South Coast Gems: Naughty Nuns, Cozy Coffeeshops

Why, hello there, Internet. I’m alive! The school year has come to a close, and my work year is nearly finished as well (nine days and counting), so I find myself, mysteriously, with time on my hands. I’ve so far been filling it with walks and binge reading and Eurovision and cooking, but perhaps I can get back in the habit of updating this blog, too.

To start with, I’ll be posting some backlogged writing and photos in the up-and-coming, and I thought it best to start with this oldie-but-goodie that was published in the Grapevine in April. The trip, I should note, was one that Mark and I took in October of 2013, although the story itself didn’t make it into print until rather a long time afterwards. I should also note that my original article was about a kazillion times longer (there’s a lot to say about the sights we saw and I wasn’t watching my word count very closely), so while I’ll just excerpt the article itself in this post (with photos), I will also add in some of the passages that I had to cut for length.

The full set of photos from this trip (and there were many) are posted on the photo blog. I’ve arranged them by site, so click the location titles to see all the photos from that place. (General photos from the road have been sprinkled throughout this post and can also be found here.)

(Click the title link below to see the full article.)

Misbehaving Nuns, Ancient Ice: Five Seasonal South Iceland Sights

Ideally, all of your travels in Iceland would be accompanied by mild weather and cloudless skies, but waiting for perfect weather in this country is much like waiting for Godot. This shouldn’t faze you, though, because the shoulder seasons (September and October, March and April) are frequently, if intermittently, lovely. They are typically a bit cold and windy—but also bright and clear and with enough daylight to allow for a decent day’s hiking or sightseeing. On a recent three-day drive along the South coast, my partner and I went to see some new sights and return to some favorites. Here are a few highlights.

Litla Kaffistofan (Little Coffeeshop)

“Even if you’re not peckish, stop to admire the charming interior, best described as the parlor of an Icelandic grannie if she was a huge fan of the footie.”

Bonus Material!

There are lace curtains on the windows and little silk roses on each of the tables. Framed pictures fill every wall, but instead of gram’s family portraits, there are head shots of Icelandic football players and portraits of local teams going back to the early 1930s, when Icelandic football was established in earnest. Some photographs include informational bios, such as that of Norwegian ski instructor Helge Torvö, “The First Foreign Player,” who played with the team in Akureyri in 1932. The tables are laminated to protect vintage player cards, and wherever there aren’t photographs on the wall, there are soccer scarves for teams from all over the world: F.C. Velez, Chelsea, SS Lazio, CSKA Moscow, Bremen, Rosenborg, Ajax Amsterdam, and Liverpool all get representation.


“Slipping into the water of Seljavallalaug is a bit like submerging in an algae-laced protein smoothie. If that doesn’t sound terribly appetizing, I assure you that it’s wonderful—just slightly more “organic” than your everyday swimming experience. But that is, after all, the major draw of Seljavallalaug—the incongruence of sitting in a natural, untreated pool in such astonishing surroundings.”

Jökulsárlón and Fjallsárlón

We were standing on board a duck boat in the middle of the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, giddily gazing at a handful of giant, toothpaste-blue ice cubes as they floated stoically by when I heard the woman next to me grumble to her companion, “Gah! This totally sucks. I can’t believe that they aren’t running the small boats right now.”

Let me tell you in no uncertain terms: this woman was wrong. There was (and still is) nothing about Jökulsárlón that sucks. It is, in fact, totally worth the hype, and even worth return visits, as the icy landscape melts and moves and is completely different from week to week.

Bonus material!

Since we were in no particular rush to be not-looking-at-glaciers, we decided to double back a bit and stop by Fjallsárlón (Mountain Lagoon), which is sort of like Jökulsárlón’s younger, and slightly less impressive sister. But while neither the Fjallsárlón lagoon itself nor the icebergs in it are as large as those in Jökulsárlón, it is a less trafficked spot, and feels, therefore, tucked away and intimate by comparison. The shoreline is also a lot closer to the base of the glacier, which looms rather magnificently behind the whole scene. I’m not the only one who thinks so, either—Grapevine’s own Tourists of the Year, the Glacial Picnickers, got stuck on this very lagoon while trying to photograph the beautiful landscape behind them as they enjoyed a picnic.

Bonus Video!

Glacial ice cubes floating out to sea. (Warning: I’m not much of a cinematographer.)


Bonus (Extended) Material!

The picturesque, sleepy village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (pop. 120) is unlikely to feature on the average traveler’s itinerary, particularly those who are only spending a week or so in the country. All the same, situated as it is in a beautiful river valley with uninterrupted views to the sea on one side and a surprisingly lush forest (particularly by Iceland standards) on the other, “Klaustur” is a peaceful and sometimes even breathtaking place to while away the better part of an afternoon.

“Home to a Benedictine convent from 1186 to 1550, this pretty little village has a rather gothic history, most of which has to do with nuns doing distinctly un-nunnish things and then meeting fabulously grim ends.”

Bonus Destination!

Svartifoss and Sel

For some people, I’m told, a waterfall is a waterfall: once you see one great big impressive one, you’ve pretty much gotten the gist of all the others. I, however, am not one of those people. I love waterfalls, and find them all, like snowflakes, to each have their own unique character and beauty. Moreover, if I am going to take a hike, I’d just as soon run across a waterfall (or two) for my trouble.

This predilection made our next stop at Skafafell National Park all the more enjoyable. Having already visited and done a little hiking around a few of the South Coast’s more popular waterfalls, such as neighbors Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, our destination this time was Svartifoss, a waterfall which is maybe not super impressive in terms of sheer water volume, but makes up for it with its flanks of striking, hexagonal basalt columns. The trail to the fall is quite easy and very well maintained, providing stunning views of the Skeiðarásandur lava plain below, the snow-covered peaks of glaciers above, and the smallish, but charming, Hundafoss waterfall which you pass on the way. All together, the four kilometer walk (roundtrip) takes about two hours—a little more if, like me, you’re a compulsive photo-taker.

On our way back down from Svartifoss, we took a short side path to see Sel, a restored turf-roofed farmhouse which was built in 1912 and inhabited until 1946. The house is unlocked for visitors, has multilingual informational posters hanging in the front parlor and many of its surviving fixtures and furniture are still inside, making for an educational glimpse into Icelandic farm life as it was still being lived not so very long ago. (An interesting historical tidbit: the sleeping quarters were situated on the floor just above the family’s cow stalls for warmth.)

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