If we've decided to visit Canada after watching a commercial, it's the film "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty" that made us fall in love with Iceland.
Beautiful things don't ask for attention.
This quote from the film encapsulates our trip in Iceland. Even though the country is very famous for its beauty among photographer it's by visiting it and being in the pictures that we've discovered it's true beauty.
For this one-week trip it goes without saying that we weren't able to visit all Iceland. We've decided to focus our stay around the South-Western part of the island, following Road 1.
Unsurprisingly, our trip starts in Reykjavic, the capital of the country where two third of Icelanders lives. Then, we've headed East towards the Golden Circle. After the Golden Circle we reconnected with Road 1 and drove by the sea-side towards Vik. Along the way we've stopped at Dyrhòlaey, a cliff that overhangs one hundred meters above the sea and offers a wonderful view of Reynisfjara* black sand beaches. After Vik we drove across a desert-like landscape towards Vatnajökull mountain and Jökulsarlon in particular. Jökulsarlon is a lake created by the glacier and covered with icebergs. Finally, we did a U-turn and headed back to Reykjavik. Our trip ended South of Reykjavik, at the famous Blue Lagoon.
First hiccup of the trip : the language. Even though most letters are the same, Icelandic is a really tough language. Pronunciation is counter intuitive and spelling varies given words are in their original Icelandic form or have been simplified for foreigners. Our GPS was quite playful and undecided whether to use the simplified form or not making navigation a bit of a headache. Quick example, the letter "Þ" as in Þingvellir. It looks like a "P" but doesn't sounds like one and is pronounced like the english "th" making "Thingvellir" the proper simplified version of Þingvellir. And to make it worse, "Pingvellir" exists as well.
Reykjavic is a special place. First, it is a city, which is not that common in Iceland. Anywhere else, three house in a field qualifies as a highly-populated area.
We are familiar with nordic cities from northern Europe. One of us lived in Norway for several months. In Reykjavik we find a lot of similarities with those cities. They give you a very warm and pleasant sensation immediately. Even though the weather was rather cold. One word comes to mind : hygge. This norwegian word has been turned into an art in Denmark and defines as follows :
In essence, hygge means an intimate and joyful atmosphere. It's enjoying the little things with the people you love. The warm light from a candle, that's hygge. Source
An intimate and joyful atmosphere, that's exactly how we feel visiting some of the countless nice little lifestyle shops in the city center all more hygge than the others. Same goes for the restaurant and even the city library. Anywhere you sit you are never far away from a blanket and a candle. Everything smells like wood and cinnamon. Immediately a warm and nap inducing feeling seizes you.
One exception: Hallgrímskirkja, Reykjavik lutherian church. It's unique architecture makes it one of the most recognizable landmark of the city. However, it leaves a very different impression. It is not very hygge. We spend some time contemplating it without being able to put a word on what makes it so special. Without knowing it, we are looking at what comes next on our trip. It's architecture is directly inspired by the Icelandic landscape and more specifically basalt columns.
We hit the road aboard our very local and hygge Kia Picanto. It is not equipped with blankets or scented candles but seat warmers. A nice touch in very windy and cold May.
Leaving Reykjavic and taking Road 1 is like stepping into a roller-coaster. First, nothing spectacular happens. We come across vast empty plains, nothing really stands out apart from the occasional puff of steam from geothermal plants.
And then it hits you. Right before we momentary leave Road 1 for this roller coaster inside the roller coaster that is the Golden Circle. We enter the land of this new attraction. A smaller, more concentrated one. It's like a best-of of what you can expect from Iceland. It's not surprising the Golden Circle is so popular. In this relatively small area you get the full Southern-Icelandi experience. You may even come and see this on a weekend. It checks a lot of boxes : volcanos with Kerið crater, geysers, waterfalls, a canyon, multiple rainbows.
We end this little roller coaster with Þingvellir (aka "Pingvellir* aka "Thingvellir" you know the story). At first it doesn't seem like a very exciting place. It's more of an acquired taste actually. That doesn't mean you have to spend seven years in the valley to grasp its true meaning. But you have to be curious and walk around because it's doesn't ask for attention. In Þingvellir meets the European and American tectonic plates. From this meeting, we get a huge rift that splits the valley in halves. This rift stand here like a wall that probably competes with Game of Thrones' wall during the winter.
Back on our main roller coaster : Road 1. This part of the ride stretch along the seaside between the land and the sea.
Immediately the landscape strikes us. It's incredible. The sensation is hard to describe though. It's the same as the first time one visits New-York city. Everything seems very familiar because you've seen if countless times in the movies, video games... But this time, this is not something on our TV screen or in a magazine, it's the real deal, we are in the movies. The cliffs are vertigo inducing, the plains make you feel like the last man on Earth and the background... It's a glance at the what happens next on the ride. The magnificent Vatnajökull stretches on the horizon and plays with the sun. Because in May you don't really get a night. It's twilight at best. The sun meets with the horizon at around 10pm and starts a dance with it until 5 in the morning. This strange dance bathes the landscape in a warm golden light and it's completely disorienting. It's a photographer's dream, a lengthy beautiful golden hour.
Next stop is Dyrhòlaey, a cliff that stands a hundred meter above sea level. It offers an impressive view on the black sandy beaches of Reynisfjara on one side and the beautiful plains we've just traveled through on the other side. Dyrhòlaey is also a nature reserve. It's a sanctuary for marine birds and we are lucky enough to see a couple of puffins from far away.
Last stop before Vik : Reynisfjara. Without the tourists, bridal couples and their photographers the whole place would feel like walking on the moon. The ground is black, from very fine sand to shiny round pebbles. The waves crashing on the pebbles creates a very distinct cracking sound. Beside us are the basalt columns, black as well and so regular it's hard to believe they forms naturally. Away from the shore, two sharp peaks emerges from the sea. The whole area has a very gothic mood while most of the landscape we've encountered so far was very romantic and full of colors.
After Vik the landscape changes gradually. Romantic sceneries and dramatic lighting like the one from Dutch painting are over. Here, the ride becomes more lonesome and extreme. Still, it is very gradual. Similar to what we've seen so far but with a bolder stroke. Water turns into ice. Green plains turn into sandurs. Cliffs turns into glaciers.
We spend the night in Fosshotel Nupar. The hotel is literally in the middle of nowhere and seems to be part of a James Bond movie. The impression is reinforced by the strong wind that disturbs out attempt at exploring the surroundings. We are swept away by the dusty wind and the sun has already started his dance with the horizon bathing everything in a golden red color. If we were on the moon the previous day, now we are on Mars.
The last stage of the ride leads us to Vatnajökull* and especially Jökulsarlon lake. Kilometers and kilometers of straight line in the middle of volcanic boulders and icy streams. We are almost alone and not really reassured by the very small gas tank of our rental car.
The first encounter with a glacier is the occasion to go for a small hike on the crest above it, overlooking the plains and the sea. The hike is very easy and very rewarding. From the top, every direction you look is incredible. The reflection of the sun on the glacier melt streams is golden and goes beyond our expectations.
Finally, the end of the ride is coming. We know we are here for a treat but we couldn't imagine how intense it would be. Jökulsarlon is an icy lake covered with icebergs. To see it you have to climb the wind-exposed rocky hills that surrounds it. On top, the scene is breathtaking. The lake is white and blue and we can see marine birds swimming around the icebergs. On top, facing West the sun is dancing again. The scene is blue and orange. The fire from the sun, the volcano and the coldness of the ice. All at once. We may have taken 200 pictures of it but despite our effort they are far away from the truth. From what it feels like to be there.
The way back is an opportunity to stop and see several water falls. At first, when we had read our guide book we felt like those endless waterfalls would be borderline boring. But they are not. They are all unique and special. Seljalandsfoss to name but one, has a path that goes behind the water stream and makes it a hit among photographers.
This is also the time for frustration. One the many iconic landmarks is the wreckage of a DC-13 - an American plane that had to perform an emergency landing forty years ago (without casualties). Since then it is a famous site. Maybe too famous. To visit it, you have to walk 8 kilometers (4km each way) on volcanic sand and dust. Unfortunately it was the day of a very poorly indicated filming. The filming crew had security stopping people from entering the area to see the plane. Bottom line : two hours for nothing and a small grudge against Studio Canal (CanalPlus).
Fortunately, the frustration doesn't last long. Our trip ends the best possible way at the Blue Lagoon. Conveniently located close to our airport, this is an artificial lake supplied by mineral rich and very warm water from the geothermal plant nearby. The landscape reminds us of the moon (again) while we swim is a warm white/bluish water. The experience is awesome. Completely relax we jump aboard the plane with one wish : visit Iceland again!