Reynisdrangar – the Troll rocks
Near the small town of Vik are three tall stacks of basalt, lying just offshore at the foot of the mountain Reynisfjall. The geological explanation is that Reynisfjall was eroded by the forces of nature to form these stacks. But the legend attached to them is much more colourful and more fun.
According to this story two trolls tried to drag a three-masted ship to land here. But trolls cannot go out in daylight, and these two made the mistake of staying out too long. When the first rays of the sun struck them and the ship they were turned instantly to stone. Whatever their origin, the stacks are certainly very striking. The tallest stands 66 metres above sea level and with the waves crashing against them and throwing up spray they are indeed an impressive sight.
My first photo shows the rocks from the east, and was taken in Vik. The second photo was taken on the road to Dyrholaey, the 218, so shows them from the western side.
On our second day of exploration in South Iceland the sun came out and we had a glorious day for our drive along the south coast, just as the helpful manager of the Hotel Ranga had predicted. We drove south east along the Ring Road, passing Seljalandsfoss which we decided to leave until later as the falls were in deep shadow. But when we came to Skógafoss 30 kilometres or so further on we were in better luck, as the sun was just touching the upper parts of the falls. We parked our car, finding ourselves the only ones here, and followed the easy path toward the water.
As we came closer we could hear the roar of the falls get louder and the air was filled with spray. The path goes very close indeed, although it got so icy close to the water that we didn’t go as far as we might have otherwise have done. In fact, the best views were to be had a little to the side, as from here a rainbow appeared in the spray.
To the right of the falls is a flight of wooden steps leading to the top. These are well-maintained and were far enough from the spray to have escaped icing over, so we decided to go up. They are reasonably easy, but there are a lot of them, and you can’t see the falls themselves at any point on the way up, so if you’re going to climb you will want to do the whole lot. The reward when you reach the top is a wonderful view of the surrounding countryside (photo three – you can see our car in the bottom left corner to give you a sense of scale) and of the water tipping over at the top of the falls (photo four). It’s hard to appreciate the power in a still image so I shot a short video here which I hope captures the sight much better.
There is a small museum here but it was closed when we visited. Parking, as everywhere, is free, and for much of the time we had it to ourselves, although I suspect that it would be much busier in the summer.
Gullfoss means “Golden Waterfall” but when we were there, as you can see, it was more silver than gold. Although the falls themselves weren’t frozen, the land around them was and the whole scene was awesome in a wintry fashion – just beautiful!
Gullfoss is Europe’s largest waterfall. It is actually two separate waterfalls, the upper one has a drop of 11 metres and the lower one 21 metres. There are separate parking areas for each, though you can also quite easily walk between them if you can manage the flight of stairs that links the two. We started our visit at the Upper Falls. Although less high, I actually found these more impressive, dropping in three large steps, each of which was throwing up large amounts of spray. The path from the car park was icy, but we followed it carefully and found ourselves in a spot with magnificent views of the falls. As well as taking lots of photos, I shot a short video here, as no still photo can really capture the power of these waters.
After wondering at the falls for a while, we retraced our steps and carefully descended the steps, which were a little bit icy, to the Lower Falls. Here we found the path even icier so could not get right up to the falls themselves, which was a shame as I have heard that you can get really close and even get quite wet from the spray (although how much we would have enjoyed that in these temperatures is debateable perhaps!) But we could get a better view here of how the river drops down into the canyon beneath the falls, turning through 90 degrees at the same time – from a distance it even appears as if the water disappears straight into the ground!
After a shorter time here we went back up to the upper level and made our way to the café in this car park (there are no facilities in the lower one). There we enjoyed a hot coffee and a snack (muffin for me, grilled cheese sandwich for Chris) and browsed around the extensive gift-shop, although we didn’t buy anything. This is also the place to learn more about the falls, from the informative displays, and to visit the toilets if you need one!
Having seen the power of Gullfoss it is hard to imagine that it was ever threatened, but so it was. In the middle part of the last century such wonders were perhaps less appreciated than they are today, and for a while there was talk, and even some plans, of harnessing the power of the river here to generate electricity. The popular story is that these plans were overthrown due to the efforts of one woman, Sigrídur Tómasdóttir, who even threatened to throw herself over the falls. Whether it was her threat, or a simple lack of money, is not clear, but the falls were saved and today are protected as they should be, while a memorial to Sigrídur stands in the upper car park area. Iceland would certainly be the poorer, despite all its other magnificent scenery, without this dramatic sight.
Stokkseyri - the museum town!
Stokkseyri is the town next to Eyrarbakki, they are only 7 km apart, and jokingly these towns are often referred to by Icelanders as "Stokkseyrarbakki".
It is a small town with ca 470 inhabitans, but a lot of activities, surprisingly so for such a small town. There is a very good restaurant there (see my tip on that) and people come especially there from Reykjavík (65 km) to get the lobster-soup and visit the museums. There is the "must-see" Icelandic Wonders museum, with its elves, trolls and Northern lights. There is also a Ghost museum in the same building and art galleries and art studios, where one can buy handmade Icelandic craft.
At Stokkseyri there is also "Veiðisafnið" or The Hunting Museum and is the only place in Iceland where you can see a giraffe :)
Plus there are organised Kayak tours, both on lakes, in the swamps and in the ocean.
The shore-side is very popular as well - I have added a tip on that. This town is just so worth a visit!
I have made a special page on Stokkseyri with tips on the museums there.
At first sight the small town of Hveragerdi, on the Ring Road between Reykjavik and Sellfoss, seems fairly unprepossessing, but the landscape that surrounds it is quite striking. Dotted around the black lava strewn hillsides are small vents, or fumaroles, from which steam puffs out constantly – it is as if the hills are breathing.
Hveragerdi is known as the “hot-house town”, and all this steam is put to very good use, heating large greenhouses where fruit and vegetables can be grown, even in the depths of winter. You can see these from the main road, but for a closer look at the steam vents themselves it is best to turn off into the town. We drove a short distance through the town to its northern edge, where we found parking next to a small house with a sign, indicating it was built in 1929 and is the oldest house in Hveragerdi. Nearby paths led into a park next to a river, the Varmá, above which steam issued from the hillsides all around. This was a good spot from which to take some photos of the phenomenon, and as the sky had got rather cloudy and the sun was fast disappearing, the landscape had quite a sombre air.
We spent much of our first day in Iceland seeing a bit of its capital, Reykjavik. I have made a separate page about the sights we saw here, so this is just a brief summary of the highlights of our visit.
On the advice of Regina1965 we parked near the university; there was certainly plenty of space there and it cost a reasonable 80 krona (about 45p) per hour. From there we crossed the road we had driven in on and started our walk towards the oldest part of the city. Our path took us along the western side of the Tjörnin Pond, which was iced over at this time of year. The sun came out almost on cue and the light shining on the nearby houses was lovely, so we took lots of photos here and around the pond itself. At its northern end is the City Hall, a modern building that makes an interesting contrast with the nearby more traditional houses. We could also see Hallgrimskirkja, the city’s striking hill-top church, which we would visit later in the day.
We spent some time exploring the narrow streets around Aðalstræti, the oldest street, and Grjótaþorpið or "Rock-village", where the original character of the one-time fishing village can be best appreciated. The light was beautiful for photography and the colourful corrugated metal houses very distinctive. From here we made our way to the harbour where there were yet more photo opportunities, with views across the water to the snow covered mountains beyond.
But soon it was time to head back to Aðalstræti, where we had an appointment to keep – lunch with Regina and her fiancé. It was great to finally meet the VT member who had helped me so much with my planning for this trip, and the café she had recommended, Uppsalir, was cosy, so we spent a very pleasant hour there. But with the short days here we knew we couldn’t stay too long, so we said goodbye and headed back to the car to drive the short distance up the hill to Hallgrimskirkja. We managed to get (free) parking there too, although it was much busier than at the university. We had a quick look inside this stark modern church, but the main purpose of our visit was to see the view from its tower, so we paid the 500 krona fee (about £2.70) and took the lift up. When you emerge from the lift you are directly behind the large clock-faces, and from here have to climb two flights of stairs to the viewing room. There are fairly narrow openings from which you can look out in all four directions, and on a sunny day such as we had it is well worth making the ascent for the views that await you here. We spent quite a while taking pictures in all four directions, but my favourite views were those towards the west, with Reykjavik’s colourful houses, and the north, with the beautiful mountains beyond the city.
But the sun was already sinking lower in the sky, and we had a drive to our hotel in front of us, so we left Reykjavik behind us, vowing to return one day.
On our first morning we drove from Keflavik to Reykjavik, and on the way we stopped briefly in Hafnarfjördur, as Regina1965 had told me that the so-called “Viking Village” (a hotel and restaurant complex) was quite photogenic. It was, but I liked even more the lovely light over the harbour that morning, and the pretty white church. We didn’t stay long, but we enjoyed the odd trolls and other statues and assorted objects decorating the “village”.
Later I read that Hafnarfjördur is Iceland’s third-largest town, with just over 22,000 residents, although it seemed pretty small to us, used to the UK’s large cities. The name of the town means 'harbour fjord' and refers to the excellent natural harbour. Apparently legend has it that some of Iceland’s elves live secretively in Hafnarfjördur’s lava cliffs and rocks, in peaceful coexistence with the town’s human residents, but we weren’t lucky to spot any of these, other than the stone versions!
Our second main stop on our tour of the Golden Circle was at Geysir. This is a spectacular area where the landscape is dotted with hot springs and geysers – so much so that one of them, the Great Geysir (Icelandic name, Stori Geysir) itself, gave its name to the phenomenon as a whole, with geysers all over the world named after it (geyser is Icelandic for “gusher”). Sadly the Great Geysir is these days more or less inactive (although occasionally it can be coaxed back into life when artificially stimulated with carbolic soap powder). But luckily another nearby geyser, Strokkur, is much more obliging, and erupts at regular 5-10 minute intervals. It may not reach the heights that its neighbour once did, but at 30 or more metres it is still a pretty impressive sight.
But don’t just make a bee-line for Strokkur, dramatic as it is. The path to it is lined with other smaller but equally fascinating sights – bubbling hot springs, hissing fumaroles, belching mud pots and so on. They are surrounded by a rich green moss that seems to thrive in the steamy atmosphere. I found the whole landscape highly photogenic and rather haunting. One spot to look out for is Little Geysir (Litli Geysir) which bubbles away very close to the path – see my video of this.
The parking area for Geysir is on the opposite side of the road (Highway 35). Also here is a café, gift shop and information centre. We didn’t spend any time in the latter however as time was getting on and we wanted to be back at our hotel before dark. As with Gullfoss, we were surprised that there was no charge made to park here or to visit the hot springs area. Iceland has a reputation as an expensive country to visit, and it can be, but many of its most impressive sights are not charged for, making them at least a bargain!
The Golden Circle
The Golden Circle is a popular drive, linking three of southern Iceland’s main sights: Geysir, Gullfoss and Thingvellir. As the days were short during our February visit we only had time to properly see the first two of these, so decided to leave Thingvellir for a future trip to Iceland. Despite the limited time however, we really enjoyed our day out. The scenery all along the drive is fantastic, so don’t rush it – take your time, and maybe stop when you see any particularly great views. My favourites were along the banks of the River Hvita (which means White River in English). The river is fed by glaciers and at the point my photos were taken (on Highway 30 a few miles south of Geysir) runs through a narrow valley. The road crosses the river on a narrow bridge, either end of which are pull-offs where we parked to take some photos (photos one and two). Later we stopped again by the Hvita, but further downstream, where the river is wider and the waters flow more gently (photo three).
We also made a brief stop at Skalholt, which was the centre of Christianity in Iceland from the mid-11th until the 18th centuries. There is a striking church there, but it was all closed up when we stopped there (maybe this is normal in winter?) and the skies were growing leaden, so I don’t have any decent photos unfortunately.
The entire Golden Circle is about 300 kilometres or 190 miles in length. If you don’t have a hire car you can easily book a day trip by coach, even in winter, but of course you will not have control over how long you spend in each place and are unlikely to be able to stop for roadside views such as these. We found the driving easy and would certainly recommend getting your own car if you feel able to.
Hjálparfoss waterfall in Þjórsárdalur walley.
Hjálparfoss - Help's waterfall is a beautiful waterfall in Þjórsárdalur walley up-country in South-Iceland. It is split in two with a beautiful pond in front and surrounded by extraordinary basalt rock formations, one in the form of a bear's head right next to the left waterfall. Hjálparfoss runs in the river Fossá right before it merges into Þjórsá river. This is an ideal picnic area in beautiful surroundings. Hjálp "help" is the name given to this area as travellers crossing the barren Sprengisandur high-lands could graze their horses there after a long journey. As Mt. Hekla is very close to Hjálparfoss there is lava and ashes everywhere and the National power company Landsvirkjun has put a great deal of work into trying to turn the Þjórsárdalur walley green again. And they have done a wonderful job, the walley is wonderfully green with lots of trees - very beautiful and takes my breath away when I visit there.
On a sunny day you can see Icelanders swim by the waterfall :)
When returning back to road 32 drive just 1-2 km further ahead and make a right turn, there on the left hand side is the Saga-age farm "Þjóðveldisbærinn" and Búrfellsvirkjun hydropower-plant is straight ahead.
When we set out on our second day of exploration in South Iceland we passed Seljalandsfoss soon after leaving the hotel, and even stopped on the Ring Road near here, as there were some great views across to the Westmann Islands on our right (see photo five). But at this time of day (around 9.45) the falls themselves were in deep shadow, so we decided to postpone visiting them until our return trip later in the day. Unfortunately by then the sky had grown a little cloudier, but the light was nevertheless better than it had been earlier, so this was the right decision.
Seljalandsfoss can be seen from some distance away as you drive towards it (coming from Reykjavik direction) but it is only when you park and walk closer that you get the full sense of its size. The water pours over a cliff and drops about 60 metres into a surprisingly calm pool, before flowing away across the meadows. When we arrived we had the place to ourselves, which added to the drama of the view. A few cars did stop soon after, and including other people in the photos is actually quite a good idea, as without them it’s hard to show the scale (see photo three to see what I mean). The falls are so easily accessed from the Ring Road that I imagine in summer they could get rather too busy however, so best to come late in the day perhaps.
From the parking area a short easy path leads to the pool at the foot of the falls. From here you can climb a few steps to a path that leads behind the torrent, but on our winter visit both these and the path close to the water were thick with ice and we decided not to attempt it. Instead we followed the path to the left that led past a series of smaller falls spilling down the same cliff (see photo four, and my short video). Soon however we decided to drag ourselves away and return to the hotel, where the hot tubs were calling to us!
The road to Dyrhólaey
Just west of Vik the 218 heads south towards the coast. As with the road to Sólheimajökull the destination is only part of the reason to drive this road. Dyrhólaey is a promontory connected to the mainland by the causeway over which the road travels, and it was here that we found some of the most stunning and beautifully lit scenery of our trip. Still pools of water reflected the icy mountain landscapes all around us, and to our other side (see photo five) rocky outcrops were equally perfectly reflected, creating an effect that reminded me a little of the karst scenery near Guilin in China – and a little of an ink blot! If you love landscape photography this short drive really is a must.
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Vik (or Vik i Myrdal to give it its full name) is a small community that straddles the Ring Road some 100 miles east of Reykjavik. There is not a lot to see here, but it is a handy place in which to refuel – both you and your car! We had a snack lunch of sandwiches and cold drinks in a small café attached to a petrol station, with good views out to the Reynisdrangar or Troll Rocks (see next tip) and of the pretty red-roofed church above the town. This is Reynir Church, and was moved to this location from a nearby farm in 1932.
I found this legend about it on a website, with echoes of the famous Rumpelstiltskin fairy-tale:
“According to the legend one of the early farmers of Reynir was obliged to build a church before autumn. The timber arrived late in the summer and he could not find a carpenter for the work. One day, a stranger showed up on the doorsteps and offered to help him build the church. His wages were to be the farmer’s 6-years-old son unless the farmer could guess the stranger’s proper name. When the work was nearing its final stages, the farmer became more and more worried, because he was not close to knowing the stranger’s name. One day he went for a stroll and lay down in a grassy slope and fell asleep. He dreamt that he heard a woman’s voice recite the following: “Soon Finnur will leave, father from Reynir, with your little playmate”. When he woke up, he went straight to the church, where the stranger was just finishing the construction, and said to him: “Soon the work is over my good Finnur”. The stranger dropped the last plank and vanished into thin air. The farmer and his family lived happily ever after.”
This church is located on the highest point in the community and is believed to be the only building that would survive the likely flood if the volcano Katla, lying beneath the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, should erupt. The volcano has been dormant since 1918, but the people of Vík practice regular volcano drills and are trained to rush to the church at the first sign of an eruption.
A little way beyond Skógafoss we turned off the Ring Road on to the 221, having been advised by the hotel manager that this would be no problem to drive in our 4WD car and would take us to an excellent view of a glacier, Sólheimajökull – he was right on both counts!
Even if there had not been a glacier to see at the end of this road, it would have been a diversion well worth making, as it took us through some amazingly beautiful scenery. The track (for it is little more than that) was quite rough and bumpy in places, but nothing that our car couldn’t handle, although I wouldn’t fancy doing it in a 2WD. We did see one driver attempt it, although not to the very end – he parked just before the point where you have to ford a small stream. We ourselves pulled over, unsure about this part, but having watched someone else drive through with ease, we decided to go ahead and had no problems.
The road dead ends in a large parking area, from where tours to the glacier depart. We had been warned not to attempt to walk on it without a guide, and indeed I had no intention of doing so! But we were pleased to have had the chance to get relatively close to a glacier as well as to see the wonderful landscapes that surround it.
Dyrhólaey is Iceland’s southernmost point, and one of its most spectacular. Since 1978 it has been a protected nature reserve and in the spring and summer is a nesting site for thousands of sea-birds. At that time access can be limited. Visiting in winter we had no problems of access, and although we didn’t see birds in huge numbers, we did find the journey more than worthwhile.
This promontory is linked to the mainland by a causeway over which the road travels (see my previous tip). Its name, Dyrhólaey, means “door-hole” and refers to a great rock arch in the cliffs here. Ironically perhaps we didn’t actually see that, as I think we may have missed a turning on the 218 that would have taken us to it. But what we did see was some of the most dramatic cliff scenery I’ve ever encountered.
The cliffs here stand some 120 metres high and, with no landmass between here and Antarctica, the Atlantic unleashes its full force against them. At the foot of the cliffs are the dramatic black lava beaches, and off-shore a number of rock pillars and other formations, including in the distance the Reynisdrangar or Troll Rocks. Those around this point were once part of it, making clearly visible the work of the sea in eroding this coastline.
When you have finally had your fill of these stunning views, you can descend from the cliff and take one of several paths down to the beaches. We followed one to the west of the headland which came out on a tiny bay, but as the tide was in we couldn’t go very far on to the beach. There are emphatic warnings posted here about the dangers of the exceptionally strong currents, which have been known to sweep people away even when they felt safely on dry land, so we weren’t taking any risks even though we had hoped to be able to walk to a point from which the arch would be visible. But this was a great spot from which to properly appreciate the power of those breakers crashing on the shore (see photo five).
Of all the wonderful views we saw in our brief visit to Iceland this was possibly my favourite, and it will certainly be high on the list of places to return to when we go back for a longer visit. To get just an idea as to why, have a look at my panorama photo, number three (though sadly VT doesn’t show this to best advantage). Our car is parked on the far left, giving a sense of scale to this spectacular view, and towards the right you can see the distant Reynisdrangar. What a vista indeed!
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