Fes

At Fes train station I had to try several different taxis before I could find one willing to use the meter on the trip to my hotel (most asked for a price five times higher!). When I got there though, I was very happy. One of the joys of travelling in Morocco is the opportunity to stay in Riads – private homes converted to guest houses. My Riad had a comfortable room……

My room in the Riad

And nice roof terrace with a view over Fes, although in the late afternoon, it was uncomfortably hot.

A view from the roof terrace

In the evening I took it easy, taking dinner in a nearby restaurant in another Riad before getting some well-earned sleep after a hectic day.

The evening’s restaurant

I got up at eight, intent on setting off early before the heat struck the city in the afternoon. The hotel’s breakfast was……..very generous – enough to last me through to dinner without lunch.

A “light” breakfast

I then set off to explore. The Medina, the old original city, is the main attraction. It was founded in 787 AD and became a centre of learning and craftsmanship – traditions that remain to the current time. The Medina is a city within a city, enclosed by thick walls with occasional gates (something that can make getting out difficult!).  It covers an area of 220 hectares making it the largest urban area without motor vehicles in the world. In this space live some 200,00 people, resulting in a population density double that of Manhattan. The Medina is a bustling anthill, containing people’s homes and all the shops required to meet their everyday needs. In addition, it is a centre of production of leather, metalwork, carved wooden items and even honey for the rest of Morocco.  And finally, in keeping with its status as a centre of learning and religion, there are many mosques, shrines of famous saints, and medersas (schools where Islam is taught). The structure of the Medina, with its covered markets and twisted lanes, has hardly changed in a thousand years, but the introduction of electricity, the internet, mobile phones and satellite TV means that life there now is fairly modern (if you can accept the ancient water plumbing, something that has not changed).

I set off into the Medina armed with the map offered by my hotel and was soon lost in the huge labyrinth of tiny passages. Getting lost is an integral part of the Medina experience, and something that every tourist should do, to explore areas that the crowds don’t reach and be treated to little sights like this donkey, which was fulfilling the role of a garbage truck for the dustmen collecting household rubbish in the morning….

Garbage collection Fes-style

Eventually I ended up on a road with cars, so knew I must be near one of the exits. I studied the map hard, found where I was and headed to Tala Akbira, one of the two main routes leading through the Medina.

The main entrance to the Medina

I was now on the standard tourist circuit, and visited the tanneries (interesting but very smelly – they offer you a sprig of mint to hold to your nose whilst you visit)…….

The tanneries

And the ancient medersas (schools where the Koran is taught) dating from the 13th and 14th centuries…….

The Medersa Bou Inania

I got tired of following the crowds and dropped off into the side streets again. The real joy of the Medina though is not the standard tourist sights but the uncharted passages with little surprises like pretty mosques…..

Detail from the outside of a mosque

… and local workshops, making anything from honey to metal goods.

Beating metal

My exploration was rewarded with a great discovery – Kassr Annojoum, a palace built in the 1800s (modern by Medina standards) and now housing an association promoting Italian-Moroccan cultural exchange. It was not listed in my guidebook or shown on my map. It had a beautiful courtyard, where I lingered over an orange juice……….

A great place for orange juice…

…….before I lingered some more over mint tea at the “Ruined Garden”, now a restaurant.

….and a great place for mint tea.

I got back to the hotel and chilled out in the small plunge pool before writing my blog, before heading off for an evening in the two places I had discovered earlier in the day – a guitar concert in the Kassr Annoujoum and dinner in the Ruined Garden. Getting home proved something of a challenge. The narrow paths looked different in the dark. I followed my hotel’s advice to always take the path going down, in order to end up at the river where there were several exits from the Medina……but I simply could not find any of the gates I recognised. After much walking I finally discovered a way out but then found myself at the north side of the Medina. It was a long way away from where I needed to be, and I had to take a taxi home.

Back on the Road – to Morocco!

The Bear is Back!

It’s been a while since I was last on the road. No, I was not hibernating over the winter like other bears, but was very busy with various projects in London. Finally, it is time to travel again, and this time my destination is Morocco.  I was already here once, over twenty years ago, when I visited Marrakesh and the Atlas Mountains.  This time I am going to visit most of the things I missed first time round.

I flew into Casablanca, the biggest city and economic hub of the country, arriving in the early evening. My flight was on time, and almost empty, and getting through the airport on arrival took me only 20 minutes (which included investing in a Moroccan Sim card).  I checked into my hotel and headed straight off to dinner at Rick’s CafĂ©, one of the city’s most famous nightspots.  My first impressions of Casablanca during the walk there were not so positive – much of the city appears to be falling down or being rebuilt. A few sleek new buildings stood out from the debris of the rest of the city.  Rick’s turned out to be worth the walk – it is a cafĂ© designed in the style of the film set of “Casablanca” and served excellent food and drinks to the sounds of live jazz.

Jazz at Rick’s in Casablanca

I headed back to my hotel and fell asleep quickly, aided by the glass of rather good Moroccan wine I had tried at Rick’s.

Next morning, the noise of the city woke me early. I decided to get up and explore, since I had only reserved half a day in Casablanca.  First, I strolled around the centre, admiring some crumbling but interesting buildings from the 20th century…….

In the daylight, Casablanca looked much nicer than at night, especially in the smaller side streets where there was less traffic. I then took a taxi to Casablanca’s main (only?) tourist attraction – the Hassan II Mosque. It is the seventh biggest in the world and cost about 600Million Euros to build in 1986-9

Hassan II Mosque, the seventh biggest in the world

The results were truly impressive – I’ve seen lots of other mosques around the world, some more extravagant than this one, but Casablanca’s stands out for its style and elegance.  It was big enough to swallow the different tour groups that had visited, allowing me to admire the marble and richly carved marble and mahogany almost on my own. 

Inside the mosque

A particularly beautiful part of the mosque is the room where people wash themselves before prayers……..

The washing room

From the mosque I headed to the nearby Corniche, where there is a good view of the sweeping bay of Casablanca. I posed for a selfie on some railings…………

Before the fall…

…..and then disaster struck. A gust of wind lifted me off my paws and blew me into the Atlantic Ocean. As you can imagine, teddy bears are not good swimmers – we have little arms and legs, and our fur quickly gets waterlogged.  Fortunately, a passing Moroccan waded into the water to pull me out, and after thanking him I lay on the beach, trying to dry out a bit.

Recovering and drying out

After this near-death experience, I decided to take it easy and walked back to my hotel through the maze of small streets that make up the medina. I am told that Casablanca’s medina does not compare to the ones in Fes or Marrakesh, but it still made for a pleasant stroll, with many glimpses of local life.

In Casablanca’s medina

I had enjoyed a very full morning, and now it was time to continue my travels to the city of Fes. Morocco has a very advanced train network, and you can even buy electronic tickets online. Outside the station I stopped to enjoy a glass of fresh orange juice in a shady cafĂ©…

Sipping tea or orange juice on a terrace is the national pastime in Morocco

…. before heading to the platform to await my train.  Whilst waiting, I spotted one of Morocco’s al-Bouraq trains that run along the east coast up to Tangier and reach speeds of 230km/h. 

Africa’s bullet train

My own train was not quite as modern, but was still fast, comfortable, and punctual. I arrived in the late afternoon in Fes, one of Morocco’s most ancient cities. Since it has already been a very eventful day, I write about Fes in my next post.

Farewell to Iceland

Today was my last full day in Iceland. I had saved it for a circuit of the “Golden Ring”, a circuit that includes three famous attractions near Reykjavik. Every visitor to Iceland “does” the Golden Ring, even those that arrive from cruise ships for just a day in the country. I left at 8am to try to avoid the tour groups and my first stop was at the Thingvellir National Park, a place strongly associated with Iceland’s identity. It was here that the Alpingi met – an assembly of all the early Viking settlers that took place once a year to agree new laws, resolve disputes and administer justice. The Alpingi dates from 930AD and gives Iceland a claim to have been the birthplace of the world’s first democracy.  Fittingly, Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944 was also celebrated here.

Thingvellir Park

The site of the ancient Alpingi also has great geological interest – it is one of the places where the rift, where the American and European tectonic plates are separating, is clearly visible. The rate of separation is only 1-2 cm per year, but it is still enough to cause noticeable changes in the scenery over time. I tried to imagine the scale of the force that could push two continents apart……and failed.

Where continents part. On the left – the American tectonic plate. On the right – Europe.

From Thingvellir park I followed the standard tourist circuit to Geysir – a place that gave its name to geysers across the world. The original Geysir is now dormant………

Geysir, an ex-geyser, now little more than a pool of hot water

……….instead, there is a different geyser called Strokkur to see. It spouts every 5 to 10 minutes with a jet which is about 15m high, but to be honest I have seen more spectacular geysers on my travels elsewhere.

Strokkur geyser

From Geysir I headed to Gullfoss, or the Golden Falls.  These were my last waterfall on the trip and they did not disappoint – vying with Dynjandi for the title of the most impressive in Iceland.

Gullfoss up close….
….and from a distance

From Gullfoss I left the tourist coaches behind, driving south to Iceland’s newest tourist attraction, the volcano of Geldingadalir, which started erupting in May of this year.  The day before I had found a website explaining how to visit the area. It showed the different possible paths to the volcano and advised not to stand on the cooling, apparently solid lava flow – what looks to be solid rock might only be a thin crust covering 1000C lava. The site also advises every day whether poisonous volcanic gases might be a risk for visitors. The eruptions are sporadic, and you have to be lucky to see flowing lava.  In my case I missed the last eruption by a few days and saw a big valley filled with steaming, cooling rock that had been molten lava a couple of days ago.  Contrary to the advice they had been given, lots of people ventured up onto the rock for selfies, but nobody fell through.

Steaming, cooling lava at Geldingadalir, Iceland’s newest volcano
This view from the hill gives an idea of the scale of the eruption

There was a path leading up a steep hill to the place where you can see into the crater.  The top of the hill was lost in fog, and the people coming down told me that you couldn’t see anything from the top, so I contented myself with admiring the view of the lava-filled valley from halfway up.  My dream of seeing an active volcanic eruption remains on my “bucket list” but I was still pleased by my visit to Geldingadalir.

From there, it was back to Reykjavik (in about an hour).  For my last night I treated myself to dinner in one of the city’s best venues – Fishmarkt – and had a blowout dinner with their exotic tasting menu. After two weeks of cooking for myself it was nice to visit a restaurant for a change; I finally discovered where all the interesting fish that live around off Iceland’s shores end up – in Reykjavik’s restaurants or exported.  Sadly, they don’t make it to the rest of Iceland for purchase in local shops for self-catering tourists. The meal had around seven courses, and I struggled back up the hill to my hotel with some difficulty and slept really well. 

Phew! Made it to the desert course.

Well, that’s it for this trip.  Iceland was a great place to visit, even if it didn’t quite make it into my all time top ten. If I come back, it will probably be in winter to try to catch the northern lights and to try to explore some glacier caves. For now, it’s back to London to enjoy autumn in a city that exists on a rather different scale to little Reykjavik.

Waiting for my plane back to London in one’s of the world’s best airline lounges….

Iceland in miniature

Today I explored the Snaefellsnes peninsula, a 50km long strip of land, which juts out into the North Atlantic Ocean just north of Reykjavik.  It is reputed to represent a condensed sample of everything Iceland has to offer – mountains, a glacier, strange lava fields.  And so it proved to be.

The day started bright and sunny, and I immediately after breakfast I left the hotel on foot to admire the pretty small town of Stykkisholmur.  I had arrived here at night, so had missed the colorful houses and view of thousands of islands from the town’s lighthouse.

The port of Stykkisholmur and my ferry (again)
View of the town from the lighthouse
Hundreds of islands in the bay at Stykkisholmur

My road led west along the north side of the peninsula.  There was brilliant sunshine – a rarity on this trip – and I stopped repeatedly to take photos

Strange lava fields….
Beautiful mountains….
Waterfalls….yes this is Iceland in miniature!

………including lots of shots of the distinctive triangular mountain of Kirkjufell, reputedly Iceland’s most photographed mountain.

Endlessly photogenic Kirkjufell

I continued west in the hope that the good weather would continue and I would see the massive Snaefellsjokull glacier that covers the western end of the peninsula, but cloud blew in from the sea, and I found myself driving through mist. I abandoned my plan to drive to the very tip of Snaefellsness, to a spot where you can apparently see whales in the sea – I wouldn’t see more than 100 metres. Instead I made a few small stops, one at Malariff by the sea, where there are more strange lava formations………..

Lava columns – supposed to be two petrified trolls

……….then for coffee with sea view at Hellnar……….

Hellnar – good coffee, an interesting cave (pic), seals and diving birds

……….and finally at Raudflesgja, where a stream emerges from a strange cleft in the mountain. I walked in as far I dared; if you are willing to get your feet wet, it is possible to walk into the cleft for quite a distance.

How far dare you go?

I passed the side road that led up to the glacier, but after some hesitation decided to drive on.  I could already see the upper stretch of this road disappearing into cloud, and I didn’t think I would see anything.  Its true that the Snaefellsnes peninsula is a microcosm of island – not just the scenery, but also the weather.  I had experienced sun, mist and the usual overcast weather all in the same day.

The remaining two-hour drive back to Reykjavik was very boring – along a straight, flat featureless road with low clouds hanging overhead. I then spent another 30 minutes driving through endless suburbs – for a city with a small population, Reykjavik is surprisingly spread out – and reached my hotel in the centre around 6pm. Time for my usual ritual – buy food, cook, and write my blog!

Farewell to the Westfjords

Today I woke up to a pleasant surprise. It was slightly sunny, and it was now possible to view the magnificent Patreksfjordur from my living room.  I hurried to pack and set off whilst the good weather lasted, since the weather forecast was from cloud (meaning rain).  My destination was Laftrabjarg, the far westernmost tip of Iceland, located 46km down a track off the main road. As often happens here, the road was initially good, and then turned into an unsurfaced track.

On the way to Laftrabjarg

Halfway to my destination, I stumbled across a museum of regional history and the wreckage of an American military plane – there was no explanation of how the latter got there.

You find bizarre stuff by the side of country roads in Iceland

I didn’t have time to visit the museum and continued my route. The road got rougher and rougher, but after a bumpy ride I finally rolled into the car park at the end of the track, and the very end of Iceland – and of Europe. Across the sea, somewhere, there was Greenland.

The cliffs at Laftrabjarg

Laftrabjarg is famous for its cliffs, where in summer millions of sea birds, including puffins, nest in safety away from arctic foxes. It was the end of August, and the birds had gone, but the cliffs were still impressive.  A path led up from the car park along the cliff, and a I went for a walk. It continues for at least 14km, but I only had time for a short one-hour hike.  It was a strange walk – the views were better, and the wind was stronger, at the bottom.  Further up, the wind was gone, but the cliffs lay hidden from view for those like me that didn’t dare go too close to the edge.  I turned back regained my car and retraced my journey.  The way back seemed even more scenic than the way out, and I took lots of pictures.

On the way back – looking over the Patreksfjord to the wall of rock of the Pingeyri peninsula

My next destination was on the same picturesque peninsula.  A side road led steeply up the mountain and descended equally steeply on the other side to the sweeping bay called Raudasandur.  The place is named after its beach’s red sand (which looked orange to me) and was one of the most scenic spots I had visited so far in Iceland. The weather was still partially sunny, and the sun would occasionally light up the brilliant colours of the sand, the sea, or the mountains surrounding the bay. I strolled aimlessly through the grass and along the beach, enjoying the sensation of walking on soft grass or wet sand rather than hard volcanic rock.

Shots of the scenery at Raudasandur

Too soon, it was time to go.  I was booked on the ferry to take me from the Westfjords back to the Icelandic mainland, a shortcut that would save me several hours difficult driving around lonely Icelandic roads.  The ferry marked an important point in my trip – a return to the beaten track of the main tourist circuit, the beginning of my trip back home, and a return to certainty – I would no longer need to worry that my struggling car might break down on a steep mountain road and leave me stranded in the middle of nowhere.  The lonely Westfjords had been one of the highlights of my Iceland trip, maybe because they are so remote – only 6% of tourists coming to Iceland visit them.

The Baldur ferry

The ferry sailed for three hours, navigating its way through a calm sea sprinkled with hundreds of small islands to reach the town of Stykkisholmur in the dark at 9pm.  I just had time for a drink and to write up my blog before bed.

The Wetfjords continued

No, the title is not a spelling mistake. I woke up today to a grey sky and a light drizzle.  The plan was fairly simple – drive from Isafjordur in the north of the Westfjords to Paktreksfjordur in the south.  Setting out, I noticed people playing golf in the rain. I remembered what I had been told in Reykjavik – “Icelanders never change their plans because of the weather”.  I had a feeling that this saying would apply to my day today.

The road led through a long tunnel through the mountain of the Isafjord peninsula.  At the other end of the tunnel, the drizzle had turned into steady rain, but the magnificent scenery still impressed me.

The moody Westfjord mountains in the rain

My next destination was very much off the beaten track – the tiny botanical garden of Skrudur. I found it after a short drive up a lonely road, and was not surprised that I was the only visitor. Skrudur will never make it onto a list of “top ten things to do in Iceland”, but I was curious what a botanical garden in this utterly remote location near the Arctic circle might be like.  As expected, it was small, nestling discretely in a valley under huge mountains. To my surprise the gardeners has succeeded in growing trees – in the rest of the Westfjords there is only grass and bushes – and some wild strawberries that were nearly ripe. There was a sundial (I suppose some days this might be useful) and an interesting archway been made from the jaw bones of a blue whale. The place had a quiet charm and felt like a Garden of Eden in the middle of a barren, wild wilderness.

The entrance to Skrudur botanical gardens
An arch made from the jaw bones of a blue whale

My next stop was the Pingeyri peninsula.  Its south coast is closed to cars and can only be discovered by foot or by bike – neither of which appealed to me, so I contented myself with a short drive up the north coast.  I  discovered a small cafĂ© owned by Danes which served excellent coffee and cookies.

Coffee!

The road continued, turning into an unsurfaced bumpy track.  My next stop was Dynjandi – possibly the most impressive waterfall I had seen so far in Iceland (after ten days here, a waterfall has to be VERY special to impress me). There are a series of small waterfalls, each with a different name, along a path the mountain leading to the final, huge, fan-shaped Dynjandi falls. I was lucky that the rain eased off during my visit, and I had lunch admiring the torrent of water pouring down the mountain.

Dynjandi from the sea
Half-way up the climb
At the base of the falls

From Dynjandi, the road got even worse, and the rain and clouds returned with a vengeance. Not knowing how deep each pothole was, I drove slowly, battling my way slowly towards the last big fjord of the Westfjords, Patreksfjordur. The scenery might have been pretty in the sun, but in the rain, I could only see a few tens of metres in front of me. After an hour of painful driving, I finally regained a paved road, and drove the rest of way without incident. The road looked like it might have been scenic….. had I been able to see anything. It was a relief to find my accommodation for the night.

Despite the rain and difficult driving, I was happy with my day. The garden and the cafĂ© had an intimate feel, as if I was the only person to have discovered them. Dynjandi ranks as one of Iceland’s top sights and was worth the effort to get there. One or two washed out days on an active holiday are inevitable. Still, I was hoping that the next day’s weather would be a bit better – there is only so much rain a bear can take – and anxiously checked the forecast before going to bed. Hmmmmm….”cloudy”…..that was also today’s forecast, and in Iceland it usually turns out to mean “rainy”.

The wonderful Westfjords

Today I started my 3-day exploration of the Westfjords.  First, I discovered the remote Strandir Coast north of Holmavik. The road runs for about 60km before ending – the rest of the peninsula is accessible by boat only and houses Iceland’s (maybe Europe’s) most remote nature reserve. 

The beginning of the wild Strandir Coast

I contented myself with a short drive along half the road before stopping at a hotel with a large geothermal pool.  I enjoyed the views whilst floating in 38C water, before climbing out and sprinting through the cold air to try a tiny natural “hot tub” located a bit further up the mountain.

A natural hot tub

Feeling refreshed and clean, I tracked back to Holmavik to visit the Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft. Icelanders have always been very superstitious, and in the middle ages, magic was widely practiced – mostly by men. Spells were used to protect against the extremely harsh conditions of the time, to make money, or to get even with enemies. Sorcerers could also produce magical artifacts, like the “necropants” on display in the museum. These are trousers made from the skin of a dead man, which are supposed to generate an endless supply of coins and make the wearer rich – but only if very detailed instructions are carefully followed. For a full description of this repulsive artifact see here. Magicians could also conjure fantastic creatures, like the tilberi.

The repulsive Tilberi

This horrible creature could be used to steal milk from the livestock of neighbouring farms. A full description of how to create, nurture, use and finally destroy a tilberi is found here. 22 people accused of practising witchcraft were burnt alive in the 17th century in Iceland.  The museum had an interesting collection of these stories. Justice was very arbitrary in those days. One local official had four people burnt over the years for using sorcery to make his wife ill (she had a frail constitution and was often ill).  Apart from having an interesting collection and intriguing witchcraft stories, the museum also served good coffee – the previous day had taught me just how rare this is in provincial Iceland, so I indulged myself.

Refreshed and educated, I set off again on the 230km drive to Isafjordur, the main city in the Westfjords. The road headed over a mountain, where I was greeted by wind and rain again.  I was beginning to worry that I would see a repeat of yesterday’s weather, when the road dived down into a fjord and the sky cleared.  The road then hugged the coast, skirting no fewer than six huge fjords.  The scenery was amazing and I stopped often to take photos of the fjords, rainbows… and even some seals.

I arrived in Isafjordur in the early evening. It is a big town by Iceland standards, with a population of 2600 and a well-stocked supermarket. I stocked up with food for a few days and headed to my holiday rental to cook dinner, very happy with my day.

A long and difficult day

Today I faced a long drive from Myvatn, roughly half way along Iceland’s north coast, to Holmavik at the entrance to the western fjords.  My map said I could drive the 500km in six and half hours, but based on past experience I knew that it would take much longer after stops were added on, so I set off early.  First stop was another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, the Godafoss or “waterfall of the gods”.  Helpfully it is located right on Route 1.

The Godafoss – yet another impressive waterfall

My next stop was for petrol at the teeming metropolis of Akueyri, which is Iceland’s second biggest city… with a population of only 18,191 (according to Wikipedia).  It is supposed to be an interesting place but I didn’t have time to stop. After Akueyri I opted for the long scenic detour of the Trollaskagri peninsula, which follows the coast, rather than the more direct Route 1, which stays inland.  Indeed the views were quite pretty, if not exceptional by Iceland standards. 

Pastoral green scenery at the east side of the Trollaskagri Peninsula
Forbidding mountains in the overland road in the centre of the peninsula

As noon approached, I really fancied a coffee and looked in vain for somewhere to stop.  Lonely planet recommended a couple of places but they were both closed (in the peak of the tourist season….).  â€śSurely there will be somewhere in the next town” I kept on telling myself………but each settlement was a tiny windswept village, often without any shops at all. The weather changed, and it became overcast, with rain showers.  My mood dropped. Finally at a place Hosfos I found a petrol station with a big shop attached…..and a cafĂ©!  However, their only coffee come not form a machine but a large thermos flask that had been filled with cheap filter coffee, which had been brewed long ago.  I paid for a coffee and was given a paper cup to fill myself from the flask. Undrinkable. I searched on google for cafĂ©s near my location. The only place indicated within 100km was in an unlikely place – the tiny village of Holar, about 10km off the main road. Remembering that Holar (but not its cafĂ©) was also mentioned in Lonely Planet, I decided to give it a go.

Despite the rain and clouds, Holar turned out to be a pretty little village nestling at the foot of tall mountains.  Although tiny today, Holar was an important religious centre in the past and was a bishopric from 1106 to 1798.  The see of Holar was restored in 1909 and there is a Bishop of Holar to this day.  Holar had a pretty church (technically a cathedral even) dating from 1760 and some traditional old buildings with turf roofs.  Continuing its tradition of being a centre of learning, Holar also has a (admittedly small) university teaching agriculture and tourism.

Holar cathedral with the university behind it

I could see a cafĂ© attached the university buildings, but the lights inside were off.  I tried the door in desperation…………and it opened!  Inside was a small counter…….with a coffee machine. I rang a bell for service and a friendly Icelander served me expresso.  He also recommended his asparagus and mushroom soup, made with mushrooms from the mountains around Holar – it was delicious!

Soup and coffee – saved!

The cafĂ© in Holar was a lucky find because the next stretch of road was very boring and would have been hard to do without refreshment.  The road rejoined the main Route 1, and ran, flat, monotonous and grey for mile after mile. Even Lonely Planet could not suggest anything worth stopping for in this dull, remote bit of the country. To make things worse, my car started to struggle against the ferocious headwind, and an array of warning lights appeared on my dashboard. I stopped to check the owner’s manual but found only Icelandic text. A search of the web (internet connection seems to be available almost everywhere around Iceland) suggested that the warnings were not critical and that I could carry on,  but I had an uncomfortable feeling – breaking down here would be worse than inconvenient, since there were no garages for miles.

As I left Route 1 for Route 68 going to the Westfjords, the weather improved, and my warning lights suddenly disappeared. I even stopped to take some photos.

Scenery at the start of the Westfjords

I finally made it to Holmavik at around 6pm – I had been on the road for nearly nine hours.  It was a tiny place, and was functional rather than pretty – but at least I had arrived.  The town had a shop, self-service petrol pump, a small port harbouring fishing boats, a pile of what looked like abandoned freight containers, a couple of guesthouses, a museum, and a cold wind howling along the main street.

Holmavik

Fortunately my accommodation was very good – unlike most of the places I had stayed so far, it had old furniture and looked like it might once have been someone’s home. And best of all it had a cosy living room with a comfortable sofa and view of the sea. I cooked the cod I bought in the local shop and celebrated the end of a long, difficult day with a glass of whisky.

Taking it easier at Myvatn

After two long and very busy days, I resolved to take it easier today and left late to explore Myvatn,  a large, shallow lake formed by a volcanic eruption 2000 years ago. The lake is lush and green, with lots of small islands, bubbling rivers entering or leaving the lake, and lots of bird life. It is surrounding by many interesting volcanic structures.  My only plan for today was to drive around the lake clockwise and see what I would find.  

Myvatn lake

My first stop was to climb the small mountain called Vindbelgjarfall, on the western side of the lake.  It was a steep but short walk, and from the summit there were fantastic views across the lake.  I found a little hollow in the mountain to shelter from the strong wind and enjoyed my sandwich lunch whilst taking lots of pictures.  

Vindbelgjarfall
The view from the summit
Another view from the summit
Yet another view from the summit – this time with “pseudo-craters” (more about these later)

Next stop was Dimmuborgir, on the east side of the lake. Here the lava from the eruption had made many strange shapes. I stopped for a coffee in the cafĂ© at the entrance to the site and noticed an interesting item on the menu – “lava bread”.  This is bread made by placing dough and yeast underground, where the cooking is done by geothermal heat. I resolved to set off on a short walk and to buy some bread when I returned. After wandering around a bit on the many marked paths, I spotted a path leading to the volcanic cone of Hverfjall, about 2km away.  The path up to the foot of the volcano was very pretty, with lots of flowers and strange lava forms.

An arch of lava at Dimmuborgir, with Hverfjall in the distance
On the way to Hverfjall….

In contrast, the climb up was extremely hard and monotonous – the soft grey ash that formed the cone gave way under foot, and for every two steps up, I slid one step back.  When I finally reached the top, the view was only average – the crater had no water, and resembled a giant grey ashtray. The view of the surrounding area was good, but not as good as I had experienced in my morning climb of Vindbelgjarfall.  

….and on its rather disappointing summit

Remembering that the cafĂ© closed at 5pm – even in peak tourist season many things close really early in Iceland – I hurried back, only to find that they had sold out of “lava bread”.  I guess it probably tastes exactly like normally bread, but who knows…….

I regained my car and continued my drive, this time to the southern shore of the lake.  Here the main attraction are the many small “pseudo-craters” – structures that formed when lava flowed over an expanse of water.  The water boiled, and the steam created exploded through the solidifying lava to leave lots of small craters.  

Pseudo-craters at the southern end of the lake

It was time to go back to my rental cottage.  For some reason I feel sleepy here all the time – maybe it is the fresh air, maybe the big variations in temperature during the day, or maybe a subtle effect of volcanic gases. I had dinner and slept well.

Whales (maybe) and Volcanoes

Today was busy.  First, I set off in brilliant sunshine for a whale watching trip from Husavik, about 30 minutes drive away.  My vessel was a pretty wooden boat called Hildur, that had sails as well as an engine. 

Husavik, a pretty town and Iceland’s whale-watching centre
My boat – the Hildur

Husavik is Iceland’s whale watching capital, and the four companies that provide excursions all had websites showing encounters with large humpback whales – sometimes with the whale jumping out of the water. One company boasted a whale sighting rate of 99.6%. Once we had boarded, our guide told us  ten species of whale have been seen from Husavik, including the blue whale, the biggest living animal. However, as regards actually seeing anything on our trip she was more downbeat, stressing that this was a matter of chance and where the whales happened to be feeding that particular day.  And so it proved – we sailed for two hours towards the mouth of the fjord, and only saw a few birds. Whilst there was a great view of the mountains from the sea, and I saw my first ever guillemot, that wasn’t what I had come for!

Pretty mountains….but no whales

It had been hot – T-shirt weather – in Husavik, but on the sea it was cold. I put on extra clothing but was still shivering – the lack of the excitement of a whale-sighting didn’t help.  The boat had just turned around to head back to port when the guide announced that their sister ship had spotted something.  We hurried to join them, and finally got a glimpse of a black whale’s back, and its dorsal and tail fins. It was a minke whale, one of the smallest and most common species – the same type of whale that had recently become stuck in the River Thames only a few miles from home in London. But all the same, it was a whale, so the trip could be considered a partial success. We watched it for a while as it surfaced and dived, reemerging in a new spot each time.  Its appearances were so fleeting that I gave up trying to film and just enjoyed watching.

Back on land, it was hot.  The strong variations in temperature, from hot to cold to hot again had made me very tired. I ate my sandwich lunch sitting the grass of the square next to the church, and then dosed off in the sun.  I felt better after my snooze, went to grab a coffee from a nearby restaurant, and then headed off to my next destination – a volcanic area called Krafla that was the site of major eruptions in the 1970s and 80s. Krafla is located just next to the major tourist centre of Myvatn, which I will visit tomorrow. The road went past a large geothermal power plant, which supplies all the electricity in the region. My first stop was an impressive volcanic crater, filled with brilliant blue water.

The Viti volcanic crater (“Viti” means “hell” in Icelandic)

Next, I backtracked a couple of kilometres to Leihrnjukur, the site of the 1970s eruptions. The area is still volcanically active to this day. A path led through the eerie landscape of sulphurous pools and volcanic vents belching steam, with a huge lava field from the eruption stretching away into the distance. It was important to stay on the path – in places, a narrow crust of earth covers areas of boiling hot water, and it is quite possible for people to fall through and be boiled alive. Toxic volcanic gases can also be a hazard in this area. Maybe because of this, there were very few tourists visiting this area and for most of my hike I was completely alone.

As close as I dare go – a steaming vent at Leihrnjukur
A volcanic pool
The lava fields stretch for miles

My next stop was to admire yet more volcanic activity at Hverir – a series of boiling mud pools and steaming vents located a little further down the valley.   This area was much more popular with tourists than the previous two, and people competed to be photographed next to the biggest and smelliest vents.

Bubbling mud pools at Hverir
Like the planet Mars….
Steaming volcanic vents dot the landscape

My final stop was Myvatn’s Nature Baths.  Here, they have made a large hollow in the ground and filled it with hot water taken directly from the boreholes of the nearby geothermal power plant. The water is a brilliant blue colour, due to suspended silica that scatters blue light – the baths are very much like the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, but less well known. The water arriving from the power plant is a scalding, pressurised 130C and is allowed to cool in a large storage lagoon before being pumped to the baths, which are a pleasant 38-42C. I spent a happy hour wallowing in the water, admiring the views over the volcanic plain to the mountains in the far distance. 

The Myvatn Natural Baths

The baths stay open until midnight and I thought about staying until the sunset at 9pm, but decided that spending three hours lazing in hot water was a bit too decadent.  Besides, I was now hungry, so I headed home and had an excellent dinner of fresh Icelandic cod after another busy and varied day.

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