What to do when lost in an Icelandic forest.

Smiley face turns to a frown if you are speeding.

Thingvellir National Park is not far from Reykjavik, Iceland.  It features the country’s largest natural lake and more views [see last week’s post] of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge continental rift. Here too you can see where the island “came apart at the seams.”  At one point, there is a bridge where the trail gave way, but I believe it is over a sinkhole; lava is not about to bubble up.

Our tour next took us to see Strokkur, an area of thermal pools, bubbling mud pots and  geysers, one of which spouted about every 8 to 10 minutes.

Gullfoss is a wide triple-layered waterfall that plunges 104 feet and creates its own rainbows.

Our final stop was at Friđheimar, a family-owned farm and nursery that supplements its income demonstrating Icelandic Horses — they are small, but Icelanders prefer you call them horses, not ponies.

For some reason, possibly to avoid disease, since 982 Iceland has prohibited the importation of horses, and if Icelandic Horses are exported, they can not me brought back to the country.  This resulted in a particularly pure breed with a very narrow genetic background.  The most famous characteristic of the horse is its gaits.  All horses have three natural gaits, the walk, trot and gallop.  Some canter naturally.  The Icelandic Horse has five natural gaits: walk; trot; canter; tölt; and flying pace. The walk is slow with four beats; the trot is faster with two beats; the canter has three beats and the feet are off the ground in an odd numbered sequence; the tölt is similar to the walk with one foot always on the ground but much faster – up to 20 mph; and the flying pace can equal the pace of a full gallop taking all four feet off the ground at times.

The tölt is extraordinarily smooth and allows the rider an almost bounce-free ride even at full speed.  The owner and his daughter each rode around the ring carrying a pint of beer without spilling a drop; the owner took an occasional sip to prove it was not trick.

There is a joke in Iceland: “what to do when lost in an Icelandic forest — stand up.”  On our 2014 visit to Reykjavik [click here], I observed “For the most part, there were only very low trees.”  It is believed that twenty-five to forty percent of Iceland was covered with forest when the island was settled in the 9th century.  A fellow called “Ari the Wise” wrote in the late 12th century that it was “forested from mountain to sea shore.”  The volcanic soils are thin. It is cold in Iceland, and in the 13th century, it got colder.  Trees were cut for firewood and timber.  Trees were cleared for farms.  Sheep cropped new plants close to the ground.

Today, it is estimated that three-quarters of the island is seriously affected by soil erosion.  Now there is a concentrated effort to plant new trees.  I observed in 2014 that people planted “pines” near their vacation homes.  Now the government is involved and encourages planting trees.  Sitka spruce have been imported from Alaska because the species does well in the Icelandic climate.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 1 September 19

Did you know that now barren Greece once had forests of oak, pine, cedar and cypress? For whatever reason, I have always loved trees – I planted an oak as a boy more than sixty years ago and still visit it when I am in the area.

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What part of Djupalonssandur don’t you understand?

A main volcanic zone crosses Iceland more or less through the center on a diagonal northeast to southwest.  Outside, on a peninsula on the west coast, there is another active volcano area, Snæfellsness.   Over the millennia, it has laid down many layers of lava, some more than three million years old; others less than 11,000 years old.

Our ship stopped at Grundarfjördur, a village of 872 people on the Snæfellsness Peninsula. With a good natural harbor, it is considered the hub of the fishing industry which thrives off the coast.

From there, a bus took us to Djupalonssandur, a former fishing village with a beach covered with smooth black pebbles.  At the foot of a winding trail down the cliff lay four stones: Useless, Half-Strength, Puny and Full Strength, said to be once used to test a potential fisherman’s strength before he was hired.  Although I pride myself as unusually strong for 75, I was barely more than useless; I just couldn’t get my hands under on the next biggest stone — that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

After stopping at the Snæfellsness National Park Visitor’s Center, we went on to the little village of Hellnar.  A sign discouraged stray tourists from going into the village, but there was a wonderful viewpoint by the ocean.  I walked up the road a bit to get a photo of some sheep “mowing” the church lawn but couldn’t get a good angle without intruding on the property.

At Ārnarstapi, a third fishing village, we took a walk along the cliff which had more beautiful views, blow-holes where the water rushed through the lava and interesting rock formations on the eroded coast.

As in many places in the world, the glaciers are receding.  No doubt the earth is getting warmer.  But I was intrigued when our guide told us that when Iceland was first settled around 847, the climate was on average four degrees Celsius warmer.  It stayed that way until around 1300.  During that time, they were able to grow cereal crops like rye and barley.  After the “little ice age,” it became too cold to grow those crops.  Climate change is not a new thing.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 31 Aug 19

The title of today’s post derives from a T-shirt with a similar question — those Icelandic words do go on and on. 🙂

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Waterfalls and fissures


Iceland is often called the land of ice and fire.  It might also be called the land of waterfalls and fissures.

We had only been to Reykjavik which is relatively flat, so we were less aware of the deep fiords and many waterfalls in the rest of the country – there are wonderful waterfalls everywhere, but there were more along the fiords.

We took a “super jeep” out of Akureyri on Iceland’s northern coast along with eight other people.  We had a great guide, good tour and the best tour lunch we have ever had, so I will overcome my usual reticence and endorse them:  IcaAk Super Jeep Tours, Akureyri, www.iceak.is.

Our first stop was Godafoss, the waterfall of the gods.  Many tours stop there, and one doesn’t need four-wheel drive, but our guide took us to a better viewing point than the ones used by other groups we saw there.


Legend says the Speaker of the Althing [the oldest parliament in the world] threw his statues of pagan gods into the waterfall after they decided to convert to Christianity.

We then went to see the Barđardalur Valley, a huge volcanic area surrounding Lake Myvatn. Our vehicle’s huge tires were useful as we went back a dirt road into Vatnajökull National Park, by a huge cinder cone and through deep water to the base of an 8 kilometer-long fissure.

Iceland was formed where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are separating at a rate of about one inch per year.  Lava flows to the surface creating new land.  Iceland does have conical volcanoes, but it also has long fissures where the lava flows out in sheets.  As a result, many mountains are relatively flat on top, and glaciers carved valleys among them.  Essentially, Iceland is one huge volcano with cracks running through it.

The area we visited erupted in 1975.  A passing plane captured a photo of a wall of lava rising hundreds of meters into the air for a few brief seconds.  We looked along part of the cooled and collapsed remains.

We had lunch at a restaurant near a trail through piles of lava reminiscent of the Utah’s hoodoos.

Finally, we went back a long dirt road through fenced pasture to see the rushing water of Āldeyjarfoss, another fantastic waterfall.  Look closely at the photos.  The hexagonal basalt columns remind one of Ireland’s Giant’s Causeway, but here they often are twisted into swirling forms.

Click on photos to enlarge.

Date of our visit: 30 Aug 19

P.S.  Alie is quick to tell people our tickets for this tour were clearly labeled “not for the mobility-challenged.” She apologized to our driver in advance, and he was wonderful not only helping her in and out of the vehicle, but also up and down hilly trails.  Though we found Icelanders normally not very expressive, he hugged her at the end of the trip.  We think she reminded him of his grandmother.  By the last stop, however, she was very tired, and it took two of us pushing on her bottom to get her into the truck.  She says she is extremely grateful no videos were taken to appear on YouTube. 🙂

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The UK/US invasion of Iceland

Our first stop on our 2019 cruise to Iceland was in Seydisfjordur established in 1848 as a trading center for fishermen and whalers.  Our only other visits had been to Reykjavik which, along with its suburbs, has two-thirds of Iceland’s approximately 360,000 people.  The two are very different.

Seydisfjordur is at the head of a narrow deep fiord dotted with waterfalls.  Situated on the island’s east coast, its warmest month is July with an average temperature of 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  It has only about 670 people.  We were told this was the geologically oldest part of Iceland and relatively inactive volcanically.


By comparison Reykjavik is relatively flat and has volcanic steam vents close by.  We did not realize how many fiords [fjord or fjȍrdur] there were in Iceland.

We were driven over a mountain pass, past a lake and by Njardvikurskridur where a farmer who killed a “monster” in 1306 is memorialized.  They hang on to their legends in Iceland.

There are few trees.  While cattle still wander on “open range” in a few places in the U.S., sheep seem to be on open range throughout Iceland.  I saw one that had been hit by a vehicle, but most seemed to stay back from the roads.  The farmers gather to do a round-up in September and keep the sheep in barns through the winter.  A few do not survive the winter; they are called lamp-chops.

We had a lunch of soup, bread and fish in Bakkagerdi, a little fishing village with about a hundred people that has a popular annual music festival.  This became the first of similar lunch menus for the next four days.

Ⱥlfaborg, a rock outcropping above the village, translates as the palace of elves.  Icelandic elves were described as nice versions of Norwegian trolls – unless you want to disturb a rock that is their home.  But they also have trolls.  The 13 trolls of Christmas didn’t seem nice to me: they eat bad girls and boys except for the heads “because who wants to eat a head.”

Nearby 110 year old Bakkagerdiskirkja church has an altar piece showing Christ preaching the Sermon on the Mount from the top of Ⱥlfaborg.

We stopped at Hafnarhólmi, a man-made harbor and bird sanctuary.  We saw many sea birds, but the puffins had already migrated.  We now have not seen puffins in Iceland, New Zealand, and Argentina. Our puffin timing is bad.

Iceland was an independent part of Denmark.  After Germany invaded Denmark in World War II, England invaded Iceland in 1940 to protect its shipping lanes to and from the U.S.  Iceland objected, but the British ambassador asked the police to hold the curious people back from the dock while the English troops landed.  No shots were fired.

Much to my surprise, I learned American troops relieved the British in 1941, months before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. declaration of war.

Ray and Alie invaded Iceland 29 August 2019

Open-range sheep grazing in the fog.

Click on photos to enlarge.

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St. Svithun’s Domkirke: A/K/A, Stavanger Cathedral

Stavanger Cathedral [St. Swithun’s]

St. Swithun’s [Svithun’s] Domkirke was built between 1100 and 1150 by the English bishop Reinald of Winchester for a cathedral.  He brought with him, the cathedral’s most important relic, St. Swithun’s arm. [Swithun was the Bishop of Winchester 852-863 in England.]

The church became Lutheran in 1537 after the Reformation.  All relics of St. Swithun  were sent to Denmark by King Christian III.

The original structure had Romanesque round arches.  After a 1272 fire, a Gothic choir and vestibule were added with pointed vaulted arches.  Some modifications were later made, but it is almost unchanged since the 14th Century.  Current restoration efforts in honor of the 900th anniversary in 2025 are aimed at preserving as much of the original design and structure as possible.

The baptismal font was carved from soapstone in the 1300s.

Five carved wooden epitaphs were added in the prosperous 1600s.  They were carved by Scotsman Andrew Smith who also carved the pulpit with its history of the bible starting with Adam and Eve and culminating in a triumphant Christ.

In the mid-1920s, new lights created by Emanuel Vigeland were installed including angels holding hanging lights.

No medieval stained glass exists.  The large window above the altar, made in the 1800s, was replaced in 1957 with one by Victor Sparre representing central events in the Christian calendar: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter and Whitsun.

Date of our visit: 27 Aug 19

Click on photos to enlarge.

Swithun was a bishop of Winchester and subsequently patron saint of Winchester Cathedral. It is a British tradition, if it rains on Saint Swithun’s bridge on his feast day it will continue for forty days; I wonder if the Norwegians have adopted it.

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2019 Christmas Ornaments

A Christian song calls for “peace on earth, good will toward men.”  Merry Christmas everyone, for even if you have a different religious background, we hope we all will find more peace and good will in the next year.

If you have been following this blog for more than a year, you may recall we decorate our Christmas tree with ornaments from our travels [some are re-purposed from their original intent].  They bring us so many good memories when we hang them on the tree, when we take them down – and, as we always say, the rest of the year they don’t have to be dusted.  🙂

Here are 2019’s additions:

Passing your cursor over the photos will reveal captions and clicking on them will enlarge the photos.

You can find earlier posts with ornaments here, here, and here.

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Happy to see Stavanger, Norway again

Stavanger harbor

Stavanger is located on the southwestern coast of Norway.  Officially founded in 1125 when its bishopric was created, it is rarely very cold or very hot but often is very wet.

Stavanger goes further back than 1125;  it was a principal base for Viking raiders.  After the economy turned to fishing, the city had many canning factories. Since 1966 when drilling began in the North Sea, it has been Norway’s oil and gas capital.

The Straen section of Old Stavanger, was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Fires, particularly in 1766 and 1768, damaged it significantly.  But today’s buildings are thought to be Europe’s largest collection of wooden buildings.  They were mostly built between 1820 and 1870.  Merchants had warehouses along the dock with their homes and gardens behind them.  Smaller houses were homes for cannery workers and sailors. Preservation efforts between the 1950s and 1970s gave the preserved area the name Gamle Stavanger.

The Straen section of old Stavanger

St. Svithun’s, the cathedral and subject of my next post, is preparing to celebrate its nine hundredth anniversary in 2025.

Stavager Cathedral

The Zentrum, or city center, also has many older buildings housing shops and restaurants.

Stavanger, with Norway’s fourth largest population [237,369 in 2017], is prosperous and clean. Most of the time while on a 2013 ship’s tour, we hustled along in the rain, unable to see much from the viewpoints because of the fog.  My post seen here was positive, but I had no particular desire to return.  In August 2019, however,  a cruise took us back.  The weather was perfect.  We enjoyed strolling up and down the streets at a leisurely pace.  What a difference the weather made; I would be happy to see Stavanger yet again.

Date of our visit: 27 Aug 19

Click on photos to enlarge.

The lowest chance of precipitation is April through June; August averages a 44% chance.

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