Last week was the University of Iceland’s vinnuvika, or basically, a week long break for midterms/general re-invigoration. Both Mark and I had some assignments to turn in before the end of the week (he some papers; myself, a couple of take-home exams), but by the early afternoon on Thursday, we were free for whatever adventure we might want to plan for ourselves. So we decided that we’d take a few days to drive through Southern Iceland, taking in all the famous saga locations (he’s reading Njal’s Saga right now; I read and loved it last year), waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, sheep, Icelandic horses, black beaches, and coastal vistas that we could possibly hope for. We didn’t go terribly far–the furthest East we went was to the small and exceedingly lovely town of Vík (about two and a half hours away from Reykjavík) but as much as I would love to make it all the way around the country one day, it’s not all about charting distance. Because there is just so much to see in Suðurland (and undoubtedly North, West, and East Iceland as well), you can easily fill days and days of active travel without going very far.
As per usual, I took a kazillion pictures and would like the share the adventure, in excruciating detail, with all of you dear readers. So I’ll do day-by-day recaps–we were gone from Thursday afternoon until Sunday night–filled with highlights along the way in the event that you ever find yourself driving along the Southern Icelandic Coast (recommended!).
Day 1: Stokkseyri
After a quick stop at the 10-11 (a local chain which is a cross between a small, well-stocked bodega or grocery and a gas station convenience store) to stock up on road snacks and travel essentials (chocolate-heavy trail mix, noodle cups, cheese sandwich fixings, seltzer, energy bars…), we headed to the shore town and erstwhile fishing village of Stokkseyri (pop. 464, as of 2004–check out the town website for population counts from as far back as 1864), just under an hour away from Reykjavík. It was Mark’s idea to spend the first evening somewhere close to the city so that we could have time to actually be in a place and walk around a bit instead of spending the entire first night driving somewhere further. This was a very good idea, in part because it’s far too dark in the evenings now to see any of the amazing landscape just outside of the car window, and we would have missed a lot of loveliness if we’d driven much further on our first evening. But it was also an excellent idea because it gave us a chance to spend some time in this quiet summer community which was built, along with its sister village of Eyrabakki, on Þjórsá, “the largest lava flow in Iceland,” according to the Iceland geo-survey website. Based on guidebook explanations, Stokkseyri appears to be somewhat overlooked by many travelers en route to other more dramatic locations in the South, particularly in the fall and winter months when many of the main tourist attractions–namely Draugasetrið, or the Ghost Center and Ghost Bar and the attached Icelandic Wonders ‘Museum’–are closed for the season.
As sorry as I was to miss something as delightfully campy as a guided tour through a 1,000 foot maze of two dozen reenacted ghost stories, the recreated homes of hidden people, and an “Aurora Experience”–which as far as I can tell is a extra large diorama lit with recreations of the Northern Lights–I am fairly sure that I will be back to Stokkseyri to enjoy all of those attractions (and to share a drink with the Brennivínsdrauginn, or Brennivín Ghost) in the warmer months. And in the meantime, there was plenty to keep us busy for an afternoon and evening.
We checked in at a very comfortable three room guesthouse when we arrived–Kvölðstjarnan (The Evening Star)–which, with its deck and outdoor grill, seems like it would be a great place to rent out completely with a group of friends in the summer. (Also, there was an adorable basket with a very simple but tasty breakfast waiting for us in the fridge, which I loved: bread, cheese, butter, orange marmalade, vanilla yogurt, and juice boxes.)
After getting ourselves settled, we walked along the waterfront ‘downtown,’ and around the small churchyard facing the ocean. Moving through town, we stopped to check out a (rebuilt) 19th century turf fisherman’s hut (named Þuríðarbúð after its inhabitant) which is situated just in front of several contemporary houses and kids’ swing-sets. It’s a rather fascinating juxtaposition–especially when you add to the picture two flower planters that have been decoratively placed at the hut entrance, on either side of the wooden door. (Be sure to take a close look at the photos of the informational sign about the hut–it was the home of a female helmsman named Þuríðar Einarsdóttir who was born in 1777 and started going to sea at the ripe old age of 11. Having become a “perfectly valid fisherman” at the age of 17, she worked for over 50 years at sea and “dressed as a man, for which she needed a special permit from the district sheriff.” Fascinating stuff.)
After checking out the fisherman’s hut, we walked further out toward the edge of town where it is possible to actually get down to the beach. The tide was low, allowing excellent access to the numerous tide pools to in the lava formations along the shore, and making for a very interesting walk. With the very high sea wall along the road, we could hear the occasional cars as they passed, but couldn’t see them, which made it rather easy to lose track of where we actually were.
We started back toward the center of town as the sun was going down, warmed up with a cup of tea and a little reading in the cozy living room at the guesthouse, and then walked over to Fjöruborðið, a very well known seaside restaurant famous for its lobster soup and decadent three course langoustine meal. Our dinner that night cost more than our room for the evening, but I tell you what: it was worth every penny. We were brought fresh soft bread with three delicious spreads when we sat down, followed by a creamy, buttery lobster soup. Moments after our soup bowls were whisked away, we were brought a huge pot of langoustine (which we were directed to just go ahead and crack into with our hands) and several smaller pots of sides: a mixed green salad, cous cous, and marinated tomatoes and cucumbers. Lastly, we then a choice of one of three freshly made cakes (I ended up with a sugary but satisfying Snickers and Meringue pie; Mark a dense carrot cake), which we ate while enjoying coffee from an awesome red enamel coffee pot with an elephant painted on the side. (It was good coffee, but the coffee pot itself was exceptional.) All in all, it was a hugely filling, hugely satisfying, and hugely memorable meal. I can only imagine the competition for window-side and outdoor tables during the summer months, when you can actually enjoy the ocean view.
After a restful night’s sleep, we woke up and enjoyed our picnic basket breakfast in the living room and chatted briefly with the friendly Dutch family who had rented the other two rooms, before heading over to the café/gas station/convenience store. You’ll find one of these in pretty much every small town in the Icelandic countryside, usually with a grill, and they are great. We had a cup of coffee and tried to read through some of the shorter articles in the Bændablaðið (The Farm Paper: pretty much my favorite periodical in Iceland thus far, for reasons that I will explain in another post). Then we were off on our meandering drive to Vík, but that brings me to Day 2, and my hands are cramping up. So we’ll have to save that recap for tomorrow.