I have quite officially dubbed the large swath of countryside surrounding Vik in southern Iceland the “Holy Shit” area of the island.
Perhaps that’s because I have yet to see the remainder of the island, but the remaining locations would have to work hard to better the country’s southern section.
My labeling it thus is founded on solid ground as every time I rounded a new curve in the road, this was the phrase that escaped my mouth. There – right in front of me – would be some new visual treasure. It’s quite amazing.
First, the waterfalls – or fosses as they’re called here (although I’m not sure that’s actually the plural of the singular, foss). “Experts” estimate there are hundreds. I think they are wrong. My conservative estimate is that there are a gazillion fosses and most of them are in southern Iceland. They’re of all shapes and sizes, tumbling down mountains, springing from mountain caves, trickling down richly grassed hillsides.
Then, there’s the history.
I seldom tire of visiting historic sites and here they’re so VERY historic. We in the United States visit sites where history was made in the 1600s or 1700s. Here, we’re talking the 11th century or earlier. It boggles the mind.
The south of Iceland must have been a place where the first human inhabitants settled (perhaps it’s less harsh than in the north). And mile after mile, signs for these historic sights are posted. A Viking longhouse excavated here. An 11th century sheep pen here. One of the most fascinating I found was an entire village of ancient turf houses called Keldur. Most of the turfed buildings dated from the 19th century and they resemble nothing less than the Hobbit houses of Tolkien. Keldur figured in the old Icelandic Sagas and was inhabited until 1946.
The newer homes are just as picturesque. Well-kept farms with white buildings topped with red roofs lie nestled beneath the peaks. Even the tiny towns are general picture-worthy. Most are indeed tiny. A village worthy of a roadside signpost may have no more than two homes and a church. Even Höfn (one of the area’s largest towns), where I’ve halted for a lunch of langostino (lobster) bisque and, yes, another beer, has only 2,000 residents. It remains my favorite town to date, with a harbor filled with lobstering and fishing boats.
Then there are the Icelandic ponies. It seems every farm has a dozen and most offer group rides for tourists. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen or so riders atop these small furry steeds trotting down the roadways followed by several score unsaddled ponies. I’m not sure why these equine caravans are formed except to advertise ponyback riding as a “fun” respite. If that’s it, they’re doing a good job.
And I harbor no resentment against the birds of Iceland either (despite the fact that their trilling kept me awake the first night). They’re beautiful and, often, very large. In fact, many of the birds here seem to be the product of steroid-loading. Huge ducks. The biggest ravens I’ve ever seen. Big strange brown birds with curved bills. Giant, majestic swans.
Even the smallest thing in this part of Iceland seems extra-special. Take, for instance, the beer that I’m sampling with lunch. Vatnajökull is a beer named after the largest glacier on all the island. In fact, this beer is advertised as being brewed from 1,000-year-old glacier water “frozen in time” and flavored with arctic-grown thyme. It is delicious.