Part 2. Iceland. Sunday Dec 1, 2013
This is part two. You can see part one here.
Today we are signed up for the famous Golden Circle tour of Iceland and it will take all day. Our guide is Dede and she is way too loud and enthusiastic for this hour! I always enjoy jotting down the various facts that guides share (but her jokes were just terrible):
Iceland is the size of Kentucky with 320,000 people, fewer than the employees of Walmart. There are 3 sheep for each person. This is the most environmentally friendly country in world. Most famous restaurant is a hot dog stand (located near our hotel and we stop there a few days later). Dede also claims that Iceland has the happiest people on earth, but if their sense of humor is like her’s I never want to live here.
First stop: Newest of 6 geothermal power plants, built in 2006. This is a publicly owned facility and it sends hot water and steam to Reykjavik, as well as electricity. It has approximately 4 times the capacity that it needs and this excess is planned not to support more population, but future business. There is a small exhibit upstairs, but it’s mostly a video–trying to subtly sell their services. Also, there’s a gift shop. The smell of sulphur is so strong I’m relieved it is a very short stop. If I worked here, I could never keep breakfast down. Still it is fascinating, even if we are not shown much. This area is part of the Helka volcano, which is very active, but not expected to erupt for at least 200 years. Let’s hope it is at least a week!
The weather is terrible today. And getting worse. They get 2000mm of rain a year (NYC gets 600, London gets 1200) and it’s the windiest country on earth. I completely believe it. Today’s winds are 40mph with gusts of 55. There are few trees to stop it, and no hills, but there are volcanoes. Today’s temperature is to get to the mid 40’s. The fog and rain is thick in the morning, which seems impossible with the wind. And it isn’t daylight yet at 10am. Despite 3 cups of coffee I can’t wake up. (Of course we were on the ill-fated Northern Lights Mystery tour last night and didn’t’ get to bed until after 1am.)
Our guide is completely over the top–an actress wanna be. I hate her. And she keeps breaking into song. She should not give up the day job. The guests seem split; they love her or hate her. It is one of the few times I will not leave a tip.
We pass small cottages on our long drive in the dark. 20% of Icelanders have a summer home, so these are empty now. Two thirds of the population live in metro Reykjavik and these are probably their houses. The rest of the population lives in small towns of less than 3,000.
On way to an old Lutheran church, Skelholt. This is the 19th church on this site and the current one was built in 1930s. There are excavations here trying to uncover the history of the area. This was the “political, cultural and ecclesiastical center of Iceland” from the 10th to the 18th century. It is quite small and neat inside, if sparsely furnished, but Lutheran churches are not ornate compared to Catholic churches. There was a First Day of Advent service at 11a, so we stayed only 15 minutes. This is a state run church and less than a dozen people were there. It is now dawn, but the weather keeps getting worse. The wind is brutal– I was almost knocked off my feet. I tried to help a woman with a cane, but I almost knocked her over while trying to battle the wind so I was no help at all. Pelting rain in my face. But we are told there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Right.
Only about a half million people in the world speak Icelandic. It has 36 letters. Klingon is based on Icelandic. The people learn English and Danish in grade school. Then they tend to learn at least one more language like German or Spanish. But the Icelandic language is strongly guarded and protected from foreign words, much like French is. Even famous people have their names translated into Icelandic.
We have a short photo stop at a waterfall, large enough to have a salmon ladder along the side, the first I’ve seen. But my photos are not clear. there is little light and I can’t hold the camera still in the wind for a longer exposure.
Gullfoss is a large, picturesque waterfall. As we drive to it the “farmland” we drive through is soggy. There are drainage ditches 6-8 feet deep along the road and perpendicular through the fields, but the ground is still saturated and you see much standing water. Most of these fields are grass for hay or grazing and seem to have been reclaimed from the volcanic rocks. Rich, though thin, soil if you can move the rocks out of the way. Mostly the trees were cut down to make fields, but there were never many of them and they were never tall.
105 feet tall Gullfoss is also called the Golden Falls and it is powerful. It’s like a small Niagara. It is part of a glacial river system. It is huge and lovely but the wind and rain so bad I take a handful of photos and run for the bus. I’m back before some have left it. Concerned I will ruin my camera.
This is our third tour with Grayline in 2 days so we are beginning to recognize other tourists. We give them nicknames. Chatty Girl for the woman who would not shut up last night so we could sleep on the bus. Crazy Chinese woman who was carried off the bus by a security guard two days ago. She was on the wrong bus and very unhappy that they wouldn’t agree to take her to the Blue Lagoon, where she wanted to go. But she wouldn’t come off the bus and change her ticket nor board another bus. She kept screaming that we didn’t like her because she was Chinese. Well, she was half right because we certainly didn’t like her! At one point on the tour she tells me to ask the guide to wait for her. I tell her I will do no such thing. The guide told us when and where to be and she will be left behind if she isn’t there on time. Then there’s Mimosa Man who brought champagne to breakfast to add to our orange juice. Large Unpleasant Rich Woman with Cane-her male companion is decades younger and soooo attentive. I’m sure he earns every dime he gets from her.
We stop for lunch of lamb soup and hot chocolate. We are reminded that it is unusually wet, but warm today. The weather is not always like this, we are told. There is an odd storm system. Tomorrow should be better. Let’s hope. My cold is getting worse and it’s been a miserable day.
Geysers Area with several hot springs: We go to see Strokkur, Iceland’s version of Old Faithful. I did get to watch it erupt. Once. My photograph wasn’t well timed and I’ll be lucky if I didn’t ruin my camera in the rain. What distracted me were the two young women, walking off the pathways, which are clearly marked. Naturally the geyser blew just as they walked perfectly downwind of the spray. They were not injured, which is a miracle considering the wind blew the steam 30 degrees off the ground instead of straight up. It was brutal walking into the wind to get back to the bus. I’m soaked and cold.
Thingvellir National Park: We drive to the national park while the guide gives us a few facts. Only 1 in 5 people in Iceland get married. Two in five marriages end in divorce. They have the highest births out of wedlock. Inbreeding is a huge issue, so genealogy is important. Our guide can trace her family back 1200 years.
While fascinating, today’s tour has simply been an endurance contest. We got little sleep because of the failed Northern Lights Tour last night. The drunken revelers outside our window woke me frequently. Today the weather has been horrible. The worst, however, is the guide. Her jokes are insufferable–she’s mentioned that we are a captive audience THREE times and she done half the routine from the Rita Rudner’s Born to Be Mild tour. And my stomach is upset from all the vitamin C I’ve taken to reduce these cold symptoms. This is not my best day ever, but Barbara and I remain as upbeat as we can.
This park contains active volcanos and the place where two tectonic plates meet, the Eurasian and North American. There are earthquakes every day here. They pull apart at a rate of 2cm (about an inch) a year. So there is a ridge that marks the edge of North America, perhaps three or four stories high. Then a mile away is a lower ridge that is the edge of Europe. We walk between in the “Neutral zone,” a flat plain without a continent.
This is where the parliament of the Vikings met annually and the name means Assemble Plains (I’m approximating the spelling since some letters of many of these words aren’t in my alphabet). In AD 930 the 35 chieftains gathered in this dramatic place for the Althing, the General Assembly. The entire population of 60,000 people gathered to hear the law and settle disputes. The last assembly was held in 1798.
The drive back is not quiet, as our guide talks nonstop. So glad to be back in the room, let my clothing dry and my feet warm. We have no idea what we will do tomorrow. It is an early night.
Monday, December 2, 2013
As I’ve said, I’ve been battling a cold. After yesterday’s short night and horrible weather Barbara and I went back to the room and took hot baths. I was asleep by 7p and she says she watched TV until 10. We woke at 11a! But that’s just a bit after dawn here. But it helped me recover. Some.
We had a quick lunch at the Laundromat Cafe then hopped a bus to the Blue Lagoon. Sounds tropical, doesn’t it? Well the water temperature was. It’s thermally heated, mineral rich water, bright white-blue like the glaciers. The geothermal spa is set in a volcanic wilderness, a little like finding an oasis on the moon. The pool was formed by superheated saltwater released by the nearby geothermal power station. We took a long soak, had a lava mud scrub then an algae facial. It was the perfect thing for my cold. This has been the nicest day weather wise so far, blue sky! But the weather is so changeable here. While we were soaking it started to sleet, then snow which seems surreal for bathing outdoors.
There was an inch accumulation of snow and sleet by the time the bus took us back to our hotel. It is supposed to snow the next two days with falling temperatures. The high tomorrow will be about 34F.
For dinner, at Cafe Paris, I had minke whale. It is red meat, grilled, served rare and was very tender and lean. It was served with a wonderful mushroom sauce, roasted root vegetables and baked potato. I am assured there are plenty of this type of whale and that they are not endangered. I thought it tasted like deer or some wild game meat.