Secrets of Iceland

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Photography - Ivan Andrejic


Land of Ice and Fire Iceland is often called the Land of Ice and Fire, a land where volcanoes and geothermal heat have made their mark on the landscape, along with the many glaciers and glacier lagoons, a land of pristine and unspoiled nature. Iceland, the lonely island in the middle of the North Atlantic, has become a popular spot for Hollywood blockbuster films. And no wonder, the alien and strange landscapes seems easy to translate as either other planets, as in Star Wars – Rogue One or Prometheus, or suits as a setting for different fantasies, such as Game of Thrones. A land which the powerful elements, fire and ice, have molded and made their mark upon. In recent years many people have discovered the lonely island in the middle of the North-Atlantic and paid it a visit. Not only to see what all the fuzz is about, but to experience the unspoiled nature. To witness the majestic Northern Lights dance across the blackened winter night sky. To see the sun still in the sky at midnight. To visit the geothermal areas where the geysers rule supreme. To sail among massive icebergs on a glacial lagoon. To see, to witness and to experience something new, something unique.

Reykjavik Reykjavik is by far the largest municipality in Iceland and as well the capital city of the country. The capital area has about a total of 60% of Iceland’s population, which is about 320.000 people. Ingolfur Arnarson, the first settler of Iceland according to Landnama, the Book of Settlement, built his farm on the peninsula where the city stands today. Arnarson is said to have decided the location of his settlement using a traditional Norse method. He cast his high seat pillars into the ocean when he saw the coastline, then settled where the pillars came to shore, though not many scholars would argue that this romantic story is fully credible. The town got its name “Smoky Bay” after the columns of steam that rose from the hot springs in the area and made such a deep impression on the first settlers. Thanks to Royal Treasurer Skuli Magnusson, known as the Father of Reykjavik, established wool workshops as part of his effort to modernize the Icelandic economy. This led to the beginning of urban development at Reykjavik. The town received its town charter in 1786 and has grown steadily ever since.

Reykjavik is by far the largest community in Iceland today and located in south-west Iceland. The capital area, which counts five different municipalities, has about 60% of Iceland’s total population. The other municipalities are Kópavogur, Gardabaer, Mosfellsbaer and Hafnarfjordur. The city area coastline is characterized with peninsulas, coves, straits and many small islands, e.g. Videy Island. It offers a good natural harbor and therefor fishing has always been a huge part of the city. Across the bay, Mount Esja (914 m) rises, the highest mountain in the vicinity of Reykjavik. Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world. It is, despite the fact that it is by far not as large as many other capitals, thrumming with life. It has a very interesting art scene, as the many famous Icelandic bands and artist can testify. There are many superb museums and attractions to visit. The city is colorful and the people welcoming. The capital of Iceland is a growing city and very much alive. Whether you visit in summer or winter, there will be so much to do. There are many day tours and activities to choose from, e.g. whale watching, and the city also offers many different museums, art galleries and all kinds of shows and concerts.

Visible from almost any point in the city, Hallgrimskirkja Church sits at the top of Skolavordustigur Street, the central art and design shopping street in the capital. The iconic building is 74,5 meters (240 ft) high, and a visit to the top will reward you with awe-inspiring views of Reykjavik and even Snaefellsjokull glacier on a clear day. For a modest fee visitors can enter the church tower and enjoy the majestic view. Completed in 1986, the concrete structure took over 40 years to build. The tower was renovated in 2009. The soaring modernist church was designed to resemble the basalt lava flows found in Iceland‘s natural landscape, especially the basalt columns around Svartifoss waterfall. The architect Gudjon Samuelsson designed the church in 1937. Samuelsson often used Icelandic nature as motives. The fascinating shapes of the basalt rock columns surrounding Svartifoss Waterfall fascinated the architect. The church features a gargantuan pipe organ, designed and constructed by the German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn. The organ weighs over 25 tons. It is 15 meters tall. The organ is driven by four manuals and a pedal, 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes. The organ is quite powerful and capable of filling the huge space of the church. The organ’s construction was complete in 1992.

Geysir Hot Spring Area A favorite stop along the Golden Circle is the highly active Geysir Hot Spring Area with boiling mud pits, exploding geysers and the lively Strokkur which spouts water 30 meters (100 ft) into the air every few minutes. The newly opened Geysir Center offers exhibits and informative presentations year round. The geothermal field is believed to have a surface area of approximately 3 km². Most of the springs are aligned along a 100m wide strip of land running in the same direction as the tectonic lines in the area, from south to southwest. The strip is 500m long and culminates near what once was the seat of the lords of Haukadalur. The area became active more than 1000 years ago and comprises more than a dozen hot water blow holes. Although Geysir is less active these days, it did lend its name to hot springs all over the world. It was the first geyser described in a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. The great Geysir is not the only geyser in the Geysir hot spring area. The most active geyser in the area is called Strokkur. It sprouts hot water as high as 30 meters into the air every few minutes or so.

Gullfoss - Golden Waterfalls A ride along the Golden Circle in the south reveals the breathtaking Gullfoss (Golden Waterfalls) where traversing a narrow path provides close-up views of the massive, two-tiered waterfall below. In winter the view is spectacular when the waterfall freezes over into undulating waves of glistening ice. On sunny days visitors are treated to thousands of rainbows, a natural reaction with the clouds of spray from the tumbling falls. Gullfoss is one of the most popular tourist attraction in Iceland and part of the Golden Circle, and the waterfall is by many considered one of the most beautiful waterfall in Iceland. It is situated in the upper part of the Hvita river. The water cascades down in two stages, one 11 m (36 ft) high, and the other 21 m (69 ft), into the 2,5 km (1.6 mi) long crevasse below. This crevasse was created at the end of the Ice Age by catastrophic flood waves and is lengthened by 25 cm (9.8 in) a year by the constant erosion from the water.

Thingvellir National Park Thingvellir is a favourite stop among travellers along the Golden Circle route. It has been a National Park in Iceland since 1928 and was named a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004. When Viking settlers arrived in the 10th century it was the site they chose as the meeting place of Althing, the world’s first parliament. The location may seem a bit out of the way, but the unique geology created a natural amphitheatre perfect for public speaking including the high rock wall of Logberg (Law Rock), where the laws of the land would be recited from memory. According to a law, passed in 1928, Thingvellir shall always be the property of the Icelandic nation, under the preservation of the AlÞing.

Thingvellir Rift Valley Aside from its historic interest, Thingvellir holds a special appeal for nature lovers. It is the visible site of the mid-Atlantic Ridge where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet, and are being pulled apart at a rate of 2 centimetres (nearly an inch) per year, creating the Thingvellir Rift Valley. The geology here is not only interesting to learn about but also spectacular to behold. In winter if also offers a great view, especially after dark when the Northern Lights reign supreme on the sky. When snow covers the lave field and the days are short, the landscape becomes almost surreal and offers some great photo opportunities. Thingvellir has been a favorite spot among professional and amature photographers for years, and for a good reason.

Seljalandsfoss Seljalandsfoss waterfall along Iceland’s southern coast is fed by melting water from the famed glacier-capped Eyjafjallajokull volcano. This powerful waterfall cascades into a pretty meadow. However, the path that runs behind the curtain of water is the main attraction. There you can enjoy a truly unique viewpoint of the waterfall. Seljalandsfoss is a beautiful waterfall along the southern coast. It cascades over steep cliffs, which makes it possible for you to walk behind the waterfall. It offers a spectacular view of the waterfall itself and the surroundings. Make sure you don’t forget your camera, but be advised, it might get wet. Please note, use caution when you go behind Seljalandsfoss, as the path can be slippery. During the winter months, due to risk of falling ice, the path behind the waterfall is closed. So, please be cautious and make sure you stay safe, when visiting the waterfall in the winter time. If you visit in the summer should witness the many different wildflowers that seem to bloom and thrive around the waterfall, possibly because of the mist it gives off. This is also an ideal place for if you want, or have time for, a more leisurely visit. It is the perfect spot for a picnic since the surroundings are both beautiful and serene.

A little further to the west you can find several other waterfalls. Among them is the interesting Gljufrabui, partially hidden within its own canyon. If you drive a little further east you will spot a sign saying Paradisarhellir, which will lead you to a small cave in the steep hill side. During summer this is a popular tourist attraction. However, if you arrive either early in the morning or late in the afternoon there shouldn’t be too much traffic there. Also, if you are travelling in winter, stopping by the waterfall when the Northern lights dance across the sky is a great experience. You can walk behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Show caution since rocks and the ground are slippery, especially in winter. If you are travelling with children, make sure you hold their hands at all times. Finally, wear waterproof shoes and a waterproof coat.

Skogafoss Skogafoss is a waterfall in the south of Iceland at the cliffs of the former coastline. After the coastline had receded seaward (it is now at a distance of about 5 kilometres (3.1 miles) from Skogar village), the former sea cliffs remained. Skogafoss is unique because the waterfall comes directly from two glaciers, Eyjafjallajokull and Myrdalsjokull. If you climb the 370 steps to the top of Skogafoss waterfall you’ll be rewarded with an awe-inspiring view out over south Iceland’s coastline. This is also the start of the Fimmvorduhals pass, a popular hiking route. Standing at 60 meters (197 ft) tall, the heavy veil of water is impressive and walking close enough envelops visitors in a cloud of spray, sound and refracted light. Due to the amount of spray the waterfall consistently produces, a single or double rainbow is normally visible on sunny days.

According to legend, a Viking named Thrasi hid his hoarded gold under the falls. Many have tried to find the chest of gold and, as the story goes, a young man almost succeeded. He tied a rope to the chest handle ring and pulled. He only retrieved the ring and returned with it. The ring was later used for the church door at Skogar. The river below the falls holds a large salmon and char population. Don’t be surprise to see fisherman fishing in the river from July – October. You can climb to the top of Skogafoss, where you will find a superb view point. The steps are almost 500 and can be quite steep at times. If you have trouble walking we do not recommend that you hike to the top. Skogafoss can be either the starting or the ending point of one of the most popular hiking trails in Iceland, Fimmvorduhals. The hike is 25 km long. It can be finished in a day or two. The hike is only available in the summertime.

Vik The peaceful seafront village of Vik in the fertile Myrdal Valley is set along a dramatic stretch of coastline, quaintly poised between glacier topped mountains, rugged sea cliffs and black sand beaches. Vik is Iceland’s most southerly village and one of the most popularly photographed areas in the country. Few other places in Iceland offer as many contrasts in nature as Vik with the iconic Reynisdrangar cliffs jutting out from the sea, and the Dyrholaey unique stone arch that marks the western edge of the district. The lush green pastures, rich birdlife, and glacial rivers all sit under the shadow of Myrdalsjokull glacier and the ominous Katla glacier-volcano, which is one of Iceland’s most active. Vik is situated near the Black Sand Beach and Reynisdrangar Sea Stacks. Both are within a hiking distance and easily accessible.

Skaftafell National Park Skaftafell National Park was established in 1967, but in 2008 it became a part of the newly established Vatnajokull National Park. The Skaftafell region of Vatnajokull National Park is a lush oasis where you can hike for days on gorgeous trails through forests, waterfalls, black sands, mountains and glaciers with Iceland’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur, reaching 2,118 meters (6,950 ft), providing a stunning backdrop. Although flanked by glaciers, Skaftafell is actually among the areas in Iceland that receive the least amount of snow. Precipitation usually comes with southerly wind directions that also bring a relatively warm air from the ocean. So most of the time, the precipitation is rain rather than snow. As a result, most of the hiking trails in the lowland areas of Skaftafell are clear of snow all year round.

Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon Iceland’s south coast boasts the constantly changing Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, where blue, white, turquoise and black streaked icebergs shift and creak about in an icy dance. The icebergs are 1,000-year-old chunks of the retreating Oraefajokull glacier that have broken off and are floating out to sea. The lake has grown at varying rates because of melting of the glaciers. It is now 1.5 kilometres away from the ocean’s edge and covers an area of about 18 km2. It recently became the deepest lake in Iceland, at over 248 metres, as glacial retreat extended its boundaries. The glacial lagoon is a part of Vatnajokull National Park. The mystical lagoon is enormous and has provided the backdrop for many major feature films and programs including ‘Batman Begins’ and most recently ‘Game of Thrones.’ Nearby Jokulsarlon is a sand beach named Breidamerkursandur. It is often called ‘The Diamond Beach‘ because of the glaciers from Jokulsarlon that have washed up on the sand where they lie and sparkle like diamonds.

Egilsstadir Egilsstadir is located inland from the coast and is considered the hub of East Iceland, with the regional airport situated here. The landscape in this remote part of the island exhibits a rich variety in color and local folklore tells equally colorful tales of elves and other mythical creatures such as the Lagarfljotsormur, an ancient serpentine monster believed to be swimming in the depths Lagarfljot Lake. There are nearby hiking trails as well as camping during the summer months. Nearby Hallormsstadur is an impressive forest in a country otherwise almost bare of trees. Beyond that lies the wild and woolly natural habitat of Iceland’s reindeer population, which are only found in East Iceland. The wonderful expanses of woodlands are flanked by fields full of lamb and Icelandic horses. Nearby are also historical sites from the ancient Sagas.

The Highlands Here, nature is still at its rawest, with glaciers, deserts of black sand, barren glacial moraine, steaming hot springs, active and spent volcanoes and strange oases of vegetation. Two main overland routes link the north and south. The western route over Kjolur is passable by ordinary vehicles in summer, skirting Langjokull glacier on the way to Hveravellir geothermal field before emerging by the Ring Road in the north. The other more directly central route is over the black sands of Sprengisandur, and with only rough tracks as well as un-bridged rivers that can only be negotiated by big 4WD vehicles. The Sprengisandur route threads its way between glaciers to come out southeast of Akureyri, near Lake Myvatn. Highland favorites include the area around Mt. Askja, where you can bathe in a naturally warm lake called Viti (Hell), and Kverkfjoll, a high-temperature geothermal field on the rim of Vatnajokull, where the heat creates fantastic but ever changing caves formed in ice.

Dettifoss Jokulsargljufur National Park in North Iceland is home to Europe’s mightiest waterfall, Dettifoss. The sheer hypnotic volume of thundering glacial water rushing through the shattered cliffs of Jokulsa Canyon makes this a favorite sight of visitors to the area. Dettifoss is so powerful that the cloud of misty spray can actually be seen from several kilometers away. The view is spectacular and unobstructed by boardwalks or viewing platforms, just a massive waterfall in its natural environment. Dettifoss is in the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river. The river flows from the Vatnajökull glacier and collects water from a large area in Northeast Iceland. The falls are 100 metres (330 ft) wide and have a drop of 44 metres down to the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. It is having an average water flow of 193 m3/s.

Namafjall At the foothills of this spectacular volcanic mountain is an expanse of hot springs called Hveraröndor Hverir that are known for their changing variety. You may also find a number of fumaroles, mud pools and mud pots that all seem to be boiling with relentless energy. The pass Námaskarð is strategically located at a short distance from the Krafla volcano system as well as other interesting geological spots like Búrfellshraun and the desert Mývatsöræfi. Námaskarð earns its notoriety chiefly because of its sulphurous mud springs called solfataras and steam springs called fumaroles. Though you will scarcely find any pure water spring in this wonderful geothermal site of Iceland, the beauty of the colorful minerals defies all comparisons. The gigantic size of the mud craters is what makes you go ‘wow’ at the sight of them. The other thing that is sure to strike you about Námaskarð is the sheer lack of vegetation. However, if you give a thought to the high temperature range, it does not appear an impossibility altogether

Krafla Geothermal Center Many visitors to Iceland are interested in learning how local residents benefit from living on a volcanic island in their daily lives. Krafla Geothermal Center answers many of those questions. At Krafla Power Station you can learn firsthand about sustainable energy, electricity production from geothermal energy sources as well as the ‘eruptive’ history of the station’s development. Krafla‘s location near Lake Myvatn makes it an ideal stopping place for travelers in North Iceland. Just above the station is a popular hiking area including the recent lava field around “Leirhnjukur” and the explosion crater “Viti” (Hell), both popular sightseeing attractions. There visitors can find out about its history and the harnessing of geothermal energy for electricity production.

Dimmuborgir The heavy volcanic activity in the region surrounding Lake Myvatn over the last few thousand years accounts for extraordinary and sometimes eerily beautiful land formations and geology. Dimmuborgir, on the east side of the lake, are a badlands of lava pillars, caves, rugged crags and towering rocks. Some of the rocks reach 20 meters (65 ft) in height, forming almost unearthly and alien castles and towers. Dimmuborgir, which loosely translated means ‘dark castles,’ are thought to have been created about 2,300 years ago in the violent throes of an extensive volcanic eruption. There are three different routes marked for walking in the labyrinth of ethereal lava formations. The formations provide shelter for unexpectedly rich vegetation during summer. The hiking routes are all relatively easy and the longest one only takes a few hours to complete. Each will offer a fantasic view of the strange natural phenomenom that Dimmuborgir is. They also offer plenty of great photo opportunities.

Lake Myvatn Lake Myvatn in North Iceland is a geological wonderland which has been sculpted by volcanic eruptions over thousands of years. It is one of the largest lakes in Iceland. It is thought to nest more species of duck than any other place in the world. Bubbling mud flats, volcanic craters, and newborn lava fields are among the sights of the striking Lake Myvatn region, which is a designated nature reserve. Some of the most visually bizarre attractions in the region are the Hverarond mud pits. Some are so hot they actually boil. Far cooler are the waters of Viti, an explosion crater nearby, part of Askja volcano. An unforgettable sight near Myvatn is Eldhraun (fire lava). It is a rugged lava field where the Apollo 11 crew came in the late 1960s to train for their impending moonwalks.

Godafoss Located in North Iceland between Akureyri and Lake Myvatn, this picturesque Godafoss or ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ is one of the most impressive in the country. Ice-blue glacial water flows over an elegant semi-circular arc. It creates blue-green swirling patterns in the water below among the surrounding lava. According to the myth, in the year 1,000 Law-speaker of the Althing, Chieftain Thorgeir Thorkelsson, returned from Thingvellir with the decision that the nation of Iceland would convert to Christianity. He ceremoniously disposed of Norse pagan idols into the falls. Godafoss plays a role in the story of Thorgeir Thorkelsson, preserved in Islendingabook, written by Ari Thorgilsson in early 12th century. When Christianity came to Iceland it divided the people, those who wished to keep venerating the old Norse gods were not eager to be baptized and the country was on a brink of a civil war.

Akureyri Akureyri, 45 minutes by air or a five-hour drive from Reykjavik, is a natural base for travelers with a whole world of nature right on its doorstep. The town makes an ideal choice for winter breaks, with some of the finest ski slopes in Iceland as well as opportunities for snowmobiling, horse rentals, ice fishing and Northern Lights hunting. Often referred to as the ‘Capital of the North,’ Akureyri is Iceland‘s second largest city. Located only 96 kilometers (60 mi) away from the Arctic Circle, it is a surprisingly green community with lush vegetation and delightful Botanical Gardens. The town boasts some of the finest timber buildings in the country, beautifully restored to their original glory. Every June Akureyri hosts the Arctic Open, the northernmost golf tournament in the world with a midnight tee time during the Midnight Sun.

Skagafjordur Heritage Museum Ever since 1952 the turf farmhouse of Glaumbaer has served as the main exhibition for the Skagafjordur Heritage Museum. Within the authentic buildings, everyday tools are displayed in their natural environment. They bear witness to vanished times and the daily activities of people in Iceland‘s past. At the Glaumbaer site you’ll also find two 19thcentury wooden houses, Gilsstofa and Ashus. The latter of these serves as a coffeehouse and museum store. Visitors can absorb the historical atmosphere while tasting delicious breads and pastries baked in traditional Icelandic fashion. The Heritage House presents exhibitions on the interaction of individuals with their social environment. Exhibits show four tradesmen’s workshops (a carpenter, a blacksmith, a watchmaker and a saddle maker) dating from the 20th century, personal history of thelocal novelist Guðrún Baldvina Árnadóttir as well as sample from private collections.

Siglufjordur On a coastal fjord less than 40 kilometers (25 mi ) from the Arctic Circle, the humble town of Siglufjordur was from 1905-1965 the booming fishing capital of Iceland and for a time, the herring capital of the world. Over the years, marine resources dwindled and the once thriving ‘Siglo’ declined in quiet isolation. Today, this historic village with a cheerful array of candy-colored houses and windswept wildflowers. There you’ll also find lively harbor. The town developing into Iceland’s next great undiscovered getaway with the opening of the Hedinsfjordur Tunnel in 2010. You’ll be charmed by the atmospheric fishing village full of welcoming Icelanders. Also, in Siglufjordur there are colorful folk museums providing rare insight into life in North Iceland. The award winning Herring Era Museum pleasantly captures the town’s former ‘glory days’ in a trio of elaborate exhibitions.

Grabrok crater Grabrok crater rises about 170 meters above the ground and is easily accessible via a footpath. It’s quite steep, so steps have been built on part of it to make the hike easier. Grabrok belongs to the volcanic system of Ljosufjoll. It reaches from Berserker lava field in the North of the Snaefellsnes peninsula, close to Stykkisholmur, over the actual Ljósufjöll and Hnappadalur all the way to the Grabrok craters. It extends over a distance of 90 km and is one of the longest in Iceland. The last eruption took place about thousand years ago at Hnappadalur. The crater is the largest of three and was formed about 3400 years ago in a fissure eruption. The lava that now forms the lava field Grabrokarhraun came from these three craters; Stora Grabrok, Grabrokarfell and Litla Grabrok.

Hraunfossar waterfalls The Hraunfossar waterfalls (Lava Falls) in Borgarfjordur are an exceptionally beautiful and unusual natural phenomena. The water seems to magically appear from the lava but is actually a clear cold spring that surges through the ground and runs in rapids down into the Hvita River. This series of waterfalls is formed by rivulets streaming over a distance of about 90 meters (300 ft) out of the Hallmundarhraun, a lava field which flowed from an eruption of one of the volcanoes lying under Langjokull glacier. The waterfall is recognisable by its turquoise blue waters, lending the surrounding environment distinctive colour.

Aurora Borealis - Northern Lights Iceland is one of the best places on Earth to spot the elusive Aurora Borealis and the auroral activity. Many places, only a short drive away from Reykjavik, offer great opportunities to spot this splendid and majestic natural phenomenon. Have you ever seen the auroras dance across the darkened night sky in vivid colors? It’s beautiful. Just remember, since the auroas are a natural phenomenon there is never any guarantee that you will see them. Weather is a huge factor and though Iceland often have clear night skies in Iceland (especially when it is cold) the lights can be elusive. You can greatly increase you chances in seeing them simply by e.g. find a great spot where light pollution is little to none.

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