Icelandic Weirdnesses

I always try and keep track of things that I just found  unusual or weird in countries that I have visited and Iceland certainly has a handful of them that tickled my sense of the absurd.

The first must be the food… (I bet you thought I was going to say elves or trolls :P).  Anyway, from what we can tell, ‘Icelandic cuisine’ is a bit on the interesting side. One of the guides I was talking to mentioned a fondness for ‘singed sheep’s head’… not brains, she specifically said the head. At the time I wasn’t sure if that was a language barrier thing, but she definitely meant head and I found out later it is called ‘svid’.

Another fantastically weird local dish is the ‘hakarl’ which is truly disgusting and I can attest to this one personally as I was foolhardy enough to try some – it’s shark that has been buried in sand for up to FOUR YEARS. Things don’t rot here, so it sort of dehydrates and doesn’t really decay, then they rehydrate it and it has a delightful aroma of AMMONIA and tastes like bleached fish. I don’t know whose idea that was originally but it is truly awful and they can keep it. The other main thing is the dehydrated fish – like a fish jerky, kinda tasty and I could see would make a nice base for a soup, but I can’t imagine eating lots of it. Nearly everything else they import here.

What else? Apparently Iceland doesn’t have any standing military – not an army, navy or air force, just a coast guard service. If Icelanders want a career in the military, they go off and join the Norwegian military. So there you go – just like New Zealand, 100% perfect, 100% there for the taking. 🙂

Iceland seems to have a crazy high percentage of artists and writer, and world wide, produces more per capital than any other country.  Oh and they have a 99% literacy rate putting a high value on education. I think this one has a lot to do with there not being a lot to do during the long, cold dark winters.

Knitting is a national past time and even most men can, and will, knit. Which I think is rather cool. I can’t knit for shit, but there should be more of it, I say. 🙂

In 1625 to 1685 the West Fjord area (Isafjordur) was supposed to be riddled with witches, sorcerers and wizards… though in all fairness, a lot of Europe was kinda witch hunt crazy at the time thanks to James I of England, but there was apparently a lot of them here at that time. Something is not quite right though, because most Icelanders still totally believe in elves and elf magic… those stories are just really weird. O.o Makes you wonder if all that fermented shark meat has gone to their heads or something – or maybe it’s the Brennavin. Unsweetened schnapps strong enough to blow your hair back, enough of that and you’d see elves and pink elephants.

Only 10% of Iceland is covered by ice, and the rest of the country is really quite green – bit of a misnomer really. Greenland on the other hand, I am lead to believe is covered in ice and isn’t green at all. Go figure.

Iceland was ranked as the most peaceful country in the world in 2013 according to the Global Peace Index which is compiled by some Economics and Peace Institute, which is not hard to believe, considering that they are small and stable and miles away from anyone, just living on their island doing their own thing. 

Here’s a good one – beer was BANNED until 1989. Yep, you read that right, 1989. I have no idea when that ban came into effect, but it’s gone now and the Icelanders are no doubt extremely pleased about that.

I have truly loved everything about Iceland, the scenery is just spectacular, the people were a mix – a little aloof or very friendly depending on where you were and who you were with I guess… it’s the end of the tourist season, so I think the ones that were a bit flat could be forgiven after spending four months fielding the same stupid questions over and over from American tourists who obviously haven’t done any research on where the hell they are going. I would love to come back here and spend more time to get into the countryside a bit more – organised bus tours area a great way to see a lot in a short period of time and a fantastic way to absorb local history, but don’t really allow for taking your time to enjoy a valley with a picnic lunch or anything. So it’s high on my list to come back one day and hire a car and see the place at my own pace – it’s small (16hrs to drive around the whole place), easy to get around and while the roads are a bit crap, they’re not as bad as Alaska, so all up a fly-drive type trip would be awesome.

The only thing I did not like about Iceland is the high cost of living. Our dollar is falling, their dollar is falling – it’s just ridiculous. A souvenir tea towel would cost anywhere from AUD$18-24.00, a fridge magnet might set you back AUD$10.00 and if you wanted some traditional Icelandic knitwear – well the sky is the limit, be prepared to spend hundreds for a jumper or a shawl. Even a really ordinary lunch type food was ridiculously expensive. Oh well, their currency isn’t worth squat and they have to import nearly everything, so thems the breaks. It was a lot of fun to watch the Americans dealing with sticker shock every time they went near a cash register though. 🙂


All up I have had an amazing time in Iceland… I really hope I can come back one day. Maybe even one day when the damn puffins are actually here.

Reykjavík – The Golden Circle

I am in Reykjavík… Never thought I’d be saying that! But here we are in the capital of Iceland, which incidentally, is the northernmost capital city in the entire world. Every time you read ‘Reykjavík’, make sure you hear it with long rolled R’s in the most pretentious and exaggerated manner you can muster. We’ve discovered that it’s ever so much fun. 😀  

  Anyway, Reykjavík is a relatively new city having only gained Municipal Trading Rights (whatever those are), in 1786 (still older than any cities back home) and it is currently home to 180,000 people which is about half of Iceland’s entire population. RRReykjavík is also know as the ‘Land of Rainbows’, but that could be them trying to put a good spin on the frequently rainy weather – which happily we saw very little of today with gorgeous blue skies everywhere we went. 
Reykjavík has some incredible history behind how it came to be settled. Apparently the first settlers were Irish monks. An 6thC Irish monk named St Brendan, had a timber framed leather boat that he sailed all the way from Ireland to the Faroe Islands. He stayed there until his leather dried out, and then apparently sailed on to Iceland. When he went back to Ireland, he reported that he had found a place perfect for monastic contemplation that was plentiful with fish and had a midnight sun : “At midnight it is light enough to pick the lice from one’s shirt…” So Irish monks migrated to Iceland. The monasteries grew to be quite a colony of monks, but (depending on who is telling the story), the monks either fled from Viking raiders or they died out, because, well… they’re monks and they didn’t bring any women with them. Either way the monkish period didn’t last. 
In 874AD a Norwegian viking chieftain, Ingólfur Arnarson came across the North Sea looking for farming lands, being the first to come to Iceland. The vikings needed a place with good shelter, and plenty of grass for their sheep and horses. They found these things in Reykjavík and stayed a few years to see if they could survive the winter before bringing more people to the settlement. This fledgling society was completely independent of the Norwegian viking society they left behind, and life in the new settlement was somewhat brutal and lawless. Eventually the new settlers decided to establish a parliament. 





 The first parliament, or Althing, was established at Thingvellir, a unique place with natural shelter and fresh water where the new settlers could meet at the beginning of each summer. They gathered for two weeks of the year to exchange news, discuss and create laws, celebrate marriages and to hand out punishments etc. They never made any permanent buildings at Thingvellir, and would pretty much camp, and meet in circles in the protection of the ravine. 
None of the laws created at the Althing were written down until 1180AD – instead the Lawspeaker would stand on the Law Rock would to recite, by heart, 1/3 of all the laws of the land, every year. By 1262 the Thingvellir parliament was not so important in deciding laws etc, because Iceland had come formally under Norway. 
Thingvellir is very much considered the Heart of Iceland, and not just because of its historical significance to the first settlement, but also because it lies directly on the join between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This fault line has been slowly been pulling apart for the last 9000 years creating a picturesque ever widening ravines that are simply gorgeous. Between the plates, an enormous lake, called Thingvallavatn (Iceland largest natural lake), has formed in a sort of tectonic no mans land between the plates that is up to 300m deep in parts. 

  The Mid Atlantic Tectonic Ridge is comprised of 100% volcanic basalt which is exactly the same as the ocean floor where the plates meet, but it has been pushed up by volcanic movement. The basalt, bring relatively low in silicon compared to other volcanic areas, is evident in the beaches and rocky lava-like landscape and is used for road building etc. 
Thingvellir is so beautiful and I would love to come back here and go camping and exploring the place. Just gorgeous landscapes and apparently great snorkeling in the crystal clear glacial waters. 
The area still has frequent volcanic eruptions, the most notable recent eruption was the 2010 eruption of Eyjaljallajökull, the enormous ash cloud of which grounded flights all over Europe and stranded hundreds of thousands of people. Apparently at the time, the eruption provided Icelanders with loads of amusement as they watched the world’s journalists struggle to attempt to pronounce Eyjaljallajökull. Apparently the American journalists gave up pretty quickly and nicknamed the volcano, ‘E15’ – meaning “E and 15 unpronounceable letters”! For the record it’s easy – Eyjaljallajökull is pronounced ‘AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-luh’. See? Simple. 😀 

Our next stop was to see the geysers, and not just any geysers, *the* original geysers. ‘Geysir’ is the Icelandic word meaning ‘to splash water around’, and all other geysers in the world are named after these original Icelandic geysers. There is the bigger but now very quiet Geysir, but he doesn’t erupt anymore, and his little brother, Strökkur that goes up about every 7-8 minutes. The Geo-thermal hot spring water builds up in pressure and he burbles and boils away until whoosh… and ‘he jumps about all the time’. I love that the Icelanders call the geysers, ‘him’ and ‘he’, it sounds really quaint and personal (even though I know it’s just a result of Icelandic being an engendered language). 

After visiting Strökkur and watching him go off several times, we head off to the Gullfoss Waterfall. Aka, The ‘Golden Waterfall’, so named for the frequently golden rainbows that show up when the sun shines through the spray from incredible amount of water cascading down the impressive three level waterfall. 




 In 1907 a foreign business interest wanted to harness the power of the Gullfoss Falls by building a hydro electric power station on the site, but a local farmer, Tómas Tómasson and his daughter, Sigrídur Tómasdóttir, who had been bring tourists to see the waterfalls by horseback since 1875. Tómas apparently claimed, “I will not sell my friend!” when offers for the land were made to him; his daughter, Sigrídur is credited with saving the waterfalls by walking on foot into Reyjavik to front the Parliament and demanding the waterfalls be saved. She even threatened to throw herself into the falls if the plan went ahead. The Parliament capitulated and built a power plant somewhere else. The falls have been leased to several foreign private interests since then, but always to people who were against ever using the falls as a power plant. The site now belongs to the govt and is a protected site. I have to say these are some of the most impressive waterfalls I have seen anywhere. Easily a match for the spectacular falls of Wells Grey National Park in Canada. Absolutely breathtaking. 
We stopped at the cafe above the falls for a lovely lunch of tomato soup and grilled salmon and then head off to the Friedheima 

Icekandic Horse show. Icelandic horses were very important for agriculture, general travel and even social infrastructure right up until the mid 20thC. In 1920-30s approximately 80% of houses were still turf houses with no insulation and no cars – only horses. There was no real roads built until the 1960s and the major linking highway – Ring Road 1, wasn’t completed until 1973. 

The Icelandic horses are unique – they are descendants of the original viking domestic horses that the Norwegian vikings brought to Iceland during the original early settlement. 

A law was made in the 11thC that absolutely no horses could be imported into Iceland and that law still stands. The reason for this was two fold – firstly to maintain the sturdiness of the breed, and secondly to reduce the chance of bringing in diseases and infections the horses might not have previously been exposed to. So the isolation of the current Icelandic horse means they are very much genetically the same as their viking predecessors. 

The laws are so strict that once a horse leaves Iceland it is never allowed back – even champion show horses competing in international competitions. So breeders will never takes their best horses to championship events internationally as they can’t bring them back. 


 The other reason the horses are so unique and genetically similar to their fore bearers is that they have never been bred for appearances. The horses are extremely low and hardy with a thick shaggy coat. All they need is a bit of hay and they can survive ok through the harsh winter outdoor conditions. So they’ve effectively been bred to survive rather than be pretty. They are known for their nice kind, easy going temperament and for being very strong – an Icelandic pony can carry 100kgs for an hour at full pace with no problem. Their only job was to transport people and survive winter no one cared what they looked like, so they are all one breed but come in up to 40 colours. 





 They do not do any dressage or jumping events with the Icelandic horses, but the horses are famous for their unusual ability to master a wide range of gait. Now this means SFA to me, but these ponies walk, trot, canter, gallop, tilt, and pace… and apparently that makes them the only horses that tilt *and* pace. It is the special gait of Icelandic horses alone. (If you want to know more about that, you’ll have to Google it because I have no idea what it’s about). 

There are over 120,000 horses in Iceland and each year about 3000-5000 horses sold and exported overseas as they are quite prized for being strong and pure seeing that the breed hasn’t really changed for over 800 years. 
On our way back to Reykjavík, we passed through fairly recent lava fields that are only 1000 years old, which are full of craggy basalt rocks and large stones. The topic of elves came up again as our guide, Alexandra was taking about the road construction. She said that Icelanders believe that elves live in big stones and they are usually quite nice and benign, but they can be mean. So when the road was under construction and the machinery broke down three times, it was obviously the work of unhappy elves, and that this sort of thing would be shown on the evening and people seriously discussed what to do about it. In 2000 they were building a road near Reykjavík that had elf stones in the road, and they started to have major mechanical problems due to elves being displeased so the built a special side road around the stones and everyone had to use the side road until 2003, when the elf representative, Erla Stefansdottir, said that the elves had moved out. So they recommended work on the road without any problem and it was eventually able to be finished. I am still finding this bizarre. 
Once we got back to Reykjavík we stopped by the Perlan, a spectacular 10 story high architectural building that houses Reykjavík’s geothermal water storage. All of Reykjavík is heated with natural geothermal water that is moved hundreds of miles from the most active areas through an extensive series of pipes and then stored at the Perlan until it is distributed to homes. The Perlan was a series of unattractive silos until the sides were built in, and the distinctive dome top added which also has a public observation deck offering beautiful panoramic views of Reykjavík and the bay Area. It’s a very distinctive building with a unique purpose. 

We then had a quick drive through Reykjavík and back to the ship. It was a long day but the Reykjavík Golden Circle is amazing. So many beautiful places to see… it definitely makes me want to come back (preferably with way fewer American tourists!).

Iceland – Ísafjörður and Puffins!

Ísafjörður is a beautiful little town nestled at the end of the Skutulsfjörður. Originally inhabited since the 9th century, when Helgi Magri Hrolfsson sailed over from Norway, many others would follow over the following century. In 1536, Denmark took possession of Iceland and imposed a trade monopoly which proved fortuitous for the little fishing village as it eventually turned into an important harbour and trading site for the area’s farmers and fishermen. Today it is a thriving town with about 3,500 people living in the four separate villages that make up Ísafjörður.


 On our way to our first visit, we took a 9km long tunnel that has been cut into the mountain so that people can avoid driving the extremely hazardous coastal road that has been in use forever. The road would take an hour each way to get from one village to another and was prone to avalanches in winter and rockslides in summer. The locals call the tunnel, The Troll’s Stomach, because ‘everyone knows that trolls avoid sunlight and that is why we never never see them – but if the do venture out they get turned into mountains when the sun shines on them.’ So the tunnels in the mountains are Troll Stomachs. 
Which would be kinda cute, but for the fact that the locals seems to take this sort of thing very seriously. I’m not exactly sure how much of this is true, but our guide tells us there is a Committee of Elves in the town, which is made of of educated people who have spent five years at university learning to communicate with the elves. Yes. People really believe in ELVES up here. Anyway, the Mayor had to approach the Committee of Elves to get permission to build the tunnel I just mentioned. Apparently it took a year and a half to get permissions from the elves to dig a major 9 km tunnel that was going to cut right through the mountain, and even then the elves wouldn’t give their permission. At some point, the Mayor must have gone ‘stuff it!’ and they went ahead with the work anyway, at which point everything everything went up shit creek… machinery was breaking down, accidents happened, finances for the tunnel became precarious and everyone blamed the Mayor for not getting the proper permission from the elves. Eventually the Mayor, a middle age white guy, apologised on NATIONAL television to the elves! The Committee of Elves eventually relayed back that the elves had accepted his apologies, and from then on, the tunnel works went smoothly. O.o
I’d say that they’re pulling our leg with this ‘we believe in Elves’ thing, but it goes much further than you’d expect. Our guide, Lisabet was telling us about how she bought her house which is called the Elf Cliff House about 20 years ago. It is a beautiful little wooden house in what looks like a nice part of town, built in 1922, and as she relayed it, when the house was being built, the original builders had come across a large inconvenient stone where the basement of the house was to be, and they had planned to blow the stone out of the way to allow for the house to be built. Anyway, the builder drilled into the stone to enable dynamite to be put into it, and before the stone could be destroyed he dreamed of the Elf Queen who told him (I’m paraphrasing here… obviously!), ‘This is my home, please keep it safe and I will keep you safe’. So the builder decided to leave the stone in place and build around it. So now, Lisabet has a two meter stone in the basement of her house with a drill hole in it, and when she purchased the house, there were a number of clauses in the purchase contract that she had to agree to abide by: 1) She has to light a candle and put it in the drilled hole three times a year (New Years and solstices or something), 2) no one can ever touch the stone without peace and harmony, and 3) the environment around the stone is supposed to remain clean and neat at all time. Yes, all this was in her LEGAL real estate purchase contract. She says she has always lighted the candles as required and treated the stone with peace and harmony… but she has four small children so she feels her house is messy and of course the stone is in the middle of her laundry so there are always clothes everywhere. She claims that in retribution for not keeping the area neat and clean, the elves steal away all their socks and no matter how hard she tries, she can not keep a pair of socks together, resulting in all her children constantly wearing mismatched socks. So, all this elf stuff was in the real estate contract of her house, and the entire village knows she lives with elves at the Elf Cliff House, and they are known as the Elf Cliff Family and kids are called the Elf Cliff Children! I can’t quite make it out – but it seems people here honestly believe in elves.
But I digress… Our first port of call was to the Ósvör Maritime Museum, which stands on the east side of the village of Bolungarvik, right down by the sea’s edge. The museum contains a 19th century fishing base, a salt hut and a fishy drying area and drying hut. There used to be many of these old fishing huts, and they would accommodate a team of fishermen, usually about seven men and one woman who would live in the huts and work the fishing boat. These fisherfolk lived in very confined conditions and would sleep all in together primarily because they didn’t have any space, but also because they needed their bedfellows for warmth. It would take six men to row the boat out to sea to catch a load of fish and they would use a 1km line set with 1000 hooks, baited with shellfish, and offal, which could bring in a haul of up to 1000 kilos of fish… that they got packed into their 8m boat for the trip back to their fishing base. These 19th century fishermen also used to catch Greenland sharks which are apparently quite docile. The sharks could be up to 12m long, and given that their fishing boats were only 8m long, the shark would be held alongside the boat and gutted for its liver. A single shark liver would yield between 300-400 liters of oil which would be used to light oil lamps all over Europe. The remainder of the shark would quite often be discarded. When the fishing was done, the boat would be pulled out of the sea on whale bones, like a slip, and according to Icelandic law, if someone is pulling up a boat to shore, by hand or using a winch system, passers by are required to stop and help them bring in their boat. Apparently one can be detained for failing to help someone bring in a boat, though this sort of thing is not so common these days, as most boats are docked in marinas and powered by engines. 

On our way to our next stop, we drove past the Bolungarvik Golf Course, a picturesque 9 hole course set in a prettyish little area on some of the only flat terrain around – which is in short supply. We were told by our guide Lizabet, that it is hilarious to see very well dressed golfers out in summer ‘lose all their dignity’ as they flailed their golf clubs madly in the air to fend off attacks by the local Arctic Terns that inhabit the area. Unfortunately being the end of summer, there was neither golfers nor Arctic Terns on the course today.

As I mentioned earlier, Ísafjörður is made up of four villages, one of which is Bolungarvik, and it is Bolungarvik Church that we were stopping to see. Bolungarvik Church was built in 1908 in the only ‘safe area’ of Bolungarvik… and by ‘safe’, they mean it is safe from the ravages of the sea and it is safe from any avalanche hazard. So it is located on a flat area of ground far enough away from the water’s edge and sufficiently far from the base of any mountains. While most of Bolungarvik’s tiny population of 900 are Lutheran, there are 12 different nationalities living here. And it sounds like this little church has a kick arse Bishop.

For a start, the Bishop is a woman named, Agnes, who is a feminist, an outspoken LGBT activist and a great advocate for multiculturalism. It sounds like she is almost single handedly changing the way the Lutheran Church operates in Iceland. She is the first female bishop, (apparently when she was born, a friend of her father’s had said, ‘What a lovely child, what a shame it isn’t a son, he could have grown up to be something useful, like a priest’ – upon hearing this story over and over in her childhood, Agnes, thought, I’ll show them!’). She does speaking tours to encourage and empower girls and women to get out and do things and be independent. She does a lot of ‘loose and weird’ stuff as a feminist pushing hard against the stuffy old ways of the Board of the church. She is forcing the church to do things better – she is fights for gay rights and also, this is very important, she is currently advocating for respect for other religions which apparently is very hard for Icelanders because (according to Lisabet), ‘we are, you know, very err, rude’. Even in this small community, small numbers of refugees from all over are coming, and the community is rejecting them. Muslims, and any other religions who have applied to build a mosque or church or other house of worship have had building applications rejected – so Agnes took the unusual step of opening the doors of the historic Bolungovik Church, which is Lutheran, and allowing any other any denomination to use the church for their own services and observances. So now the Church has a schedule of services for all types of religions and the youth centres are also having multi-denominational programs. She is slowly opening people’s minds and the children and young people are really benefitting as they stop seeing those of different religions as unusual or strange. I think Agnes the first female Bishop sounds awesome and there should be more integrating people into communities rather than segregating or retreating into our separate corners… but that’s another story.

Another side effect of being part of such a small community is a lack of space. Apparently they ran out of space for the kindergarten a few years ago, and decided to send the children to the local nursing home during the days. The children have their meals every day, and do craftwork with the elderly who live in the nursing home. It turns out to be a very mutually beneficial, extended family, sort of system. The children learn respect and patience as they help the elderly with small things and work with them on craft projects, and the elderly, some of whom have no family nearby, gain proxy grandchildren. Sounds like another win-win.

The church was very beautiful and all the decorations inside have been completely hand painted. While we were there, two local girls sang two songs to us in the beautiful acoustics of the lovely little church – the first was a lullaby from a mother to her child, that she could not keep and was surrendering into a waterfall, it was sad and beautiful, the other song was about the hardships of living in such a hostile climate. If I could figure out how to upload sound files from my iPhone to this page, I will eventually put them in here – they were melodic and ever so slightly haunting. Just lovely.

On the way to our next stop, we had a discussion about how most people in Ísafjörður have several different jobs. You might be a singer/tour guide in summer, and study and work in a bakery in the winter. Higher education is important for everyone (though Icelanders can tend to do things in a different order to us – high school/college, have children, get married, then go to university), so that all services can be covered your construction worker might also be social worker, and your bus driver might also be a council worker. Most people have numerous jobs because the services need filling, but the town of 3,500 doesn’t need a full time social worker, so people are adaptable and flexible with their employment, especially when it comes to winter work.
A local saying is that summer in the West fjord (Ísafjörður) is the closest to heaven you can get… but if you want to see what hell looks like when it freezes over, then swing by in January! Nearly 10 months of the year is spent in winter conditions, wither barely two weeks of spring and two weeks of fall. At the moment, the days getting rapidly shorter and by November it will get dark and stay dark until February, which can send people a little loopy by January. For Ísafjörður, snow avalanche alarms and evacuations are extremely common depending on where you live. Area A is the best areas, and they only end up evacuating about once every 2 years or so. Area B is the second safest areas and they end up evacuating about a few times each winter. Area C places can end up evacuating up to 10-12 times every winter, and there are some areas where it is forbidden to live in winter at all and only summer homes can be built there. The government is compulsorily acquiring some properties that are in particularly avalanche prone areas in order to relocate people somewhere safe. When an avalanche evacuation occurs, everyone up and moves to a family member or friend’s house for a few days so it can seem like a mini-holiday/sleep over. 
So the Icelanders have learned to live with the nature but also to be a little bit afraid of it. I remember writing recently about the Chinese standards for a good life, and their obsession with longevity, regardless of whether you have a good or a bad house… here the standard for a good life, is to be alive – that is their standard of happiness. It’s a simple ideology due to living with this constant danger hanging over their heads. I found out later in the day that the sense of danger is even worse than dealing with yearly avalanches – apparently there is a large section of mountain that scientists all agree is going to slide off the mountain into the fjord one day… any day… could be tomorrow, could be 1000 years from now. But when it does, it will create a huge tsunami-like wave that will wash down the fjord, hit the opposing cliffs and wash back onto sea level Ísafjörður. No doubt completely wiping the town out if they have no warning. I can’t imagine living with that vague threat over your head, and they have no idea really if it will come to pass.
After this we stopped by a small waterfall in the Skutilsfjödur to try the fresh glacial water. It’s been a long long time since I drank water from a natural stream and not been worried about the water quality. This waterfall comes from a reservoir at the top of the mountains and water filters down through the mountain and is used for the town’s drinking water. By the sounds of it, they use it completely untreated because it’s too damn cold for any bacteria to live here anyway, which is the same way they get away with dehydrating fish for months on end just in covered huts… Nothing rots. Not even shark meat that is buried for four years or so. O.o 

We had another stop after the waterfall to the Byggdasafn Vestfarda… O.o The Westfjords Heritage Museum for the rest of us. This was fun little museum with a collection of old fishing boats, the Old Blacksmithing Workshop which is still set up like it would have been in the 19thC, many maritime and nautical items on display and really weirdly, someone’s (Asgeif S. Sigurdsson’s) private piano accordion collection! 


  Yes, there were about fifty piano accordions on display upstairs and I have no idea why. While we were there, we were given an opportunity to try some dried fish, some ‘special’ Icelandic dried shark which we were heartily advised to wash down with Brennivan – the Icelandic aquavita I was hunting down yesterday. The dried fish was quite okay, just like a fish jerky. But the buried for years shark meat was kinda awful, with a lovely aroma of ammonia and a taste to match… so it was down the hatch with the Brennivan. Which, by the way, tastes like the nastiest white alcohol you can get your hands – imagine a drink that tastes like nasty tequila, sake and vodka mixed together, and you’re on the right track… just strong white alcohol of indeterminate flavour.

We had a few hours to wander around the town after this while waiting for our afternoon adventures, so wander the town centre and took in the atmosphere. Ísafjörður felt a lot more ‘open’ than Akureryi (I keep forgetting how to say that – and have to remember the, ‘It’s a long way to Akureryi, it’s a long way to go!’ ditty to get on the right track again). There were several handicrafts shops, a book store where I nearly bought some Icelandic Mr Men books, a few restaurants and cafes and bakeries and all good things. I was amazed at how expensive things are here – or at least I was on the first day, but now, am just amazed at the huge sticker shock the Americans seem to get whenever they try to pay for things in US dollars – they are not used to their dollar not going far… and Iceland is really pricey for everyone, including the Yanks. In nearly every store and restaurant, you could hear them exclaiming, ‘You’re kidding? It’s how much? Oh, that’s not right’. Suck it up princesses, it’s about time you found a place where a fiver can’t buy you your own hotel! 



 In the afternoon we went for a short boat cruise out to a small island called, Vigur Island. Vigur is barely a mile long and 450 yards wide (I’d convert that for y’all, but it reeks of math). This tiny island in the fjord has Iceland’s only windmill which was used to grind wheat that was imported from Denmark, because of course, they wouldn’t be able to grow wheat here for love or money. 

We also saw Iceland’s oldest useable fishing boat here – one of those approximately 8m long fishing boats that we saw earlier, but this one was built in the early 1800s from driftwood that had apparently come from Siberia. It takes 5 yrs for driftwood to float to Iceland from Siberia and over that time it gets soaked through and absorbs a lot of salt which hardens the wood, making it ideal for ship building compared to the local birch.

But Vigur Island isn’t really known for it’s windmill or it’s boat building, it is best known for it’s birds… this tiny, pristine and tranquil landscape is known for it’s enormous colonies of black guillemots, Arctic terns and PUFFINS! That’s right, our shore tour destination expert told us there were 80,000 puffins on Vigur, and that we had best take hats and umbrellas to wave about to keep the Arctic terns from attacking us while we went in search of puffins and eider ducks… but in a very typical twist of fate, we have arrived about two weeks too late to see even a single nesting pair of puffins and not a single Arctic tern to be seen either. So disappointed… The only puffin I saw on Vigur was stuffed! 

  I don’t know if I have mentioned in my travels before, but when I was in the UK in 1995, the only places that was on my list to see in Scotland was the Edinburgh Tattoo, and the Island of Staffa, to see the basalt cliffs and hopefully see the puffins… but alas, the one day we had to spend there, we had booked a boat trip out to see Staffa, but bad weather prevented us from making it out to the Island and instead, our boat trip turned into an all day bus trip driving around in the rain looking at stuff that wasn’t amazing rock formations or puffins. So I was foiled in my puffin seeking in 1995 by foul weather, and here I am 20 years later, foiled again in seeing the puffins by being just a bit too late in the season. Little buggers, I think they are hiding from me… I am beginning to think chasing puffins are my own personal, “Great Wave of Disappointment”.  

Next time… I swear, one of these days I’ll get to see puffins.

Iceland Cruise – Akureyri

Iceland! I’m in Iceland! And we are sure not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Hell, we came through the Arctic Circle last night! In fact, I’m pretty sure you can’t get further from Kansas if you tried. We are in Akureyri today which is considered the capital of northern Iceland – which, btw is only about 103,000 sqkm, or as our guide has said, roughly the size of Kentucky… Being Australian, that means SFA to me, but the Americans all smiled and nodded knowingly, so yeah, all good. 😀 There is also only about 325,000 people in Iceland which equates to 3 bods per sqkm, compared to 10 bodies per sqkm in US and about 250 people per sqkm in UK. Can’t remember what Australia comes in at… WHO knows? 

Iceland’s incredible tundra-like landscape is shaped by fire and ice, primarily through the last Ice Age and more recently, through extensive volcanic action. Earthquakes can occur quite frequently and are usually about 6.5-7.0 on the Richter Scale, as the constant venting of geothermal energy means it never builds up enough for anything stronger… Which the Icelanders are quite happy about. They also have a very active volcanic geography, as you would expect, and volcanoes erupt about every four years or so, as the magma under the island is really quite close to the surface here. The landscape is simply ‘incomparable’ as our shore destination expert, Ken, would say.

There are no mineable minerals or oil in Iceland, but they do drill for hot water to power large geothermal power stations. Icelanders pay about 1/3 of the cost of what people pay for electricity and heating in the UK or other Scandinavian countries which probably makes up for the earthquake thing a bit.
The official language is Icelandic – when the first settlers came to Iceland nearly all Scandinavians spoke approximately the same language. However, due to its isolation, Icelandic has remained closest to the older traditional Scandinavian language. The closest language to Icelandic is Faroese which shares about 50% common words – a bit like Italian and Spanish. Children used to learn Danish in schools as a second language, but now everyone learns English in primary school, adds Danish in high school and if they go to college (and apparently most do?) they end up learning at least one more language usually German, French, Italian or Spanish.
Ingólfur Arnarson was chieftain of first Norse settlers who arrived in 874AD in Reyjavik. Yay!!! Vikings!!! Woo!!! Sorry, bit excited to be here. Anyway, they built a farm to see if they could make a life here and, importantly, to decide if they could make it through the winter! After a couple of years, things must have been going ok because in 930AD, the first Icelandic Parliament was settled in Þingvellir (going there, day after tomorrow) and the Parliament stood until 1798… Though it is not exactly a Parliament as we know it, they met for only two weeks every summer and would set law and carry out arbitrations and judgements etc. but no politicians.
Things must have gone swimmingly for quite a while until a period of unrest started when all the power and influence had gathered into just a few families. In 1264, the Icelanders signed a treaty with the Norwegian and then became subjects of Norway, and subsequently became part of Denmark when Norway did.
In 1602, Akureyri was still primarily a merchant port and it wasn’t until 1862 that they formed a town charter for their enormous population of some 150 people. A century and a half later and there is now 18,000 people living here.

Iceland didn’t become independent until 1944 but it was Jóhann UnpronounceableSurname who was almost solely responsible for Icelandic independence. He studied politics in Denmark and felt Iceland would never truly progress without independence.

In 1864 King Christian IX came to Iceland to celebrate the 1000 year jubilee of continuous Icelandic settlement and he gave Iceland a copy of their Constitution, which was meant to be symbolic gesture, but was taken by the people as encouragement to make moves towards an independent Iceland.
In 1918, Iceland became independent but was still sort of under Denmark, much like the Faroe Islands still are now, and it was not until 1944 that Iceland became completely independent from Denmark. Iceland was occupied by Germany at the time so poor old Denmark didn’t really get to have much to say about the matter. Relations remain really good though, and many Icelanders go to Denmark to study and live – about 5000 of them live there now.

Our first stop today was the Laufas Folk museum which sounded kinda twee (as anything ‘folk’ tends to!) but was really kinda cool. The museum consists of a series of connected traditional Icelandic farmhouses. The farmhouses are dug into a hillside with minimal wood in the construction, instead using turf and stone. Mostly built in 19thC, some sections of the farmhouses date back to the 16thC. Most of the first settlers made their homes out of wood, as they were traditionally used to doing, but they used up all the timber in Iceland in just a couple of decades so they needed to find other ways to build… hence the stone and turf. It is estimated that 25% of Iceland was covered in timber originally, but now it’s only about 2% and even some of that planted. The newer building technique of digging their homes into the ground used minimal timber, only for the gables and roofs.

The farmhouses are all connected inside so the inhabitants did not have to go outside during the depths of winter to visit their neighbours – so many families would have lived in the interconnecting houses. The occupants of the farmhouses raised sheep, spun and wove wool, and bred and raised eider ducks. Eider is very, very soft but very expensive as it takes a lot of ducks to make eider items. The ducks were quite prized and very well cared for and protected, so the farmers can keep collecting the eider. Eider ducks are still raised in Iceland as eider is still so much In demand, that the locals call it, ‘soft gold’.
Our next stop was to Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods. As local history tells it, the Parliament, in 1000AD, gave the (not inconsiderable) responsibility to Lawspeaker and Chieftain Þorgeir Þorkelsson to decide if Iceland should become Christian or stick to their older Viking/pagan ways. He apparently laid down under a rug and contemplated for 24 hours, and eventually decided that Iceland should be Christian. People were still allowed to worship their Norse gods privately in their homes and it was a very peaceful transition with no persecution – which hardly sounds very religious! Anyway, to set a good example for the people Þorgeir threw his idol statues of the Norse gods Odin and Thor into the waterfalls and they say the waterfalls have been called the Waterfalls of the Gods ever since. Nowadays, most Icelanders belong to the Lutheran Evangelical church.

 People travel to Iceland specifically for the fishing – Icelandic salmon and trout in the fresh water rivers. Sheep farming – sheep released into the wild slopes at the beginning of summer in June. And rounded up September in a community effort and all the sheep are divided back up and given back to the right farms. It might take a whole day to round the sheep up. A whole day!

 The main trees here are birch ‘what do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? stand up ‘ trees font grow very high in these conditions.
We also stopped in at the Botanical gardens, which are one of the northernmost botanical gardens in the world. Started by two very determined amateur gardeners, (I didn’t catch their names, but I imagine they were probably Ester and Betty, or some thing similar) who planted over 2000 exotic trees and flowers… many of which shouldn’t really grow in these conditions but have somehow survived.
Currently, Akureyri is having their coldest summer in 30 to 40 years – seems climate change is messing up shit everywhere. Generally the snow starts in end of September and will go away by May and Akureyri’s climate is heavily affected by ocean temperstures which have been really cold this summer: 0° to -1°/-2°. The hottest recorded temperature was about 31° and coldest recorded about -30°, and apparently the weather is very unpredictable which makes agricultural pursuits diffucult. The only vegetable grown outdoors here are potatoes and turnips, and all other vegetables are grown in greenhouses – tomatoes, cucumbers, zucchini, bell peppers etc. Iceland grows about half their vegetables can’t grow any fruit at all. So all fruit needs to be imported along with the other half of their veggies.

After wandering the Botanical Gardens for a while and admiring the late summer blooms, and gorgeous enormous bumblebees, we went for a walk down town to hunt for some Brennavin for my extra special, second very best friend, JarlNiall, who asked me to keep an eye out for it. As luck would have it, alcohol is only sold in state controlled stores run by disapproving grannies, and this afternoon was likely to be my only chance to look for it. Walking about ‘down town’ was rather strange – things felt shut and it was difficult to tell 1) if a building was a store, 2) if it was a store, what the hell are they selling and, 3) are they even bloody open?! I ended up asking a little lady from the Red Cross stall in the centre of town for help : “Excuse me. I’m obviously an annoying tourist and have no idea… but can you point me to the hard liquor please?”
The poor lovey was very helpful, but I couldn’t understand her directions and she ended up abandoning her stall and walking me down the street to point out an ugly distant grey building called the Vin Buildun (*facepalm* … the Wine Building). Anyway, managed to acquire the required Brennavin though I have no idea how much I paid as both the ISK and the AUD are fluctuating like mad! And now all I have to do is nurse it through 20 more days of travel and get it home in one piece! Wish me luck. 😀

 PS – tastes fucking foul!

Jarlshof… Where the history comes from.

Woo-hoo! I’m in the Shetland Islands! Last time I was Scotland was in 1995 with BigSal and BluddyMary as part of our huge Slappers Grand Tour of Europe, but we never made it quite this far north. The Shetlands are an archipelago of some 100 islands, barely 16 of which are permanently inhabited and today we visited Lerwick – pronounced either ‘Lerrick’ if you’re from any else where in Scotland or ‘Lerwick’, if you’re from the creatively named, Mainland – Shetland’s largest island. Lerwick, meaning literally, ‘muddy bay’ is a home to about 7,500 of the Shetland’s 23,000 people. It’s really sort of nice to be talking about population in the thousands after the ‘small towns’ of China coming in at around 5 million. 

TIL Lerwick is officially only a town, not a city… In the UK, you have to have a cathedral and associated bishopric in order to be a city. I did not know that. Anyway, in the remote ‘township’ of Lerwick our first stop was Fort Charlotte. Built in 1665, Fort Charlotte is a coastal defense fort on the Bressay Sound during the Second Dutch War. It was reconstructed in 1781-82 during the American war of Independence and named after George III’s Queen. The Fort has a battery of cannon facing the Sound and is one of several pentagonal forts built around that time – much like the Dutch inspired pentagon fort we visited in Hakodate Japan a couple of months ago.  

  After the Fort, we happened upon the Lerwick Town Hall, which might be the most beautiful civic building I have ever seen. With a gorgeous and imposing stone exterior, the town hall is comprised of offices and small conference rooms downstairs, and a function room upstairs in which every wall is covered in the most amazing stained glass l. The north wall had an enormous rose window covered with heraldry, one assumes belonged to important people connected to Lerwick, and the other two exterior walls were covered in windows depicting important persons from the Shetland’s Scottish/Scandinavian history. Absolutely stunning room for a town hall… actually scratch that, it was a stunning room to be in any sort of public building. 




 After admiring the stained glass we made our way down to Commercial Road and Market Cross to do a spot of shopping (again with the crazy creative names). We stopped in on some lovely knitwear stores, gift shops and some jewelry stores that all selling lovingly crafted local items inspired by the Shetlands and their traditional arts and crafts – including the famous Fair Isle knitwear. I particularly loved the De Rosa-Rinconada ceramics collection complete with gorgeous otters and puffins (totally would have bought some of these if I thought I could get them home safely), the Mirrie Dancers Northern Lights of the Shetlands jewelry collection (which I might have bought if they came in gold as well as silver) and the Fraser Knitwear (which I nearly did buy because it’s bloody cold!). I did buy a lovely woolen scarf (predictably, in burgundy) and of course a tourist pin for my collection. Mostly I’m just listing these other things here so I can look them up later. 😀

Next on our agenda was the Shetland Museum and Archive. Situated down on the waterfront this free museum is full of all the cool history of the Shetlands spanning back to the Stone Age. I took so many photos here of Scots, Norse and Viking artifacts that I think it might have to go into a post of its own to keep it all straight… The museum covered everything local from stone axes through to Victorian mourning attire. It was very interesting. 

After having been wait listed to get on a ship your to visit the Jarlshof Ruins, I can’t tell you how pleased and relieved I was to be getting the chance to see this unique site – and that is what our afternoon had in store for us. We met up with our tour group back at the tender pier and set off with our local guide, Melvyn, towards the ruins. 

On the way there, Melvyn caught us up on plenty of local Shetland colour and trivia. Housing in Lerwick can be as much as £500,000 with the price going up the further up the hillside the property was located. All the ‘wicks’ – Sanwick, Hoswick, Lerwick – refer to square shaped bays. The little Shetland ponies we saw as we were driving through the countryside were originally beasts of burden, particularly sturdy and useful for collecting peat, but now are of little commercial use, but people love them anyway. In fact, Shetland ponies and sheep are the only domestic animals that thrive up here, and I can fully believe it – conditions today at the end of summer were a bit iffy, but it looked like it would be downright bleak in winter. What else? Ahhh, the locals believe that if the cows are sitting down its a sure sign it’s going to rain (not a bad bet – they seem to have pretty high average rainfalls). And the black fishing nets that seem to live on every other street corner are used to cover rubbish to keep seagulls out of the trash. He told us how people used to harvest peat from the bogs by cutting it into banks to use as winter fuel, but this was falling out of fashion as it is very labour intensive and time consuming. It’s hard work to dig up the peat, it takes weeks to dry it out and you have to transport it home. Peat is like a precursor to coal and is a finite resource as it doesn’t replenish… But Melvyn seemed to think Scotland had plenty of it and mentioned that some people were turning back to peat due to the rising cost of oil and other fuels. I wasn’t aware of this, but a large storms can shift an entire peat bogs by causing landslides when the water gets underneath the peat layer. He also told us how many Shetland graveyards are located close to the coastlines, as many visitors coming to funerals and to grave sites, are often coming by boat. Melvyn was full of weird and wonderful informative tidbits… And I just realized I probably should have dot pointed that wall of text, but too bad! 🙂 

Then there were the Jarshof Ruins, that evidences 5000 years of continuous and uninterrupted human history. It is rightly considered the most important historic site of the Shetlands and no doubt lists right up there with Newgrange in Ireland for somewhat obscure yet intrinsically important historical sites worldwide that document human history.  


 Jarlshof, literally means, ‘earls house’ and the site provides evidence for how humans had lived uninterrupted in the area from the Neolithic Period right up until the 1600s. Each new era building beside, rather than on top of, their predecessors dwellings… So in a rather condensed space you can see how people moved from one area to the next, abandoning the previous building styles. 

Originally the archeological site would have been far more extensive, but it’s precarious location by the sea has seen much of the site destroyed by erosion. What remains however is fascinating. The site was unearthed in 1905 unearthed by a storm which gave a glimpse to the stone work below what would have looked like an ordinary grassy mound. Excavation of the area commenced and in 1925 the site was claimed as a historic site. In 1950 all excavation was finished and the site is now as it was then. Visitors can move through the complex and observe the changing conditions of the people who lived here at the different eras…

Neolithic period is the oldest period represented as being the earliest dwellings on site. Pottery fragments dating from 2500BC were found in these late stone age period residences, dating this section of the ruins to be 4500 years old. 


 Further on are Bronze Age dwellings, the age of which was (obviously) determined by objects made of bronze in what was a working smithy. Remarkable about these bronze finds is they also provide evidence of extensive trade some 4000 years ago – bronze, as we know, is a copper and tin alloy, and while the Shetlands do have copper deposits and copper mines, the nearest tin mines are in Cornwall in the very south of England and must have been traded north. The bronze artifacts found here are similar those those found in Dublin from the same period. The residences in these Bronze Age homes were rounded alcoves that would have had conical wooden roofs… Though wood is no longer plentiful in the Shetlands. 

The next residences belong to the Early Iron Age and are similar in construction (conjoined round alcove housing) to the Bronze Age homes but are slightly more elaborate in comparison. They have also found several soutterrains – underground natural fridge spaces in two of the Early Iron Age dwellings.  


 The Mid Iron Age homes nearby are in the form of a typical Scottish broch – a multi storied round stone building that would have housed several families living in one space. The circular, double brick building had no windows and a timber roof and were built up to 15m high and approximately 16m across at the base. The broch at Jarlshof was built around 400BC-100AD and only half on the circular building remains as the other half has long since been claimed by the sea. 


 The next era represented is the Late Iron Age ‘wheelhouses’ which were built approximately 200-300AD. So named because they resemble a wheel when viewed from above, the wheelhouses again had no windows, were circular in construction, but this time had only one entrance, a small central ‘hall/hearth’ area with alcoves emitting from the central space. The stone pillars supporting the ‘spokes’ widen as they are built higher providing a triangular support which would have enabled a heavier stone and timber roof. Again these wheelhouses housed several families in one structure and would have been particularly cramped – with storage areas but no sleeping areas, people probably huddled together to sleep rather than laid down.


 From there the next period is that of the Viking longhouses from approximately 800AD. The Viking Norsemen came to Scotland looking for farming land – as there were limited agricultural lands left in various Scandinavian/Viking areas. The change in architecture is very noticeable. Gone are the round alcove housing and in their place the long rectangular Viking longhouses are apparent. Corners are square, buildings are more structured, people lived at one end of the long house and animals at the other. Future houses were built perpendicular to the main Viking longhouse. The Vikings brought to Scotland their language, their building techniques and their boat building techniques… much of which is still evident in the modern Shetlands. 

After the Viking period which flourished for some 400 years came the Medieval farmhouse, which was established around 1200AD and was characterized by yet another style of building. These buildings were of drystone construction and had internal and external walls with an earthenware core. 

  Following on from the Medieval farmhouses, the most recent buildings wee from the period where the Scottish took over the Shetlands. The Scottish period started when James III of Scotland married Margaret, daughter of King Christian of Denmark in 1469. Margaret brought the Shetlands as dowry to James III, and even though Christian intended to eventually purchase them back, he never had the capital. For some time the property remained occupied by the Norwegian Sumburghs. Eventually, the Laird’s House and Hall were built and given to Sir Robert Stewart (an illegitimate uncle to James VI) to maintain Scottish governorship of the Shetlands. In 1593 Earl Robert died leaving the property to his son, Earl Patrick Stewart who built further on the property in the rubble bedded lime and mortar style. Earl Patrick met a messy end after being arrested and incarcerated for six years for tyrannous treatment of his tenants. Eventually he was executed in 1615 (the six years of incarceration was apparently because he had to recite the Lord’s Prayer before being executed, and because he was illiterate and took him that long to learn it…stalling much?). After the Stewarts downfall, the Scottish Bruce family took over but without being occupied, by the end of the 1600s the buildings were in ruins. 


 1969 saw the 500th anniversary of the Union of the Shetlands into Scotland which was marked by finally designing a Shetland flag – being a beautifully simple, ‘Azure, an offset cross Argent’. The design is intended to equal symbolic weight to the fact that Shetland was part of Norway for 500 years and Scotland for 500 years, so it is a combination of the typically Scandinavian offset cross and the national colours of Scotland. Very cool… But I wonder what took them so long. 

Other than all these crazy cool things, the Shetlands are known for fishing and fish processing – including salmon and mussels and all good seafoody things. They’re also pretty reliant on oil and natural gas, tourism and agriculture. The only other thing the Shetlands are really known for are their midgees…. Fucking annoying little sand flies getting about biting you when ever the wind dies down. I don’t think I could live in a place that had them year round like this. Little buggers. 
Then there’s the Up-Helly-Aa Fire Festival that is held on the last Tuesday of every January to mark the end of winter. About 800-900 torch bearers walk through the streets in full Viking costumes to the main park in town for the main event of the festival which is the burning of a Viking long ship! People spend months making their Viking costumes (sound familiar?) and the festival lasts nearly 24 hours ending in the 2.5mile procession where participants then throw their torch into the longship. Participants are called Guizers and they follow the GuizerJarl or Earl of the Festival. There is also a junior Up-Helly-Aa held with about 120 kids. Much like the Iditarod – I think it’s something I’d love to attend but can’t quite see myself coming to the Shetlands or Alaska in the winter time! 
Oh, and tomorrow marks the day that Queen Elizabeth II breaks Queen Victoria’s record as longest serving British monarch. I wonder if the royalists will be celebrating in the streets back in London… If they are, we will unfortunately miss it as we will be on the open sea heading for Iceland via the Arctic Circle! 😀