Iceland’s Independence Day

June 17 is the Icelandic 4th of July. They gained independence from Denmark and the city erupts into a city wide festival including live music, parades, Icelandic horses, a ton of children activities, kung fu, gymnastics and so much more. You name it, they do it. This is also the day when Icelanders take over Iceland from the tourist. This was the one day when no one spoke English by default. Kids took over the park, kinda scary. This was a pretty cool event and a must see for anyone craving a bit of Icelandic culture, not watered down by tourist.

The Ring Road of Iceland

Route 1, the Ring Road, is the highway that travels around the perimeter of Iceland. It is possible to complete the drive in 24 hours, but that is without stopping to see any of the amazing stops along the way; we completed it in five days. Leaving Reykjavik on Thursday, June 8th we traveled north towards Reykholt, the home of Snorri Sturluson. A very interesting man who we all compared to Mr. Monopoly spoke about the folklore of the land and so much more than our minds could handle at nine in the morning. This was our first exposure to the extreme intellect and story-telling capabilities that so many Icelanders possess. That same day we went to Eiriksstadir, where we again met a man who was well versed in the history of the land and the settlement era, and could tell stories better than anyone I have ever met.

On Friday, we traveled to Hólar, the church where both Sæmunder Frodi and Loftur the Magician studied. It is also the northern bishop seat for Iceland, the southern being Skálholt. After that, we traveled to Siglufjördur, setting for the Ragnar Jonasson book, Snowblind. We experienced how isolated the town feels, but could only imagine the effects that a heavy winter snow could have on the town. We also met with the mayor of Siglufjördur and University of Missouri-Rolla alum, Gunnar Birgisson. After he showed off the town and the amazing engineering companies that it holds we began to see how the town was so much different than the way Jonasson portrayed it to be. Mayor Birgisson talked to us about what it is like to be a mayor and how even while working in politics his degree in geotechnical engineering is still very applicable.

Day three, we traveled to Húsavik to experience what small town Iceland was really like. We spent an hour or so there people watching and enjoying some food from the bakery before leaving for our next stop, Botnstjörn. This was a small lake, fed by waterfall, tucked way back amongst tall cliffs. Our travels then led us to Dettifoss, the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The long hike to the falls was definitely worth the view. We finished our day at Jardbodin, a geothermal pool that in my opinion is way better than Blue Lagoon because it is less of a tourist attraction.

Sunday morning we woke up to go to Skútustaðagígar, home to a bunch of craters caused by steam explosions, and Hverjfall, a crater mountain created in the same manner. Hveraröndin was next on our list. A small geothermal pool where the water was black rather clear and closely resembled tar pits. There was also tall rock piles that constantly blew large amounts of steam into the air. The final stop of the day was Gunnar Gunnarsson’s house. Gunnarsson is a famous Icelandic author who was nominated for the Nobel Prize six times, and whose house was turned into a museum for not only himself, but for the monastery that was found right outside the home. This monastery, called Skriðuklaustur, was not only home to monks, but to a very large hospital. Over 300 bodies were found buried around the hospital and archeologists were able to trace most of their illnesses to create a very extensive list.

Day five consisted of going to the diamond beach and taking a tour of the glacier pool in Jökulsárlón. Diamond beach got its name for the large icebergs that flow out of the glacier pool and back up on the beach. I tested my luck with the ocean and lost. My shoes

The black sand contrasting with the glistening ice made for great photos at the diamond beach.

were wet for the rest of the day, but I saw a seal so it made up for it, I suppose. The tour of the glacier pool began by getting in an amphibious vehicle that I compared to the “ducks” in Branson. The tour was about a half hour long and we learned a lot about how these pools form and how long it takes for the ice from the glacier to reach the ocean (sometimes up to 300 years). After all the fun, we headed to Svartifoss, a waterfall tucked 1.6 kilometers into a mountain. The hike was long, but the few was worth it. We ended our day by traveling to Fjaðrárgljúfur, a huge canyon created by a river. We spent the night in Vík where we discussed our experiences as a whole so far and our readings for the end of the week.

All that leads us to this morning. We woke up in Vík and headed back to Reykjavik. We visited the Black Beach and saw some puffins up close. The waves here were much stronger than the ones at the diamond beach and no one even attempted to get near them. Then we went to a glacier that we could actually walk on, unlike one of the small stops we made the day before. The glacier was a lot different than what I expected. It was not a huge pile of ice, but rather a huge pile of ice covered in a huge amount of volcanic ash. After this we traveled to two amazing waterfalls, one of them we could walk behind. While driving from one waterfall to the other we stopped at a small building built into a cave. Our driver showed us how it was designed for keeping sheep. The cave had three levels. The bottom two levels were for feeding and keeping the sheep, and the top floor was where the shepherd lived. Our final stop of our trip on the Ring Road ended at Halldór Laxness’ house. Here we took a tour the Nobel Prize winner’s house. It was a very humble in size, but the library and artwork were beautiful.

We end our day here, back in Reykjavik at the University of Iceland. The past six days truly blew by, but I have memories I won’t soon forget. I am not sure these last few days in Reykjavik can even compare to the past week.

Icelandic Landscape

I think one of my favorite things about Iceland has been the landscape. It is absolutely stunning! Iceland is an island created by volcanic and glacial activity. Iceland is situated on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are diverging. This creates almost constant volcanic activity. Though most of it is small, the country experiences a large eruption approximately every 5 years. Because of this, instead of driving around the country and seeing extensive fields of grass or farm land like you would in the Midwest, you see vast lava fields. Sometimes the lava rocks are covered by moss, which Iceland has over 600 species of.

There are so many mountains on the island, as well, because of the tectonic activity. Out in the country, there were hostels we stayed in where we were completely surrounded by mountains. I loved this because it gave us so many opportunities to hike! One of my favorite hikes was when I woke up early one morning to climb a mountain directly behind our hostel. It was peaceful and relaxing. I only got part way up because I didn’t give myself enough time, but one of the biggest takeaways I got from that hike actually had to do with Dr. Bryan’s class on folklore and mythology. In one our lectures, we talked a little bit about how the landscape shaped some of that folklore. Hiking that mountain, I could completely see how people thought there were trolls that lived there or that they would’ve seen fairies, so much that I started to believe it myself. I really wanted to see a troll in the rocks I was climbing on!

Morning hike behind our hostel. I wish I actually saw a troll!

I never thought I’d see ice in the middle of June. Chunks of the Jökulsárlón glacier in the Atlantic

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Glaciers have also helped shape the landscape of Iceland as well by shaping the mountains. I think the coolest thing about the mountains we saw were how many waterfalls there are! When the glaciers melted, they left behind numerous streams, most of which fall down the mountains. Some mountains would have 6 or 7 streams running down them. This also helps to form the numerous amounts of waterfalls Iceland has! We saw some incredible waterfalls. We saw some tall ones, small ones, powerful ones, adorable ones. We even saw the most powerful waterfall in Europe! I loved seeing the touristy waterfalls, but I liked seeing the waterfalls where we could get right up to them. One waterfall we went to, Goðafoss, we were able to climb around the stream before it fell off the cliff and as it flowed down the mountain again. We even drank from it (Iceland has extremely clean water- bottled water is literally just tap water).

Enjoying the delicious water down stream of Goðafoss

Lane admiring Goðafoss from down stream

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I would absolutely go back to Iceland in a heart beat to explore all of the natural wonders it possesses. We only skimmed the surface of all the hiking and waterfalls and glaciers and endless nature Iceland has to offer.

Dettifoss- the most powerful waterfall in Europe

Svartifoss

 

 

Iceland Road Trip Day 4!

The latter half of our Iceland trip consisted of a road trip around the country. I absolutely loved getting to see the different small towns and communities throughout Iceland, the beautiful landscape, and the history and setting of the literature we read in our classes with Dr. Bryan and Dr. Cotterill. One of my favorite days was June 11th. It was extremely cold and windy and rainy all day- so much that we skipped seeing a waterfall because we were all pretty miserable. After seeing some craters and doing some hiking in the morning, our last stop of the day was Skriðuklaustur. This was the site of an old monastery, one of the last built in Iceland. Next to the ruins was a house built by Gunner Gunnarsson, a famous Icelandic author. We got to learn about both the monastery and the author there.

Gunner Gunnarsson was born and raised in Iceland in the late 1800s but moved to Denmark for his studies and to become a writer since the Danish education system was much better than Iceland’s at the time. He received 6 Nobel Prize nominations in literature and almost won in 1955. His most famous work was Guest the One-Eyed. It was turned into a silent film. It was the first Icelandic work to be turned into a movie, the first Icelandic film by a foreign director, and the second movie filmed in Iceland. Gunnarsson had a falling out with this director because of creative differences and didn’t end up going to the premiere of it, which was a two day event since the movie was 4 hours long.

Gunnarsson came back to Iceland after his career came to a halt to build his house on the east coast of Iceland. The house wasn’t as big as he originally wanted, but is still the largest single home built in Iceland. After a while, he no longer wanted to live there and donated it to the Icelandic government, which to this day is still the largest donation to the Icelandic government by an individual. The project of building the house took several ten thousand man hours of labor. One man spent 200 hours washing rocks for the outside walls. He refused to come visit the house once turned into a museum because he was triggered so hard. Gunnarsson also spent over $72 million (in today’s currency) on labor alone.

Down the hill from his house is the ruins of an old Augustinian monastery. The site was unusual that it had the monastic quarters right next to the church, which originally threw off archaeologists. Archaeologists also dug the remains very differently. They would dig a 5cm piece of section, draw what the remains looked like, then dig 5 more cm and do the same thing. This allowed them to removed the ruins and accurately recreate the site. Icelandic archaeologists are also able to accurately determine the time period of ruins based on the lava layers. There are distinct layers of different kinds of dirt that correspond to different volcanic eruptions. Whatever layer the ruins are located in is the time period of the ruins.

There were also over 300 human remains found in the cemetery in the church yard. Scientists were able to determine the gender, age, and different diseases of each body. Based on different diseases and treatments to fractured bones, they were able to determine that the monastery functioned as a hospital. They had around 100 patients living at the monastery at any given period of time. They treated broken bones, helped with pregnancies, and even had some patients with stage 3 syphilis.

These are recreated ruins of the Augustinian monastery built in eastern Iceland. It was the last monastery built before the country converted to Lutheranism.

 

In the cemetery of the monastery, Dr. Bryan gave us a lecture talking about an old Icelandic Saga in which the valley we were standing in took place. The people of the saga ended up having to cross over the mountain that was behind the house we visited. Dr. Bryan also pointed out the only grave with a headstone there, belonging to Jón Hrak. There are many legends and folklore about him and they say that he was sort of the butt of everyone’s jokes, so much that instead of being buried east to west per tradition, he was buried north to south. Many Icelanders are familiar with this jingle about him:

Kalt er við kórbak,

kúrir þar Jón Hrak.
Ýtar snúa austur og vestur
allir nema Jón Hrak.
Translating to:
It’s cold at the choir’s back,
there lies old Jon Hrak.
Everybody’s buried lying East to West,
everybody but Jon Hrak.
Dr. Bryan claims it’s funnier in the traditional Icelandic; I’ll trust him on that.

Iceland 2017: First Time Traveler

Iceland has always been one of dream trips. I am not sure whether it was the thought of vikings, the wonderful music, or the way it is shown in the movies that persuaded me to travel here, but I am here, nonetheless. Being able to study abroad not only benefits me within my studies, but brings so much more knowledge than a classroom could. I have always been a hands-on learner and studying abroad definitely allows me to learn in the way I have always wanted to.

Traveling out of the United States for the first was a little unnerving, but Iceland proved itself to be the best choice for my first adventure. Stepping off the plane at Keflavik Airport in Iceland was like stepping into a whole other world. The entire landscape was black and rocky with not a tree in sight. Reykjavik was the complete opposite, though; a fishing town booming with tourism and city life, but still no trees. If there was one thing that made me feel so comfortable in this was the fact that I could understand what people were saying, not because I speak Icelandic, but because they speak English so well.

Reykjavik near the Old Harbor.

Like most European countries, Iceland has a much different city structure than that of the U.S. The streets are narrower and there is a lot more room to walk than say in St. Louis where I am from. Another thing that is a lot different than the U.S. is that there are very few hotels and a ton of hostels. The thing about hostel life that I was most worried about was being roomed with people I did not know. While this actually wasn’t the case because I roomed with my classmates, I did enjoy hostel life more as I had the opportunity to meet with other students and people from all over the world.

So far, Iceland has been an amazing experience and along from learning about the folklore and the culture with my fellow students, I am also learning life skills and embracing a new, but still similar culture.