Incredible Iceland Part II

 Merry Christmas to Tales and Travel fans. For all about Christmas in southern France, see my previous post, “Noel en Provence,” Dec. 2010. And, just in time for holiday reading, more Iceland:blog2.16

“Of Horses and Men,” a strange but captivating movie about Iceland, piqued our curiosity about the country.   We saw the movie several weeks before departure for our Icelandic adventure. The horses were sensational. I knew I would have to ride an Icelandic horse.

I did earn a Girl Scout badge in horsemanship at the age of 12. Too, too long ago. But, I have always been enamored of horses and have ridden off and on (mostly off) since my childhood.   I am definitely not an accomplished rider, but riding an Icelandic horse seemed so easy in the film.blog2.1

It’s the tölt, the fifth gait of these small, sturdy horses which were originally imported by the Vikings.   A trot? A running walk? Whatever, the tölt is amazing to watch. The horse moves at a gentle speed, precisely, rhythmically moving legs up and down, while the rider seems frozen to the saddle. No bouncing, jolting, posting.   “You can drink a glass of champagne while the horse tölts,” it is said.blog2.17

Forget the champagne, let’s just ride. And, we did, with Andres and Luka, a young couple who have 25 horses at their riding company in northern Iceland.    Husband VR (Vino Roberto) is (or was) dedicated to a bicycle saddle. He is not thrilled about riding a horse, but he put up a brave front and joined me and Karen, a woman from our conference group. We followed our leaders up and blog2.19down rocky hills, through fields, with superb views of the non-too distant sea. VR was not at ease. Those steep downhills freaked him out. He was all too happy to dismount so Andres could take Karen and me to flat land for at try at tölt.

We charged along, but I was bouncing, painfully jerking up and down, to and fro. I tried to post. No go. This can’t be the tölt. After about just 10 minutes of this agonizing experience, we gave up. Apparently it takes skill to get the horse to switch to this gait. Even Karen, who is a riding instructor in the US, was only briefly successful.

I am still happy that I rode an Icelandic horse. It is one of the many adventures touted in the tourist brochures.blog2.8

Along our drive in the north country we encountered more horses, a roundup – exactly like the scene in the movie. Icelandic horses are driven up to mountain pastures where they roam freely during the summer. In the fall they are driven back to the lowlands. We stopped to watch the horses, corralled in different pens, being claimed, and then separated, by their respective owners. All the horses are micro chipped, we learned. Many wanted no part of leaving their summer friends and gave their owners a challenge, resisting attempts to move into different pens. It was an exciting spectacle.blog2.3

A few sheep were held in other pens . Sheep are as prevalent in Iceland as pigeons in Venice. They, too, spend the summer in the mountains. Most had been rounded up earlier. Those we saw were stragglers left behind who joined the horse procession to the valleys.blog2.2

Horses and sheep are important to the Icelandic economy. But, not nearly as important as fish. Today the fishing industry accounts for about half of the country’s GDP. We joined a whale watching cruise but saw only a few tails of distant whales for nano seconds. Fishing was offered on board. It did not excite me, but I did brave the cold winds on deck to take photos of the fishermen and women.blog2.21

Incredible! Almost as soon as they would throw a line into the choppy sea, a bite. They hauled in fish after fish, sizeable critters, mainly haddock but some mackerel. One woman caught six in less than a half hour. This did excite me. I had to give it a try. Too late. All the hungry fish had been caught, or the word had spread underwater that this was a dangerous offering. No matter. A chef on board instantly cleaned and grilled the fish – fabulous.blog2.10

A word about whales. Iceland, despite global condemnation, is engaged in commercial whaling. The country did respond to diplomatic pressure in 2012 and renounced hunting of fin whales. Minke whale hunting continues, mainly for export to Japan. I did see whale on some restaurant menus, but Icelanders are said to eat little whale.

“It’s all emotional. The countries who criticize us are doing far worse,” said a worker at a fish factory.blog2.11

We had another fishy outing, joining a “Sea to Table” excursion. First stop, a smelly factory where fish are prepared for export. We were suited up for the tour – white plastic coats, blue hair nets, shoe cover-ups. A perfect Halloween costume.blog2.12

Much of the fish processing is automated, but we did watch skillful employees undertake the initial step – off with head, out with the guts – at record speed.

The best part followed, a “grand crab feast” at a nearby restaurant, Vitinn, where mussels and other sea creatures are kept in live holding tanks. The restaurant’s claim to fame is rock crab, a marine delicacy found only in Icelandic waters and off the east coast of North America. The meal began with an exquisite crab soup, then a buffet of an overwhelming assortment of shell fish.blog2.13

In the town of Höfn, I savored another sea delicacy, what Icelanders call “ lobster,” but is actually langoustine. Pricey, but delicious.

VR is not a vegetarian, but much prefers fish to meat. He was in his element in Iceland where fish is on every restaurant menu, usually many different kinds. Atlantic char is a favorite and tasty. What about all those sheep? Lamb, too, is on many a menu. Because the lamb graze freely all summer, chowing down on chemical-free grass and herbs, the meat is extra tender. We met an American woman, a frequent Iceland visitor, who takes large quantities of vacuum packed lamb home with her.

blog2.22Fish and lamb aside, my favorite Icelandic food is skyr, a yogurt like concoction made from skimmed milk. It’s extra creamy , rich, decadent – but low in fat. It is often mixed with fruit flavors. Since food in Iceland is very expensive (see previous post “Incredible Iceland”) we often bought containers of skyr to have in the room for our after dinner dessert.

Iceland is paradise for adventure seekers with a laundry list of offerings: glacier hikes, trips inside volcanoes, scuba diving and snorkeling, caving, rafting…. We went for an ATV (All Terrain Vehicle) outing. These were heavy, monstrous vehicles. Again, a uniform was required: Bright orange coveralls, boots, gloves and helmet. The how-to briefing was that — brief. I let VR take the wheel, but had intended to give it a try during the ride.blog2.14

I quickly changed my mind. We were a large group, about 18 vehicles, with a leader in the front vehicle and another bringing up the rear. Just 10 minutes into the ride, an abrupt stop.  We waited and waited, then got off and walked ahead to investigate what the holdup was.

A vehicle was overturned at the bottom of a cliff. Fortunately the driver and passenger had been thrown off and were lying on the ground above the crashed ATV.   It took time for assistance and medical personnel to arrive. The victims were taken to a hospital. Both suffered severe injuries, complicated bone breaks. After a stay in a hospital in Iceland, they returned to the U.S. for surgery.

The ride continued. My desire to drive was quashed.  VR said it was fun, but I found the journey too long and too cold. The scenery, like much of Iceland, was barren, bleak. It quickly became monotonous.blog2.15

Never mind, we all went on for a soothing afternoon at Iceland’s number one tourist attraction: the Blue Lagoon, an enormous outdoor pool of geothermal water. There is even a bar in the center offering cocktails. And, a station with silica mud deposits to smear on your face – good for the skin and wrinkles.

I am a swimmer. I like to move in the water. These warm spa pools bore me after about 10 minutes. But, one cannot visit Iceland without a soak in the Blue Lagoon. A fitting way to end our two-week journey in Incredible Iceland.blog2.7

Horseback riding with Andres and Luka, a delightful couple who invited us for refreshment in their home after the ride, www.Icelandhorsetours.com

Whale watching and fishing: Elding Whale Watching, www.elding.is

Vitinn Seafood restaurant, www.vitinn.isblog2.4

No new recipe this time. But, the grape salad (top right) is fabulous, a perfect accompaniment to a holiday dinner.

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Incredible Iceland

blog.sceneRain gushed from the heavens. Ferocious winds ripped the car door from my hand. It was frigid. The only sight was a wall of gray/white. Welcome to Iceland. I was devastated. We left warm and sunny Provence for this? The warning of a friend haunted me. “Why would you want to go to Iceland? They trained for the moon landing in Iceland. It rains all the time.”blog.ringrdThere was no turning back. Husband Vino Roberto (VR) and I set off in our rental car for a seven day venture, driving Iceland’s Ring Road, a 1,600 kilometer (992 miles)  circuit around the island. When the fog began to lift, depression intensified. Flat, brown, barren landscape. No trees. No buildings. Ugly!blog.0Fortunately things did improve, but Iceland is not for sissies. The country has some breathtaking scenery, but much of Iceland is desolate, vast tracts of varying shades of brown and black.   No vegetation. Sparse civilization. The weather…not much sun, at least in September. Of the country’s 320,000 citizens, more than half live in Reykjavik, the capital.blogglacier.2“Iceland weather is very unpredictable,” a local said. Another quipped, “We don’t have bad weather. You just have to dress for it. In one day, we have four seasons in Iceland. ”blogglacier.7That proved to be true. Often the sun would sneak through the dense cloud cover, usually only briefly, casting its intense rays on all below for what seemed a miraculous transformation. Mountains, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanoes, geysers, lakes, mud pots —we marveled at all. Iceland is overloaded with amazing natural wonders.blog.phone“Most travelers come to Iceland for nature, for the landscape,” we were told. And, adventure. In Iceland, you can hike across glaciers or to the top of a volcano, descend into a volcano, explore caves, drive All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs)  and snowmobiles, snorkel, scuba dive, surf, ski, ride horses… Our adventure was limited to horseback riding, an ATV tour, whale watching, fishing, and soaking in the legendary Blue Lagoon.blog.lagoon2The most spectacular sight during our tour was the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon. We were lucky. The luminous blue waters with their great chunks of ice glistened in sunshine. It was beyond beautiful. We walked around the shores, awe struck by the scene, as were many film makers. The lagoon has been a set in many movies. From the lagoon we followed a stream where all sizes of iceberg bits floated on to the sea, many then tossed back onto the black sand beach by the waves.blog.phone3The sun stayed away during most of our visit to the Skatafell National Park, a wilderness area of flora and fauna at the base of Vatnajökull, the largest ice cap outside the poles. Numerous glaciers flow from the ice hulk and there are active volcanoes underneath. Most visitors opt for a trip to glacial heights where they blogglacier.1can drive snowmobiles or hike across the glacier with a guide. Instead we hiked to Sksftafellsjokull as suggested by my Lonely Planet guide book, a one-hour trek to the dirty, gritty glacier face. Even though it was hardly a thing of beauty, its monstrous size was an overwhelming sight. A flash downpour drenched us as we hiked, but within a few minutes, the sun popped out.blogglacier.3Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, an 18,000 kilometer long rift between two of the earth’s major tectonic plates.   It is the youngest country in Europe, formed 17 to 20 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions along the joint of the North American and Eurasian plates. Molten rock continues to rise from within blogpark.2forcing the plates apart. We saw the result at Thingvellir National Park, walking along the path through Almannagja near where the plates tear farther away from each other at the rate of 1 to 18 mm per year. The path between two great walls of rock is dramatic, however it is not actually between the two continental plates.geyserGeysers and waterfalls abound in Iceland. The country’s most famous geyser is Geysir which gave its name to geysers throughout the world. Unfortunately it became clogged when tourists threw rocks into it back in the 1950s so it remains quiet. But just next door is Stokkur, a most reliable geyser that delights the camera crowd with eruptions every five to 10 minutes. The bizarre landscape around the geyser is fun to explore: pools of bubbling mud, steam surging from the earth.falls.1Gullfoss, Dettifoss, Goöafoss — three major waterfalls we visited along our journey. I failed to get a good photo. These are powerful falls producing powerful sprays. The skies were dark when we visited. At mighty Dettifoss which has the greatest volume of water of any waterfall in Europe, a dangerous gale-like wind added challenge. VR had to hold on to me lest the wicked wind blow me into the furious water as I tried to take a picture.

In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.
In pursuit of a perfect photo, I almost ended up in this falls.

Visiting these falls is not for the faint of heart. There are no guard rails, no secure viewing platforms at most. Hike to the site, usually down slippery steps, across rocky terrain.   At Goöafoss you have to jump from rock to rock to cross a pool before reaching the edge of the falls. It was too much for one woman who froze in the middle, afraid to move in any direction. Her husband finally coaxed her back to solid ground.blogfalls.6Volcanoes – active, extinct, dormant.   Iceland has all. Several active volcanoes are beneath glaciers causing dramatic eruptions when molten lava and ice interact. The 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull caused serious flooding, as well as world disruption thanks to its ash that grounded Europe’s airplanes. During our September visit Bardarbunga was erupting, but in a remote, uninhabited area. For $1,500 you could take an airplane ride above the fiery cauldron.

Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.
Pseudo craters in the Lake Myvatn area.

The volcano continues to erupt, but Icelanders seem to take it all in stride.  However John Stevenson, a volcano researcher at the University of Edinburgh, told Newsweek last week (Oct.15) that the lava and sulfur fumeshave been reaching unhealthy levels in large parts of the country. The area affected depends on the wind direction but includes Reykjavik. It has been causing painful eyes and throats, led to cancelation of sporting events, and asthmatics are encouraged to stay indoors.” Glad we visited in September.

Viti crater with floodwater pool.
Viti crater with floodwater pool.

While much of our drive was through bleak, bare terrain, even it had its charms – a strange, mysterious, eerie beauty. In the mountainous interior region of the north where there are no towns, no farms, no houses, suddenly we’d spot a lonely sheep.   We drove through many a fishing village, but there were no weather beaten boats tended by wrinkled fishermen. The boats appeared freshly painted, often in vivid colors. The villages are pristine.blog.boats3aYes, parts of Iceland do seem lunar like. And, rain is frequent. Nonetheless the Land of Fire and Ice is incredibly intriguing — and well worth a visit.blog.04More on Iceland coming in Incredible Iceland Part II – horses, fish, food, adventure. Don’t miss it.  If you are not a Tales and Travel follower, please sign up with your email address at upper right. Your address is kept private and never shared. Please comment, Leave a Reply below. I love feedback. And, try Today’s Taste recipe, Almond Pear Clafouti, also upper right. You won’t be disappointed..blog.mudpot.3Travel Tips: Iceland is expensive, very expensive. A simple meal in an average restaurant can easily cost $35 and up. A beer: $8. A glass of wine: $11 (This put a crimp on VR’s drinking habit.)    I had hoped to buy an Icelandic sweater, but prices start at about $150. A nice one: $200. No sweater for me.   I complained about the high prices to a shop owner. “When we go to the states, we shop like mad. Everything is so cheap.”blog.misc2A 7-night, 8-day Ring Road Highlights self-drive trip from Iceland Travel costs from €868 (about $1041) which includes the rental car, accommodations and breakfasts. http://www.icelandtravel.com Gasoline is expensive,$7.74 per gallon. Follow Tales and Travel on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/talesandtravel  And me on Twitter: @larkleah