The Golden Circle

Thingvellír on Iceland’s Golden Circle Tour

If you should be so lucky as to visit Iceland, I highly recommend taking the Golden Circle tour offered by several tour bus companies. It attempts—and successfully—to highlight the uniqueness of the country by visiting three or four major attractions within a short distance of the capital at Reykjavík.

Before it got gobbled up by Norway, Iceland was governed by an annual outdoor meeting at Thingvellír, where the laws were read out loud and cases were tried to resolve conflicts. It also is a significant site geologically, as the line between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs right through it. You can see how much the plates have moved since the early days of the 9th century AD.

The Waterfall at Gullfoss

Not far from Thingvellír is the huge waterfall at Gullfoss (“Golden Falls”) on the Hvitá River. The falls is in three “steps” before plunging 11 metres or 36 feet, and 21 metres or 69 feet as seen in the above picture. One of the most incredible things about Iceland is that, throughout the country, I saw hundreds of waterfalls of various sizes.

The Geyser Strokkur at the Original Geysir

The word geyser comes from the name of a famous erupting hot spring which, for many reasons, does not erupt any more. Not to worry: There are dozens of other geysers, especially Strokkur, which erupts several times an hour. There are numerous bubbling hot springs throughout Iceland, necessitating considerable care to avoid boiling your extremities as the result of a misstep.

Some of the Golden Circle tours also include sa visit to a geothermal power plant on the route back to Reykjavík. It was incredible to me that the whole city of Reykjavík has central heating: no coal, no oil, no gas—but steam as the result of drilling strategic holes in the earth’s crust near lava and sending water down the hole.

Iceland is one of the most eerily beautiful countries on earth, even if it isn’t very green.

How Not To Be Mistaken for an American Tourist

Second Class Buses in Antigua Guatemala

If you actually want to look like an American tourist, stay the hell away from me. When you look at me as if I were a fellow gringo, I will answer you in my rather coarse Hungarian. I don’t want to be anywhere near you with your flip flops, fanny packs, baseball caps, and selfie sticks. You will be the target for anyone who can rip you off in broken English, and I don’t want to be a witness to that.

I remember my friend Janice. Her ex-boyfriend took her to Europe, but they didn’t really see anything. He was what I call an “experiential traveler”: “Hey, look at me. I’m walking on the Champs-Elysées” or “Hey, we’re in Amsterdam. Isn’t this cool?” They took pictures of each other in front of various famous locations which they didn’t take the time to visit. If I were her, I would have dumped his inert corpse into the canal.

Early Morning on Laugarvegur in Reykjavík, Iceland

The best way to enjoy strange places is to explore them—and not in large groups. I keep thinking of Rudyard Kipling, no mean traveler himself, who wrote in “The Winner”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.

I have on occasion been tempted to replace the word “fastest” with “farthest.” I have done most of my traveling alone, especially as Martine thinks I am too adventurous for her comfort. On the other hand, I have enjoyed traveling with her and on two separate occasions with my brother. But as soon as I find myself in a large group of Americans, I quickly search for the nearest exit.

When I was in Mexico last year, I frequently hired guides by myself at the various Maya ruins I visited. Rather than joining a group that sauntered around absentmindedly, I enjoyed asking questions of the guides, who invariably knew their stuff. As opposed to the tour guide the parents of one of my friends had in Yucatán: He told his boat people tourists that the Maya ruins were built by Egyptians.

I know I must come across like a horrible grump sometimes, but I have had numerous bad encounters in foreign countries with my fellow Americans. And yet, in 2013, when I went to Iceland for a second time, I helped a couple of French tourists find a hotel in Höfn in the Hornstrandir, where no one spoke their language.

A Long Flight to … Where?

This may sound strange to you, but I am surviving the rigors of self-quarantine because I am good at lying to myself.

The Coronavirus Quarantine Is Sort of Like Jet Lag

I have on occasion taken some longish flights to Europe and South America. The ones to Europe are particularly problematical because I arrive early in the morning after a night that has lasted for only a few hours. I know that if I drop into bed upon check-in at my hotel, I will awake while it is still light; and I won’t be able to go to sleep until the next morning.

So what do I do?

  • First of all, I pretend to myself during the flight that I am somehow outside of time, and that during the flight, time has no meaning.
  • Most important, I set my watch to the time zone of my destination. Nobody else I know does this: They insist on holding on to the time zone of their city of origin.
  • When I arrive, I stay awake until it is a reasonable bedtime in my destination.

When I went to Iceland, for example, I arrived in June—when the sun doesn’t set until the wee hours of the morning. I ate extra meals, went on a walking tour of Reykjavík, and finally collapsed in bed while the sun was still up around midnight. I woke up refreshed at an acceptable time the next morning.

So what does all this have to do with the coronavirus? Fortunately, Martine and I are retired, so I could pretend that this whole period of the outbreak is like a long flight to nowhere.

A Nook of My Library Circa 2002

I have in my apartment several thousand books as well as hundreds of films on DVD. With my subscription to Spectrum Cable, I have access to hundreds of films for no additional cost using their On Demand service. Plus: As a member of Amazon Prime, I have access to thousands of other films.

So on my “flight” to nowhere during this seemingly endless quarantine, I am reading 12-18 books a month as well as seeing 25 or more feature films a month. (And in between reading and film viewing, I do all the cooking and go out for walks.)

I realize I would be in a radically different situation if I had to worry about a job, but fortunately I don’t. I have to worry that that madman in the White House may decide to cancel Social Security or destroy the value of the American dollar, but other than that I am not dependent on the workplace—though I am affected when restaurants are shuttered, museums and libraries closed, and so on.

There is an 1884 novel by a French writer named Joris-Karl Huysmans called Against Nature (in French À Rebours) about a dilettante names Jean des Esseintes who, instead of actually going on a vacation, does an armchair traveler “staycation” and is happy about it. The epigraph to the novel is a quote from the 14th century Flemish mystic Jan van Ruysbroeck:

“I must rejoice beyond the bounds of time…though the world may shudder at my joy, and in its coarseness know not what I mean.”

Strokkur

The Geyser Strokkur (“Churn”) Erupts

Everyone knows what a geyser is, but do you know that it is named after a particular geyser named Geysir in the Haukadalur Valley east of Reykjavík, Iceland? Its situation is similar to that of Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. In their hurry to precipitate an eruption hordes of tourists over the years have poured detergents and other foreign substances into the holes and succeeded only in making the eruptions more sporadic and unpredictable.

Tourists still visit the area in great numbers in the various Golden Circle or Great Circle tours offered by coach lines. (These tours usually include Þingvellir National Park and the waterfall at Gullfoss, among others.) Instead of waiting for Geysir, they have the nearby frequent eruptions of Strokkur, “The Churn,” which sends a column of steam 15-40 meters high every 6-10 minutes.

Tourists Waiting for the Next Eruption of Strokkur


Iceland has a number of these geothermal areas. Visiting them calls for a certain amount of care as a slight misstep can result in boiling your foot as the soil around your footprints starts to sink. Not all of these areas are carefully fenced; and tourists, being their usual irrepressible selves, have a tendency to risk a serious hotfoot.

Two English Poets in Iceland

The Falls at Gullfoss Around the Time of Auden and MacNeice’s Visit

Around 1936, W.H. Auden and his companion Louis MacNeice visited Iceland, which resulted in a delightful travel-cum-poetry book entitled Letters from Iceland. Here are a few excerpts from the poetic “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard” signed by MacNeice:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais-je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air.
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth,
The tourist sights have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge.
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.

Later in the poem, he becomes more reflective:

Here is a different rhythm, the juggled balls
Hang in the air—the pause before the soufflé falls,
Here we can take a breath, sit back, admire
Stills from the film of life, the frozen fire;
Among these rocks can roll upon the tongue
Morsels of thought, not jostled by the throng,
Or morsels of un-thought, which is still better….

Harðfiskur

Both the prose and the poetry are worth reading. For instance, here is Auden’s opinion on the cuisine of the island:

Dried fish [harðfiskur] is a staple food in Iceland. This should be shredded with the fingers and eaten with butter. It varies in toughness. The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.

 

 

In Iceland? Don’t Take the Train!

The Only Locomotive in Iceland

Although there has been talk about building a railroad connecting the international airport at Keflavík with the capital at Reykjavík, no one has laid any rails yet. The funny thing is that there have been Icelandic/English phrasebooks with entire sections on how to catch a train in Iceland. Too bad that there has never been a railroad with passenger service in the island nation.

The locomotive in the photo above was used to help load and unload ships in the Old Harbor area of Reykjavík. It rests on some narrow-gauge rails not exceeding some twenty feet in length.

If you want to get around Iceland, you just may have to take the bus.

 

Midnight in Reykjavík

The Guesthouse Óðinn in Reykjavík—At Midnight Around the Summer Solstice

The first time I visited Iceland, in 2001, I went in June. In 2013, I went again—this time in June so that I could see “The Land of the Midnight Sun” for myself. My first day back in Reykjavík, I deliberately stayed up late. I believe it turned out to be a 32-hour day, as the whole country is on Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). It turned out to be a day and evening crowded with sights:

  • I took a harbor tour to see the puffins
  • Twice, I stopped in at Bæjarins Bestu for their famous pylsur (that’s hot dogs in Icelandic)
  • I discovered pear-flavored skyr (like yogurt) at a market on Austurvöllur
  • I had a delicious and leisurely fish dinner at the Fish Company on Vesturgata
  • As a lover of Icelandic Sagas, I visited the Culture House on Hverfisgata to see the original manuscripts
  • I toured the Settlement Exhibition, which is an archeological dig of one of the first settlements in the city dated around AD 871
  • Finally, I took a ghost walking tour of Reykjavík, including the cemetery on Suðurgata

After the walking tour, I was good and tired, but I knew that I didn’t want to hit the sack until after midnight local time to minimize the jet lag. (That actually worked.) Secondly, I wanted to see when it started to get dark. I wasn’t about to stay up until 3 am local time, but I did snap a picture of my bed & breakfast right around midnight. Fortunately, the guesthouse had good blackout curtains, so I was able to drift off within minutes of hitting the pillow.

 

Like Nowhere Else on Earth

Fumaroles on the Road to Þingvellir

It isn’t long after you leave the airport at Keflavík that you see with your own eyes that Iceland is like nowhere else on earth. You are now in Volcanoland, on an island where there is an almost total lack of trees. There is an old joke: What do you do when you’re lost in an Icelandic forest? The answer: Stand up. Nowhere in Iceland are there trees in any number that tower above the human form. There are black sand beaches, steam venting from fumaroles visible between Keflavík and Reykjavík, hotel showers that smell of sulphur, strange ice floes tinged with a light blue shade, seemingly hundreds of waterfalls, numerous active volcanoes—and that is only the beginning.

I have been to Iceland twice, in 2001 and 2013. And I want to go again. It’s not exactly a budget destination. Yet the country is teeming with European tourists, mostly of the backpacker persuasion.

Duck-Shaped Ice Floe in the Lagoon at Jökulsárlón

On both of my trips, I visited Jökulsárlón, the lagoon full of blue-tinged ice floes from the giant Vatnajökull Glacier that is the largest in Europe. I took an amphibious boat tour of the lagoon and even tasted the ancient ice from the glacier. The lagoon is so striking that all scheduled buses passing it stop over for around an hour so that the tourists can get their fill of the sights.

Strange Rock Formations at Dimmuborgir by Lake Mývatn

The strange rock formations at Dimmuborgir by the southeast shore of Lake Mývatn are said to be the homes of elves who suddenly pop up through a hidden door and drag unsuspecting Icelanders to their subterranean halls.

Even in Reykjavík, there are strange unexplained things. To avoid jet lag, I took a ghost walk from the old harbor to the cemetery of Hólavallagarður. Although I slept well that night, I had the strangest dreams.

 

Letter from Iceland

View Around Mývatn in Northeast Iceland

In the Thirties, two English poets, W. H. Auden and Louis MacNeice, took a trip to Iceland. Auden wrote a book, published in 1936, called Letters from Iceland, which consisted of mixed prose, poetry, and photographs. The following is from a longer poem in Chapter III entitled “Letter to Graham and Anne Shepard”:

So I came here to the land the Romans missed,
Left for the Irish saint and the Viking colonist.
But what am I doing here? Qu’allais je faire
Among these volcanic rocks and this grey air?
Why go north when Cyprus and Madeira
De jure if not de facto are much nearer?
The reason for hereness seems beyond conjecture,
There are no trees or trains or architecture,
Fruits and greens are insufficient for health
And culture is limited by lack of wealth.
The tourist sites have nothing like Stonehenge,
The literature is all about revenge,
And yet I like it if only because this nation
Enjoys a scarcity of population
And cannot rise to many bores or hacks
Or paupers or poor men paying Super-Tax.
Yet further, if you can stand it, I will set forth
The obscure but powerful ethics of Going North.
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *    *     *
In England one forgets—in each performing troupe
Forgets what one has lost, there is no room to stoop
And look along the ground, one cannot see the ground
For the feet of the crowd, and the lost is never found.
I dropped something, I think, but I am not sure what
And cannot say if it mattered much or not,
So let us get on or we shall be late, for soon
The shops will close and the rush hour be on.

The reference to a “lack of wealth” refers to the relative poverty of Iceland until it became an independent country in 1946. Under the Danes,  the Icelanders were one of the poorest peoples in Europe. No longer.

In Dubious Terrain

Volcanic Steam Vents Near Þingvellir Iceland

It is almost five years since I last set foot in Iceland. Curiously, most of the vacations I have had since then have been in earthquake and volcanic zones. It is almost as if being in highly dubious terrain has become a metaphor for my life. All those Icelandic steam vents, all those fumaroles—they are a handy symbol for the curve balls that life can throw at you. I am reminded of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, in which Pilgrim must walk a straight and narrow path from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City, which is Heaven.

My first memory of Iceland, going back to my first visit in 2001, was of all the steam vents on the Reykjanes Peninsula between Keflavík Airport and Reykjavík. Then, too, there were those fields of geysers where one had to stay on the path if one didn’t want to fall through the crust and end up boiled to death within seconds.

The Volcano Sabancaya in Eruption Near Arequipa, Peru

In my seventy-third year on this earth, I find I must walk on the straight and narrow path lest I fall by the wayside. Living with Martine was a pleasant distraction—one I would gladly suffer again—but on my own, there are more things that can happen to me. I am determined to take good care of myself, insomuch as that is possible.

As you read these little squibs of mine, I should not be surprised if you could tell that something is wrong before I can inform you of the details.

In the meantime, I continue to plan for my vacation later this year in Guatemala, another land of earthquakes and volcanoes.