Iceland: Day 3



Mark woke up early this morning, stumbled out of bed and dug out the coffee-making supplies. WHich is when he discovered that the bottled water we bought was sparkling water!

Apparently it makes pretty decent coffee. Once you boil it, it loses its carbonation. I don’t drink the stuff, so I’ll take his word for it. The camper has a little one-burner stove and cans of fuel, and a small complement of saucepans and a skillet. No coffee maker, but Mark is a resourceful sort when it comes to getting the appropriate dose of early-morning caffeine.

I slept until he was done, crept out into the tall shrubbery to have a quick pee and we were ready to hit the road.  I’m sure I’ve noted before that our little camper-SUV doesn’t actually have a toilet in it. This present only a small problem, really — toilets are not that hard to find when we are out and about. Nearly all gas stations, restaurants, and convenience stores have them, campgrounds usually have toilet and shower blocks, and most common tourist sites have at least a porta-potty.  There have been a lot of articles lately about tourists visiting iceland and leaving behind messes and wads of toilet paper and worse all over. It’s gross, and while we didn’t see an evidence of it, I’m sure mid-summer is different and the hordes of tourists have “inappropriately pottied” somewhere.

Me, well, I figure peeing on nature is not a big deal as long as you don’t leave anything behind and pack out any toilet paper or wipes or whatever.  A roll of toilet paper and a roll of little plastic bags (ie, dog poo bags) and we’re set. So, over the course of the trip, I’ve peed on quite a few gravel sidings — there aren’t really any shrubs or trees to hide behind, so we trusted in the lack of traffic for privacy. Part of the problem is that I have a tiny, walnut-sized bladder. Even the thought about having to makes me, well, have to go. Mark is a nurse, he has an industrial nursing-sized bladder and can drink three or four bottles of water and still be fine. Not me. I’m always on the lookout for a place to pee. Luckily, Mark understands this and offers to stop at every possible actual toilet we pass — gas station, restaurant, tourist info station. My mother said “always try” and so I do, every time we stop.

And, TMI here, I don’t think I could do anything but pee in nature. Actual camping in the wild without access to a toilet at all, and I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t poop for a week.  Public toilets are almost as bad, I’m sure you all understand. I can’t be the only one.


We’re driving up the next river valley along the coast, our eventual end-point is the camping ground in Borganes tonight. First, a stop in Akranes for breakfast and a view from the coast and then off to see another of the Top 10 waterfalls in the area — Hraunfossar and the nearby Barnafoss. Really they are in the same place, just up Rte 50 and inland on the river Hvítá.

The falls flow between lava layers
The falls flow between lava layers

The drive to Hraunfossar (“lava falls”) is a pretty one, even though we went up the main road. There is a route through Kaldidalur that was marked as “yellow beautifulness” on our map, but we drove instead around the coast and up the river valley, not realizing yet just how spectacular some of the marked routes really are. The falls are visible from the parking area and the photos really don’t do them justice — and this is early spring, before the real color arrives. IN mid-summer, these falls are a riot of color, making them look almost unreal, lIke something Disney designed. There is no river falling over the rocks…the fall just emerge out of the lava and flow down in hundreds of rivulets into the Hvítá river. It’s very strange, and it actually took me a moment to figure out why this waterfall looked so odd.

It also stretches a long way along the bank, making it hard to take it all in at once. This isn’t a huge pounding waterfall, or a giant cataract thundering over cliffs. It’s gentle, pretty, and not quite what I expected. We hung out for awhile on the decking at the viewpoint, waiting for the sun to come out so I could try to get a perfect picture.

But if you want a more exciting view? Walk just  little upstream to see the churning canyon of Barnafoss, which crashes down on the river itself.

Churning water through the canyon at Barnafoss
Churning water through the canyon at Barnafoss

Notice the little people on the rock on the right? This is much larger than it looks! Barnsfoss is more of a churning rapids than a waterfall-looking falls, but the brilliantly hued water sloshes from above and through a series of s-shaped sluices and rock formations — including a broken arch. The story is that the arch was once a stone bridge across the water, but two boys plunged to their deaths and their mother cursed the bridge and any who crossed it.

Spring glacier melt is obvious on nearly every river we saw — the brilliant blue-green water is a dead giveaway. It’s also usually freezing cold and pretty tasty!

Mark popped into the little coffee shack to make up for his odd, semi-carbonated coffee this morning, and had a piece of pie just for good measure. The sun made a brief appearance, so I walked back up to the lookout over Hraunfossar for another try at some of the pictures. It got quite crowded, actually. The little parking lot was full, perhaps 30-40 people were walking around, which was a surprise after yesterday, with barely a handful of people all day.

We picked the other side of the river to continue our roadtrip, stopping by the side of the road for some beautiful scenics. It’s not hard, they are everywhere!

Old, cracked lava flows
Old, cracked lava flows

We stopped for lunch at a little roadside diner, when we passed through the only town in the region, near Bifrost. Mark had a burger and I had the standard soup + bread lunch that nearly every restaurant in the country serves. Homemade dark bread slathered with butter and cream of cauliflower soup today, which was a nice choice. There is also (usually) a lamb/mutton meat soup on the menu as well.

Bifrost is the town marked on our map, but we’re actually heading to the waterfall and lava field just outside of town — Glanni waterfall, and the Grábrokarhraun lava fields further along Route 1. There is a small glen here, Paradise Glen, that is marked on the map and looks interesting. The whole area is a sea of green moss-covered lava, stretching along both sides of the road.

Glanni is a small waterfall that is first on the list, and pretty well-marked from the road. Down a gravel path festooned with signs for the golf course (!) to a small parking area with a tourist kiosk and bathrooms. Which are closed, this early in the season. There are signs here, but they are pretty confusing — another family was trying to figure out which of the paths to take to find the waterfall and glen, and it wasn’t clear. The gravel road continues on to the left, and Google Maps implies that hte waterfall is down that way, but in reality it is to the rigyht along a well-maintained path into the shrubbery and lava. The other couple, young parents with two kids, ambled down the path while I collected my camera gear.

Mark decided he needed a nap instead and didn’t care to see the waterfall, so he curled up in the back of the truck and was almost instantly asleep. I followed the path off into the wilderness.

Ok, not really wilderness, but when you literally haven’t seen a tree in the last day, having shrubs that actually blocked the view from the path was rather surprising. There are trees in Iceland, of course — it’s not entire denuded and flat. But they are awfully sparse. A few scrubby pines in the river valleys, maybe a tree or two near someone’s farm, that’s it. The rest of the landscape is flat and windblown and barren and when there are clumps of greenery, they are noticeable. I keep trying to get Mark to stand in one of the copses of tiny little pine trees, but he refuses. Icelanders are planting more trees per year than just about anywhere else — they intend, it seems, to repopulate the forests that covered the island when the Vikings came. The vikings, hardy seafaring souls that they were, cut everything down for ships and buildings. At least that’s the story you’ll hear.

The two kids that I had met earlier came pelting down the path as I walked to the waterfall, laughing that they had seen it and it was right there and could I hear it? I swear, I want half the energy of a small child. Just half.

glanni waterfall
glanni waterfall

Glanni is a shallow, but wide falls along the Norðurá river. It flows over the lava boulders in the river, and it a very pretty view, even if the falls aren’t enormous. But the real attraction, at least for me, was Paradise Glen — a small cove with a waterfall and lovely spill of moss-covered rocks. I continued walking along the path (maybe another 500 yards) to the sign and steps leading down into the glen. I can see why they called it “paradise” — it’s charming and quiet and just what you’d expect from a small lagoon and waterfall where elves are rumored to live.

the glen doesn't seem quite real
the glen doesn’t seem quite real

Everything is green and quiet and, once again, I sat waiting for the sun to come out from behind teh clouds. I should have taken a picture of the clouds — hindsight always is better, isn’t it? There were two distinct layers of clouds, one moving east, and one moving west. The higher level was moving very slowly, while the lower clouds whizzed by as if jet-powered. I kept seeing breaks in the clouds — a space in the upper register, then a wide gap in the lower, hoping that they would overlap and give me a few brilliant moments of sunshine, but they never did. They just teased me with a quick brightening of the light…then they cloud layers flooded past and it was grayish and dim again. I could see those bright bars of sunlight shining up ahead of the clouds, reaching down to touch land just out of sight. It was frustrating. But perhaps the overcast day was to my advantage — no one else was here, it was quiet and windless, and I got to sit and enjoy the trickle of water from the tiny waterfall and the sounds of running water along the rocks in the shallow stream while I watched the cloud competition above. It would have been a nice place for a picnic lunch.

By the time I made it back to the car, Mark was at least slightly awake and ready to move on.  I’d given him a two hour nap, while I enjoyed a walk through a veritable forest of red-stemmed dogwood and looked out over the expanse of pale green moss growing over the tumbled lava rocks. It was a pretty much perfect Iceland day.

It was getting late enough to start thinking about dinner and where to sleep, so we took a quick loop around the golf-course  to see the two low volcanic cones just north of the town and then drove towards Borganes and food. The listing for Borgarnes said there was a campground in town, along the river, and while it wasn’t officially open, that we could camp there.  That was the plan.

Which didn’t survive first contact, as did most of our plans. We drove along the water on the way into Borgarnes and saw the campground, all right, but instead of an empty field with spots for tents and rvs, there was a rope and a chair across the entrance with a hand-lettered sign saying NO CAMPING. Apparently, they decided to stick with the official opening time of May 15 and we were out of luck.

Ah, well. I checked (the answer to many “oh, where are we going to sleep?” questions) and there was a very cheap B&B in town that had rooms available. Sixty bucks for the two of us. Well, why not? I booked a double room on the spot. We found the flower shop housing Blómasetrið Homestay,  explained sheepishly to the lovely young woman who runs the place that we had, literally, just made a reservation four minutes ago, and she decided to put us up in her other B&B, a whole house down by the harbor. We were the only guests she had that night, so we got the royal treatment. Lovely house, four bedrooms, huge (and I mean enormous) bathroom, great kitchen, and a view out over the water. It was lovely!

The biggest draw in Borgarnes (well, other than the lovely scenics and pretty town itself) is the Settlement Center — a historical museum documenting the settlement of Iceland the 9th century and a comprehensive exhibition of  Egil’s Saga. It is in two of the oldest buildings in town, converted into a lovely museum space and a great restaurant — which is where we ended up for dinner.  Tripadvisor recommended them as the #1 Restaurant in Borgarnes. there are only 12 restaurants in the whole town, so we set our expectations pretty low…and we were very surprised.

Most of the time when a small town has only  few restaurants, they tend to the diner-ish, tolerable-but-not-good classification. We found that to be totally untrue in Iceland. Even if the town had only one restaurant, it had good food. Heck, even the popular pylsur — Icelandic lamb-based hot dogs are really, really good. Usually I’d think eating at a gas-station would be a mistake, but those things are addictive. Food in Iceland was, almost without exception, excellent. Even in the tiny two-table take-away places along the road.

The Settlement Center has a lovely restaurant on the second floor, and we sat down to our first sit-down meal in a few days. I ordered Icelandic Lobster (read: langoustines) pasta, and Mark ordered lamb. He always orders lamb when we travel. The menu said “lobster tail pasta”, so you can imagine my surprise when it showed up at the table with a whole huge bug-creature perched on top. Bleaaraaagghghghgh!

I have a serious, heeby-jeeby-inducing phobia of shrimp and lobster legs. I can’t touch ’em, I can’t even stand to look at them. I want to eat their delicious, tender tails and not have to think about how these things are the cockroaches of the sea. I literally cannot force myself to touch them, even with a fork and knife to keep them away from my fingers. Their little flippery leg-things gross me out.

Mark, seeing my stricken expression, quickly dispatched the foul creature, ripping its head and body off the tail and perching it behind the water bottle on the table so I couldn’t see it. Or mostly couldn’t see it. Occasionally I would get glimpses of it’s alien-faced horror magnified through the glass, and have to move things around to hide it from view. We kept trying to get the attention of our waiter to come and take it away, but they were busy and since we had our food, they left us to our own devices. I supposed we could have summoned one of them, but it seemed like a minor thing (as long as I couldn’t see the offending bug-creature.)

The pasta and lobster tails were delicious, by the way. Warm bread and butter with black volcanic salt, too. No one said a word when they came to collect the plates and Mark carefully returned the langoustine head and body to the bowl. Usually people pull them apart and suck out every little morsel of sweet meat and even eat some of the unspeakable stuff in the middle, just like lobsters at home. I didn’t even take the claws. A quirked eyebrow is we got, so I assume they had a good laugh in the kitchen about the stupid woman who didn’t know how to eat a lobster!

Full and tired, despite it being light outside, we made our way back to our little house and crashed.

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