Stunning Iceland: travel tips and tales

Versione in italiano

Iceland is a land that teaches. The nature in Iceland is strong and omnipresent, she is the mistress who leads the game. The game of light, for example, that in summer cheats the mind and with the midnight sun invites you to never sleep: it expands the time, multiplies the possibilities.

Or that of matter, which transforms the rugged lava fields in soft meadows thanks to the benevolence of the lichens that cover them.
Iceland teaches that nature commands and does what she likes. This is the place of contact between the outside and the inside of the Earth, Hell and Heaven talk to each other in an obstinate way: the geysers mark, the fumaroles warn, lava boils over, volcanoes lay down the law. Sulphur, steam and sand are mixed with sun, rain and wind.

Dyrhòlaey - Iceland travel photography

Dyrhòlaey - Iceland

Iceland is the island of the unexpected, where the morphology lies, hiding dangers and wonders: to the inexperienced eyes it hides majestic waterfalls, emerald craters and expanses of icebergs.
Here the journey has to be lived outdoor and, even if the car is the most suitable mean of transport to cope with the local harsh weather, the true penetration into the Icelandic nature is worth wet clothes, aching feet , windblown faces.
It was discovered in the winter, and this is the reason why it was called “The Island of Ice”, but if the first explorers had arrived here in summer they would have understood that this is a green island, where the shades of the vegetation shine even without the sun. Forests, meadows and sea live on the abundant water falling in every season, and offer a lush sheen in return.

Vik - Iceland travel photography

Vik - Iceland

The ice is the other key element of this land, the unpredictable designer that models the lava of the Northern volcanoes, giving astonishing shapes to the incandescent lapillus that cools at the immediate contact with the snow.
The ice digs mountains, gives birth to majestic waterfalls, feeds lakes and the sea.

Here our timelapse video about the sounds of Iceland

Day 1: Keflavik Airport - Laugarvatn

We land at the Keflavik airport at 4 p.m. with the sun shining but, as we get off of the plane, the wind makes us immediately understand who is the boss. We hire a car and head towards our first destination, knowing that the daylight will be generous with our exploration desire. Along the road to Laugarvatn, where we spend the first night, the landscape is surreal.
At Grindavik, the clods of lava that cover the ground are wrapped in a cloak of lichens which makes them soft and gentle to the eye and to the touch: when the grass is able to make its way, one gets the impression of being in the Hobbits land. Cool colours, warm feelings. We make the first real stop at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal artificial pool that, for its mineral characteristics and the unique experience it grants, is worth the 40 euro entry.
The water, rich in silica and algae, is kept at 38°C throughout the year and the pleasure of immersion is combined with the beauty of the colour contrast between the deep blue of the water and the surrounding black lava fields.
After a few hours of total relax, we drive to Þingvellir, incredibly the only UNESCO site of the island: Þingvellir is not only the place where in 930 was born and held the famous Icelandic parliament (the Alþing, the oldest in Europe), but it is also the point where the divergence between the North American plate and the Eurasian plate is more evident: the two continents get away the one from the other in the place symbol of the Icelandic union. We are so dazed by the wonder of these places and by the sun that continues to shine that we arrive at the hostel at 2:00 a.m. without even realising it.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 2: Laugarvatn - Skógar

The second day begins at Geysir. We are guided by the smoke of the hot springs, bubbling incessantly. The noise and the steam are coming directly from the heart of the earth, while the pink flowers that grow in June on the surrounding lawns dissolve the agitation brewing beneath the earth's crust.
When we are in front of Strokkur, the most active geyser in the area, we remain motionless to contemplate the perfect show that it gives every 4-8 minutes.
Strokkur is easy to love because it always meets expectations: looking at the water moving in its hole is like watching a precise dance, rhythmic, relentless. The waves begin timid, the current changes direction, then the movement becomes passionate and restless until immobility prevails for a second, the time necessary for the sphere of water to take shape, emerge, and explode to the sky spraying up to 40 feet above our heads.
Strokkur is the pleasure of a wait that never disappoints, as we would like life of love to be: waiting with trepidation for something that, however, happen, and it’s always something gorgeous. Our route, after a stop at the Kerið enchanting crater, continues towards three beautiful waterfalls.
First of all we get to Gullfoss, the waterfall that plunges into a 70-meters-deep canyon and was put in danger, during the last century, by the ambitions of some investors who wanted to exploit its energy potential significantly transforming the landscape: fortunately that business failed, thanks also to the determination of Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of the land owner who fought against these destructive industrial ambitions. Selijalandfoss, or “The liquid fall”, is some kilometers before Skogafoss, the third fall we meet today. Legend has it that Skogafoss, at the foot of which we spend the night, still hides a Viking treasure in its cave. Here there are a lot of beautiful hiking trails that reach the notorious Eyjafjallajökull glacier, the volcano that in 2010 blocked flights all over Europe with its eruption, although it is one of the smallest of the island.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 3: Skogar - Djúpivogur

We drive to the east, knowing that this is the longest leg of our tour.
When we stop at Dyrhólaey it’s heavily raining, but this does not stop us from admiring the black sand beaches surrounded by cliffs 100-meter high. This small volcanic peninsula has a majestic appearance and the morphology of its steep cliffs made it attractive even for the puffins that nest here in summer, far from foxes and other predators.
A short stop at Vik, the southernmost city of Iceland, and then we continue to the east. A storm prevents us from travelling to the Skalftafell Natural Park and we decide to go on along the Ring Road skirting island's largest glacier, the Vatnajökull, which covers the 8% of Iceland.
The glaciers here are never completely harmless: the Vatna, in fact, covers seven volcanoes and under the ice-cap hides seething fire and lava. In 1996 the eruption of the most active of these seven volcanoes, the Grímsvötn, caused the detachment of many icebergs that now swim in the Jökulsárlón lake.
When we found ourselves in front of such a show we had to sit down: the first icebergs of our lives touched our souls. We had not been able to take a picture for the first 20 minutes because our eyes were stunned by the blue and white, while the soul was soothed by the sound of the water lapping the ice, melting it slowly.
The whole south-east of Iceland is an alternation of rivulets and streams that descend from the icy mountains into the sea across the land, working it. Water moulds and digs in its relentless path to the coast. At the foot of the mountains, farms exploit the hydroelectric power produced by these impetuous water flows. Driving north, the fjords begin.
We spend here our third night, in a hostel that – tomorrow – we will leave with regret: the Berunes Hostel is in a lovely location on the sea front where the time stands still. In the garden, a church, a small cemetery, a resting tractor. In the house, twentieth-century décor and furnishings that remind the elegance of the best English cottages: a jewel of peace and good taste. We spend the evening chatting with two Finnish girls, who are touring Iceland clockwise – unlike us - and then tell us how is the part of the island that we have not seen yet. We dream of Husavik whales.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 4: Djúpivogur - Seyðisfjörður

After a nutritious breakfast with pancakes and honey, jams and local yogurt (we were not able to eat the marinated trout and other fish delicacies there were on the shelves), we take a silent walk in the forage fields overlooking the sea.
We explore the fjords, slowly penetrating the heart of the island, playing with depth and distance.
A short stop in Egilsstaðir, the largest urban centre of this area, from which we go away almost immediately because coastal fishermen villages are more likely to attract our curiosity: both Djúpivogur (where we come from) and Seyðisfjörður (where we are heading to) are quaint villages with coves and harbours, fishing boats and colourful churches where concerts and local events are held.
Seyðisfjörður, in particular, has an evident artistic soul: in addition to the workshops in which locals manufacture wool handicrafts, this 700-inhabitant village hosts the Skaftafell centre for visual arts and several design studios, such as Borgarholl and Gullabu.
This creative spirit can be felt in many houses, art galleries, cultural spaces and, not surprisingly, it is here that takes place every July the Festival of the Arts.
The surroundings are said to be inhabited by elves and monsters, one of which - as the legend has it from 1345 – live in the Lagarfljót lake with its serpent coils.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 5: Seyðisfjörður - Myvatn

The road that leads from Seyðisfjörður to the Myvatn Lake begins quietly, with a soft landscape, but from the Pjòdvegur viewpoint everything changes.
The skyline is more interesting and prepare to the impact with the great Selfoss, Dettifoss and Hafragilsfoss waterfalls: a triad of water, canyons and rainbows announced miles before by a massive cloud of sand raised by the wind.
We are barely able to walk while trying to reach the best wiewpoint, the gusts push us with determination, sand shuts our eyes, mouth and ears. We go back to the car stunned, and continue westward on the Ring Road stopping shortly after at Namaskarð, a geothermal site of great importance next to the Krafla volcano, where fumaroles that emit sulfur fumes are interspersed with ponds where boiling mud and sulfuric acid burns everything.
The mountain smokes and snorts, the surrounding scenery is all shades of yellow. The sensation is that of being in a sacred place where the elements talk to each other. After a few miles, however, the green wins again and entering the region of Myvatn (the "Midge Lake"), we have the feeling of being back in the Hobbits land: flowering islands, lush hills, huge craters, enchanting lava conformations called "Black Castles".
A top destination for birdwatchers, the protected area of Dimmuborgir ("Dark Fortress") is so lush to seem soft to the eyes. We stay for two days at the Stong Guesthouse, where we have meals with mushroom soup, lamb, rhubarb jam and a cheese-cake whose flavor is much more aggressive than the sweet we're used to. Guesthouses here offer homemade products, fresh ingredients and a close contact with the traditions of a population that has been able to preserve flavors and habits.
Meat and fish are the staple food of traditional Icelandic cooking: lamb, cod and salmon are the protagonists of the local table, even if today greenhouse cultivations and importation make easy to find many other products.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 6: Husavik

Husavik is the most famous hub for Icelandic whale watching. From here the most successful whale-watching tours depart by boat or raft to the Bay of Tremors (so called because of the constant earthquakes that are recorded, more than one hundred each year) which is a real cetaceans crossroads.
Depending on the season and flows, there are different species that can be spotted. It often happens that the sea here is calm despite the angry sky, but we have not been so lucky. When we set sail, the wind rippled the horizon and we understood that nothing good would have come.
The crew gave us two overalls: one to keep us warm and one waterproof. After an hour of sailing we reached the place where puffs rose high in the air, foreshadowing imminent emersions: we found the whales. A pair of humpback whales remained for more than one hour to have their breakfast around us. Engines off, we held on tightly at the ropes of the bridge to stand up to the waves without falling: we kept watching them swim while the sea was turning nasty and storm hung over the bay. Regardless of everything that happened over the sea surface, the whales continued their meal between waves and depths, and those who were lucky enough to resist seasickness had enjoyed a unique spectacle of elegance and grandeur.
Returning to the dry land, the force of the sea inclined several times so much the boat, carrying water on deck and passengers, that few of us had been able to enjoy an aperitif offered by the crew 10 minutes from the coast. Our gaze lingered to the point that we had just left, where humpback whales were going on eating and dancing undisturbed, perfectly in tune with their element.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 7: Siglufjörður - Dalvik

As any outdoor activity was impossible because of the heavy rain, we decided to spend the afternoon at the Herring Era Museum in Siglufjörður, a charming village on the tip of the fjord that in the 40s reached its Eldorado thanks to the herring industry. This economic success allowed Siglufjörður to be connected with the rest of the country by a real road, for many decades open only during the summer.
Since these shores are no longer interested by the migration of herrings, the village has created a wonderful museum dedicated to the history of those golden years, retracing the life of fishermen and laborers, rebuilding the spaces of their daily lives, representing their music, tools, photographs, knowledge: a compelling narrative path, an excellent example of cultural industry, in the name of which 6 years ago they built 20 kms of tunnels to reach Siglufjörður throughout the year. We spend the night in Dalvik, a fishing village located north of Akureyri (Iceland's second city in size and importance after the capital).
The smell of fish here is strong and persistent. We sleep at the Gimli hostel, a doll's house in shabby chic style, cozy and well-finished, where we spend our time chatting with an American couple spending the summer in Europe and a Swiss girl who is traveling through Iceland alone: she’s going to have a whole week horse riding around the Myvatn. Common areas in hostels and guesthouses allow you to get in touch with people from many countries around the world: share the kitchen and the relaxation facilitate conviviality and the experiences exchange. We have enjoyed this opportunity, passing whole nights comparing routes, points of view, pieces of life and travel. Moments full of charm and human wealth.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 8: Dalvik - Hrútafjörður

A stop at the Heritage Museum in Glaumbær to dive in the Icelandic rural life of last century. Housed inside some of the typical local country houses with roofs covered with peat and a structure built in stone and wood, the museum proposes a series of objects and memorabilia that were part of the everyday life of people who lived in this remote region, not just farmers but also intellectuals and artists.
Then, we’ve spent all the rest of the day in search of the seals: Skagafjordur is famous for being regularly visited by groups of seals that come here to rest during the low tide hours. On this fjord there is a small town with the same name where live more horses than human beings.
The road along this strip of land is bumpy, full of potholes, completely exposed to the power of wind: this has been one of the times when we regretted not having hired a 4x4 jeep.
There are a lot of off-road vehicles around the island and often they have wheels high like adult human beings: bigfoot able to make fun of dirt roads, bumps, and adverse weather conditions.
We rented a Volkswagen Polo, and the wavy Ring Road’s asphalt tried bumpers to the limit even if we never exceeded the 90 km/h speed limit and on the dirt patch we coped with a long gymkhana at 30 km/h. If you can, rent a higher car. The Hvammstangi information center dedicated to Seal Watching advised us to look for the seals between 8 and 10 am or between 19 and 22, the hours when they are more likely to rest on the mainland. After two unsuccessful trips to Svalbarð and Illugastaðir, we were finally able to find them on the black beach of Osar, not far from the Hvitserkur beautiful rock arch.
Resting on their back, playing with sand and water, caring very little for the handful of humans who were observing them from 200 mt away with binoculars and cameras. Nature does what she wants, Iceland reminds man that there are not scheduled or granted experiences: men here chase, look for, hope, but they are constantly brought to the awareness of not being in control of anything, but only guests, fleeting presence.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 9: Hrútafjörður - Snæfellsnes

The Snæfellsnes peninsula is the symbol par excellence of the west of Iceland.
On its territory there are samples of everything that can be found all over the island: waterfalls, rocky coastline, national parks, glaciers, volcanoes.
One of these, the Snæfellsjökull, is famous for having been described by Jules Verne in his book "Journey to the Center of the Earth" as the gateway to the depths of our planet (Stromboli, in Italy, is the exit door). As in several other areas of the island (Dimmuborgir and Skagafjordur above all), here we had the feeling of being unwanted guests in the land of birds.
Although Iceland is full of horses and sheep, the birds act as land owners and masters. They escort you when you enter their territory, report your presence all the time, fly above your head and keep constantly an eye on you: the soundtrack here is made of the cries of gulls, oystercatchers (the naughtiest, with no doubt) and many other birds which keep birdwatchers glued to their binoculars.
We stayed two hours to contemplate them flying around their nests on the Arnastapi cliffs, behind the stone statue dedicated to Bardur Snæfellsás, the guardian spirit of the region, half man and half giant who, according to the sagas, keeps the evil away.
The sagas represent the Icelandic literary backbone, the narrative frameworks of the settlers’ heroic adventures through which unknown authors tell the stories - sometimes cloaked in mythology – of the families that landed here and gave rise to the Icelandic population.
In Borgarnes there is a museum dedicated to the settlers that commemorates the deeds sung by the Sagas and organizes guided tours to discover the landmarks of the history of these heroes and anti-heroes.
The day 9 was also the one in which we came across some herdsmen intent to move two hundred horses to let them free in the Snæfellsnes countryside. The Icelandic horses are small, gentle, strong, and tolerate well the bad weather: when it rains, they take the classic curved position that allows them to better resist to the wind and water.
In the summer, as well as sheep, goats and cows they are free in the pasture: there is a small (but omnipresent) fence that separates pastures from streets, but it seems to be there to avoid tourists from approaching the animals rather than the opposite. Driving in Iceland, it is not uncommon to find groups of sheep in the middle of the road licking the asphalt rather than graze in the surrounding meadows: they’re not crazy, they’re just looking for salt, which they are greedy of, and that in winter is obviously used in abundance to limit the effects of frost on the roads.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

Day 10: Reykjavik

The last day was spent in the capital, rediscovering the experience of traffic, unknown phenomenon in the rest of the country. Two thirds of Iceland's population (320,000 people) live in the Reykjavik district and definitely the world’s northern capital city is the economic and cultural heart of the nation. The music is one of the focal points of the island’s artistic ferment, thanks to the cultural policies of recent years that have encouraged many emerging realities.
Close behind come theater, literature and art. Reykjavík was named "City of Literature" by UNESCO, a permanent title it earned first in the world among not native English-speaking cities: the proper capital for the most educated population of the world. Several museums to discover, interesting night life that begins to draw here students and tourists from Europe and United States. After ten days of full immersion in nature, we decided to have a simple walk on the seafront, from the port to the Harpa centre, and then from the Vikings monument to the Hallgrímur church, stopping for some time into the City Hall Park in front of the central pond.
To withstand the harsh weather and keep the houses warm, buildings are often built in layers of wood, concrete and metal. Many homes look like hangars: the architecture is functional, often austere, and one of the few creative quirks that climate allows is the use of colours for painting roofs and walls.
The wind greatly exacerbates the weather conditions and destroys every kind of umbrella. Maybe for this reason, no umbrellas can be seen around: when it rains (and it often happens), many people simply do not care, while others simply wear a cap, a hat, a waterproof poncho.
A good tip for those who want to visit this country is certainly to bring with them waterproof clothing and have something to protect cameras and video cameras. Anyway, at the first ray of sunshine everybody wears a T-shirts even though there are 8 degrees, including the teenagers we saw in many villages ploughing flower beds, planting trees and taking care of the public gardens during their free time. Like many peoples of northern Europe, Icelanders know how to enjoy every ray of sunshine and are equipped to live in the open air as soon as the weather turns good, be it for one day or for five minutes: outdoor thermal pools (very busy even when the climate seem terrible), BBQ large as aircraft carrier, parks and plenty of outdoor games for children show an ability to live the warmer months in a way that inspires admiration.

Click on a pic to open the full gallery

6 Responses

  1. Le foto lasciano senza fiato e parole! Che meraviglia!
  2. Congratulations guys, I think it is the best trip ever, very good job ! XoxPK
  3. Iceland is like a place out of fairy tales! The scenery is just impressive!
  4. […] we travelled to Iceland, we hired a car and stayed every night at a different guesthouse or hostel, many of whom were […]