I had been wanting to visit Iceland for a long time, and this year I finally made it. I chose the end of June, to take advantage of the light all day long and because it's not too cold, and I loved the trip. Iceland is a kind of amplified blend between the Azores and Norway, but with its own unique character.
We arrived at Reykjavik at night, but it was light, since the sun doesn't set at this time of year. In the morning, we headed from our hotel to the city, guided by the bulky silhouette of Hallgrimsjirkja, a church that is so much bigger than the city around it that can be seen from everywhere dominating the city landscape. With a design inspired by the geometric basalt formations ubiquitous all through the island, the church is a beautiful building, with a spacious and very brightly lit interior and a terrific view from the tower over the city: the colourful houses, the blue sea and the snowy mountains in the horizon, a good introduction to Iceland.
From the church, we strolled down through the city to the harbour, then up again to the Parliament square and the lake; Reykjavik is a small city but with a cosmopolitan look, with all the tourists and the terraces of the cafés, and in a strikingly beautiful setting by the sea. It was sunny and warm, so we enjoyed the outdoors and spent some quality time sipping drinks in café terraces. The next day it wasn't so sunny - the weather in Iceland is very windy and it changes often in a matter of minutes - so we visited the Settlement Exhibition, the Iceland national Museum (both very good) and the Art Museum dedicated to contemporary art (mostly awful). We strolled by the seaside from the Harpa modern building to the beautiful Sun Voyager sculpture (with the inevitable Japanese tourists taking selfies) and the next day started our road trip around the island.
The car rental girl told us about the insurance conditions, how it covered gravel scratches - lots of gravel roads in Iceland - but not sandstorms' accidents and, before leaving, she said casually "Oh, and be careful when you open the doors, if the wind rips them away, it's not covered by the insurance either". We were a little perplexed, but later we would understand her point.
Road number 1, also known as the Ring Road, circles the whole island and is the best road in Iceland - which doesn't mean it's not gravel in some places. A rainy drive took us to Gullfoss, our first stop in the so called Golden Circle (Gullfoss, the Geysir and Þingvellir). Gullfoss it's an incredible waterfall, huge and stunningly beautiful. It was very cold, with the wind and the water blown from the waterfall, but I didn't think about it while I was watching it from every possible angle. After Gullfoss, we went to see the Geysir. The Geysir itself is inactive, but its neighbour the Strokkur erupts every 5 to 10 minutes and provides a gorgeous sight. Then, the Þingvellir Park is terrifically beautiful, we walked in the rift that separates the American from the European tectonic plaques, with the site of the ancient Icelandic parliament marked with a flag and a powerful waterfall with a pool where they used to drown women guilty of adultery.
After spending the night at Stokkseyri, a small fishing village, we went back east to the Reykjanes peninsula, a harsh landscape of lava fields with grey-green moss and a savage rocky coast beaten by wind and sea. In the middle, we had the experience of the Blue Lagoon, the beautiful very blue thermal pools that are the most visited tourist attraction in Iceland. Very touristily organized, it's worth the visit - the water is delightfully hot and the pools insanely beautiful, and it's a somewhat surreal experience to be immersed in the hot water in the drizzling cold rain, surrounded by the mist from the water vapour. The details of the organization are also interesting, especially the "shower police" (people who watch if you really shower naked before entering the pools).
Heading west along the south coast, we stopped at Hverasvaedid, a site with volcanic activity full of bubbling mudpots and sulphur stinking smokes, then at the beautiful waterfall of Skógafoss and drove across green pastures full of sheep and horses (of which there are lots in Iceland) and across the barren black basalt ashen deserts along the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier that reminded me of the Capelinhos region in Faial, Azores, and arrived at the pretty village of Kirkjabaejaklaustur, with its scenic twin cataracts and the tallest trees in Iceland (a mostly treeless country) for the night. The Icelandic names are often long and difficult to pronounce, usually joining words - like klaustur (monastery), fjall (mountain), kirkja (church), foss (waterfall), etc. Sheep in Iceland are everywhere, fat, woolly, short-legged and totally unconcerned by the traffic - they crossed the roads anytime and one must pay them attention while driving. Horses are short and stocky, with long manes, very beautiful.
The next highlight was the Skaftafell Park, by the Vatnajökull glacier, the biggest glacier in Europe. The views of the glacier are stunning, and we walked across green slopes and several waterfalls until Svartifoss, a beautiful waterfall in a basalt cliff with hexagonal columns on both sides. From there, a short drive took us into one of the most surreally beautiful places in Iceland - Jökulsárlón, a lake full of big ice blocks in different shapes that come cut loose from the glacier and flow down to the sea. It's a really strange sight, from another world, the bluish blocks of ice in the lake, and then we can see them on the black sand beach and being washed to the sea. It was there that we understood the remark by the girl from the rental car, because the man at the hotel in Kirkjabaejaklaustur had told us that a few weeks before a wind storm had washed away to the see all the ice blocks, leaving the lake empty. After having seen the lake and the blocks, we believed that kind of wind could perfectly rip a door from a car.
In Höfn, a small town - every town is small in Iceland - we tasted the famous langoustine, which was very good, a "glacier beer" and a nice dessert imaginatively called "skyr volcano". Skyr is an Icelandic food that looks like yoghurt but is actually a kind of cream cheese, very tasty. There are very good fish dishes, namely soups; as for other Iceland delicacies, dried fish looks and tastes like carton, fermented shark is just plain awful (tastes like rotten meat, which is what it is) and I didn't tried sheep's head or ram's testicles. I was surprised to see whale meat on sale, I figured a civilised country like Iceland would support the ban on that meat.
The next night was spent at Vinland, near Egilsstadir, near the big lake of Lagarfljót, that claims to have a monster like Nessie. From there, we went to visit the Eastern Fjords. We headed first to Mjóifjördur; the road was gravel, and from a sunny and reasonably warm day we entered a region that was colder and colder, mistier and mistier, the road was getting worse and worse, and we ended up in a kind of Narnia in the fog, the road impassable without a 4 wheel drive, and turned back. So we went to Seydisfjördur instead, up a steep slope, across a snowy plateau, and down another steep slope, coming into this prettiest of places: the lovely harbour town of Seydisfjordur, with its colourful Norwegian wooden houses, in this scenic setting by the blue sea and among tall snowy mountains with small waterfalls running down.
Back on the Ring Road, we drove towards the Mývatn region, in North Iceland. The first stop was at Krafla, one of the most active volcanic regions. After a hike through lava fields and over snowy passes, we reached an area of sulphataras and hot ground, with very recent craters. Back to the road, we stopped then at another field of bubbling mudpots, before spending a very enjoyable couple of hours at the warm pools, under a blue sky and with a beautiful view over the lake Mývatn. The lake is beautiful, and we could see why it got its name - lake of the midges - after being attacked by swarms of tiny midges, annoying but much less than their Australian cousins in the Red Centre.
From Mývatn, we went east and stopped at the amazing Godafoss, still another waterfall, appropriately named the Waterfall of the Gods And then arrived of the scenic place of Draflastadir, with its church, graveyard and a couple of houses, and a very nice guesthouse. After a few days on the road, and having listened to all our cds in the car, we were listening to Icelandic radio - they have very nice music, and the sound of the language is sweet, with its ss it sounds a little provincial, and sometimes like people speaking Castillian.
Akureyri, the second city of Iceland, has about 17500 inhabitants, so it's a very small town, with a big church, a lively main street with cafés and shops and a colourful harbour. From there, we went through Blönduós, where we stayed at a very nice cabin by the river, and from there to the Snaefelsnes peninsula, in West Iceland. We passed fields with horses and sheep, mountains, and stopped at the beautiful ancient church at Hólar.
The Snaefellsnes peninsula is beautiful, with its coast of rocks and basalt beaches. The town of Stykkishólmur has a wonderful harbour and a strange new Age church, the small glacier Snaefellsjökul is beautiful, as are the villages of Hellnar and Arnarstapi, where Jules Verne placed the entrance to the centre of the Earth. The basalt cliffs are full of sea birds and the views are amazing. Then there's the pretty little church in Búdir, and the road along the coast to Borgarnes, another small harbour town.
We stayed at the Fossatún guesthouse, in a most beautiful place by a river with waterfalls; the next day we saw th Hraunfossar and Barnfoss, more waterfalls, and then went back to Reykjavik. On our last day in the city, we strolled through the streets, ate lobster soup at the harbour, drank beer in outside terraces and visited the sculpture museum ofÁsmundur Sveinsson.
So, all in all I really enjoyed this trip and loved the country, and hope to go back, and explore more, there's so much to see, and more places are available driving a 4x4 vehicle. And the people are mostly nice and helpful. Beautiful nature, a cosmopolitan city and nice people; what more can one ask for?