seconds over the 1500 meter run. Olympian athletes can reach speeds of 90mph barreling down the same course.
While not the fastest run at 48mph, it was quick enough to earn me a moment on the gold medal podium.
Today was departure day. While other travelers were hastily checking out of Grandi to meet their airport connections, Leah and I had other plans. We had purposely booked an evening flight to give us another day of touring, but nothing too rigorous. We jumped on the option of keeping the Land Cruiser, and driving ourselves to the airport, coupled with a visit to Blue Lagoon.
After two weeks of circumnavigating the country/island for a total of 2020 miles, we were more than ready for a few hours of rest and relaxation before battling the airport madness.
We stopped briefly at a roadside turnoff in Reykjanes to explore our surroundings,
and spelunk a small crater from last year’s eruption.
However, as I write this, I regret missing the spectacle of Iceland’s August 3rd eruption and lava flow of Fagradalsfjall’s Geldingadalir volcano.
Nevertheless, because of the fissure’s volatility, the landscape is scarred and uninhabitable, yet eerily beautiful.
And because of Reykjanes’ geothermal properties, the Blue Lagoon has become legendary for the healing properties of its milky, mineral-rich waters.
The social and political landscape of Iceland is an unusual paradox–progressive in some matters, while also Puritanical at times. For instance, currently 67% of women no longer consider marriage a precursor to children.
Nor is organized religion very popular these days. Although Iceland has adopted Lutheranism as its state religion, the majority of Icelanders identify as eitheratheist or non-religious.
Iceland is also a global leader in promoting and protecting gender rights and equality.
Which begs the question: How can a Penis Museum exist in the center of Reykjavik when Icelanders prohibit nudity at any and all pools, spas and beaches?
After arriving at Blue Lagoon registration,
we claimed our color-coded, “Comfort” bracelet, which entitled us to:
Entrance to the Blue Lagoon
Silica mud mask
Use of towel
1st drink of our choice
We grabbed a towel on the way to our respective locker rooms–offering both public and private spaces for changing and showering. Once we located an available locker, we were directed to shower before entering the pool. Same-sex monitors were everywhere to assure compliance.
I met Leah outside the bathhouse with my towel and phone. The air temperature was 54oF and we were both shivering.
“What are you doing with your phone?” she asked.
“I need it to take pictures,” I answered.
“Don’t ya think you’re taking a big chance out there?” she continued.
“Probably,” I admitted, “but the water’s no deeper than 4.5 ft, so I’m not too worried. And NO splashing!”
“Okay, but just so you know–if you drop your phone, it’s gone forever. You’ll never find it in this,” she warned.
I gripped my phone with one hand and grabbed Leah’s hand with the other, and together we slipped into the warm, milky waters.
The water temperature felt like 90oF, but as we approached the bridge, rushes of hot water circulated around us with a thin mist hovering over the surface.
It’s hard to believe that Blue Lagoon was created by accident when engineers discharged geothermal plant condensate into a nearby lava field and expected the water to permeate the porous rock. But they didn’t consider that sedimentation would eventually clog the pores, and turn the fields into expansive reservoirs.
The lagoon didn’t seem overly crowded, but a lifeguard assured me that today was the busiest day since the pandemic recovery.
Although, the further we ventured, the fewer people we encountered.
until we reached the outer limits of the lagoon to enjoy a quiet moment by ourselves.
That’s when we realized that most of the crowd was either drinking around the bar,
or applying a silica mask doled out from the treatment kiosk. So we did both!
Unfortunately, our time in Iceland has come to a close.
We’ll resume our summer travels in Maine and Canada.
Till then, Kveðja Ísland! (Farewell Iceland!)
P.S. I didn’t sacrifice my phone to the Blue Lagoon.
Thanks to an earlier tour of The Cave Víðgelmir, Leah and I rolled into Reykjavik @ 4pm–an hour ahead of schedule–and it made all the difference. I immediately found a legit parking spot by the side of Grandi Center Hotel, and we quickly settled into our suite long enough to unzip and freshen up. Before long, we were out the door and heading for the harbor by foot.
As we were in a hurry to walk the 1 km, there was no time for snacks…although, passing by Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur was tempting…
This little stand has been serving “the best hot dogs in town” since 1937, hence the name translated; although, some fast-foodies claim they’re the best in the world. In fact, hot dogs are so pervasive throughout Iceland, they are jokingly referred to as Iceland’s national dish.
As much as I wanted a wiener, my mission to conduct hard research on “pizzles,” at the Icelandic Phallological Museum was time-sensitive; we only had an hour before closing.
The phallo-logic behind this museum is best expressed by Sigurður Hjartarson, the museum’s founder, who recently sat down with Felix Bazalgette, contributing writer for The Guardian.
In Sigurður’s words…
For most of my life I’ve been a teacher in Iceland, where I was born. In the 60s, I did a postgraduate degree in Edinburgh, but in the 70s I settled into life as a history and Spanish teacher in Akranes, a town north of Reykjavík.
One night in 1974, I was having a drink with my fellow teachers after school and playing bridge. The conversation turned to farming in Iceland – we were discussing how the industry finds a use for every part of the animal. Take lamb, for instance: the meat is eaten, the skin used for clothes, the intestines for sausages and the bones turned into toys for kids. Someone asked if there was a use for the penis, which made me recall how, as a child, I had been given a dried bull’s penis as a whip, to drive the animals out to pasture every day.
I was telling my fellow teachers about this and said that I would be interested in finding a whip like that again. “Well,” said one of my friends, “you might be lucky.” He was returning to his family’s farm that weekend and offered to find me some “pizzles” (a very old word for penis). I agreed, and the next week my friend came back with four bulls’ penises in a plastic bag. I took them to a local tannery and had them preserved. I gave three away as Christmas presents and kept the fourth. That was the start of my collection.
At first, it was a bit of a joke. It was very common then for teachers to have other jobs in the farming and animal industries, such as whaling. So to tease me, other teachers began to bring me penises from their second jobs – whale penises, sheep penises. I started learning how to preserve them. Then, gradually, the collection took on a life of its own. I thought: what if I collect the penises of all the species of Iceland? So that is what I tried to do.
I kept an eye on the news; if an interesting whale was found beached on the coast, I would try to get the penis as a specimen, or if an outlying island was infested with black rats that had escaped from a ship, I’d ask the pest control technician to send me one. (I’ve always had a rule that no animal would be killed for my collection.)
By 1997, I had amassed 63 specimens and the story of my collection had become more well known. I was invited to display it in a small space in the centre of Reykjavík, and my penis museum, or the Phallological Museum, to give it its proper name, was born. There are a lot of different ways to preserve a penis and I have tried all of them, so the collection varies between dried, stuffed and mounted penises, and also those floating in alcohol or formaldehyde.
The collection is very large today, as people have sent in specimens. The largest, from a sperm whale, is about 6ft long, while the smallest, from a European mouse, is less than a millimetre and must be looked at through a magnifying glass. We have one human penis on display, from a 95-year-old man who left it to us in his will in 2011. A few well-endowed humans, one from America and one from Germany, have promised to donate theirs when they die. They are young, though, so we will have to wait a while for those.
You might call me a bit eccentric. At first people thought there was something wrong with me, but over time they saw I was a serious collector who was precise and accurate with the information I kept, and that there was nothing pornographic about the collection. I’m happy that people don’t think I’m a pervert any more.
I’m now 80 and have retired to a small town in the north. I’ve had great fun building the collection over the years and starting the world’s first penis museum; before me, there had been some small collections of penis bones – which many animals have – but not a more comprehensive collection of all these different types. Some people collect stamps or rare coins; I chose instead to collect the phallus. Someone had to do it.
In the words of Sigurður Hjartarson, Fri 22, Apr 2022–as told to Felix Bazalgette
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a museum where the patrons have been so animated. Women easily outnumbered men by 2:1, and everyone seemed to be engaged. I saw no evidence of embarrassment, and selfies dominated most picture-taking opportunities.
But what surprised me most were all the children running through the exhibits like they were at a petting zoo. And their small hands were very busy at the gift shop,
where I found a great souvenir,
and many more items…
for more sophisticated palates.
All in all, it was an uplifting hour, yet extremely humbling for human egos.
Leah and I overnighted in Arnarstapi, a tiny fishing village perched on a lava cliff in West Iceland, where Mt. Snapafell looms large across the horizon.
Icelanders believe the village still pulses with a healing energy that emanates from chieftain, Bárður Snæfellsás, half ogre/ half human and sorcerer from the first settlement.
Legend suggests that Bárður was swallowed by Snæfellsjökull glacier. Perhaps it was his penance for killing his nephews, who admitted to pushing his daughter out to sea on an ice floe.
Consequently, Bárður was forever frozen in time and eternally committed to protecting the people of SnæfellsnesPeninsula,
and preserving its unspoiled natural beauty…
Another storm was brewing the day of our drive to Snæfellsjökull National Park. We mapped a route in search of the mysterious Snæfellsjökull Volcano, and took the high road as directed by GPS…
until we ran out of road and visibility halfway up the pass.
It was snowing on the other side of the mountain, and road crews had already conceded to Mother Nature.
So back down the mountain we went, where the weather was more predictable, and the roads were more reliable.
Unfortunately, we sacrificed a critical hour to correct our course, which translated into less time exploring Snæfellsjökull glacier at Snæfellsjökull National Park.
Instead, we continued to our next destination and penultimate excursion–
Our pre-paid guided tour of Iceland’s largest cave was originally scheduled for 1pm, but with rain clouds rolling in and a cold drizzle spoiling any chance of sightseeing or picture-taking, we expedited our drive to Borgarfjörður, with prospects of joining the noon tour if allowed.
We arrived at 12:05pm, but Sigurður (Siggy) agreed to include us, since he was already waiting for another late arrival with reservations. Hallelujah!
With our tour party now complete, each of us received a hardhat and headlamp, and Siggy (our only true-born Icelandic guide during our trip) led us 100m across a lava field called Hallmundarhraun to a twin opening in the earth where the roof of Víðgelmir had collapsed, revealing the cave’s only entrance.
We were dressed for winter inside the cave, where temperatures usually rise to 4oC, but Siggy was comfortable in a traditional Icelandic wool sweater knitted by his mom that he wore this day to celebrate Iceland’s Independence Day.
While traditional wet caves boast an array of stalactites and stalagmites, Víðgelmir cave gave us icicle formations,
and colorful mineral deposits imbedded in the walls,
After an hour, we reached the end of the boardwalk where the tube narrowed,
and it was time to resurface.
With a 2-hour drive to Reykjavik ahead of us, we may yet reach the Penis Museum before closing time.
Warning: Be advised that the photographs presented here must be properly viewed on a big screen. Failure to comply will result in diminished satisfaction and an acute craving for Taco Bell and The Kardashians.
Leah and I approached Westfjords with three scheduled days to weave through as many of the fjords before reaching the Brjánslækur ferry crossing. Total driving distance added up to nearly nine hours, but with so many photo opportunities and sightseeing possibilities to consider, I wondered if three days was enough to adequately explore the oldest part of Iceland–where its raw, rugged beauty continued to surprise us around every hairpin turn of every rutted ridge road.
Sadly, the answer was “no,” given the scary condition of so many summer-only roads, not to mention our pending midday ferry reservations on Day 3. Regardless, our time retracing the “dragon’s head” was eye-opening, head-turning, and breathtaking. With so much landscape candy still to process, I’ve momentarily selected the following collection of picture postcards for review:
It’s always a good day when it starts with a waterfall and ends with a waterfall. Prior to today, all the designated waterfalls on our itinerary over the past eight days have been spectacular and very different from one another–given the geography, the weather conditions, the time of day, and the lighting–all of which has an impact on how the falls are viewed and captured.
Thankfully, today was no different!
After a restful overnight and an enjoyable breakfast buffet at Hofsstaðir Guesthouse in Skagafjörður,
Leah and I evaluated today’s weather, and sighed with relief knowing that overcast skies would fight off any imminent threat of rain. Maybe our prayers had been answered.
Of all our scheduled excursions, we were most excited about riding an Icelandic horse, and rain would certainly dampen the experience. We cautiously saddled up the Land Cruiser,
and patiently waited for our Hitachi Wi-Fi dongle (a very neat accessory) to find my phone. Eventually, we plotted a route to Hestasport, a tour company operating within the Skagafjörður valley–a place that’s been labeled the Mecca of Icelandic horsemanship, and the only county in Iceland where horses outnumber people.
Our conversation to the horse ranch was predictable. Leah and I were still processing the irony of our hotel restaurant serving “horse” on last night’s dinner menu. Of course, its a cultural and culinary delicacy that Icelanders have enjoyed since purebred Nordic horses were first introduced during the 9th century. And horsemeat is one of the healthiest meats for human consumption–iron-rich, low-fat and abundant in vitamin B. But our American palates and sensibilities are biased. We find that butchering horses for human fodder is morally abhorrent, while still enjoying a rib eye beefsteak. So, guilty of hypocrisy, as charged.
After arriving at Hestasport for our 10 o’clock “Viking ride,”
we gathered in the barn to dress for rain, then greeted our riding buddies in the paddock.
Icelandics have been strictly inbred for riding and working over a millennium, which makes them nearly disease-free and extremely resilient to Iceland’s harsh climate. They can easily live into their 50s. They have a friendly personality and a special affinity for people.
Leah was assigned Bjartur, while I would be riding Björn, an agreeable 23-year old, who was the only one of the herd who could fly–the fastest of five gaits (up to 30 mph) that Icelandics naturally possess.
My first impressions of Icelandics…they are small, but sturdy and capable. While their legs are short (they typically stand 13 hands on average), they are capable of carrying up to 35% of their body weight. When they walk, their head is down and neck relaxed, which gives them a straight line across their back to evenly support the carrying weight.
Their walk is smooth and sure-footed, which easily accommodates uneven landscape and shallow rivers.
We closely followed the river Svartá at a steady pace, allowing us to soak in the scenery. Our guides were ingenues from Belgium and Holland, who were mostly shepherding a German family of four with little experience, but our Icelandics were very forgiving. They took to the trail they’ve known since foals, so the Germans were on solid footings.
But I was looking for something more. I was hoping to tölt, a oft-touted gait that’s exclusive to Icelanders, where the horse lifts its front leg up high, and only one foot touches the ground at any time. When we reached a level open field, Bridgette from Brussels shortened the reins of her horse, which immediately caused her horse to tölt, and immediately cued my horse to copy. I was tölting! Björn gave a smooth-paced ride with minimal bounce, as he glided over the gravelly terrain. It was exhilarating, but short-lived as we reached our destination much too soon to stop. But in exchange, we were humbled by a view of Reyjafoss.
Leah and I returned to our Land Cruiser to explore our next major destination, the Westfjords. But first, we detoured to the Vatnsnes peninsula, where iconic basalt stacks line the shore,
and volcanic sands sharply contrast against distant snow caps.
We bookended our day’s tour with a drive to Kolugljúfur Canyon, hoping to find Kola, a legendary giantess who dwelled in the canyon.
Her daily ritual of fishing and preparing salmon helped to shape the gorge.
Alas, Kola was nowhere to be found, but we discovered her hiding place; it was Kolufoss.
Widely considered the Capital of the North, Akureyri is only 100 km south of the Arctic Circle, but boasts the warmest climate in Iceland, with temperatures ranging from 75oF during summer months to 30oF during winter. However, Akureyri is also a very cloudy town, averaging just over 1000 hours of sunshine a year, with virtually no sunlight from November to February.
With a population of 19,000, Akureyri is the largest town beyond Iceland’s densely populated southwest corner, and enjoys many of the amenities of any vibrant urban center–with winding side streets and bustling plazas offering coffee shops, boutiques, gourmet dining, art galleries, and an active nightlife–all of which helps the locals get through the dark winter months.
There’s also a geothermal swimming complex that’s the envy of all of Iceland, and it’s conveniently located downtown behind the church.
If the identity and soul of Akureyri is best symbolized by the twin spires adorning the Church of Akureyri, or Akureyrarkirkja as designed by Guðjón Samúelsson (also known for Reykjavik’sHallgrímskirkja)…
then the heart and soul of Akureyri is in full bloom at Akureyri Botanical Gardens, or Lystigarðurinn—
established in 1912 by a society of women enthusiasts who were eager to provide a green space for locals to recreate or relax.
Not only is Lystigarðurinn the first planned park space in Iceland, it’s also one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world, featuring over 7,000 species of plants, and making it a valuable resource for botany research.
An hour’s drive northbound brought us to Siglufjörður, a colorful and historic fishing village atop the mainland, and only 40 km from the Arctic Circle.
But the tale of Siglufjörður lies in stark contrast to Akureyri. In Akureyki, I had to hunt for a weekend parking space. Not so much in Siglufjörður, where its population has been in steady decline. Once a bustling seaport known as the herring fishing capital of the world, only 1200 residents now call Siglufjörður their home since the herring disappeared in 1968 from overfishing.
This cautionary tale is well-documented through the town’s award-winning Herring Era Museum.
Having grown up in a household that enjoyed sardines, kippers and herring, I felt compelled to explore the museum’s interactive exhibits: which illustrates how the fresh catch was hauled to port,
and subsequently processed by an army of “herring girls”…
who could gut and brine enough fish to fill three barrels an hour.
Iceland’s first processing plant was built in 1911, where oil and meal–for pet food–was extracted from the fish. As more fishermen from Scandinavia arrived to fish the fjord’s bounty, the industry prospered.
In 1925, disadvantaged “herring girls” successfully went on strike for equal pay, and formed one of Iceland’s first labor unions.
In its heyday, Siglufjörður had 5 processing factories, and 23 salting stations supported by a hearty population of 3,000.
Today, the town of Siglufjörður hopes to ensure its future and relevance by presenting their history, and Leah’s buddies hope that tourists are listening.
Iceland’s oral and written history is steeped in mythology and folklore, and rooted in the country’s natural wonders. From the time Garðar Svavarsson, a Swedish Viking first settled in Húsavík in 870 AD, Icelanders have imagined a world where phenomena is best interpreted through their sagas of mysticism.
Iceland’s first settlement succeeded in the second half of the ninth century because of adventurous Vikings from Denmark and Norway who were looking for a fresh start in a new world that offered opportunity, security, and stability. A parliamentary assembly of regional chieftains gathered in Thingvellir in 930 to form the Althing (assembly of free men), and ruled as the unifying body of this “free state” until 1264.
Originally, the Althing accepted Northern Germanic religion or Goðatrú (Truth of Gods) which resembled the religion of their homelands. Sacrifices were overseen by landowners/priests in temples and shrines to appease the gods and spirits, of which Thor and Odin were most popular.
By 1000, the Althing rejected paganism and enacted Christianity as the religion of the land under pressure from Norwegian king, Olaf Tryggvason, who embargoed all trade between Icelanders and Norway and held the sons of chieftains as hostages unless Icelanders accepted baptism.
Yet, despite the introduction of Christianity, pagan influence was not easily erased, and still informed how settlers reacted to their old surroundings, and their new spiritual allegiance.
For instance, when Leah and I discovered Dimmuborgir, a dramatic expanse of lava fields east of Myvatn,
we learned that the pillars were the creation of emptied lava lakes from an immense volcanic eruption about 2300 years ago.
But legend tells us that Dimmuborgir (or “Dark Castles”) was created by Satan after he was cast from heaven, and Dimmuborgir was the gateway to the devil’s “Catacombs of Hell.”
Also seeking refuge at Dimmborgir are the Yule Lads–13 offspring of Grýla and Leppalúði–who are regarded as trollish pranksters who eat misbehaving children before Christmas.
Jökulsárgljúfur National Park is another popular destination we visited that invoked the spirits and captured the imagination of pagan worshippers.
Jökulsárgljúfur, Iceland’s largest canyon, stretching 25 km long and 500 m across is the result of endless catastrophic flooding caused by an Ice Age eruption so fierce that its glacial ice cap exploded.
However, the Norsemen believed that Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged steed created this natural wonder by touching earth on a jaunt across the sky, leaving behind the impression of a massive hoofprint that became the canyon Ásbyrgi,
with a rock island spur named Eyjan.
To the west of Ásbyrgi, lie the cliffs of Hljóðaklettar and its inhabitants, the mythical Huldufólk (Hidden People), who cautiously avoid sunlight, or risk the same fate of the elves and trolls who have turned into stone pillars from sun exposure.
Another example of trolls behaving badly can be found along the black sand shoreline of Vatnsnes peninsula in northwest Iceland. From a geological perspective, Hvitserkur is a 15-meter tall basalt monolith that’s been shaped by severe North Atlantic storms and constant temperature changes.
Although Hvitsekur resembles a drinking dragon, Icelandic folklore refers to the stack as an evil troll who raided a local church to silence its bell tower, but turned to stone after being caught by the sun’s early rays. The petrified troll is home to hundreds of nesting birds who forever punish him with a thick layer of guano, and Icelanders who mock him with the name “White Shirt.”
Of all the stories, historians consider Goðafoss a landmark in North Iceland culture, for its here that regional chiefs met with pagan lawmaker, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði to determine whether to continue their old ways or embrace Christ as their spiritual guide.
The saga tells us that as a gesture of Iceland’s newly adopted religion, Thorgeir Ljósvetningagoði stood at the brink of the falls to cast a collection of Norse idols into the abyss, marking an end to paganism. Thus, the waterfall was christened Goðafoss, the “Waterfall of the Gods.”
It was the beginning of conversion, and Iceland eventually capitulated to convention. Nevertheless, the notion of magic and sorcery continued to flourish in Iceland, well into the 17th century. A museum located in Hólmavík is devoted to the subject.
It tells the story of 25 or so victims who were executed on charges of witchcraft between 1625 and 1685.
The museum also exhibits some unusual artifacts,
ranging from the sublime…
to the ridiculous.
Superstitions began to fade during the last decades of the 17th century, and the Reformation came as a shock to Icelanders. But consider a 2007 study by the University of Iceland that found an estimated 62% of the nation still believes in the existence of elves, and 40% of the population is irreligious.
Significant geothermal zones and volcanic landscapes throughout Iceland may give the impression of a primordial, preternatural planet. Yet, Icelanders have prevailed, despite the harsh and ever-challenging environment of their homeland.
Such is the case of Möðrudalur, a remote farm settlement in Eastern Iceland protected by Mount Herðubreið, the “Queen of Icelandic Mountains.”
Möðrudalur ranks as the highest inhabited farm in the country–at 469 m (1739 ft) above sea level, and supports a weather monitoring station, having recorded the lowest temperature in Iceland, -38.0 °C (-36.4 °F) on January 21, 1918.
The farm became inaccessible once Ring Road 1 was relocated northeast in 2001. However, a new F-road was eventually cut to continue servicing the curious folks who felt a connection to the old trails crisscrossing the wilderness, and a thousand-year history that made this a protected area.
A church was built in Möðrudalur in 1949 on once-sacred ground by farmer, Jón A. Stefánsson to honor his wife’s passing in 1944,
and decorated by revered folk artist, Stefán V. Jónsson.
A guesthouse, a small store and highly regarded restaurant serving locally sourced farm-to-table fare have been added over time to boost tourism in the area.
A more dramatic and inhospitable environment lies 90 km to the north. Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon was carved by fire and ice and a rushing river that over time laid bare the cores of spent volcanoes.
Following the Jökulsá á Fjöllum upriver (which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier) is an impressive triplet of waterfalls, of which Dettifoss is considered the most powerful in Europe, plummeting 45m (150 ft) into Jökulsárgljúfur Canyon at 400 cubic meters per second during the summer melt.
Returning to the Ring Road, it’s another 60 km west to the Myvatn Geothermal Area (Hverir), a volcanic swath that rivals the fumaroles, steam vents and mudpots of Yellowstone…
We cleared our lungs of rancid Sulphur fumes before checking into nearby Laxá Hótel, where the Krafla caldera looms over Myvatn Lake in the distance.
But Leah and I weren’t done for the day! After enjoying a meal at the hotel restaurant, we donned our hiking boots and enjoyed a solitary 10 pm stroll through Dimmuborgir,
a field of unusual lava formations caused by an eruption 2300 years ago and the subsequent collapse of a massive lava tube.
After a day of walking through location settings for Star Wars, Game of Thrones, and Alien, it’s little wonder that Iceland takes its landscape cues from a very powerful producer.
Continuing our counterclockwise circumnavigation of Iceland, today’s drive (Day 5) carried us through tranquil fishing villages,
along spectacular fjords,
and past so many sweeping landscapes…
that Leah wondered—given my many photo epiphanies–if we would ever reach Egilsstaðir, our evening destination.
Fortunately, in our favor, our summer days have 22 hours of daylight.
We started our journey with a brief stop in Djúpivogur, a 16th century Danish fishing port and trading post that attracted European merchants. By the mid-1800’s, there were four houses in Djúpivogur, and Langabúð was one of them.
Constructed in 1790 as the village storeroom and warehouse, it was considered the economic and social engine of the town up until the 1950s. Today it’s a museum and visitor center.
A walk around the Djúpivogur’s harbor offered little shelter from the frequent gusts of blustery wind coming off the water. Leah stayed behind in the Land Cruiser, but I found the 34 granite “Eggs of Merry Bay” atop their pedestals to be an interesting oddity,
as each egg had been named for a local bird.
Next stop was Petra’s Stone Collection,
beautifully curated throughout her house and garden in Stöðvarfjörður.
What started as a hobby during childhood, became an obsession throughout her adult life, until she acquired the world’s largest private collection of mineral rocks,
mostly unearthed in the vicinity of East Iceland.
We also stopped in Fáskrúðsfjörður, a small fishing village with French connections that dates to 1880. Originally developed as a French trading hub fortified by a chapel, a hospital and French consul, the town still retains its French flair.
Once we returned to the Land Cruiser, we vowed to limit our stops, but the road beckoned, and I couldn’t resist!
“One last time,” I pledged. And Leah relented.
We detoured to Teigarhorn, a natural monument and nature preserve most valued for its cache of zeolites, and most likely the source of so many of Petra’s discoveries.
Teigarhorn is also a protected nesting ground.
Ultimately, we made it to Egilsstaðir, had a meal, and found our way to Vok Baths, a geothermal spa,
tucked into the banks of Lagarfljót–a long and narrow lake–where Icelandic folklore (c. 1345) suggests a giant serpent dwells.
Three infinity pools of increasing temperature (105oF max) offered us the perfect opportunity to melt away the stress of a long travel day…without a serpent sighting.
Finally, the midnight sun had set on our day at midnight.
And hopefully, our hotel has decent blackout shades to protect us from a 2am sunrise.
Imagine an aquatic gallery of ephemeral ice sculptures in varying shapes, sizes and shades of blue, dancing around a glacial lagoon before floating out to sea or washing upon a black, sandy beach.
After our hike at Skaftafell, Leah and I were expected at Jökulsárlón for a late afternoon amphibian boat tour of the glacial lagoon, but not before a required stopover at Fjallsárlón for a dramatic view of an outlier glacier…
receding into a volcanic valley,
with chunks of ice fighting for a place to thaw.
I could have spent hours at the shoreline photographing the amorphous shapes, but our boat excursion across the road at Jökulsárlón was soon boarding.
We rolled off the moraine in fat tires, and effortlessly glided onto the lagoon for a chilly boat ride surrounded by orange vests and hulking ice.
Our captain cautiously piloted the amphibian as close to the bergs as allowed, to limit the wake of curious kayakers,
and knowing that hidden ice is usually more voluminous than exposed ice.
Also present in the lagoon was a resident colony of surreptitious seals,
anxiously awaiting high tide to feast on herring and cod swept into the icy inlet.
After disembarking, we crossed to the Atlantic, where jewels of ice wash ashore,
and decorate the beach,
a fitting terminus that would gain Banksy’s approval and mine.
Imagine an amphitheater of “organ pipes” carved out of a grass-topped lava field with a 20-metre waterfall plunging down its center into a roiling pool of green water.
It sounds impressive, but seeing is believing, so Leah and I navigated to Skaftafell, a nature preserve in southeast Iceland that belongs to Vatnajökull National Park, Iceland’s largest park with 18% of the island’s land mass, where Svartifoss is one of the featured attractions.
We arrived at the Visitor Center parking, and cursed the ATMs for making paying for parking so difficult. We hiked through the campground before arriving at the Visitor’s Center.
I was literally speechless. Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður? Really!? How could there possibly be a word with a V, a K, two Js, and a letter that’s stuck between a b and a p? And how about the pronunciation? And what does it even mean?
But there was no time for questions. We were there to hike, and there was a waterfall to explore.
We caught the trailhead past the same campground and began our ascent. The trail was wide and steep at the start. So much so, that metal mats filled with crushed stone lined the path to keep erosion at a minimum. We caught our first view looking east when we cleared the trees.
We continued above Gomlutun, across Estragil gulley on a footbridge, past two waterfalls (Hundafoss and Magnusarfoss),
until we reached the approach to Svartifoss.
My pulse quickened. I sensed this waterfall was special. I zoomed in until the falls filled my frame, and I lingered before I pressed the shutter.
I raced around the side of the canyon for another perspective…from the bottom.
Svartifoss translates to “Black Falls” and it lives up to its name,
as it showcases a splendid backdrop of charred columns of basalt.
Svartifoss was the inspiration behind Gudjon Samuelsson’s design of Hallgrimskirkja, Iceland’s celebrated cathedral in Reykjavik.
We were down the mountain and at the Land Cruiser after 2.0 hrs. in Skaftafell, which included our lunch at the overlook and a potty break.
It was time for more sightseeing down the road, and we were on a schedule!
But first, some unanswered questions:
Apparently, Vatnajökulsþjóðgarður is a real Icelandic word,
There is a glacier lagoon at the tip of Sólheimajökull’s tongue that never existed a decade ago. Today, that lagoon is 80 meters deep, and its fed by glacial melt.
Sólheimajökull is an 11km outlet glacier of Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland’s 4th largest ice cap of 269 named glaciers, and easily accessible and suitable for ice adventuring.
Climatologists have been studying Sólheimajökull’s since 1930, documenting a loss of more than 2 sq.km. of its ablation area, and retreating a mile from its original marker.
During the summer Sólheimajökull loses 3 meters of ice every month with frequent ice calving.
With so much chatter about climate change and glacier volatility, I thought it best to have a look around the ice and judge for myself. So Leah and I drove to Sólheimajökull to join a guided glacier expedition,
where we were outfitted with a harness, helmet, crampons and ice pick. With some instruction, we learned how to dress ourselves and behave like mountaineers.
Then the conversation shifted to safety first, and how to avoid the treacherous crevasses on a melting ice mountain that’s constantly in motion.
After a brief hike, we arrived at the ice, but the approach to the top wasn’t a graduated trail; it was a wall.
Suddenly, I felt our training was insufficient, and I couldn’t imagine that all of us were prepared to dig in with our crampons and ice axes and climb over this wall, but that was unnecessary. We simply stepped around the mound on chiseled risers that were rapidly melting…
until we all reached flat ice.
I questioned why this ice had a different color and texture–more like ice coal–than blue crystal.
Valerio, our guide from northern Italy attributed it to the 1918 eruption of Katla, Iceland’s largest active volcano, and fragments of rock and debris–known as glacial till–that typically develop when a glacier passes over bedrock. We were walking on 100-year ice dated by the volcanic ash trapped inside the ice!
Except for occasional photo ops like a discovered ice cave,
we were always moving across the ice and up the throat, and discouraged from breaking the line or falling behind.
After 30 minutes on the ice, it was time to celebrate with a drink. Valerio grabbed his New Zealand ice ax to tap a vein under the ice, and the bar was open…
and it was cold and refreshing!
Since 1890, Iceland has lost approximately 18% of its ice mass to warming, and Sólheimajökull is melting faster than scientists originally speculated. They are sounding the alarm–telling us that Iceland’s glaciers are melting faster than they can recover.
And climate change, of course, plays a pivotal role in this process. Ironically, eco-tourists are rushing to Iceland to experience the glaciers before they disappear.
But Iceland is doing something to mitigate the damage by pledging carbon-neutrality before 2040. Already, the island’s geography and geology provide almost 100% renewable energy for generating heat and electricity.
There is no shortage of waterfalls in Iceland, although some are more spectacular than others. Estimates of total waterfalls throughout range from 10,000 and up. But Icelanders have their favorites, and Seljalandfoss and Skógafoss are two of them. Located just off the Golden Circle and only 30K apart made it impossible to resist, so off we went, chasing waterfalls.
What makes Seljalandfoss special is its geological standing. It’s believed to be a part of Iceland’s receding coastline in Southern Iceland, where the Seljalandsá River once ran over the edge of a volcanic cliff and dropped into the Atlantic.
Seljalandsfoss’ glacial water originates from the Eyjafjallajökull glacier, a smallish ice cap atop Eyjafjallajökull volcano that last erupted spontaneously in 2010, belching so much ash high into the atmosphere that day turned into night and European air traffic was grounded for 5 days.
Eyjafjallajökull towers above the waterfall,
and the Eyjafjöll mountains feed meltwater to the river Seljalandsá, which runs down the slopes before dropping off the Seljalandsheiði heath in the form of Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
Repeated eruptions over millennia have extended the coastline by 12K, while erosion has hollowed out an extraordinary hiking trail that circles behind Seljalandfoss, which literally translates to “selling the land of waterfalls.”
Leah and I could immediately tell upon approach that this was a popular destination, which was soon confirmed by a full parking lot. There was a kiosk for paying the 800 ISK parking fee ($6), but I didn’t realize it until we were leaving. Oh well, I guess I was too focused on the shower I was about to take.
But Leah had different plans. “I’m not doing that,” she insisted. “I can’t find my rain pants anywhere and there’s no way I’m getting soaked. Besides, it’s probably slick from all the mud and water, and I don’t feel like breaking my neck on the third day of vacation. But you should go, and I’ll just look at the pictures later….Tell me about your insurance, again.”
“Shouldn’t we at least take a selfie like everyone around us?” I asked.
Leah had decided that Seljalandfoss’ 60 meter (200 feet) cascade was best appreciated from a distance,
while I was too anxious to capture Seljalandfoss from every angle.
True, the trail was muddy and slippery, but that was only a minor inconvenience.
The challenge came from dodging the unrelenting spray, as if it was weaponized by the wind.
I instantly missed Leah as my assistant. She would have made the perfect rain shield.
After coming around the back side of Seljalandross, I rejoined Leah on a path which led to a small waterfall known as Gljufrabui,
hidden within a slotted canyon.
We hiked back to the Land Cruiser and headed in the direction of Holt. I was casually driving, enjoying the scenery at 90 kph (60 mph), Iceland’s top speed limit, when I hit the brakes….after noticing Iceland’s perfect farm.
We made one additional stop along the way to Skogafoss, when I slowed to catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a Hobbit house built into the mountain.
However, on closer examination, it appeared to be a shelter for sheep and goats.
The approach to Skogafoss had several imposing mountains in the vicinity, also part of the former coastline.
Ironically, Skógafoss translates into Forest Falls, but there’s not a tree to be found in the area. It seems the Vikings had a penchant for chopping all of them down to create their settlement a thousand years ago.
Skógafoss is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland. Game of Thrones fans may recognize the falls as the aerial backdrop for a romantic encounter between Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow when flying with her dragons.
With a width of 25 m (82 ft) and dropping 60 m (200 ft) with water fed by two glaciers, a rarity (Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull),
visitors can climb a rickety 430-step metal staircase anchored into the cliff, allowing visitors to reach the spillover and enjoy a view of the coastal lowlands while basking in the Highlands, or continue on a popular trail leading up to the pass between both glaciers.
Feeling exhilarated after our Silfra snorkeling adventure, Leah and I said goodbye to Thingvellir, and set out to complete the remaining natural wonders of the Golden Circle trifecta.
We continued to Haukadalur, a geothermal valley in South Iceland that boasts a plethora of fumaroles and geysers,
including the powerful and predictable Strokkur, Iceland’s most active geyser that regularly erupts every 5 to 10 minutes like clockwork,
sending boiling water skyward, 20 to 40 metres beyond its mineral-stained crust.
Afterwards, we traveled to Hvítá river canyon to visit Iceland’s beloved falls, Gullfoss. The water in Hvítá river travels from the glacier Langjökull, Iceland’s second largest ice cap, before cascading 32 meters (105 feet) down Gullfoss’ double drops in dramatic display.
We arrived in time for one of Iceland’s typical daily weather changes as we hiked to the closest observation deck. The blustery gales had driven the cold drizzle and falls spray sideways. While we were dressed appropriately in warm parkas and rain pants, Leah was miserable and could only manage a walk to one of many overlooks of Gullfoss.
I tried to ignore the weather, but the poor visibility and annoying spritz was affecting my ability to keep the camera lens dry while trying to capture the “perfect shot.”
Leah retired to the comfort of the Land Cruiser, while I climbed above the canyon wall in search of a different perspective, thinking that if I distanced myself from the water, I could keep my camera dry.
The best that I could manage, given the circumstances was adequate…
However, to my chagrin, I found the perfect shot at the base of the foothills, but it belonged to a park graphic with information about Gullfoss…
However, looking southeast, I also discovered a telling view of Thingvellir’s distant topography just beyond the Visitor Center.
Of course, being a national park, certain rules apply; and understandably, drone photography is a no no. But Gullfoss is so expansive that it would surely benefit from an aerial approach, so the Park Service sanctioned a third party to capture the awe and splendor that only a drone can see.
There is one place on earth–Silfra–where it’s possible to “touch” two different continents underwater and it’s located within the Golden Circle of Iceland. Leah and I were up for the challenge, but it required some preparation.
First, we traveled southeast of Reykjavik to Thingvellir National Park, the birthplace of parliamentary government (Althing, 930 AD), and the zone where volcanic activity has played a heavy hand in shaping our planet.
Not to get too bogged down in earth science, but a rift occurred through the middle of Iceland where two tectonic plates are pulling away from each other 2.5 centimeters every year as a result of volcanic activity in the region since the beginning of time,
and much of it vents under Lake Thingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest lake.
Above sea-level, lava fields at Thingvellir have been torn apart by tectonic forces, leaving gorges and fissures to admire between two continents.
However, inside the rift valley created by daily earthquakes throughout time, there is one ravine, Silfra that allows snorkelers and divers to experience the tectonic plates underwater, but it requires a dry suit to tolerate the water temperature (2o C) and a certified outfitter to guide thru the underwater fissure.
Leah and I had booked an excursion through Arctic Adventures, who supplied all of our underwater gear and a guide to assist with dressing, and underwater photography.
We dressed in a parking lot by the roadside where various outfitters have set up shop.
Over the thermals and wool socks we supplied, we stepped into fully insulated jumpsuits to wear under incredibly bulky dry suits with fixed booties, snug rubber sleeve guards around our wrists, lashed with rubber bands, and a snug rubber seal around our neck with a rubber band choker. An industrial zipper across our deltoids sealed us in.
Then came a rubberized neoprene hood over our heads. Imagine forcing your head through your neck. After accessorizing our fashionable outfits with neoprene lobster gloves, we were ready for the apocalypse.
We were a group of twelve…
under the supervision of Chris (from Hungary) and Marcelo (from Sao Paulo). We split into 2 groups of 6,
and waited our turn to enter the water.
Immediately, the suit constricted around my lower body as I stepped deeper and deeper into frigid water…but I stayed dry! Without hesitation, I glided in and immersed my face. Only the small area around my facemask was exposed and the sensation around my lips felt like a cold scalding until they turned numb after 10 seconds.
We flopped onto our backs, and let the current carry us slowly through the gorge while watching the arctic terns doing aerial maneuvers overhead.
As we floated past Grynningar Shallows, I was awed by the clarity of the water, with visibility beyond 100 meters (300 ft).
We were in the water approximately 40 minutes. Once we reached the Silfra Lagoon, the stiff current required strong frog kicks for us to reach the exit point.
As promised by Marcelo, each of us emerged from the lake with “Angelina Jolie lips.”
Overall, the experience was sublime. However, my biggest complaint had to be cold hands. Most of the time, my hands stayed clasped behind my back, out of water, but the weak stitching around the seals of the gloves made them porous. Marcelo quipped that the gloves leaked because they were made in Sweden.
Lest we be judged for our adventurous antics, consider this unassuming mother of three from Germany, who stripped down to her swimsuit, and took the polar plunge, albeit for only 30 seconds.
I don’t think she’ll be doing that again, anytime soon, but for me, it could become an addiction.