Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Short tour of Iceland

Iceland, April 22-26, 2008.

Most of the pictures of Iceland you see are of the mountains, or of the too-complicated shoreline, or of neat, brightly-painted houses in the middle of nowhere. I didn’t think there would be so much of this flat-ish, barren, lavafield plain. In the southwest part of the island, around Reykjavik and the airport and eat of there a ways, there’s a lot of pretty flat emptiness.
The People Who put Rocks on Top of Other Rocks have been here, in force. On the 40-minute drive from the airport to the city, and again on the 40-minute trip from Reykjavik to dinner in a small town on the south coast, it is evident that the rock-stackers have been having a lot of fun. They certainly have a lot of material to work with. Makes me want to get off this tall, cushy bus and get out there for a hike.
It looks like it should be easy hiking out there, just deadheading as you like to some prominent point of interest, but on closer inspection it might be difficult not to follow an established trail. The lava plain looks level and it looks soft and inviting from the inches-thick covering of grey moss, but I’m sure if you went out there you’d discover that a little moss doesn’t cancel out the jagged, razor-sharp jumble of catastrophically cooled lava. It might be up-and-down of four to six feet out there, but you’d be constantly climbing up and down those few feet, cutting your shoes and your hands to shreds.
Can’t wait to get out there in it.
From our hotel, Reykjavik doesn’t look very nice at all. It’s all grey and brown, which is maybe just the season and today’s clouded-over weather. Maybe, but in this part of town, the industrial-commercial part, it’s all concrete and junky buildings. The sad bushes along the roads are full of trash in their lower branches. In a month or so, when there are leaves, I’m sure it will look much more inviting. Today, however, even the much-vaunted brightly colored houses are not to be seen. A myth? Or I’ll find them later? There must be some - they are right here on the postcards in the hotel shop.
Dinner, in Stokkseyri, about 40 minutes to the southeast, is wonderful. We’re greeted with champagne, which we sip while standing around bonfires on a seawall on the near side of a small bay keeping away the sea. Inland, snow-spotted mountains promise adventure in the distance. Away to the west the coast curves away with rocky islands and black sand beaches to the town of Thorlakshofn. To the east there doesn’t seem to be much of anything - beyond the town, with its hundred houses and its two great buildings (the tourist restaurant and an immense diving shop) the lava plain goes down to the sea and that’s it.
The wind comes up further, making it risky to stand too near the fires and uncomfortable away from them, so we head inside before the staff is quite ready for us.
The food is excellent. Bread with onion relish and a yogurt-based dipping sauce, then lobster bisque, followed by bowls of salad and vegetables to pass around, and huge vats of langoustini in garlic and butter. Everybody starts with their forks, but the little lobsters are too armored and too tasty to resist using ones fingers for long. Most of the sauce is on the shells anyway. Soon we are all a mess, butter running down our wrists and shell bits all over the table.
Dessert is good but nothing special, and the coffee is ok - better than I’ve had in some countries (Denmark, Ireland), but not great. The busses even leave for Reykjavik right on time. With my dinner partner, David, I try to get on the bus that’s going back first, thinking there will be one of the three that leaves late, waiting on stragglers, and we don’t want to have to hang around now that we are well-fed and ready to roll into our feather beds. But the three busses leave one-two-three. We’re on number three, and it quickly becomes clear that even if we’d been first out of the parking lot we’d be the last arriving, our driver is so timid and pokey.
The trip back seems shorter, though you’d think it would be the opposite: on the way out it was light and we were all captivated by the desolate and unique landscape. It is dark for our return, with nothing to look at but the lights of towns and isolated homesteads in the distance. There seem to be a lot of lights, really. People everywhere. The desolation is gone; wherever you look there’s someone over there. You’d think you were in California. The emptiness is just an illusion.
Tuesday is meeting day, all day. We are fed every couple of hours, with generous and excellent buffets for breakfast lunch and dinner plus sandwiches or cake at the coffee breaks. I eat all the salmon I possibly can. It’s wonderful. And shrimp and scallops. And more salmon.
Wednesday. Time to reserve a hotel for Friday so I can tell Sice, a friend of a friend who’s going to give me an archeological tour later on, where to find me.
I hate to phone, so after picking out a likely place in my guide book I walk downtown to book my room in person. It’s not far, only a 20-minute stroll from the Hilton. After a few blocks I’m out of industrial-commercial ugly and on the main street, a narrow, one-lane road lined with small shops full of interesting-looking wares. If anything were open this early I’d love to stop and browse, but all I can do is look in the windows. If I’d brought my camera along I would detour to walk along the harbor edge, but I’ve only my wallet in my pocket. Later. I’ll have Friday to wander around the city.
Today it’s mostly sunny and although the wind is giving me a headache by the time I get back to the Hilton to pick up my luggage and check out, it’s a great day for a road trip. I just wish I’d arranged an earlier ride to the airport to pick up the car. I told them the 10 am shuttle some other people are taking would be fine, but I’m ready and raring to go by nine. Time to catch up on my journal, but the day is a-wasting.
On our way to the airport there is no conversation between the taxi driver and his three passengers, beyond asking four times if we are indeed Nancy, Lars and Piers. After a minute the driver turns the radio back up. It’s folksy music in some nordic language (Icelandic is a fair guess, but only a fair one - it could well be Norwegian, or Swedish. Only one of the four television stations here is Icelandic). There are accordions. There is a man very seriously and deeply singing something to the tune of Mary had a Little Lamb. Bizarre.
Eventually I am on my way in a tiny, bright red Toyota Yaris. No dirt-roading with this one. The contract specifically points out that any damage due to the taking of unauthorized roads, getting stuck, etc, is the responsibility of the renter. No goattracking!
My hotel tonight is in Vik, on the south coast halfway to a national park at one of the well-known glaciers. They tell me it’s two hours from Reykjavik so I figure I’ve got plenty of time to detour throught Thingvellir and possibly also to Geysir and Gulfloss to see the geysers and spectacular waterfall and still make it there by early evening. I’ve got two nights in Vik so it doesn’t matter if I get in late tonight.
I make it through Reykjavik alright, and when I think I’ve just missed my turn, up comes a sign saying it’s the next one after all. But the first thing I do on the next turning, toward Thingvellir, is get lost in some modern industrial complex. No Thingvellir here. Ah, they meant the next next exit from the roundabout. That’s more like it.
And in two minutes I am away from the Reykavik area where half the population lives in a sort of suburban sprawl, and into rural Iceland.
It’s a big place, too. There’s an impression of Iceland being small; the map isn’t very big or filled-in. but really it would take a week to drive the ring-road around. Well, maniacs could do it in three days if they do nothing but drive. I am not here for that kind of road-trip.
I stop. And go, and stop again. And go but then turn around? And go again.
The landscape is beautifully austere. Snow still covers the peaks, and is patchy down here on the plains. The volcanic rock is covered mostly with grey-green moss, mixed with heather and blueberries, with patches of long brown grass along the waterways.
Streams are everywhere. In flat spots sometimes snow is melting but has not run off or sunk into the saturated ground, making shallow ponds and acres of impassable bog.
There aren’t many cars passing by. A few farms are tucked into valleys here and there, but there are no town and the tourist season is still more than a month away. It’s quiet, except for the wind, and a surprising amount of noise from the red Yaris.
I slightly regret not stopping for lunch before leaving the towns behind, but I wasn’t hungry then. Anyway, the handfuls of candy I squirreled away in my backpack from the vendors’ area at the AACR meeting last week are still in there and they see me through.
Eventually, a lake. Thing-something, with a long, low island in it like a Loch Ness Monster surfacing. The park I’ve come to see is at the northern end, and I expect also some kind of town for some real food. The town never appears, though. The multitude of facilities signs mean guesthouse way up that road, restaurant this way June 1 - Sept 30, Hotel Later down another dirt track, and so forth. There is a single tourist-snack shop open, so I stop. Snacks and postcards, yes, books presenting Thingvellir, no. Alas.
Thingvellir has no town at all, not these days. It’s an historical and geological site. A very bizarre and spectacular fault runs straight for several kilometers, a violently jagged slash across the landscape paralleling the edge of the lake. The cut is so straight and sheer it looks engineered, so sharp it looks recent in spite of being here before the island was settled in the 10th century.
The ancient Icelanders used to gather here in this sacred place in midsummer to exchange goods and marry and have disputes settled and rules passed. At Thingvellir was the first “Thing”, the earliest known version of parliament.
The information center has no information you can take with you except in your head. The video presentations are well-done and in several languages, but there’s no book I can buy for my parents, not even a postcard. Happily, there is a bathroom.
And onward. I go. I stop for pictures. I go, and when I get to the sign for Geysir it says 49 km. It was less than that to get here, and it’s after 2:30. Going to see the waterfall could make for a long day indeed if I add a good 100 km detour, so I decide to skip it. The geyser didn’t look all that fascinating even in the better postcards.
On to Selfloss.
More hills covered with heather and moss. More excited streams, more good-sized rivers. I wonder if there’s trout fishing. I like these waterways. The streams are lively. They’re eager. They’re not overfull or frantic with snowmelt, but quick and strong.
The sunlight has been gradually giving way to clouds throughout the day, making photography disappointing, and a bit after 3 the first sprinkles start. It’s not much, but it looks like the sun is done.
The light changes, with fewer and fewer brightly illuminated peaks and moss-filled valleys. It becomes useless to wait around hoping for a break in the clouds to light up the scene for one of those perfect photographs. Subdued is all there is, and the colors are dull, and I don’t have much hope that my pictures will come out anything but muddy.
Hitting Route 1, the ring road, I turn east to Vik. 158 km to go, and only 60 or so back to Reykjavik. There’s a lot more traffic here, meaning that if I want to stop for a picture I have to plan much more in advance. Sometimes there’s just no place to pull over on this practically shoulderless road.
At around five, the rain sets in for good. No longer intermittent, it’s now either light or hard, never off. In the distance there’s blue sky to the east and a solid curtain of rain to the south.
After a long stretch of downpour I turn off on a side road just to let a hurrying car pass. This turns out to be Skogar, where there’s a noteworthy waterfall quite close to the road. It is indeed very nice, but I don’t get out of the car. Waterfalls are beginning to be rather common.
The whole escarpment, for miles, is leaking. One waterfall after another. Two are so steep you can walk a path behind them, if you don’t mind being drenched with spray. Others don’t even fall over the top of the cliff, but spring out of the rock face halfway down.
At Skogar there’s a path and stairway giving access to the top of the falls. I’d love to climb up, but I’m not in the mood to get soaked in the rain. How did I forget to buy a full-coverage rainsuit when I was in California last week? My umbrella is worse than useless in the howling, gusting wind (a wind as tiring on its own as the rain to drive in); it would not only keep none of me dry, it would instantly be mangled and rendered useless to keep me dry in nice, ordinary, vertically falling rain as well.
Anyway, I’ll be heading back here on Friday on my return to the city.
In Vik I’m glad to get off the road. It’s a nice-looking little town on the slope of some sharp crags with a couple hundred yards of empty, flat land stretching to the beach. And when I step out of the car: is this it, is this all the rain, this drizzle? Even a little rain becomes a lot when you’re driving in a strange country.
The Lundi hotel (The Puffin) is nearly empty at this time of the year but I am not the only one here. There’s a french family and a couple of thirty-something guys who don’t speak much. A crowd, for April.
Internet access is free in spite of the sign indicating rates in 10-minute slices, but you have to stand to use it, and that corner, right across from the front desk where people would be bumping into you as they check in and out, is poorly lit. One way of discouraging people not to hang around there all day monopolizing the unique post, I assume.
The rain seems to have let up, so I go for a walk. I’d love to see the Three Sisters, a collection of rock spikes sticking up out of the ocean just offshore. And a good picture of the whitewashed, red-roofed church on its perch above the town would be nice. Well, the rain may be less, but the wind must be even more violent. Glad I’m not driving in it. This is nothing to go out walking in, not for a wimp like me. The geese in the fields I passed earlier didn’t seem to mind it. They were just out there as usual. Even walking with the wind it pushes you; turn around and go into it, and you have to lean hard, making way with your head. If it stops suddenly you’ll pitch forward and dash your head on the gravel walk. I’m going indoors. A couple of sudoku squares and it’ll be time for dinner.
Dinner is pretty good. I think this tiny hotel has the only serious restaurant for many miles around. There are more seats in the dining room than beds in the rooms above, too. I have the fish gratinée - bits of fish and seafood in a mashed potato base, with cream on top. Served with “special bread” that turns out to be just like spice bread you’d find most anywhere in France, heavy like a brick and stuck together with honey. It’s an odd combination, but both parts are excellent. Old-fashioned stick to your ribs food, perfect after a long tiring day.

The weather prediction for Thursday is for less rain, less wind (yea!!) and possibly some sun in the afternoon. I head east toward Skaftafell, stopping wherever the urge to photograph strikes me.
OK, sometimes I don’t stop for pics. There isn’t anywhere to get off the road, and I’m not maniac enough to hike two miles back up the road when I do come to a wide spot. I figure, I’ll be coming back this same route, I’ll see what else there is first.
Here we have lava fields that are bare and sandy. Others are rockier without much moss. Others still are buried under a thick blanket of moss hundreds of years old, looking pillowy and inviting and strange.
Putting rocks on top of other rocks is a local tradition, explains the sign at one rest stop. This is the site where a farm was destroyed in 986, by the very first eruption of some volcano. I look around. What volcano? There is nothing but FLAT for a very long way. And farm? Farm what? This isn’t even an area with a lot of moss. The wind is roaring past with its usual ferocity. How could you get anything growing around here, even sheep?
Surrounding the site are hundreds of little piles of rocks. Maybe eight to sixteen inches tall, involving a dozen to a hundred small rocks. People passing by stop and make their little pile, two or three feet away from the other piles in an evenly spaced pattern, an eerie grid. So many people stop to pile rocks that the highway department trucked in a bunch of rocks just so you wouldn’t have to pilfer from somebody else’s pile to make your own.
On and on and on. To the right the lava plain stretches 5 to 10 km to the sea, cut everywhere by winding streams, none of them much past your knees, probably. On the left, the bluffs are near or far. Sometimes sloping to the level plain and opening up a wide valley, sometimes rising vertically and leaking waterfalls.
Not many people live here. The industry seems to be mining the black volcanic sand. Lots of horse farms - I wonder what they do with all the horses: horsetrekking seems to be popular with the tourists, but enough for all this? They’re not on the menu, in any case. As far as I’ve seen.
Skaftafell at last. For twenty minutes now I’ve been driving with a vast dirty glacier way off to the left. At Skaftafell mountains come down to the coast, and their glacier with them, and if I continue on it will be on a narrow ledge of land overlooking the sea. Just here after the very wide glacial tongue, several narrower, whiter fingers are close enough to get out and hike to. A rare sun break lets me get good photos of two glacier fingers and the surrounding snowcapped crags.
I expected some kind of infrastructure here, at this very popular site. All sorts of signage indicated lodging, shops and food. I’d love a souvenir, and it’s noon. Need Food.
Well. Lodging is either a room in one of the handful of houses, or whatever tent you brought with you. The visitors center advertises bathrooms, shops and a cafeteria. A tour bus is parked out front in a parking lot built for many tour busses. Bathrooms there are. The shops are very closed. Beyond seasonal closure, even. The cafeteria is closed too, and although the bus people are queuing up for a meal, it looks definitely for members only.
The next town of any size, and according to my map it’s the same size as this one and this is not even a town, is 160 km down the road. No way. The next “town” with a name is only 20 km on and I consider it because it’s where the road rejoins the shore. But it’s so small, it’s unlikely to have anything at all beyond a cluster of houses and a place to park.
I’m hungry. I turn back toward Vik where in an hour I’m back at H...... where I got gas so I know there’s at least a snack bar.
It’s a decent sized town, larger than Vik and far more spread out, but the real restaurant is closed. Back to the gas station burger and coke stand. Sigh. The travails of traveling in the off-season. Hey, if I were here in the high season, I realize, I’d be horrified by the crowds, never a vista to myself, traffic all over, stopped cars of idjits taking pictures, prices doubled from the outrageous figures I’m paying now. I’d hate that more.
Burger and fries, please.
One reason to turn back early is to get back to Vik not completely fried, in order to do some hiking on the bluff to the west of town. The view of the Three Sisters rocks in the sea is not very good from the beach, I discovered this morning before hitting the highway, and I’m hoping both to get above them and to get some exercise. If I’d read my guidebook more closely, though, I’d have seen there’s a finger of glacier that touches the sea just another 40-50 km east of where I turned around - with a glacier lagoon full of promenading icebergs. It’s one of the big sights. Not to be missed! But my crying stomach, I missed it. Next time I’ll get a pack of cookies and a bottle of water with my gas, and the heck with lunch.
Ah well, there’s still plenty to see. I turn off to try and get a view of a large stream that’s been parallel to the road for some time. I don’t find a good place for that, but there’s a sign with the symbol for point of interest, so I follow.
It’s a dirt road and I’m not supposed to take the car on dirt roads. Or, I can, I just have to pay for the resulting dents and scratches. The sign didn’t indicate 4WDs only, so I figure it won’t be too bad. It gets steeper and the ‘main’ road splits off. There’s a blind curve up to a blind summit and there’s only one lane here on the degenerating track. Just my luck some Icelander in his monster 4x4 will come barreling over the hill. Forget this. I’ll turn around where I can.
The first turnoff is the parking lot for the sight announced some km previously. Yes there is something to see after all. It’s a canyon, whose unpronouncable name I forget and is absent from my book and maps. It’s 100 meters deep and more than 2 km long. A sort of Grand Canyon of Iceland. A stream is rushing through it, and you can hike all along the eastern lip, where a complex series of buttes and chimneys drop straight down. You can see where daredevils have gone way out onto the fingers of cliff, but in this gusting wind I think I’ll stay to the more secure edges.
It’s a pretty incredible sight. The smooth black cliffsides, their tops of bright moss, the surrounding fields golden with last year’s grass, the white ribbon of water below.
Back in Vik by 3:30 I take a nap. Later I decide that it’s not a great hike up the bluff but I’ve discovered there’s a road around to the other side for a different view of the Three Witches (Witches, Sisters, they can’t decide), as well as one to the next coastal bluff, the southernmost point of Iceland with arches reaching out into the sea. Gotta go and see everything!
Aside from a few sun breaks at midday, the sky has not cleared up at all. The rain is back intermittently and driving I thought the wind was less strong but walking on the exposed coast the wind is as strong as ever.
From Vik, the Three Witches look like two; from the western side they still look like two, just not the same two. Set very close together, you have to be at just the right angle, or in a boat, to see they are three.
The next headland has a lighthouse on top and a complex shoreline with arches and blowholes and rocks standing out to sea and stretches of silky black beach. Soon it will be puffin and booby nesting season, but today there are no birds but gulls nesting on the sheer cliffsides and wheeling around in the air. In yet another way I’m here not quite at the right time to see the special perks of Iceland. I’ll have to come back.
After many pictures of the pure white seafoam on the black sand and black rocks, I hike up to the lighthouse. It’s an uninteresting, modern affair much better seen from afar. The wind up here is truly evil. Not enough to knock me over, but close. One picture and I head back down, noticing how much better it was coming up, with the wind at my back pushing me up the hill.
I’m very glad now to have discovered that the souvenir shop in town was in fact open, and I had picked up not only the only film for miles and a t-shirt, but a headband to keep my ears warm. Those things really work, but this wind is coming through anyway. If I hadn’t left my peruvian hat in the car, I’d put that on too.
Going up to the lighthouse I took a good look around and almost didn’t go, thinking I’d get caught in a downpour just before reaching the top. It didn’t rain after all, not until I was back in my car and back to the paved road. Such luck! But hey, if I get wet, I’ll dry. It’s not like I’m going to melt, or be caught out in it for hours. I must really be getting old, and too attached to comfort. A little rain shouldn’t keep me from an interesting summit, just like a little hunger shouldn’t have kept me from going on to Iceberg Lagoon. Some adventurer I am.
Back at the car I’m surprised to find it’s 7pm already. No wonder the light is getting low. That was a good two hours out messing around taking tone pictures of surf and sand. I don’t thing any of the landscapes will come out - the light is just too poor.
I am the only guest at dinner, unless they had some people earlier. Eight seems to be fairly late for the Icelanders. The restaurant closes at 9:30. I’m definitely the only guest at breakfast: my host has overslept and all was closed at 7:30. At 8 he’s just getting going, very apologetic for the delay. No problem, I say, as long as I can have some coffee.
This morning I plan two stops on the way back to Reykjavik - the Skogar waterfall and the geothermal stuff going on at H.... (check the may later for another unpronouncable name). I’m told it’s a 2-hour drive back to the city, so I should have time for that without worrying about my 3pm rendez-vous with Sice.
The main falls at Skogar I think is rather dull - just a wide curtain, a simple basin. It’s the stairway up the side that got me to stop again, and I’m very happy I did. All the postcards show just the boring part. Upstream there are rapids and several short falls and a trail that will take you still further, around a bend to yet more wild falls. I spend almost an hour poking around, but I know if I go up to that bend it’ll be great and there will be another one and that will be awesome and I’ll be here until nightfall.
I’ll have to come back.
It seems to take a long time to get back to Selfloss, after which I’ll be in new territory. H... is just beyond, but it doesn’t look like anything interesting after all. There are no signs for Points of Interest, and from a distance the thermal vents and boiling mud springs seem to be hooked up in a very industrial way to power the local hothouse businesses and other enterprises. Whatever. I can skip it. Over the hump of a long hill there’s a place with a couple of vents giving off steam, a building, and a tour bus, so I pull over.
The one vent there’s no access to. The others I can see now have been captured and the steam is coming furiously out of a pair of pipes.
Pipes? Feh. I’ll get to Reykjavik in time for lunch this way. Time to stroll around before meeting up with Sice.
The road on into the city is awful. The countryside is barren, but not in a wild, spectacular way. There’s a lot of traffic, too. It’s just a question of getting there now.
It’s not easy to drive in Reykjavik unless you already know where you’re going. It helps that I’ve been there before, to pick out landmarks I know to be in the general area of where I’m headed. Otherwise I’m sure I’d be fatally lost. My hotel is on the main shopping street downtown, which is a single lane lined with fully occupied metered parking along one side. Cars are trolling slowly for parking but there is none. I turn this way and that and finally find a space several blocks from my goal.
The Fron Hotel is nice and clean and comfortable, in a modern impersonal kind of way. I ask for a 5 am alarm and to pay my bill in advance, but am only allowed the first. They promise someone is at the desk all night.
Reykjavik is very walkable in its central part, full of boutiques and chic restaurants. Too nice, really. Meals are running 30 euros for dinner, which I wouldn’t mind in company; alone it’s rather too much. I have a sandwich in a coffee place for lunch, then wander aimlessly around town, trying to get to the waterfront for a view, or to stumble across a square with some unique and crazy Icelandic art.
I passed the container port in the car, and so imagine that the “old” port, so marked on the map, might be a nice, renovated place with a viking ship museum and pleasure boats, cruise ships, and whalewatching excursions. Whalewatching does go out from here, but the rest is industrial: fishing and light freight. And they’re working on it, so it’s also a construction site.
There are some very pricey, candlelit seafood restaurants down at the old port, looking odd in the run-down jumble. And are those fish hanging from the eaves of one warehouse? Yes. Those are fish drying in the alley.
The tourist shops have all the same postcards, the same woolens, both tacky and beautiful, the same picture books. I’d like a book, one with some explanation to go along with the scenery. Even in the bookstores I find no such thing. There are books with only pictures, and books with almost none. Nothing in between.
Finally it’s three and Sice arrives. She’s a graduate student in archeology. She’s Danish and has lived here three years with her husband and kids. We take both cars to the Hrisbru site so she can go directly home later - Reykjavik is not on her way.
In our email exchange Sice said the site was an hour away, but it’s barely 20 minutes. Close enough I would have met her here instead of making her come to town to get me. An hour’s drive, I thought, I’ll surely get lost in the Icelandic place names that all run together in an undecipherable blur.
And as I’m driving along behind her, anticipating an hour, we turn off toward Thingvellir and I think, oh no, it’s part of Thingvellir and I’ve already been there and read all the signs and poked all around...
But it isn’t that far; it’s right here where you can still see the sea, the better to know of people arriving. We pull up in a farmer’s yard, next to the barn. Out back, in a space half the size of my yard, is the latest in Icelandic archeology, covered by protective layers of plastic and sod against the winter. The “season” hasn’t started yet. In fact, the digging season this year will be just three weeks long, in July.
There’s the footprint of a Long House, running about 35 feet by seven or eight, with benches the length of both long walls so you have a single, linear, space. A few yards away is a tiny church; a dozen graves are scattered around, and a square sleeping or storage area is attached to one end of the longhouse.
They thing this may have been the home of the leader of Mossfell, both from its position with a view of the sea and thus of anyone approaching up the valley, the exceptional size of the longhouse, and the presence of a church (barely a chapel; it’s about 6 feet on a side), and the glass beads and precious metal artifacts found indicating much greater wealth than at any nearby site.
Iceland was settled in the 790’s or so, and a layer of ash distinctive of a volcanic eruption in 950 covers the site, bookending at most 160 years of use. At that time the climate was milder, in the Mideval Warm Period, and thus the cultivation of wheat and other grains was easier than it is today, and there were a lot more trees. Perhaps global warming will take us back to a climate the world has already known.
Samples of the recovered skeletons have been sent for genetic analysis, to discover how the people were related to each other and where they most likely came from. Women in Viking settlements of this time were often of Irish stock, a result of Norse plundering there, and among the womens’-work artefacts there are often celtic designs.
The proposed proprietor is the subject of a saga, as many important chieftans or clans of the day were. Ingvar, if I remember the name, met a bad end according to legend. And in fact, one of the adult male skeletons showed very clear signs of having received a tremendous axe-blow to the skull. Bad end indeed.
The relative abundance of trees (bushes, really, not much you could build with) was not so great that another of the graves was not unusual. This person had been cremated in the traditional Norse way, rather than buried as most early Icelanders were. The gathering and sacrifice of enough wood for such a funeral means that it was a high honor indeed for the deceased.
The power and wealth of the colonists waned, depending as it did on trade with mainland Europe and the British archipelago just to survive. The weather turned colder with the end of the Warm Period, making cattle too costly to keep - they ate too much of the ever-harder to cultivate grain and were not suited as sheep and reindeer are to eat the native plants. If the island were farther away the human population may have gone the way of the Danish Greenlanders - disappeared.
In most places, new houses were built on top of the old, identifying the spots to dig when looking for ruins from the first century of settlement. In this case, the chieftan’s home seems to be more than a kilometer away from where the current church of Mossfell - rebuilt and rebuilt for generations like the houses - stands. Archeologists had been looking for this site over there for ages before an observant farmer noticed something odd in his field. This farm too has been rebuilt, but only over the past 100 years or so.
Buildings from the early 19th century to me already look like so many moss-covered boulders, were it not for their arrangement in straight lines and right angles. It stretches my credulity at times to believe that you can identify houses and barns that are millennia into their decay, but if you know what you’re looking for I guess you can.
Sice’s thesis concerns whetstones. I ask how can whetstones take up a whole thesis, and she answers that it’s hard to keep them down to a thesis. There’s no stone suitable in all of Iceland, where there’s plenty of stone but all of it of a few, volcanic, unsuitable kinds. So whetstones had to be imported. Where did they come from? How much were they worth? How were they traded, or passed down? A whole social network is there in whetstones.
When her husband calls for the second time, I take my leave of the kind and friendly Sice and head back to the city to finish my look around. There’s not much to see, really. I photograph the container port from a park arranged just so to look over it, the way other parks are arranged to look over an attractive bay or valley. I get lost trying a new way back to the hotel along the waterfront, in a part of town that grew up long before the invention of cars.
And that’s it. Dinner is lame. All the nice places are either too full or too expensive. I have beer with my meal. Iceland beer. This is on tap, but the label on a bottle the other day declared it was made not just with water but with Icelandic water; not just barley but Icelandic barley.
Alright. That’s authentic. There is a bit of unique taste to it, a vague spiciness possibly related to minerals in the water, but otherwise it’s an ordinary lager.
In the evening at the hotel I am patient. My room is right over the main street of the city, something that didn’t strike me as a problem earlier. It is Friday night, though, and there were all those students walking around in silly costumes. It’s noisy. I figure it will calm down once the bars close.
Only it doesn’t.
I don’t have a watch, there’s no clock in the room, and I’m not sure what time bars usually close on a Friday around here. So I toss and turn and wait for the waves of booming base from passing cars and pedestrians with boomboxes to die down. I think, if I request another room I’ll have to pay for them both because I’ve already used the bed and the shower and stuff.
Gradually, my thinking clears up. I’ve rented this room for the purpose of sleeping, which is patently impossible in the awful racket coming through the poorly set window and resonating through the poorly insulated floor and walls.
Finally I dress and go down to complain.
Too late!
It’s 4:20 already. And the clerk has already filled all of the rooms facing the courtyard with people with enough sense to not put up with the noise nearly so long as I did. She’ll give me 30 % off the bill and she’s really sorry. Anyway, if I really minded I would have come down hours ago. Yeah. I should have. I really should have had the guts to complain immediately. No waiting for the bars to close, I should be able to sleep in my room whenever I want to. Only, it’s not in my training to complain. Stay quiet and ride it out, that’s the way to make it through.
Next time, I promise myself. I’ll stick up for me.
The bars are in fact closed now, but the noise continues unabated. There are fewer passing cars and the so-called music seems to have stopped passing down the street in waves, to consolidate into two competing fixed sources, one of which is directly below my window.
There’s nothing the hotel clerk can do about it but try to move people around. The noisemakers have the legal right to make as much noise as they want all night long both Friday and Saturday, she explains.
Great. So why didn’t anyone mention that when I checked in? Why didn’t they at least give me a room at the back? I would never have stayed here if I’d known.
The clerk agrees, completely. 30 % is all she can do, she says, given that I waited to within an hour of my wake-up call. Write to the management, she says.
I’ll do that, I say.
But I don’t. After an uneventful trip home I’m wrapped up in greeting my cats, dealing with the garden that suddenly discovered spring in my absence, and catching up on three weeks of work.
So that was Iceland. None of my pictures came out. Not enough light, far too much humidity. Seeing for myself was enough. It’s a magnificent country, and I’ll have to go back for a month, with company, to take a closer look.

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